Christianity has long had images of Christ ranging from crucifixes in churches to pictures of him playing baseball and even movie representations which are provokingly good looking, like Diogo Morgado’s portrayal in the film Son of God. The image of Jesus Christ is considered to be of particular devotion by many Christians and a recent archeological find in Egypt may be one of the earliest such images. Found in an underground structure in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, the painting of a young man with a hand raised in blessing is one of many Coptic images and is said by its discoverers to be a possible image of Jesus. While further study is ongoing, this may be one of the earliest portraits of Jesus Christ in the world and it is all in a small area underground in Egypt.
Josep Padro, an archeologist with the Catalan Egyptology Society, has been excavating in the area of Oxyrhynchus for around 20 years. Around 45 tons of rock and rubble has been removed from the area in order to find the precious treasures. A tomb in the area is supposed to belong to a scribe who was active in the sixth and seventh centuries and various tools of a scribe have been found, as well as a pot of ink and two pens for the deceased individual to use in the afterlife. The identity of the scribe has yet to be found, but inscriptions found in the area are being studied for translation.
Nevertheless, the big news from Egypt is the finding of a possible early portrait of Jesus Christ, which Padro has called “exceptional.” Apparently, he is not the only one who thinks that. The Minister of Antiquities for Egypt, Mohamed Ibrahim, broke the news of its discovery in a press release. From now on, the Egyptian ministry has taken up the responsibility for the site and will be developing it further. Credit for its discovery, however, goes to a joint force of archeologists from the Catalan Egyptology Society and the University of Barcelona. Archeological digs are popular in the area of Oxyrynchus and there have been such finds as a temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris who rules the afterlife. The nature of the structure containing the exciting image, though, is unknown, creating a baffling mystery for the excavators. It is only eight meters long and four meters deep and there were many layers of paint on the walls with the image of the young man thought to be Christ being the most recent. Coptic inscriptions and the religious nature of the painting point to it belonging to Coptic Christians from the early centuries.
The country of Egypt has a strong connection to Christian tradition, both for its connection to Old Testament stories and New Testament ones. The Gospels record that the Holy Family, including an infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Saint Joseph, escaped to Egypt when King Herod ordered the infants in Bethlehem to be slaughtered in order to kill the foretold messiah. After the creation of the Christian church, missionary work is supposed to have taken Saint Mark, who wrote the famed gospel in the Bible, to Egypt, where he founded the church there. Coptic Christians have a strong tradition in Egypt and form over 10 percent of the population there. Additionally, Egypt has a strong link to Christian monasticism and the first monasteries are said to have started there. The discovery of a small chamber with an image of Christ is not only an indicator of the Coptic Christian tradition, but an exciting find for those who are interested in the early history of Christianity.
There have been many discoveries of images of Christ. As devotional aids, it is understandable that Christians would want to see what their savior looked like in order to create a personal connection with him. The find in Egypt may not be the earliest, but it is one of the most exciting because it is so early. Josep Padro is optimistic about it and the archeologists in the area will no doubt study it for some time. Nevertheless, the excitement surrounding what could be a very early portrait of Jesus Christ found in Egypt remains both for scientists and Christians.
By Lydia Webb