In April, a man named Craig went onto Yahoo’s “Answers” page and posed a provocative question: Did Jesus look like Osama bin Laden? One reader denounced the idea, calling Craig “racist,” and asking, “Are you saying that just because (Jesus) was from (the) Middle East he looked like a famous terrorist?” Craig never replied, but he might have told his accuser to watch the 2001 BBC documentary, “Son of God,” which depicted Jesus as he would have looked: dark-haired, dark-bearded, and dark-complected – nothing like the long-haired, Europeanized image of Jesus that’s ubiquitous in churches around the world.
The BBC’s Jesus, based on research and interviews with scholars, looks like he could be a cousin of bin Laden – or another Semitic man from the modern Middle East. “It’s very much the kind of face that you see in parts of the world today, in parts of North Africa, and Egypt, and around into parts of Jordan and Israel,’’ Richard Neave, a London medical artist and forensic scientist who reconstructed the face, told the BBC. Here is a nine-minute segment of “Son of God”:
As the program makes clear, there’s no completely accurate way to present Jesus’ face. No historical text – not even the New Testament – contains a physical description of Jesus. The Europeanized version of Jesus partly developed as a result of the Crusades, and Europe’s need to emphasize its ethnic superiority to those in the Middle East. In the United States, Jesus took on a blond sheen through the popular imagery of Christian painter Warner Sallman, whose parents were from Finland and Sweden. “Our glamorized representations of Jesus say more about us than about him,” wrote popular Christian author Philip Yancey in his best-selling book, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”
Yancey’s insight rang true when the Discovery Channel aired the BBC documentary, and a Christian writer named Philip St. Vincent Brennan said the U.S. cable network, in promoting the BBC’s Jesus, was trying to “con” Americans into “believing that our Lord looked very much like a refugee Iranian cab driver from the Bronx.”
Not every U.S. Christian takes offense at the notion that Jesus might have resembled Osama bin Laden. In his acclaimed book, “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” author Donald Miller describes a meeting led by a Christian named Rick. The gathering was for non-Christians who had questions about Jesus. A woman said she imagined he looked like bin Laden.
“Rick said this is probably very close to the truth,” Miller writes, adding, “Sometimes I picture this Osama Bin Laden-looking Jesus talking with His friends around a fire, except He is not rambling about anything. He is really listening, not so much pushing an agenda but being kind and understanding and speaking some truth and encouragement into their lives.”
In other words, this bin Laden-looking Jesus acts the same way as the European-looking Jesus: With compassion and wisdom. Just because Jesus might have resembled bin Laden doesn’t mean Jesus has anything else in common with the man who, post-9/11, claimed religion was on his side.