The Face of Jesus

I read an article recently called “The real Face of Jesus”, in Popular Mechanics of all places. It was about a British medical artist, Richard Neave, who created a culturally and historically accurate portrait of Jesus. Interesting read.

It does make me wonder why we picture Jesus a certain way. Do we have a need to see God? Do we need to put Jesus into a box that suits us? Do we need to make him more relatable?

The first time I really thought about the “real face” of Jesus I think was when I visited Edinburgh and saw a billboard advertising the new ID card system. It showed the generic “white” Jesus on an ID card and next to “Nationality” it said “Palestinian”. Whaaaat? Oh yes, Bethlehem is in Palestine. OK, so what’s with all those portraits of the graceful Jesus with the delicate, almost feminine cheekbones and flowing, clean brown hair, deep blue or green eyes gazing into the distance? OK, those are just artist impressions and other time periods and cultures show Jesus with short hair, some portrait him as Hispanic or black. The point is we show Jesus the way want to see him. But what if he walked up to you now? Would you recognize him? Would you be offended because he didn’t look the way you’ve always envisioned him?

Isaiah wrote prophetically about Jesus a number of times, including that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”. I sometimes wonder if this refers to his looks or his social status. I don’t know, I lean more towards the latter, but either way, Jesus obviously didn’t stand out in a crowd. He was just a Nazarene (which didn’t mean much to the Jews in Jerusalem) and even there he was seen as a simple carpenter’s son.

The article I mentioned earlier researched the culture with which Jesus grew up and found that short hair was all the rage. In the general the guys of Jesus’ time are thought to have had big, bulky noses.

So there goes the image of this grand, male model Jesus. So what now?

When I see the romanticized portraits of Jesus with a staff or a lamb in his arms, a halo hovering over his head and eyes and chins that remind me of David Beckham, I either laugh or scoff, depending on the context. For the most part it’s just art, but I am very protective of who Jesus really was. I think when we try too hard to create an image of Jesus we often forget that he was a real person, a person who loves us intimately. Images aren’t all bad, but they can make Jesus seem very distant and unapproachable, the exact opposite of who he is. They also make our beliefs all about us. We make Jesus in our image instead of accepting that it’s the other way round.

When I think about Jesus I rarely think of a particular face anymore. I picture facial expressions, a smile, kind eyes, sometimes a tearful sorrow. I see friendliness, compassion, occasionally firmness… and so, whether these expressions are in the form of blue or brown eyes, really becomes irrelevant.


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