Rihab, a small town in northern Jordan not far from the Syrian border, has been the site of some excitement and controversy over the past few years. In early June, 2008, archaeologists, digging under Saint Georgeous Church, which dates back to 230 CE, have discovered the remains of an even older church.
If Abdul Qader al-Husan, head of Jordan’s Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies, is right the church dates back to 33-70 CE. He claims the evidence supports the theory that this cave supported the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ. A mosaic inside the church describes them as “The 70 beloved by God and Divine”. It is believed that they escaped persecution in Jerusalem and founded churches in northern Jordan.
The Christians lived and practiced their newly established religion in the region until around the 4th century, when Christianity was embraced by the Roman rulers.
The church itself is circular, with several stone seats believed to have been for clergy. A deep tunnel is thought to have led to a water cistern.
Both Jesus and the Virgin Mary are thought to have passed through Rihab, which is home to thirty Christian churches.
While the claim was greeted with disdain and outright hostility by some religious scholars, Archimandrite Nektarious, the bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox diocese described the discovery as an “important milestone for Christians all around the world”. Some of the detractors even accused al-Husan of using the discovery to boost Rihab’s tourist status.
Ghazi Bisheh is the former director general of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. He claimed that al-Housan’s interpretation of the find is “ridiculous” and that al-Housan “has a tendency to sensationalize discoveries”. However, he offered no evidence to back up his statement. Biblical Archaeology Review’s Herschel Shanks offered his usual terse response: “Archaeologists will treat this with extreme caution, even skepticism”, he said.
Closer examination of the artifacts recovered from the site may or may not reveal that the cave was, in fact, the first Christian church. However, it does seem childish and petty for prominent members of the archaeological community like Shanks and Bisheh to react to the discovery in such a way. Shanks is, in my opinion, particularly disdainful of any discovery in which he had no part, and after his nearly rabid promotion of the “James, Brother of Jesus Ossuary” hoax, I take anything he has to say with a large grain of salt.
Whether it turns out that this is actually the oldest Christian church, or just another early one, the discovery is vitally important in our archaeological history, and should be treated as such.
What do you think of it?
- An Introduction to Controversy in Archaeology (amarnaletters.wordpress.com)