Joan E. Taylor, What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018).
Joan E. Taylor’s What Did Jesus Look Like? is a unique intersection of historical Jesus studies and art history with some theological and liturgical history thrown into the mix. Chapters 2-9 focus on what we might call the ‘reception history’ of Jesus’ appearance. In these chapters we learn about how Jesus has morphed over the centuries, whether he is a white European man (with which we are accustom); the ‘Byzantine Cosmocrator’; a younger looking man; a new Moses; a wise, bearded philosopher; or an unkempt vagabond. Sacred images of Jesus ranging from ‘The Veronica’ (pp. 30-37) to the Turn Shroud (pp. 58-66) are treated along with various icons, paintings, statues, etc.
For those interested in historical Jesus studies, chapters 10-11 are key. Taylor reminds us that little is said about Jesus’ appearance and nothing is said about any unique characteristics. In other words, ‘He was ordinary-looking.’ (p. 155) As a Judean who lived in Galilee, the forensics from skeletal remains of similar men from Jesus’ time, and literary descriptions of Judeans, can help us better understand how he may have appeared. Taylor evaluates the average height, appearance (including skin color/tone), hair (head and face), physique, clothing, shoes, and other aspects of dress, including differences between wealthier and poorer people’s clothing and gendered aspects of clothing.
Physically, Taylor concludes that Jesus, if as average as we imagine him to be, ‘would have been about 166 cm (5 feet 5 inches) tall, with olive-brown skin, brown-black hair and brown eyes. He was a man of “Middle Eastern appearance”, whose ethnicity can be compared to Iraqi Jews of today.’ (p. 194) She ends the book noting that this discussion regarding Jesus’ appearance isn’t settled but that she hopes that this book contributes and that it challenges modern artists to rethink how they depict Jesus.
A final note on this book. Here’s the picture Taylor drew of how she imagined Jesus (obviously black-and-white so lacking other detail):
It reminded me of one of my favorite TV Jesuses: the Jesus from ‘Jesus: His Life’ by The History Channel. Here are a couple images of Greg Barnett from the miniseries:
Seeing that this series is from 2019, it shows vast improvement over the Jesus from The Bible miniseries from 2013. Here’s that Jesus played by Diogo Morgado:
This latter Jesus is too pretty. He looks like the Jesus of traditional European art. But let’s end on a positive note with another one of my favorite Jesuses: Selva Rasalingam from the 2014-2015 dramatized ‘word-for-word adaptation’ of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Here are a couple shots of this Jesus: