Essay: The earliest Christian Church, a prison in Armageddon
With a number of others, on invite, we boarded the Jerusalem bus charted by the Israeli Government to be taken to Armageddon in the Jezreel, the gigantic valley of the final battle. Actually, it was the valley of the Mountain (hAR) of the ancient city Megiddo (MEGEDDON). We were being taken to the only prison for terrorists in the north of Israel. We were to be shown the outer court yard with the prison where there had been found, in the process of expansion for the prisons' wing, the most ancient in Israel and probably anywhere "house church". This was before there were "Church structures". but very much like synagogues of ancient time and like today, where besides a place for worship, there were full blown all purpose rooms and extensions and outer facilities for communal life of all sorts. Even today, the Jewish Center, Bet Midrash (House of study), even the Church of the Risen Savior with its giant Pizza oven and fellowship hall are close examples. Life and "liturgy" were not divorced!
The bus made its way past the outer entrance to the prison, then past the check point, with Prison Authority guards armed and ready, into the inner winding road where we could get a glimpse of the inmates, walking, talking, passing the time, seemingly at ease, just "regular Joes". And indeed, it was an inmate who first found the house church with its large mosaic, and the stone for the basis of the Eucharistic table, and it was the inmates who did most of the archaeological digging and dusting, under direction of the Israel Department of Antiquities, of course. We then were brought to a briefing structure, open to the cold wind that day, to hear a short talk by the Israeli archaeologist, and then huddled along for our first view of the find. Yes, undoubtedly, it was a large room within a larger structure with rooms on the side, and it was soley for worship, whatever the other of the community rooms were used for, and this we knew because you could not enter the room through its doors (which did not exist, but their threshholds did) without getting blocked by the large mosaic, which was like a large living room carpet, and right in the middle of the "carpet", were two immense stones which supported the "trapedza", the table. It could only have been for Eucharist. You could not get to the other side through the center. All attention was to the center.
The mosaic featured fish and geometric designs. "Fish" (Ichthys in Greek) like on a licence plate or a sticker on his car. (I[esous] Ch[ristos] Th[eou] Y[ios] S[oter]. This was a secret code and communication at the time that believers in Jesus were persecuted by the Roman authorities, shortly before and then after the time of our prayer house, and it meant, when you put all the letters of the "fish" sign together - "Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior".
Where we were, right in the middle of this prison, was the ancient Jewish village of Talmudic times and earlier, of Otnay, known as Kfar Otnay = the village of Othnay. But at the time this "church room" was used, the time of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the time that Christianity was not the recognized religion of the Empire, and at times persecuted, at times tolerated, and the time, that according to Roman Law and societies viewpoint, "Christianity" was but a sect within Judaism, at this time, Roman soldiers from two of their legions, the Second Traiana and the Sixth Ferrata, were stationed at this place. Some of these soldiers believed in Jesus and worshipped in the house church. Not only they, but a centurian, their commander, just like the centurian in the Book of Acts of the new Testament who loved the Jewish people and contributed to their synagogue, so this centurian contributed to the prayer house. It's all on the Mosaic! But not to forget the practical matters of the community, the prayer house also had a bakery, just like our Pizza oven, and the bakers were Roman soldiers. We know this, because, just like good artists, they proudly inscribed their names on their bread! Not only that, there was a bread stamp so you didn't have to squeeze the bread to know which was the best. It told you. One stamp said "PRIM" = prime = the best!
Let's not think that this was a homogeneous "Bible Belt community" insulated from the world and surrounded by like-minded fellows. Quite the contrary. This community of believers, lived just under the hill on which were deployed two encampments of Roman soldiers, and within the Jewish Village of Othnay were also Samaritans, who perhaps used the same now excavated ritual pools or "mikvahs". Jews and Samaritans together, apparently at peace, and with the Roman occupying army. Life goes on!
But of great interest is the inscription within the prayer house on the mosaic. It was by the altar of the Eucharist and it tells us that the altar was paid for by a woman named Akeptous. The inscription reads, “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” So, yes, Jesus is called God, before the time of Constantine, and no wonder, as that is clearly what He is according to the first century New Testament - God come down in flesh to show us what it was all about and to give His loving self taking upon Himself all our sins and grief. And there is something else about the inscription. In Acts 10:4, where Cornelius the centurion becomes the first gentile convert to Christianity, an angel tells him that his prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial (mnemosynon). In Hebrew it is "Zikaron" = Remembrance". This is not a memorial for someone dead, but a sign to God, that He looks at, as God looked at the "keshet" (rainbow) in the days of Noah and the flood, and He "remembers" His promise to no longer ever send a flood on earth. So Cornelius' prayers and almsgiving went up, as it were, before God, and He saw, and he remembered this dear man and his prayers and good hearted deeds, and led him to the Messiah of Israel.
And that Jewish remembrance has come down to this very day as God peers from heaven over the community of believers, and sees their sign, and He remembers.
"And He took that bread, and gave the beracha, and he broke the bread, and gave it to His talmidim, and said, kekhu ve 'ikhlu, zehu gufi ha nitan ba'adkhem, asu it zeh lezikhroni. Take and eat. This is myu body which is given for you. Do this for my Remembrance. And after they had eaten, He took the cup of wine, said the beracha, and gave it to the talmidim, and said, Shtu mimena kulkhem, Zohi kos dami, dam ha brit hahadash, hanishpakh ba'adkhem uv'ad ha rabim, le slichat hahataim. zot asu lezikhroni. Drink, all of you, from this. This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the foregiveness of sins. Do this for my Remembrance"
"Biblical Archaeological Reader" article on "prison prayer hall"