In A Nutshell
Before 313, Rome forbade the practicing of Christianity. The discovery of one of the earliest examples of a Christian church, located in Megiddo, the site of Armageddon, is an incredible one made even more impressive by inscriptions that link the occupying Roman forces to the development of the church. Unfortunately, it’s also at the site of a prison, but while that makes tourism difficult, it also means the inmates have been instrumental in helping to excavate the site.
The Whole Bushel
The Holy Land is a treasure trove of archaeological artifacts. Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon, is an appropriate place to find what’s thought to be one of the oldest Christian churches in existence (as well as a modern-day prison). Unfortunately, they’re on the exact same spot.
The Megiddo prison sits on a hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley, recently inherited from the army. There were plans for expanding the prison facility, but before any construction can be carried out anywhere, a full archaeological survey needs to be done of the site. That’s when they found the remnants of the church, only 1 meter (3 ft) below the surface.
The site has been occupied almost continuously for the past 3,000 years. In addition to finds like coins and pagan idols, the survey also uncovered a rectangular foundation and a mosaic floor, estimating that it dates back to as early as the third century. The inscriptions on the floor are in ancient Greek, and in addition to commemorative inscriptions for those that contributed to the construction of the building and to the furnishing of the church, there’s also a dedication: “the memory of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The imagery on the floor doesn’t even include the symbol of the cross. Instead it features an even earlier symbol of Christianity. Two fish, side by side, are in the center of the floor, and it’s an intriguing piece of ancient history.
Before 313, those who wished to practice Christianity were forced to do so in secret, and the preservation of the floor is nothing less than miraculous in itself. In its 3,000 years of history, Megiddo has been the home of no fewer than 25 different cities, rising and falling over the centuries. Set in the middle of a major trade route and thoroughfare, its tumultuous history is appropriate, considering it’s supposedly the location where the final battle between the forces of good and evil will finally happen.
Roman authorities were the ones putting the ban on the practice of Christianity, but the inscriptions suggest that it wasn’t an entirely popular opinion, with new links made between the occupying Roman army and the church.
When it comes to other sites as ancient, there are only a couple that can compare. One is Syria’s Dura Europos church. Most of the earliest Christian churches are little more than fragmentary ruins, and the preservation of the Megiddo floor is a singular find.
The placement of the site has proved to be a bit of a problem, but not one that couldn’t be overcome. Part of the excavation was done by prison inmates, working alongside archaeologists to preserve the find.
The find was transferred to the authority of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who made recommendations for taking the rather drastic step of moving the prison to preserve the remains of the church. Plans to make the site into a tourist destination—complete with museum, souvenir shop, and visitor center—are proving slow in coming to fruition, though.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo credit: Golf Bravo
The Guardian: Holy Land’s ‘oldest church’ found at Armageddon
Israel Antiquities Authority: Scientific Summary of the Authority’s excavation at the Megiddo Prison and its recommendation for moving the prison
The Megiddo Jesus
Haaretz: Next warden at Megiddo to be tourism expert