Oldest Christian chapel in Holy Land may cause prison relocation

The third century find represents the oldest church ever uncovered in Israel.

megiddo excavations 298 (photo credit: Daniel Ben-Tal)
megiddo excavations 298
(photo credit: Daniel Ben-Tal)
In an unprecedented move, Israel's top archaeological body is recommending that the Megiddo Prison be relocated due to the recent discovery of the most ancient Christian place of worship ever found in Israel on the grounds of the prison. The ruins of the Christian prayer hall, which was located inside a Roman villa, date back to the first half of the third century CE, making the chapel the earliest place of Christian worship ever unearthed in the Holy Land, excavation director and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yotam Tepper said Tuesday. The site in question, which is located between an ancient Jewish village dating back to the Roman period and what used to be a Roman Army camp, was uncovered last year after authorities sought to expand the prison grounds and prisoners stumbled upon the ruins during routine excavations. The building, which is thought to have belonged to a Roman officer, has a rectangular hall with a mosaic floor bearing geometric patterns, a medallion decorated with drawings of fish - a symbol widely used in early Christianity - and three Greek inscriptions. One inscription names an army officer who contributed toward the paving of the floor, the second is dedicated in memory of four women, and the third mentions a woman who contributed a table or altar to the God Jesus Christos. Pottery shards and coins found in the excavation date the mosaic to the first half of the third century, Tepper said during a visit by President Moshe Katsav and senior Christian religious leaders in the Holy Land. He noted that the Jesus inscription found on the mosaic was one of the first such epigraphic references ever unearthed. The prayer site, which unequivocally associates the Roman military officer with Christianity, is viewed as especially rare in that it precedes the recognition of Christianity as an official religion. Tepper said Tuesday that the "unique" discovery could shed new light on Early Christianity, which was banned by the Romans until the fourth century. The established view is that Christian churches did not begin to appear in the region until the fourth century following Emperor Constantine's edict in 313 that Christians could worship freely in the Roman Empire. The Antiquities Authority said that the structure found at the site does not fit the accepted architectural definitions of a church, and so they deem it to be a Christian prayer hall, or chapel. The building was never used again after the third century, and was covered with dirt until the mosaic was discovered as the prison sought to expand, and the excavations were carried out, Tepper said. "We are talking about a unique and unprecedented find which is exciting the entire Christian world," said Antiquities Authority director Shuka Dorfman. "Any move which would disconnect the mosaic from its site would injure the cultural values this site represents," he added. President Moshe Katsav said that in light of the historical dimensions of the find he fully supports the recommendation of the Antiquities Authority to relocate the prison, noting that during his recent visit to the Vatican the Pope inquired if he may visit the site on his future visit to Israel. The prison, which is likely to be moved as a result of the find, currently holds about 1,200 prisoners, prison authority spokeswoman Orit Messer-Harel said Tuesday. Megiddo, also known as Armageddon, is the place where the New Testament says the ultimate battle of good and evil will be waged. Today the prison is located along a major thoroughfare in northern Israel and is surrounded primarily by fields.