Joan E Taylor
What Did Jesus Look Like?
Bloomsbury T&T Clark, UK, 2018
ISBN-13: 978-0567671509

What did Jesus look like

 

"As Taylor herself notes, there will be those who will find her conclusions about Jesus’ appearance 'shocking', particularly as she says 'if they make no distinction between the person of Jesus in history and what they experience as a spiritual relevation'. Others, however, may find some interesting insights not only in how Jesus may have actually looked when He walked the Earth but the role His appearance has played in representing His character."

Mention the name Jesus and many of us will instantly think of  a “tall man with perfect, shoulder-length nut-brown hair and pale skin, dressed in long robes”.

But, according to Joan E Taylor, professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, that image is probably wrong. And in What Did Jesus Look Like? she sets about showing why that is the case.

In a scholarly, yet still eminently readable text, Taylor looks at what early art and writings, both Christian and non-Christian, say of Christ’s appearance as well as relics such as the Mandylion and the Turin Shroud and, in particular, how these likeness conform to certain ‘types’, from that of the ‘philosopher’, the young man and the enthroned king.

It’s a fascinating survey of how Jesus has been portrayed and the various agendas that were served in these portrayals. But it’s after noting that perhaps the Bible makes no comment on what Jesus looked like because He was, simply put, average looking, that we then come to a forensic-style examination of how He may have appeared as an historical personage walking the streets of Jerusalem.

And here we see a man of about 166 centimetres tall (five foot, five inches) who, writes Taylor, who was slim and reasonably muscular – his “hit and miss diet”, propensity for walking and profession as a carpenter or manual worker all being factors here. Like Iraqi Jews today – closest to the Jews of the Second Temple period biologically, he was probably “honey/olive skinned, with brown eyes and black hair” and likely bearded – although a short beard – with shortish hair.

Taylor also addresses the issue of what Jesus wore in a chapter which includes a look at two tunics some claim were worn by Christ and now in France and Germany.  Those aside, examining common clothing of the period and drawing on what the Gospel accounts say, she concludes that, unlike many of the subsequent images which depict Christ in long white robes, He probably wore a short undyed wool or linen tunic – “normative dress for non-elite males” – with a belt around his wait, a distinctive mantle worn by Jewish men, known as a tallith, over the top and sandals on his feet.

Taylor is keen to acknowledge the limitations of her research given the available evidence. “We can visualize his clothing, his hair and beard, skin colour and height,” she writes. “Yet we cannot see his face clearly. Jesus’ features will always be a mystery…An approximate image is as close as we can get and there are parts that are blurred.”

As Taylor herself notes, there will be those who will find her conclusions about Jesus’ appearance “shocking”, particularly as she says "if they make no distinction between the person of Jesus in history and what they experience as a spiritual relevation". Others, however, may find some interesting insights not only in how Jesus may have actually looked when He walked the Earth but the role His appearance has played in representing His character.