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Near the ancient Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, 100 miles south of Cairo, archaeologists recently discovered an image painted on the wall of an underground stone chamber that may be an early depiction of Jesus. The image is dated to the sixth or seventh century A.D. and was probably painted by Coptic Christians.

The young man in the image has curly hair and is wearing a short tunic. Could it really be Jesus? "He raises his hand as if to make a blessing," said University of Barcelona Egyptologist Josep Padró, who is leading the excavation.

But not everyone is convinced. A reader on one news website commented, "Seriously? I've seen pieces of toast with a more worthwhile claim."

The fact that Oxyrhynchus was the center of a large Christian community, famous for its churches and monasteries around the sixth and seventh centuries, may have contributed to the speculation. Yet other factors raise questions about the image: Archaeologists aren't sure what the stone chamber was used for, why it was buried under 45 tons of stone debris, or why the image lacks some of the traditional attributes seen in ancient depictions of Jesus.

Art historian and critic David Carrier of Case Western Reserve University said that even though the image might not be how we picture Jesus, the identification is not that unusual.

"Artists tended to show Jesus as someone from their own culture," he said. "They were aware, obviously, that he came from another culture, but it was only in the 19th century that concerns with archaeological accuracy of the setting became important. When travel to the Holy Lands became easy, then it was possible to ask, 'What did he really look like? What was the ...

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May 2014

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