Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Egyptologists discover unusual structure with a possible early depiction of Jesus

A team of Catalan Egyptologists from the Catalan Egyptology Society and University of Barcelona claim to have found one of the earliest-known pictures of Jesus in a 6th century tomb unearthed in Upper Egypt, according to a news report in La Vanguardia.  The image found painted on the wall of the Coptic Christian crypt depicts a young man with curly hair and a short tunic, with a hand raised in blessing.

The tomb is located in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus at Al Bahnasa, approximately 160 km south of Cairo.  Previous digs in ancient city of Oxyrhynchus have unearthed temples dedicated to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, but the exact nature of the latest discovery has left the experts baffled but excited.

The crypt was discovered inside an unusual underground structure measuring 8 x 3.75 metres, the purpose of which researchers are unsure about. The subterranean stone structure was found in very good condition with walls fitted with niches were statues probably stood.  Although the research team does not know what it was used for, its “importance seems unquestionable”, according to head of the expedition, Josep Padró, who has spent over 20 years excavating sites in the area. One possibility, according to Padró, is that it is an Osireion or Serepeum (temple of the god Serapis, the Hellenised form of Osiris).

The excavation of the structure involved a massive effort to remove very heavy debris (more than 45 tonnes), in a meticulous operation overseen by an architect and an engineer.  The researchers believe the debris was placed there purposely, possibly to protect the tomb from looters. 
The team had to remove more than 45 tonnes of debris. Credit: La Vanguardia.
The research team believes the burial chamber belonged to a priestly family and a scribe, based on the discovery of an inkwell still full of ink.  “The walls are covered with 5 or 6 layers of paint, the last corresponding to the time of the early Coptic Christians,” said Padró. It “could be a very primitive image of Jesus Christ, similar to those found in Roman catacombs, while not ruling out that it could correspond to a Saint.”
If found to be an image of Jesus, which may be established following translations of Coptic inscriptions located around the image, it would be among the earliest known representations of Jesus.
The oldest known portrait of Jesus, known as ‘The Healing of the Paralytic’, was found in Dura-Eurpos, Syria and dates to about 235 AD.  It shows Jesus as a beardless young man of authoritative and dignified bearing. He is depicted dressed in the style of a young philosopher, with close-cropped hair and wearing a tunic and cloak – signs of good breeding in Greco-Roman society. From this, it is evident that some early Christians paid no heed to the historical context of Jesus and visualised him solely in terms of their own social context, as a quasi-heroic figure, without supernatural attributes such as a halo (a fourth-century innovation).
The Healing of the Paralytic: oldest known wall painting depicting Jesus, 235 AD. Image source.
The Egyptian Ministry of Culture is now taking over responsibility for work being carried out at the archaeological site.  Currently, the painting remains protected while translations are underway, which will hopefully shed more light on the image and the function of the enigmatic structure.
Featured image: The archaeological site at Oxyrhynchus on the left and the Coptic painting, possibly of Jesus, covered by a protective layer on the right. 
Credit: La Vanguardia