What Did Jesus Look Like?

In the Zoe-Life exploration-course which is “Gleanings from the Life of Jesus,”
I meld insights from my work with Dr. Jim Fleming in the Holy Lands (in the 90’s) with spiritual formation lessons accrued over the last few decades.

Early on (as a way of describing Jim’s approach to the Scriptures and the life of Jesus), I playfully raise the question of “what did Jesus look like?”

We start out acknowledging our inclination as humans to shape life and the things of life – including God – in our own image, according to our own narrow constructs. Here, I employ the following [closing] clip from the 2-hour documentary, The Face: Jesus in Art (2001) as a way of conveying the myriad ways that Jesus has been portrayed – depending on the cultural lens through which he was viewed:


From there, we visit a Popular Mechanics article (yes, you read that right) by, Richard Neave, entitled “The Real Face of Jesus.” (You can download a copy by clicking here.)  Neave, a forensics anthropologist, is renown for his reconstruction of individuals from across the span of history (as, e.g., Charlemagne and Philip II [the father of Alexander the Great]) – based on the engagement of a variety of scientific and cultural sources. (His work was collected and published a few years ago in a book, Making Faces [Texas a & M University Anthropology Series, 1997].)

On the basis of his work (scouring the archaeological and anthropological and cultural records from Jesus’ day), Neave suggests that Jesus (in keeping with typical males of his place and time) was most likely…

  • neaves' jesus5 feet, 1 inches tall (weighing around 110 lbs),
  • short-haired (in keeping with Paul’s words about long hair being a “disgrace” for a man),
  • bearded,
  • more muscular and physically fit (than is often portrayed),
  • having dark skin (that was undoubtedly weathered).

Ultimately, he suggests this portrait of Jesus, right.

Of course, skeptics will rail – and rightly so. There is absolutely no way we can take a few skulls and bones from a given time period and reconstruct the exact appearance of a particular individual from that period. No, I will agree, this is not a picture of Jesus!

However, there is a point not to be lost here: that, without a doubt, Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he does the majority of ways that he’s been portrayed across time! Yes, we can raise legitimate questions about Neave’s portrait. But, the moment we tender those suspicions, we have to open the door to even more serious and legitimate questions about the majority of ways that Jesus has been portrayed in art and media across time.

As suggested, I’ll use all this as a way of capturing Jim Fleming’s approach to the Scriptures – and the ways it has enriched me through the years: that, like Neave, Fleming resorts to a wide spectrum of sciences and historical-cultural studies to portray Jesus of Nazareth as a first-century Jew in Palestine. Only as he is regarded in this context do his teachings and actions make full sense.

Does Fleming have Jesus “nailed”? (Maybe that’s not the best way to put it!) Absolutely not! However, for myself and so many others, his “rendition” is so much more compelling and relevant and true to the sources that it bears strong consideration and prayer.

Other examples [of the ways that Jesus and the Gospels are filtered through cultural lenses] could be added – to strengthen my argument about the value and importance of what Fleming and others like him bring to the table. (Speaking of “table,” I’ve written elsewhere about Fleming’s discussion of the Last Supper and how it was probably eaten at a u-shaped “triclinium” [three-sided reclining table] – as opposed to the typical straight-line table with chairs and Jesus centered [ala DaVince] that we are typically handed. Jim will go on to speak of the real implications of this setting, together with other Biblical mealtime customs, as we unpack the meaning of eating together at the Lord’s table.)

Eventually, though, in such coursework, we move to some sense of “implications” for our spiritual formation. (God forbid that we should just be about a head trip in the Gospels – apart from a real engagement of heart and soul and strength.)

In our discussion here, the implications – the insights for our spiritual formation — are clear. Whether it’s the question of what Jesus looked like (or what the Upper Room looked like… or any other number of things): we come to the table with all sorts of biases and preconceptions. Some we might be aware of, but most are unconscious and subconscious. Some are “safe” (perhaps) while others [like the Anglo Jesus] are blatantly and unmistakably destructive. Most of them are products of our upbringing and the sub-cultures we inhabit.

Spiritual formation work – i.e., the work of returning home to God and true self and true neighbor – advances with an awareness of these kind of biases, these defaults of mind and heart and soul. Matters of spirit and “truth” need to be held with a healthy balance of respect and suspicion. Yes, there can be no “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge the ways that baby and water can get thoroughly mixed up.

“What did Jesus look like [physically]?” may hardly be a question for many—who consider it a trivial pursuit. For my part, though, it’s a question worth taking on. For on the other side of really engaging that question, we might be in a much better position to confess and to repent of the distorting filters we possess and maintain. And, in doing so, we find ourselves better beholding Him as he really and fully was… and is.

I could (and probably should) leave it here. But, those who know me well (and my quirky sense of humor) will agree that it’s hard for me not to throw out a movie or video clip. Entertaining (at least for me) and relevant to the tenor of this article, then, is this clip from the BBC show Famalam, entitled “There is No White Jesus.” (Here, by the way, I have bleeped out one word – out of respect for those more sensitive to such language.)


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