Review by Nick Mattiske
Jack Broadbent is an English blues guitarist who has been described as having the ‘Jesus’ look.
We can instantly picture this – thin, European good looks, full beard and long straight hair – almost certainly, ironically, not how Jesus actually looked.
Joan Taylor, in What did Jesus Look Like?, traces this traditional image of Jesus far back, partly to supposed miraculous transferrals of Jesus’ visage to pieces of cloth, such as the Turin Shroud. As far as accuracy goes the Shroud, as well as being traceable only to the medieval era, doesn’t accord with what historical research tells us Jesus probably looked like.
There are other, less prominent traditions, with Jesus being pictured, such as in a beautiful baptismal scene mosaic in Ravenna, as a ‘boy wonder’. This possibly borrows from the imagery of Greek and Roman gods, which are often clean-shaven, youthful, handsome and strong.
Alternatively, Jesus’ status as a poor, wandering teacher matches the Greek philosophers, who often dismissed such superficial preoccupations as grooming. Some portrayals of Jesus as leader owe something to depictions of Moses, in which, in turn, we can see the influence of images of the patriarchal, bearded figure of Zeus.
Obviously, there is a strong symbolic undercurrent in all these portrayals. Images of Jesus have over the centuries provided a focus for devotional practices, and in them there is a sense not so much of trying to capture the historical Jesus, but of affirming in visual form various non-visual characteristics of Jesus.
The Israelites of the Old Testament were forbidden to make images of God, perhaps rightly, because God cannot be reduced to a particular set of characteristics.
The writers of the New Testament didn’t bother to describe Jesus’ appearance because their emphasis was elsewhere. However, Jesus was an actual person, with a particular identity (unless we accept the odd Gnostic belief that he was something of a shape shifter), so naturally there has been curiosity about his appearance.
Images are powerful, leaving impressions that are hard to shake off. Over the centuries Jesus has become whiter and blonder, reflecting a Church that has its heartland and history in Europe, but Jesus himself was not what we would call Western.
Although more recently scholars have drawn attention to the obvious fact that Jesus was Jewish and Middle Eastern, an internet image search for ‘Jesus’ turns up an overwhelming majority of European Jesuses.
As theological lecturer Robyn Whitaker recently highlighted, this ongoing bias can cause us to miss seeing Jesus in the marginalised such as refugees.
From her research, Taylor decides that Jesus probably looked like just an ordinary Middle Eastern guy. This is a conclusion that should warn us away from making Jesus in our own image thereby confirming our prejudices.
And yet the flipside to this is that people from various cultures imagine Jesus in a variety of ways, as one of their own, because of the universal appeal, not of his appearance, but of the extraordinary things he said and did.
Available from Bloomsbury: https://bloomsbury.com/au/what-did-jesus-look-like-9780567671509/