Who, and what, was Jesus? Opinions still differ, but it seems early Christians living in ancient northern Israel accepted diverse interpretations of his nature, worshipping in churches built as closely as possible, side by side. Then, around the sixth century C.E., the Western interpretation of Jesus’ nature seems to have begun to prevail, say archaeologists.
This interpretation is based on architectural modifications to the churches in the sixth century in the ancient city of Hippos, near the Sea of Galilee, which is being excavated by the University of Haifa's Zinman Institute of Archaeology, headed by Dr. Michael Eisenberg.
How many churches Hippos actually had is quite the mystery. So far, archaeologists have found at least six, maybe seven, from that time, says Prof. Mark Schuler of Concordia University, Minnesota, co-director of the excavation of the Northeast Insula Project. That said, multiple churches was no anomaly in the landscape of ancient Palestina.
And while probing the secrets of the multiple churches in Hippos (the Roman name for the town previously called Sussita), the archaeologists uncovered what may be the tomb of an unknown saint, Schuler tells Haaretz.
The spirit of clustered churches
Hippos was one of the Decapolis (“10 cities”), a region in the eastern section of the Roman empire that encompasses parts of today’s Israel, Jordan and Syria (Damascus was one of these cities). Each was an autonomous city-state. Scholars today do not believe they were formally allied, however.
Whatever the nature of their relations with others, clusters of churches was the norm in the late Antique period.
"There are at least 13 churches at Jerash (Gerasa), and a number at both Gadara and Scythopolis," Schuler tells Haaretz. "Multiple churches as a feature was not unusual. In Jerash, three churches right next to each other even share common outside walls."
Why the early Christians of Palestina built multiple churches may never be known. Some may have been built in different times. Or perhaps, churches may have been erected to accommodate different ethnic groups or theological perspectives. Or it could be a combination the above, says Schuler.
So far, five churches have been excavated at least in part in Hippos-Sussita. “Four are clustered in the city center and one is in the southwest quadrant, a domestic quarter,” says the professor. “Another location in the domestic quarter is a church, I am convinced, but it hasn’t been excavated yet.”
A preliminary investigation there found telltale hallmarks of ecclesial architecture, including, for instance, an atrium with a cistern, he says.
The east side of Hippos seems to have yet another church. The archaeologists also found a burial chapel (a small edifice about 3 by 5 meters – 10 by 16 feet – atop a masonry tomb built below it, Schuler explains). “It was probably a family memorial site,” he surmises.
Arguing the case for early Christian tolerance of one another’s beliefs is that they seem to have coexisted temporally. “What’s interesting to me about these churches at Hippos-Sussita is that they all came into existence in the late fifth or early sixth century,” Schuler says.
Yet not all remained in use for long. Hippos, which had been occupied for thousands of years - shards have been found from the Copper Age, around 5,000 years ago - was destroyed by an earthquake in 749. By that time, most of the churches were no longer in use.
"Probably only the cathedral and northwest church were in partial use by then. The southwest church had been burned and abandoned," says Schuler, adding, "In the northeast church almost all the doors had been intentionally blocked off."
Perhaps there had been a massive loss of faith; perhaps a heavy loss of population; or maybe some of the churches served sects that ceased to exist.
Touched by a saint
One church Schuler helped excavate at Hippos had a decidedly unusual feature: burials in the chancel – the part of the apse at the front of the church normally reserved for sacred rites by the clergy. (Usually, the chancel is marked off from the nave by a screen or steps.)
The churches at Hippos, including the northeast church, are three-aisled basilicas. They have two major sections: the chancel including the apse and altar, separated from the aisled portion, Schuler explains. The central aisle is the nave, and there are two smaller aisles to the north and south.
The congregants probably stood in the smaller aisles. Some suggest they were segregated by sex, with females in the north aisle and males in the south aisle. The nave was likely for processions.
"It's not unusual to find burials in churches…usually in the nave or the aisles. The unusual thing here is burials in the chancel, and this one had them," says Schuler.
In fact, the chancel in this Hippos church had burials in two sites, he says: one off the center axis, beneath the floor, which contained the remains of 12 people.
“There was a wooden coffin at a lower level, which was gone, but its nails were still there. That had three individuals in it. Later somebody inserted the bottom half of a sarcophagus box on top of that coffin. There were nine individuals interred in there,” says Schuler.
But the really interesting tomb was at the head of the south aisle in the chancel.
“It was a single sarcophagus, exposed above the floor, faced with marble and crosses. It had a hole bored on the top of the sarcophagus that could have been used for pouring oil or wine on the remains,” says Schuler.
Or that hole might have had another purpose: for rods to be inserted by the early Christians, to touch the remains inside. Why would they want to do that? The early Christians believed that a rod touching a saint’s relics could serve as a conduit of sorts to transfer the holiness to themselves.
“When we opened the tomb, it contained a single skeleton. The bones had been rearranged at the west end of tomb,” Schuler says. “She was an elderly woman, at least 55 years old, with osteoporosis. Possibly, an unknown saint.”
Possibly, what happened is that tomb was opened for extraction of relics, and was pried open from the west end, he explains. The relics removed, the remaining bones were intentionally gathered at the west end, where the skull would have lain. The revered woman had initially been buried on her back, as usual, with her feet to the east: the archaeologists found 17 metatarsals and phalanges of the foot at the east end of the sarcophagus.
Further evidence of her sanctity was even less direct. “I have theories about that,” Schuler says. “I feel there was a healing cult around this woman.” A key point, as far as he is concerned: After the church fell into disuse and was blocked off, access to her tomb remained possible, through the one remaining open doorway at the west end of the south aisle.
The bishops of Hippos
The bishops of Hippos in the sixth century were advocates of the Chalcedonian perspective of Christianity. Schuler explains.
"Although early Christianity came to assert that Jesus was fully God, in the fifth century the debate shifted to how Jesus could be both divine and human. The Chalcedonian view is that Jesus has a dual nature, human and divine," he says.
"The monophysite theory holds that Jesus is divine and human but has one single unified nature. The monophysite tradition was very strong in Palestine. But in the 6th century, around 516, John became the patriarch of Jerusalem, renounced his former monophysite perspective, and embraced Chalcedonian Christianity."
And there was a bishop from Hippos, Colon, present at the Jerusalem synod in 518 that endored pro-Chalcedonian views.
The year 538 brought the Second Synod, at which John’s successor, Peter, made strong statements in support of the Chalcedonian (Western) opinion, Schuler says. And who was at the synod? The bishop of Hippos. After which, the churches of Hippos, which had featured different architectural configurations, began to undergo Western-style structural modifications some time during the sixth century.
“We saw a baptistery added to the cathedral during the sixth century according to the Western design,” says Schuler. More examples? Sure. If the Israeli army hadn’t reburied the ruins because they wanted to build barracks, the professor tells Haaretz, we would have been able to see the eastern church – which, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, had a second apse added during the sixth century. The most southwest church had a reliquary inserted into its chancel, which accords with the Western tradition, says Schuler.
An apse was also added to the north aisle of the northwest church. "The western-style modifications going on in the 6th century correlate, in my view, with what was happening in Jerusalem, the struggle between the monophysite and Chalcedonian opinions. Jerusalem was becoming more officially Chalcedonian," says Schuler.
Discoveries in Hippos were not confined to the Christian era. There is evidence of early settlement in the Neolithic period, excavations director Michael Eisenberg tells Haaretz. In the excavation season of 2011, Schuler and the team found a fresco of Tyche, the Greek goddess for fortune and fate, in the ruins of an ornate, 1,700-year-old Roman villa. Evidently veneration of pagan gods continued well into the Byzantine era. “Tyche was a popular goddess throughout the Greek east, not just at Hippos, possibly because life was so capricious and short,” Schuler suggests.
Yet paganism waned after all and Christianity took hold. “What is interesting is this idea that as the church worked on how it identified itself, and there was certainly a struggle going on in Palestina at that time, with monks becoming involved in it in the Judean Desert – we see those struggles playing out architecturally,” says Schuler.
The multiple churches of Hippos-Sussita (which is in the Sussita National Reserve, run by the Parks and Nature Authority) and other towns of the time probably represented diversity in early Christinity in the east. There were also some Jews in the town too, it seems, going by rabbinic references, says Schuler (Lamentations Rabbah 19, J.T. Shevi’it 8, 38a, Tosefta Shevi’it 4:10). But come the sixth century, Christianity began to consolidate around the Western perspective of Jesus’ nature, and it shows up in modifications to the churches.