What Did Jesus Look Like?

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Joan E. Taylor
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $38.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567671509.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scholars may balk at the title of Joan E. Taylor’s beautifully illustrated volume on the iconography of Jesus: What Did Jesus Look Like? As posed, the book’s titular question cannot really be answered. Of course, Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins at King’s College London, knows this as well as anyone in the field. And so, predictably, her essay begins by discussing the fact that the earliest Christian sources tell us almost nothing about Jesus’s appearance. We have no good early evidence for what Jesus looked like.

Fortunately, Taylor pursues answers to other, potentially more interesting and profitable questions. What were the origins and development of the iconographic features most commonly associated with Jesus in the West? In what ways have Christians, from the 2nd century onward, described and imagined Jesus’s appearance? And finally, given what the contemporary human sciences tell us about ancient Galileans, how can we best imagine Jesus’s appearance today?

The second through eighth chapters of What Did Jesus Look Like? examine the history of Christian portraiture of Jesus. Taylor works archaeologically, moving back from medieval and Renaissance works towards the 4th century. Along the way, she explores the influence of legendary materials (the Letter of Lentulus and the legend of Veronica) on late medieval and Renaissance portraits. She exposes the development of acheropitae: iconic, relic-like images allegedly produced miraculously by Jesus’s sweat or body, including, of course, the Shroud of Turin. She traces Byzantine traditions depicting Jesus as the “Cosmocrator” back to iconographic roots in Greco-Roman portrayals of the gods Zeus, Asclepius, and Serapis. Late antique portrayals of Jesus as a beardless, androgynous youth are compared to ancient portrayals of Dionysius, Hermes, and Apollo. Some of the earliest catacomb frescos of Jesus stress his miracle working and are comparable to images of Moses from the synagogue at Dura-Europos. A few of the earliest portrayals show Jesus in the likeness of the Greco-Roman ideal of the bearded philosopher.

The ninth chapter examines early literary evidence, discussing the apologetic motives underlying some ancient reports that Jesus was not conventionally comely, and the influence of the stereotype of the unkempt philosophers on others. (This chapter contains a brief digression into the traditions found in the apocryphal acts which record Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance as polymorphous.)

Thus ends the survey of art. These chapters are quite good, though Taylor could perhaps have done more to develop a critical perspective on how portraits of Jesus both reflected and shaped the social-historical contexts from which they emerged, for better or worse. Teachers of art history may regret that Taylor ignores (perhaps as irrelevant to questions of origins) any developments in Jesus iconography from the 15th to 21st centuries.

In the tenth and eleventh chapters, Taylor uses contemporary archaeological and ethnographic research to gesture towards firmer historical conclusions about how an “historical” Jesus might have appeared physically and been clothed. She hypothesizes that Jesus would have appeared like any other male thirty-something resident of first-century Galilee; thus “we can arrive at a general image of Jesus as an average man” (168). He may have been about five and a half feet tall, “slim and reasonably muscular,” with dark skin, eyes, and hair. He was “likely bearded,” but may have kept both hair and beard reasonably short. Of course, “his precise facial features will, nevertheless, remain unknown” (168).

With regards to clothing, Taylor’s positive conclusions about what Jesus himself probably wore seem not always fully warranted. Her archaeological and literary reconstruction of 1st-century Galilean clothing is indeed impressive. But when the authors of our Gospels included remarks about Jesus’s garments, their statements might have originated with conventional assumptions, or exegetical motivations; on such grounds, many have questioned the historicity of the casting of lots for a seamless garment as described in John 19:23-24 (186-87). 

So how does Taylor think Jesus should be represented today? The final page of chapter 11 contains Figure 76 (192), a fine ink drawing executed by Taylor herself. It shows an “average” Galilean in ordinary clothes, a regular 1st-century guy. Is this Jesus? He sits, gesturing like a university teacher, apparently discussing some weighty matter in the public square. 

The twelfth and final chapter concludes with Figure 77 (197), an illustration commissioned to show an artist’s conception of Taylor’s “more authentic ‘historical’ Jesus” (195). In the painter Cathy Fisher’s image, Jesus sits half-cross-legged on the ground, in a position that one Yoga teacher I have worked with has referred to as “comfortable pose” (a modified Sukhasana, allowing the left knee to remain upright). His arms are around his left knee, right hand grasping left wrist, and his sandaled left foot projects into the center foreground. With back and head bowed, the details of his face obscured, he appears deep in prayer or meditation. A diffuse light radiates from his head and shoulders, and the outline of his figure fades towards translucence against the featureless ochre and red background. Looking at this representation, one is struck by the difficulty we have separating the “historical” from the iconic and symbolic. The traces of Taylor’s “more authentic” Jesus are here, in the hair, clothing, and sandals—the skin, however, remains white.  The “historical” features are shorn of context, coexisting in an iconographic milieu with contemporary signs that signal the presence of a sage, a holy man, or even a divine Son. In other words, there’s nothing at all “historical” about the image.

Taylor’s gorgeous book can be recommended for university classrooms as a text useful for studies of Christian iconography, or the history of ideas about Jesus. The tenth and eleventh chapters may be particularly useful for students of “the historical Jesus.” The writing is free of jargon, and the scholarly apparatus is confined to forty-three pages of endnotes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew C. Baldwin is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mars Hill University, Mars Hill, NC.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joan E. Taylor is the prize-winning author of Christians and the Holy Places, and a leading authority on the Jewish world of Jesus, including women within that world. She is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King's College London.

Keywords: 

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