What Does Jesus Look Like?

The History Channel’s hit miniseries “The Bible” offers us yet another on-screen depiction of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The honor this time goes to Diogo Morgado, whom the New York Post calls “a kind of surfer Jesus.” The Portuguese actor’s Jesus is not exactly Anglo (although his on-screen accent is); but basically, this Jesus is white. And therein lies a problem.

My thoughts on what Jesus looks like were spurred by a fascinating lecture at Baylor by the University of Colorado’s Paul Harvey, author with Edward Blum of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. In spite of the Ten Commandment’s ban on “graven images” (and the worship of them), many Christians have become so used to visual representations of Christ that we often don’t give them a second thought, nor consider what they say about our mental picture of the Son of God.

The medieval church also produced artistic representations of Christ, but many Protestants assailed these icons, tapestries, and paintings as violations of the second commandment, smashing and burning many of them as they had opportunity. The Puritans and some other early settlers of America tried not to employ visual representations of God, although they surely must have had some mental image of God or Jesus as they spoke to him in prayer.

During the nineteenth century, visual images of Jesus became more common among American Protestants, and they were almost always ‘white’ – or at least not distinctly Semitic/Middle Eastern/North African, which one would think would be the preferred choice if ethnic accuracy were a priority. These images became more common – and insistent – in the years following the Civil War. Perhaps the most disturbing use of the white Jesus was in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which Jesus blessed the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

Most depictions of a white Jesus were more innocuous in intent than Birth of a Nation, and the most common one in American homes was Warner Sallman’s 1941 The Head of Christ. The commonplace depiction of Jesus as white led to indignant reactions, with some African Americans and other Christians claiming a “black Jesus” or some other Christ of their own ethnicity.

I don’t mean to go all ‘Puritan’ here, but should churches promote any visual depictions of Christ? Do the images of a white Jesus risk making God in our own image? Would a more Semitic Christ solve the problem? Or should we return to the full Reformed skepticism about using any images of God at all?

Whatever our answers, the fact remains that Christians do normally imagine Christ’s appearance as we read the Bible and pray (reported visions of Jesus have often seemed Anglo, too). Scripture, however, gives us precious little guidance about his appearance. If not the Jesus of Warner Sallman or The History Channel, then what should he look like?

 

  • http://gmail bayo alugbin

    The bible confirmed in the flight from Herold that Joseph was ordered to take baby Jesus to safety in Egypt where Mary’s relatives were.At the Cathedral in Monserat in Spain,the statute of Mary as a black woman carrying baby Jesus is central. We have the same problem of deliberate mis-racing that caused the disfiguring of the Spynix not to show an African shaped nose. Msblj.

    • JoFro

      The Egyptians are not a black race!

      • TB

        Modern Egyptians are Arabs as a result of the Arab Conquest of c. 600 AD. It’s difficult to know for sure, but ancient Eqyptians were likely much darker.

        • Philip Jenkins

          If you look at Egyptian Coptic Christians, all of whom are descended from the ancient Egyptian population, and whose liturgical language is also pure old Egyptian, then they look very much like their non-Coptic neighbors. So no, Egyptians have not got lighter over time.

    • Dave

      Don’t dismiss the Diaspora–there were Semitic Jews all over the Mediterranean and beyond.

    • Dave

      “… Christians do normally imagine Christ’s appearance as we read the Bible and pray (reported visions of Jesus have often seemed Anglo, too). ”

      I am a minority who has never, not one time, imaged an Anglo Jesus in Bible reading and prayer. Knowing what Anglos have done to my people easily precludes that.

  • http://collingarbarino.com Collin Garbarino

    I wish someone would depict Jesus with short hair. Short hair was the style back then, but for some reason we assume that every Jewish teacher had taken a Nazirite vow. Jesus the “wine-bibber” probably cut his hair too.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      great point, Collin.

  • Miles Mullin

    A great post. I can’t wait until ISR posts the lecture on-line.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      thanks, Miles. Should be up in a week or so.

  • johnturner

    One quibble / question. Does Jesus actually bless the founding / success of the KKK in Birth of a Nation? I’ve never watched the entire film, but the scene at end appears to be the returned Christ ruling over the City of God (Prince of Peace replacing the Beast of War). Am I missing something?

    [Not to say that it's not implied in the film that Jesus would be hunky-dory with the KKK].

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      John, The Color of Christ suggests that you are correct, but I think the point remains that Christ’s presence in the millennial scene implies divine approval of the Klan’s “redemption” of the South.

  • http://peputz.blogspot.com Paul Putz

    After reading The Color of Christ, I too thought about the problem of depicting Christ, and still have reached no satisfactory conclusion. On the one hand, I think visual representations of Jesus can help to subconsciously affirm one of the most important aspects of Christian doctrine, that Jesus really did live as a man on the earth, that he was not simply an ethereal, invisible being. On the other hand, the inevitable falseness of our depictions of Jesus may lend themselves to various forms of idolatry (i.e. making Jesus in our image). One of the most fascinating bits in The Color of Christ for me was their discussion of the importance that the fraudulent “Publius Lentulus letter” played in shaping 19th and early-20th century depictions of Christ. I had never heard of that document until I read the book.

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  • kierkegaard71

    Anecdotal point: within the last year, I attended a church service where Sallman’s “The Head of Christ” was positioned on the wall front and center behind the pulpit. Although I don’t think I can pronounce it “wrong”, nonetheless, it kind of weirded me out. Definitely had more of the feel of giving worship to the painted image.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      It would be interesting to know how many churches have ever, or still do, have Sallman displayed like this.

  • http://www.colorofchrist.com Edward Blum

    Great discussion! I’m fine with “going all Puritan” in this regard. For Jesus with short hair, check out 1927 KING OF KINGS and also the Popular Mechanics Jesus image. Both have short hair.

    • Philip Jenkins

      I hope I haven’t missed this in the thread already, so bear with me, but a couple of years ago there was an interesting attempt to reconstruct the face of Jesus as a typical first century Jew. It appeared in lot of places, but see for instance here:
      http://www.capecodtoday.com/node/8378

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      thanks for these references, Ed and Philip!

  • John C.Gardner

    This is an interesting question(i.e. the color, ethnicity of Jesus). For example, I have seen Caucasian Jesus pictures in black homes and would also note that the Bible itself does not provide us with any descriptions of Christ or the Apostles. My question regarding the depiction of Jesus is whether this was a conscious attempt to cater to a largely white conservative evangelical audience or whether it was simply an unconcious decision that might or might not reflect white preferences. Race and depictions of Christ have often reflected the culture as do depictions of Paul in Byzantine times(for example).

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      John, good question. I expect that establishing intent is difficult in these cases, but the default in mainstream media became ‘white’ by the mid-19c.

  • JoFro

    The first images of Christ created show a young man carrying a sheep – he mostly has no beard, though there are a few bearded images, is youthful and vigourous and his hair is short – basically his look is similar to the Greek pastoral musician Orpheus.
    As his image moves beyond the Greek world, he becomes similar to the image of a Roman – wearing long tunics, bearded, imperial – these images start from aroud 300AD

    Check out this awesome documentary

    The Face – JESUS in Art – Part 1 of 8 – watch all episodes
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX1yZdzOHpo

  • Carl Palmateer

    I’m with the Reformers. End the images.

  • Joan

    I like to believe that Jesus was a slim man with olive toned skin, blue eyes, beard/mustache, shoulder length and desheveled hair. Sometimes His eyes were stern, but mostly kind, with a slight smile. This is how my Jesus looks to me.

  • dabhidh

    Images were forbidden in the OT Law because God had not at that time presented Himself in visible form. When God became man in the Incarnation, God became visible. The Incarnation changes everything. The problem comes when we miss the point of the Incarnation, which is that God became man, not God became a white man or a black man or a red man.

    The image of Jesus communicates a powerful truth that is supposed to challenge us and give us hope, because the Incarnation means that God has stepped down to meet us. When we complain that an image of Jesus is not the right color or height or build or hairstyle, we completely miss the truth in order to perpetuate a truly worthless human squabble. A white man is more like a black man or a red man or any other kind of man than any man is like God, but in the fact of the Incarnation, God became like unto every human being.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

    Nobody really knows. Except that the Bible says he was average looking.

    He could have looked like Woody Allen, for all we know.

    More important is what He did for us REAL sinners! (who quite often, don’t look so good)

    Thanks.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I was just reading John Swansburg’s article in SLATE about Lew Wallace, author of BEN-HUR (1880), one of the all time great religious best-sellers.

    The article is well worth reading for multiple reasons: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2013/03/ben_hur_and_lew_wallace_how_the_scapegoat_of_shiloh_became_one_of_the_best.single.html

    Swansburg quotes Wallace’s quite daring and innovative portrait of the young Jesus:

    “…looking up, [Judah] saw a face he never forgot—the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.”

    He comments, “The scene is remarkable for having been created out of whole cloth; inventing occurrences in the life of Jesus simply wasn’t done in 19th-century Biblical fiction. It’s also notable for its detailed physical portrait of Christ, who is described as he’d rarely been before, in the Gospels or elsewhere. Wallace wrote of the pallor of Jesus’ complexion, the ‘reddish golden’ highlights the sun leaves in that chestnut hair, and even the impressive length of his eyelashes.”

  • Ralph Kinney Bennett

    Who cares? Who really cares, what Jesus looked like.? God’s revealed word in its wisdom says nothing about the physical appearance of Jesus. We might surmise, from such prophetic passages as Isaiah 53:2 (“He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him.”) that he was a very ordinary looking Jewish man. The power of his presence must have been decidedly striking when he chose to exercise it. The Holy Spirit, I believe, purposely guided the Gospel writers to leave all references to physical appearance out because they were absolutely irrelevant. Who He was (and is) lay in what He did, what He said, how He conducted himself in every circumstance of life. The whole force of Scripture for the Christian is summed up in “live like Jesus.” The whole force of Scripture tells us (though few of us have let it sink in) that “if you live like Jesus, act like Jesus, do as He did, then the matter of who you are, where you came from, how you speak, how you look, is totally irrelevant. You are child of God. Live like one.” Given the fascinating variety of God’s human creation, we can suck our thumbs until the end of time wondering why God chose to enter our history when He did, where He did, and in the particular form He chose. But the larger lesson, the implicit lesson, is that only our hearts, and souls — answerable to Almighty God — are what count. I do not live like Jesus. I try and I fail. I stumble. I don’t know what He looked like, but I have a pretty vivid idea of how his blood looked when it was shed beneath a Roman whip and on a cross to cover my sins. That’s what’s important to me.

  • James Stagg

    May I suggest you use the face depicted on the Shroud of Turin? Most Eastern icons use a face that is almost identical, down to detail, with that of the historically-authenticated (1st century) Shroud. Comparisons with the image on the Suderium have been positive.

  • Obo

    Semitic people look pretty white to me. Like white people with a tan. It’s not like there are no fair-skinned people in the middle east anyway.

    It’s understandable that people want a Jesus that looks like them. It makes him easier to relate too. This song is relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s49gEmTlOTk

    No-one can prove what he looked like and how he looked isn’t the point; it’s what he stood for.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

    For a related debate, here’s Religion News Service on the black-skinned Satan http://www.religionnews.com/2013/03/28/dark-skinned-satan-has-a-long-history/

  • http://gravatar.com/rumitoid rumitoid

    I found the casting for this movie to be atrocious and the acting not mmuch better. A Black Satan and a White Christ: what were they thinking?

  • Cookworth

    He looks like this:

    See, he never actailly existed so its like asking if the easter bunny would be winter white or summer brown? Doesnt really matter since the easter bunny is a myth, just like jesus and just like hercules.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/almihrab Irfan

    Thanks for bringing this up. I always find it interesting that most Christians in the U.S. believe that Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him) was White, Spoke English and was pretty much an “Anglo-Saxon” like them. In reality, Jesus was a Middle Easterner, who had much darker skin that what is typically shown on TV/movies, He also did not speak English, and Lastly, what he taught – to be peaceful, help the poor, not to be in debt and not to be involved with interest and against violence, is against what most Americans do these days!

  • GBJames

    The marvelous thing about fictional characters is that you can make them into anything you want.

  • http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com John W. Morehead

    Based upon a forensic reconstruction of the Semitic peoples of the first century ancient near east: http://adishakti.org/images/jesus_discovery.jpg

  • Scooter

    Ok I know this a tad late in the conversation, but I wanted to ask the question. If the people that chose the books of the bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, were some of the artisans inspired by the Holy Spirit as well? Or were all of the pictures of Jesus, like all the holy holidays, pagan in nature?


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