Today is Easter. Along with Christmas, it is one of the two holidays where Jesus has a central focus. The holiday focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection, which are the steps he took to ensure salvation for every person that believes in him. It’s a very important day of commemoration for believers.
One thing that makes Jesus so interesting is that despite being God, he’s not some abstract being that humans can’t perceive. He is a deity in human form, and as such, he had real human features. Features that have been the cause of some controversy over the centuries. We all have seen the most common depiction of Jesus (i.e., the left side of the image at the top of this entry).
Images like that were accepted as being true and accurate representations of Jesus for hundreds of years. Many people now understand that “White Jesus” is not really what he looked like. Some opponents of Christianity look at this depiction of Jesus and use it to paint Christianity as a faith steeped in white supremacy and claim that this image was created to make God into a European image to promote the superiority of the white race. There is no question that Christianity has been twisted and used in that way in the past. However, in truth, the origin of this depiction of Jesus is likely nothing so nefarious.
The Bible says very little about what Jesus looked like, and when Isaiah foretold about Jesus he said:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. – Isaiah 53:2
The verse suggests that Jesus would be pretty unremarkable from a physical standpoint. Cameras didn’t exist when he lived, and, at that time, portraits and paintings were reserved for those of high status like kings and queens. A heretical cult leader, as Jesus was widely believed to be at the time, would not have received such an honor. So, there are no images showing what Jesus really looked like, and when actual evidence is missing, you can leave it to artists to take creative license. Hence, we saw a bunch of Renaissance painters in Europe making Jesus out to look like someone from Europe.
Most people nowadays understand that Jesus wasn’t from Europe. He was from what we now refer to as the Middle East, so it’s unlikely that he looked like someone from Italy, France, or the UK. That said. He also didn’t look like Black Jesus, Mexican Jesus, Asian Jesus, or any of the other depictions that have popped up in more recent times.
In 2001, an anthropologist came up with an example of what a typical man of Jesus’ heritage might have looked look at the time Jesus lived.*
To be clear, the image he produced (i.e., the right side of the image at the opening of this entry) is not supposed to be Jesus. It is a reconstruction based on a skull of an unidentified man found in the region where Jesus lived. While this is not Jesus’ actual likeness, it may let us know what to expect when considering the question of what he might have looked like.
The obsession with physical appearance is just a distraction though. Jesus might have been a human being with a real physical form, but his purpose was beyond that. The Bible tells us that Jesus came down to Earth as a man to save the Israelites who had strayed from the righteous path.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10
Looking like, speaking like, and living like those lost children of Israel likely did help Jesus when he interacted with them and tried to teach them about God and God’s will for them. So maybe his physical appearance played an important role at some point, but the importance of that role died when Jesus died because at that point his mission was not just about saving the Israelites. It was about saving humanity. As, perhaps the Bible’s most famous verse, tells us:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16
Christianity is not a Jewish religion or a white man’s religion or any of the other shortsighted labels it’s given. It’s a faith rooted in love. The love that God has for his creation, and the love that led our savior to sacrifice himself for our sakes.
So with that knowledge, it doesn’t matter what Jesus looks like. Or…maybe it does. If a person seeing Jesus represented in a way that looks like that person will help him or her believe, then so be it. Jesus is God and we all have claim to him regardless of our race, ethnicity, or nationality. Those of us that believe all have a part of him, his Spirit, inside of us. The real Jesus has already risen from the grave and stood up for us, and now we can choose to proudly stand up for him.