Monday, November 07, 2005

A third century church in Israel?

One of the adventures of biblical studies is the periodic announcement of ASTONISHING NEW EVIDENCE OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY!! which regularly hits the headlines. Some of these announcements turn out to be real. Others turn out to be...overstated.

I was in Toronto in November of 2002 at a major convention of biblical scholars when the news focussed on an ossuary said to be linked to Jesus' brother (well, strictly speaking, relative) James. Three years later, the authenticity of the inscription on the ossuary is seriously in doubt. And periodically over the last few years, claims have been made for re-dating New Testament papyri to the first century. So far, none of these claims has proved true.

Now we hear that a church from the third century AD has been discovered in Palestine. Is it true? Catholicism was not a legal religion in the Roman Empire until the edict of Milan in AD 313. The possibility of a real church building from before that time is quite small. We know of a house-church from Dura Europus in modern-day Iraq dated to c.AD 232. A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt attests a church in the south of the city in AD 304 (POxy 2673). But both of these seem exceptional in light of the legal status of Christianity.

Serious questions are already being asked:

But Mr. Zias said it struck him as strange that a Roman military officer would take credit at a time when the Roman authorities prohibited practicing Christianity. "If I were a Roman soldier in the third century, I certainly wouldn't want my name on it," he said. "This would not have been a good career move. In fact, it sounds like the kiss of death."

If the Megiddo site does date to the third century, "then I would ask why it was not reported or discussed by early church historians," said Yiska Harani, a historian with expertise on Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. "How did they overlook a successful place of early worship?"

This evidence is not definitive either way, and there is not much an outsider can do at this point except wait for the publication of the evidence. But caution is advisable in this in many others.


At Tuesday, 08 November, 2005, Blogger Dean said...

Good post - good warning. I'm a bit more bold/optimistic on my blog, but linked up your sage advice as well.


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