"We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD," said Abdul Qader al-Hussan, the head of Jordan's Rihab Center for Archaeological Studies, to The Jordan Times.
He added that the discovery was “amazing.”
The nearly 2,000-year-old church was discovered underneath Saint Georgeous Church in Rihab, Mafraq, in northern Jordan near the Syrian border. St. Georgeous dates back to 230 A.D., and is considered the oldest “proper” church in the world.
Hussan said his team has evidence to believe “this church sheltered the early Christians – the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ.”
These 70 early Christians are said to have fled persecution in Jerusalem, particularly to Rihab, and founded churches in northern Jordan. Historical sources, according to Hussan, suggest the 70 Christians lived and practiced their faith in the underground church and only left when Christianity was embraced by Roman rulers.
“It was then when St. Georgeous was built,” said Hussan noted.
The underground church has been described as a cave with several stone seats believed to have been for the clergy and a circular shaped area, thought to be the apse – an area which usually contains the altar.
“A wall with an entrance is the only partition separating the altar from the living area,” Hussan reported.
There is also a deep tunnel in the cave thought to have led to a water source, he noted.
Bishop Deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Archimandrite Nektarious described the discovery as an “important milestone for Christians all around the world.”
"The only other cave in the world similar in shape and purpose is in Thessalonika, Greece," the bishop said, according to The Jordan Times.
Officials at the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism said they plan to use the discovery to promote tourism in the area in the near future.Some 30 churches have been discovered in Rihab, according to Hussan, and Jesus and Mary are believed to have passed through the area.