I have written previously about whether Jesus had a beard, and three years ago commented on the discussion by Joan Taylor (of King’s College, London) about what Jesus looked like. Joan has now produced a terrific book drawing together her research, and the book takes us an intriguing journey into how people thought about Jesus.
The opening chapter explores a serious puzzle in the New Testament, one which we are so used to that we do not even realise that it is there. Why do the gospels accounts include no description of Jesus’ appearance? There is a view around that the gospel writers were not eye-witnesses and so did not know, and that the gospels as ancient ‘lives’ were not concerned with such questions, since the question of Jesus’ appearance have no bearing on this theological importance. But Taylor demonstrates how mistaken such assumptions are. She agrees with the position (promoted by Richard Bauckham) that the gospels are connected with eye-witnesses, so it would have been possible to include a description of Jesus. But she offers three reason why we might expect to have some description of Jesus included.
The first relates to the gospels as first-century ‘lives’, as demonstrated by Richard Burridge some years ago. The verbs centre on the action and teaching of the main character, Jesus; the account is not linear, but gives particular focus to centra, revealing events; and a key focus is the way the main character dies, telling us the most important thing about their life. But, Taylor notes, other ‘lives’ of the time consistently do refer to the appearance of the heroes they describe—a good example being Suetonius who describes Augustus as ‘unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life’. Though she does not mention this explicitly, it is part of the Greek tradition summed up by the phrase kalos kai agathos:
In a strict sense kalos kai agathos just means “beautiful and good,” but a better rendering would be “fine and noble,” or “superior and excellent,” or even “the best that a man can be.” The phrase was used to refer to an ideal of life and behavior that every Greek cherished for himself, even if he could not embody it totally.
The outward, noble appearance of someone communicates the person’s inner virtue. This belief in the importance of appearance extended to contemporary Jewish views of Moses, who was thought to be tall and good-looking—even when he was only three years old! But this opens up the second factor—that the biblical record in the OT also notes how handsome the leaders and kings of Israel were. Joseph was ‘handsome in form and appearance’ (Gen 39.6); Moses was indeed a beautiful baby (Ex 2.2); Saul was exceptionally tall and handsome (1 Sam 9.2); though Samuel is not to choose his successor on the basis of looks, nevertheless David is also very attractive (1 Sam 16.12); and David’s son Absalom is fantastically attractive (2 Sam 14.25–26). If Jesus follows Joseph in being harmed by his people, but through that saving them from disaster, if he is the new Moses (as Matthew, organising his teaching into five ‘books’, would have it), if he is the true Davidic king—how surprising that the gospel writers ignore this important tradition.
But the third issue is the most intriguing. The gospel writers, and especially John, are emphatic about the physical reality of Jesus, the Word who ‘became flesh and tented amongst us’ (John 1.14). John tells us that Jesus was hungry and thirsty, that he was misunderstood and lauded, that he wept at the loss of a friend, and that the ‘beloved disciple’ (almost certainly John himself) leant on his chest whilst dining—and yet we are told nothing of the ‘flesh’ itself. Part of this is the gospel’s theology of sight, summed up in both John 7.24 (‘Do not judge by appearances’), the healing of the man born blind in John 9, and the summary conclusion in John 20.29, where seeing is not believing but believing is the true seeing.
Taylor then takes us on a journey through a number of traditions of the depiction of Jesus in art. The first is what she calls the ‘European Jesus’, the image that comes up immediately if we do an internet search for images of Jesus, which is expressed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, and which has frequently shaped film depictions in Western productions. She traces this image to a description in the fourteenth-century Letter of Lentulus, supposedly written by a first-century eye-witness of the gospel events, but full of historical anomalies. The most concerning aspect of this popular depiction (in one form, by Warner Sallman, distributed to all American service personnel in the Second World War), is that it removes Jesus from his historical context as a Jew—though the Jewishness of Jesus has been at the centre of academic study for the last 50 years.
The second tradition is quite distinct, and is associated with Veronica, supposedly the woman who was healed from the issue of blood (Mark 5.29) who (also supposedly, wiped Jesus’ face with a cloth which was then imprinted with his image. Taylor does a forensic job in tracing how this story arose from a misinterpretation of a third-century bronze statue of Asclepius and Hygeia, which is interesting in itself.
The third tradition of Jesus’ image is perhaps the most well-known. It relates to what are known as acheiropoieta, a Greek phrase meaning ‘not made by human hands’, which are images made as imprints of Jesus—the most famous being the Shroud of Turin. After exploring other earlier acheiropoieta, Taylor gives a good summary of the issues relating to the Shroud, including noting that the weave of the cloth is clearly mediaeval, the issues around the pigmentation, and the fact that its description as a sudarium or ‘sweat-cloth’ is historically anomalous. She concludes with an intriguing thesis: that this was indeed a burial cloth, and that the marks have indeed come from a human corpse, but that it is from a mediaeval pilgrim who sought to imitate Jesus in his death (compare Phil 3.10…!), so that the image actually tells us what people in the 13th century thought Jesus might have looked like. As with previous traditions, the connection with the historical Jesus falls short.
The next two traditions take us back much earlier, to the fourth century: the image of Jesus as ‘Almighty’, depicted as ruler of the world (cosmokrator or to use the biblical term pantokrator); and the image of Jesus as ‘boy wonder’, a youthful god-like figure (which includes the image from Ravenna on the cover of the book and shown at the head of this article). In both cases, Taylor demonstrates how these are dependant on existing pagan religious traditions, particularly of Zeus and Serapis for the first, and Dionysus, Hermes and Apollo for the second. In the catacombs on Rome, Jesus appears holding a staff like Moses, whose depiction from Dura Europos Jesus resembles closely. Two final artistic traditions complete the collection: Jesus bearded like a contemporary early philosopher; and Jesus as an unkempt vagabond, based on the interpretation of Is 53.2.
In the closing chapters, Taylor then returns to the question she began with: why is Jesus’ appearance not described in the gospels? In particular, why is he not described as either impressive and good-looking, or unimpressive and disfigured? The most obvious answer, she concludes, is simply that he was neither; he was a typical and undistinctive Jewish man of his day. She then goes on to explore what Jesus as a typical Jewish man would look like, offering an engaging mixture of biblical texts with historical evidence. Jesus might well have been 5 feet 5 inches tall (the average for his day), slim, reasonably muscular, with olive-dark skin, brown eyes and short dark brown to black hair. It is not clear historically whether he would have had a beard (though I think there are some other arguments here!), and he was likely in his 30s during his ministry and at the time of his death.
Her penultimate chapter explores Jesus’ clothing and what that would have looked like. She draws on a range of historical sources, but, as before, it is the supposedly ‘symbolic’ gospel of John which gives us the most historical detail.
The Roman soldiers divided his mantles (himatia) into four shares (John 19:23), indicating that he was wearing two mantles each made of two pieces of cloth that could be separated. This is especially interesting. One of the himatiawas probably a tallith or prayer shawl. This was traditionally made of undyed creamy-colored woollen material with blue-striped edges and fringes, which would be drawn over the head when praying. While there were no fringed mantles found in the Cave of Letters, there was blue wool with fringes (tzitzith), possibly used to make them.
However, his chiton was made of one piece, which was more expensive and less practical. If you spoiled the front of this ‘shirt’ through wear and tear, then if it is in two pieces you could replace the front whilst still retaining the less worn back half. Taylor comments on this:
The soldiers did not want to rip his chiton, since it was made as one piece of cloth. It could not be separated out into pieces as was sometimes the case so they cast lots for which soldier would take it. This is curious because one person described as wearing a seamless garment is the high priest (Josephus, Ant. 3:161). Was John trying to make some hidden allusion to the high priest? Or was he simply recording a peculiarity of Jesus’s tunic? I favor the latter, because in this Gospel Jesus’s clothing is very carefully described.
As with other details in John which could be historical or symbolic, I would answer ‘Both/and’ rather than ‘Either/or.’ When Nicodemus came to Jesus in the evening, was this the time of day, or was it symbolic of his little light on who Jesus was? When the woman at the well meets Jesus at noon, is this because she was shunned by her fellows, or because she recognises Jesus for who he is in the light? When Judas goes out, was it at the night hour, or was it the moment of greatest human darkness? In every case, the answer is ‘both’.
Overall, Joan Taylor has probably offered the definitive and most comprehensive exploration of the question posed: What did Jesus look like? I think I would like to press further to note two issues, one historical and the other theological. On history, two things are worth noting. As I explore in my discussion of Jesus’ beard, it is clear that the gospel writers were constrained in their account by historical reality—and particular so in the case of John. What he writes is confirmed by archaeological evidence of first-century clothing, in ways we might not have expected. Secondly, we need to be aware that the gospels writers had the opposite challenge to us. The challenge for the first generation of Jesus’ followers was to understand this human person, whom they had known, as part of the identity of God. Our problem is precisely the opposite: to understand this person who is part of the identity of God, as being a real flesh and blood human being.
But the theological point is equally important. Taylor touches on this at several points in the book, but does not fully develop it. The history of the different traditions of depiction show that, in each case, those perpetrating these portraits were convinced that they had a connection to the historical reality of Jesus. But what is equally clear is that, in each case and in differing ways, the portraits were in fact shaped by cultural and theological issues. Though claiming to be about the fact of Jesus, they actually expressed his significance. In the NT writings, the repeated emphasis is that Jesus was the divine presence become one of us; in this sense he is an ‘everyman’, and that is why, in Paul’s writings as well as elsewhere, Jesus is not simply a first-century Jewish male, but the archetype of all humanity. The specific details of his appearance are not simply ignored as of no importance, but (it seems to me) deliberately set aside (for example in John’s theology of true seeing) in order that all might be able to relate to him as one like them.
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