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Eusebius Vindicated?

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.

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Free Medieval Immersion!

It’s a little beyond the purview of a patristics blog, but it’s well worth your attention. The esteemed Paul Crawford is organizing a conference titled “Dancing with Death: Warfare, Wounds and Disease in the Middle Ages.” It’s more than an academic conference. It’s going to be great fun — as a conference titled “Dancing with Death” should be — an immersion in medieval culture and warfare, filled with great spectacles. Warhorses! Beowulf! It’s open to the general public. And it’s all FREE. Mark your calendars now: October 20-22, 2010, at California University of Pennsylvania. (Yes, please note that it’s in Pennsylvania!)

Highlights of this series of events include two talks by Cambridge University professor, paleopathologist, and practicing surgeon Piers Mitchell; an overview of medieval military history by the foremost historian of crusade military history, John France (University of Wales-Swansea); a debate over the effectiveness of the medieval longbow by medieval military historians Kelly DeVries (Loyola University-Maryland) and Clifford R. Rogers (US Military Academy, West Point); a talk on trauma to casualties after the battle of Towton (1461) in England, by Anthea Boylston (University of Leeds); a talk on palaeopathology in Asia by Christine Lee (Beijing University), who has just been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer; and a discussion of violence and trauma in literature by Anthony Adams (Brown University).

In addition, there will be displays of Friesian horses (the closest living representative of the medieval warhorse); demonstrations of historically accurate fencing and combat by John Lennox and Steve Huff, internationally renowned experts in the field whose work has been seen in film and on stage; a book signing; and receptions in which the public can meet and talk to the speakers.

The final event is a performance of the first part of “Beowulf” by internationally-acclaimed early music specialist Benjamin Bagby. Mr. Bagby, who was a co-founder of the early music group Sequentia, will also offer a workshop in “Beowulf.”

All events are free, open to the public, and intended for general audiences.

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One Is Silver and the Other …

Today the Aquilinas mark twenty-five years of wedded bliss. What did the Fathers have to say about this “silver anniversary” stuff? Here’s Leo the Great:

In a great house, as the Apostle explains, there must needs be various vessels, some of gold and of silver, and some of wood and of earth: but their purpose varies with the quality of their material, and the use of the precious and of the cheap kinds is not the same. For everything will be in disorder if the earthen ware be preferred to the golden, or the wooden to the silver. And as the wooden or earthen vessels are a figure of those men who are hitherto conspicuous for no virtues; so in the golden or silver vessels they no doubt are represented who, having passed through the fire of long experience, and through the furnace of protracted toil have deserved to be tried gold and pure silver.

My wife, Terri, has taken to the refinement rather well — well enough for both of us, I hope. She’s the purest of silver, by Leo’s standard or anybody’s, and should attain golden well in advance of our fiftieth.

I remember my dad (God rest his soul) telling my niece Melissa that he hoped to sneak into heaven by hiding behind his wife. Melissa responded that, unless he lost a lot of weight, he wasn’t gonna be hiding behind anybody.

I’d better get in shape.

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Roma Bella

I know that some of you have been waiting to hear a report on the pilgrimage to Rome. At first I was waiting till other pilgrims posted photos, but now I discover that Facebook has changed the dynamic a bit. I’m not on Facebook, so I’ll share this shot with you. How was my time in Rome? How could it be anything but wonderful when I spent my days with these two bright and lovely young women (my daughters)?

It was a much richer pilgrimage with art historian Liz Lev as our guide. It was my seventh trip to the Eternal City, but with Liz’s guidance I felt as if I saw the ancient city for the first time.

Happy Feast of Saints Peter and Paul to everyone. Remember: no one in Rome works today.

And apparently that’s a favored straight line for Italian comedians.

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Murphy’s Law-dable and Audible

My friend Ian Murphy teaches theology at Duquesne University and religious studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Now comes the news that he’s taking his talents to a bigger classroom. “An Evening with Ian” will run on radio Saturday evenings 7-8 p.m. through the summer. The debut is tomorrow, Saturday, June 5. The show broadcasts on WMUG 105.1 FM out of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and also online.  If you click on the web link, the page will have a “Listen Online” feature in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.  If you email the show at, you may hear his response during the broadcast.
According to the promotional materials, “this time of story-telling and Scripture presents a fresh approach to the Gospel that makes theology accessible to everybody, and with plenty of laughs!”

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The Whole Earth Keeps Silence

Holy Saturday, according to Epiphanius of Cyprus.

Something strange is happening … there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” . . .

You can read the rest by clicking here.

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Clergy Invited to Exorcism Conference

A semi-public service announcement.

On May 25-27, 2010 the International Association of Exorcists will put on a conference on exorcism ministry at the Gilmary Catholic Retreat Center in the Pittsburgh diocese. This conference is not open to the public, only clergy and others that are approved will be admitted. Topics will include: the place of exorcism in the Church, training exorcists, diocese team formation, the new and old exorcism rite, exorcism vs. deliverance, law and liability, occult crime, canonical perspectives, and ethics.

The following are presenting: Fr. Giancarlo Gramolazzo, president of IAE (Vatican, health allowing). Dr. Richard Gallagher (governing body IAE), Fr. Clement Machado (Vatican), Fr. Brian Welding (canon lawyer), Captain Jim Dooley (NYPD). Other speakers are pending.

There is a growing awareness in our Church of the harmful influence of Satan in the lives of believers and non-believers alike. In his foreword to Fr. Fortea’s book Interview With an Exorcist, Bp. Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo, ND writes: “When needed, the Church continues to exercise this ministry of Jesus up to the present day, carefully discerning when true possession is present and permitting those priests, who have been trained in the rite of exorcism and with the permission of their bishop, to perform it.” This conference seeks to address these and related issues.

The cost for the Conference is $250.00 which includes food and lodging. The shuttle to and from the airport can be provided by Charlie Brown’s Airport Parking ($5 each way paid to them, call 412-262- 4931 when at airport). Priests may bring an alb and stole for the celebration of Mass.

Gilmary Catholic Retreat Center is at 601 Flaugherty Run Road Coraopolis, PA 15108. Phone: 412-264-8400. Email:

Please make fees out to the Diocese of Pittsburgh. If you have any special housing or dietary needs please let us know as soon as possible. Please send your name, title, mailing address, contact information and fee to: Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, c/o Rev. Brian Welding, 111 Blvd. Of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

Please direct any questions to Adam Blai at

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The Passing of a Mentor

One of my great mentors and benefactors died yesterday at age 89. The newspapers identified him this way: Philip Klass, Major science fiction writer in 1940s, 1950s. When I was nineteen years old and quite undeserving, Phil awarded me the internship that turned into my first job in the publishing industry. He was a man of great wit, great accomplishments, and tremendous integrity. Please remember him and his family. I can never repay the debt I owe him. Whenever there are meals on my family’s table, he helped to put them there. The day he offered me that internship, I had no idea where I was going in life. He picked me up and placed me on the road I’ve walked ever since. Read his books. His satirical fiction deserves the praise it has received, and it deserves still more. I’m pleased to have published one of his nonfiction works — a powerful essay that moves from his experience liberating the death camps at the end of WW2 to his arrival in the strange world of liberal academia in the 1960s. That piece appears in this book.

He ranks prominently among my “Fathers.” Thus I’m categorizing this under “patristics.” May he rest in peace.

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Lend Me Your Irritation

O wad some Power the giftie gie us.
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Robert Burns

At Christmas, my beloved niece Melissa notified me that I had achieved my little bit of fame and could now retire. She explained that I’d been featured — with photo and a resume of sorts — on the website Am I Annoying or Not?

I just got around to checking it out, and she’s right!

If you’ve read my blog for more than a week (Hi Mom!), you already know that I’m annoying — though you probably could come up with better reasons than you’ll find in my brief for nomination. Tom Jefford, the guy who posted it, never mentioned my punning, snoring, stammering, or foot odor, to cite just a few examples.

Mercifully, Tom the Nominator noted just a few obvious deficiencies. He also said some very kind things about me and my work.

I would, however, like to take issue with a few details in his brief for my canonical status in the Hall of Annoyance.

First: my degree is in English, not Journalism (as he stated). We English majors like to make that annoying distinction. The degree is from Penn State, and that in itself is annoying to many people. I received the university’s Oswald Award “for achievement in journalism and mass media” — probably the source of Tom’s confusion — but that recognizes work in the field, not in the classroom.

Second: Tom is needlessly annoyed by what he perceives as my authoritative status. Rest easy, good man. No one outside the state asylums considers me an authority on anything. I don’t claim to be a scholar. I don’t try to hide my lack of advanced degrees. I’m a reporter covering a certain beat. Yes, it helps if a journalist covering the field of oncology happens to hold a degree in medicine — but very few do. Then again, few oncologists can write about their field in a way that ordinary people can understand. I believe that the Fathers belong to everyone, not just scholars. I also believe that Christians outside the academy should be made aware of what the good scholars are doing. Unless someone volunteers for the job of patristic journalist and publicist, it ain’t gonna happen.

I’d like to plead “not guilty” to Tom’s charge that my works are “cut-and-paste.” I do begin with Lightfoot and the old ANF and NPNF translations, which I acknowledge everywhere, but I perform major surgery on them before I include them in my books, and I do consult the originals when I can and when I need to. I can’t say I “know” the original languages the way native speakers did, or the way a doctoral candidate should, but I did well enough way back when to get A’s from Sister M. Herberta Burns, IHM, who was no easy grader. Like most journalists who have a beat, I know my limitations, and I rely on good interpreters, including a luminous one named Jefford.

In making his case, Tom observed that “Many, if not most Christians, don’t know or care who the Church Fathers were,” and I’m afraid he’s right. Alas.

But enough. As I said, Tom found some extremely kind things to say about me. And he placed me on his lists with some remarkable people, like Justin Martyr. And, so far at least, less than half the people who voted found me annoying. That could change, now that my kids know the voting is still open. In any event, the results show me to be twice as annoying as Justin Martyr.

So I’ll be grateful for the gift the Giftie gave me for Christmas: to see myself as others see me!

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but … I am deeply — deeply — disappointed that Tom never mentioned my punning.

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Rich and Noble

LayWitness, the magazine that used to run my regular column on the Fathers, recently published my memoir (of sorts) about my father and grandfather. (They also have my old patristic columns archived on their site.)


Rich and Noble:

Wisdom from a Sicilian-American Ghetto

Calogero Aquilina, my grandfather, arrived on America’s shores on April 24, 1909. He had made the long voyage by sea from Caltanisetta, Sicily, on the S.S. Finland.

He crossed the Atlantic in overcrowded steerage. And why? For the great privilege of working in the coal mines. Such jobs were plentiful. They were also dangerous and dirty — long hours for poverty wages. They were jobs that American citizens were not eager to fill. So Calogero landed at Ellis Island, like hundreds of thousands of others, and found immediate employment.

Those were the years before the unions made their impact. The air in the mines was damp, dusty, and barely breathable. The corridors were infested with rats.

At the end of the day, the miners joined their families in one-room houses. They cooked and they ate in the place where they slept.

Calogero worked in the mines for a solid decade before the dust took over his lungs and turned them black …

The story gets happier. Read on.