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Early Christian church found at site where Jesus handed Peter the keys

Banias Nature Reserve

Alla Khananashvili | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 10/28/20

Archaeologists find structure on top of ancient pagan temple at Banias in northern Israel.

A key moment in the life of Christ and the history of the Church took place in the region of Caesarea Philippi, when the Apostle Peter professed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. In turn, Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

The incident took place in an area known as Banias, so named because in earlier times there had been a temple dedicated to the god Pan.

Now, archaeologists have uncovered what appears to be a church built on top of that temple and dedicated to the profession of St. Peter.

University of Haifa Prof. Adi Erlich, who led the excavation, said the church dates from the 4th-5th century. Its builders adapted the Roman pagan temple to fit the needs of what was then a newly-legalized religion in the Roman Empire. 

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,” said the Times of Israel. “Erlich said that in circa 3rd century [B.C.], worship of the god Pan began near the cave and the spring. The temple was built in circa 20 B.C. It became an important Christian center with its own bishop from [A.D.] 320.

An altar found on the site of the pagan temple has a dedication to Pan inscribed on it. “The original Roman temple architecture structure was Christianized and turned into a church,” the Times explained:

Among the Christian finds were little crosses decorating the mosaic flooring of the church. The cross symbol became widespread in Christian iconography after the reign of Constantine, in the mid-4th century. One east-facing niche in the pagan temple that perhaps held a statue of Pan was reinvented as a church apse.

Also discovered is a stone that is dressed and dotted with etched crosses, said Erlich, who believes they were graffiti written by 6th-7th century pilgrims.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority head of heritage and archaeology Dr. Iosi Bordowicz said the finds will be conserved and made accessible for future pilgrims.

Tags:
Church HistoryIsrael
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