Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Real Face of Jesus

A biblical scholar named Johnnie Moore caused a stir recently when he suggested Jesus might not have been as clean looking as modern images suggest.

All right, it was a small stir.  Not enough to get coffee swirling, but interesting nevertheless.

Moore said that he really upset colleagues by suggesting Jesus might have had dysentery, which unloosens the bowels. The disease was rampant in Jesus’ day.  “The real Jesus had dirt underneath his fingernails and calluses on his hands. He probably smelled badly from sweating profusely in the Judean sun on his long hikes to Jerusalem,” Moore added.

He’s not just a small voice in the wilderness.  Moore is a campus pastor and vice president of Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Claiming 100,000 enrolled students -- in person or electronically -- Liberty says it is the largest evangelical university in the world, and is certainly one of the largest universities in the state and in this country.  It was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the forerunner of the Silent majority and a devout Christian.

The school reeks of piety and faith.  Students and faculty there probably didn’t take kindly to Moore's comments.

Moore, who has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees  from Liberty, tried to tamp down uneasiness with his claims by saying that that Jesus attracted thousands of followers because he was normal.  Actually, the Bible makes it clear – and so does history – that Jesus had few followers and, in Mark, kept his messianic status a secret.  He’s so unknown that Judas has to point him out to the Roman guards.

Moore prefers to ignore that inconvenient truth.

He’s also not the first to try to give Jesus a more-authentic appearance.  Back in 2002, a medieval artist from England decided to take on the face of Jesus after practicing his skill by reconstruction the faces of such people as King Midas and King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Neave's Reconstruction of Jesus
Richard Neave and his team came up with a swarthy man, with short hair, standing about 5’1” and weighing 110 pounds.  Not exactly, the magnificent figure in a white robe who strides across the water in multiple paintings.  After all, that image of grandeur has been engraved into our brains.  Of course, that picture is not based on a real person who lived 2000 years ago in ancient Judea.  It comes from a Roman god who tended sheep. 

On the other hand, Neave probably got a lot closer to reality. 

After all, no images of Jesus exist.  No one described him in the Bible.  The Apostle Paul criticized people with long hair, so it’s likely Jesus didn’t.  However, Paul never met Jesus, so he would have no way of knowing what kind of haircut Jesus preferred.

In the second century C.E., church fathers Justin Martyr and Origen – who was later branded a heretic – said that Jesus “has no form nor glory, nor beauty when we beheld him, but his appearance was without honor and inferior to that of the sons of men."

Chalk one up for dirty.

Shroud of Turn image
On the other hand, some “scholars” like to point to the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial shroud of Jesus to show he was of great beauty and uncommon statue.  He was about one meter and 80 centimeters (six feet) tall, with a perfectly proportioned physique, lithe and harmonious.” … 

His brain was large, too, “suggesting a person of extraordinary genius,” according to Italian professor Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, who studied the Shroud in the 1930s.

Of course, Judica-Cordiglia had no way of knowing Carbon 14 studies done decades later proved the Shroud was created in the 1200s.  He also was unaware that brain size has little impact on intelligence.  Neanderthal brains were bigger than ours, for example, and human brains have been slowly shrinking over the last 150,000 years.

Nevertheless, Judica-Cordiglia – like so many others – prefers to see Jesus through the eyes of a believer rather than the reality of a small, scrubby Semitic man with the normal illnesses of his day.

There’s a good reason why believers would prefer the esthetically pleasing version. If Jesus was dirty, suffered from disease and the like, then he’s not very god-like.  Of course, you could say, since he’s God, he only pretended to be dirty and ill.  Then you would be following Docetism (from Greek “to seem”), a heresy from second century Christianity and condemned by the Nicean Council in 325 C.E.

What a dilemma: Jesus looks like everyone else and therefore is nothing more than a human elevated by his followers to divinity, mimicking Roman and Greek practices of his day; or he didn’t look like everyone else and was only pretending to appear human.

Hmm. Normal person – not God.  Beautiful person – God, but not historically accurate.

Not that it matters to the faithful.  Belief will always override facts.  It’s easier to deny, whether its evolution or the reality of Jesus, than to acknowledge truth. 

This is a clear case of Moore or less.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

No comments:

Post a Comment