Updated Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Excavators in Rihab, northern Jordan, say they have uncovered a cave underneath a third-century church that they believe was used by the very first Christians between the years 33, about when Jesus was crucified, and 70 A.D., when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The cave contains a circular structure that may have been an apse, and the floor of the later church above contains a mosaic that refers to the “70 beloved by God and the divine”—a reference, the excavators say, to the first followers of Jesus, who went to that area of Jordan to flee persecution.
You can also view a number of photos of the cave and the church above it.
Critics, however, have begun to question the identification of the cave as an early church; see BAR editor Hershel Shanks’ television interview, and also see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080613-old-church.html.
Even stronger criticism has now emerged. Two University of Toronto scholars argue that the excavators have misread the inscription in the church; they claim, from both a rereading of the inscription and from the architecture, that the church is significantly younger than do the excavators. They also say that the cave below gives no indication of having been used in the first century. For full details, read “The Oratory of St. George in Rihab: The Oldest Extant Christian Building or Just Another Byzantine Church?” (PDF).
To learn more about churches in the Holy Land during the first centuries of Christianity, read “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land” and “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ,’” which describes what may be the very earliest church yet found in Israel. Both articles are from the BAS Library.