By Jim Nieman
The discovery of a floor to what might be the earliest-known Christian church seems to confirm that early Christ followers came together around a table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
In 2005, prisoners unearthed a 580-square-foot mosaic floor with three inscriptions likely dating to the third century. One of the inscriptions speaks of a table “offered . . . to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.”
The mosaic floor was discovered within a prison holding 1,200 Palestinian inmates, in Megiddo, on a hill overlooking the Valley of Jezreel—“the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16). The Israel Antiquities Authority was overseeing the exploratory dig in advance of proposed new construction at the prison; scores of prisoners were helping.
The discovery of this mosaic floor was important for a number of reasons:
• It is considered by many to be the site of the earliest Christian church ever found, dating perhaps to the first half of the third century. (That would explain two fish images in the mosaic—a very early Christian symbol—but no symbols in the floor common to fourth-century Christian artifacts.) The church floor was in a room of what had been a larger residential building, near a former Roman army camp. In that period of Roman occupation, prior to Constantine, Christians were persecuted, and some believe the Megiddo church ultimately was destroyed as part of that persecution.
• The inscriptions included (1) the name of the Roman officer, Gaianos, who donated money to create the mosaic floor—certainly a bold step for a Roman army officer of the time; (2) a commemoration to four women—evidence of the presence and roles of women in early Christianity; and (3) the “table” inscription—of key importance in that it seems to shed light on the liturgical purpose of the space.
That inscription reads: “The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.”
Akeptous, a woman, evidently paid for the table. Of greater importance, however, the discovery indicates the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, was celebrated at a table, not an altar, which are found at church sites dating to the fourth century.
The inscription also indicates the centrality of the Lord’s Supper in remembering the Savior in the earliest church buildings, which supports the biblical evidence of this fact, namely 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Of course, the discovery points to the historical importance of worshipping God in community.
Finally, the inscription mentioning Jesus Christ, and also referring to him as God, “would be an important epigraphic attestation to belief in the divinity of Jesus in the first half of the third century CE,” according to an article written by Edward Adams of Kings College, London.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.