Did you know that the earliest known church is found in the prison for terrorists in the Valley of Armageddon?
With a number of others, on invitation by the Israeli Government Antiquities Authority, we boarded the Jerusalem bus charted by the government to be taken to Armageddon in the Jezrael , the gigantic and beautiful valley of the final battle. Following the same road that Egyptian Pharoah, Thutmose III took, notorious for ambush, we entered the Jezrael valley, at the point of the valley of the Mountain (hAR) of the ancient city Megiddo (MEGEDDON). We were being taken to Megiddo prison, the only prison for terrorists in the north of Israel. We were to be shown the outer court yard with the prison where there had been found, in the process of expansion for the prisons' wing, the most ancient in Israel and probably anywhere "house church". This was before there were "church worship structures", but very much like synagogues of ancient time and like today, where besides a place for worship, there were full blown all-purpose-rooms and extensions and outer facilities for communal life of all sorts. Even today, the Jewish Center, Bet Midrash (House of study) is a close examples. Life and "liturgy" were not divorced!
The bus made its way past the outer entrance to the prison, then past the check point, with Prison Authority guards armed and at-the-ready, into the inner winding road where we could get a glimpse of the inmates, walking, talking, passing the time, seemingly at ease, just "regular Joes". And indeed, it was an inmate who first found the house church with its large mosaic, and the stone for the basis of the Eucharistic table, and it was the inmates who did most of the archaeological digging and dusting, under direction of the Israel Department of Antiquities, of course.
We then were brought to a briefing structure, open to the cold wind that day, to hear a short talk by the Israeli archaeologist, and then huddled along for our first view of the find. Yes, undoubtedly, it was a large room within a larger structure with rooms on the side, and it was solely for worship, whatever the other of the community rooms were used for, and this we knew because you could not enter the room through its doors (which no longer existed, but their thresh holds did) without getting blocked by the large colorful mosaic, which was like a large living room carpet, and right in the middle of the "carpet", were two immense stones which supported the "trapedza", the table. It could only have been for Eucharist. You could not get to the other side through the center. You could only come into the room and fill in to all the sides of the table. All attention was to the center.
The mosaic featured fish and geometric designs. One sign was the "fish" sign -"fish" ("Ichthys" in Greek) like on a license plate or a sticker on a car - "(I[esous] X[ristos] Th[eou] Y[ios] S[oter]". This was a secret code and communication at the time that believers in Jesus were persecuted by the Roman authorities, shortly before and then after the time of our prayer house, and it meant, when you put all the letters of the fish sign together - "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior".
Where we were, right in the middle of this prison, was the ancient Jewish village of Talmudic times and earlier, of Otnay, known as Kfar Otnay = the village of Othnay. But at the time this "church room" was used, the time of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the time that Christianity was not the recognized religion of the Empire (and at times persecuted, at times tolerated, and the period, that, according to Roman law and societies viewpoint, Christianity was but a sect within Judaism), at this time, Roman soldiers from two of their legions, the Second Traiana and the Sixth Ferrata, were stationed at this place. Some of these soldiers believed in Jesus and worshipped in the house church. Not only they, but a centurion, their commander, just like the centurion in the Book of Acts of the New Testament who loved the Jewish people and contributed to their synagogue, so this centurion contributed to the prayer house. He had written the account of his donation on the mosaic!
But not to forget the practical matters of the community, the prayer house also had a bakery and the bakers were Roman soldiers. We know this, because, just like good artists, they proudly inscribed their names on their bread. Not only that, there was a bread stamp so you didn't have to squeeze the bread to know which was the best. It told you. One stamp said "PRIM" = prime = the best!
Let's not think that this was a homogeneous "Bible Belt community" insulated from the world and surrounded by like-minded fellows. Quite the contrary. The Valley of Megiddo spread and became part of the Jezrael valley itself, opening on the west to the Mediterranean sea and to the east touching the Jordan valley and Jordan river. "Armageddon" was a thoroughfare of ancient Israel. Also, this community of believers, lived just under the hill on which were deployed two encampments of Roman soldiers, and within the Jewish Talmudic village of Othnay were also Samaritans, who perhaps used the same now excavated ritual ablution (ceremonial cleansing) pools or "mikvahs" as did the Jews. Jews and Samaritans together, apparently at peace, and with the close presence of the Roman occupying army. Life goes on!
Of great interest is the inscription within the prayer house on the mosaic. It was by the altar of the Eucharist and it tells us that the altar was paid for by a woman named Akeptous. The inscription reads, “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” So, yes, Jesus is called "God", before the time of Constantine, and no wonder, as that is clearly what He is according to the first century New Testament (as well as in the patristic literature - the writings of the disciples of New Testament apostles themselves) -clearly this community believed with the New Testament that God Himself had come down assuming full humanity to show us what it was all about and to give up His loving self, taking upon Himself all our sins and grief.
And there is something else enlightening about the prison inscription. In Acts 10:4, where Cornelius the centurion becomes the first gentile convert to Christianity, an angel tells him that his prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial (mnemosynon). In Hebrew it is "zikaron" = Remembrance". And here in this "prayer room, on its floor mosaic, near the altar is the New Testament and Jewish phrase, "as a memorial". But contrary to the use of the word "memorial" in English, this is not a memorial for someone dead, but the biblical sign ("OT") to God, that He looks at, as God looked at the "keshet" (rainbow) in the days of Noah and the flood, and He "remembers" His promise to no longer ever send a flood on earth. Cornelius' prayers and alms giving went up, then, as it were, before God, and He saw, and He remembered this dear man and his prayers and good hearted deeds, and led him to the Messiah of Israel.
And that Old Testament and Jewish "remembrance" has come down to this very day as God peers from heaven over the community of believers, and sees their sign, that of the New Covenant, the bread and the wine, and the faith therein, and He remembers.
"And He took that bread, and gave the beracha, and He broke the bread, and gave it to His talmidim, and said, kekhu ve 'ikhlu mimenu, zehu gufi ha nitan ba'adkhem, asu it zeh lezikhroni - Take and eat. This is My body which is given for you. Do this for My Remembrance.
And after they had eaten, He took the cup of wine, said the beracha, and gave it to the talmidim, and said, Shtu mimena kulkhem, Zohi kos dami, dam ha brit hahadash, hanishpakh ba'adkhemuv'ad ha rabim, leslichat hahataim. zot asu lezikhroni - Drink, all of you, from this. This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this for My Remembrance".
And so we see one reality, and we understand that pages of the New Testament open into that one reality, and the genre of that literature is not fiction:
"Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion's servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick." Luke 7:1-10
This "house church" is a strong contender for the earliest known Church structure known to us so far. But was see so early the basic structure of what we know as an altar, and a room dedicated to that altar, or better yet, what occurred on our around that altar. We also see early attempts of beautification and both inscriptions of faith and of generosity. We also see the naturalness of attendant facilities for eating, baking, and cleansing. Worship was a real feature of everyday life! the site was covered over again by the Israel Antiquities Agency for lack of funds for further excavation.
It was a good day!