The World's Oldest Church?

Abdel-Qader al-Housan, director of the Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies in Jordan, announced that they had found the world’s first church. It was not a building, but a cave located under Saint Georgeous Church near Amman. In the cave they found a circular worship area with stone seats and a tunnel leading to a source of water.

The reason why they believe it to be a church was an inscription found on the floor, which read, “the 70 beloved by God and the divine.” The theory was that this 70 referred to the seventy disciples who fled Jerusalem fearing Roman persecution.

Many have found this argument quite a stretch since organized churches did not exist till the time of the Gupta empire in India. There were small communities till then, like the ones which wrote the gospels, who mostly worshipped in homes, domestic buildings and by the riverside.

“If they are talking about a cave, it could have been a hiding place. In time—if there were martyrs there or something significant that took place there or a well-known individual who was among the disciples of Jesus—then you would have had reason to commemorate the site, which could later be used by the church’s monks.”

“But the cave that’s there is one that doesn’t necessarily commemorate anything … I don’t know how you can take an underground cave and say it could present itself as a first-century church.”[“Oldest Church” Discovery “Ridiculous,” Critics Say]

4 thoughts on “The World's Oldest Church?

  1. Nikhil,
    On the other hand, though the tradition that St. Thomas preached in “India” was widely spread in both East and West and is to be found in such writers as Ephraem Syrus, Ambrose, Paulinus, Jerome, and, later Gregory of Tours and others, still it is difficult to discover any adequate support for the long-accepted belief that St. Thomas pushed his missionary journeys as far south as Mylapore, not far from Madras, and there suffered martyrdom.
    On the other hand the reputed relics of St. Thomas were certainly at Edessa in the fourth century, and there they remained until they were translated to Chios in 1258 and towards to Ortona.

  2. It was common during the Byzantium period for the early Christians to live in caves in and around the Holy Land. This was happening well before the Levant fell to the Muslim invaders, so the particular cave in question would not necessarily have been a hiding place. There are still a few ancient monasteries still operating in the wastelands of Judea today. William Dalrymple has written an excellent book on the Christians of the Middle East called “From the Holy Mountain”.
    I emailed Dalrymple a while ago and he sent me some interesting information about St Thomas. He provided the information below:
    The trail of St. Thomas’s journey to India begins thousands of miles from Kerala in the deserts of the Middle East.
    In the Late Sixth century the Byzantine Empire was beginning to crumble under a wave of attacks. The great classical cities of the East Mediterranean were slowly falling into ruin and decay. As their libraries and universities were burned down or deserted, many of the most important manuscripts were preserved in the library of a remote monastery in the deserts of the Sinai now known St. Catherine’s. The great walls of St. Catherine’s, and its sheer isolation, preserved it from attacks for centuries. Protected from their enemies, the monks were able to accumulate one of the greatest treasuries of icons and illuminated manuscripts in the Christian world.
    When the first European travellers began penetrating this region, they were astonished to find in the monastery a library of unmatched richness containing lost works by great classical authors and the oldest extant copy of the New Testament. But perhaps the strangest discovery of all was a previously unknown early Christian text dating from the fourth century AD. The manuscript was entitled the Acts of St. Thomas.
    The manuscript told a strange story that had been completely forgotten in the traditions of the Western Church. According to the Acts, St. Thomas was Jesus’s twin (the Syriac for Thomas- Te’oma- means twin, as does his Greek name Didymos); like his brother he was a carpenter from Galilee. After Jesus’s death, according to the Acts, the apostle had been summoned to India- and his martyrdom- by the mysterious King Gondophares.
    Nineteenth century biblical scholars were at first very sceptical of the Acts of St.Thomas. They correctly pointed out that the story contained many clearly apocryphal Gnostic elements, and that earliest surviving version of the text, which had been written in fourth century Mesopotamia, dated from at least two centuries after the events described; indeed up to the beginning of this century the document was sometimes dismissed as a pious romance. Nevertheless over the last hundred years, as research has progressed both into ancient Indian history and the links between India and the Roman Middle East, there have been a series of remarkable discoveries which have gone a long way to prove that the story contained in the Acts seems to be built on surprisingly solid historical foundations.
    Firstly, British archaeologists working in late nineteenth century India began to find hoards of coins belonging to a previously unknown Indian king: the Rajah Gondophares, who ruled from A.D 19 to A.D 45. If St. Thomas had ever been summoned to India, chronological logic demands that it would indeed have been Rajah Gondophares who would have done it, just as the Acts had always maintained. Moreover, the fact that the Acts had accurately preserved the name of an obscure Indian rajah, whose name and lineage had completely disappeared from the face of the earth, implied that it must contain at least a nucleus of genuine historical information dating from the first century.
    Archaeological discoveries have since confirmed many other details of the story, revealing that maritime contacts between the Roman World and India were much more extensive than anyone had previously realised. In the 1930’s Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered and excavated a major Roman trading station on the South Indian coast, while other scholars unearthed references showing that at the time of Thomas the trick of sailing with the Monsoon had just been discovered, reducing the journey time from the Red Sea to India to just under 40 days. Indeed according to a previously overlooked remark by Strabo, in the mid first century no less than 200 Roman trading vessels a year were making the annual journey to the bazaars of Malabar and back again. More intriguing still, analysis of Roman coin hoards in India has shown that the Roman spice trade peaked exactly in the middle of the First century AD, building up under Augustus and building to a climax under Nero. All this showed that if St. Thomas had wanted to come to India, the passage from Palestine, far from being a near-impossible feat, would in fact have been easier, more frequent and probably cheaper than at any other time in the next one thousand five hundred years- until Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Indies in the 1498.
    Scholars discovered further conformation of the Acts in the practices of the St. Thomas Christians themselves. Since the Second World War, theologians have become increasingly aware of the Jewishness of Jesus and his first disciples in Jerusalem: it has become apparent, for example, that the very first Jerusalem Christians would have carried on going to the temple, performing sacrifices, obeying the Jewish food laws and performing circumcisions on their children. If St. Thomas had carried Christianity to India it is likely that he would have carried with him a distinctly more Jewish form of the religion than that brought to Europe by St. Paul. Hence the importance of the fact that some of the St. Thomas Christian Churches to this day retain Judeo-Christian practices long dropped in the West such as the celebration of the solemn Passover Feast. Hence also the significance of the fact that the St. Thomas Christians still use the two earliest Christian liturgies in existence: the Mass of Addai and Mari, and the Liturgy of St. James, once used by the early Church of Jerusalem. More remarkable still is the fact that these ancient church services are still at least partly sung in Aramaic, the language spoken by both Jesus and St. Thomas.
    The more you investigate the evidence, the more you are irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that whether or not St. Thomas did himself come to India, he most certainly could have come, and if he didn’t personally make the journey, then it seems certain that some other very early Christian missionary did, there is certainly evidence for a substantial Christian population in India by at least the third century. And if there is no documentary proof finally to clinch the case, then there is at least a very good reason for its absence: for the entire historical documentation of the St. Thomas Christians was reduced to ashes in the sixteenth century- not by Muslims or Hindus, but by a newly arrived European Christian power: the Portuguese.
    As far as the Portuguese colonial authorities were concerned, the St. Thomas Christians were heretics, an idea that was confirmed by their belief in reincarnation and astrology, and the Hindu-style sculptures of elephants and dancing girls found carved on their crosses. Notions that they might also have maintained early Christian traditions predating the arrival of the faith in Europe were dismissed out of hand. The Inquisition was brought in, and the historical records of the St. Thomas Christians put to the flame.
    Yet the old stories did survive, locked in a place that the Inquisition could never touch: in the minds and memories of the Christians of the most inaccessible Keralan backwaters. For in their songs and dances, passed on from father to son and teacher to pupil, the St. Thomas Christians preserved intact many of their most ancient traditions. Scholars now believe that if the answer to the riddle of the legends of St. Thomas lies anywhere, it is in this rich and largely unstudied Keralan oral tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *