Pagans in Northern, late-Roman Palestine Embraced Christianity Early, Archaeologists Say

By the fifth century, some Galilean villages had at least one church with elaborate mosaics and a bishop, and at least one had a female donor

An entrance to a church
Mordechai Aviam

Excavations in western Galilee villages dating to about 1,600 years ago show that Christianity won over the pagan locals very fast, and strongly, archaeologists say.

A little more than a century after the Roman Empire converted from paganism to Christianity, each of the villages in the western Galilee explored so far had at least one church and its own bishop, excavator Mordechai Aviam told Haaretz.

Aviam and Jacob Ashkenazi, both of Kinneret College, uncovered a previously unknown church. That and two churches discovered earlier all had elaborate mosaic floors on which the two researchers found seven new inscriptions.

One of the seven was the biggest mosaic inscription ever found in the region, no less than five meters (23 feet) long. It bore the name of Irenaeus, the bishop of Tyre (then the dominant city in the area, today in Lebanon), as well as names of local bishops and local people who donated money to build the church.

The large inscription even had a date on it: It was created in August and September 445, so by that time this remote village in the Galilee had a bishop. So did the other early Christian villages, which were hardly major cities.

A quote from Psalm 118:19.
Mordechai Aviam

The Roman Empire went Christian in about 330, which indicates that in the space of about 115 years, faith in Christianity and Jesus had deeply penetrated the remote Galilean hills, Aviam said.

Signed by Euthymius

One of the mosaics was signed by an artist called Euthymius Jr.; it’s not clear if he's the same Euthymius who signed a church mosaic from the same era that has been found in Beirut. Either Euthymius was very prolific and traveled widely, or perhaps a family painstakingly built decorative flooring using tiny tiles.

Unlike the norm in churches in rich cities, church mosaics in the Galilean hill villages did not depict animals, but rather geometric shapes and writing.
Yeshu Dray

”I doubt there were only two Euthymiuses in the area,” Aviam said. “There’s a reasonable possibility that it was a son and father.” He also notes that it isn’t a huge distance between the western Galilee and Beirut.

In a different church, one of the names inscribed in stone was that of a woman, Sausen (or in Hebrew, Shoshana). She has been immortalized in the then-equivalent of a plaque – the mosaic floor.

“The surprising thing is that she’s not mentioned together with a husband,” Aviam said. “She’s an independent woman who donated money to the church, which says something about life in the Galilean village.”

Namely, it says that women could achieve independent status even beyond the big cities that were home to aristocratic families. Usually in ancient Greece and Rome, women were financially dependent on their parents or husbands.

Overall, the western Galilee, Jerusalem and the Negev, are where archaeologists have found the densest collection of church construction, Aviam said, adding that in desert areas, the people perfected techniques to collect water.

The proliferation of churches, with their elaborate floor mosaics, also suggests that the locals were prosperous. Their wealth probably derived from the production of olive oil and wine, which they exported. In support of that argument, olive oil has been an industry in the region going back at least 8,000 years.

Psalms and a peacock

Unlike the norm in churches in the rich cities, church mosaics in the Galilean hill villages were not figurative; they did not depict animals, for instance, but featured geometric shapes and writing.

Aviam does not suspect that any spiritual prohibition was in play. Instead, even if the villagers were prosperous, such rural folk could not afford artists who could create satisfactory mosaic animals.

There was one exception. That five-meter-long mosaic features a peacock.

Another church mosaic sports the branch of a pomegranate tree and a quote from Psalm 118:19: “Open to me the gates of righteousness.” The second line contains the names of the mosaic artists; it even says “This mosaic made by,” Aviam said.
 
Who were these early Christians of the Galilee? The names appearing in the churches indicate that they were locals with Syrian and Phoenician roots; they do not seem to have been of Jewish origin. “They were probably local pagans who converted,” Aviam said.

Bolstering that theory is the fact that in the Galilean villages explored so far, no evidence has been found of a Jewish community that converted, Aviam says – no Jewish names in the texts.

“During the Roman period and the Hellenistic period before it, there were no Jews living in the western Galilee,” he said. “As they hadn’t been there beforehand and weren’t there then, we concluded that the locals were pagan.”

While the archaeologists are happy to disclose their discoveries, they won’t hint at where in the Galilee these churches were found, lest people come to dig around and damage the sites, or even vandalize the precious remnants of history. If that sounds far-fetched, note the case of the magnificent 1,600-year-old mosaics found at the ancient Sanhedrin synagogue in Tiberias – which were vandalized in 2012.