Centuries of artistic depiction have made the image of Jesus recognizable worldwide: flowing hair, long robes, regal posture. But how likely is it that a Levantine Semite from 2,000 years ago actually looked like the fair-haired-and-skinned man represented in so much Christian religious art?
Biblical scholar Joan E. Taylor paints quite a different portrait in a challenging new book, “What Did Jesus Look Like?”
The Times of Israel reports that Taylor, a professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, argues that this image of Jesus misrepresents history and bears a closer resemblance to Greco-Roman gods, or to Hebrew figures like Moses.
The real-life Jesus, she says, likely had the short hair, trim beard and humble attire of Jewish philosophers of his time and place — the first century C.E. in the Roman province of Judea.
She describes Jesus as physically unassuming, with average looks and height, and features that — as a first-century Jew in Judea — would have been most similar to his ethnic group’s closest 21st-century parallel: contemporary Iraqi Jews. She even brings in archaeological evidence — skeletons and clothing from the period.
“In a sense, I was a little bit of a detective,” she said.
“The idea he had long, flowing robes and long hair could not be right,” Taylor said. “It was what everyone else in the Greco-Roman world looked like.”
Taylor — who also examined clothing from the period — assembled a composite portrait, depicting it in a drawing.
Jesus stood about five feet, five inches tall, “with olive-brown skin, brown-black hair and brown eyes,” she writes. She adds it is quite likely that his hair was “shortish” and that he had “some kind of beard (though not a long one).” He plausibly wore two mantles — an outer one for warmth, and an inner tallit with tzitzit — and walked in sandals. She theorizes he was physically average in appearance, based on the Gospels’ lack of specific descriptions.
“If he was particularly tall, the Gospel writers would have said, ‘Oh, he was fantastically tall and good-looking, very much like David or Moses,’” Taylor said. “They would have used that, they wanted to say he was like Moses or David … The Gospel of Matthew has a particular emphasis on Jesus like Moses, but they can’t say Jesus was good-looking like Moses.
“That’s not to say Jesus was bad-looking. If Jesus was bad-looking, I think it would have been used in regard to the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 53, early Christian ideas explaining why he was crucified in a horrible death — the ‘suffering servant’ made flesh, really. Either way, he was not super good-looking, not bad-looking, average … not super-tall [or] short, average height … The conclusion is that we need to look at averages.”
Completing a journey that has been anything but average, Taylor hopes others notice.
“Artists, filmmakers need to read my book,” she said. “It really presents a Jesus authentic to the first century. All the people in film need to be taking account what people actually wore in first-century Judea, not what we have from passion plays in the 16th, 17th century or medieval art.