(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that title. My apologies if anyone is offended…including Bill Murray fans.)
It isn’t terribly unusual for professing Christians to claim they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I know many who describe Him as almost a tangible presence in their lives, and I don’t doubt that a good deal of their thinking time is devoted to contemplating His character and desires. But I’ve always wondered what individuals with such a purportedly close relationship picture when they imagine Jesus. Do they picture an amorphous, feature-less essence? Or, since he’s both divine and man, do they imagine a face? A body? If so, who exactly are they picturing? Because it ain’t Jesus.
As you are probably aware, no one alive today has any idea what Jesus looked like (only a handful of people throughout history ever did). There were no portraits or drawings made during his lifetime, and the Bible is frustratingly void of descriptors. The best we get is from Revelation, and I very much doubt this is the image most cling to:
…dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” (Revelation 1:12–16, NIV)
But ask almost anyone to draw Jesus, and you’d get something back (unlike asking them to draw God). Why? Because Jesus, the image, is part of the collective consciousness – we’ve literally created it over centuries through a process of artificial selection (see Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay on the evolution of Mickey Mouse), dominated mostly by the West, whereby Jesus has become more beautiful, Aryan, and heroic-looking than we have any reason to suspect he did in actuality.
As far as we can tell, early Christians represented Jesus primarily through symbols like the fish. The first known portrait of Jesus does not appear until 235 (about 200 years after his reported crucifixion), and it already shows signs of historical distortions, whereby the artist down-played any hint of Jewish identity and instead attributed features associated with Greco-Roman society (he has close-cropped hair, for instance, and no beard). While some of the earliest Church fathers like Tertullian and Justin considered Christ’s appearance to be plain or unremarkable, later leaders beginning with Origen, then Jerome, then Augustine of Hippo began characterizing Him as distinctly beautiful (it delights me that they may have done this as a response to an insult from the pagan Celsus, who apparently ridiculed Christians for having an ugly God).
From the second century on depictions of Jesus varied widely, eventually coalescing on the more familiar image we have today, including the beard and long hair (though Paul discourages long hair for men in Corinthians). Thanks, I think, to America, a good percentage of believers now decorate their homes and car dashboards with a drastically caricatured image of Jesus: a handsome, blue-eyed white man of considerable stature (compared to the average for men of his time period) with perfect flowing hair and a cleanly-trimmed beard.
And while nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, we can be reasonably sure he wasn’t atypical for a Galilean Semite of first century Palestine, and would have had darker skin and been well under six feet tall. Just a few years ago, a group from a forensic science department in Israel recreated what they thought Jesus might have looked like based on actual first-century Jewish skulls. You can see and read about the result here: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186
So, back to my original question. Who do modern Christians imagine when they imagine Jesus? I can’t help but think everyone (Christian and non-Christian alike) has been heavily influenced by the popular depictions, and if they do picture something physical, are likely to imagine something similar to the caricature described above.
But that begs the question – since we know Jesus didn’t actually look like that, won’t believers be a bit surprised to see a completely new face staring back at them in Heaven (assuming they’ve made the team)? Won’t it be a bit jarring? I imagine it might be something like expecting Bill Murray …
and getting Dan Aykroyd:
*For a quick summary of the history of depictions of Jesus, check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depiction_of_Jesus