Reconstructing Jesus: Using Science to Flesh out the Face of Religion
For being one of the most widely recognized men in the last 2,000 years, the true appearance of Jesus of Nazareth remains a mystery. Traditionally portrayed in western art as a be-robed, light-skinned Caucasian man with a tidy beard and flowing, light-brown hair, scientific analysis has changed perceptions of what Jesus may have really looked like—and it’s not the familiar face from Sunday school teachings.
A British scientist teamed up with Israeli archaeologists to forensically recreate a truer face of the historical man who is believed to be the son of god in Christianity.
Stained glass depiction of Jesus at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A White Man from Oxford
The physical appearance of Jesus has varied across locations, ages, and cultural settings, with a western likeness being very common in modern times. Jesus has been represented traditionally in art as having pale skin, a narrow face, medium-brown (or even blonde) hair, with kind or sad eyes in any color. Long, flowing hair, with a beard and robes typifies the figure.
Detail; Jesus at the Last Supper, by Tiepolo ( Public Domain )
Comedian Eddie Izzard jokes that the popular modern image of Jesus is that of a “white man from Oxford,” England, but researchers have produced a reconstruction of what they believe Jesus, as a real historical man, may have looked like based on the time period and location of the story of Jesus from ancient texts and forensic reconstruction.
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Like many religious figures, the representation of the ethnicity of Jesus has been influenced by cultural settings. ( Public Domain )
The reconstruction was reportedly a great challenge, as PopularMechanics writes, “nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered.”
Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England had experience reconstructing historical faces, including Philip II of Macedonia , the father of Alexander the Great, and King Midas of Phrygia.
Using methods commonly employed by police to solve crimes, Neave used modern-day forensic techniques on ancient skulls from around Jerusalem, the area where Jesus was said to have lived and preached.
X-ray “slices” of the three skulls from first century Jewish men were created with computerized tomography to reveal minute data. Specialized programs determined where soft tissue would have been on the skulls, fleshing out the muscles and skin of the composite face. This created a wider face shape than seen in western depictions.
“The entire process was accomplished using software that verified the results with anthropological data. From this data, the researchers built a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. Next, they created a cast of the skull. Layers of clay matching the thickness of facial tissues specified by the computer program were then applied, along with simulated skin. The nose, lips and eyelids were then modeled to follow the shape determined by the underlying muscles,” writes PopularMechanics.
Richard Neave has recreated the face of Jesus (pictured), using forensic techniques. This is in contrast to the traditional western depiction of a fair-skinned man with flowing hair. (Image: PopularMechanics)
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New Face for an Ancient Man
Through the skulls, the team was able to identify the general facial structure of a typical Middle Eastern man living in the Galilee area of northern Israel during the time of Jesus, but were not able to determine the color of his skin and type of hair.
Neave used ancient art from archaeological sites in the region to establish representative skin and hair color, as well as men’s hair style at the time of his era, and based on the New Testament descriptions in the Gospel of Matthew, wherein he was described as closely resembling his disciples. Thus, Jesus would have had dark, olive-toned skin, and worn his bushy beard and hair short, in keeping with the traditions.
Popular Mechanics notes that in one chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is credited with writing that he saw Jesus, and “then later describes long hair on a man as disgraceful. Would Paul have written ‘If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him’ if Jesus Christ had had long hair? For Neave and his team this settled the issue.”