What Did Jesus Really Look Like?

Roundup: Talking About History

David Gibson, in the NYT (Feb. 21, 2004):

Whatever arguments there may be about the verisimilitude of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ," one thing is certain: this Jesus is a Hollywood hunk who probably bears little resemblance to what the Jesus of history looked like.

The title role is played by Jim Caviezel, a dark-haired, blue-eyed star whose brooding good looks have been compared to those of Montgomery Clift. He doesn't exactly fit the archaeological evidence that the average man of Jesus' day was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and a bantamlike 110 pounds. Given the harsh conditions, especially for working stiffs like the members of Jesus' family, combined with Jesus' ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a rather sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing.

Not that portraying Jesus as a movie idol is anything new. Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings" (1961) is commonly referred to as "the Malibu Jesus," while Willem Dafoe's celluloid savior was a perfectly credible love match for the lusty Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene in "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). And Max von Sydow was a handsome — and distinctly Aryan — Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965).

Of course, figuring out what Jesus really looked like is impossible. One reason is that the question apparently held almost no interest for Jesus' followers, who were Jewish and raised in a faith that strictly prohibited representations of the divine.

Still, within a few decades of Jesus' death, the issue cropped up again, both from natural curiosity and as a defense against those, like the second-century philosopher Celsus, who argued that Jesus would not have been divine because God could not take a corruptible human form.

"God is good, and beautiful, and blessed, and that in the best and most beautiful degree," Celsus wrote. "But if he come down among men, he must undergo a change, and a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst."

Celsus, a Platonist from Alexandria, was expressing the prevailing view of the day. In the ancient world, the gods were supposed to be, well, godlike. They stood above and apart from mere mortals. They were great warriors and often great seducers. Celsus' arguments, however, were enough to inflame Christian apologists like Origen, who were facing nasty persecutions from the pagan empire.

But rather than fighting back by building Jesus up as some kind of super Zeus, Origen took the opposite tack. Jesus, he wrote in his lengthy treatise "Against Celsus," was no different from ordinary men of his day, and this ordinariness was in fact a proof of his divine humility, as well as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53, which says of the future messiah, "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (King James version).


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