JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Antiquities Authority announced a major archeological find. This may be the earliest church ever discovered in Israel. It's being called a "once in a lifetime discovery.” It may shed light on the life of some of the earliest Christians.
Experts say the discovery is a rare find, an early church building from the mid third or fourth century.
"In Israel we think now this is the most early, the earlier church in Israel,” said Yotam Tepper, who directs the archeological dig for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The excavation is taking place in a unique setting. The discovery came to the valley of Armageddon and in the middle of one of Israel’s prisons. The maximum security facility houses more than 1,000 inmates. Sixty prisoners helped the Israeli Antiquity Authority.
What makes the find so important is both the age of the building and the inscriptions on the mosaic floor. There are three inscriptions. One is dedicated to Gaianos, an army officer from more than 1,600 years ago, who contributed to the mosaic floor, and another is dedicated to the memory of four women, and the third and most significant is an inscription that declares "the God Jesus Christ."
Stephen Pfann, president of University of the Holy Land said, "Here we have from before the time of Constantine, an actual functioning room devoted to communion and worship from that earliest century. And it's certainly the earliest structure we have of an ecclesia, which would be like a first century Christian synagogue, believing synagogue, house of worship with Christ at the center."
The floor includes a medallion decorated with two fish and standing in the middle of the room is the base of a table. Both the table and its Greek description offer a unique insight into how early Christians may have celebrated communion.
"The fact that we still have the name ‘trapezon,’ a table here shows that they want to stress not the idea that this is like some kind of a pagan altar, but that this is a commemorative meal where Jesus himself is revealed in. So it looks like everyone in the room is actually surrounding the area of the table,” Pfann said.
“There's no division between the laity and the priesthood. These are people around a common table actually enjoying the communal meal that God gave to them through Jesus Christ."
The table, Pfann said, links believers from nearly 2,000 years and Christians today.
"It shows this continuity and a real confirmation of this thread through history that the communal meal was central to the worship of the early Christians," Pfann said.
The find has attracted attention from media from all over the world, and Israeli officials may turn the discovery into a Christian tourist site. Options for the site include either moving the discovery to another location or re-locating the prison itself. Regardless of the decision, the find gives a profound view into the lives of real people who followed Jesus Christ at a time when Christianity was illegal and persecution was widespread.
"This is a time of a great deal of turmoil, a great deal of walking in faith and secrecy,” Pfann said. “And here in a mosaic no less on a floor of a building like this, it has clear expression of the fact that Jesus Christ is God."