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New Inscriptions Uncovered Near Sea of Galilee Give Look into Early Christianity

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Archaeologists in Israel recently discovered four new inscriptions on Byzantine mosaics at what is known as the “Burnt Church” near the Sea of Galilee in the region referenced in the Bible as the Decapolis.

A team from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa found the mosaics during an excavation this summer. They were cleaning a set of mosaics from the Byzantine era at the “Burnt Church”—the Martyrion of Theodoros in the Roman city of Hippos-Sussita. The church was burned down before the Islamic era and then later rebuilt.

Archaeologists were clearing away dirt and soot from the tiles when colors, letters, and images began to emerge.

“Suddenly, two concentric black lines appeared in front of the main portal of the church. We realized there must be an inscription here,” said Jessica Rentz, a field supervisor at the site.

Arleta Kowalewska, the excavation director with the Zinman Institute, said the inscriptions offer a rare glimpse into the worship and lives of actual people.

The inscriptions are in a form of Greek (probably mixed with or influenced by the local Aramaic language). One of the writings appears to be from a couple who were buried in a private chapel area they established: “Offering in favor of salvation and succor for Urania and Theodoros. Lord God, accept! Amen! In the time of indiction 4 and year 619.”

Another inscription at the entrance hall of the church reads: “Offering of Megas, the most holy bishop, for the peaceful rest of Eusebiοs and Iobiοs, his brothers, in the year 620, indiction 4.”

And another one in the church says: “Offering of the priest Symeonios, goldsmith, custodian [?], He [the Lord] will protect him and his children and his wife.”

These men and women were the fruit of the first apostles’ labors nearly 600 years after Yeshua commissioned them to spread the good news from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Urania, Theodoros, Megas, Eusebios…they were everyday, ordinary followers of Yeshua—their names sound like those that the Apostle Paul greets at the end of his letters!

Gregor Staab, a professor from the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of Cologne in Germany, translated the inscriptions—which have a lot of “typos”!

“The language of the mosaic inscriptions shows a remarkably strong decline both in the phonetic rendering and in the grammatical rules. It is difficult to draw clear conclusions from this, such as whether the people of Hippos – up to and including the clergy – no longer practiced Greek in its pure form and whether their language in everyday life was more or less blended with local influences such as Aramaic,” Staab said.

“The original language of Christian liturgy and prayer to God was Greek, so it had to be considered impossible to deviate from using it in the Christian context.” Staab believes “it was unthinkable to come up with the idea of using a language other than Greek – even if one was aware that this language was no longer mastered to the extent actually required.”

Archaeologists also believe that the site gives insight into the worship patterns of the early believers—specifically that men and women were segregated, similar to the traditions in Jewish synagogues at the time and even today.

“We know where the people stood. We know the doorways were left open during the ceremony,” said Michael Eisenberg, the Director of Excavation at the Zinman Institute. “We find the ashes of the main portals, on which were the beautiful lion-head door-pulls [found in a previous excavation] – and the chain keeping out the people who were not yet full Christians, not yet baptized. They stood in the portico of the court, where one of the new mosaics was found. They would stand outside the ecclesia looking into the Eucharist.”

The “Burnt Church” was basically a small neighborhood church with a stunning view of the Sea of Galilee. Researchers believe it was first constructed around the late 400s to the early 500s AD. The “somewhat crude” art quality of the mosaics suggests the community was poor. But the mosaics remain and tell the story of Yeshua and His first followers still today.

What does this mean for believers? It is just more evidence that a man named Yeshua was thought to be the promised Messiah. He was known to have risen from the dead and birthed his ekklesia. The Bible and this discovery confirm that this Jewish movement spread to the Gentiles.

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