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Do You Know This Man?

April 26, 2014

At the risk of violating the admonition of 2 Timothy 2:23 to avoid stupid controversies, I am going to share some thoughts evoked by a seemingly innocent few lines in the book I just finished. They referred to a picture of Christ, and suddenly my mind was awash with stray snippets of related information loosed from some obscure pigeonhole deep within my cerebral cortex.  I thought I would give them a look before refiling them.

Ask anyone, Christian or not, adult or child, what Jesus looked like, and they probably have a pretty clear mental image.  Probably that image is based upon some artist’s rendition or media image, none of which have the slightest grounding in reality.  Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, with which I’m sure many of you are familiar, is typical.

Warner Sallman, Head of Christ

Warner Sallman, Head of Christ

Perhaps the earliest representation of Jesus, dated to the second half of the 2nd century, is on the ceiling of a Roman catacomb where he appears as a beardless shepherd, a popular “likeness” at the time.

Jesus in Catacombs

Jesus in Catacombs

Some time within the next 200 years he grew a beard. By the beginning of the second millennium he looked pretty much as he is most often represented today.

In 2001, a team of British forensic anthropologists (à la CSI and Bones) came up with a very different image based on broad generalizations.  The researchers admit the result may be fairly accurate for the average man who lived in 1st century Israel, but to suggest that it is a accurate representation of Jesus is an untenable stretch.

Forensic reconstruction

Forensic reconstruction

But there are a few clues that can be gleaned from archaeological studies.  It is known that the average man in Israel in Jesus’ time was about 5’1” (155 cm) tall and weighed about 110 pounds (50 kg).  Since the Bible tells us Jesus was pretty good at disappearing amongst his countrymen, and that those who came to arrest him couldn’t pick him out from among his followers without Judas’ help, we can assume he didn’t stand out from the crowd.  Isaiah 53:2 describes Jesus as having “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”  In other words he was a pretty ordinary Joe, just another rabbi among rabbis.  So the tall, handsome figure so commonly accepted is out to lunch.

I have read suggestions that since Jesus was a carpenter, a very physically demanding trade at the time, he likely would have the brawny build of a construction worker.  However my experience in Haiti suggests to me that may be ill-considered.  Many of the men here who spend their days in backbreaking toil are slim and wiry.

The long flowing hair is highly questionable, for Paul, writing only a few years after Jesus’ death, states in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that long hair on a man was considered a “disgrace.”  Historical records bear out that men at the time wore their hair short. It is likely that his hair would likely have been curly as was typical of a Palestinian Jew.  In keeping with Jewish tradition, he would have been bearded.

Jesus was a Galilean Semite, so his skin would not have been white, but olive.  Since the Bible depicts him being outdoors a great deal, he would likely been quite swarthy, and his skin would be weather-beaten, making him look older than his thirty-odd years.  Light brown hair and blue eyes don’t fit either.

People can get pretty upset when their personal image of Jesus is challenged.  I can remember in the early 1970’s the outrage expressed by some at Willis Wheatley’s Laughing Christ (originally called Christ, Liberator).  What was it they found so offensive?  That the Lord might laugh instead of having his face fixed in the insipid deadpan common to most renderings?  While I personally very much like this sketch, I don’t for a moment imagine it is an accurate portrayal.  But it suggests something about the personality of our Lord that seems appropriate to me.  But don’t ask me to prove that.

Laughing Jesus, Liberator, Wheatly, William

Laughing Christ (Christ Liberator) by William Wheatley

I think it is important to keep in mind that any portrayal of Jesus is the creation of pure imagination.  Images of Jesus tend to look a lot like those of the culture in which the image has been created (creating God in our own image?).  While we of course are most familiar with the dominant Western depictions, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic.

Black Jesus in church in Rome, AD 350

Black Jesus in church in Rome, AD 350

The pictures we carry in our minds are often more powerful than we imagine.  They shape our image of God and the way in which we pray and think about him.  I am persuaded that in many respects ideas about matters of faith have been far more influenced by extra-Biblical sources than by the Scriptures themselves.  Many of the prevalent ideas about God and all things Biblical have been shaped by the work of artists, and more recently by all-pervasive influence of the communications media.

Of what value is this majoring in the minors?  The Scriptures seem to indicate that some of those who knew him no longer recognized him post-resurrection.  So why spend any time on “useless speculations”?   Would his appearance affect your faith? It is my (humble?) opinion that those most concerned with exactly what Jesus looked like are those who want him to look exactly like them, to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.   And we all know where Hitler took that notion.  The New Testament makes no mention of Jesus’ appearance.  Perhaps that is intentional.  Perhaps we were not meant to know.


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