Excavating Ancient Pella, Jordan

Archaeology investigates the Jerusalem Christians’ escape to Pella

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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  • Ethan says


    It depends on which version of the Bible you read. If you accept the Septuagint, creation was closer to 7500 years ago.

  • jim says

    Gently gently.did God really mean what he said,now where have I heard that before,oh yes I remember,the garden of eden.
    God clearly states our time is 6000yrs.

  • Helen says

    Amy — the Bible tells us that God’s reckoning of time is significantly different fm human reckoning. The 6000 years posited by Bishop Usher reflects how long ago we humans moved fm the beginnings of the agricultural revolution to city living.

    Don’t get bogged down in precise details when dealing with our human story, given as a story. The Bible is not a history book nor a science book. However, there is valuable history and science contained within it. How it presents itself is as a book that outlines how God has related to us humans since the Big Beginning in the language and metaphor of its own day/s.

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