It’s a face that pretty much everyone would recognize. It has a kind and gentle expression and is framed by a medium-length light brown beard and long, wavy, light brown hair. The eyes are slightly downturned and can be either brown or blue; it varies from picture to picture. The face is a bit narrow with somewhat high cheekbones, and the nose is a little on the long and narrow side. That’s Jesus’ face. Of course, we are aware that our idea of what Jesus looked like is based on artwork and that we don’t know precisely what he looked like. In fact, his skin and hair were probably at least a bit darker, and the proportions of his facial features were probably a little less Caucasian. But we picture Jesus the way our artwork portrays him.
The question is whether this has any theological implications. Some people would say yes. I have seen numerous internet debates that say or imply that it is racist to depict Jesus as being white just because we live in a culture where whites are a racial majority and middle eastern Jews are a racial minority, and that by inaccurately depicting Jesus’ appearance, we are misrepresenting his identity and worshipping a fabricated version of Him. Therefore, people who worship Caucasian Jesus are following a white supremacy religion. Granted, I’m paraphrasing the most extreme version of this argument that I’ve ever seen, and most people wouldn’t go nearly that far. And, of course, the first part of the argument is true. Jesus was not European, and it does seem to reveal the racist traditions of our society when we forget that Jesus wasn’t part of the racial demographic that is slightly most common and generally most powerful in this country. But does that necessarily mean that we’re worshipping a false Jesus if we imagine his appearance incorrectly?
Along a similar vein, I saw something on youtube several months ago in which someone was claiming that Christianity is all wrong because we worship someone named “Jesus”, and that wasn’t His name. Jesus’ name probably would have been pronounced Yeshua (accent on the second syllable) in Aramaic and Hebrew, although not everyone agrees on that. Apparently, Galileans had a distinctive accent, and that has something to do with the debate. In the early church, the pronunciation of Jesus’ name changed over time because of the transition from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin, and from Latin to English. Considering the fact that there were different alphabets involved, this isn’t surprising. Incidentally, Joshua is technically the same name as Jesus, but it came through the translations differently because Old Testament names were transliterated straight from Hebrew to Latin without the Greek stage.
But does that mean that we don’t believe in the real Christ if we pronounce his name “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua”? Is the pronunciation that important? Some people say yes, and they make a very interesting and understandable argument based upon the importance of names. Hebrew culture in particular places a fascinating emphasis on the power of the spoken word, and a person’s name is a very specifically significant kind of word. The name of Jesus is particularly special because it is the name of God. There is certainly a logical basis to the assertion that, if you change the name of your god, you’re making up a new god. (Incidentally, Christians don’t use the name YHWH very much anymore, either.)
In retrospect, I wish I’d used this issue as the topic for my final paper in my postmodern class my last semester of college. It has to do with the very postmodern question of how much meaning language has. The typically postmodern answer is that words are just words; they only carry any meaning at all because a large group of people agree to use them in a certain way, but their meaning is vague and transitory; there’s nothing inherently meaningful about a word, a name, or any symbol or artistic imagery that’s used to represent something. I don’t remember specifically discussing names in that class, but it seems to me that a completely postmodern thinker would have to conclude that the collection of sounds that we use to refer to people is entirely arbitrary and can change over time without any change in meaning, because it doesn’t actually have any meaning in the first place. The opposite approach, which is at least somewhat closer to what Hebrew culture assumed, is that a name is inseparably linked to the person who bears that name and that the name therefore does have meaning in and of itself.
Of course, Jesus lived in a time and place when pretty much everyone was multilingual, and they were presumably accustomed to the fact that even people’s names can change between languages. Based upon the culture and political conditions surrounding Jesus’ life, and based upon the context of certain conversations described in the Bible, we can say with certainty that He knew both Hebrew and Aramaic and that there’s at least a good chance that he knew Greek. I’ve also heard speculation that he might have known a little Latin, although I don’t know whether or not there’s much of a basis for that claim. Most likely, Aramaic would have been his primary language. At any rate, Jesus probably heard more than one version of his name used during his life. Besides that, there are numerous titles used for Jesus in the Bible, such as Rabbi/Teacher, which his disciples often called him, and “the son of man,” which he frequently used for himself, and, of course, Christ/Messiah. If we’re going to insist that the exact set of sounds is what matters, we can’t allow any titles. But since Jesus himself was okay with them, that must mean they’re okay.
While I disagree with the postmodern disregard for the importance and significance of words, I also think that it doesn’t make any sense to fixate on how a name was supposed to be pronounced in the original language. It’s true that there was something important about Jesus’ name in the original Hebrew, but that important thing isn’t the sounds, it’s the meaning. Most Bibles have a footnote on Matthew 1:21 and/or Luke 1:31 that tell us what “Jesus” means, but I looked it up in a couple other places as well in the hopes of finding more information than just a definition. Yeshua is a shortened form of Yehoshu’ah, which is basically the name Hoshea (which means “salvation” or “he saves”) with Yeho (from YHWH, God’s name) added as a prefix. It literally means “God saves,” where God is specifically the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, it’s pretty clear that the Jews had a thing about choosing names with relevant meanings. Jesus’ name wasn’t just a bunch of sounds, it was a description of what He was doing in this world. “God saves” is the message we’re supposed to be getting from the name of Jesus.
It seems to me that the issue of how we depict Jesus’ appearance is similar. There is room for philosophical debate about the relationship between identity, name, and appearance, (I would argue that a person’s name is more closely tied to their identity than their physical appearance is) and there’s also room for debating the social implications of incorrectly depicting Jesus’ race. It is certainly understandable that some people, particularly those who are part of racial minorities, would be troubled to see Jesus portrayed as if he was a European, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to argue that this tradition in Christian artwork may have contributed to racism in Western ideologies over the last couple millennia. If that is the case, it certainly is sad, and it’s clear evidence of the fact that we are sinners. Even the most devout and well-meaning Christian is not immune to horrible, sinful attitudes towards other people. But it doesn’t mean that we worship a false Christ if we imagine Christ looking more like a European than He really did.
It’s worth noting that our artistic images of Jesus were not randomly made up out of the blue by racist Caucasian people. At least since 1350, it has been speculated by many and believed by some that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ burial cloth. It is marked with an image, believed to have been left by radiation, of the man who was wrapped in it, including his face. The shroud is shrouded in mystery and controversy. (Pun intended) If you Google it, you will find lots of articles about it that contain compelling evidence supporting conflicting opinions. Many believe that it was a hoax from the 1300s; many others believe that it does indeed date back to the early first century. In the last few decades, technological advances have allowed the cloth to be examined more extensively, and that has not ended the controversy or answered all the questions. Considering the fact that John 19:40 specifies that Jesus was wrapped in linen cloths, not a shroud, I’m not inclined to think that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ shroud. (Yes, I’m aware that some English translations of the other gospels use the word “shroud”, but I’m pretty sure that in all three cases, the word σινδονι ought to be translated simply as “linen”, not “a linen shroud.” I could be wrong about that, but John 19:40 is pretty specific about how Jesus was buried.) At any rate, whether the shroud of Turin shows a genuine image of Jesus or not, some religious artists from many centuries ago believed that it did, and based their depictions of Jesus on that image without any racist intentions of making Jesus look specifically European.
But the important thing is that our salvation does not depend upon whether or not we accurately picture the way Jesus looked. The Bible tells us that he was true God and true man, born to live a sinless human life and die an innocent death on our behalf, which is what we really need to know. It also tells us about many of the things that Jesus said and did during his ministry, because those are important details, too. But it didn’t tell us what Jesus looked like because that information isn’t necessary or relevant. On the one hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to keep the pictures we have of a face that we identify as Jesus, even though we don’t know what he really looked like. But on the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to try to make educated guesses about what He did look like and to have a preference for artwork that is more likely to be accurate. We just have to remember that Christianity isn’t about racial controversy, it’s about “God saves.”