I Care What Jesus Looks Like

[Graphics by Jeremy Grant]

I used to think Jesus was an effeminate white guy. Of course, that had something to do with the fact that every depiction I saw confirmed that: shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, creamy skin, clean-shaven face, slim figure. Basically, Jesus looked a lot like me.

The result was that I felt all cozy around Jesus. I felt extra comfortable about sidling up to a guy who habitually cradled babies and lambs in the crook of his delicate arms. He was not the sort of guy who would have guzzled beer while shouting at his favorite team on TV. He was not the type who drooled over his computer watching porn. And, for heaven’s sake, he did not curse his mother under his breath when he stubbed his toe.

All of this made him more like me: an ordinary, cute, and prudish white American Christian. How nice! Maybe Jesus and I could drink tea on a love seat in heaven one day and discuss our feelings about the apocalypse. (After all, the Jesus I knew would make a great talk therapist.)

But a few months ago, my husband led a group of Christians we know in an exercise where we viewed and discussed any and all depictions of Jesus we could find. To be honest, I was unsettled.

The many faces of Jesus

Obviously, there were the familiar 1950s white Jesuses, the ones influenced by older depictions of Jesus from the Middle Ages. The Catholic church at the time mistrusted men with black skin (hmm . . . sound familiar?) because they interpreted some Bible verses that link light with good and dark with evil (and extrapolated from there).

So the Church commissioned painters during the Renaissance to use Italian models to fill out Biblical scenes frescoed inside cathedrals. There were riffs off of that Jesus, too, like the Jesus painted by the child prodigy Akiane Kramarik (titled “Prince of Peace”).

Some photos we looked at were parodies, like the picture of Jesus cradling a tiny Tyrannosaurus Rex as a volcano blows up in the background with a caption that reads: “Sorry, Rex, there’s no room on the Ark for you.”

Then there was the Shroud of Turin, which is in a whole other mystical category of its own.

But the image that unsettled me was a composite created by forensic medical artist Richard Neave for a BBC program that aired in 2001. With the help of the Shroud of Turin, a team of experts, a first century male skull found in Israel, and some high-tech software, an image of Jesus emerged like I have never seen. The man staring at me in this picture looked nothing like the guy I know.
Continue reading at On Faith, where this piece was originally published in 2015.

About Liz Grant

Published author. Married to an artist. Two kids. Lives in a brick house in Denver, Colorado. Follower of Jesus. Find me on Instagram @elizcharlottegrant.

2 Responses

  1. Fascinating!

    I lived in the Middle East for a couple of years (Aleppo, Syria) and got a sense of what an Aramaic Jesus may have looked like. The history of our imagining of him is, as you explore here, so interesting. It makes me think of the question I sometimes ask my students (when I’m feeling really provocative): Did God create Man or did Man create God?


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