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Ancient cave linked to early Christians in Jordan

Thursday, June 12, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan -- Archaeologists in Jordan have discovered a cave underneath one of the world's oldest churches and say it may have been an even more ancient site of Christian worship. But outside experts expressed caution about the claim.

Archaeologist Abdel-Qader al-Housan, head of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies, said the cave was unearthed in the northern Jordanian city of Rihab after three months of excavation and shows evidence of early Christian rituals.

The cave is under St. George's Church, which some believe was built in the year 230, though the date is widely disputed. That would make it one of the oldest churches in the world, along with one unearthed in the Jordanian southern port of Aqaba in 1998 and another in Israel discovered in 2005.

Al-Housan said there was evidence that the underground cave was used as a church by 70 disciples of Jesus in the first century after Christ's death, which would make it the oldest Christian site of worship in the world.

He described a circular worship area with stone seats separated from a living area that had a long tunnel leading to a source of water. He said the early Christians hid there from persecution.

A mosaic inscription on the floor of the later church of St. George above refers to "the 70 beloved by God and the divine" who founded the worship there.

S. Thomas Parker, a historian at North Carolina State University who led the team that discovered the church in Aqaba, said that while he hadn't seen the Rihab site, any such claim should be taken with a degree of caution.

"An extraordinary claim like this requires extraordinary evidence," he said. "We need to see the artifacts and dating evidence to suggest such an occupation in the first century A.D."

Parker asked how archaeologists could be certain whether the "cave was actually a center of Christian worship."

The archaeologist also noted that mosaics are difficult to date unless there is a precise date in the text of the mosaic inscriptions themselves and typical mosaic inscriptions with Christian themes are from the fifth to sixth centuries.


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