The recent discovery inside Megiddo prison of what may be the oldest Christian church in the Holy Land is forcing the Prisons Service to rethink plans to develop the maximum-security penitentiary.
"This could become a major tourist site," said Antiquities Authority spokesperson Osnat Goaz during a press tour of the site yesterday. "We must find the best way to preserve the site. We don't know whether the findings can be moved. The authority will decide what to do in the coming weeks."
Authority head Shuka Dorfman, leading local archeologists and international experts discussed the future of the site with representatives of the Prisons Service at the prison yesterday afternoon.
Turning the site into a tourist attraction will necessitate relocating the prison. It is not clear who will foot the bill in such an event.
Megiddo prison, for years an IDF incarceration facility, was transferred to the service's jurisdiction in February. The prison currently houses some 1,200 Palestinian security prisoners and fewer than 100 criminals.
Service spokeswoman Orit Stelser said that the discovery has derailed a plan to build cellblocks to replace the army-issued tents where some of the inmates are housed.
"We know how to look after prisoners in the most professional way. Megiddo prison will become a major prison. The IDF is due to hand over two more military prisons, Camp Ofer and Ketziot, by the end of the year. The service will soon have to deal with nearly 8,000 security prisoners, out of about 20,000 detainees. In 2000, before the intifada, there were only 800 security prisoners," she said.
The site was excavated prior to the construction of the proposed new cellblocks. Archeological surveys are compulsory before the start of construction on undeveloped land.
Some 60 inmates (none of them security prisoners) from Megiddo and Tzalmon prisons have been excavating the site as part of their compulsory labor.
"A few have asked to work for the Antiquities Authority after their release - if this is not rehabilitation, then what is?" Stelser said.
Ramil Razilio, 23, who is serving two years for traffic violations, made the initial discovery when his shovel hit the edge of the mosaic floor.
Razilio is due to be released in 22 days. "I'd be happy to find work in this field after my release. It didn't interest me much at first, but now I'm intrigued by archeology," he said.
"Three weeks ago, one of the guys was sponging down a section of the floor when he found some square pebbles - then we started working slowly, carefully," said Yoram, 39, an inmate from Petah Tikva.
"A man has his thoughts when in prison. This is more than mere physical rehabilitation - it's made me think about spiritual matters. This place is holy. It makes us proud that we have made such a discovery."
An arched plastic greenhouse now covers the six meter by nine meter structure that contains the remains of a fresco that had collapsed onto a mosaic floor featuring three inscriptions in Greek, geometric patterns and a fish, an emblem used to depict early Christianity.
One of the inscriptions, translated by Hebrew University Prof. Leah di Segni, reads: "The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the god Jesus Christ as a memorial." The table - apparently used in rituals based on the Last Supper - was probably made of wood and has since perished. It was previously assumed that such early rituals were held around an alter, rather than a table as in later Byzantine times.
Another mosaic bearing the inscription: "You must remember Primilla and Kyriake and Dorothea and also Chreste," was uncovered last week. "We are trying to work out the significance of the women's names," said Tepper.
A third inscription tells of a Roman officer and a woman named Aketous who paid to build the church in memory "of the god Jesus Christ."
"This is one of the first references to Jesus on a mosaic," noted Tepper, adding that Megiddo was an important junction between Caesarea and Bet She'an (Neapolis).
The Roman Empire prohibited Christian rituals until 313 CE, and Christians largely practiced their religion in secret.
"This was the early transitional period of Christianity," explained archeologist Yardena Alexander. "This building does not follow the standardized Byzantine church plan.'
Send us your comments >>
Wow. This is an awesome discovery. It goes to show you that no matter where you go you can always find Jesus there. As far as the prison goes; I think they should definitely move it somewhere else. I also think that this should be a major headline in our news media. The liberal media tends to smug out these kinds of things that should really be emphasized. Like Todd Staege has said, we really need to be ready and not be caught up in the busy way of life that distracts us from the things of God. I look forward to more archeological discoveries that proclaim Jesus as LORD. God bless.
Sean, Jerusalem, Israel:
This is all very nice and it's nice to see there is reader response from outside of Israel
. Now where are all the people who should be protesting the Muslim wakf wonton destruction of all remnants of the first and second temple period on Mount Zion? Even today there is new 'construction' by the wakf which consists of totally and purposefully demolishing thousands of years' worth of Jewish history at Judaism's most holy location. There, the Israeli authorities say absolutely nothing, but when it comes to a small floor decoration that *might* have been a church, they bend over backwards.
Martin Poloha, Czech Republic:
Nice interesting find. I have been in Israel for three times and I love it. I also visited Megiddo. And I hope to visit it sometime again and also see this new place. Isn't there a possibility to preserve it where it is without need of moving the prison?
Martin O'Sullivan (no relation of Arieh), Dublin, Ireland:
What a wonderful discovery! Please, please protect this fantastic find (part of our world heritage) and at all costs leave it to be visited where it was first conceived and constructed. Yet another reason for me to visit the Holy Land!
Julie D., Kansas City, USA:
Very interesting! I wish I could read Greek and look at the inscription! Because from the translation-it would appear that the guys "hellenistic roots" are showing. Almost as if he sees Jesus a "A god-(small "g" rather than the ONE God as we do as Christians. Now-I do believe he was a Christian - but this was probably like those early Christians Paul wrote to - giving the "foundations of the faith". I think he may still have had some hellenistic thinking going on - also - why the people's names? What I read leads me to believe this was a kind of "house church" or gathering place. Cool! Well-it sure makes history come alive-doesn't it?? Blessings to all!
Sheryl Zeitler, Stuart, FL, USA:
I think you should keep the church just where you found it. It's important for history to show that Jewish Believers back in the days of Yahshua, followed him as Messiah and God. Many people will want to visit this place due to that reason.
Lindsay Ingalls, Winterville, NC, USA:
I think this is fascinating. I am a Christian and believe the Lord works and speaks through everything. He is surely in this find! Perhaps many will come to know Jesus as their Savior through this find. I hope they will relocate the prison. I am going to visit Israel in 2006 and would love to be able to visit this site.
Wes Lyons, Gainesville, FL:
I am a twelve year old who surprisingly is the only one who has a problem. Do not move the church or even think about building over the church site. It is a very rare and important archeological find. Not only to the world of Christianity but also to the world of fellow archeologist! As a Christian - which has no relevance on the matter - I am in strong disagreement with touching the church site. It is a rare find and should be preserved!!! This is something you need to examine!
Patrick, Ontario, Canada:
I noticed they might decide to move this find...I hope that they will leave it there and decide to relocate the prison instead. I hope to take a trip there someday.
Bridget Ashmore, USA:
Jesus never considered Himself equal to His Father. He said, "My Father is greater than I." Who ever wrote the inscription believed that He was/is God. Perhaps we should delve into the various definitions of "God/god" and "Lord/lord". In the King James version of the bible, wherever the words LORD or GOD are written in all caps(capital letters), these titles are replacements of the Holy Name of YAHWEH (the tetragramaton Yod Heh Vav Heh).
To those who wanted to stone Yeshua(Jesus} for thinking he was god, He said to them, 'Have I not said , "Ye are gods," and yet you go about to stone me because I said I am the Son of GOD?' We might also return to Genesis where He and the Father are speaking to each other saying, "Look, they have become as one of us, knowing good from evil"....
Tim Smith, Usa:
The find is indeed very exciting as an ancient Greek student to my friends and I. One of the transcriptions seems to me to read, 'Akeptos, the lover of god offers a table to God, Jesus Christ as a way of remembering.' I am curious to see how this find may affect the view of women in the early church...
: You can be sure to bet that many archaeologists will be willing to move both heaven and earth in order to come up with evidence to prove this is fake. The ones who are afraid to admit that G-d exists are usually practicers of the religion of Darwinism.
: What an awesome new discovery! Ancient proof positive of the God Jesus Christ. It is holy ground and must be preserved at all costs. I am a Christian very interested in discovering the Biblical roots of the true early church that Yeshua (Jesus) founded through his apostles. Christians stand with Israel as we worship the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
, and grieve that the Temple Mount
was given to the wakf after Israel regained it in 1967. We treasure all ancient Hebrew holy artifacts, and they must be preserved.
Dana Riek, St. Louis, MO
: Wow! That is so cool! I just went on an amazing trip to Israel over a month ago and we toured many sites that were excavated! It is so awesome all of the discoveries that are there and I definitely believe that the church should be preserved! It would not be the same if it was moved! I pray that more hearts of the prisoners are ministered to and that many of them turn to Jesus during this time! He is the one that changes lives!