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Cave could be the oldest church yet

June 14, 2008|From the Associated Press

AMMAN, JORDAN — Archaeologists 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.

Archaeologist Abdel-Qader al-Housan, head of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies, said this week that 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 think 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 his 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 St. George's Church refers to "the 70 beloved by God and the divine" who founded the worship site there.

S. Thomas Parker, a historian who led the team that discovered the church in Aqaba, said any such claim should be taken with caution.

"We need to see the artifacts and dating evidence," he said.

Parker asked how archaeologists could be certain the cave "was actually a center of Christian worship." He also said that mosaics were difficult to date unless it was noted in the inscription, and that typical mosaic inscriptions with Christian themes were from the 5th and 6th centuries.

"It's quite possible that there was a cave with earlier occupation, which was later converted to Christian use."

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