How Did Jesus Get to be So Hot? The Fascinating History of (Wildly Unrealistic) Depictions of the Savior

Let's start with the question of why Jesus is depicted as a white guy.

Lyrics for the rap song, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), include the following line: "The white image, of Christ, is really Cesare Borgia." The idea that our modern image of Jesus could be based on a ruthless power-hungry illegitimate son of a 15th century Pope (and star of the bloody mini-series Borgia) is startling and farfetched. But it is no more bizarre or fanciful than many other ideas about who Jesus was or what he looked like. And it does have an interesting tale behind it.

To understand the Borgia story requires a bit of context.

It’s All Guesswork

In contrast to what many people believe, we have no authentic physical artifacts confirming the gospel stories, nor descriptions of Jesus from any of his contemporaries. Even the gospels themselves never claim to be eyewitness accounts. Scholars now believe that the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry that have been handed down to us—both within the Bible and outside--were written decades (or more) after Jesus would have lived, by unknown authors. This means that Christians have been free for almost two millennia to depict Jesus in a form that best suits their own culture and purposes, and they have.

Not long ago a picture of a cherubic golden-haired Jesus circled Facebook with the following caption, “Mommy, why are we the only white people in the Middle East?” The answer, obviously, lies more in the psychology of human racism than in any likely historical reality.

In 2002, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, analyzed skeletal remains of Semitic men from the first century and applied the tools of his trade to construct a model showing a “most likely” head of Jesus. His model is broad featured and swarthy, with a wide face framed in the beard and cropped, tight-curled hair characteristic of Jews at that time. The head is scaled for a muscular male frame about 5”1” in height, average for the time and place.

As author Mike Fillon put it, “In North America he is most often depicted as being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed. A person with these features and physical bearing would have looked very different from everyone else in the region where Jesus lived and ministered.”

The Evolution of Jesus

Fillon could have added another word to his description of the standard American Jesus: hot. (Former Catholic, Julia Sweeney, jokes in her monologue, Letting God of God, that the Jesus on her childhood bedroom wall helped her discover the pleasures of her own body.) The eyes of a standard American Jesus, whether brown or blue, are piercing; his skin flawless; his features either aristocratic or classically masculine. Even on the cross, his muscles are well defined. In a culture that cares tremendously about youth and beauty, Jesus is a fine specimen of manhood.

But that was not always the case.

The earliest Christians depicted Jesus via pictograms such as the anchor, peacock, or the still popular fish. Early Jesus worship was furtive but also imbued with the Jewish aversion to “graven images,” and early Christian leaders sought to differentiate their emerging religion from pagan traditions that used statues and other art to symbolize gods. Church fathers including Ireneaus and Clement wrote disapprovingly about any image representing Jesus, and the Synod of Elvira in 306C.E. forbade it.

Also, at least some early Christians believed Jesus was quite ordinary in appearance. Justin and Tertullian cited words they believed to be a prophecy from the book of Isaiah: "He had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him” (Isaiah 53:2). In the Quran, Mohammed flies to Jerusalem where he meets with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and Jesus is the smallest of the three. Other early writers describe Jesus as slight, ordinary, and even unattractive. These writings cannot be assumed to give a picture of any actual historical Jesus, but they do reflect images circulating at the time they were written.

Over time as Judaism and Christianity adapted to the Roman Empire, both traditions softened to religious art with human figures. Third century images show Jesus as an infant and then a beardless youth, dressed and groomed according to the fashions of the time. After Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artists merged Jesus into traditional images of the regal Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, just as the birth celebration of Sol Invictus at the end of December became the birthday of Jesus.

Jesus Matures, Becomes Tall and Beautiful

It wasn’t until the early Middle Ages that Christian iconography converged on the bearded, mature Jesus familiar today. Around the same time, writers and artists sought to show that Jesus had outward beauty and stature to match his spiritual beauty and Divine origins. Forged writings and fake artifacts have been common throughout Christian history—from the New Testament books written in the name of Paul to modern manuscript fragments hinting at the marital status or sexuality of Jesus—and in the Middle Ages, forged relics helped to create the modern image of Jesus.

The Shroud of Turin, which was just one of many Jesus shrouds in circulation at the time it appeared in the 14thCentury, “revealed” a Jesus who was tall (5’11-6’), with long hair and beard surrounding a long face. In the 15thcentury, a letter from a Roman Governor of Judea, Publius Lentulus, to Tiberius Caesar emerged. The forged letter, now housed in the Library of Geranini in Rome, waxes eloquent about the physical presence and beauty of Jesus:

His hair is the color of a ripe pecan which comes to his ears, and from there it falls into graceful waving curls that cover his shoulders, turning into a brilliant reddish earth color. It is parted in the center from the crown according to the fashion of the Nazarenes. His forehead is smooth and serene, his face is without wrinkle or spot, his nose and his mouth are formed in exquisite symmetry. His beard is thick; the same color as his hair, not long, and it is separated in the center. His eyes are exceptionally sweet and calm; they are serious and inspire fear; they have the power of the sun's rays. No one can stare straight into His eyes. When he reprimands, He creates fear; when He preaches, he pleases everyone, and He is loved by everyone. He is exceedingly pleasant but in a serious way.

The people say that He has never been seen smiling, but frequently crying. His arms and hands are delectable to behold. In his conversations, He satisfies everyone. He has the most perfect body in the whole world. He is a man of extraordinary beauty and divine perfection and exceeds in beauty all of the sons of men, as does his mother, who is the most beautiful woman ever seen in these parts.

Back to Borgia

In this context—the absence of physical or eye witness evidence, the evolution of iconography, the fusion of Christianity and political power in Rome, and the convergence on a regal, beautiful Jesus—we can return to the Borgia story.

As the tale goes, European crusaders were troubled by the idea of killing Middle Easterners who looked like Jesus, and the ecclesiastical powers of the Catholic hierarchy wanted to assure crusaders that Jesus was not at all like the people they were slaughtering. Cesare Borgia had the perfect visage to provide an alternative.

The story likely derives from portraits of Borgia, for example herehere, and here, and the similarity to many paintings of Jesus, as in this side by side pairing. Also, Borgia is said to have employed Leonardo Da Vinci as a military engineer from 1502-1503, which has led to speculation that Borgia’s visage could have influenced Da Vinci’s religious art.

However, the Crusades that focused on the Holy Land, those which would have required crusaders to slaughter primarily civilians of Middle Eastern descent, occurred centuries before either Borgia or Da Vinci lived. Crusades during the 14th and 15th Century were fought primarily to defend or reclaim previously Christian territory from the expanding Ottoman empire in regions that are now part of Europe or Turkey.

Any similarity between paintings of Borgia and Jesus is more likely attributable to the fact that both were influenced by European aesthetic preferences and ideas of what powerful men should look like—which is a story of its own.

Deeper Realities Behind the Borgia Jesus Story

The Borgia-Jesus connection, while apocryphal, has resonated with many people in part because it lines up with aspects of Christian history that are grounded in much better evidence. We know that popular images of Jesus were adapted to cultures where Christianity was being promoted or had gained broad acceptance. We know that these images were modified and refined for purposes that were political as well as devotional (for example, the images of Jesus as Sol Invictus). And we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Medieval Christians sought to distance themselves from the darkness and Jewishness of Jesus.

Medieval Europe forced Jews into ghettos, pioneered the arm band that was resurrected by the Nazis, caricatured Jewish physical features in art and literature (think Shakespeare’s Shylock), and invented the “blood libel” that still crops up at conspiracy sites. Small wonder then, that a story about the Church seeking to whiten Jesus in order to further dehumanize Semitic people has some resonance.

More broadly, the story says something about each person’s tendency to create God in his or her own image and in the words of Anglican theologian Charles D. Hackett, to “appropriate him in the service of our cultural values."

 At its most benign, this tendency is illustrated by a popular Christmas carol:

Some children see Him lily white
The Baby Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white 
With tresses soft and fair
Some children see Him bronzed and brown 
The Lord of Heav'n to earth come down 
Some children see Him bronzed and brown 
With dark and heavy hair

The song is tender and speaks to the broad appeal of a special baby sent by a God who loves us. The idea of little children picturing a baby Jesus like them is sweet.

But the inability of adults to think beyond the constraints of our own race and culture is less heartwarming. And simply depicting Jesus in different colors, as the song does or as some artists have done in recent years, doesn’t solve the problem. As one African commenter observed online:

If the colour of Jesus didn't matter, then the pictures posted everywhere would correspond with the description in the Bible...but with history in mind a white Jesus has a detrimental effect on the black masses . . . .The question at hand is "how many white people would accept a black Jesus? – Bongo Bmenzo

How many people would accept him even as a 1st century rabbinical Jew?

Only in the last few decades have scholars begun to explore what it might mean to really understand the figure of Jesus as a man of his time and place, both physically and spiritually. Dozens of books have been written on the topic in recent years, by Christianssecular scholars, and Jews.

Even so, Christian animosity toward Jews persists unabated in some sectors. Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic torture porn,The Passion of the Christ, sold to full houses of bused-in churchgoers. More recently, when Bonnie Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation published a book of wildly anti-Semitic Bible-quoting hate mail from Christian fundamentalists, she received more of the same.

In an effort to distance themselves from the image of a swarthy Middle Eastern Jesus some conservative Christians have even laid out the following (transparently self-serving) argument: Since God impregnated Mary, he must have“fashioned the necessary genes and chromosomes that could be the vehicle of Christ's person in uniting with those in the body of the virgin." This means Jesus had some unknown kind of DNA that came straight from God, and so he could have had any shape of face, eye color, skin tone, build or height. Ergo, there’s no reason to assume that he looked like a typical Palestinian Jew.

Whew. Now we can all go back to picturing Mark Ryder or Diogo Morgado or whichever modern Borgia-Jesus most inspires our spiritual—or carnal—devotion. 

 

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.

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