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Archaeology

Earliest mosaic in Israel dedicated to Jesus may soon be sprung from prison

3rd-century Christian structure and 3 mosaics with inscriptions – including ‘to the God Jesus Christ’ – were uncovered at Meggido jail in 2004-08; it may now become a tourist site

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

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)
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)

Plans are underway to move Megiddo prison in order to excavate the Israeli church with the earliest mosaic dedicated to Jesus.

In 2004, a Greek inscription “to the God Jesus Christ” was uncovered inside a 3rd-century structure during Israel Antiquities Authority salvage operations ahead of a proposed expansion of the prison in northern Israel.

On Thursday, Israel Prisons Service, Megiddo Regional Council and Israel Antiquities Authority personnel toured the Megiddo Prison in preparation for the prison’s evacuation ahead of renewed excavations at this important early Christian site, according to the IAA’s Hebrew Facebook page. The new excavations may commence in June, according to the post.

In 2004-2008, Dr. Yotam Tepper headed excavations at the prison ahead of the proposed expansion. Now, in light of the significant archaeological finds, discussions are well underway to relocate the entire prison complex, re-expose the mosaics underneath and build a tourist site.

“This structure is interpreted as the oldest Christian prayer house in the world… and in fact, it tells the story of Christianity even before it became official,” according to the IAA’s Facebook page.

According to the IAA website, what is now believed to be an early Christian church is located in the ancient Jewish village of Kfar Othnai, which appears in contemporary texts. Next to the village were discovered remains of the Roman Legion VI Ferrata camp and a city named Maximianopolis.

Three Greek inscribed mosaics were discovered during the 2004-2008 excavations, including one mentioning an army officer who contributed toward the paving of the floor and another dedicated to the memory of four women.

Close-up of 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)

Deciphered by IAA’s Dr. Leah Di Segni, the third inscription also mentions a woman: one who dedicated a table (or altar) “to the memory of the Lord, Jesus Christos.” It is the first mention of Jesus as a god in Israel.

Other decorative mosaics were found in a large rectangular hall with a mosaic floor, including standard geometric patterns and a fish-decorated medallion.

Tepper’s excavations also uncovered daily life in the Roman and Byzantine periods and proved that soldiers from the nearby Roman army were members of this ancient Christian community.

Tour of Israel Prisons Service, Megiddo Regional Council and Israel Antiquities Authority personnel at Megiddo prison, March 24, 2022. (courtesy IAA)

Israel Prisons Service Commissioner Hezi Markowitz led the tour of Megiddo Prison, along with Assistant Commissioner Thelma Tohar Cohen, head of logistics support and Deputy Commissioner Amit Delal, and IAA director Eli Eskosido and his staff.

The head of the Megiddo regional council, Itzik Kholovsky, is leading the initiative to promote the project.

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