- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

MEGIDDO PRISON, Israel — Israeli archaeologists working in a maximum-security prison just down the road from Armageddon have unearthed what they think is the oldest church to be discovered in the land where Jesus was born.

“This is one of the most important finds of early Christianity,” archaeologist Yardena Alexandre of the Israel Antiquities told journalists on a tour of the excavation yesterday.

Remains of the church, which archaeologists date to the mid-third or early fourth century, were found during a dig for artifacts before the planned construction of a new prison wing.

The ruins of the church include a mosaic tile floor with inscriptions in ancient Greek containing a reference to “The God Jesus Christ” and could shed light on early Christian practices.

The floor lies under a tarpaulin in the shadow of watchtowers, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire.

The prison is close to the plains of Armageddon, where the Book of Revelations says God will prevail over Satan in a fiery end-of-the-world battle.

“This is, in Israel for sure, the earliest church,” said archaeologist Yotam Tepper, who heads the excavation.

He said archaeologists had previously discovered domestic prayer sites in the Holy Land that may be older than the ruins at the prison, but none that was classified as a church.

As he spoke, two inmates cleaned the mosaic designs with sponges.

The church was built in the style of a hall, and its mosaic floor contains geometric designs and an image of fish, an early Christian symbol.

One inscription on the floor indicates that a Roman soldier helped pay for the mosaics, and another dedicates a table to the memory of Jesus, archaeologists said.

Christians faced varying levels of persecution under the Roman Empire, interspersed with periods of calm. It was during such a lull that archaeologists think the Megiddo church was built to serve a local Christian community.

“What is important about this find is, it is in a transitional period. It is the very beginning of churches. There was no standard plan of a church,” Mr. Alexandre said.

In 1998, American archaeologists excavating in southern Jordan said they had unearthed what they thought to be the world’s oldest remaining church, dating to the late-third or early fourth century.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the church a “very exciting” find. “This is truly an amazing story,” he said in Jerusalem.

Asked what Israel would do with the site, Mr. Sharon replied that “this matter is now being checked.”

Archaeologists said they preferred to keep the church intact and in place, but that the mosaics might be moved if necessary.

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