"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2)
The most important man in human history lived centuries before the invention of the camera. No contemporary portraits of His face exist. Those who wrote about Him gave their readers His lineage, His deeds, and His message, but none gave us any description of His physical likeness. Yet despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, when you say the name of Jesus, it instantly conjures up a picture in your mind. Everyone sees a tall, strong man with long wavy hair, a beard, and fair skin. Whether in art or parody, this is the image we associate with Christ.
The early Christians believed images of God were forms of idolatry and therefore refused to depict Christ's physical person.3 Certain visual symbols were used to represent Him, but the first portraits of Christ didn't come along until the 4th century.4 (To put that in perspective, imagine not having any images of the prophet Joseph Smith until the year 2150.) Once portraits of Christ did emerge, there were drastic differences in the pictures. This image of Christ, one of the earliest ever made, shows him as the young, beardless Good Shepherd, with short, curly hair.
This image, another really early portrait, found in the Roman catacombs, depicts an older Christ, complete with long dark locks and a full beard.5 Both images are based on the artist's conjecture, but the latter is the one that stuck. This was the image passed down through the ages and which people came to associate with Christ.
Some outside our faith have claimed to have miraculous proof that the traditional Christ image is accurate. Some believe the Shroud of Turin, (which bears a faint image of a recently crucified man) was the actual burial cloth of Jesus and has His picture embedded in it. Others believe in the existence of the Veronica, a cloth used to wipe the face of Christ on the road to Calvary, and which He then miraculously imprinted with a picture of His face. But the Shroud has been carbon-dated to the fourteenth century and the Veronica was lost long ago.6 Then there was the "Letter of Lentulus," a letter purported to be from the time of Christ which describes Jesus having long hair parted down the center, a forked beard, etc. But the letter has been declared inauthentic, once again refuting the idea that the traditional picture of Christ is the real one.7
After the scriptures, the next best place we can turn to for clues is forensic science. Forensic scientists wanted to know what Jesus' face may have looked like, and they decided the best way to find out would be to reconstruct the face of a typical Jewish man who lived during the time of Christ. Taking the skulls of several average-looking men from early Palestine, they were able to create a face with computer technology. This is the result.8
This model is fascinating, but it has some flaws. The hair and skin coloration are complete guesswork, and no one could tell for sure what you or I looked like by averaging the faces of our neighbors. Luckily, this is not the only thing forensics has to offer us. In first-century Egypt, many people were mummified and buried along with paintings of themselves.9 These Egyptians not only lived near Jesus' homeland, but they were genetically related to the Jews, as well.10 Scientists have done reconstructions of the mummies' faces and compared them to their portraits, finding most mummies bore a remarkable resemblance to their pictures.11 So what did these people look like? Their portraits offer us a glimpse, revealing men with softer, narrower features with a very Semitic look. These are the real faces of males from the ancient Middle East.
When depicting Christ in a full body painting, artists have traditionally chosen to make Him a superior specimen, having him stand a little taller than His apostles and appearing to measure about six feet in height. But such a man would have been extremely rare in Jesus' time. Archaeologists analyzed the skeletal remains of people from the time of Christ and have "firmly established that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 ft. 1 in., with an average weight of about 110 pounds. Since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until he was about 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume he was more muscular and physically fit than westernized portraits suggest. His face was probably weather-beaten, which would have made him appear older, as well."12
"It has always been significant to me that, despite the greatness of the master teacher, Jesus the Christ (recognized now by even those who would not believe in his mission as the literal Son of God), there have been left to us no sculptured models or accurate descriptions of the Savior... It has seemed clearly evident to me that it was so because it was not desired that Jesus be worshiped as an idol in stone or brass, but that the profound teachings that he has left us be the center and core of that which should convince anyone of the divinity of his mission."15
2.Hunter, J. Michael. "Portraits of Christ." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 83. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.
8.Fillon, Mike. "The Real Face of Jesus - Advances in Forensic Science Reveal the Most Famous Face in History." Popular Mechanics, January 23, 2015.
11.Wong, Dr. Julielynn. "Modern Science Unravels Ancient Mummy Mysteries." ABC News. October 27, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2015.
13.Lund, Gerald N. Fishers of Men. Salt Lake City, Utah: Shadow Mountain, 2000. 70.
14.Fisher, Max. "Reza Aslan on Jesus’s Skin Color: ‘Megyn Kelly Is Right. Her Christ Is White’." Washington Post. December 12, 2013. Accessed June 12, 2015.
Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
1. Light of the World by Brent Borup. Retrieved from LDS.org
2. Jesus the Christ by Del Parson. Retrieved from LDS.org
3. Good Shepherd fresco from the catacombs of Calixtus. Public Domain.
4. Bust of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla. Public Domain.
5. Replica of the Christus statue in Salt Lake City. Retrieved from LDS.org
6. 3-D model of first century Jewish man from BBC's documentary Son of God.
7. Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
8.Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
9.Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
10. Still from BBC film The Gospel of John.