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Oldest Church Found?

Cave in Jordan Said to Have Been Used by First Christians

Updated Tuesday, July 15, 2008

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An early church in Israel

Excavators in Rihab, northern Jordan, say they have uncovered a cave underneath a third-century church that they believe was used by the very first Christians between the years 33, about when Jesus was crucified, and 70 A.D., when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The cave contains a circular structure that may have been an apse, and the floor of the later church above contains a mosaic that refers to the “70 beloved by God and the divine”—a reference, the excavators say, to the first followers of Jesus, who went to that area of Jordan to flee persecution.

You can read several of the original news reports here: from the BBC, AFP (the French news agency) and MSNBC.

You can also view a number of photos of the cave and the church above it.

Critics, however, have begun to question the identification of the cave as an early church; see BAR editor Hershel Shanks’ television interview, and also see

Even stronger criticism has now emerged. Two University of Toronto scholars argue that the excavators have misread the inscription in the church; they claim, from both a rereading of the inscription and from the architecture, that the church is significantly younger than do the excavators. They also say that the cave below gives no indication of having been used in the first century. For full details, read “The Oratory of St. George in Rihab: The Oldest Extant Christian Building or Just Another Byzantine Church?” (PDF).

To learn more about churches in the Holy Land during the first centuries of Christianity, read “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land” and “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ,’” which describes what may be the very earliest church yet found in Israel. Both articles are from the BAS Library.

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Comment Talkback Add Your Comment

Such an early church?

Chris Albert Wells — France (10/17/2008 9:21:47 AM)

How many people would be out of buisness without the controversies opposing fakes and realities, or misinterpretations, deliberate or not? After the bones of James brother of Jesus funerary inscription, here comes the first Christian Church used so soon after the crucifixtion and resurrection. But Jesus is merely the winning gospel Messiah against the losing gospel Messiah. Nothing related to this Antiochus controversy, personified by two Messiahs, just as in Qumran, can exist before Mark started composing his Gospel.The Jerusalem week is no more than a historical niche into which the final controversy was set.

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Daniel Keeran — Canada (10/15/2008 1:09:52 PM)

It is interesting and perhaps questionable that a church building would have been erected before the 4th century. What is the basis for dating this "oldest church" in the Holy Land to the early 3rd century? Also, was the immersion baptismal basin located? Was this an independent autonomous church or part of a hierarchical church at this time? If hierarchical, who was the bishop?

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"Byzantine Churches"

Elton Manx — USA (9/3/2008 10:27:21 AM)

I've noted several instances where early churches have been referred to as "Byzantine." Since the Orthodox (i.e. Eastern Christian)Christian Church is essentially a realitively unaltered descendant of the Christian Church the churches referred to in the articles, if dated after the 4th Century, should be mor eporperly labelled Byzantine ERA churches. What we call the Byzantine Church today WAS simply the Christian Church of old

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Rihab "Church"

Diego Rivero, Ph.D. — TX (8/18/2008 10:19:56 AM)

Has it not become rather tiring in the archaeological arena for publications to assert dubious datings on the basis of the flimsiest (and often contrived) data. True, BAR has served as outlet for many of these efforts (e.g. the ossuary of "James the brother of Jesus), nevertheless, it is fortunate that the skeptics are ever ready to employ sound scholarship (in this instance the "Oratory" rebuttal) to deflate these instances, which do little other than bring serious study into disrepute. Isn't it about time for all to recognize that Early Christianity was all about personal communion and community and that the architectural phenomenon of "churches" is a characteristic of 4th century Christianity.

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Greek Inscriptions

Leonardo — (8/5/2008 5:24:20 PM)

What I found to be particularly interesting is the inscription which equals Jesus to God, serving as a good example of Pre-Nicene document regarding the way Jesus was viewed among the Christians of that time.

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Oldest Church

Judith — USA (7/17/2008 10:44:16 PM)

There were Christians in Damascus, according to the New Testament so why not Rihab as well?

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Rihab Church

Ken Follis — (7/16/2008 10:54:02 AM)

Sonya, calling it a church is very apropos. The word "church" is not is the Bible. The word "church" derives from the Old English "kirk" which means "The Lord's", as in "The Lord's building etc." It is derived from the Greek word for Lord, which is Kurios. So, technically speaking, it is appropriate to call it a Church. Perhaps calling it an Ekklesia, the word often used in Scripture for the Lord's people, is not accurate.

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Oldest Church

Bob Baker — USA (7/10/2008 3:26:40 PM)

The believers in Messiah, fled to Pella in Northern Jordan. An Apse is purely a Western, Greek & Roman invention.

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Oldest Church Found

Sonya — (7/7/2008 4:37:59 AM)

Thanks for posting a comprehensive list of links, pro and con, for this article, although I do find it rather silly that word church is being used a physical thing, rather than a body of believers, as the NT teaches, and Christians currently believe.

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IXThUS-fish symbol

lawrence cigary — USA (6/21/2008 2:22:07 PM)

Why is it that the fish symbol is always taken back to "Jesus" speaking to his prospective disciples but never referencing the source of these words as coming from the Nevi'im of the TaNaKh Chapter 16 v16 of "Jeremiah"????

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