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.