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."