The fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells of the earliest Christians’ escape to Pella (in present-day Jordan) from Jerusalem just before the latter city was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Did this miraculous event occur? Is there evidence of first-century Christians at ancient Pella?
As ancient Pella’s current excavation director Stephen Bourke explains in the May/June 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, at Pella in Jordan, archaeology can transport you back through over 8,000 years of history, so you have to be interested in every period. That wasn’t exactly true of ancient Pella’s first modern explorers, however. Their focus was on finding remains of the first-century followers of Jesus who reportedly fled from Jerusalem to Pella.
The first settlers at ancient Pella arrived in the Neolithic period, around 7500 B.C., and the site’s occupation continued for thousands of years. When it came to the first-century A.D. settlement at Pella, archaeology surprisingly produced practically no remains. It seems that no one was living there at the time. Soon after, the Romans resettled ancient Pella in the second century and developed it into a thriving economic center.
Other than Israel, no country has as many Biblical sites and associations as Jordan: Mount Nebo, from where Moses gazed at the Promised Land; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John baptized Jesus; Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his daughters sought refuge after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and many more. Travel with us on our journey into the past in our free eBook Exploring Jordan.
One of several Byzantine churches at the site seemed to hold promising evidence of the supposed Christian refugees. Under the northern apse of the so-called West Church, Pella’s excavators discovered a grave containing a first-century Roman-style sarcophagus. Could this have been the final resting place of one of Jesus’ early followers? Unfortunately the carbon-dating of the badly degraded skeletal remains suggested a later, Byzantine date, but newer technology could provide more accurate results.
The last hope for those seeking remains of early Christians at ancient Pella seemingly rests in a cave complex just a short distance from the main mound. Although the caves have not been fully surveyed or excavated due to health risks, several of them were outfitted as residences in antiquity and may have served as ideal living spaces or hideouts for fleeing Christians.
Questions remain, but the possibilities are tantalizing.
Originally published April 2013, updated May 2014.
To learn more about ancient Pella in Jordan and the archaeological evidence for the early Christians’ escape to Pella, see “The Christian Flight to Pella: True or Tale?” by Stephen Bourke in the May/June 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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