About ten years after Brother Robert painted the icon of Jesus Christ Liberator, an Orthodox bishop publically denounced it in a magazine because it was not historically accurate. Jesus was not of African descent, he said. Icons must reflect what is written in the Bible or historical truth. The bishop obviously believed that Byzantine icons of Christ are based on ancient memories that somehow go back to eyewitnesses who knew Jesus during his lifetime.
Archeologists have excavated the skeletal remains of many male Jews from first century Palestine. Physical anthropologists have reconstructed faces from typical skulls, and none of their results have looked anything like the Jesus of icons.
As for Sacred Scriptures, they are silent about Jesus’ appearance, except for the Book of Revelation. There, the author says he saw Jesus in the form of a lamb with seven horns. Another time he says he saw Jesus with hair white as snow and eyes of flames. Jesus’ feet are like brass glowing red in a furnace and a sharp sword protrudes from his mouth. None of this resembles the Jesus of icons. Elsewhere, in the Gospels, all we know is that Jesus looked ordinary enough to be able to blend into crowds and disappear.
From St. Paul the Apostle and the Jewish historian Josephus we learn that Jews considered long hair shameful and effeminate. Jewish men wore their hair cropped close to their heads. The Jesus of icons has hair so long that it billows out on both sides of his head and falls down the back of his neck. Such a man would not have found it easy to blend into crowds and disappear.
Art historians point out that the earliest images of Jesus, those closest to any possible historical memories, show him as young and beardless, with long curly hair, very much like the pagan gods Dionysius or Apollo. What eventually becomes the official face of Jesus–the Pantocrator with a thick muscular neck, long, loose hair, and a beard—is obviously based on representations of Sarapis, the Egyptian Zeus. That Jesus also wears a himation and chiton, the flowing robes of a Greek philosopher.
Within five hundred years, Hellenistic Christians had indigenized the Semitic Gospels they received from Jewish Apostles, using imagery from their culture to say something meaningful about Jesus’ divinity. How they said this would have horrified the first Jewish Christians, just as Brother Robert’s icon of Jesus Christ Liberator upsets Christians who are at home in Hellenized Christianity. In both instances, non-Jewish Christians are appropriating the Gospels by incarnating them in their cultures and their personal lives.
To argue that transforming Jesus into a Greek at least leaves him Caucasian is blatantly racist. Once canonical imagery removes Jesus from his Jewish body and puts him into another, it has opened the door for other ethnic groups and races to do the same. Except for Ethiopia, the Christian world had light skin until the sixteenth century. Native peoples of Africa, the Americas and Asia now struggle to make the Gospels part of their lives. The original, daring enculturalization by the Hellenistic world is no longer enough. These new cultures and races must now have the opportunities Mediterranean peoples once had to make Christ and the Gospels their own.
Christian faith is not about a resuscitated corpse. When Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Christ outside the tomb on Easter morning, she did not recognize him until he spoke her name. The disciples walking with Jesus to Emmaus had a similar experience. The Apostles, however, recognized Jesus immediately. Is it possible that Jesus appeared in various ways after his resurrection, depending on the spiritual maturity of those who saw him? Perhaps those who were more mature saw a physical Jesus who had moved beyond his original appearance, toward something more cosmic. Perhaps the apostles who had argued over personal honors they hoped to receive, fallen asleep in Gethsemani, and then fled when he was arrested had to be led more slowly to the truth. Icons bear witness to this resurrected, cosmic Christ.