A great discussion of how Jesus may have looked according to images and evidence from the First Century

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Header Image: Jesus and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

Joan E. Taylor has written a neat little article on how Jesus may actually have looked, just in time for the Easter season, in the Friends of ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) March 2018 newsletter.  Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole essay in order to get a good idea of how First Century Jews dressed and adorned themselves and how images of Jesus changed from earliest Antiquity to the Byzantine and later periods:

The earliest extant images of Jesus in Roman catacomb paintings show him as a teacher/philosopher or magus (wonder-worker, with a wand), dressed in the common clothing of the time for a man: a knee length (essentially sleeveless) tunic (chitōn) and a long mantle (himation). He is also beardless and short-haired. We see this in the depiction of Jesus healing a woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34) in the late 3rd century Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus.

Jesus was recognizable in these portrayals not because of how he looked but by what he did. The Gospel stories were so familiar to the viewers that they recognized Jesus from what was being shown. Still, for people today, this image of Jesus seems strange. When a picture of Jesus was discovered last year on a 4th/5th century glass paten (Eucharist plate) found in southern Spain, one of the things the media was most interested in was that Jesus was beardless.

Did Jesus actually have a beard? As a kind of wandering sage, I think he would have had one, simply because he did not go to barbers. This was also the common appearance of a philosopher; the Stoic philosopher Epictetus considered it appropriately natural. He did not have a beard just because he was a Jew. A beard was not distinctive of Jews in antiquity. While by the time the Babylonian Talmud was written in the 5th-6th centuries beardedness might have been common for Jewish men (b.Shabbat 152a, ‘The glory of a face is its beard’), it was never identified as an indicator of Jews in the 1st century. In fact, one of the problems for oppressors of Jews in the Diaspora was identifying them when they looked like everyone else. However, the Jewish men on Judaea Capta coins (issued by Rome after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE) are bearded but with short hair; this is probably how Romans imagined Jewish men in Judaea, even if in the Diaspora a Jewish man may have looked like every other guy.

So what did Jesus really look like? Jesus wore normal clothing, unlike John the Baptist;  John’s clothing was sufficiently unusual and Elijah-like to be mentioned (Mark 1:6: “And John was wearing camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist.”)  So what was normal for men of 1st-century Judaea?

Important insights into dress and appearance are gained by studies of the Egyptian mummy portraits from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. These portraits depict a style of clothing and hair that was probably universal in the eastern Mediterranean, including in the region of Judaea. This is also clear from the archaeological discoveries of Masada and the Judaean Desert Caves. The clothing of rich people was mainly distinguished by expensive dyes and fineness of the cloth, but the actual styles were quite similar.

Most men wore a simple short tunic (chitōn), finishing around the knees, as Jesus is depicted wearing in catacomb art. Men were supposed to be ready for action – movement – so they did not usually have long robes; the high status longer garment sometimes worn by the elite advertized leisure. To be really active you would ‘gird your loins’ by tucking your chitōn up by pulling it through your legs and tying it.

chitōn invariably had two bands of color that ran from the shoulder to the hem, front and back. These are seen in many examples from excavations in sites close to the Dead Sea, where textiles have been well preserved, especially from Nahal Hever and Masada.

On top of the tunic a man would wear a himation or mantle, a large piece of woolen material color. A woman who wanted to be healed touched Jesus’s himation (Mark 5:27). There was also a type of fine linen mantle/wrap called a sindōn, but Jesus only wore one of these in death (Mark 15:46).

 

HT: http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2018/03/Jesus-Look-Like

Unearthing the World of Jesus

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Synagogue at Magdala (Photo by Yadid Levy, Smithsonian Magazine)

In January, Smithsonian Magazine ran a great article on excavations at Magdala and Bethsaida that bring new evidence to light concerning the world of 1st Century  Galilee.  Below is an extract; click through the link at the bottom to read more.

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Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus”

The IAA archaeologists had mucked around on Solana’s 20 acres for a month and found little. “Almost done?” he’d ask, emerging in his clerical robes from a shipping container that served as a makeshift office. “I have a budget! I have a timetable!”

In truth, the archaeologists didn’t want to be there either. Summer temperatures had ticked into the 100s, and the site prickled with bees and mosquitoes. They’d say shalom, they assured the priest, as soon as they checked a final, remote corner of his land.

It was there, beneath a wing of the proposed guesthouse, that their picks clinked against the top of a buried wall.

Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an IAA official who oversaw digs in northern Israel, ordered all hands to this square of the excavation grid. The workers squatted in the mealy soil and dusted carefully with brushes. Soon, a series of rough-cut stone benches emerged around what looked like a sanctuary.

It can’t be, Avshalom-Gorni thought.

The Gospels say that Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news” in synagogues “throughout all Galilee.” But despite decades of digging in the towns Jesus visited, no early first-century synagogue had ever been found.

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For historians, this was not a serious problem. Galilean Jews were a week’s walk from Jerusalem, close enough for regular pilgrimages to Herod the Great’s magnificent temple, Judaism’s central house of worship. Galileans, mostly poor peasants and fishermen, had neither the need nor the funds for some local spinoff. Synagogues, as we understand them today, did not appear anywhere in great numbers until several hundred years later. If there were any in Galilee in Jesus’s day, they were perhaps just ordinary houses that doubled as meeting places for local Jews. Some scholars argued that the “synagogues” in the New Testament were nothing more than anachronisms slipped in by the Gospels’ authors, who were writing outside Galilee decades after Jesus’s death.

But as Avshalom-Gorni stood at the edge of the pit, studying the arrangement of benches along the walls, she could no longer deny it: They’d found a synagogue from the time of Jesus, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Though big enough for just 200 people, it was, for its time and place, opulent. It had a mosaic floor; frescoes in pleasing geometries of red, yellow and blue; separate chambers for public Torah readings, private study and storage of the scrolls; a bowl outside for the ritual washing of hands.

In the center of the sanctuary, the archaeologists unearthed a mysterious stone block, the size of a toy chest, unlike anything anyone had seen before. Carved onto its faces were a seven-branched menorah, a chariot of fire and a hoard of symbols associated with the most hallowed precincts of the Jerusalem temple. The stone is already seen as one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology in decades. Though its imagery and function remain in the earliest stages of analysis, scholars say it could lead to new understandings of the forces that made Galilee such fertile ground for a Jewish carpenter with a world-changing message. It could help explain, in other words, how a backwater of northern Israel became the launching pad for Christianity.

But on that dusty afternoon, Solana had no way of knowing this. He was toweling off after a swim when an IAA archaeologist named Arfan Najar called his cellphone with what seemed like the worst possible news: They’d found something, and everything Solana had worked and prayed for these past five years was on hold.

“Father,” Najar told him, “you have a big, big, big problem.”

Read more: Smithsonian Magazine, Unearthing the World of Jesus