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Very Ancient Church Discovered in Jordan (Updated Photos)

John on June 10, 2008 at 3:31 pm

They’re calling the “world’s first church” which sounds more like marketing than archeology to me. None of the many articles seem to give any details that justify that label. Still, the discovery of a cave beneath what was already considered one of the two or three oldest churches in the world means there may be something more to the hype:

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.

That last bit about refugees from religious persecution is what really got my attention. According to Eusebius, one of the ancient church’s first historians after Luke, Christians living in Jersualem at the time of the Roman siege fled to Pella and escaped:

The members of the Jerusalem church by means of an oracle, given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the city before the war began and settle in a town in Peraea called Pella. – Eusebius Book III, 5:4

Pella was one of the important cities of Rome’s Eastern empire, one of ten that made up the Decapolis. It was destroyed sometime in the 8th century and today only a small village remains. However, you can see from the map below that Pella is only about 20 miles from Rihab where this new discovery was made.

It’s also worth noting that even some atheists agree there is enough historical evidence to suggest the “flight to Pella” probably happened. If so, then there is the genuine possibility that Christians who fled Jerusalem’s fall could have founded a church in Rihab well within the first century. So the claim “world’s oldest church” may have some truth to it. If so, it would be a spectacular find.

Best pictures I’ve found of the site are here. Here’s a sample:

Update: The AP has pictures of the church and the cave here. I still maintain there could be something to this, but this billboard — complete with English translation — does sort of suggest an over-eagerness to build this discovery into a destination for meeko-tourists.

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Category: Archaeology |

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