With the words, “Christ born of Mary,” archaeologists have discovered the first evidence of an early Christian settlement from 1,500 years ago in what is today the location of a small Arab village near Nazareth.
According to Israel Antiquities Authority researchers, a recently discovered Greek inscription dedicated to the Christian Messiah had originally been laid at the entry way of a previously unknown 5th century church. The inscribed stone was recently discovered in secondary use in a wall of the late-Byzantine era structure during excavations in Taibe, located in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.
According to the text, the church was founded under the auspices of the well-known late 5th century Beit She’an regional archbishop Theodosius, whose name in the partially destroyed text provided the archaeologists with a secure dating.
“The importance of the inscription is that until now we didn’t know for certain that there were churches from this period in this area,” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Walid Atrash told The Times of Israel. Other remains from this period have been uncovered in nearby Tamra and a monastery was recently discovered by the IAA’s Nurit Feig and Moti Aviam of Kinneret College in neighboring Kfar Kama.
Ruins of a Crusader-period church were previously discovered at Taibe, said Atrash, but until now there has been no evidence of a Christian presence from the earlier Byzantine era. Although the location is not mentioned in the New Testament, the discovery that there was a Byzantine-era church built here is “unsurprising,” said Atrash.
The new inscription has “closed the circle, and now we know there were Christians in this area during this era,” he said.
The inscription was discovered in secondary use as a wall building block in an ornately decorated two-room building that was constructed in the late Byzantine era, when both Christians and Jews resided in the Galilee. The archaeologists believe the building was used well into the early Muslim period. It is unknown, said Atrash, whether Christians or Jews initially constructed it.
The partially destroyed seven-line Greek text inscribed on the stone was a dedicatory inscription that was originally engraved while casting the foundations of the presumed church, according to Leah DiSegni, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. According to DiSegni, it reads: “Christ born of Mary. This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation – -. Whoever enters should pray for them.”
According to DiSegni the wording “Christ born of Mary” serves as a good luck charm to ward off the evil eye.
There is a large blank circular area interrupting the text, which Atrash said once held a large cross. Atrash believes that one explanation for the removal of the crucifix is that the cross was intentionally destroyed — by Christians or Jews who lived in the area — prior to the stone’s recycled use in the wall of the later building. The inscription, he said, faced inside the wall and would not have been visible. The building was constructed prior to the advent of Islam, but was still in use during the Muslim period.
Another explanation for the removal of the cross, said Atrash, is that the original church, falling into disuse at the end of the Byzantine empire, was destroyed in one of the several earthquakes that hit the region during this time. The stone may have been damaged and then reused by the Christians or Jews who constructed the subsequent two-room structure, adorned by geometric mosaic flooring, that was recently excavated by a mix of students, volunteers and workers from the local community.
The mention of Theodosius in the inscription, said Atrash, and its presumed location at the entryway provides clues that it was used in a church, rather than a monastery, in that it is clearly welcoming parishioners into the church doors, rather than serving a closed monastic community. Noted DiSegni in the IAA press release, “The inscription greets those who enter and blesses them. It is therefore clear that the building is a church, and not a monastery: Churches greeted believers at their entrance, while monasteries tended not to do this.”
Atrash further explained that Theodosius encouraged the construction of churches in his region and the mention of his name here points to a financial donation from his seat in Beit She’an, the center of the religious life and the capital of Palaestina Secunda, a Byzantine province from 390 CE until the Muslim invasion of circa 636 CE.
The inscription and two-room building were discovered during salvage excavations directed by the IAA’s Tzachi Lang and Kojan Haku prior to the construction of a road inside the modern-day small village of Taibe.