World's 'oldest Christian church' discovered in Jordan
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
Archaeologists claim to have found the world's oldest church dating from shortly after Christ's crucifixion.
If tests confirm that it dates back to between 33 AD to 70 AD, as the archaeologists claim, it would make it the earliest known place of Christian worship by around two hundred years.
According to a report in the Jordan Times newspaper, a very early underground church was found beneath the ancient Saint Georgeous Church, which itself dates back to 230 AD, in Rihab, northern Jordan near the Syrian border.
"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD," Abdul Qader al-Husan, head of Jordan's Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies, said.
"We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians – the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ."
A mosaic found in the church describes these Christians as "the 70 beloved by God and Divine". Mr Husan said they believed to have fled persecution in Jerusalem and founded churches in northern Jordan.
He cited historical sources which suggest they both lived and practised religious rituals in the underground church and only left it after Christianity was embraced by Roman rulers in the fourth century AD.
The claim was treated with some disdain in online chatrooms focusing on biblical knowledge with most contributors suggesting the claim was made up to boost Rihab's tourist status.
There is no clear holder of the title of oldest Christian church with various sites claiming the title without definitive evidence.
In 2005 Israeli archaeologists claimed to have found the earliest Christian church when they uncovered a floor mosaic dating from the first part of the third century.
It was found inside the perimeter fence of a top security prison built by Israel in Megiddo or, to use its ancient name, Armageddon, where, according to the New Testament, the final battle between good and evil will be fought before the return of the Messiah.
The bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, Archimandrite Nektarious, described the Rihab discovery as an "important milestone for Christians all around the world."
Researchers recovered pottery dating back to between the 3rd and 7th centuries, which they say suggests these first Christians and their followers lived in the area until late Roman rule.
Inside the cave there are several stone seats which are believed to have been for the clergy and a circular shaped area, thought to be the apse.
There is also a deep tunnel which is believed to have led to a water source, the archaeologist added.
Rihab is home to a total of 30 churches and Jesus and the Virgin Mary are believed to have passed through the area, Husan said.