By what seems to be a stroke of chance, archaeology amazement was unearthed in the ancient city of Megiddo, one of Israel’s oldest and most famous biblical cities. Sited about 56 miles (91km) from Jerusalem, Megiddo rose to prominence during the Bronze Age and later became a royal city in the Kingdom of Israel.
Today, very little remains of the city and its remains are referred to as Tel Megiddo or Tell al-Mutesellim.
But in 2005, an accident unearthed two incredible discoveries, including the oldest church ever found in the Holy Land.
According to Professor Tom Meyer, a theology expert at Shasta Bible College and Graduate School in California, US, the second discovery could be the earliest known written mention of Jesus Christ.
He told Express.co.uk: “A chance discovery has brought to light the archaeological remains of not only the oldest church ever found in the Holy Land but also perhaps the earliest archaeological example of the written name of Jesus Christ.
“In 2005, construction crews were putting an addition onto a modern-day maximum-security prison located near the ancient and pivotal site of Megiddo in Israel. There they accidentally came across a find of epic proportions: the remains of the earliest church ever found in the Holy Land.”
The church is believed to have been built in the third century BC.
The date would place its construction roughly 200 years after the death and the believed resurrection of Christ.
It also means the church was constructed about 100 years before the Byzantine Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.
Professor Meyer said: “It is quite possible that early Christians remodeled an existing Roman building at this ancient and key intersection and converted it into a church.
“One of the greatest discoveries found thus far is found within the large and beautiful mosaic that decorated the church floor.
“The mosaic contains beautiful geometric designs and early Christian symbols like fish.
“But the pièce de résistance is a Greek inscription honouring a Christian named Akeptous who donated a sum of money for a – religious – table to be used in the honour of ‘God, Jesus Christ’.
“Excluding manuscripts, this is perhaps the earliest archaeological discovery mentioning the name and divinity of Jesus Christ.”
At the time of the church’s discovery, lead archaeologist Yotam Tepper of Tel Aviv University said: “What’s clear today is that it’s the oldest archaeological remains of a church in Israel, maybe even in the entire region.
“Whether in the entire world, it’s still too early to say.”
The discovery was also welcomed by envoys from the Vatican.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican envoy to Jerusalem, said: “A discovery of this kind will make Israel more interesting to all Christians, for the church all over the world.
“If it’s true that the church and the beautiful mosaics are from the third century, it would be one of the most ancient churches in the Middle East.”
Following the discovery, Israeli authorities put a hold on the expansion of the prison near Megiddo.
Professor Meyer said: “The Israeli government is actually relocating the entire maximum-security prison to another location starting next year so that more archaeological work can be done at the site and so pilgrims from around the world can come and visit the earliest church ever discovered in the Holy Land.”
However, as with most discoveries of such a nature, there has been some debate over the church’s age.
Anthropologist Joe Zias, the former curator for the Israel Antiquities Authority, argued the church may have originally been a Roman building that was transformed into a church.
Others have suggested the church was constructed towards the end of the third century or in the fourth century.