In earlier posts, I have discussed the new find of Christian mosaic inscriptions in the yard of the Megiddo prison. There is now further information regarding the discovery in an article titled “A latter-day Gog and Magog?” in Haaretz.com (thanks to Jim Davila for the tip, who found out on Archeologica News).
The story in Haaretz points to tensions that are developing between the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who quite clearly want to fully excavate and preserve the find, and the Israel Prison Service (IPS), who are concerned to continue building projects to house prisoners. There are several other comments made in the article, some of which correct earlier generalizations and some of which need qualification (which I highlight here):
“The images and writing on the floor, and the pottery and ceramics found adjacent to it, lead us to the conclusion that we uncovered a floor of a public structure that served ritual purposes,” Yotam Tefer [head of the archeological team, also transliterated Tepper in other articles] says. “We are not entirely sure that we can call this a church, because we have never uncovered a church in Israel that was built before the year 325 and we simply do not know how churches built here at that time looked.”
The year 325 is when Christianity was declared the official religion in the Roman Empire. Until then, the Christians in Palestine, as in the rest of the empire, were compelled to carry out the rituals of their religion in secret.
Further on in the article a similar statement regarding “secrecy” is made:
IAA officials explain that the fact that the inscription mentions a “table” and not an “altar” indicates that it was written when Christianity operated “underground” and conducted its rituals around simple tables rather than altars, as was customary thereafter.
These latter statements regarding secretive or underground activities are somewhat misleading if applied generally to Christians in the Roman empire. It was only in specific periods of persecution by the Roman state in 250 CE (under emperor Decius) and then from 303-305 CE (under emperor Diocletian) that Christians were actively sought by the Roman authorities. In general, there was no need for Christians to engage in their activities “in secret”, though they were not fully “public” either. Though they were disliked (and locally persecuted from time to time by fellow-inhabitants) for their failure to honour the gods of the Greeks and Romans, Christian groups, like many pagan groups or associations, lived their lives largely unbothered by Roman authorities unless they were involved in larger civic unrest or riots.
The article also expands on the description of the find:
There are four pictures and three Greek inscriptions on the floor discovered at Megiddo. Based on these findings, IAA archaeologists assume that these are the remains of a church that dates back before the year 325. Prof. Leah Di Segni, an expert on ancient inscriptions from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who deciphered and translated the texts found at Megiddo, supports their assumption, but also stated that a more precise dating could only be done after additional remains are uncovered.
Additional artifacts are apparently buried under the stratum where the floor was found. Di Segni has determined that the formulation of the inscriptions and the form of their letters testify to the fact that they were written prior to the declaration of Christianity as a legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, the IAA has decided to transfer the mosaic to its laboratories to conduct vital maintenance and preservation work, but they made a point of emphasizing that this was only a temporary move and that the floor would be returned to its original spot after this work is completed. . . The decision concerning whether to turn the Megiddo area into an international tourist site or to keep the prison there will ultimately be made by the government.