for National Geographic News
A Jordanian archaeologist's announcement this week that he had uncovered the world's first Christian church in an underground cave drew surprise and skepticism from experts in Jordan and beyond.
The Jordan Times earlier this week quoted archaeologist Abdel-Qader al-Housan, director of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies as saying, "We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 A.D. to 70 A.D."
Al-Housan later told the Associated Press that he discovered a cave beneath St. George's Church, one of the world's oldest known churches, in the northern Jordanian city of Rihab, and that the cave shows evidence of early Christian rituals.
The archaeologist said he found a circular worship area inside the cave with stone seats separated from a living area that had a long tunnel leading to a source of water.
Ghazi Bisheh, former director general of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, dismissed the claim as "ridiculous," saying the archaeologist behind them "has a tendency to sensationalize discoveries" and offered no evidence to back his recent assertion.
There are numerous natural caves in Rihab and dozens of churches, but most of them date to the late sixth or early seventh century. Bisheh believes that, based on the Basilican style of its mosaic, St. George's Church dates to this period.
But al-Housan and some others believe St. George's Church dates to 230 A.D.
A mosaic on the floor of the church bears a Greek inscription that reads "the 70 beloved by God and the divine," according to al-Housan
He believes it refers to 70 disciples who fled Roman persecution in Jerusalem during the first century A.D., after the death of Jesus Christ.
The disciples established a church in the cave and used it as a place of worship, according to al-Housan.
While early Christians did flee the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. to what is now Jordan, Bisheh, the Jordanian antiquities expert, said the identity of the disciples mentioned in the mosaic is not clear.
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