Around 1,500 years ago, a beautiful family home was going up in the village of et-Taiyiba in the Jezreel Valley. As befitted a beautiful family home in the late Byzantine or early Islamic period in Palestine, the floors were tiled with decorative mosaics and the walls were suitably thick. And one of the walls of this manse incorporated a repurposed fragment of lintel from a local church, which bore an inscription in Greek.
The inscription read: “…Christ born of Mary. This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation... Whoever enters should pray for them.”
The household couldn’t have seen the poignant inscription, because it lay with its face to the wall’s interior: as said, the wall was thick, Dr. Walid Atrash of the Israel Antiquities Authority tells Haaretz. Moreover, the lintel fragment once bore a carved crucifix that stood proud of the stone surface, but is mostly no more.
Could removing the cross and repurposing the lintel bit as a humble brick with its inscription inside have been an act of desecration? Perhaps, but the parsimonious theory is that the builder couldn’t have cared less what the stone had or didn’t have on its surface, and just reworked the fragment as a brick, which involved removing extraneous parts so it could sit with the other stones, Atrash suggests. “I think maybe the builder didn’t care about the inscription or the cross. They were just in the way,” he posits.
The church once adorned with this evocative message was the earliest found so far in the village of et-Taiyiba, which is in the Jezreel Valley near Mount Tabor – the purported site of the transfiguration of Jesus. This house of worship dated to the late 5th century C.E., Atrash says. Most of the churches in the area – and they were legion – date to the 6th century C.E.
Incidentally, the discovery of the lintel inscription inside the house wall was serendipitous – found during an archaeological excavation directed by Tzachi Lang and Kojan Haku of the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of construction of a new road in the village. This happens a lot in Israel.
The miserable Thomas
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The phrase “Christ born of Mary” was a formula intended to protect its readers from the evil eye, says Dr. Leah Di-Segni of Hebrew University, who interpreted the inscription. It was a common phrase in inscriptions and a greeting in documents of the time, and refers, of course, to Jesus.
Who on earth might the “miserable” Thomas have been, though?
We can’t know that, Di-Segni says – but the inscription is formulaic in that respect, too. The mysterious Thomas might have paid for the church, donated to it, paid for the door frame, or who knows – and calling himself “miserable” was merely the self-effacement that was the norm for Greek inscriptions of the time. A suitably modest Christian believer wouldn’t have called himself “lion of the light” or some other self-aggrandizing sobriquet. Calling himself lowly isn't unusual for the time, Di-Segni says.
As for Theodosius, the founder of the church from which the inscription came, that’s no mystery. He was the archbishop of Beit She’an (not the Roman emperor of the same name, who reigned from 379 to 395). Bishop Theodosius held supreme religious authority over the region in the late 5th century (certainly around 480 C.E.), and the region included et-Taiyiba.
The dedication proves that Theodosius was actively building churches in the area of Mount Tabor, and this one was one of the earlier found so far: most of the momentum in constructing churches was in the 6th century, Atrash notes.
“This is the first evidence of the Byzantine church’s existence in the village of et-Taiyiba and it adds to other finds attesting to the activities of Christians who lived in the region,” he added.
Monasteries and churches at cross-purposes
The village of et-Taiyiba dates back to well before any of this happened, at least to the Iron Age, also known as the Israelite age, Atrash says. The whole area is relatively lush, and this settlement developed, as settlements do, around a natural spring. A stream ran nearby, as well.
Come the Roman and Byzantine periods, the village was flourishing, with evidence of industrial agriculture, as Atrash puts it – including flour mills built along the stream, oil and wine presses, and that sort of thing.
The settlement continued throughout, through to the Crusader period – but had built a church of their own, and the Byzantine-era church was forgotten, with a bit of its door frame in that house. Finding the inscription is the first evidence of a Byzantine-period church in the town, Atrash says, adding that nobody in their right mind would have lugged a great stone with a precious inscription on it from elsewhere only to use it as a brick, with its significance hidden in the wall’s innards. The church must have been local.
And how do we know it was a church, not a monastery? “The inscription greets those who enter and blesses them. It is therefore clear that the building is a church, and not a monastery. Churches greeted believers at their entrance, while monasteries tended not to do this,” Di-Segni explains.
Presumably, Bishop Theodosius of Beit She’an also urged the construction of monasteries in the region – but the lintel didn’t come from one. On the other hand, recently a second monastery was discovered in Kfar Kama, a Circassian town located in the Lower Galilee. That lends credence in and of itself to the theory that Kfar Kama arose on top of the lost Roman city of Helenapolis, called after Empress Helena, the mother of “the first Christian emperor,” Constantine, Atrash says.
The second monastery there was found by Moti Aviam of the Kinneret College and Nurit Feig of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Certainly a small village, even near the sacred Mount Tabor, wouldn’t have had more than one monastery. But the identification of Kfar Kama with Helenapolis isn’t a done deal. “We don’t have enough information yet,” says Atrash. Another possibility is that Helenapolis is the village of Daburiyya.
And what happened to the Byzantine church from which the broken lintel piece was taken? It was probably destroyed by an earthquake, Atrash says. Certainly, the area is prone to devastating temblors. It would have been too deteriorated to rebuild, so its parts were reused in other construction, which was very much the norm.