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Finding Christ’s Face Through Forensics

Forensic anthropology has made it possible for scientists to construct what they believe is an accurate depiction of Jesus.

Forensic anthropology has made it possible for scientists to construct what they believe is an accurate depiction of Jesus.

The cover of the 100-year-old scientific magazine heralds the title “The Real Face of Christ.” Inside, there is a figure with dark skin, a bushy beard and curly hair.

“Using the tools of forensic anthropology, scientists in the accompanying article concluded that the historical depiction of Jesus as a white man with flowing locks was inaccurate,” the New York Times reported.

The computer-generated image was introduced by BBC in 2001, spawned a Discovery Channel special and now graces the front of the December issue of Popular Mechanics.
How did they come up with this face of Christ?

Scientists overlaid “biblical descriptions and computerized tomography, a type of X-ray photography, on a Semite skull from the historical era of Jesus to make informed guesses about how he looked,” according to the Times.

Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England, is credited with using forensic anthropology to construct the face of Christ, according to the Popular Mechanics article.

“Two key factors could not be determined from the skull-Jesus’ hair and coloration,” read the article. “To fill in these parts of the picture, Neave’s team turned to drawings found at various archeological 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-colored eyes. They also pointed out that in keeping with Jewish tradition, he was bearded as well.”

Skeletal remains also confirmed that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 feet 1 inch, with an average weight of around 110 pounds, Popular Mechanics reported.

“Since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until he was about 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume he was more muscular and physically fit than westernized portraits suggest,” read the article. “His face was probably weather-beaten, which would have made him appear older, as well.”

Neave’s depiction throws out the fair-skinned, tall and slender pictures of Jesus that adorn many Western Sunday school classrooms.

“The fact that he probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality,” Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, told Popular Mechanics. “And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”

Many in the scientific and religious worlds don’t believe Neave’s picture of Christ is gospel.

Alison Galloway, professor of anthropology at the University of California in Santa Cruz, told Popular Mechanics that forensic depictions are not an exact science.

“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 and the mouth,” the magazine reported. “And the most recognizable features of the face-the folds of the eyes, structure of the nose and shape of the mouth-are left to the artist.”

However, Galloway admitted that Neave’s Jesus “is probably a lot closer to the truth than the work of many great masters.”

The Orthodox Christian Church’s tradition has long depicted Jesus in icons as a bearded, olive-skinned man.

According to church tradition Jesus himself produced the first icon.

King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus’ healing powers, and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him, according to the Orthodox Church in America’s telling of the story. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the mandilion, a cloth on which the image of his face was miraculously reproduced.

The image of Christ was preserved on this cloth and later became the inspiration of the icons of Christ seen today.

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.