Earliest Known Picture of Jesus Goes on Display

23/09/11 | Posted by MattPage

What does Jesus look like when you close your eyes and picture him? Long hair and a beard? Blue eyes even? The oldest images of Jesus ever found go on display today in New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and there's something distinctly strange about them. The pictures painted closest to the time when Jesus was alive show him with short hair, brown eyes, and, most surprising of all, beardless.

image
 Photography © 2011 Yale University Art Gallery

Of course visual depictions of Jesus have changed enormously over the centuries, due in part to the fact that the four gospels give no physical description of Jesus whatsoever. Furthermore, the early church seems not to have been overly concerned with portraying Jesus visually. Indeed given that most of the very earliest church was Jewish it’s possible they adopted mainstream Judaism’s interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments - “You shall not make graven images”.

But as the racially-Jewish population within Christianity dwindled, it became acceptable once again to depict his face, although by the time these earliest works were painted, Jesus had already been dead for two centuries.

The paintings were discovered almost a hundred years ago in an archaeological exploration at Dura Europos in modern day Syria. The city was abandoned in the 250s, and the site had never subsequently been re-inhabited meaning that much was as it had been left.

What’s remarkable about the site - which was located at the intersection of the Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman empires - is that alongside the Christian ruins were places of worship to Greek, Roman and local gods as well as the world’s best-preserved ancient synagogue. The co-existence of these diverse religions, at a time when persecution of Christianity was rife elsewhere suggests a multicultural, tolerant and relatively peaceful city. Other evidence from the site suggests that there was a wide range of cultural traditions and people groups. Fragments of no fewer than seven different languages (Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Parthian, Middle Persian, Hebrew, and Safaitic) have been discovered at the site.

In total there are four scenes depicted from the Gospels. Christ Healing the Paralytic (pictured above) shows one of Jesus’ earliest healings from Mark 2. Then there is a picture of the Good Shepherd, a popular image amongst the earliest Christian art. Also shown is the story from Matthew 14 of Jesus and Peter walking on the water (below) although Jesus’ face appears not to have survived. Lastly there is what appears to be part of a picture of the two/three women at Jesus’ empty tomb.

image
 Photography © 2011 Yale University Art Gallery

It’s interesting that whilst these images were created long before the New Testament was compiled and before Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, these few images capture the majority of aspects of Jesus’ life. His appearance is typical of that of the teacher; he is shown performing miraculous signs and healings; the Good Shepherd suggests a sacrificial and caring leader; and the empty tomb witnesses to his resurrection.

The exhibition, aptly named ‘Edge of Empires’ uses objects from Yale University Art Gallery, and runs until January 2012.

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Your comments

“Ealiest”?

#1. By Vic on August 24, 2012

Thanks Vic.

#2. By Bruce on August 29, 2012

Does this carving show Jesus w short hair & a rounded face? I recall a documentary some years back that used forensics to reconstruct a late bronze age skull from a dig near Jerusalem & the image was very different from the long haired, 6’ handsome figure of Western Christian tradition. This reconstructed image was apparently a realistic rendition of Galilean tribal peoples of the time of Jesus

#3. By John on April 21, 2014

I like how u photo shop the pitchure so that he look white why did you cut off half of him walking on the water .count u want people to know hr was black.whitewash of history. Don’t worry it will be revealed

#4. By Steve williamd on March 21, 2015

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