Centre News

Religion professors receive $30,000 from International Catacomb Society

June 27, 2013 By Mariel Smith        
Centre College Professor Tom McCollough (in white at top of stairs) at The Dome
of the Rock shrine in Israel with CentreTerm 2011 students.

Centre College An aerial view of the synagogue ruins McCollough has been
excavating in Khirbet Qana. Photo by Douglas Edwards.

Lee Jefferson and Tom McCollough may not be wearing fedoras or outrunning giant boulders, but thanks to a $30,000 grant from the International Catacomb Society's Shohet Scholars Program, they will be having their own Indiana Jones-style adventure when they continue excavating Khirbet Qana in the Galilee region of Israel.

Khirbet Qana is Arabic for "Ruins of Cana." The site is located just north of Nazareth and the excavations have established that it is the New Testament's Cana of Galilee, where according to the Gospel of John, Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine.

Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor of Religion Tom McCollough has been excavating Khirbet Qana since 2000 and is currently the director of excavation at the site. His work has revealed that the substantial Jewish village founded in the Early Roman period became an important Christian pilgrimage site in the Byzantine period. The excavations have uncovered a complex of caves that fifth- through twelfth-century Christian pilgrims used to commemorate Jesus' first miracle.

Of the four caves, only one has been excavated. It has plastered walls, an altar and a few in situ stone vessels that may have been used to reenact Jesus' miracle; there is also a substantial amount of graffiti on the walls written by Christian pilgrims asking for blessings.

"It's quite a spectacular site," says McCollough. "Nothing like it has been discovered before."

The funding from the Catacomb Society will be used beginning in the fall of 2013 to continue excavating the remaining caves, as well as analyze the evidence that is collected.

McCollough expects to find more evidence of Christian pilgrimage, especially items that match up with accounts from the time.

"An Italian pilgrim from the sixth century known as the Pilgrim of Piacenza tells us that when he visited the caves, he participated in a recreation of the Roman wedding at which Jesus performed his miracle by reclining on a bench as the Romans would have," he says. "We haven't yet found that bench, but I expect we will uncover it in one of the unexplored caves."

Along with the veneration cave complex, McCollough's team has also uncovered evidence of an early church and synagogue, suggesting that Jews and Christians coexisted at Cana for a time. This element of the excavation is especially intriguing to McCollough, whose research explores Jewish-Christian relations during the Roman and Byzantine eras.

"The arrival of Christian pilgrims is something of a colonization of a Jewish village," he explains. "I'm interested in what happened to the Jews living here after the Christians arrived. Did they flee, did they coexist peacefully or did they respond in some way?"

Initial evidence from the synagogue suggests that the Jewish population reacted quickly and decisively in response to the influx of Christians by modifying and improving the synagogue to make it a clear place of Jewish worship. McCollough theorizes that this was a way for the Jews to maintain religious identity and resist the colonization.

"This is evidence of the beginning of what people refer to as 'the parting of the ways,'" he says. "Basically, Christianity and Judaism changed from two interrelated religions to two religions at odds with one another."

Assistant Professor of Religion Lee Jefferson will be joining McCollough and lending his expertise in early Christian art.

"I trained as an early church historian and my advisor was both a church and art historian," says Jefferson. "My dissertation and my upcoming book focus on early Christian art of the fourth and fifth centuries."

Jefferson will be examining iconography, graffiti, carvings and any other pieces of material culture found in the caves. He hopes these items will deepen his understanding of the origins of Christian pilgrimage.

"Early Christians didn't immediately create an artistic language," he explains. "The first catalogued art dates from 200 CE; it took multiple centuries to form an identity. The art of early Christianity developed out of surrounding influences, such as Jewish and Roman art and the immediate environment."

The artifacts may also answer some of Jefferson's questions about Khirbet Qana's relationship to the Bishopric of Jerusalem.

"I'm curious whether the bishop of Jerusalem had any authority over this site, whether there was much communication with the site and the specifics of the church leadership structure in relation to it," he explains.

Ultimately, this specific pilgrimage site represents a major opportunity to learn more about the origins of early Christian pilgrimage as well as late antique art.

"I'm very interested in seeing what these pilgrims initially depicted and what they felt was important to include in their art and material culture," Jefferson says. "Studying these works of art reveals a deeper understanding of the history of the place. That's what draws me to it."

To learn more about the International Catacomb Society, click here.

Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.

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