Christianity in Egypt started 200 years earlier than previously thought, says study

A recent archeological study conducted by researchers at the American institution Brigham Young University (BYU) has exposed indications suggesting Christianity came to Egypt two centuries earlier than previously believed. The Delhi-based ANI news agency reported on the study in its Tuesday coverage.

Digging at the edge of the Fayoum oasis, south of Cairo, in a spot called Fag al-Gamous (Way of the Water Buffalo), the research team, according to ANI, discovered a necropolis in which the dead were buried in layers of graves, leaving a record of how burial practices changed between 350 BC and 500 AD.

The Bible says Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for a time with Jesus, then a young child, to escape Herod's henchmen. About 50 years later, the Bible says, St. Mark established a church in Alexandria.

But according to scholars, Christianity didn't take root in the Land of the Pyramids for another three centuries.

BYU's archaeologist C. Wilfred Griggs and his colleagues burrowed into the tomb and documented shifts in burials that he believes point to early Christian influences, according to ANI's coverage of the report.

"All the burials we encountered were 'head east' burials, but, when we got to the bottom of the shaft, we found them 'head west'," The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Griggs, a BYU professor of ancient scripture who has led the university's Egypt excavations since 1981, as saying.

"What happened? Did someone miss the program? I became aware we had a pattern here."

"Right around the end of the first century, the burial started changing," he said. "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 1700 graves, which yielded numerous artifacts that Griggs suspects are the oldest-known pieces of Christian iconography. The artifacts were found 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, reports ANI.

While his ideas have generated skepticism, Griggs says no one has offered an alternate interpretation of the Fag al-Gamous finds.

David Whitchurch, another professor of ancient scripture involved with BYU's dig, said 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.

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. We know Christianity spread to Egypt. How far it spread and how early is open to question," Whitchurch added.

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