June 12, 2008

Oldest Christian Worship Site Unearthed

Archaeologists have unearthed a cave underneath one of the world's oldest churches in Jordan, which they believe to have been used as a site for early Christian rituals.

The cave was discovered by archaeologist Abdel-Qader al-Housan, head of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies, after three months of excavation. It lies under Saint Georgeous's Church, which is considered by some to have been built in the year 230, though it is often disputed. The church underneath could have been built between AD33 and AD70, archaeologists claimed.

"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from AD33 to 70," said Al-Husan.

"We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians - the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ."

Al-Housan said there was evidence that the underground cave was used as a church by 70 disciples of Jesus in the first century after Christ's death, which would make it the oldest Christian site of worship in the world.

Al-Housan referred to a circular worship area with stone seats in front of a long tunnel, which leads to a source of water. He believes early Christians hid there from prosecution.

A mosaic inscription on the floor of the later church of Saint Georgeous above refers to "the 70 beloved by God and the divine" who founded the worship there.

Thomas Parker, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Raleigh, who led the team that discovered the church in Aqaba, said that while he hadn't seen the Rihab site, any such claim should be taken with a degree of caution.

"An extraordinary claim like this requires extraordinary evidence," he said. "We need to see the artifacts and dating evidence to suggest such an occupation in the 1st century A.D."

The archaeologist also noted that mosaics are difficult to date unless there is a precise date in the text of the mosaic inscriptions themselves and typical mosaic inscriptions with Christian themes are from the 5th to 6th century.

"It's quite possible that there was a cave with earlier occupation which was later converted to Christian use. But to make the jump that this was actually used by Christians fleeing Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D. seems like a stretch to me," Parker said.

Kate da Costa, an Australian archaeologist from the University of Sydney also said that the recent discovery would need to be confirmed by other archaeologists.

"And even if the cave can be proved to have been in use in the first (century) A.D., there needs to be additional evidence that it was used by Christians," she said.

Archimandrite Nektarious, bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Amman, hailed the discovery, calling it an "important milestone for Christians all around the world and right here at home."

"It confirms that Christians in this region are not strangers," he said. "They are real citizens who have always had roots in this region from those days until the present."

Image: Tha Aqaba Fortress. Courtesy Wikipedia