Pondering the Many Faces of Jesus

White Jesus is controversial in some circles.

Regularly, I see complaints to articles which picture ‘White Jesus’ that ‘JESUS ISN’T WHITE!’; sometimes those articles are mine. I like to illustrate articles about Jesus or Jesus stories with images of Jesus in the context of the story being discussed.

I would love to use illustrations with a brown or Middle Eastern Jesus, but they are virtually nonexistent (so far as I can discover)–especially within contexts of biblical stories. On the other hand, the old European masters produced a wealth of art of Jesus in nearly every imaginable biblical context; but they feature a white, European Jesus.

Why did they do that? Because they were white Europeans and identified with Jesus as one of them. And I don’t blame them.

white jesus

Middle Eastern Jesus

In an historical sense, Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew. Many of us have known this forever, but this realization became even more extensive after medical artist Richard Neave’s work was published.

Wishing to discover what a typical Jewish male looked like in Jesus’ time, Neave and his team began with three skulls from that period. They X-rayed them and then used special computer programs to determine the thickness of soft tissue associated with the skulls. Thus they were able to recreate the muscles and skin for the skulls to produce a digital 3D reconstruction of the face.

Finally, they created a cast of the skull and used the detail from the computer reconstruction to complete the face. To determine hair length and color, they used drawings from the first century found at local archeological sites. From analysis of other remains, they determined that the typical height of Jewish men of that time was 5:1, and they weighed an average of about 110 pounds.

The BBC released photos in 2001, but Neave was not totally happy with them as the eyes were too light in color and the expression was odd; some thought the expression made the images look perplexed.

However, the BBC photos were a big hit with the public when news magazines reported on them. The photos circulated widely, sometimes claiming to be the face of Jesus; but they don’t actually represent the face of Jesus but of a typical Jewish man of that time and place—short with dark eyes and complexion and with short curlish hair.

Here are two of the photos:

Here are other images that might be used to illustrate a Middle Eastern Jesus:

Notice that none of them resemble the familiar Warner Sallman image of Jesus we all grew up with in the United States.

Jesus - Warner Sallman Head of ChristAlso notice that they are all head-shots. I think they are very useful to view, but I wish I had options for illustrations of Middle Eastern Jesus in a variety of narrative contexts—I don’t.

If any of you know any good sources, please share them in comments below.

Identifying with Jesus as One of Us

In an historical sense, Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, but in another sense Jesus is not bound by race and culture–he speaks to all of us. In the Gospels, he identifies with a wide range of people.

It should come as no surprise that Europeans depict Jesus as one of us; that is the way we identify with him. And Jesus identifies with us! He identifies with everybody!

This tendency is found in all cultures whether White, Middle Eastern, Black, Asian, or any other culture. Everyone relates to Jesus as being one of them. And they should.

There is no theological reason why we must only think of Jesus as a short, brown, Middle Eastern Jew, because his message is not tied to his own culture–it is a universal message, though his stories reflect the context of his culture and time.

The Outrage of Black Jesus

Some white believers today complain that ‘Jesus is not white!’

Do you remember the 1960s and 70s? I lived them, and one interesting development was the appearance of many depictions of Black Jesus. Along with that development came an outcry from many white people that ‘Jesus is not Black!’ This protest was humorous to me, a white college student, because I knew Jesus wasn’t Black; but I also knew he wasn’t white either, and they were not protesting White Jesus–White Jesus was fine.

I got quite a chuckle from it. And I was very sympathetic to Black Jesus because I felt Black people should be able to identify with Black Jesus, just as white people should be able to identify with White Jesus, because Jesus is not limited to the Middle East.

Black Jesus art continues to flourish. Here are some very old depictions of Black Jesus. The first is from a church in Rome and dates from 530 A.D. The second is said to be the earliest known painting of Jesus and the Apostles, now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Click an image for a larger view.

Here are some of my favorites. Notice the similarity of the first three to Warner Sallman’s White Jesus above. Click any image below to open the click-through gallery for larger images:

And here are some depictions of Jesus from other cultures. Click any image to open the click-through galleries.

Asian Jesus:

Native American Jesus:

People of various cultures don’t celebrate Jesus as one of our own because we are racist or because we don’t realize he was a brown Middle Eastern Jew but because we feel, appropriately, that he IS one of our own.

I hope you have enjoyed these images, and remember: if you know where I can find more images of Middle Eastern Jesus, please let me know in comments below!

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26 Responses to Pondering the Many Faces of Jesus

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Mark Fisher posted this in response to the article on the Jesus without Baggage Facebook page. I thought it was so good that I am sharing it here. Thanks Mark!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have an indigenous baby Jesus at home that comes out for Christmas, dressed in traditional garb from Cuzco, Peru. Mary and Joseph are indigenous too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alan Christensen says:

    I like the multiplicity of Jesus images for the same reason I think there are four Gospels and not one: to provide multiple perspectives. Jesus cannot be pinned down; the Resurrection proved that!

    Random thoughts: the “perplexed” Middle Eastern figure is more what I imagine Peter looking like, especially when he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. What’s with Bald Jesus? And WOW! to the crucified Native American depiction.

    PS. My nickname for the Sallman portrait is “Jesus’ high school graduation picture.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Wow, Alan. I think you made a great discovery! This is not the face of Jesus; it is the face of Peter. That seems so clear, now! And I agree with you that Jesus cannot be pinned down, and that we benefit from multiple perspectives.

      Thanks so much for your humorous and insight-filled contribution!

      And Jesus’ senior picture is much better than mine was. But they wouldn’t allow me the long hair in 1969.

      Like

  4. Edie Taylor says:

    Our church office has somebody’s painting of Jesus == dark-haired with medium dark skin, and laughing! It’s beautiful.
    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Edie, I would love to see it. Does it have any words on it that might identify it on Google?

      Like

      • Edie Taylor says:

        I will try to check to be sure, but I have a vague memory that someone told me it was painted by a friend of our former rector. Sadly, for all of us, she died about 4 years ago. I will always remember her saying that for her the two best ways to God were music and laughter. Perhaps I could find someone who could take a good quality photo of it. I will try to find out.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Edie, thanks for the additional background as well as the offer to check further. I hope you find something easily.

          Like

  5. fiddlrts says:

    Getting hung up (one way or another) on what Jesus looked like is pretty predictable considering that we treat scripture the same way. Making the cultural details and (dare I say) baggage of the bible is the same as seeing the essence of Christ the details of his appearance. (For the record, I loved and enjoyed the various depictions you collected!) As you point out, the beauty and goodness that Christ displayed transcends any one race, color, or appearance. He is indeed one of us – God made flesh who dwelt among us. And thus, we seek to become like Christ not by wearing our hair in 1st Century fashion or dying our skin and hair, but by walking as he did. And we don’t get at the essence of scripture by trying to duplicate the culture, the legal system, the assumptions about gender, and all the rest of the baggage, but by seeing the glorious story of how man and God have wrestled throughout history, and how God bridged the gap by becoming one of us.

    Just my thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • tonycutty says:

      Good job He didn’t have a limp, else we’d have to walk with on too. Great thoughts, fiddlrts. And I loved the pictures too, thanks for sharing them, Tim 🙂

      On a slightly different slant, I do wonder how Christians down the ages have justified creating pictures of Jesus, in the light of the Third Commandment – ‘Do not make for yourself any graven image’. Surely these pics of Jesus are manmade (and therefore ‘graven’) images of God? Classic case of selective rule-keeping, in my view! 😉

      But of course, being a strong proponent of Grace over Law, I also wonder if perhaps the early Church knew that the Big Ten C’s were actually rendered obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus? In which case, we have un-learned it over the centuries!

      Just my tongue-in-cheek observations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Tony, I’m glad you guys liked the images on the post; I think they tell an important story. On the other issue, I wonder if early believers felt comfortable depicting Jesus in human form because he actually HAD human form, whereas the Father does not. Just a thought; I really don’t know.

        Liked by 1 person

        • tonycutty says:

          Aye, maybe that’s it! He was someone they could see/had seen, so why not paint pictures of him just like any other celebrity? Plus of course we know that God’s Graven Image of Himself was in fact Jesus anyway, so there was no real need for that Commandment any more anyway.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          When it says: ‘When you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, weren’t the writers referring to the Spiritual rather than the physical?

          Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas, my opinion. I certainly don’t think he meant the physical. I think he was referring to the love, empathy, compassion, and care for all people. This was in contrast to the way some of the OT portrayed the Father.

            Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, these might be ‘just your thoughts’ but they are very good ones. I think believers should be aware of Jesus’ culture and that he was part of the culture. That way, it is easier to understand the Gospels and apply them to OUR culture without thinking the cultural aspects are the message.

      And the most important thing to understand, I think, is what you stated: “He is indeed one of us.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Chas says:

    A couple of thoughts arising from the earlier comments: first, Jesus had to be Jewish, as Judaism was were the main Monotheistic religion of the time. Secondly, concerning those comments about graven images, the latter part of that commandment says: do not bow down to them, nor worship them. It raises the question, ought we to worship Jesus, or only the Father? The Gospels are less than clear on the topic; the most clear example is of ‘Doubting’ Thomas worshiping Jesus once he had been shown the ‘resurrected’ Jesus, but the Gospel of John is a late book that contains much material from sources that had been contaminated by input from the early church authorities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, you raise a good question on whether we should worship Jesus. I think the early followers of Jesus faced a similar question after the resurrection; they had been taught not to worship anything but God, but the impact of Jesus was such that it seemed to call for his worship.

      I think working through this quandary was significant among Jesus’ followers, and I think further that it led to the later controversies about Jesus’ nature and ultimately to the formulation of the concept of the trinity.

      Like

  7. sheila0405 says:

    When I was a child, I remember my fundamentalist pastor railing against the song “Some Children See Him”. I though it was peculiar that he was so upset that children of varying ethnic backgrounds saw Jesus as matching them. I thought it was great that children could “see” Jesus, period. So much unnecessary baggage just over what the man looked like! No wonder people get so turned off towards religion. Don’t we have better things to address?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree with you, Sheila. ‘Some Children See Him’ is a wonderful song. And I bet the pastor railed against the song because JESUS IS WHITE!

      Liked by 1 person

      • sheila0405 says:

        No, he actually was upset b/c Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, & therefore brown. This pastor had a thing for Israel. He ended up leaving that church after 25 years to join a ministry that seeks to convert Jews to Christianity. He was a dispensationalist. Very anxious for the Rapture, & dedicated to helping it along by getting Jews saved in Israel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Ok, I see. And dispensationalists can really get carried away with their beliefs–in very harmful ways.

          Like

  8. mark says:

    i grew up with a “white Jesus” but it never seemed to me to matter about race or color. It was about what He meant to me not his appearance…and even that will be different at his coming.
    I have witnessed people who claim He was their color and all, and that’s ok…but let’s not get hung up on it.. To me it’s like saying my blue Chevrolet truck is better than your brown one..
    If we can’t concentrate on what He did and what He taught….then He may as well be brite orange..
    Claiming Jesus is not an ideal………it’s an action.

    Good post Tim…enjoyed the many “versions” of HIM.

    ps You did forget the most recent one….the Hollywood Jesus. you know the one where he is all “buff” and tan and looks like a surfer/action hero on steroids. Have seen that one on a few websites over the past year..

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Mark, I really like your comment: “If we can’t concentrate on what He did and what He taught….then He may as well be brite orange.” That’s the truth of the matter!

      I have seen the buff and tan Jesus of some films. Doesn’t appeal to me; reminds me of Mark Driscoll’s he-man theology. He said he couldn’t follow a Jesus he could beat up. If Jesus were a carpenter, he might very well be buff and tan, but his demeanor was kind and gentle to people, even though he gave certain uppity Pharisees some digs.

      Like

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