Utah, Nov 30 (ANI): Brigham Young University researchers have unearthed evidence that proves Christianity in Egypt started two centuries earlier than previously believed.
The researchers were digging on the edge of the Fayum oasis south of Cairo, in a spot called Fag el-Gamous, or Way of the Water Buffalo, when they stumbled upon the find.
The Bible says Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt for a time with the baby Jesus to escape Herod's henchmen, and about 50 years later, St. Mark supposedly established a church in Alexandria.
But according to scholars, Christianity didn't take root in the Land of the Pyramids for another three centuries.
Now BYU diggers have found a necropolis in which the dead were buried in layers of graves, leaving a record of how burial practices changed between 350 B.C. and A.D. 500.
Archaeologist C. Wilfred Griggs and his colleagues burrowed into the cemetery and 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'," 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. 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," he stated.
BYU crews have located 1,700 graves, which yielded 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 scepticism, Griggs says no one has offered an alternate interpretation of the Fag el-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. (ANI)