Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
by Graham Pockett

Scripture quoted is from the NIV Bible, not because it is ‘best’ but because it is in modern English. If in doubt, please read the quotations in various translations. You might like to read Why I Quote The NIV Bible.

For many hundreds of years, most European Christians have considered Jesus to be a long haired, blue-eyed Caucasian, while in many African countries He is pictured as being black, with typically Negroid characteristics. What is wrong with these images of Christ is that they are both very wrong.

There are no contemporary descriptions of Jesus though some people accept the description of Jesus as given by the Jewish historian, Josephus. Late in the first century, he wrote "The Antiquities of the Jews", a history of the Jewish peoples. Modern English versions contain the following passage (generally known as "Testimonium Flavianum"):

    "Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works; a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was (the) Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." (Book XVIII, Chapter iii, Section 3).
Professor Shlomo Pines, a scholar of Jewish and Islamic philosophy, found a different version of the Josephus description of Jesus in an Arabic version of the tenth century:
    "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders."
There is no evidence that either version is true to the original text of "The Antiquities" by Josephus – the English text version was most likely added by a Christian believer, and the Arabic version was most likely a modification of the "Christianized" version by a Muslim.

Another source that provides a description of Jesus (as the future Messiah) is by Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet. Isaiah 53:2b says:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. [NIV]

Verse 3 continues:

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. [NIV]

This is an extraordinary description of Jesus and paints Him, not as someone who was pretty or attractive, but someone who had no beauty to attract anyone to Him, though it is clear from New Testament writings that He had a charismatic personality.

Jesus depicted as being both Negroid and Caucasian

So what did Jesus really look like? Was He a Caucasian European, a Negroid African, or something else? As the Bible says nothing about His appearance (apart from the Isaiah reference and another "description" in Revelation 1:12-16), we can only assume that He looked much the same as everybody else from that region at that time.

If He had a European appearance (as per the Medieval and Renaissance depictions) He would have looked very different from the Jews of that time and His "strange" appearance would most likely have caused comment in the Scriptures.

Did Jesus have “fair wavy hair and dark eyebrows that met in the middle”?

To look at this subject we must first approach the subject of His hair length. Most images of the Christ, even with various ethnic appearances, show Him to have long hair.

Nicephorus, an eastern Orthodox patriarch from the 11th Century, quotes a description of him as tall and beautiful with fair wavy hair and dark eyebrows that met in the middle. I believe it was this description which led to many of the subsequent images of Jesus.

Jesus depicted as being Chinese
But could Jesus have had long hair? Some say that, like Samson, He had taken the Nazirite vows and could not cut His hair. Numbers 6:5 gives us some information about Nazirites and their vows regarding hair:

During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the period of his separation to the Lord is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long. [NIV]

However, the Bible says that He was a Nazarene (from the town of Nazareth) but no-where does it say that He was a Nazirite, even though there is some evidence that His cousin, John the Baptist, took on the Nazirite vows. Apparently Jesus was accused of being a "glutton and a wine drinker" (Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34-35) and this He did not deny. If He was an imbiber of wine He could not have been a Nazirite (Numbers 6:4).

But there is a stronger passage which indicates that Jesus could not have had long hair. In 1 Corinthians 11:14 Paul says:

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him. [NIV]

If Jesus had long hair then Paul would not have denounced it in this passage, or he would have qualified the statement to exclude Nazirites (if that is what Jesus really was). There is no way that Paul would have attacked the known appearance of Jesus by making this statement if Jesus really did have long hair.

So it is virtually impossible for Jesus to have had long hair.

“Hitler claimed that Jesus was of Celtic ancestry”

So what race was Jesus? Hitler claimed that Jesus was of Celtic ancestry because there was a Roman garrison at Nazareth and he claimed that Jesus was sired by a Roman solider and was not even Jewish! I don't think so...

It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus was not only a Jew, but a practising Jew who obeyed all 613 Laws of the Old Testament. He was from the Davidic lineage which indicates that Jesus had at least four black ancestors so, by the racial demarcations accepted by some people today (ie, even 1% of "black" blood makes someone "black"), He was black. This was most common in the Middle East and could account for the swarthy appearance of many Middle Eastern folk.

Richard Neave's hypothetical reconstruction
I assume, because the Bible does not tell me otherwise, that Jesus was of swarthy Middle Eastern appearance, as were others from that region. Combined with short hair (and the short beard that was common in those days), we get a picture of Jesus that varies remarkably from that portrayed in the West and, quite recently, in motion pictures.

Forensic artist, Richard Neave, created a hypothetical reconstruction of someone from the same time as Jesus, and from the same locality. This shows a round-faced person with short dark curly hair, and a short dark curly beard. (See image on left.)

No-one is suggesting that this is an accurate portrait of Jesus, but I believe it is probably closer to the truth than the European depictions which are so commonly portrayed as being representative of Jesus. (See image below.)

Sister Faustina's 'Jesus Of Divine Mercy' painting

Unfortunately, these Caucasian images of the Christ do little to encourage non-Caucasians to accept Him as their Lord and Savior. It only encourages division within the Church.

I don't believe that the ethnicity of Jesus is important – it is who He is that is important, not how He looks.

Jesus lives within each and every believer and, as such, has no physical body to portray. Therefore, any image a believer should choose to append to Him is true for that believer.

However, when a group decides that their view of Jesus is the only view, that He is in their ethnic image and not in someone else's ethnic image, then troubles arise.

If a group of Chinese believers choose to represent Him as Chinese then they are right – He is of Chinese appearance. If a group of Europeans choose to represent Him as European, then they are right too. If a group of African believers choose to represent Him as an African, they too are right.

Jesus is all these things and more.

What Jesus physically looked like when He walked on the Earth 2,000 years ago really doesn't matter. If He had chosen to appear in China He would have looked Chinese. If He had chosen to appear in South Africa, He would have appeared Negroid. As he chose (for many reasons) to appear in Israel, He was Jewish and had the characteristics of the local population.

If Christians really want to portray Jesus as He was when He walked on the Earth they should remember that He would have looked like every other Middle Eastern Jew at that time.

If He looked otherwise the Bible writers would have mentioned it. It is this lack of mention which indicates that Jesus had a relatively normal appearance for the region and the time He appeared.

When He returns to take up His throne on Earth for 1,000 years I have no doubt He will look like a modern Israeli Jew.

But whatever His appearance, whatever, His skin color, whatever His ethnicity, I will rejoice in the Second Coming and continue to declare that I am His servant.

Praise be His mighty name!

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Graham’s Christian writing:
"Graham Pockett doesn't mince any words, but he writes with a kind heart. If you have questions about such things as "once saved, always saved", or why so many different ideas can come from the same scripture, or how much what we see and do affects us as spiritual beings, you'll find much to think about here."  from This Christian Life
Graham Pockett
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    Last Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2019