For most of my life, I assumed 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 loveseat 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.
To be fair, BBC is by no means claiming to have found the one and only photograph of Jesus, tucked away neatly into the folds of the Shroud of Turin, just waiting to be discovered two thousand years after the fact. I know it is a rendering. But the fact is, Neave created an archaeological image of Jesus that is a real possibility.
He did so by layering clay on top of an actual male skull from the first century that was unearthed in Israel, reconstructing the muscles and fat that would likely have lain beneath the skin, and then putting the image into the computer to fill in the face and hair that we see in this image of Jesus. He and his team used a hairstyle common to men of Jesus’ time, and the genetic similarities of modern-day Middle Eastern men decided the rest of Jesus’ features: dark skin and thick, curly black hair.
Of course, all of this makes sense to me. Logically, I understand that Jesus probably shares genes with a guy who looked just like this. The Bible talks about Jesus not being anything special to look at — actually, it goes further than that, saying there was nothing — nothing at all — that would attract us to him. You get the sense in the Gospels that the guy had a certain magnetism to him since he attracted crowds, but, physically? He was no part-time model.
A Jesus I can’t recognize
Still, this representation makes me squirm because, well, he’s so ordinary looking. Actually, I think the best words to describe how he looks are dumb, chubby, and hairy. This guy could just be another guy selling hot dogs at a baseball game or a homeless man pan-handling on the sidewalk (of course, that says something about me that I see these things in that face).
Frankly, I want my Jesus to stand out. I guess I still believe that to be a good leader you have to look the part — or at least look like you showered this morning.
Maybe it’s his fleshy man-ness that startles me. Our culture values the spirit and mind over the body, and I certainly find that Gnostic strain within myself. The fact that Jesus was really, truly all human and all God — a body and a spirit, as orthodox Christianity teaches — challenges my bias that the spiritual is higher, more important, and truer than the material. It shows that my humanity — my body — matters, because Jesus had a body, too.
There’s also the uncomfortable fact that this Jesus is a different race than I am. While I would love to tell you that I am unaffected by the images of Arab men that I see on the news, I know that’s a lie. I know that stereotypes are only stereotypes — that they are not normative, but purely cultural and myopic.
And yet how challenging to the U.S.’ white majority — to me — that the folks we are quick to label as terrorists in an airport security line look strikingly similar to how Jesus would look if he walked the earth today. (That feels a lot like a well-deserved punch to the gut.)
But more than race or ordinary man-ness, I feel unnerved by the BBC Jesus because I do not recognize this man. If this guy walked down the street and introduced himself to me as Jesus Christ, I would not believe my Jesus and this man were the same person. Maybe that seems insignificant to you, but I talk to Jesus every day, all day long — when I’m on the elliptical at the gym, when I chop vegetables for dinner, when I sit in my car waiting for the stoplight to turn, when I wake in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep.
Knowing Jesus is already a challenge. After all, he doesn’t exactly zip down from heaven to have a face-to-face discussion in the mall food court over stir-fried noodles. Our conversations can already feel opaque, and I understand how most people would believe that our “conversations” are imagined. Sometimes I feel that way, too.
Examining that BBC Jesus, in all his ordinary humanity, accentuates the feeling I have that perhaps the Jesus I have in my head is an optical illusion of sorts, a creation of my subconscious mind that ultimately reflects me back to me — which, on some level, I want.
If I am honest, people who look like me make me feel at ease, but someone who is different — a dark-skinned male who speaks a different native language than I do — makes me feel out of place, like maybe Jesus’ message was not just about me and for me as I sometimes interpret it to be. Maybe his message, and Jesus himself, is much larger than I am.
I know I’m not the only one who creates Jesus in my image. This seems to be universal. A quick Internet search will show you images of Asian Jesus, Black Jesus, and Aryan Jesus. It’s not surprising, seeing as people always co-opt Jesus and the Bible to legitimize their movements and philosophies — the most obvious example being the Nazis’ use of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic “theological” writings to justify their European genocide of Jews and anyone who supported them.
A second look at Jesus
My just-like-me Jesus reveals a fighting desire for comfort above all else. When I find myself begging Jesus at 3 a.m. to help my seven-month-old baby drift off to sleep instead of screaming for the next hour, I am not thinking about Jesus — I am thinking about me. That’s the problem with this Jesus of mine: I have made him exactly what I want him to be, instead of trying to accept and learn from the real, live man that he was (and, I believe, that he is).
Because as it turns out, Jesus is a real guy born into history and verified by archaeological and intellectual evidences, and the truth of who he is has nothing to do what’s going on in my twenty-first century, postmodern mind. What a relief that is! After all, I am certain about only one thing: that Jesus is much, much more than you or I know.
Incidentally, Richard Neave did not like the Jesus he had created either — he particularly disliked the eyes and mouth, which seemed to be the shared consensus on the image from most everyone who saw it. So Neave’s Jesus was revisited in 2004 for another TV show, The Mystery of Jesus, and a new face was tacked onto Neave’s creation.
Maybe Jesus himself, like Neave’s rendering, is also worth a second look.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.