World's 'Oldest Christian church' Discovered in Jordan
Archaeologists claim to have found the world's oldest church dating from shortly after Christ's crucifixion.
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
10 Jun 2008
If tests confirm that it dates back to between 33 AD to 70 AD, as the archaeologists claim, it would make it the earliest known place of Christian worship by around two hundred years.
According to a report in the Jordan Times newspaper, a very early underground church was found beneath the ancient Saint Georgeous Church, which itself dates back to 230 AD, in Rihab, northern Jordan near the Syrian border.
"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD," Abdul Qader al-Husan, head of Jordan's Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies, said.
"We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians – the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ."
A mosaic found in the church describes these Christians as "the 70 beloved by God and Divine". Mr Husan said they believed to have fled persecution in Jerusalem and founded churches in northern Jordan.
He cited historical sources which suggest they both lived and practised religious rituals in the underground church and only left it after Christianity was embraced by Roman rulers in the fourth century AD.
The claim was treated with some disdain in online chatrooms focusing on biblical knowledge with most contributors suggesting the claim was made up to boost Rihab's tourist status.
There is no clear holder of the title of oldest Christian church with various sites claiming the title without definitive evidence.
In 2005 Israeli archaeologists claimed to have found the earliest Christian church when they uncovered a floor mosaic dating from the first part of the third century.
It was found inside the perimeter fence of a top security prison built by Israel in Megiddo or, to use its ancient name, Armageddon, where, according to the New Testament, the final battle between good and evil will be fought before the return of the Messiah.
The bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, Archimandrite Nektarious, described the Rihab discovery as an "important milestone for Christians all around the world."
Researchers recovered pottery dating back to between the 3rd and 7th centuries, which they say suggests these first Christians and their followers lived in the area until late Roman rule.
Inside the cave there are several stone seats which are believed to have been for the clergy and a circular shaped area, thought to be the apse.
There is also a deep tunnel which is believed to have led to a water source, the archaeologist added.
Rihab is home to a total of 30 churches and Jesus and the Virgin Mary are believed to have passed through the area, Husan said.
Jordan Cave May Be Oldest Church
By Matt McGrath
BBC science correspondent
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
Archaeologists in Rihab, Jordan, say they have discovered a cave that could be the world's oldest Christian church.
Dating to the period AD33-70, the underground chapel would have served as both a place of worship and a home.
It is claimed that it was originally used by a group of 70 persecuted Christians who fled from Jerusalem.
These early Christians lived and practised their faith in secrecy until the Romans embraced Christianity several hundred years later.
Rihab is in Northern Jordan. The cave is beneath the ancient church of St Georgeous, itself one of the oldest known places of worship in the world.
According to Dr Abdul Qader Al-Hassan, the director of the Rihab Centre for Archaeological studies, the cave site shows clear evidence of early Christian rituals that predate the church.
Dr Al-Hassan says that steps lead down into the chapel which is approximately 12m long and seven metres wide.
There is a circular area of worship with stone seats separated from living quarters. This circular element, called an apse, is important says Dr Al-Hassan because there is only one other example of a cave with a similar feature, which was also used for Christian worship.
Dr Al-Hassan said: "We found beautiful things. I found the cemetery of this church; we found pottery shards and lamps with the inscription 'Georgeous'".
In the cave there is also a tunnel that leads to a cistern which supplied water to the dwellers. An inscription in the floor of the church above refers to the "70 beloved by God and the divine" whom the archaeologist believes were refugees from religious persecution in Jerusalem.
Dr Al-Hassan says that excavation of the tunnel and the cistern may yield yet more evidence about the lives of these early Christians.
"From the tunnel to the cistern is very important. We want to clean it and make an excavation inside it. We found a very old inscription beside it and coins also, and crosses made from iron."
Other experts say they are cautious about the claim. They want to examine the artefacts and see clear dating evidence. The earliest confirmed examples of churches date from the third century, they say.
The entrance to the cave
An archaeologist stands just inside the cave
Two Jordanian archaeologists dig inside the cave
Work continues inside the cave
Interior of the church believed to be oldest in the world
Pottery found inside
Altar of the Saint Georgeous Church in Rehab, Mafraq.