Early Christian Prayer Hall, 3rd century CE
In the late 1990s, authorities at the prison that sits near the base of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel decided they needed more room. Accordingly, an addition was planned within the prison compound and work commenced. It was not long, however, before the construction workers (prisoners) hit ancient remains. Work on the prison extension was immediately stopped and the Israel Antiquities Authority notified. A so-called salvage, or rescue excavation was organized under the direction of archaeologist Yotam Tepper, and the archaeologists were soon in the field. (The prisoners also helped; Tepper dedicates his popular pamphlet on the excavation “to the inmates of the Megiddo and Zalmon Prisons whose personal circumstances brought us together in the excavation and without whose dedicated work we could not have exposed the remains at the site.”)
What Tepper and the prisoners exposed is probably the earliest church ever discovered in the Holy Land (the excavators date it to the first half of the third century, around 230 A.D.) and one of the very few churches from this early period anywhere in the world—from a time before Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire in the early fourth century during the reign of Constantine the Great.
Pious artwork from the hands of an artist named Brutius graces the floor of the Christian prayer hall at Megiddo. Four mosaic panels—one on each side of what must have been a Eucharist table—are bordered with black and white tesserae and decorated with rosettes, rhombuses (parallelograms), geometric shapes (tessellations) and frames with a guilloche pattern.
The southern panel, adorned with a carpet of rosettes, has two inscriptions. The northern panel also has an inscription and has an octagon surrounded by geometric shapes, including a meander (labyrinth), stars, a shield, a checkerboard, flowers and a three-dimensional prism, which encloses a medallion picturing a bass and a tuna—a clear visual reference to Jesus.
In the middle of the floor, under the center of a proposed arch, are two rectangular stones that most likely were the feet of the Eucharist table, or trapeza.
The inscriptions are in Greek and date to the third century based on their paleographic characteristics. The inscription at the top of the northern panel is dedicated to Gaianus, the centurion who paid for the floor to be paved with mosaics. It reads, “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius has carried out the work.”
The inscription on the eastern side of the southern panel is called the “Women Inscription” because it asks for remembrance of “Primilla and Cyriaca and Dorothea, and moreover also Chreste.” The most important part of the floor, and the one that makes it undeniably part of a Christian place of worship, is the inscription on the western side of the southern panel, which is dedicated to “the God-loving Akeptous,” who “offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” The table probably refers to the Eucharist table, and the text uses language such as the word mnemosynon for “remember,” which was not common to the time but is frequently used in the New Testament, and prosferein for “offer,” which is also used in the Gospels. The name for Jesus Christ is abbreviated using only the first and last letters and is delineated as a sacred name by a line placed above it, a practice that was typical of a later period; this is the earliest known example of it.