Friday, January 29, 2010

What did Jesus Look like?

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Jesus' appearance:

Q:  How do we know what Jesus looked like?  If we do not know what He looked like, is it appropriate to attempt make a picture or statue? 

There are many characteristics which we have come to recognize as characterizing a picture of Jesus in our culture.  Typically, we see Jesus portrayed with a light complexion and long hair, smooth skin, and a beard.  There are often additional features which alert us to His identity, such as a praying posture or emanation of light, or that he is portrayed in the context of a Biblical story.

At the time Jesus lived, there were obviously no cameras or video recordings, and much of the art of that time did not survive until our present day.  When we combine this lack of visual evidence with the fact that there is no description of Jesus physical appearance given in the Gospels, we are left to look for other sources for information. 

The image we typically see today is based primarily on two sources.  The first of these is ancient art made by Christians two or three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection.  It is during this time period, the beard and long hair that we find so common in images of Jesus today became a standard feature. 

The second of these sources is the Shroud of Turin, which is an ancient piece of cloth which bears the image of a man’s body.  The legend concerning this item is that it was one of the burial cloths in which Jesus was wrapped when He was buried.  It is held that when Jesus rose from the dead, the energy discharge in that event burned his image into the shroud.  Even though these claims regarding the Shroud of Turin can neither be conclusively proven nor refuted, its image remains a primary source for modern depictions of the physical appearance of Jesus. 

While no description of Jesus physical appearance is given in the Gospels, the Bible does give us several pieces of information that inform our knowledge of what Jesus would have looked like.  In predicting the coming of the savior, Isaiah prophesies that Jesus would have “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2 ESV) In other words, He had the appearance of an ordinary man.  This is further evidenced by the Pharisees and other people during His life who rejected His claims to be God. 

We also know from the Bible that Jesus was Jewish.  This means that recent depictions of Caucasian, African, Asian, and other ethnic portrayals of Jesus are certainly inaccurate.  Instead, He would most likely have had an appearance more similar to lighter-complected residents of the modern-day Middle-east.  Additionally, we know that Jesus’ stepfather Joseph was a construction worker and therefore, Jesus would have almost certainly followed in learning that trade until He began His ministry at age thirty.  Because of the harsh work of building by hand with stone and rock, Jesus would have likely had a pronounced ruggedness not often seen in our depictions. 

The final and most important feature revealed about Jesus in the Bible is that He continued to have the scars from His crucifixion, even after He rose from the dead.  The most certain and obvious way to tell that a picture or statue portrays Jesus is to look for these marks.  The statue in the front of my church has pronounced red markings on the hands and feet, leaving no doubt that it is intended to portray Jesus.  This is a much more specific and clear way of indicating the figure is Jesus than any other.

Ultimately, there is no hard evidence regarding Jesus precise physical appearance, but if our depictions of his appearance are faithful to what we do know about Him from the Bible, instead of portraying Him the way that we would like Him to look, especially when they use clear signs such as the wounds of the crucifixion, then they have served their purpose.  This is particularly true when we remember that we are not worshipping the statue or picture, but instead the risen Lord who sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

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