Although his image is probably one of the most common in the Western world, all the images you have seen are far from accurate. New evidence suggests that his skin was much darker and his features less central European.
In every country where Christianity has taken root, the image of Jesus Christ has been slightly -or not so slightly- altered to make it more appealing to the locals. But one single look at any work of art, movie, or TV series will make it clear that the idea we have of his appearance is that of a tall, white man, with light brown hair and eyes.
But, how close is this image to that of a man from Jerusalem (or Judea) 2000 years ago? The quick answer is: not very much. Most artists have used their imagination to create portraits of Jesus, since there are no paintings of him, much less physical remains, like bones, that would allow for a DNA analysis to be performed to find out the real appearance of Jesus.
But recently, an interdisciplinary group of scientists from England and Israel devised a clever use of the tools of forensic anthropology to make a reconstruction of the appearance of an average man in ancient Judea.
To do so, they used three skulls that belonged to men living 2000 years ago and performed CAT scans on them. According to the article published on Popular Mechanics, they imaged layer upon layer of the three skulls to capture every detail. Then, they fed this information into a software that estimates the amount of tissue this bone structure supported. With this data, they were able to reconstruct a face. The bones they used also helped them to figure out the average height of a man of the time: Jesus would be about 5' 1".
Still, there is one piece of information that is impossible to figure out with forensics —specially if there are only bones left to study—: skin, hair, and eye color. Here the team of experts made use of historical sources. They studied what they knew of ancient Semite people, and it was easy to come to the conclusion that men used to have short hair, their faces were most certainly not white and that, according to the style at the time, he wore a beard.
Of course, this image is far from the one that was obtained from the Shroud of Turin, the piece of cloth that supposedly was used to cover Jesus' body and that retained an image of his face and body. The image obtained from the shroud --which many take to be a faithful representation of Jesus' image-- shows a man with long hair and beard. But Carbon-14 tests performed on the cloth date the item to hundreds of years after Jesus was alive.
Mosaic with the image of Jesus of Nazareth in the church of Santa Sofia, Istambul, 1280 c. / Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The reconstruction made by the team of experts does not pretend to represent Jesus, but just an average man of his own time, and certain features are impossible to determine even with all these scientific tools, such as the size and shape of the lips. But one thing is for sure, this study about the appearance of the Semite people has helped to debunk the idea that Jesus looked like a modern Western European man.
The cover image is the work of Luis Atilano, follow him on Instagram.
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