Monday 25 June 2018

The truth about Jesus

Non-fiction: What Did ­Jesus Look Like? Joan E Taylor, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, hardback, 224pages, €21.49

A bit of a trim: In reality, Christ would have probably had shorter hair and beard than in this painting by Titian
A bit of a trim: In reality, Christ would have probably had shorter hair and beard than in this painting by Titian
What Did Jesus Look Like?

Robin Griffith-Jones

The gospels don't tell us, but a new book provides some clues as to what Jesus may have looked like - and rules out many popular iconographies of him.

Few readers would credit the familiar portrayal of Jesus: the glossy brown locks of hair; the fair skin; the full, loose robe. Long gone are the bright blue eyes of Robert Powell's 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. How, though, should we picture Jesus instead?

Joan Taylor at King's College London has an enviable eye for the practicalities of life in the New Testament's world. Her recent book on Qumran hardly mentioned the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls; she told instead a story of economic activity - of date palms, mandrake and balsam, of bitumen harvested when it gurgled in vast globules to the surface of the lake - unimaginable in that desolate valley today. Now she asks, bluntly, what did Jesus look like? Here, the gospels are silent.

The biographer Suetonius knew to tell his readers how the Caesars looked: Augustus was, of course, handsome and well-proportioned with a piercing gaze and careless coiffure - he was also short and he had bad teeth, one long eyebrow and a projecting nose that turned inwards. All this is as much about character, according to the ancient rules of physiognomy, as about appearance: such an Augustus was always going to be bold, brave, energetic and regally leonine.

The evangelists have no such interests. Perhaps Jesus looked so normal that there was nothing special to say; and perhaps writers devoted to the salvation of souls had no time to spend on their saviour's hairstyle. So Taylor must tackle her question twice over: once through the iconographies of Jesus and the rationales behind them from the 15th back to the third centuries; and again through the archaeology of skeletons and clothes from the ancient Holy Land. Hey presto: only one such iconography matches the material evidence, to give us a startlingly plausible image of Jesus.

The inscription on a mosaic of Christ in the Domitilla catacombs confronts the artists' quandary: "You are said to be the Son and are found to be the Father." No wonder artists looked for inspiration to the dress-codes and iconography of the Greco-Roman gods. Jesus can be another Zeus, supremely handsome, with luxuriant beard and dazzling golden clothes; or another Dionysus, thick-haired but clean-shaven. Or, closer to home, Jesus can, as Matthew describes him, be another and greater Moses, active and commanding, with his wand of office extended before him. Taylor's account and lavish illustrations do justice to them all.

But a different ideal was to hand. A philosopher could quite properly be ungroomed. He could be shabby, even ugly. (Even this, of course, was counter-intuitive in the ancient world. The physiognomist Zopyrus famously saw in a bust of Socrates, balding and bulbous-nosed, all the signs of stupidity and lust. Socrates's reputation has survived the analysis; Zopyrus's, on balance, has not.) Detractors of the second-century philosopher Apuleius accused him of being so good-looking that he must, surely, be a magician. Nonsense, Apuleius insisted; he was, in fact, pale and desiccated, with knotted hair.

Such a Jesus - philosophical and uncombed - is little represented in art, although a godsend to the embattled early theologians. After all, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah "has no form or comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him".

So far, so very good. But Taylor has a better trick up her capacious sleeve. Her artists might have been elevating Jesus into divine, prophetic or heroic splendour; she herself is down among the weeds, a Sherlock at work on every surviving fragment of fabric and skulls. She knows inside out the designs and uses - and the surviving fragments - of clothing from Jesus's Holy Land. The woman who touched the hem of his garment and was healed touched a tassel at the corner of his mantle. Such tassels were among the few features of clothing by which a Jewish man, when not at prayer, could be distinguished from a gentile. The soldiers tormenting Jesus found that his tunic was seamless: that is, a single length of cloth with no shoulder-seams, sewn only at the sides.

We should forget, then, the flowing robe with wide sleeves. Jesus was no Dumbledore. Nor was he an elite Roman in luxuriously long robes, stepping out of a Pompeian fresco. He was an artisan and wanderer. Think of a calf-length tunic bound at the waist, probably of plain unbleached linen with a thin stripe of colour down each side of the chest; and of a mantle worn over the left shoulder. Off to the barbers, too: men of Jesus's day wore hair above their tunic's hem, with a short-trimmed beard at most. It is all a far cry from the Jesus of the Sacred Heart.

It must be a promising sign, wishing a book did not end when it does. There were distinctions between Greek and Jewish headdress (2 Maccabees 4.12); might we hear more of what was distinctively Jewish? Icons, we are told, show the Orthodox Jesus, his disciples and the patriarchs in carefully distinguished clothes; we would surely like to know their origins. Further cultures, far afield, assimilated Jesus to local conditions; could we see some examples?

After all this, however, there is still more to looks than the length of hem. We want the face of the first-century Jesus. Thank heavens, the old presumptions of the North have been largely set aside; for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Jim Caviezel's blue eyes were sensibly turned brown. But woe betide us if we circle around back to more pernicious stereotypes. We may want to know - and then be uncertain if we should even ask - whether Jewish or gentile artists, or people more generally within the early Christian centuries, believed in a typically "Jewish" look.

This feels all too vertiginous. But it needn't. When we reach the third century, and the Dura-Europos synagogue in eastern Syria, Moses appears to have curly hair; so does the Jesus of Taylor's own sketch. Nobody, she tells us, is now more closely related in their genes to the Jews of Jesus's day than are the modern Jews in Iraq, the Babylon (down the Euphrates from Syria) to which the Jews were exiled in the sixth century BC.

It is almost spine-tingling to recognise, in that fresco of Moses, the nearest we will ever get, without fanfare or physiognomy, to the simple appearance of Jesus himself.

Robin Griffith-Jones is the Master of the Temple Church, London. His next book is Tomb and Temple (Boydell)

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