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New Developments on “Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity”

April 24, 2012

A prisoner wipes the dirt from an ancient tile mosaic. The inscription, in Greek, reads, "Lovers of God who contributed the Altar to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial." Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times.

A catchy November 2005 New York Times headline, “Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity”, points to a fascinating discovery — what may be the earliest church in the Holy Land, indeed in the world. The Meggido church in Tel Meggido, Israel, was discovered during a prison expansion project.  Now, Haaretz reports: “A plan to relocate the Megiddo prison and build in its stead a tourist site featuring the remains of the world’s most ancient Christian church is moving one step closer to fruition.”

As already reported in Haaretz, the prison would be moved two kilometers to the west. Project manager Gad Yaakov said that half a million visitors are expected to tour the site in the first year, with a moderate rise in the number of yearly visitors expected in following years.

Convicted felons clearing a mosaic uncovered within the confines of Megiddo Prison. The prison will be relocated in two years in order to construct a tourist center. Photo by: Eyal Warshavsky.

The church remains were unearthed four years ago, during prison renovations. The excavations revealed a mosaic floor, with three inscriptions. The one to the west of the mosaic reads, “The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” The inscription and other findings, such as coins, are believed to date from the third century.

The findings suggest that the Roman army that was positioned at the site was involved in Christian community rituals even before the institutionalization of the Christian church.

When the findings were unearthed archaeologists said that “it is likely that the inscription points to the antiquity of the building. At first there were tables that served an eating ceremony, and only later alters were added. That takes us back to an ancient period, before the institutionalization of churches with basilicas.”

When the inscription was found, archaeologist Yotam Tepper, who directed the excavations, called the findings “a substantial contribution to the study of the Roman Army in the eastern Roman Empire, to theological-Christian issues, to the consolidation of Christian rituals in the pre-Byzantine period and the mutual cultural influence with the adjacent Jewish community.”

The site is believed to be part of an ancient Jewish village named Kfar Othnay, mentioned in ancient sources. Nearby the Romans constructed the headquarters of the sixth legion and a city named Maximianopolis.

Shortly after the remains were discovered the Israel Antiquities Authority recommended relocating the Megiddo prison, a move which is expected to happen within two years. Hanan Erez, head of the Megiddo regional council, believes that the construction work on the tourist site will begin shortly after the prison is moved, and will not take very long.

The site will be called “Megiddo, the gate to the north.” It will include the Mosaic of the ancient prayer house, an archaeological garden, a restaurant, a multi-media presentation, a museum, a souvenir shop and the Ramat Menashe biosphere visitor center.

Yaakov said that “the location of the site, on the road to the north, and the site’s uniqueness as a major spiritual revelation for all Christians visiting Israel, will transform the site to a central target for tourists in Israel.” He added that the site will be “part of a master plan for the whole area that will include an industrial zone run by Jewish and Arab councils, a Jewish National Fund Park in the Keini stream, and more.

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