Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Face of Jesus

Jesus the Christ
(by Richard Hook, 1962)
          Almost every year, when Christmas approaches, secular magazines publish stories about Jesus with outlandish claims and shocking headlines.  Even though these flimsy attempts to challenge the faith of Christian readers fall apart under examination, they successfully increase magazine-sales.  This year, however, it appears that the writers have gotten lazy.  Instead of introducing a new imaginary scandal about Jesus, they are recycling an old story about what Jesus might have looked like.  Originally the article The Real Face of Jesus by Mike Fillon appeared in Popular Mechanics in 2002.  The gist of that article is currently reappearing online, with plenty of embellishments; a video at the Salon website, for example, states that British scientists “were able to figure out the shape of Jesus’ head and facial muscles.”

Abgar, king of Edessa,
receiving the Mandylion.
(From a panel from Saint
Catherine's Monastery)
          When one takes a close look at the article, the events that led up to it are not hard to discern:  Richard Neave, a specialist at forensic reconstruction, was given some skull-bones that had been obtained from excavations of first-century sites in Israel.  Neave reconstructed the head of an individual whose skull-bones he had been given.
          Many of the details of the reconstruction, including the shape of the eyes, the shape of the ears, the shape of the nose, and the shape of the mouth, the pigmentation, and the hair-style, are based on guesswork – and this was acknowledged in the 2002 article.  What we have here is a reconstruction of the face of Random Dead Guy, and while the basic profile shows what somebody in first-century Judea could have looked like, it is not a scientific reconstruction of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hair of Jesus.  One could label Neave’s  reconstruction “The Real Face of Rabbi Gamaliel” or “The Real Face of Lazarus” or “The Real Face of the Apostle James” with more justification.
         An article called, “The Real Face of a Random First-century Jewish Man” would be more honest, but it would not sell very many magazines.  That is why we got the article-title that appeared back in 2002, and that is why we are seeing it again in 2015.  I suspect that the data from Mike Fillon’s article is being recycled not only to sell magazines but also to provide the basis for a charge of racism and/or hypocrisy against American Christians who are reluctant to open the borders to Middle-Eastern refugees, in light of the probability that Islamic extremists may take advantage of the refugee-crisis as an opportunity to enter the United States intending to do harm to Americans.  But for the moment, let’s set aside that concern, and focus on the question that has been raised:  what did Jesus look like?     
From the Catacombs of
Commodilla, at Rome
From the Catacombs of
Marcellinus, at Rome.
          We have no scientifically verified evidence of what Jesus looked like; nor do we have early historical accounts that mention his appearance (other than two Old Testament passages:   Isaiah 50:6, which mentions the beard of the Servant of the Lord, and the prophecy in Isaiah 53:2, which indicates that His physical appearance was unremarkable).  The earliest report of an image of the face of Jesus is contained in an expanded form of a story that is found in chapter 13 of Book One of Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius wrote in the early 300’s, but he stated that he had obtained the report from an earlier account, which had been written in the Syriac language and which had been found in the archives in the city of Edessa – including the text of a letter from Abgar to Jesus, and the response from Jesus to Abgar.  This report is known as the Story of Abgar and it was extremely popular in the early Middle Ages.
A page from the Rabbula Gospels, depicting
Christ's death on the cross, the visit of the
women to the empty tomb, and His appearance
to the women after He rose from the dead.
          When the story was retold in the early 400’s in a composite-work called the Doctrine of Addai, it included an additional detail, stating that the emissary of Abgar, when he realized that Jesus would not go to Abgar, was allowed to paint a picture of Jesus.  (In other versions of the story, the emissary attempts to paint a picture but is unable to do so, so Jesus Himself pours water on His face and miraculously transfers the image of His face onto a cloth.)  This item, called the Mandylion, is mentioned in accounts from as late as 944, when it is said to have been taken from Edessa to Constantinople – but written details about the image itself are not given.  Several medieval artistic representations of the Mandylion, however, still exist.    
          Similarly, there is a persistent tradition that Saint Veronica – the woman afflicted with an issue of blood, who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, as recorded in the Gospels – saw Jesus bearing the cross, and when she tried to wipe His face with a towel, the image of His face was transferred to the towel.  This tradition is the basis for the “Sixth Station of the Cross” in Easter-processions observed by some denominations.
          The earliest artistic depictions of Jesus are in wall-paintings in the Syrian city of Dura-Europos, (which was destroyed in a war in A.D. 256).  An artist used the motif of the Good Shepherd (which is not uniquely Christian – although easily adapted to interlock with Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John) in a picture above the baptistry in the earliest known Christian house-church.  Another depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.
Christ Pantocrator - the image itself (at left),
and the mirror-images of each half.

A similar image is at Constantinople.
          The pictures at Dura-Europos leave something to be desired as far as the details of Christ’s face are concerned.  Early pictures in the catacombs at Rome provide more detail.  In a Syriac manuscript of the four Gospels, known as the Rabbula Gospels, a series of pictures preceding the text includes several images of Jesus and His disciplesThis manuscript is from the year 586.
          Perhaps the most definitive early image of Jesus is the Pantocrator of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.  This icon, produced in the 500’s or 600’s (possibly in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian), employs a motif that is very widespread in Eastern Christendom.  The picture may have been designed to convey the dual nature of Christ – human, and divine.  Or, the two halves may represent the opposite roles of Christ on Judgment Day – either as a welcoming friend, or a weeping judge.
by Rembrandt (1648)
by Van Dyck (c. 1625)
          This kind of image – with dark, shoulder-length hair and dark eyes – was the standard depiction of Christ in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance.  Not all European artists adhered to it, but many of them did.  Sometimes when an artist resorted to a semi-abstract style (as in the Book of Kells) or blended mythological motifs with Christian ones, anything could happen.  Occasionally artists painted Christ without a beard – for instance, in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, and in The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio – but in general, the iconic features of the Pantocrator were maintained with consistency until the 1800’s. 
       An objection has been repeatedly raised about the shoulder-length hair in these depictions, on the grounds that Saint Paul, in First Corinthians 11:14, wrote, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?” – the idea being that Paul would not have said this if Jesus’ hair had been long.  However, it seems likely to me that Paul was thinking of hair much longer than shoulder-length.  It was not unusual in the first century for Jewish men to take temporary Nazarite vows, which (according to Numbers 6:1-8) involved, among other things, letting one’s hair grow.  Paul himself took such a vow and let his hair grow so long that when he got a haircut, his fellow-traveler Luke made a note of it, in Acts 18:18.  Thus there is no Biblical or historical objection against the idea that the length of Jesus’ hair varied from time to time.
Head of Christ
          In the 1800’s, some European and American artists, either guided by the imperialistic spirit of the times, or by racism, or by simple ignorance of the historical probabilities involved, portrayed Jesus with distinctly European features.   (Sometimes, artists made pictures of Jesus based on visions, too; some of these have been unfairly misinterpreted as if they were meant as representations of what Jesus looked like during His ministry.)
          This trend continued into the 1900’s, and influenced Warner Sallman, whose picture Head of Christ was so thoroughly distributed that in the United States it has almost become the definitive portrait of Christ, even though in the original painting (Sallman made several versions of this picture), Jesus has blue eyes, a feature extremely unlikely to be historically accurate.
          Sallman claimed that his picture was based on a vision, or dream, that he had experienced, and for some folks, such testimony is enough to add plausibility to the accuracy of the picture.
The face on the Shroud of Turin,
and a portrait of Jesus based on it.
          However, there are at least two good reasons not to rely on dreams as the basis of a theory of what Jesus looked like during His ministry.  First, because in Revelation, when Jesus appears in a vision, He has a glorified, heavenly form that is far different from the everyday earthly form He had during His ministry.  Second, because it is possible for a human being to subconsciously picture Jesus in a dream, using whatever preconception he has, just as it is possible for a person to dream about Jesus speaking English, or Spanish, or Arabic.  The genuineness of any particular such dream or vision is not the question at hand; I only mean to point out that they are not secure guides to what Jesus looked like during His ministry, any more than they are secure guides to what language or languages Jesus spoke during His ministry.  Dreams are very personal things.
Brian Deacon, actor -
The Jesus Film
          In the past 50 years, many artists have consciously attempted to return to a more historically plausible portrayal of what Jesus looked like.  As a result, the portrayals of Christ by more recent artists, such as Richard and Francis Hook, tend to resemble the ancient depictions found in icons, though often from different angles, and with different expressions.  
          Some artists have made portraits of Christ based on the face on the Shroud of Turin – the features of which resemble the depiction in many medieval icons.  Movies, however, have been inconsistent; some movies about Jesus have featured rather European-looking actors; others, however, such as The Jesus Film, have featured actors whose natural features resemble the iconic depiction of Jesus. 
           While we should be concerned not to misrepresent the historical aspects of Jesus’ appearance (to whatever extent they can be surmised), a higher priority should be to affirm that Christ is the fellow-heir of every member of His church, regardless of nation or language or any physical trait.  He is, as Colossians 1:15 says, the image (in Greek, εικων, eikon) of the invisible God.  If we want to see what Jesus looks like, then let us pursue His presence in our lives, seeing Christ in those in need, so that Christ may be seen in the church.  Let us consider the true meaning of Psalm 27:7-8:
        “Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice!  Be gracious to me, and answer me.  When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.””


Kent West said...

Excellent post! Thank you!

al said...

Thank you for these insights James. Well done and researched, as usual.

John Podgorney said...

Very thorough and well-done piece James. Thanks for clearing up misconceptions and I especially liked the way you ended the article. Amen to that. Great work!

Ernfried said...

The left facing eye of the Pantokrator has been damaged and that is why it appears to be weeping or mourning. It is true that the right eye (a convention of paintings of the time to convey depth)is drawn differently than the other, but this fact has been misused by authors looking for spiritual "mysteries" in the ikon that were never there.