A newly discovered mosaic in the western Galilee in Israel is offering new clues that women have played a significant role in the early church.
The Greek-language mosaic, which dates back to the fifth century, memorializes a woman by the name of "Sausann," or Shoshana, who was one of several donors that helped fund the construction of a village church.
Sausann is thought to be a woman of some standing, and presumed to be named after the female disciple Susannah, who was mentioned in Luke 8:3 as one of the women who helped support Jesus and His disciples "out of their own means."
She was credited in the inscription without any mention of a spouse or male guardian, which is said to be unusual in a patriarchal society.
"She's an independent woman who donated money to the church, which says something about life in the Galilean village," said Kinneret College archaeologist Mordechai Aviam.
According to Times of Israel, the mosaic was one of seven inscriptions that were found in three Byzantine churches during this summer's excavations by Aviam and historian Jacob Ashkenazi.
The five-meter-long Greek inscription, the largest found in the area, also names Irenaeus as the bishop of Tyre upon the church's completion in 445 A.D.
The bishop is said to be a friend of Nestorius, a controversial figure who is known for speaking against the "Theotokos," a philosophy that holds that Jesus' mother Mary was the "God-bearer." Nestorius promoted the idea that Mary gave birth to a human who was divine, a teaching that laid the ground for the schism in the Byzantine period church.
Until the discovery of the mosaic, researchers were unsure about the year of Irenaeus' ordination as a bishop of Tyre.
The inscription puts the date of the church's completion as 445 and accords Irenaeus the title of "episkopos" or bishop of Tyre, providing historical credence to a date as early as 444 A.D. for his ordination.
Aviam said that the inscriptions also offer clues about the villagers who commissioned the mosaics.
He noted that the there are indications that the villagers were originally pagan converts based on their names, as well as the remnants of pagan temples and the types of pottery found on site.
"They don't have 'Jewish' names, which tells us that if they were Jews that converted to Christianity, they likely changed their names," Aviam said.
He also noted that the archaeologists found temple pieces that were reused in building the church. "In one church we had three pedestals which were reused in the building of the church in the walls," he said, noting that one had an image within a wreath, which archaeologists consider as a sign of pagan influence.
Aviam is expected to publish the archaeological team's findings at the end of its three-year grant. He said that team has also dug some other parts of the structures to determine its exact building plan, but they tried to keep the excavation work to a minimum.
"When we dig and uncover a site, it's a stage in the destruction of the building. So we excavated small areas to be more ethical. We preserved more — and lost less money," he said.