Tabor on the Megiddo "Prayer Hall"
Too often new discoveries are sensationalized, and after things are sorted out and more rational conclusions are made, the story doesn't make the news again. For this reason, anyone interested in the "Megiddo church" would do well to read the book, or at least James Tabor's helpful comments about it.
In November, 2005 the news spread quickly around the world: Oldest "church" ever found has been discovered near the biblical site of Armageddon!
The site was uncovered on the grounds of a modern Israeli prison near Megiddo. It gives us a precious glimpse into early Christian worship and devotion before the time of Constantine (325 AD), for it is only after Constantine that structures we can definitely identify as "Churches" began to spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
Yet this site can not properly be called a church. So what is it? Scholars are just beginning to try and access the impact of this precious discovery. What we appear to have here is what the authors have called a "Christian prayer hall." It is a room, complete with mosaics containing art work and inscriptions, dedicated to "the god Jesus Christ," with obvious ritual functions and symbols, but quite different from later Christian churches of the Byzantine period. The structure appears to date to the early 3rd century, making it by far the most important early Christian archaeological site of its kind ever discovered in the Holy Land. In their book, excavation director Yotam Tepper, and epigraphic expert Leah Di Segni, throughly explore the textual evidence for "sacred meals" from sources such as the Didache, the fascinating early Christian document discovered in 1873 that I discuss in The Jesus Dynasty. Our evidence for pre-Constantinian "Christianity" is almost wholly textual. It is rare to find any kind of material evidence that might shed light on the practices of early followers of Jesus, particularly in the Holy Land. To have found at Megiddo this evidence for liturgical activities that seem to link to rites and practices we read about in ancient texts is something of which we normally can only dream. But there is more. One of the three inscriptions mentions four women, singled out as having special importance to the community. This is clear evidence, echoing what we find in our earliest gospel sources, of the vital importance of woman as leaders and even patrons in the earliest days of the movement.
Now that the dust has cleared a bit, literally, the story of this most extraordinary archaeological find has just become available in an attractive, lavishly illustrated, full-color booklet published by the Israel Antiquities Authority titled, A Christian Prayer Hall of the 3rd Century. The authors, have provided us with a fascinating but authoritative, account of the excavation and its significance narrated in an accessible style for the non-specialist. I recently heard both Tepper and Segni lecture on the discovery at the annual meeting in D.C. of the American Schools of Oriential Research, the preeminent gathering of archaeologists working in areas related to the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Their presentations were riveting and thought provoking and the substance of those lectures, plus much more, is provided in this richly illustrated volume.
This little book is a model for publications in the field of archaeology. It is beautifully done, reasonably priced, and as readable as it is informative. It is a must for anyone interested in the earliest archaeological records of the spread of Christianity in the Holy Land. The IAA has printed a limited but reasonable number of copies. It can be conveniently ordered in the U.S.A. from the Web bookstore: Centuryone.com. I urge anyone interested in the material evidence related to earliest Christianity to get a copy of this book while they are still available.
Dr. James D. Tabor
Chair, Dept. of Religious Studies
Charlotte, NC 28223