In the first installment of this series, we broached the idea that some people wish to destroy images of Christ for no other reason than they are perceived to be ethnically inaccurate. Such an argument is faulty at best and immoral at worst. People who make such arguments miss the main point of the art and Scripture. But these points do not answer that original, nagging question: What did Jesus look like?
This is a somewhat difficult question to answer as we have little evidence on the matter. I also find it a somewhat insignificant point in context of the message of the Gospel. But we will start with what we know. We know that His earthly mother was Jewish, and His earthly lineage traces from David to Abraham (and, consequently, Adam) (Matt. 1, Luk. 3:21-38). So, it is probably safe to assume He looked similar to His people. Who were his people? They were the Jewish people. And what did they look like? Again, we can speculate, and likely with more accuracy than we can with the appearance of Jesus, but it is still speculation.
The Jewish people are descended from Abraham, and he was originally from Mesopotamia in roundabouts the 22nd century B.C. The Israelites, as they were then called, settled in what was the land of Canaan and founded the nation of Israel. But Israel frequently changed hands after the nation fell to Assyria and Babylon, and they were spread across these and subsequent empires. Then, after the destruction of 70 A.D. by the Romans, the Judeans were scattered further. Then, most of the people of Israel who live in Israel today only returned to Israel roughly 2000 years later, though some had returned over the centuries since the 1st century. So did David look like Abraham, or Mary like David? How similar are the people we know as ethnic Jews to their 1st century forefathers? We don’t really know, but we can make a guess.
The Jewish people were (and to some extent, are in Israel) an ethnostate. This is to say that they were a religious group of people who typically married within their religious community, which often happens to be the same ethnic community. By ethnicity, I mean common ancestry, and this ancestry is found in Abraham. This practice continued largely into modern times, though most strongly in the orthodox communities. There is much more detail in the history of this practice, more than what I will get into here, and it is not unique to them. Basically, the important part about marrying from among your own people meant that you both would be from the same culture and, therefore, pass that culture, and most importantly your religion, onto your children. As Jewish people typically, though not strictly, marry within their cultural communities, and these typically were of the same ethnic communities, most modern ethnic Jewish communities are reasonably representative of what 1st century Jews looked like.
Also keep in mind that the people who populated the Middle East in the past has differed drastically from what we see today. What we collectively call “the Middle East” have never really been a collective whole. The only part of the land that was even close to that was Mesopotamia. But this large area has been at some point Sumeria, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Madai, Akkad, and Canaan among other nations, including Israel, not to mention the nations that exist there today. A great variety of people lived in or moved from this vast area over the course of history.
So then, let’s consider the idea of change in appearance from David to Abraham and Mary to David, and her to the people we see today. A lot of intermarriage has still occurred. Do we know exactly what they looked like at any of these times other than the present? No, though considering their cultural practices, which have remained fairly consistent for thousands of years, we can assume they looked similar to their modern descendants.
All of this is to say that, more than likely, Jesus looked something like a 1st century Jew. After all, if He looked markedly different, the Gospel writers would have probably mentioned it. But then again, maybe not. After all, we don’t know exactly how the immaculate conception worked. Did He look something like Mary? Was Mary’s DNA even used? The Gospels don’t say. They also don’t tell us how tall He was, or the color of His eyes, or whether He was athletically built, or really anything else about His appearance.
And why should it matter what He looked like? What does His race or ethnicity matter beyond the fact that the Lord promised the Messiah would come from the Jews, Abraham’s people? Don’t get me wrong. I am all about knowing history. That is one of the reasons why I’m writing this series! I also think it’s great when artists now try to depict Jesus in a historically accurate way, and the same goes for other biblical and historical events. I am not discounting the importance Jesus’ earthly ancestry.
But that’s not the point. His appearance is not the point. God promised that all people would be blessed through Abraham. So why does the physical, ethnic appearance of His Son matter? His appearance was not the essential message of the Gospels or the Bible. He was the Son of the living God come in the flesh to save us from our sins. That was the critical part. If anything about His appearance should matter, it should be that He was marred, tortured, and crucified for our sake (Isa. 52:12-53:13). Thus, the only thing we know for sure about Jesus’ appearance is that He took on human form to die for us (Phil. 2:6-8). He looked like us.
In this discussion, we miss the point of Jesus’ mission. After all, what did Jesus come to do?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.John 3:16-17
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’Acts 17:24-28
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.1 Timothy 1:15
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”Luke 19:9-10
Jesus came here to seek and save what was lost. Do we know what Jesus looked like? No, and we won’t know until maybe the Second Coming. But that’s ok! Here is what we do know: Jesus came for us, His creation, mankind. He came in human form to redeem us from our sins and bring us back into relation with Him. He came to love. He did not come for one people or race or color but for all people, all nations, all of His creation made in His image.
In response to this love shown to us, artists have, for centuries, created art in praise and glory of Christ. They created art so we could learn the Bible through images. They created art for enjoyment and edification. We should keep these points and this message of the Gospel in mind when we view art from various cultures. God did not send His Son for one people, but to all. Thus, it is only fitting that all people have created art to His glory and used their gifts and talents to depict Him as they know how. In the next part, we will discuss the history of Christian religious art from around the world and why that is important to understand and appreciate that history.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig