Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What Did Jesus Really Look Like?


Which of the images above is the real Jesus? Well, most people would say number 4, or perhaps 1 or 5. And they'd be wrong. In fact, number 6 is probably the most accurate picture of Jesus, although even that's just guesswork. The simple fact is that we've all been conditioned by Hollywood and Sunday School to accept an image of Jesus as tall, lean, with flowing blonde hair, fair skin and light-coloured eyes, but that doesn't fit with any of the evidence.

We only have two hints from the Bible about his looks, and both are fairly uncomplimentary. Isaiah says that he has "no comeliness" and that "there is no beauty that we should desire him". And that His face was "marred more than any other man". And in the 3rd century, Tertullian said that Jesus' body "did not reach even to human beauty, to say nothing of heavenly glory".

Apart from these direct references to his appearance, a lot can be assumed from other evidence. First, Jesus looked ordinary - when a mob was out to get Him, He hid from them simply by melting into the crowd. And at His betrayal, Judas had to point Him out to the soldiers, even though there were only 12 people in the garden, with a pre-arranged signal. These incidents show us that Jesus looked like any other Jew of His day. Archeological evidence shows the average semetic male of the era was around 5'1" and 110 pounds. Since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until He was about 30 years old, it's reasonable to assume He was more muscular and physically fit than our portraits suggest, although He did a lot of walking when He began His ministry, so it's fair to assume He would have become leaner.

How did Jesus wear His hair? Well, the apostle Paul saw Jesus and knew exactly what He looked like. In the time of Christ most men wore short hair, and in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, "Doesn't even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair, it is shameful?" Would Paul have made such a statement if Jesus had long hair?

The simple fact is, although there were no pictures of the real Jesus, or accurate descriptions, that hasn't stopped people through the ages inventing them. From the static yet profound icons of Eastern Orthodoxy to the punishing bruiser of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment", Jesus served the needs of the day. Slave-era blacks painted an African Jesus, Jesus took on almond eyes in Asia and blonde hair in Scandinavia. The consistent trend has been to make him more human, to make a Jesus that His followers could easily identify with. Caravaggio did it for Italians in the 17th century with a suffering, peasant Jesus, and the filmmaker Kevin Smith reflected the modern "Jesus is my best friend" mentality by introducing a smiling "Buddy Christ" in his movie "Dogma."

Ultimately, then, the answer to the question, "What did Jesus really look like?" is: Whatever you want Him to.

Further Reading

26 comments:

Christen said...

is it plagiarism if it's on a blog? see http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/21/arts/what-did-jesus-really-look-like.html --- note last paragraph here.

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