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Early Christianity in the Holy Land: An Emerging View

Extracts from a lecture delivered at the United Nations May 7 by Father Michele Piccirillo of the Franciscan Biblical Institute.

Following are extracts from a lecture delivered at the United Nations May 7 by Father Michele Piccirillo of the Franciscan Biblical Institute, which has been studying ancient and Byzantine sites in the Holy Land since 1933. The lecture was sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

Continuing archaeological study has revised the view of relations between various inhabitants of the Holy Land during the early centuries of Christianity. The advanced art and craftsmanship evidenced in ruins suggest that Christian communities thrived in peace alongside Jewish ones. It was an age of prosperity and tolerance, even into the period of Muslim domination by the Umayyad caliphs, which began in the 7th century A.D.

Christian communities in existence at the end of the 8th century were well-organized, with bishops, priests and deacons. They must have been able to carry on church affairs without interference, and they had to have had considerable economic resources and artistic skills to design and construct the sophisticated mosaic floors found in the region’s plethora of ruins.

Up until the iconoclastic controversy in the 8th century, eastern Christians used mosaics to decorate the floors, walls and roofs of their churches. These mosaic compositions, made up of small pieces of glass, tile or even natural substances such as shells, depicted religious and symbolic imagery as well as secular images inherited from the Roman and Byzantine empires.

The discovery of these mosaics has been the last blow to a previously established historical opinion that the Arab Islamic invasion of the Holy Land in 636 resulted in a widespread destruction of Christian edifices; and that the Arab Islamic authorities had persecuted the Christians, starting with the prohibition on building new churches and restoring old ones.

The excavations at Umm er-Ras, about 32 miles south of contemporary Amman, are some of the most important and exciting discoveries of this century in Jordan for the Byzantine-Umayyad period. In an area on the north edge of the ruins was a large and inter-connected liturgical complex with four churches, of which two were mosaicized. Bishop Sergius Church on the north was built and decorated in 586, as inscribed in a medallion between two lambs in front of the altar. The church of St. Stephen on the east was built in the Umayyad epoch, as the two dates indicate: 756 in the inscription near the altar, 785 in the inscription along the step of the presbytery. These dates provide fresh evidence for a flourishing organized urban Christian community at the end of the 8th century in the steppes of Jordan, the territory of the Diocese of Madaba.

In 1934, the church on the acropolis of Main, a village southwest of Madaba, was excavated and dated to 719 or 720 A.D. In 1940 a church was unearthed in the village of al-Quweismah, almost two miles south of Amman. Its mosaic floor was dated to 717, with inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic Christo-Palestinian, the language spoken by the Christian population of the area.

The discovery of churches and mosaics not only shows the continuity of the overwhelmingly Christian presence in the region throughout the Umayyad period, but constitutes historical evidence emphasizing the attitude of tolerance toward Christians on the part of Islamic authorities.

In the baths of Hammat Gadar in the Yarmuk Valley, where the borders of Syria, Israel and Jordan meet, we find the name of a ruling caliph preceded by the cross in the inscription. It commemorated the reconstruction of the baths by a Christian benefactor under the Muslim Caliph Mu’awiyah in 662.

More archaeological discoveries in the region date to the Byzantine period, from the 5th century to the beginning of the 7th century. The territory was divided among at least 54 bishoprics, with bishops in both towns and villages. Research indicates that a period of prosperity paralleled this rich ecclesiastical geography Under Byzantine rule, Palestine not only attained pre-eminence in the Christian world, but it also reached a level of prosperity and population density that remained unsurpassed until modern times.

Historians have demonstrated the possible causes of this prosperity: the activation of caravan commerce along the roads which crossed Jordan and Palestine, willed by Emperor Justinian; the political security assured by the confederate Christian Arab tribes of the desert; and the condition of peace favored by the pax aeterna with the Persian Empire. All this resulted in a settling-in process in the desert, as well as the intensification of urban and agricultural settlement policy The construction and restoration of churches and monasteries all over the region is proof of the spread of Christianity, not only in the cities, but also among rural and nomadic populations.

Thanks to the inscriptions on mosaic floors, we know the names of several artists/artisans of the local workshops. Moreover, the names of clergy and benefactors found in the inscriptions are, in the great majority of cases, not Greek but of local Semitic origin. Those names are the best evidence for an autonomous Christian church in the region, even though Greek was used as a liturgical language. Inscriptions in Aramaic have also been found.

During these centuries the region became a Christian Holy Land and Jerusalem the religious and spiritual center of the empire. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by order of Emperor Constantine over the rock of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, became a symbol of the new Christian city.

Inscriptions and the scenes depicted on the mosaic floors reflect a growing awareness of being Christian, such as in the Madaba mosaic map. This important artistic work is not only a geographical mosaic depicting Byzantine Palestine, but also a Christian rereading of the biblical history of salvation in its geographical context. The Holy City of Jerusalem is depicted in the center of the mosaic, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the focus. Common motifs depict people engaged in daily activities, like harvesting, tending flocks, fishing and hunting.

In the clear continuity of faith between the old and the new, the Christians of the region built churches in honor of the patriarchs and prophets, just as they did for figures of the New Testament. The Memorial of Moses was built on the western summit of Mount Nebo in Jordan, decorated with splendid mosaic floors.

In the same spirit of historical truth and reconciliation, we have to record the numerous synagogues dating to the Byzantine epoch, and therefore contemporary with the churches we have already seen. These are historical witness that the Jewish community of the Holy Land enjoyed with Christians that long period of peace and prosperity.

The holy places are the best evidence for the continuity of the Christian presence in the Holy Land from the first centuries on. Many sanctuaries, like the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were rebuilt several times. The modern basilica of the Church of the Annunciation has been built above at least five previous edifices dating from the 4th century.

In Capernaum, where Jesus preached, called the first disciples and performed several miracles, there has been continuous archaeological study for the last 20 years. We know the main streets of the village. We know the houses and the way they were furnished. At least since the 4th century there were, side by side, two imposing public religious buildings out of proportion to the needs of the village. These were in striking contrast to the unsophisticated living quarters: a Jewish synagogue and a Christian octagonal church built above the Jewish-Christian domus ecclesia.

Both edifices were visited by Christian pilgrims in memory of Jesus. They are considered the best historical evidence that their communities, both mainly of Jewish origin, were living together peacefully This is attested also by Jewish literature describing religious discussions between the rabbis and the minim, the “heretics” of the local community in whom we see none other than the members of the Jewish-Christian community The discussion did not prevent the two groups from living together in peace.

The study of the origins of the Christian community of the Holy Land deepens its link to Jews and Arabs living in the area. The Christian community was an important component of the region, especially between the 5th and 7th centuries, when it reached its apex of diffusion and political power. In that period the region reached the peak of demographic density and economic prosperity. The Jewish community shared those fortunes.

After the arrival of the Arab Islamic tribes in the 7th century, the Christian population of the Holy Land enjoyed, at least for a century, relatively amicable relations with the new rulers.

It is our wish that the region looks to these experiences to overcome the present situation of trouble and distress and live in a new period of prosperity and peace.

There is a prayer for the world which we discovered in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Rihab, a small village in northern Jordan:

“O Lord God of Holy Mary and of all saints,
Have Mercy on the whole world.”

Father Michele Piccirillo, O.F.M., Ph.D., has returned to the Holy Land to continue his analysis of archaeological sites.

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