Daily Archives: June 10, 2008

First century church (building) found?

Several blogs have noted the report of a claim out of Jordan than a first century church has been found. The Jordan Times report by Rula Samain follows:

AMMAN – Lying underneath Saint Georgeous Church in Rihab, Mafraq, is what archaeologists describe as the first Christian church in the world.

“We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD,” said Archaeologist Abdul Qader Hussan, head of the Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies.

The discovery was “amazing”, Hussan told The Jordan Times.

“We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians: the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ,” the scholar said.

The early Christians, described in the mosaic inscription on St. Georgeous floor as “the 70 beloved by God and Divine”, are said to have fled from Jerusalem during the persecution of Christians, to the northern part of Jordan, particularly to Rihab, he added.

Citing historical sources, the expert said the 70 lived and practised their rituals in secrecy in this underground church.

We believe that they did not leave the cave and lived until the Christian religion was embraced by Roman rulers.

“It was then when St. Georgeous was built,” said Hussan.

Saint Georgeous is believed to be the oldest “proper” church in the world, built in 230 AD. This status is only challenged by a church unearthed in Aqaba in 1998, also dating back to 3rd century.

The findings in the graveyard near the cave offer valuable clues, according to Hussan.

“We found pottery items that date back from the 3rd to 7th century,” he added. The findings show that the first Christians and their offshoot continued living in the area till the late Roman rule.

“Going down a few steps into the cave, one would see a circle shape area, believed to be the apse, and several stone seats for the ecclesiastics,” he added.

Archimandrite Nektarious, Bishop Deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, described the discovery of the cave as an “important milestone for Christians all around the world”.

“The only other cave in the world similar in shape and purpose is in Thessalonica, Greece,” the bishop said in an interview in Amman.

The cave also embraces the living place of the first Christians. “A wall with an entrance is the only partition separating the altar from the living area,” Hussan said.

There is also a deep tunnel, which is believed to have led the 70 Christians to their source of water, the archaeologist added.

Officials in Mafraq say they will capitalise on the discovery to further promote the area.

Governor Zeid Zreiqat, who noted Rihab is rich in unique archaeological sites, said that together with the new discovery, these sites can be invested to attract religious tourism.

“We are working on developing Rihab to become a major tourist attraction in the near future,” he told The Jordan Times.

So far, 30 churches have been discovered in Rihab,” Hussan said. It is also believed that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary have passed through this area, he added.

Are you excited about this discovery? Note that the report claims that the St. Geogeous Church “is believed to be the oldest proper church in the world, built in 230 AD.” The new discovery seems to have been a cave under the third century church. We must await further information on the inscription about the 70 disciples of Jesus.

There are several things in this report that arouse suspiction. Who were the 70 disciples? Were they the 70 of Luke 10:1-12? What rituals did they practice in secret? The church dates from 33 AD to 70 AD, yet they stayed in the cave until Christianity was embraced by the Roman government (early 4th century).

The pottery is said to date from the 3rd to the 7th century. Did the first century residents of the cave church leave no pottery? Do you really think a first century church had circular shaped seats for the clergy? (This is stated in the caption under a photo with the article.) We have no historical evidence for this clergy-laity distinction until well into the 2nd century.

We are told that the city of Mafraq will “capitalize on the discovery to further promote the area” and to help it become a major tourist attraction.

An MSNBC report cites Thomas Parker, of the University of North Carolina-Raleigh, as saying that this information should be greeted with a degree of caution. Read it here.

Pseudo Archaeologists

Gordon Govier, editor of Artifax, and producer of The Book & the Spade weekly radio program and podcast, has written about about a group of amateur archaeologists who are now being called Pseudo Archaeologists. These individuals, such as the late Ron Wyatt, Robert Cornuke. The discoveries claimed by these men make Indiana Jones look like a kid playing with his first shovel.

Several times a year someone sends me information about the claim of Ron Wyatt that he found Pharaoh’s chariot wheels in the Red Sea, etc. The ABR (Associates for Biblical Research) web page includes several articles dealing with these subjects. The page has been recently redesigned and you will profit by spending some time there. I also urge you to read Govier’s good article in Christianity Today here.

Some people think I know a lot about archaeology, but they know very little. I have been a student of the subject for more than 50 years, have participated in a dig, and am acquainted with several real archaeologists, but I am not an archaeologist. I frequently presents lessons on Bible History and Archaeology because I think the information can be extremely helpful to Bible students.

Sometimes we expect too much of archaeology. We should remember the old maxim, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.”

Archaeology is hard work, and often requires many years of diligent work at a single tell. In April I stopped at Tell Kafrein in the Jordan Valley and visited with the staff there for a while. This view shows a group gathered to hear the supervisor explain how to remove a Middle Bronze jar. The excavation at this yet unidentified site is under the direction of Professor Thanasis Papadopoulos of the University of Ioannina in northern Greece. I promised that I would not publish a photo of the jar, but I can tell you that it was beautiful (if you like that sort of thing). Notice that none of the works have a whip or a leather jacket. I don’t even see a fedora.