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 appearance of the historical Jesus?'"
The news release mentioned the alluring possibility that an adjacent room, at the end of a worn stone staircase, may provide more clues to identification once it is excavated.
Perhaps a larger question raised by the speculation is why we find pictures of Jesus almost everywhere these days. Images of Jesus have been discovered on a wall under 45 tons of stone, on a piece of toast, in the clouds, on a pancake, and in the light cast by a chandelier. The website stuffthatlookslikejesus.com has 167 images that some people think look like Jesus—and 27 images of the Virgin Mary.
The phenomenon of seeing facial images in unexpected places is known as pareidolia, and it falls under the larger category of apophenia, seeing patterns in random data or visual noise.
Seeing patterns in random data is a human tendency with a long and rich history—consider the constellations the ancients identified in the night sky. Psychologists probe the psyche with their ink blot tests, and modern technology has replicated the brain's ability to identify images in data, as with Facebook's picture tagging suggestions.
Medical researchers report babies seek faces almost immediately after birth, so the phenomenon might be a survival instinct. Joel Voss, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Chicago, has found that test subjects are eager to derive meaning from random patterns. His research demonstrates that when people are shown meaningless computer-generated shapes, about half the time they discover something meaningful in them. It's the way our brains work.
This week a team of scientists from Canada and China published another study that showed that seeing faces in inanimate objects is "perfectly normal."
"We tend to think of visual perception of faces as a bottom up process: we see a face and then our brains interpret that information," professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto told CBC. "But what we have shown is that a lot of what we see and perceive is actually determined by biases that already exist in our brains before any external stimuli is actually processed by the brain."
Why then do people see Jesus so often? Voss said it has a lot to do with what's familiar to people. "We tend to find that people are very idiosyncratic in terms of what they see, and so there are few images that are universally meaningful," he said. "A greater portion of your visual system is devoted to recognizing a particular image if you have seen it many times before in your life."
By the same token, it may depend upon what you're thinking about most often. "If I'm always thinking about Jesus, I'm more likely to see Jesus in noise," Voss told me in an interview.
One hundred thirty years ago British general Charles Gordon looked out over the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and noticed a nearby hillock with a resemblance to a face in its rocky escarpment. Gordon, like a few others of that time, suggested the hillock was Golgotha—the place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified and where a nearby tomb was used to bury him.
Today the Garden Tomb, maintained by the British-based Garden Tomb Association, remains a popular place of peace and quiet refuge in modern Jerusalem, though most archaeologists believe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the true location of Jesus' crucifixion and burial.
In a similar way, the images of Jesus may give us peace and comfort but they are no substitute for a relationship with the real Jesus who lives in our hearts.
Gordon Govier is editor of Artifax.
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