Recent archeological finds suggest that Christianity arrived in Egypt much earlier than the recent textbooks tell us. If it checks out, this is a huge story.
The Bible says Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for a time with the baby Jesus to escape Herod’s henchmen. About 50 years later, St. Mark supposedly established a church in Alexandria. But Christianity didn’t take root in the Land of the Pyramids for another three centuries.
Or so scholars have said.
But now, on the edge of the Fayum oasis south of Cairo, in a spot called Fag el-Gamous, or Way of the Water Buffalo, Brigham Young University researchers have unearthed evidence that plants Christianity in Egypt two centuries earlier than many scholars believe.
There, BYU diggers have found a necropolis in which the dead were buried in layerings of graves, leaving a record of how burial practices changed between 350 B.C. and A.D. 500.
As he and his colleagues burrowed into the cemetery, archaeologist C. Wilfred Griggs documented shifts in burials that he believes point to early Christian influences.
“All the burials we encountered were ‘head east’ burials, but, when we got to the bottom of the shaft, we found them ‘head west.’ What happened? Did someone miss the program? I became aware we had a pattern here,” says Griggs, a BYU professor of ancient scripture who has led the university’s Egypt excavations since 1981.
“Right around the end of the first century, the burial started changing. Was there a mass migration or revolution? It probably resulted from a change of religion, and the only change of religion was the arrival of Christianity.”
BYU crews have located 1,700 graves, yielding numerous artifacts that Griggs suspects are the oldest-known pieces of Christian iconography in the form of crosses, fish and figurines. His theories could upend, or at least complicate, accepted ideas for how Christianity spread through Egypt during the first centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion.
“If it’s true, that would be interesting, but I would be cautious,” warns Francois Gaudard, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute who specializes in Coptic studies.
While his ideas have generated skepticism, Griggs says no one has offered an alternate interpretation of the Fag el-Gamous finds.
Other Christian signs • The BYU scholars believe the head orientation relates to beliefs about the afterlife.
A person buried with the head to the west would rise facing east, the direction from which the Christian Messiah is supposed to approach on Judgment Day, according to David Whitchurch, another professor of ancient scripture involved with BYU’s dig.
On the other hand, a person buried head east would rise facing west, a direction ancient Egyptians associated with death.
“Something is going on here, there is no question,” Whitchurch says. “We know Christianity spread to Egypt. How far it spread and how early is open to question.”
Whitchurch and Griggs led a recent conference at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, where faculty and students presented recent investigations into the textiles, dyes, DNA samples and figurines recovered from Fag el-Gamous.
The head orientation of the bodies was just one of many changes in burial custom documented by Griggs’ team.
Crews also found detailed linen textiles wrapping the bodies, terra cotta figurines depicting a maternal, possibly Mary-like figure, and crosses and wooden fish appearing as amulets on necklaces.
“We find wine amphorae and drinking cups only with head-west burials. These might represent a graveside Eucharist,” Griggs says. “Each of these adds up to a picture of Christianity. We’re building a case piece by piece, and we think the case is becoming quite compelling.”
Fayum is about 100 miles south of Alexandria, where St. Mark supposedly established a Christian church in the mid- to late-first century — a time when Egypt was under Roman political control and Hellenic cultural influences.
Not until the rule of Constantine in the fourth century did Christianity become a favored religion in the Roman Empire, according to the prevailing view. This is when the Coptic Christians rose to prominence in Egypt.
But Griggs argues the BYU team is finding Christian influence near the Nile long before the young faith won Constantine’s endorsement.
“It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Griggs says. “One piece is the spread of Christianity around the ancient world. The new pieces are showing that it was a much grander thing than previously thought.”
A visiting scholar of early Christianity attended the BYU conference and voiced skepticism.
“It would radically change theories about Christianity and Egypt and Christian self-identification,” says Lincoln Blumell, who recently joined BYU’s department of ancient scripture from Tulane University.
Blumell suggests it would be safer to start with the assumption that the new burial practices were Egyptian, then later embraced by Christians.
Dating game • Crosses are not known to be associated with Christianity until Constantine’s rule in the early fourth century, but Griggs is certain the crosses he has recovered represent Christian iconography.
He noted that early Christians easily could have adapted the ankh — the ancient Egyptian symbol for life depicted as a circle atop a T — into a cross.
But the University of Chicago’s Gaudard, while not familiar with Griggs’ theories, doubts that burial-head orientation could be a reliable reflection of religious affiliation. After examining the photo of the crosses accompanying this story, he argued that they appear to be standard Roman-era burial pieces.
“I think that the items are actually ankh signs and not Christian crosses,” Gaudard writes in an e-mail. “Indeed, as these things are really small, making an ankh with a loop on top would be very hard to carve, and the artist often would take short cuts.”
A key step in shoring up the notion that Fag el-Gamous contains a late-first-century to early-second-century Christian cemetery is dating the pottery, woven textiles and ribbons, face bundles and other artifacts buried with the dead.
Scholars can date pottery to within 50 years by analyzing its style. Since pottery’s usefulness doesn’t last long, it can reliably date an associated grave.
Kristin South, a BYU anthropology student studying the textiles enshrouding the mummies, used potsherds to date some of the 132 graves to the second century.
South would like to perform carbon-14 analysis on the organic materials recovered from the graves, but scholars are not allowed to remove artifacts from Egypt. Only one lab in the country performs radio-carbon dating, she says, and it is backlogged and expensive.
Her results suggest the textile wrappings underwent a consistent change on the head-west mummies, indicating greater care in the preparation of the dead for burial. The faces were padded with folded bundles of cloth. Bodies were bound with tightly woven ribbons rather than torn strips of linen. Dyed threads were used to weave elaborate patterns into the ribbon.
“Do these innovations signify Christian identity?” she asks. “None of the head-east burials had face bundles.”
Meanwhile, the people buried at Fag el-Gamous were not racially homogenous, further evidence that Fayum was a melting pot, according to Paul Evans, a BYU professor of microbiology.
Scholars have yet to find the ruins of the population center served by cemetery, located off Fayum’s arable land in the desert. Hair types run the gamut from blond to black and straight to curly.
Evans compared the skeletons’ cranial features and drilled tiny holes in the teeth to extract DNA samples for genetic testing.
He searched for genetic signals of in-migration to determine whether a Christian population moved in or whether native Egyptians converted to the faith. Evans says the findings are consistent with both possibilities.