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In the Early Church


Even before Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, early Christian communities had their own religious buildings, though these were not yet of a unified plan. It was only in the fourth century that churches began to take on certain characteristic features. The church historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, describes the first churches built by the emperor Constantine above three caves associated with important events in the life of Jesus: the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem; the Anastasis (Holy Sepulcher) in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection; and the cave on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection (the Eleona Church).

The Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were constructed according to a special plan, in which a concentric structure was built around the sacred cave. Concentric plans are also found in other memorial buildings, such as the octagonal church built around the rock on which, according to tradition, the pregnant Mary sat down to rest on her way to Bethlehem.

Most of the churches of the Holy Land were constructed according to a basilical plan, which had been used for public buildings as far back as the days of ancient Greece. The basilica is a rectangular hall divided into a nave and aisles, with a semicircular apse at its end. The rooms adjacent to the apse sometimes served as the baptistery or the church treasure (diakonikon), where the liturgical objects and vestments were stored. In the large churches, special structures were added on to the church for these purposes. Entrance to the church was through an atrium, in which there was usually a cistern. The structure of the church edifice made it possible to maintain a separation between the members of the congregation and the catechumens, who had not yet been baptized and were therefore only permitted to take part in some of the rites.

Northern church at Shivta, the Negev, 6th century
Photo: Baruch Gian

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The Doctrines of Christian Faith

Pottery ostracon bearing the formula of the Christian creed,
written in Greek on both sides
Provenance unknown, 7th century
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 69.74.312
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

This inscribed pottery sherd (ostracon) bears a text written in Greek. The text is the Niceo-Constantinopolitan creed, which includes some of the most important doctrines of Christian faith, such as belief in the Holy Spirit, the role of baptism in the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the world to come. The creed dates to the mid-fifth century. Its text many have been written out by a monk according to the bishop’s direction, with copies distributed to proselytes in order to help them memorize the text prior to their conversion.

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In the Days of Jesus |In the Early Church |Pilgrimage |Images & Symbols |Monasticism in the Holy Land

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