This story is brought to you by a gang of Palestinian grave robbers and a gun-slinging archaeologist.
On Wednesday, Israeli archaeologists presented a newly uncovered 1,500-year-old Byzantine church in Hirbet Midras, located in the Judean hills southwest of Jerusalem, The find included an unusually well-preserved mosaic floor with images of lions, foxes, fish and peacocks. (Side note: If you dig up images in Israel, chances are they're Persian, Greek, Roman or Byzantine; the Jews strictly adhered to the ban on "graven images" in the Ten Commandments.)
Though an initial survey suggested the building was a synagogue, the excavation revealed stones carved with crosses, identifying it as a church. The building had been built atop another structure around 500 years older, dating to Roman times, when scholars believe the settlement was inhabited by Jews.
Hewn into the rock underneath that structure is a network of tunnels that archaeologists believe were used by Jewish rebels fighting Roman armies in the second century A.D.
Stone steps lead down from the floor of church to a small burial cave, which scholars suggest might have been venerated as the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah.
The claim about Zechariah has no concrete proof... yet. Ancient Christian sources dating from the fourth century claim the prophet was buried here. Hirbet Midras is also featured on Jordan's ancient Madaba map as "the city of Zechariah," and when it comes to finding ancient ruins, this map has generally been right on the nose.
To date, however, no one has found any concrete evidence linking the spot to the Old Testament prophet. That said, I don't have any concrete evidence that it's not the tomb of Zechariah. All the Bible has to say about Zechariah's death is that he was murdered "between the Temple and the altar" in Jerusalem (Matthew 23:35).
For now, we'll say the jury's still out on that one. At any rate, it looks like the Israel Antiquities Authority intends to promote the site as "the tomb of Zechariah" for the tourist appeal.
"It's been years since we've made a find like this," said Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Robbery Prevention unit.
Ganor is an archaeologist who carries a handgun. His team spends much of its time trying to catch thieves, spending nights lying in ambush or setting up stings for crooked antiquities dealers.
The thieves often vandalize or destroy archaeological remains before Ganor's unit can catch them. But in this case, he said, a group of Palestinians from the West Bank who were plundering ancient coins revealed the location of the lost church, some 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem.
To view a slide show of Hirbet Midras please visit www.cbn.com/gallery/.
You can find more information on Hirbet Midras on this blog, called "Mosaic Art Now." It contains far more detail than most news stories I've seen on the web.
Also, here's the official press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority.