Discoveries at Megiddo Prison -- Laurie Brink

The recent discovery in Israel of a structure that may have served as a Christian church in the third or fourth century has captured the imagination of early Christian scholars, archaeologists, and the laity

By Laurie Brink|December 15, 2005

The recent discovery in Israel of a structure that may have served as a Christian church in the third or fourth century has captured the imagination of early Christian scholars, archaeologists, and the laity. Discovered during a preliminary dig prior to new construction at the Megiddo Prison, the 6 x 9-meter floor contained three Greek inscriptions that mention a centurion, three women, and a female benefactor. In addition to the mosaic floor, dwellings and other structures, dating between the fourth and sixth centuries, were uncovered. This site is believed to have been part of the Byzantine city of Maximianopolis.

Revealing this discovery for the first time to a wider public, declared that the find might be "the earliest church in the world," while the Associated Press told readers that it "may be the Holy Land's oldest church."

The Megiddo site's chief competitor in this dating game is the church at Dura Europos, a late Roman military outpost on the Euphrates River. Dating from 240-241 CE, this structure is the oldest example to date of a domus ecclesiae, formerly a private home that had been renovated to serve solely for the liturgical needs of the growing community.

Having spent five seasons as a senior staff member on the Combined Caesarea Expeditions, I am familiar with the archaeological penchant for early dating. Prof. Jodi Magness (UNC-Chapel Hill) has shown how the overzealous dating of coins placed the synagogues in Capernaum and Sardis more than a hundred years earlier than their actual construction. Those of us who work with ancient materials (texts or artifacts) do a disservice if we make them compete for chronological pride of place. Similarly, a preference for uniqueness can lead to a dismissal of important artifacts that are found in abundance.

The date and uniqueness of the Megiddo structure must thus be viewed in context if we are to discover its potential for revealing new information or confirming known information about the places, people, and practices of Christianity in the East.

For some, the most meaningful feature at Megiddo is the presence in the northern inscription of a centurion by the name of Gaianos, also known as Porphyrio, who is called "our brother," and who made the mosaic with his own money. Archaeologists are puzzled that a Roman centurion was the benefactor, seeing this as uniquely bold for a representative of an Empire that until the Edit of Milan in 313 CE did not view Christianity as a licit religion.

But the potential uniqueness of Gaianos' benefaction pales if one dates the structure post-Edit. The current third or fourth century date has been based on epigraphical features, letterforms, and wording. The remains found under the mosaic will provide a more reliable date for the structure, though archaeologists remain confident about the early dating. Gaianos' benefaction and membership is no less interesting for the study of early Christianity if his affiliation is in the fourth and not the third century.

Similarly, the eastern mosaic, dedicated to the memory of four women, adds to the growing body of evidence on women's presence and roles in the development of the early Christian community. The final mosaic, on a table, introduces another woman, and may shed light on the liturgical purpose of the space. It reads, "Akeptus, a friend of God, presented the table to God, Jesus Christ, as a memorial," and may have been used in the eucharistic celebration of the Christian community.

At the Megiddo site, further excavations and evaluations will allow archaeologists to determine the full extent of the structure, and to assess its date and use more accurately. However, the mosaics, regardless of their date, are significant in that they confirm what early Christian texts have always told us: The Christian community included members of the military, noteworthy women, and female patrons. The fact that this discovery testifies to a continuation and development of the church is no less important than the early date of the structure.

Thus the significance of the Megiddo discovery may lie neither in its date nor its uniqueness, but in its context, where it may prove to be a rare archaeological example of an ordinary center for early Christian worship. As such, it would not compete against the Dura Europos church, but rather find commonality with it.

Laurie Brink, O.P., is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Catholic Theological Union.