The usual image of Jesus fixed in people’s minds is that of him of being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, brown hair, fair skin & light-coloured eyes. But this image is flawed. Also, nowhere in the New Testament have the looks of Jesus been described & neither have any drawings of him ever been uncovered. This complicates the matter of how Jesus actually looked.

The problem intensifies as neither a skeleton nor any other bodily remains to probe for DNA were found. Because of this the images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. However, an answer has emerged from a new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archaeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of Jesus.

About Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology uses cultural & archaeological data as well as the physical & biological sciences to study different groups of people. Experts in this field require a working knowledge of genetics, & human growth & development. Not only this but experts draw from the fields of primatology, palaeo-anthropology (the study of primate & human evolution) & human osteology (the study of the skeleton). Even distant fields like nutrition, dentistry & climate adaptation play a role in this type of investigation. Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England, took up the challenge to shed light on the appearance of Jesus.

Reconstructing Jesus

One thing that was clear was that Jesus’s features were typical of Galilean Semites of his era. So the first step for Neave & his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived & preached.

With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray ‘slices’ of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles & skin overlying a representative Semite skull.

The entire process was accomplished using software that verified the results with anthropological data. From this data, the researchers built a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. Next, they created a cast of the skull. Layers of clay matching the thickness of facial tissues specified by the computer program were then applied, along with simulated skin. The nose, lips & eyelids were then modelled to follow the shape determined by the underlying muscles.

Two key factors could not be determined from the skull—Jesus’s hair & coloration. To fill in these parts of the picture, Neave’s team turned to drawings found at various archaeological sites, dated to the first century. Drawn before the Bible was compiled, they held crucial clues that enabled the researchers to determine that Jesus had dark rather than light-coloured eyes. They also pointed out that in keeping with Jewish tradition, he was bearded as well.

It was the Bible, however, that resolved the question of the length of Jesus’s hair. While most religious artists have put long hair on Christ, most biblical scholars believe that it was probably short with tight curls. This assumption, however, contradicted what many believe to be the most authentic depiction: the face seen in the image on the famous – some say infamous – Shroud of Turin. The shroud is believed by many to be the cloth in which Jesus’s body was wrapped after his death. Although there is a difference of opinion as to whether the shroud is genuine, it clearly depicts a figure with long hair. Those who criticize the shroud’s legitimacy point to 1 Corinthians, one of the many New Testament books the apostle Paul is credited with writing.

In one chapter he mentions having seen Jesus – then later describes long hair on a man as disgraceful. Would Paul have written “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” if Jesus Christ had had long hair? For Neave & his team this settled the issue. Jesus, as drawings from the first century depict, would have had short hair, appropriate to men of the time.

The historic record also resolved the issue of Jesus’s height. From an analysis of skeletal remains, archaeologists had firmly established that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 ft. 1 in., with an average weight of about 110 pounds. Since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until he was about 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume he was more muscular & physically fit than westernized portraits suggest. His face was probably weather-beaten, which would have made him appear older, as well.

As accurate as it gets

Neave emphasizes that his re-creation is simply that of an adult man who lived in the same place & at the same time as Jesus, although some disagree.

Forensic depictions are not an exact science, cautions Alison Galloway, professor of anthropology at the University of California in Santa Cruz. The details in a face follow the soft tissue above the muscle, & it is here where forensic artists differ widely in technique. Galloway points out that some artists pay more attention to the subtle differences in such details as the distance between the bottom of the nose & the mouth, while the most recognizable features of the face – the folds of the eyes, structure of the nose & shape of the mouth – are left to the artist. Despite this, she reaches one conclusion about Neave’s version of Jesus. She says, “This is probably a lot closer to the truth than the work of many great masters.”


Vinayak Jain