Archeologists believe they discovered one of the earliest churches in Israel in which Jesus gave Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 16:18-19.
According to The Times of Israel, the University of Haifa Dr. Adi Erlich announced that the newly found church was built in the 4th or 5th century. Christian builders used a former Roman pagan temple to create the church.
“We know this from human history around the world and also in Israel, for example on the Temple Mount. When Christianity rose to power, they didn’t look for a new site, they converted a pagan site into a Christian site,” said Erlich, as reported by The Christian Post.
Historians speculate that Christians built the church in the Banias Nature Reserve in Israel’s north because of Jesus’ interactions with Peter in the area known as Cesarea Phillippi. The scenic reserve attracts tourists for its unique geological beauty, which includes a cliff, a cave, springs, and waterfalls.
Matthew 16 tells the story of Peter declaring Jesus’ divinity as the Messiah. Jesus applauds Peter for his declaration and tells him in vs. 18-19, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The original temple, dedicated to worshipping the Greek god Pan, was built in the 3rd-century BCE but became a bustle of Christian activity in 320 CE after Christians repurposed it. With an open-air style, the temple also featured a small pool in the center.
Small crosses lined the flooring of the church and archeologists believe a statue of Pan was redesigned into a church apse. Another “very interesting stone” was found, as well, with etched crosses. Historians believe the etchings were similar to “I was here” graffiti inscribed by 6th and 7th-century pilgrims.
Dr. Iosi Bordowicz told The Times of Israel that the entire Banias National Park, in which the church was discovered, holds several historical artifacts that span from the Roman period through the Crusader era.