Reconstructing Jesus

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Science is used to flesh out the face of religion, writes Liz Leafloor in Ancient Origins on December 16, 2015.

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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.

Jesus depictions

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.

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.

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.

The reconstruction was reportedly a great challenge, as Popular Mechanics writes, “nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered.”

Forensic Investigations

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 Popular Mechanics.

Reconstructed face of Jesus
Image: Popular Mechanics
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.”

Archaeological record and skeletal remains show the average build of a Semite male 2,000 years ago was 5 foot 1 inch (155 centimeters), and a weight of approximately 110 pounds (50 kilograms). It is felt that because he was known as a carpenter, he would have spent a lot of time outdoors doing hard work, so therefore would be physically fit, tanned, and his skin weathered, making him appear older than his years.

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