Dura Europas Church

The word "church" (ecclesia, assembly) is traced to Pentecost (escent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks) and the beginning of the Christian mission in the 1st century. It was not used in reference to a building. "Church" may also be used in the sense of "Christian denomination", or in the singular as the Christian Church as a whole. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the Cenacle (the site of the Last Supper) in Jerusalem was the "first Christian church."Archaeology magazine suggests that the Dura-Europos church in Syria is the oldest surviving church building in the world. While Jordan's Aqaba Church is considered to be the world's first purpose-built church. Several authors have cited the Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Armenia's mother church) as the oldest cathedral.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The term "Christian" was first coined in Antioch probably some ten maybe even fifteen years after the death of Jesus. Now while this term Christian of course becomes the standard terminology for all later Christian traditions, and we think of it in much more lofty and positive terms, at the time that it was coined it was probably a slur. It was probably thrown at these early followers of Jesus as some derogatory designation of them. This is what we often see happening with new religious movements.... We often find in the sociology of sectarian groups that the group may have one self designation. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“They may call themselves "the way" or "the true light" or something like that because that's their religious self conception, but outsiders will often label them by the name of the leader or the name of some catchy element in their message that sparks their interest. So when we hear at Antioch that they're called "Christians" we have to think of that in more in the vein of them being called "Messianists" or "Christies." People who follow a Messiah or just talk about the Messiah an awful lot and we're not actually sure who coined the term. Whether it's other Jews who didn't believe in the Messiah or pagans who heard these Jewish groups talking about messianic ideas. It's not entirely clear. <>

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org

First Churches

20120507-Trevi.Clitumno roman turnech church.jpg
Trevi Clitumno, a Roman Temple
turned into a church
Early Christian communities gathered in a private homes and huts to sing hymns, listen to readings of the scriptures, conduct all night prayer sessions and commemorate events like the Last Supper. There was often a lot of noise and animals walking around. Early congregations had an urban and plebeian character.

The building of churches was largely forbidden until Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. The first churches were rather plain. They were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. The were no columns or friezes like Greek and Roman temples, the main object it seems was to create a space large enough for worship.

In the early Christian era, churches were usually small rooms with an altar on the east side. Because they were sometimes attacked, towers were often added to act as look out points and defensive positions.

The earliest known example of a church was built in the late A.D. 3rd century at the Jordanian port town of Aila (now called Al Aqabah). The building was 85 feet long, 52 feet wide and 13 feet high. It had a central nave, two side aisles, a chancel with an altar table and rectangular apse. It was destroyed by a 4th century earthquake. Until it was found the oldest known churches were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, dated to around A.D. 325.

In November 2005, archaeologists claimed they had found the “oldest church” in the Holy Land. Dated to the A.D. 3rd or 4th century, it was unearthed in Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) inside a high security prison where Hamas and Israeli Jihad prisoners are kept by Israelis. Prisoners from other Israeli prisons helped excavate the site. The church features a large floor mosaic with the name Jesus Christ written in ancient Greek.

The ancient church building in Megiddo measures 10 meters by five meters and was dated through jugs of wine and cooking pots found at the site and is thought to pre-date the Byzantine period because no distinctive Byzantine crosses were found. The mosaic has been dated to the late 3rd century. The site was discovered b workers preparing to build a new wing for the prison.

"The Church": Home of the People of God

Early Christains worship at the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The word "church" is a tricky one. There is a Greek word, ecclesia, which we translate in all modern translations as "the church," and this is a total anachronism, because nobody in the Greek world would have had any concept which was remotely similar to what we regard as a church. This is a political term; an ecclesia is just a meeting, and preeminently the meeting of the free citizens of a city which is constitutionally organized, so that its citizens can vote on important things. And so when Paul writes to the meeting, the ecclesia of God, of the Thessalonians, this is a very strange kind of notion because ordinarily the town meeting of the Thessalonians is a political thing which couldn't be more different from a group of a dozen or so people who have converted to this community meeting in somebody's house. How does that get to be a church, in our sense of the word? How do these little household meetings come to be thought of as a universal church or the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church? This is something which happens over a long period of time and is deeply part of that process by which this new movement works out its relationship to the larger culture, as it institutionalizes itself, to use a modern sociological bit of jargon, as every movement has to if it's going to survive. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>

“But hidden within this development is a piece of self-identity, is a notion of who one is, which comes straight out of the history of Israel. The notion that God has made a treaty, a contract, a covenant, with a group of people, and they will be his people. So this fundamental part of the consciousness of Israel, as being the people of God put among the peoples of the world in order to bring God's intention for humanity to fruition, this is shared by, I think, all of the important groups of early Christianity. Diverse as it was, they all have the sense that, in some way, we have to embody this ancient sense of who Israel was. We either take the place of Israel or we fulfill the notion of Israel or we're a part of the Israel that wants to be a people of God. And, it is this self-concept, I think, which cannot be forgotten, as [part of the process that produces the Church]. <>

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “An important milestone into development of Christian self-consciousness or Christian self-identity will be the emergence of the word "Christianity." This word appears for the first time in the writings of a church thinker of the early 2nd century of our era named Ignatius, who lived in Western Asia Minor, modern day Western Turkey. Ignatius in his letters is warning his flock to stay away from all sorts of theological perils out there, including Judaism and including all sorts of mistaken Christian theologies. And, in his writings, Ignatius uses the word Christianity, and he uses it ... in contrast with the word Judaism. We have here for the first time a polarity, a contrast. There is something called Judaism and there is something called Christianity, and true Christians will make sure that what they believe and what they do, is in fact Christianity and it's not Judaism. That is explicit and unambiguous for the very first time in the writings of Ignatius around the year 110 or 120 B.C. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>

Early Christian Rituals: Baptism and Sharing a Meal

Agape feast

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Among the things that make the Christians different are a couple of rituals which they developed, early on before the very earliest sources that we have about them. One of these is an initiation ceremony, which they call baptism, which is simply a Greek word that means dunking. It's interesting that if you go to the little town of Dura-Europas and that 3rd century Christian building... precisely where one would expect to find the statute of one's god in any of the normal shrines of a religious group, you find what we would think of as a bathtub, with some interesting paintings on the wall behind it. This is the Baptistery. This is the place where people are initiated into this new cult. Why is that the center? Why is that the focal point? Clearly something happens here which is fundamental to the establishing of identity of a group, which at the same time binds them together so that they speak of themselves with family terms but also separates them, in some sense, from the society around them. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“A second major ritual which they developed is a meal, a common meal, which they have together, which is designed as a memorial of The Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciplines. This is recorded already in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and he presents this as a tradition which he has received and handed on to the people in Corinth. So, it's a very, very early thing and has various interpretations, but as a ritual, clearly this is an ongoing way in which the community has gathered and reasserts their unity with one another and their difference from others. <>

Holy Places Associated with Jesus

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains the tomb of Jesus Christ, is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christianity. Al-Maghtas ruins on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River are the location for the Baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Christianity, the Holy places are significant because they are the place of birth, ministry, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Saviour or Messiah to Christianity. Holy cities for Christians of all denominations

Jerusalem is believed to be the site of some of Jesus's teaching, the Last Supper, the subsequent institution of the Holy Eucharist as well as His entombment; Christians believe He was crucified on a nearby hill, Golgotha (sometimes called Calvary). It contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Mount Zion and the Dormition Abbey, and Gethsemane (with Mary's Tomb and the Church of All Nations).

Mary's Well in Nazareth

Nazareth is Jesus's hometown and the site of many holy places, including the Church of the Annunciation and Mary's Well. Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus. Qana is where Jesus made his first miracle (Turned the water into wine) Machaerus, the Herodias fortress where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded. The site is in Jordan

During the Crusades, Christian pilgrims often sought out the Holy Places in the Outremer, especially early in the 12th century immediately after Jerusalem was captured. The Holy Places included sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem as well as: 1) Sephoria, where the Virgin Mary was said to have spent her childhood; 2) The River Jordan, site of Christ's baptism; 3) Cave dwelling of John the Baptist; Galilee (North Israel/South Lebanon); Sea of Galilee: Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration of Jesus; Jericho, along the road to which was the location of the Good Samaritan's charity.

Disputes Over Holy Places

Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am wrote in the Times of Israel: “Christians began jockeying for control of the Holy Places after the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Until that time a variety of Christian denominations — mainly eastern Orthodox — apparently worshipped peacefully in the Holy City. But when the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, the Catholic Church gained control of the sacred sites. The result has been a thousand years of out-and-out rivalry. [Source: Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am, Times of Israel, September 7, 2012 /:\]

“The most volatile period was during the era of Turkish rule, from 1517 to 1917, when the success of each religious group depended on the political climate and on how much money passed into the pockets of the authorities. Sometimes the Turks would decree in favor of the Catholics, at others in favor of the Orthodox. Once they even tried giving two communities rights to the same holy site – and told each that it was to be theirs alone. Nobody was ever pleased with the results. /:\

“Provocation was the order of the day, and fights even erupted within Orthodox ranks. In Bethlehem, the Greek Orthodox placed a carpet in front of the Armenian (Orthodox) altar. When Armenians came to worship, the Greek Orthodox assaulted them for stepping on their rug. Like many disputes between bickering couples, neighbors and nations, the squabbles among differing Christian denominations often seem petty and trivial to outsiders. Yet for much of the Christian world these issues are as vital as the air they breathe.” /:\

10 Oldest Churches in the World

1) Dura-Europos church is the earliest identified Christian house church. It is located in Dura-Europos in Syria and dates from 235 AD. The site of Dura-Europos, a former city and walled fortification, was excavated largely in the 1920s and 1930s by French and American teams. Within the archaeological site, the house church is located by the 17th tower and preserved by the same defensive fill that saved the nearby Dura-Europos synagogue [Source: [Source: thewondrous.com, Wikipedia]

Church in Aqaba, Jordan

2) Megiddo church in Tel Megiddo, Israel is one of the oldest church buildings ever discovered by archaeologists, dating to the 3rd century AD. In 2005, Israeli archaeologist Yotam Tepper of Tel-Aviv University discovered the remains of a church, believed to be from the third century, a time when Christians were still persecuted by the Roman Empire. The remains were found at the Megiddo Prison, which is located a few hundred meters south of the Tel. Among the finds is an approx. 54-square-metre (580 sq ft) large mosaic with a Greek inscription stating that the church is consecrated to “the God Jesus Christ.” The mosaic is very well preserved and features geometrical figures and images of fish, an early Christian symbol.

3. Aqaba Church is a historic 3rd-century church located in Aqaba, Jordan. It was unearthed in 1998 by a group of archaeologists and is considered to be the world's oldest-known purpose-built Christian church.[1] Its first phase was dated between 293 and 303, which makes it older than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both of which were built in the late 320s.[2] Its peripheral location within the Roman Empire is likely to have saved it from destruction during the Great Persecution that broke out just a few years after the church's construction.

4. Monastery of Saint Anthony is a Coptic Orthodox monastery standing in an oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Hidden deep in the Red Sea mountains, it is located 334 km (207 miles) southeast of Cairo. It is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, and was established by the followers of Saint Anthony, who is considered to be the first ascetic monk. The Monastery of St. Anthony is one of the most prominent monasteries in Egypt and has strongly influenced the formation of several Coptic institutions, and has promoted monasticism in general. Several patriarchs have been pulled from the monastery, and several hundred pilgrims visit it each day.

5. Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains basilica is a historic church building in Metz, France that was built in 380 AD and is one of the oldest churches in Europe. The building was originally built to be part of a Roman spa complex, but the structure was converted into use as a church in the 7th century becoming the chapel of Benedictine monastery. A new nave was constructed in the 1000s with further interior renovations. In the 16th century the building became a warehouse and remained so until the 1970s when it was restored and opened for concerts and exhibitions.

6. Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the most important church in Ethiopia. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian emperor of Ethiopia, during the 4th century AD, and has been rebuilt several times since then. The church is in the town of Axum in the Tigray Province. Its first putative destruction occurred at the hands of Queen Gudit during the 10th century. Its second, confirmed, destruction occurred in the 16th century at the hands of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, after which it was rebuilt by the Emperor Gelawdewos, then further rebuilt and enlarged by Fasilides during the 17th century.

7. Cathedral of Trier is a church in Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. It is the oldest cathedral in the country. The edifice is notable for its extremely long life span under multiple different eras each contributing some elements to its design, including the center of the main chapel being made of Roman brick laid under the direction of Saint Helen, resulting in a cathedral added on to gradually rather than rebuilt in different eras. Its dimensions, 112.5 by 41 m, make it the largest church structure in Trier. Since 1986 it has been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

8. Church of Saint Simeon Stylites is a well preserved church that dates back to the 5th century, located about 30 km northwest of Aleppo, Syria. It is built on the site of the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites, a famed hermit monk. It is popularly known as Qalat Seman the ‘Fortress of Simeon’.

Hagia Sophia

9. Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, it served as the cathedral of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople of the Western Crusader established Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1934, when it was secularized. It was opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.

10. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, the Sinai Peninsula, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai in Saint Katherine city in Egypt. The monastery is Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to the UNESCO report (60100 ha / Ref: 954), this monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world together with the Monastery of Saint Anthony, situated across the Red Sea in the desert south of Cairo, also lays claim to that title.

11. Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus it is considered sacred by Christians. The site is also revered by followers of Islam.


Bethlehem (five miles south of Jerusalem) is the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ and, for many Jews, the birthplace of King David. Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” Today it is a rough West Bank town with 35,000 people (100,000 if you include the nearby refuge camps and Jerusalem suburbs), brown stone buildings, white stone houses, surrounded by brown hills and olive groves.

Associated Press reported: “Tens of thousands of foreign tourists are expected in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Eve celebrations. The travel can be a chore: They must cross through a gate in the 30-foot (8-meter) wall built by Israel to keep Palestinian attackers out of Jerusalem, just 3 miles (5 kilometers) away. The Bethlehem they find may be different from what many expect: for one thing, Christians have lost their majority: More than two-thirds of the 50,000 Palestinian residents are Muslim. Still, the town does its best to take advantage of its place in Christian history, going so far as to link the Christmas nativity story to the fact that it houses the West Bank's best maternity facility. The placement of a maternity hospital in Bethlehem is no accident, said Jacques Keutgen, director of the Holy Family Hospital, situated just half a mile from the Church of the Nativity which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus. "This is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, so it is very important that people here have the possibility to deliver safely and in peace," he said. [Source: Associated Press, December 15, 2010]

Church of Nativity

Church of the Nativity in 1887

Church of Nativity (in Bethlehem) is a basilica built over the grotto where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus. It is not built around an outdoor manger like the Christmas nativity scenes (mangers were often built in caves as were homes). Just so its clear, a manger, or trough, is a structure used to hold food to feed animals. The word manger originally referred to a feed-trough. Mangers are generally found at stables and farmhouses.

The Church of Nativity Grotto is reached by a small stairway just a few steps from the main hall of the basilica. A two-foot-wide, 14-point silver star marks the spot where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth. The grotto itself is lined with marble, save a small section of the rock floor worn smooth by centuries of kisses and caresses. Above the star on a platform are 15 silver lamps each representing a different Christian denomination, whose fires are always left burning. Near the star is a an inscription that reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” Many of the pilgrims who come to cave read a passage from the second chapter of Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for him in the inn."

The basilica, which was built by the Roman emperor Constantine, attracts more than a million pilgrims every year, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the occupied Palestinian territories outside Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is why it has survived 14 centuries: Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world—the busy intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa—means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies. The church has endured conquests by Persian, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman, Jordanian, British, and Israeli forces. The entrance, reduced in size over the centuries, perhaps to prevent access by travelers' horses and camels, has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, December 2007 <^>]

“The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main altar. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave. In the rural areas of Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens. Mangers are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull's-eye of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements, imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient church, is a silver star. This, it's believed, is where Jesus was born.” <^>

History of Bethlehem

Chapel of the Church of Nativity in 1880

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “One thousand years before Christ was born, Bethlehem was known as the City of David. It was the birthplace of King David, a Jewish leader who earned his esteem through a famous fight: He defeated Goliath, striking him dead with a stone flung from his sling. The giant, whose height, according to the Old Testament, "was six cubits and a span"—about ten feet (3 meters)—was a member of the Philistine people, ancient enemy of the Jews. From the word "Philistine" has derived the current Palestinian, though the two are linked only etymologically, not by blood. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, December 2007 <^>]

“Though rarely in power, the Jews were the most populous group in the region for centuries. But by the first century A.D., following a series of ineffective rulers and defeats by the Roman army, they were cast out of the Holy Land. For the next 2,000 years, the Jews scattered throughout the world—the Diaspora—but they never stopped praying for a return to their native soil. <^>

“In the meantime, Christianity rose to prominence. It seems a fluke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem—after all, he's Jesus of Nazareth, a town 90 miles (140 kilometers) to the north. Some archaeologists and theological historians have their doubts about many of the details of the Christmas story, including that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. There is a small village, also called Bethlehem, located closer to Nazareth, where some believe Jesus was actually born. (In Hebrew, the name Bethlehem means "house of bread," and could refer to almost any place with a flour mill.) <^>

“But according to the New Testament, in the Book of Luke, the Roman emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus, was conducting a census that required all people to return to their hometowns to register. Joseph was a descendant of King David, and even though his wife was nearing the end of her pregnancy, they completed the journey to Bethlehem. Famously, the Book of Luke relates, "there was no room for them in the Inn," so Jesus was born amid the livestock, perhaps in the grotto over which the Church of the Nativity was eventually built. <^>

“Judaea's ruler, King Herod, was so disturbed by reports that a new king and potential rival had been born that, according to the Book of Matthew, he sent troops to kill all boys under age two. Mary and Joseph escaped with Jesus to Egypt, but thousands of children were reported to have been slaughtered. By the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Bethlehem swiftly became one of its holiest sites. In 326, Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, traveled to Bethlehem and shortly thereafter her son commissioned the construction of the original Church of the Nativity. (It was destroyed during a riot 200 years later, but was promptly rebuilt. The second version, finished in the mid-sixth century, still stands.) <^>

Jesus' birthplace

“Helena's visit and a flow of imperial money sparked an influx of pilgrims, and soon there were dozens of monasteries in the nearby desert. Then the Muslims arrived. Early in the seventh century, a merchant named Muhammad, living in Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia, heard a voice he believed to be that of the angel Gabriel tell him, "Recite." Muhammad com- mitted to memory the words that followed, and these revelations became the Koran, the Arabic word for "recitation." Within a century of Muhammad's death in 632, the religion he founded—Islam—had spread throughout the Middle East. <^>

“For centuries Bethlehem remained a Christian island in a steadily expanding Muslim sea. Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war brought even more Muslims to the area, but Bethlehem remained a majority Christian town. Then, in 1967, Israel's victory once again altered the city's complexion. Jewish settlers began moving into the occupied West Bank; Christians, who'd started fleeing to safer lands during World War II, accelerated their exodus; and Palestinian militants initiated attacks on military and civilian targets. In the same region where Jews once battled Philistines, it was now Israelis against Palestinians. In 3,000 years, the only change, it appears, is a couple of syllables.” <^>

Christmas Pilgrims in Bethlehem

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic, “The diversity and devotion of his modern disciples are on colourful parade...The tour buses that cross the checkpoint from Jerusalem to the West Bank carry a virtual United Nations of pilgrims. One by one the buses park and discharge their passengers, who emerge blinking in the dazzling sun: Indian women in splashy saris, Spaniards in backpacks emblazoned with the logo of their local parish, Ethiopians in snow-white robes with indigo crucifixes tattooed on their foreheads. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“I catch up to a group of Nigerian pilgrims in Manger Square and follow them through the low entrance of the Church of the Nativity. The soaring aisles of the basilica are shrouded in tarps and scaffolding. A conservation team is busy cleaning centuries of candle soot from the 12th-century gilded mosaics that flank the upper walls, above elaborately carved cedar beams erected in the sixth century. We carefully circle a section of floor cut open to reveal the earliest incarnation of the church, built in the 330s on orders of Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine. ^|^

“Another series of steps takes us down into a lamp-lit grotto and a small marble-clad niche. Here, a silver star marks the very spot where, according to tradition, Jesus Christ was born. The pilgrims ease to their knees to kiss the star and press their palms to the cool, polished stone. Soon a church official entreats them to hurry along and give others a chance to touch the holy rock—and, by faith, the Holy Child. ^|^

Church of Nativity Disputes

Altar in the Grotto of the Church of Nativity

Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am wrote in the Times of Israel: “One chilly November morning in 1847, Catholic clergy entered Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to pray. As was their custom, they continued into the grotto that had once held a stable. Imagine their dismay when they discovered that the silver star on the floor, which marked the spot of Jesus’ birth, had disappeared. [Source: Aviva and Shmuel Bar-Am, Times of Israel, September 7, 2012 /:\]

“The Catholics immediately blamed the Greek Orthodox community, which had been upset with the star ever since it was incorporated into the floor over 100 years earlier. What bothered them was the star’s Latin inscription, which seemed to give the Catholics property rights to the Grotto. But the Orthodox said that the Catholics had stolen the star, claiming that they were raring for a fight. And, indeed, both Russia (the Orthodox sponsor) and France (which looked after Catholic interests) were incensed over the affair. Even the Sardinian consul got involved./:\

“Quickly becoming a dispute over control of the Holy Places, the controversy heated up so rapidly that in 1852 the sultan of Turkey, ruler of the Holy Land, issued an edict that effectively froze all of the religious arrangements in effect at the time — including rights of possession, lighting, decorations and hours of worship. This freeze, specific to the Holy Land’s sacred sites, was called the status quo. It remains in effect to this day.” /:\

On another occassion, “the Greek Orthodox placed a carpet in front of the Armenian (Orthodox) altar. When Armenians came to worship, the Greek Orthodox assaulted them for stepping on their rug. In 2007, pre-Christmas cleaning in the Church of the Nativity turned ugly when robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto — also falls under the status quo arrangement.

Church of Nativity Catches Fire after Pope's Visit

Church of Nativity entrance, small to thwart attackers

In May 2014, Church of Nativity suffered small blaze hours after the Pope Francis said prayers at the shrine. AFP reported: “Bethlehem's governor, Abdel-Fatah Hamayel, said it was a small fire caused by an oil lamp falling over just before dawn, leaving some damage to fabric wall hangings inside the grotto. The fire was discovered when the security guard smelled smoke – the blaze broke out in the cave underneath the 4th-century basilica. Inside, the charred remains of several brightly coloured wall hangings hung limply against the cave walls, which were blackened with soot. Two ornate icons of Mary holding Jesus had smoke damage. [Source: Agence France-Presse, May 27, 2014]

“A statement from Bethlehem police said a wooden-topped bowl had caught fire at the entrance to the grotto which caused candles to fall down and set fire to curtains, with a number of wall tiles also cracking in the heat. Pope Francis visited the church after celebrating an open-air mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square.

In a separate development, police were investigating an arson attempt on Tuesday, at Jerusalem's Church of the Dormition which occurred shortly after the pope finished celebrating mass in the nearby upper room. "Someone entered the church and went down to the crypt, took a book that is used by pilgrims to a small room next to the organ, and set some wooded crosses on fire," Benedictine abbot Nikodemus Schnabel told AFP

Qasr Al Yahud— Jesus’s Baptism Site

The baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his tenure as a teacher and spiritual leader. For Christian believers Qasr Al Yahud — where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in Jordan River in present-day Jordan — is considered to be the third most important holy site after the Church of Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to tradition, this spot is also where the Israelites, led by Joshua, crossed the river to enter the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt; and where approximately 300 years later, the Prophet Elijah crossed the river in the opposite direction, to be taken into heaven by ‘fiery chariots’, witnessed by his disciple Elisha. [Source: deadsea.com]

Qasr el Yahud is also known as Kasser/Qasser al-Yahud/Yehud ("Castle of the Jews" in Hebrew) and Al-Maghtas in Arabic. It is located in a region of the West Bank that is claimed by the State of Palestine and under Israeli occupation. The site and facilities are administered by the Israeli Civil Administration and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism as part of an Israeli national park. Both sides of the river have historically been used as pilgrimage sites.

Researchers cannot identify the exact location for the events from the Bible beyond the reference that they occurred in the proximity of Jericho, however, since the Dead Sea was a natural barrier between the land of Moab across the Jordan, when approaching from the south, the first option of crossing by land into the Promised Land was from where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea, just to the north of its northern shoreline.

Jesus baptism site on the River Jordan

The Baptism of Jesus, described in The Gospel of Mark 1:9-11, is seen as a transformation, from which point Jesus ceases his former simple life in Nazareth and begins His Public Ministry (Mark 1:14-15), in which he performs miracles and gathers recognition, but first, we are told in the Gospel of Mark 1:12-13 that Jesus too, while fasting, is ‘tested’ by Satan for 40 days and nights immediately following the Baptism.

The site itself is located approximately 8 kilometers north from the intersection of Route No. 90 and Route No. 1, 15 kilometers from the northern shore of the Dead Sea. The Jordan River is the border between Israel and Jordan. Between 1967 and 1994, the site was almost impossible to visit, ensconced in an effective ‘no-man’s land’ between barbed wire fences and surrounded by mine-fields. Following the Peace Agreements between the the two countries in 1994 the border was defined and the site was made more accessible. After that entrance still necessitated a military escort and involved complicated logistics and procedures. Since 2011 new regulations and work at the site has enabled easy and free access. The site is now managed by the Israel National Parks Authority.

Along the earlier centuries of the Current Era, many churches and monasteries where constructed within the vicinity of the site, beginning in the Byzantine Period. Later, when times became harsh for the Christian community, the monasteries served as a refuge and place of protection for pilgrims, but as the pilgrims grew fewer, especially following the Moslem re-conquest from the Crusaders in the 12th Century, most were abandoned. Later in the Ottoman Period, from the 17th century onwards, custodianship was restored to the Greek Orthodox Church for its buildings, but most others still remain abandoned. Since 2011 two new outdoor chapels have been constructed, mainly to serve the Eastern Orthodox celebrations at the site, but which are also used by Christian visitors of all denominations.

Al-Maghtas describes an area stretching over both banks of the river. The Jordanian side uses the names Al-Maghtas, Bethany beyond the Jordan and Baptism(al) Site, while the western part is known as Qasr el-Yahud. The nearby Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist has a castle-like appearance (thus qasr, "castle"), and tradition holds that the Israelites crossed the river at this spot (thus el-Yahud, "of the Jews"). Qasr el-Yahud is close to the ancient road and river ford connecting Jerusalem, via Jericho, to several Transjordanian biblical sites such as Madaba, Mount Nebo and the King's Highway. It is located in the West Bank, a little southeast from Jericho and is part of the Jericho Governorate of Palestine. [Source: Wikipedia]

Jesus' Baptism Site Still Surrounded by a Minefield

As of 2011, when Qasr El-Yahud was opened to the public, the area where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus remains surrounded by thousands of land mines. Associated Press reported: “Some 15,000 Christian pilgrims marched between two fenced-in minefields to reach the Epiphany ceremony led by the Greek Orthodox patriarch on the Jordan River, five miles east of the oasis town of Jericho at the edge of the West Bank. Worshippers from around the world dipped themselves in the muddy waters, facing fellow believers on the other side of the small river. Orthodox clergymen dressed in dark frocks and robes chanted prayers as Patriarch Theofilos III blessed the waters, hurled branches and released white doves into the air. [Source: Associated Press, January 20, 2011]

Since Israel took control of the area in the 1967 Mideast war, pilgrims have had to coordinate their visits with the Israeli military, because of security concerns and leftover land mines. The ancient churches and monasteries on the Israeli side, some dating back to the fourth century, are surrounded by signs reading "Danger! Mines!" "Since it was a border, the place is really littered by hundreds and hundreds of mines, and therefore the area is not open to the public and to the believers and pilgrims," said Avner Goren, an archaeologist who works with Israel's Tourism Ministry.

The ministry says about 60,000 people visit each year, but with the upcoming official opening that number is expected to rise to the millions. The Israeli military says the baptism site and adjacent churches are located in a "completely mine-free zone," and insists "no danger is posed to tourists or worshippers." "The (military) regularly clears away minefields in the Jordan River Valley, and in the last year alone approximately 8,000 mines have been removed from the area," the military said in a statement.

Dhyan Or, the Israel director of the global anti-mining advocacy group Roots of Peace, said there are half a million mines in the Jordan Valley — an area prone to floods. He warned that land mines could drift from the fenced areas, and that overzealous worshippers could stray from the marked paths. "There is no political problem to remove the mines and no technical problem to do so," he said. "All that is missing is the political will." In contrast, Jordan cleared the minefields on its side of the border after signing a peace deal with Israel in 1994. Jordan has developed a cultural heritage center on its side across the narrow river from the West Bank shrine, claiming it as the site of the baptism. The center has attracted millions of tourists. Pope John Paul II visited the Jordanian site in 2000, reinforcing the Jordanian claim

Church of the Loaves and Fishes

ruins of the Church of Loaves and Fishes

The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (also known as the Church of the Multiplication and Church of the Loaves and Fishes) is a church in Tabgha (ancient Heptapegon) on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Built on the site of 4th and 5th-century churches, the modern church preserves a splendid early Christian mosaic as well as the traditional stone on which it is said the miraculous meal was laid. [Source:sacred-destinations.com]

According to sacred-destinations.com: “The miraculous feeding of five thousand people is described in Mark 6:30-44, just before Jesus walks on water. The Gospel account of the loaves and fishes does not specify where it took place; only that it was in a "remote place" (6:32,35) on the shores of Galilee. According to Mark's account, Jesus and his disciples had gone out in a boat to this remote place for some peace and quiet, but the crowds ran ahead "from all the towns" and met him when he landed. By then it was dinnertime and they were not in a village where food could easily be bought, so Jesus fed them all by miraculously multiplying his disciples' five loaves and two fishes.It is possible that this is the actual site of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, but not terribly likely. Scholar Jerome Murphy O'Connor attributes the selection of the site to pilgrims' associations with the area.*^*

“A church of the Feeding of the Five Thousand was first built on this site in c.350. The church was small (15.5m x 9.5m) and on a slightly different orientation than the later versions. The Spanish pilgrim Egeria visited this church in the 380s, and reported on it. The church was significantly enlarged around A.D. 480 — an inscription attributes its building to the patriarch Matryrios (478-86) — which included the addition of the splendid floor mosaic. The mosaics were repaired in the 6th century and the church was destroyed around 685. The site was bought by the Deutsche Verien vom Heilige Lande and excavated in 1932; a protective cover was built over the mosaics in 1936. In 1982 this was replaced by the modern Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes that stands today, which is a faithful reconstruction of the original. *^*

“Under the altar table is a block of limestone (1 x 0.6 x 0.14m) venerated as the table of the Lord. This is unlikely to be the same one Egeria saw in the 4th century (see History, above), and of course pilgrims are no longer permitted to chip away at it! In front of the altar is a lovely restored mosaic of two fish flanking a basket of loaves. Besides its sacred importance as the place of a miracle of Jesus, the main highlight of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes is this beautiful 5th-century figurative mosaic floor. It is the earliest known example of a figured pavement in Palestinian Christian art. *^*

“The main mosaic covers the two transepts and the intervals between the pillars (the rest of the floor has a mosaic in a simple geometric pattern, mostly restored). The principal mosaic was clearly designed by a great master who was able to create a free-flowing design without need of any repetitious pattern. The mosaic depicts birds and plants, with a prominent place given to the bell-like lotus flower. This flower is not found in the area and indicates the influence of the Nilotic landscapes then popular in Hellenistic and Roman art. However, all the other motifs depict flora and fauna from Galilee - the level of detail allows the identification of each species. There are charming "ducks in love" in the lower center and a depiction in the upper left of the round tower (nilometer) that was used to measure water level. Also visible are the Greek letters for the numbers 6 to 10. *^*

A few other parts of the 5th-century Byzantine church are preserved in the modern church, including the sill of the left entrance to the atrium, some of the basalt paving stones of the atrium, and part of the frieze in the apse. The foundations of the original 4th-century church can be seen under a glass panel. Old basalt presses and a font are displayed in the courtyard.

Two rooms of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes were vandalized and badly damaged in a June 2015 fire. The complex reopened to pilgrims following eight months of renovation work at a cost of around one million dollars, of which the state of Israel contributed almost $400,000. Three Jewish extremists were indicted for the attack on the church, in what was termed a hate crime against Israel’s minority community. [Source: AFP and Times of Israel staff, February 12, 2017]

Holy Land's 'Oldest Church' Found at Megiddo (Armageddon)

In 2005, archaeologists announced they had unearthed the oldest Christian church discovered in the Holy Land behind the walls of a maximum security prison in Megiddo (Armageddon in the New Testament). Chris McGreal wrote in The Guardian: they uncovered a detailed and well-preserved mosaic, the foundations of a rectangular building, and pottery dated to the third or early fourth century. One of several inscriptions on the mosaic floor in ancient Greek said the building was dedicated to "the memory of the Lord Jesus Christ". [Source: Chris McGreal, The Guardian, November 7, 2005 ~~]

Megiddo Prison, home of one of the world's oldest churches

“Other inscriptions name a Roman army officer, Gaianus, who donated money to build the floor, and a woman called Ekoptos who "donated this table to the God Jesus Christ in commemoration". The table is believed to have served as an altar. "There are no crosses on the mosaic floor," said Yotam Tepper, an archaeologist who led the dig on behalf of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. "In their place is a picture of two fish lying side by side - a very early Christian symbol. ~~

"This is an extremely dramatic discovery, because such an old building of this type has never been found either in the land of Israel or anywhere else in the entire region. The structure and the mosaic floor date back to the period before Christianity became an officially recognised religion, before St Constantine. "Normally we have from this period in our region historical evidence from literature, not archaeological evidence. There is no structure you can compare it to - it is a unique find."

“The inscriptions at Megiddo were interpreted by Professor Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University. "I was told these were Byzantine but they seem much earlier than anything I have seen so far from the Byzantine period. It could be from the third or the beginning of the fourth century," she said.The use of the word "table" in one inscription instead of "altar" might advance the study of Christianity, she said, because it is widely believed that rituals based on the Last Supper were held around a table used as an altar.”

“The earliest churches, until this discovery at Megiddo, include the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, said to stand on the site of Christ's crucifixion, dating from about AD330, and the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Megiddo has long been described by religious scholars and archaeologists as the most important biblical site in Israel. Over the centuries, more than 25 cities rose and fell at Megiddo. Some were powerful commercial centres on the ancient thoroughfare between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Five of the conflicts fought in the 30-mile-wide Jezreel valley around Megiddo are recorded in the Old Testament. The New Testament names Armageddon - a Greek corruption of the Hebrew word "har", meaning mount, and Megiddo - as the scene of the final great battle between good and evil.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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