Egypt Dig May Have Unearthed Early Image of Jesus

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The house-church found in Dura, where an image of Jesus dating to 235 C.E. was foundCredit: Wikimedia Commons

A team of Spanish Egyptologists may have found one of the earliest-known pictures of Jesus Christ, in a 6th-century tomb unearthed in Upper Egypt. That and other images are painted onto the walls of a crypt inside an underground structure, whose use has otherwise baffled the finders.

The main attraction at Al Bahnasa is Oxyrhynchus, which was a regional capital in ancient Upper Egypt some 160km south of Cairo, where interestingly the locals apparently worshipped a sacred Nile fish that, according to legend, swallowed Osiris' penis when he was dismembered by his brother Seth. The ancient city also boasts a number of temples to Osiris. But the "exceptional" discovery the archaeological team made in the tomb dates from a much later era, the 6th century C.E., says the team headed by Spanish archaeologist Josep Padro.

The tomb is believed to have been the interment site for a writer and a priestly family, though the archaeologists do not understand the function of the underground stone structure, they admit. But inside the crypt, they found an image from the first Coptic Christian period showing a young man with curly hair and a short tunic, with a hand raised in blessing.

That, the team postulates, could be one of the earliest-known representations of Christ known in the world. Coptic writing surrounding the image is under translation.

It bears noting that portrait art at the time did not always seek to capture the realistic image of a precise person. The product could be representative rather than specific: the artist would give the king a kingly brow and nose, rather than seek to capture his actual likeness, warts and all. Even if the image found was a representation of Jesus Christ, it might not necessarily have been based on specific knowledge of his appearance, of which no known description exists. Roman portrait is one example that differed in conveying realism, even to the extreme.

An even earlier image believed to be of Jesus Christ – beardless and walking on water - was found in Syria in 2011, from around the year 235 C.E. That and several scenes from the New Testament were found at a house that served as a church in the intensely multicultural city of Dura-Europos.  

More extremely early depictions of Jesus Christ, mostly as a baby but some in adult form, were found on the walls of tombs dating from the 2nd and 3rd century in the Rome catacombs. 

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