An ancient Christian mosaic bearing an early reference to Jesus as God is at the centre of a controversy that has angered archaeologists. The Megiddo Mosaic is believed to be a remnant from the world’s earliest known Christian prayer hall dating back to the Third Century. It included a Greek inscription reading To the God Jesus Christ — the earliest mosaic ever found that’s dedicated to Jesus.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) wants to uproot the mosaic floor and transport it to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. where it would be on loan. It’s a plan that has riled the archaeological community, partly because of the museum’s past acquisition practices and its perceived evangelical political agenda.
Since its discovery nearly 20 years ago, the mosaic has remained on the grounds of the Megiddo maximum security prison near what’s believed to be the site of Armageddon in prophecy. In recent years the Israeli government has started advancing a multi-year plan to move the prison from its current location and develop a tourist site around the mosaic.
The Associated Press reports that the Tel Megiddo archaeological site is already a major attraction for evangelical Christians visiting the Holy Land. Busloads stop on their way to or from the Galilee to see the ruins of a Biblical city and pray at the site where many believe the apocalypse will take place.
Archaeologists oppose moving the mosaic. “Once you take any artifact outside of its archaeological context, it loses something, it loses a sense of the space and the environment in which it was first excavated,” said Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham who co-wrote a book about the Museum of the Bible.
Rafi Greenberg, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, also said that archaeological finds “should stay where they are and not be uprooted.” He added that the proposal smacked of colonialism, where historically dominant powers have extracted archaeological discoveries from colonies. “Even if Israel doesn’t ever recognise itself as being a colony, it is actually behaving like one, which I find odd,” he said.
Other archaeologists are concerned about handing the Megiddo Mosaic over to the Museum of the Bible which has previously been criticised over its artifact collection practices. In 2018, it had to repatriate an ancient Mesopotamian tablet looted from Iraq and admit that several of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in its collection were modern forgeries. American authorities also seized thousands of clay tablets and other looted antiquities acquired by the museum’s founder, Steve Green, an evangelical Christian and president of the arts and crafts retail empire Hobby Lobby.
The Associated Press writes that the mosaic loan would reinforce ties between Israel and the museum which sponsors two archaeological digs in Israel and has a gallery curated by the IAA which will decide whether to proceed with the plan in the coming weeks.
“There’s an entire process that academics and archaeologists are involved with,” said IAA director Eli Eskozido. The organisation said that moving the mosaic from its original location was the best way to protect it from upcoming construction at the prison. Conservation experts at the authority determined that the mosaic should be removed from its original setting to conserve it properly in order to show it to the public.
“Leaving it in place would be irresponsible due to the large-scale mechanical earthworks that will demolish extensive parts of the prison buildings,” said IAA spokesman Soli Schwartz. “The Israel Antiquities Authority will continue to invest efforts to make archaeology accessible to the public, and we are excited to present the Megiddo mosaic to the public worldwide.”