At Large  August 24, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Israel Considers Uprooting Ancient Mosaics for Loan to Evangelical U.S. Museum

Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

An Israel Antiquities Authority conservationist works on the 'Jesus' mosaic excavated at a prison in Megiddo in northern Israel, part of a structure from the third or fourth century that may be one of the earliest Christian churches. 

The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced that it is considering loaning precious mosaics from Israel to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which has sparked an outcry from archaeologists and academics around the world.

The mosaics are near the Megiddo Prison in northern Israel's Tel Megiddo, a preserved archeological site of the ancient city of Megiddo that contains the foundations of one of the oldest church buildings still extant. Inside the prayer hall, which dates back to 230 AD, the floor is decorated with these well-preserved mosaics that bear an early reference to Jesus as God. It is also believed to be the site of the prophesied Armageddon. 

Israeli officials are thinking of uprooting the mosaics because the church is located inside a prison complex, which is planning construction in the coming year, and the move might save them from destruction. The installment of the mosaics in the Museum of the Bible would also allow them to be seen by a wider audience. As Jeffrey Kloha, the Museum’s chief curatorial officer said in a statement to the Associate Press, the museum “of course would welcome the opportunity to educate our thousands of visitors on important pieces of history such as this mosaic.”

Wikimedia Commons

Megiddo prison from the top of Tel Megiddo. The church is located on the prison grounds.

In 2005, the church remains were found near Megiddo Prison, an area that belonged to the ancient Roman town of Legio, by Israeli archaeologist Yotam Tepper of Tel-Aviv University. Tepper and many other scholars date the church back to the third century, a time when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, making this church an extraordinary structure. The mosaics inside, are even more fascinating. Measuring 580 square feet, the large floor mosaic bears an inscription: “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” Next to the inscription are geometrical shapes and images of fish, an early Christian symbol. 

Several archaeologists and academics have voiced objections to the move for two reasons relating to the historical context of the mosaics, and the placement in the Museum of the Bible. Because academic study on the works has yet to be completed, many including those involved in the digs at Tel Megiddo from the Center for the Mediterranean World, argue that the move is premature.

Wikimedia Commons

January 1st, 2006 Megido: Mosaic with the inscription, "The God loving Aketous has offered this altar to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial."

And others argue that the Museum of the Bible promotes an evangelical Christian political agenda and this loan would reinforce ties between Israel and the museum, which sponsors archaeological digs in Israel. 

Cavan Concannon, a religion professor at the University of Southern California said to the AP that the museum acts as a “right-wing Christian nationalist Bible machine” with links to “other institutions that promote white evangelical, Christian nationalism, Christian Zionist forms.” The Museum of the Bible was founded by David Green, also the founder of Hobby Lobby craft stores. Green is a major financial supporter of Evangelical organizations, and is known for his extreme right-wing beliefs. 

But more troubling to archaeologists and art historians is the Museum of the Bible’s past forgeries and smuggling cases of other artifacts. In 2017, they were forced to return 3,800 ancient artifacts that were found in a Hobby Lobby warehouse to the Republic of Iraq. In another instance, a group of papyrus fragments on view at the museum were said to be Dead Sea Scrolls were revealed as fakes.

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