Last month Jesus appeared to a South Carolina couple on a Walmart receipt (Image 1). If that is Jesus, I’m not sure what message he was trying to convey by showing up on a Walmart receipt. Did he want to affirm something the couple had purchased? Was he making a larger point about materialism and consumerism? Did he want to get the couple’s attention for reasons wholly unrelated to Walmart?
Maybe it’s not Jesus at all. When receipt paper is exposed to heat, black splotches form. Chances are, the splotches will suggest some sort of image or pattern if one looks hard enough. Sometimes we see what we want to see.
(One night eleven years ago, I was convinced that Jesus had appeared to me as a light in the passenger’s seat of my car. Five minutes later, I discovered that my car had a map light underneath the rearview mirror that I’d accidentally turned on while loading and unloading musical equipment.)
But why do we assume that these faces and bodies belong to Jesus? The Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ appearance, yet whenever we see a pattern that looks vaguely like a guy with a beard we claim it as an image of our Lord and Savior.
Personally, I think the image of “Jesus” that appeared in plant roots (Image 2) looks more like George Lucas. Perhaps the uprooted greenery is telling us to use the Force.
In 2001 the BBC, for its documentary Son of God, “employed modern forensic techniques to create a model of Christ's face based on the skull of a 1st century Jewish man.” (Image 3)
Is that what Jesus looked like? Maybe. But the researchers, by their own admission, were only reconstructing the face of a first-century Jewish man. To say that the picture above is an accurate depiction of Jesus is to say that all first-century Jewish men looked alike.
We can make educated guesses about some aspects of Jesus’ appearance. We can assume that he had dark or olive skin, Semitic features, and dark hair. We can guess, based on our knowledge of first-century Jewish culture, whether Jesus had facial hair and how he might of worn it. Even so, we still don’t have any information about Jesus’ height or weight or build. (Jesus’ critics accused him of being a glutton. Perhaps he was heavyset.) We don’t know if he had any distinguishing characteristics, such as long arms, big ears, a receding hairline, impressive biceps, or a birthmark.
Do we need to know what Jesus looked like?
No. But it’s important that we have visual depictions of Jesus that remind us of his humanity. We need images of a Jesus whom we can relate to. We need reminders that Jesus was one of us—that he was a real person with a real face and a real body. Real people with real bodies experience hunger and pain and warmth. They have a pulse and blood pressure and a cholesterol level. They enjoy good food and loathe mosquito bites.
Jesus was a real person. Though he was fully God, he was also fully human. (We are all particularly aware of Christ’s human and divine natures as we prepare to celebrate the 1560th anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon this fall.) Jesus experienced first hand the limitations, desires, and feelings that come from being a flesh-and-blood member of the homo sapiens sapiens subspecies. And he died. He truly died, just as all of us will truly die.
We need images of Jesus, whether they appear on Walmart receipts, in Renaissance art, in children’s Sunday school materials, or elsewhere. And while there is some merit in creating images that are faithful to the few things that we do know about Jesus’ appearance, the most important rule we should apply to any depiction of Jesus is that it shows a real human person. That real human person reminds us that God loved us so much that God became one of us.
Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.