Early Christianity in the Holy Land: An Emerging View

by Father Michele Piccirillo, O.F.M., Ph.D.

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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.

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Tags: Holy Land Christianity Art Architecture