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First Churches of the Jesus Cult Volume 60 Number 5, September/October 2007
by Andrew Lawler

Early Churches


The shrine at Dura Europas is still the only uncontested place of Christian worship predating the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine. This is a reconstruction of the shrine. (Yale University Art Gallery)


Franciscan archaeologists contend that the disciple Peter's home lies beneath this octagonal shrine built after Constantine's reign. Today, a modern church with a glass floor shelters the ancient buildings. (BauBau PhotoWire)


This site in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea may contain the ruins of a pre-Constantinian church. (Courtesy Thomas Parker)

How Christianity evolved in its first three centuries

As dusk approaches, Korean pilgrims in white baseball caps blow horns and sing hymns atop Tel Megiddo. This crossroads in northern Israel--also known as Armageddon--is where the New Testament says the final battle pitting good against evil will begin. Below the huge mound, tour buses idle, throngs of visitors buy postcards, and a nearby McDonald's does a thriving business at its drive-through window.

On the opposite side of the busy highway are the grim brick walls and coiled barbed wire of a high-security prison. It is an awkward place for an important archaeological site. Unlike at the mound, visitors are not welcome here. Even archaeologists must apply well in advance for access--something I wasn't granted--so I am left standing outside the gates with Yotam Tepper of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The mosaic floor that he and a team of inmates discovered under the prison yard may mark one of the earliest known places of Christian worship.

Although the site may date to a full century before the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan transforming Christianity from a disparate group of Jesus-worshipping cults to a powerful state religion in A.D. 313, these early followers of the controversial faith weren't hiding their beliefs. "There were Samaritans and Jews and Romans and Christians all living together in just this small place," says Tepper. A Roman soldier paid for the mosaics, and members of the congregation may even have baked bread for Rome's sixth legion, stationed nearby.

The find at Megiddo is a key piece of evidence in a radical rethinking of how Christianity evolved during its first three centuries, before it was backed by the might of empire. Until recently, scholars had to rely on ancient texts that emphasize the vicious persecution of the church--think lions dining on martyrs in Rome's Colosseum. A growing body of archaeological data, however, paints a more diverse and surprising picture in which Christians thrived alongside Jews and the Roman military. These finds make this "a definitive time in our field" since they appear to contradict the literary sources on which historians have long depended, says Eric Meyers, a biblical archaeologist at Duke University.

Megiddo is only the latest in a series of recent digs in the Near East revealing a more complex history of the early Christian era. Near the Red Sea in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, archaeologists have uncovered what the dig director, Thomas Parker of North Carolina State University, argues is a pre-Constantinian prayer hall. At Capernaum, just an hour's drive from Megiddo, Franciscan monks believe they have excavated a pilgrimage site dating to as early as the first century A.D. on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Such discoveries are unusual; the only undisputed early Christian worship site is at Dura Europas, on the Euphrates River in modern Syria, which was excavated in the 1920s and '30s by French and American teams. How the most recently discovered sites were used and dated, however, is hotly contested.

Andrew Lawler is a staff writer for Science magazine.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America