Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity

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When Israeli authorities wanted to expand the Megiddo Prison, they tapped their captive labor pool and put dozens of inmates to work digging inside the compound here that is ringed with coiled razor wire and guard towers.

As is common practice in Israel, the site underwent a check for possible archaeological ruins before heavy equipment could be moved in. Last week, the inmates discovered a Christian religious site that Israel's Antiquities Authority said may date to the third century A.D. and could be the earliest Christian church unearthed in the Holy Land, and possibly one of the earliest in the world.

Dozens of journalists were invited into the prison on Sunday to view two well-preserved tile mosaics, which include detailed inscriptions in Greek and which the authority said served as the floor of the church.

"It is for sure the earliest church in Israel that we know of," said Yotam Tepper, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, which began seven months ago.

The announcement was met with deep skepticism from some scholars of early Christianity.

The traditional view is that Christian churches did not begin to appear in the region until the fourth century A.D., the result of Emperor Constantine's edict in A.D. 313 that Christians could worship freely in the Roman Empire.

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