One of the earliest churches has been unearthed by archaeologists. The church was discovered in northern Israel at the foot of breath-taking waterfalls in the Banias Nature Reserve.

The church was built on top of a Roman-era temple to the Greek god Pan, with some of the pagan artefacts of the temple being unearthed.

The church was built around 20 BC, with the Christian builders adapting the pagan temple to suit their needs. The site became an important Christian centre with its own bishop from 320 AD.

The location of the excavation is unique in that it combines a cliff, a cave, springs and a terrace created in ancient times from the collapse of part of the cliff on which the temple was built.

The Christian artefacts included crosses, include a cross in the mosaic floor. Also discovered is a “very interesting stone” which is dressed and dotted with etched crosses. They were most likely “I was here” graffiti incised into the rock by pilgrims who visited in the 6th-7th centuries.

According to the Bible, it is in this region, known as “Caesarea of Philip” during that period, that Peter recognised Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And where Jesus said to him “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”

Matthew 16:13-19 reads:

13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
14 So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not [g]prevail against it.
19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth [h]will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

According to the Times of Israel:

The location of the excavation is unique in that it combines a cliff, a cave, springs and a terrace created in ancient times from the collapse of part of the cliff on which the temple was built, according to a press release. Erlich said that in circa 3rd century BCE, worship of the god Pan began near the cave and the spring. The temple was built in circa 20 BCE. It became an important Christian center with its own bishop from 320 CE.

Among the Christian finds were little crosses decorating the mosaic flooring of the church.

At one point in its existence, the church suffered damage through an earthquake but was renovated in the 7th century, according to a press release on the site.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority head of heritage and archaeology Dr. Iosi Bordowicz said that the Banias National Park is filled with stunning archaeology, spreading from the Roman period through the Crusader era.

The current excavation, conducted in cooperation with the University of Haifa, is part of a wide variety of activities being undertaken to preserve and conserve monumental archaeology that has been taking place in the past few years throughout the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, said Bordowicz.

Bordowicz said the finds will be conserved and made accessible to the many thousands of tourists who — barring COVID-19 — visit the breathtaking waterfalls from all over the world.

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