Oldest church discovered?

In seminary, we learned that the Roman Christians didn't start erecting public church buildings until after Constantine legalized their faith in 313 A.D. As a result, almost all evidence from the first three centuries of the church has come to us in the form of manuscripts, not architecture or furnishings. Now archaeologists have uncovered a building in the northern Israeli city of Megiddo, near the biblical site of Armageddon, that challenges the conventional wisdom.

Imagine the scene. Prisoner Ramil Razilo, serving two years for traffic violations, is carefully removing rubble in a last-minute archaeological test dig before destroying the ground to expand their prison. Suddenly, his shovel hits the edge of an elaborate mosaic. As workers uncover first the tiled floor, then remnants of a table, and then a set of Greek inscriptions, signs increasingly indicate that this is the first pre-Constantinian church ever discovered.

No important antiquities discovery seems to go undebated, however. Evidence favoring the early date include the fish symbol, used by persecuted Christians; some older potsherds; the style of Greek writing in the inscriptions; the geometric patterns used in the mosaics; and the style of the building itself.

Among those scholars arguing against the conclusion that this as a pre-Constantinian church is Joe Zias, anthropologist and ex-curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority. Though Zias believes the building may date back to the third century, he suspects it was converted to a church later. For one thing, one of the inscriptions names a Roman officer as a benefactor. "If I were a Roman soldier in the third century," said Zias, "I certainly wouldn't want my name on [a church]. … ...

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