Excavating Ancient Pella, Jordan

Archaeology investigates the Jerusalem Christians’ escape to Pella

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


In ancient Pella, Jordan, archaeology can take you back over 8,000 years of history. The Civic Complex at the base of the mound of ancient Pella includes a large columned church from the Byzantine period. But many of the first modern explorers to visit Pella in Jordan were looking for evidence of the earliest Christians’ escape to Pella from Jerusalem in the first century. Did it really happen? Photo by Hershel Shanks.

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 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.


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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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in April 2013.


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10 Responses

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  1. AMY says

    If the true Biblical Christian consensus dates the earth to be approximately 6,000 years old, how then can something be ,000 years old? Is this atheistic archaeology? Let’s also not forget, carbon dating has already been denounced a vast majority of scientists.

  2. Lawrence says

    Yeshua said to flee from Jerusalem when it was surrounded, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death”, they will be taken – “we who are alive and remain” will be “caught up in the clouds” to meet “the Lord in the air”.

    If they fled to Pella, that doesn’t give them much time to leave much evidence.

    Lawrence Steffens

  3. Tim says

    There needs to be more of a push to excavate for remains of the early first century church at Pella. Since it was a safe haven for the christians there is probably loads of evidence of their existence. Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD and left abandoned for 40 years then turned into a Roman city thus covering up remains of the early church until Queen Helena. Pella, besides Antioch, would be an excellent source to find artifacts of the first century church and possibly something original from the Apostles.

  4. Kurt says

    Jesus had called Jerusalem “the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent forth to her.” (Mt 23:37; compare vss 34-36.) Though many of her citizens showed faith in God’s Son, the city as a whole continued to follow the pattern of the past. For this, ‘her house was abandoned to her.’ (Mt 23:38) In 66 C.E. a Jewish revolt brought Roman forces under Cestius Gallus to the city, surrounding it and making a thrust right up to the temple walls. Suddenly Cestius Gallus withdrew for no apparent reason. This allowed Christians to put into action Jesus’ instructions: “Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of [Jerusalem] withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her.” (Lu 21:20-22) Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (III, V, 3), states that the Christians fled from Jerusalem and the whole land of Judea to a city of Perea that was called Pella.”Walk by Faith,Not by Sight”

  5. Rick says

    History is what you make it to have been. If the proto-Christians were claimed to have fled Jerusalem before the revolt, then they didn’t take part in the >>Jewish<< revolt. Same 'history' with Masada? If the Jewish defenders all took their lives, then all of Josephus' now-Roman world could admire them for their 'courage'.

  6. alfred says

    The oldest remains at Pella cannot be 7500 years old. One can only believe that interpretation of the evidence if one is not a Bible-believing Christian. Adding 1500 years of history to the Biblical narrative of man’s history and existence undoubtedly makes a mockery of the Bible’s historical accuracy and therefore all else it has to say. Seen as we know this is not true, why even venture such dates which are most assuredly going to be shown in the future as nothing less than gross mistakes. Have we not yet learned how dependable the Bible is in all things?

  7. JoanHR says

    Christians today are thoroughly mixed up when it comes to the truth of the Word. If our premises are based on “politically correct” premises, we can sure we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Border Crossing | Ingrid in the World linked to this post on August 3, 2014

    […] lunch my professor wanted to visit the ancient site of Pella. It wasn’t as remarkable or impressive as Jerash, but it was the site of one of the earliest […]

  2. Tourism In The Peaceful Middle East | Tribune LAU linked to this post on October 16, 2014

    […] trail through the Middle East, passes through traditional farming areas, including villages such as Pellas, the Soap House, Ajloun Castle, Jerash, and Mar Elias. You also get to eat home-cooked meals and […]

  3. Tourism In The Peaceful Arab World | Tribune LAU linked to this post on October 16, 2014

    […] trail through the Middle East, passes through traditional farming areas, including villages such as Pellas, the Soap House, Ajloun Castle, Jerash, and Mar Elias. You also get to eat home-cooked meals and […]

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