Jesus Christ is arguably the most famous man who ever lived. His image adorns countless churches, icons, and paintings. He is the subject of millions of statues, sculptures, devotional objects and works of art. Everyone can conjure an image of Jesus: usually as a handsome, white man with flowing locks and pristine linen robes.
But what did Jesus really look like? Is our popular image of Jesus overly westernized and untrue to historical reality?
This question continues to fascinate. Leading Christian Origins scholar Joan E. Taylor surveys the historical evidence, and the prevalent image of Jesus in art and culture, to suggest an entirely different vision of this most famous of men.
He may even have had short hair.
The publisher has sent a review copy of this exceptionally grand book.
The title of the book poses a question: what did Jesus look like? At first blush it may seem that the aim of the book is to answer that question of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth but in fact the question, more fully stated, which this book addresses is far more comprehensive than merely wondering what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. It wonders how Jesus has been imagined through the entire history of Christianity. What did Jesus look like to the Byzantines? What did he look like to Europeans? How has he been portrayed in art and icon?
The result of Taylor’s incisive study is a spectacular survey. Chapter one lays the groundwork and states explicitly that the Gospels tell us nothing about the physical appearance of Jesus. But people have an innate desire to know – to see in their minds – famous and impressive persons. So the Church commenced a quest for the physical Jesus and it did it in art and in literature; in literary imagery and artistic renderings.
In her own words
In this book we will embark on a quest, moving through the portrayals of Jesus in art, relics, and literature, in order to see whether there are vestiges of true information about Jesus’ appearance anywhere in these (p. 14).
We will see that Christian authors from the second century onwards believed that Jesus was ugly and short, extrapolating his appearance from the prophecy of Isaiah 53, and we will trace the legacy of this notion (ibid.).
What did Jesus look like? We may not be able to create a perfect photograph, but perhaps we can move closer to a truer depiction than the one we have inherited, even if the result is a little blurry (ibid.).
And then commences, in the second chapter, a survey so rich in textual illustration and artistry that by the time the reader has made it through to the end of the book their only utterance is a quietly whispered ‘wow’ breathed out in awe.
Taylor provides all the evidence one needs to see Jesus as he was seen by his friends and foes decades and centuries and millennia after his death. And the learning on exhibit in these pages is just jaw-dropping. I know a fair bit about the history of Christianity but I learned something I had never known before from virtually every single page of this volume.
Those interested in particular relics and reliquaries will also have plenty to consider when reading through the volume. The relics discussed naturally include the so called Shroud of Turin, which Taylor thinks inauthentic (i.e., not ancient). The chief factor in the promotion of all such relics were their ability to draw in tourists and their money. To be sure-
They can inspire us and create deep responses. But they do not take us back to the actual appearance of Jesus (p. 67).
And I haven’t even mentioned yet the seventy seven plates incorporated into the prose of the work; brilliant color, sharp images, and clarity the likes of which one finds only in those beautiful coffee table art books that used to adorn your grandparent’s houses.
Add to all of this- the genius writing and the fantastic illustrations- the very full historical detail and the helpful bibliography and the thorough index and this volume is, insofar as such things are possible, nearly perfect. Chapters 10 and 11 in particular, where Taylor addresses the topics of ethnicity, height, age, hair, and clothing and one comes away knowing more about the man Jesus than one has ever known.
Take, for instance, this tidbit:
Without careful tending, hair was invariably subject to lice. Studies of ten combs found in the Judean desert cave have shown that in eight out of ten of these there were lice. Anyone sleeping rough [the British term for the homeless- JW], and not using a comb, would have been prone to them (p. 167).
Jesus, with lice… This book is genius. A term I am not used to using of books, or most authors and scholars. But here it applies to both book and scholar. Pure genius. Read it and you’ll not regret a page of it.