Friday, January 28, 2005

What Did Jesus Look Like?

In the recently released second volume of his Collected Letters, C.S. Lewis writes to an Anglican nun who had sent him a photograph of the Shroud of Turin:
Thank you so much for the head of Our Lord from the shroud. It has grown upon me wonderfully. I don't commit myself to the genuineness. One can never be quite certain. But the great value is to make one realise that He was a man, and once even a dead man. There is so much difference between a doctrine and a realisation.
He had the picture framed and hung it on his bedroom wall, where it remained until he died.

Personally, I suspect the Shroud of Turin is a medieval creation, and the image itself has no appeal for me. But Lewis's remark about the difference between a doctrine and a realisation captures a feeling I have had recurrently about the figure of Christ. Both as an academic and as a Christian, I sometimes wonder what Jesus looked like: not out of idle curiosity, but because it helps bring me back to his concrete historical situatedness. It sets needed limits both to the devotional and to the historical imagination.

Of course, both religiously and historically, it makes no real difference what he looked like. But religiously, it is all too easy, in prayer, in devotion, in worship, to mentally fabricate a figure whose visage we quite like, and to imagine, despite our best efforts, a benign approval of ourselves and our lives in the lineaments of that Face. And historically, the temptation is similar: to construct a Jesus of the Gospels whose character and opinions are as like our own Anglo-European minds as the traditional depictions are like our own Anglo-European faces.

For this reason, I was greatly disappointed in the Christ of Mel Gibson's Passion: a handsome, long-haired Anglo. I salute the attempt (even if, in my opinion, it was unsuccessful) to create some cultural distance by using Aramaic and Latin, but it was at least partially undermined, for me, by the Hollywood hunk at the center of the story.

Well, what might he have looked like? Of course, we will never know. The recent attempts to reconstruct the physiognomy of a typical first-century Jew (as noted here) seem to me misguided; you can't just pick out a skull or two and call it typical. There are some things we can say, I think; Jesus probably had short hair. Based on the pictorial depictions of Levantine natives of the Greco-Roman period, he probably had a short beard. Like every other male in the ancient Mediterranean area, he wore a tunic next to his body, and a mantle (like a toga) over it, not a long white nightshirt or Bedouin robes.

The Dura-Europas paintings have been mentioned as a possible source for the type, and I agree (here is their depiction of Moses, for instance). I have also thought for years that the encaustic mummy paintings of Egypt provide a remarkably vivid image of what the natives of the Levant looked like. They are geographically close to ancient Palestine and chronologically no more distant than the Dura-Europas paintings. And I think that some of these images (a gallery is found here) may be closer to the countenance of the typical Levantine Jew of the first century than anything else we have. Imagine this face, as the face of Christ, and see what it does to your historical imagination.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II (Harper San Francisco, 2004), pp. 494-495.


Allen Ross Warmington said...

Thank you very much for your excellent site on the Origins and Depictions of Christ and your splendid explanation. My parents did NOT afflict me with ANY Organized Religion Mythology. Your articles are must reads. Shall pass them on to my fellow Heretics, Infidels before we go to Hell. [Snide Sarcasm intended---obvious to a philologist.]

Allen Ross Warmington
Cleveland, Ohio

Anonymous said...

IT seems to me that there is a great fear in this eurocentric dominated world to provide good emperical evidence that illustrates Jesus's highly possible background. We often tend to say we believe in the bible, yet we conveniently select what we want to believe. We then often say that it doesn't matter what jesus looks like but we fail to point at biblical truth. I want the reader to think and re-read his or her bible and don't deny yourselves what is actually stated.......forget the pastor, priest, rabbi, and imam and use some common sense and you can at least through the bible tell his skin color.."what was hidden from the wise and the prudent shall be revealed unto the babes and sucklins."

cindi said...

It doesn't really matter what he looked like. The most important thing is that he existed, he exists and he will continue to exist in the heart of every true christian.

Demetra Campbell said...

It is very inportant to me to know what my savior looks like. If it is possible to find out we must know. If not then I am fine with that. When Europe was introduced to Jesus they left alot of things out about his life. Not because they were not important,but because the infomation would not support him being Caucasian. You should not change someones history. Know Jesus as the man who walked and talked and loved and healed mankind, while he was on this earth is very inportant. Knowing that not only Caucasian can make a difference in the world good or bad,is very needed. American Black people need to know who they are and how they fit in this world instead of being seen to the world as being displaced. The world just world not be able to accept Jesus being anything but white. Point blank.