What did Jesus look like? Any answer to this question must, of course, be rather incomplete since we have no likenesses available to us. And, no, the Shroud of Turin, which is surely a fake, doesn’t count! Despite our lack of an accurate picture, most of us have some image in mind. It may be a Sunday School picture or a painting hanging in one of the world’s great art museums. It might inspire reverence or indifference.
Even if God is invisible to our sight, Christian theology has always understood Jesus to be God’s revelation in human flesh. To use the words of the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh” (John 1:14). The theological term for this belief is incarnation. To envision Jesus as God’s revelation in the flesh requires some imagination. Our pictures of Jesus often take on cultural manifestations. We often imagine Jesus as one like us, perhaps taking on our own ethnic or even gender identity. Of course, the historical Jesus, the Jesus who lived an earthly life was a 1stCentury CE era Jewish peasant who came from the region of Galilee. This is what we sometimes call the scandal of particularity. Whatever our imaginations conjure up, history requires particularity.
Despite the particularity of Jesus’ historic personage, most pictures of Jesus, at least in the Western World, where Christianity became the dominant religious faith, have taken on a rather European cast. Therefore the Jewish Jesus was transformed into what appears in most pictures, including the famed Sallman’s Head of Jesus, as a northern European man – with long blond hair, light complexion, and often with blue eyes. He may even have a halo for good effect. Of course other images have emerged over time, especially as Christianity has spread to non-European regions.
There is no one true picture of Jesus. The universality of his message might even suggest that we would be best served by not pursuing a truly “historical” picture of Jesus. There is value to such a decision, but considering the fact that Christianity has had a history of persecuting Jews and forgetting the Jewishness of Jesus, it is good to be reminded of this historical identity.
As I joined a group from my church last Sunday at the DIA, where we took in the special exhibit of“Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” this question of Jesus’ historic personage was brought into focus. Like many artists of his day (17th Century), Rembrandt took on religious subjects, including pictures of Jesus. What made him unique for his day was that Rembrandt sought to capture the Jewishness of Jesus in some of his paintings. One of the things we learned while at the exhibit was the Rembrandt lived for a number of years in the Jewish section of Amsterdam (Amsterdam was one of the few places in Europe where Jews experienced some safety). It was during this period that Rembrandt chose to use a young Sephardic Jew as his model, and as a result, created a series of pictures that casts Jesus as a truly Jewish man.
Of course this isn’t the true image of Jesus, which remains elusive, but it is a reminder of Jesus’ true humanity, his true historic context. All of our images stand under the judgment of this reality. Jesus was, Christian theology insists, one of us. He was, however, also a figure of history. Taking in an exhibit like The DIA’s helps keep these questions in balance.
So I close this brief reflection with a few questions. Who is Jesus? Does one’s image or picture of Jesus have any theological implications? What do our images say about us?