Sunday, February 22, 2004

What Jesus really looked like (updated)

David Meadows has sent out the latest Explorator (6.43). It includes a link to this New York Times article (free subscription necessary):

What did Jesus really look like?
David Gibson

The article begins, inevitably, with The Passion of the Christ:
The title role is played by Jim Caviezel, a dark-haired, blue-eyed star whose brooding good looks have been compared to those of Montgomery Clift. He doesn't exactly fit the archaeological evidence that the average man of Jesus' day was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and a bantamlike 110 pounds. Given the harsh conditions, especially for working stiffs like the members of Jesus' family, combined with Jesus' ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a rather sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing.
But it goes on to discuss depictions of Jesus throughout Christian history, coming eventually to a new image produced for a television programme to be broadcast in the USA today:
Trying to run back through the gantlet [sic] of images and icons built up over the centuries and rediscover the true face of Jesus is no mean feat. While filming a new documentary about the historical Jesus ("The Mystery of Jesus" on "CNN Presents," tomorrow night at 8, Eastern time; 7, Central time; and 5, Pacific time), our production team sought the most accurate idea of what Jesus might have looked like. We chose a retired British medical artist, Richard Neave, who has made a career out of reconstructing the faces of famous historical figures from scant archaeological traces. Mr. Neave had worked with the BBC on a similar project a few years before, making a composite cast of three Semitic skulls from first-century Palestine and using them as the basis for fleshing out the face of a contemporary of Jesus, if not Jesus himself.

The facial overlay that the BBC then put on Mr. Neave's work didn't please him or many others, however. He wasn't upset that some thought that the face made Jesus look like a New York taxi driver. Rather, he didn't like the eyes and the mouth, and what the historian Robin M. Jensen, writing recently in Christian Century, called "a particular dumbfounded — one might say stupid — expression."
Since I was involved with the construction of this face, let me fill in some details here.

(1) This is the first I have heard about a "composite cast of three Semitic skulls". As far as I was aware, and in the discussions I had with the others about this, there was one skull and this one chosen by Joe Zias, who is the first person you see in the feature at the end of the third episode of Son of God (called Jesus: The Complete Story in the USA). However, looking again at the video of Richard Neave at work, there are other skulls in his lab so it is possible that there were three and that this was simplified to one in the production and publicity.

(2) I am interested to hear that Neave was dissatisfied by the eyes and mouth on the face since these were modelled by Neave himself. However, it may be that Neave's concern is with the appearance and colour of the eyes and mouth that came about as a result of the computerisation process. This process was carried out by Redvision in Manchester, who did all of the CGI work on the series (and won an award for it). This was where I became involved with the process. After a series of phone-calls and emails about the face with the series producer (Michael Wakelin) and director (Jean Claude Bragard), I spent a day at Redvision in Manchester filming the sequence that was included in the documentary. Though I'm oversimplifying, my main contributions were essentially (a) to draw attention to Paul's remarks about hair length in 1 Corinthians 11; and (b) to show the team pictures of the way that Jews were depicted in the wall paintings in the synagogue at Dura Europos (mid third century CE). This resulted in a change in the way that the face had originally looked -- it had had long, sandy hair and beard and a paler complexion. You can still see this original version in the Son of God book produced by Angela Tilby; I imagine that the newer version was not ready when her book, loosely based on the series, went to press. They were actually a little annoyed about my thing about hair length given that the actor who played Jesus in the documentary had the long hair (e.g. see the picture here). But to their credit, they wanted to try to get it right.

(3) I am inclined to agree that the look of the face was not ideal, though I thought it not so much "stupid" looking as rather anxious looking. Some thought it neanderthal; others that it looked like someone who might appear on Crimewatch. When I was on Channel 4's Big Breakfast, one of the production staff suggested that it was Dave Lee Travis (an old Radio 1 DJ in the 1970s and 1980s). But all of these, like the current article, missed the point and not surprisingly so. This was never attempting to be "the face of Jesus"; it was never claiming to be "the face of Christ". It was simply an attempt to build up and represent as accurately as possible what one average Jew from that time and that place might have looked like. So where did the "face of Jesus" stuff come from? Here's my reading of the situation. The BBC, quite understandably, wanted to get some good publicity for this expensive, landmark series. This face handed the BBC a golden opportunity for worldwide publicity on a plate. At a news conference, the BBC were unveiling their spring schedule for 2001, the face was released and the media lapped it up. The next morning, there it was on the front of The Times, "Is this the face of Jesus?" Of course in media-speak, a headline with a question mark should usually be answered with a resounding "No"; but once the link has been made, it doesn't go away. A side-note: Tom Wright, who was one of the consultants on the programme, was not that enthusiastic about the face, but commented that at least it got Jesus onto the front page of The Times!

So with that extra background, now back to Saturday's New York Times article by David Gibson with which we began:
Hoping to rectify the problem, we hired a New York artist, Donato Giancola, and reworked the portrait, using Mr. Neave's skull and information from other experts. The results, to my mind, were a more noble, even soulful, Jesus, and yet historically believable — I hope something closer to the itinerant Galilean of history. Even so, the results looked uncannily like Mr. Giancola himself, which was part coincidence — he actually resembles the face Mr. Neave produced — and part inevitability. Artists are always painting themselves, just as believers are always making themselves the models for the divine.
I suppose my problem with this is that it confuses what was originally being attempted by us all (to create an approximation of what an average first century Jew from Israel might have looked like) with the hype and publicity the attempt generated ("Is this the real face of Jesus?" etc.). The fact that there was no attempt to make the face look "soulful" or "noble" was, in a way, the point of the exercise. And just because we might find a particular look more appealing, can that really bring us "closer to the itinerant Galilean of history"? I don't think I can see how it could -- this is uncannily like those discussions about how often the scholarly portraits of the historical Jesus resemble the portraits of the the scholar doing the painting.

One further comment: although I appear in The Son of God / Jesus: The Complete Story, and in March 2001 did a lot of the publicity in connection with "the face" (one reporter told me that Richard Neave was too expensive), I am now rarely credited with any role in it. I'm not alone in this. One major example is a feature which uses material I and others contributed to the project (albeit now in rather garbled form) but only mentions Neave; neither Joe Zias nor Redvision are appear. Indeed it does not even mention the BBC except in locating the source of the photograph:

The Real Face Of Jesus
Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history.
BY MIKE FILLON

This was the cover story in Popular Mechanics in December 2002, admittedly not a journal many New Testament scholars read on a regular basis. At first I was still a little annoyed not to get a mention in what is attempting to be a thorough and detailed piece, but later I realised that it was good news because of the way this was always going to get treated by the media. Notice that here even the question-mark has disappeared. It is now announced as "the real face of Jesus". It is remarkable how quickly this has developed from an interesting experiment in a TV documentary, to "Is this the face of Jesus?", to "the real face of Jesus". Given the derision I've experienced from some academic colleagues (one senior colleage shouted across the car-park: "Mark, this is not reputable stuff"), perhaps a little anonymity here is welcome.

Update (24 February): Thanks to David Meadows for these links to the older news material which he had featured in Explorator at the time. The first is from ABC News and even mentions me! It is typical of the kind of thing I was talking about above. At the time I was amazed that several scholars were reported as saying that we simply did not know what Jesus looked like. Since this was one of the things that we were saying ourselves, it was a useless criticism and I felt a bit embarrassed for them.

Your Own Personal Jesus
Documentary Uses Computer Imagery to Create Reconstruction of Jesus' Face
By Jennifer Askin [March 27 2001]

And here are two from the BBC:

Looking for the Historical Jesus
Alex Webb

BBC Unveils Hi-Tech Jesus

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