What Did Jesus Look Like?

This interesting hardcover book won’t tell you what the Lord looked like, but it will tell you five things about his appearance: (1) what he most probably wore; (2) what his hair and beard were most probably like; (3) the average height, weight and skin colour of a Jew living in Our Lord’s time; (4) how the early Church imagined his portrait; and (5) why we cannot know more.

Written by Joan E. Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London, it is published by T&T Clark, and is available for less than $40.

It is a very good book, not flawless, but very good. And it is extremely well produced, on good quality paper, with beautiful full cover photographs. I would not say it is essential reading, but it is quite rewarding, and for a Christian, a valuable addition to your bookshelf.

It is 200 pages of text organised in twelve chapters. It commences with chapters on the tradition of Jesus’ appearance, and only then, about half-way into the book, does it start to tackle the question which gave the book its title: what did Jesus look like? I did not find those opening pages so very intriguing, partly because I was familiar with most of the material, but also partly because if you purchase a book with such a title, you would like it to tackle that topic first, and then come to the history of the Christian imagination.

So let me not repeat Taylor’s infelicities. She writes that (1) Jesus did not wear white, but more likely unbleached clothes. His clothes were simple, which in those days meant a short tunic which would finish just below the knees, or on occasions above the calf, and if he travelled or it was cold, a mantle which had tassels. He wore leather sandals, almost thongs with a back strap.

(2) Jesus’ hair and beard were, both of them, most likely kept short contra the modern notion of him.

(3) The average height of a Jew in the Lord’s day was about five foot five inches, with olive skin and hair which was somewhere on the spectrum of dark brown to black. He was almost certainly thin and muscular: we know this from his ascetic diet and the amount of travel he was able to undertake. It is believed that Iraqi Jews best represent how ancient Jews in Palestine would have appeared.

(4) I knew that the early Church had often depicted the Lord as clean-shaven and with relatively short hair (as in the San Vitale mosaic which I have copied at the top of this post). But I had not appreciated how often he was portrayed in this manner, and how powerful that art was. The examples given throughout this book are probably its strongest feature. Also, very significantly for me, Taylor repudiates the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (she is certain that it was a medieval forgery), and even disproves Mathews’ thesis that when Our Lord appeared with a stick, he was being depicted as a magician with a wand. I had read Mathews’ The Clash of Gods when it appeared in 1993, and been persuaded by his arguments. So, for me it was most interesting to read that the “wand” was actually a staff, based on Moses’ staff, and was used to show that Jesus was the newer and greater Moses.

(5) We cannot know more than this because (a) we have so few sources, and (b) the cartilage disappears from skeletons, and so we cannot reproduce features such as the nose, lips and face flesh of ancient Jews. Incidentally, Taylor construes the fact that the Gospels say nothing much about the Lord’s appearance as meaning that there was nothing extraordinary about it: he was neither terribly handsome nor terribly ugly. I am not sure that her logic is watertight here. I think she was closer to the mark when she said that the evangelists were not interested in how he looked but who he was, what he did and his teaching.

Taylor also notes that when the Lord is shown at his baptism, he is shown as an older boy, or a teenager, but when he is shown in other Gospel scenes, he is shown as a middle-aged adult. I wonder if some of this could be due to typology: that it was adolescents who were being baptised, and so the Lord was being shown as like them in that particular setting.

There was one puzzling matter: she notes that St John’s reference to the seamless garment of the Lord has been said by commentators to relate to the fact that the Jewish High Priest wore such a robe. She dismisses this on the grounds that: “to find an allusion to High Priestly vestments here assumes a knowledge of Temple practices on the part of readers of John far beyond what is found in scripture, with no clue at all given in the text” (186). I cannot follow her logic here at all. First, how does she know how many people knew of the High Priest’s robe? John was alive in the period, he would have had a much better notion than anyone alive today can possibly have of how much they knew? Second, she assumes that John would not have made such an allusion unless he thought his audience would recognise it. Why should he not have written for those who knew? Third, the idea that there had to be some “clue … in the text” is again baseless: John could have thought that people knew, or he may not have cared to place a clue there, or yet again, perhaps he did place “clues” in his Gospel that Jesus was the true high priest. I think the third of these options is the correct one, although I cannot go into it here.

However, I do not wish too sound too critical. Taylor has produced a well-written and beautifully illustrated volume. She also, thankfully, dispenses of the myth of the long-haired hippie in a kaftan. The slim, athletic man with short hair and beard, in a tunic to the knees and a mantle when he travelled, is quite a different figure: less sentimental, not at all counter-cultural, and more alert and engaged in daily life.

Joseph Azize, 3 October 2018

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