ArchaeologyEarly 3rd-cent Christian structure predates legalization of faith

Mosaic floor of early Christian prayer hall to be displayed at US evangelical museum

The Megiddo Mosaic, discovered in 2005 on the grounds of a prison in northern Israel, to get first public showing at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

An Israeli archaeologist points at a nearly 1,800-year-old decorated floor from an early Christian prayer hall that Israeli archaeologists discovered adjacent to Megiddo prison, on November 6, 2005. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
An Israeli archaeologist points at a nearly 1,800-year-old decorated floor from an early Christian prayer hall that Israeli archaeologists discovered adjacent to Megiddo prison, on November 6, 2005. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Megiddo Mosaic, the decorated tiled floor of what is thought by experts to be the earliest known Christian prayer hall, has been removed from its original location in northern Israel by a team of experts and is to go on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday.

The task of removing the mosaic was completed last week, and after a “complicated professional process” of preservation and cataloging, the Megiddo Mosaic is to arrive in the States in September and be displayed for nine months, IAA head archaeologist, Prof. Gideon Avni of the Hebrew University, told The Times of Israel by phone.

The IAA is in discussions with other bodies about displaying the floor and it will likely be “a few years” before the mosaic is returned to Israel, Avni added.

The Megiddo Mosaic was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2005 during a salvage excavation conducted as part of the planned expansion of the Megiddo Prison, which houses Palestinian security prisoners. The mosaic was researched extensively but because it sits on prison grounds, it was kept covered up and not open to the public. The display at the Museum of the Bible will be the first public presentation of the mosaic.

“It will go to a few more locations, it’s still not clear,” Avni said. Moving the mosaic is part of “a larger process,” long discussed, in which the Megiddo Prison will be moved and a new archaeological and tourist park developed at the site, he said.

Based on other finds from the dig and the style of letters in the inscriptions, IAA archaeologists have dated the mosaic floor to the early third century — before the Roman Empire officially converted to Christianity and when adherents were still persecuted.

Nonetheless, one of the donors who paid to decorate the ancient house of worship was a centurion serving in the adjacent Roman legionary camp, and the names of five women were also inscribed in the mosaic, indicative of the role of women among early Christian communities.

Prisoners work at a nearly 1,800-year-old decorated floor from an early Christian prayer hall discovered in the Megiddo prison by Israeli archaeologists, on November 6, 2005. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The mosaic, at more than 50 square meters, is full of detailed geometric forms and bears images of fishes, a symbol of early Christianity, as well as Greek inscriptions, among them an offering “To God Jesus Christ.”

The Greek inscriptions are “the central story” of the mosaic, Avni said. They show that “there was a community there who knew Jesus. It’s unique because it is so early.” The mosaic was part of a public building where early Christians would gather before formal churches were instituted, he said.

“It is from the edge, between when Christianity was a local movement, not so well known, and then a few decades later there was Constantine making Christianity an official religion [in the Roman Empire] and building big churches,” Avni said.

Talks between the IAA and the evangelical-backed, privately-run Museum of the Bible on putting the mosaic on display in Washington were reported in August of last year, although Avni said there had been “10 years of discussions” with the museum.

A religious display?

The Museum of the Bible, backed by controversial Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, has faced criticism over its collecting practices and for promoting an evangelical Christian political agenda.

The museum in 2018 was forced to return some 4,000 objects that had been found to have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq, and in a 2020 open letter, Green said that “5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects with insufficient provenance” would be returned to the governments of Egypt and Iraq.

Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby and a founder and major backer of the Museum of the Bible, poses for a portrait at the museum, October 30, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Some archaeologists and academics have objected to the idea of removing the Megiddo Mosaic for a display at the Museum of the Bible. Rafi Greenberg, a Tel Aviv University archaeology professor, told AP last year that the mosaic and other finds “should stay where they are and not be uprooted and taken abroad to a different country and basically appropriated by a foreign power.”

The museum is a “right-wing Christian nationalist Bible machine,” leading to the possibility that the mosaic “will lose its actual historical context and be given an ideological context that continues to help the museum tell its story,” USC religion professor Cavan Concannon told AP in the same article.

The Megiddo area is an ancient crossroads, traditionally associated by many Christians to be the site of Armageddon, the eventual final battle between good and evil, potentially giving Christian artifacts from Megiddo like the mosaic a special resonance.

An Israel Antiquities Authority conservationist works on the ‘Jesus’ mosaic excavated at a prison in Megiddo in northern Israel, part of a structure from the third or fourth century that may be one of the earliest Christian churches. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

However, the IAA, which has previously lent several items for display at the Museum of the Bible, said that the museum was entering into “the professional, mainstream” world of institutions.

“We are aware of the controversy,” Avni said. “The conditions are clear. The story they will tell [when displaying the mosaic] will be from a historical and archaeological angle, not religious – on the side of science, not trying to bring a certain narrative.”

“Certainly, the museum is associated with American evangelicals. We aren’t ignoring this issue,” Avni said.

A new archaeological complex

Moving the mosaic is part of a larger project of relocating the Megiddo Prison and transforming the nearby area into a formal archaeological and tourist park, Avni said. The area includes the Tel Megiddo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with an old Roman army camp and an ancient Jewish village.

The Megiddo prison, where a nearly 1,800-year-old decorated floor from an early Christian prayer hall was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2005, is seen on August 13, 2023. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

In the meantime, such a park is still in “fairly early planning,” according to a Haaretz article this week on the mosaic. The Lod Mosaic, a Roman-era floor that was similarly lent out, ended up being displayed in some eleven international museums, including the Louvre, before returning to Lod in 2022 to be housed in a dedicated building, after more than a decade abroad.

“We think the whole process will be two years maximum,” Avni insisted. “It depends on opening the new prison and building the archaeological site. The idea is to be able to present it to the world, and in the end, it will return to Israel and to the place where it was found.”

AP contributed to this report.

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