"Oldest Church" Discovery "Ridiculous," Critics Say

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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.

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