"Oldest Church" Discovery "Ridiculous," Critics Say

Mati Milstein in Rihab, Jordan
for National Geographic News
June 13, 2008
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.

Early Churches

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.

Scholars widely believe that organized churches didn't exist until at least the third century A.D.

Following the death of Jesus Christ, Christian worship typically took place in homes and other domestic buildings or, less commonly, by rivers outside city walls during the first century A.D. Architecturally distinct, organized churches did not emerge until the Byzantine period, in the fifth century A.D.

Early Christian churches would eventually include apses—semi-circular sections of the sanctuary facing to the east—similar to Jewish synagogues, which face toward Jerusalem.

Al-Housan said there is an apse in the cave he uncovered.

Experts Skeptical

Biblical scholar Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, responded cautiously to Al-Housan's reported findings.

"It sounds rather anachronistic," he said, adding that during the first century, the term "church" or "ekklesia" was used for the assembled body of believers—not the building or catacombs where they were assembling.

"If they are talking about a cave, it could have been a hiding place. In time—if there were martyrs there or something significant that took place there or a well-known individual who was among the disciples of Jesus—then you would have had reason to commemorate the site, which could later be used by the church's monks."

"But the cave that's there is one that doesn't necessarily commemorate anything … I don't know how you can take an underground cave and say it could present itself as a first-century church."

Pfann said the formal, architecturally distinct church form can be seen starting to emerge in a site excavated in 2005 inside an Israeli prison near Har Megiddo (or "Armageddon" in Greek and English). Dating to roughly the third century, it is popularly accepted as the oldest church ever discovered.

Archaeologist Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the Megiddo prison site.

"A house of prayer or domestic Christian gathering place from the third century is quite possible," Tepper said. "But a church from the first century sounds surprising indeed, though I don't know if I can entirely eliminate the possibility without [seeing] archaeological evidence like pottery and coins."

"I think that we have to wait until we can see this," he added.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.