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Extremely rare early Christian depiction of Jesus discovered in Israel

RUINS OF SHIVTA
Catherine Leblanc | Godong
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The image was obscured by centuries of dirt.

Art historian Emma Maayan-Fanar was conducting an archaeological examination of the ruins of Shivta, in the Israeli Negev Desert, when she noticed a pair of eyes peeking out at her from a dirt-encrusted wall. Careful cleaning would reveal an ancient depiction of Christ’s baptism. The find is considered “extremely rare” because early Christian images of Christ are practically non-existent in Israel.

“His face is right there, looking at us,” Maayan-Fanar spoke of the discovery with Haaretz. “I was there at the right time, at the right place with the right angle of light and, suddenly, I saw eyes. It was the face of Jesus at His baptism, looking at us.”

She went on to discuss the differences between this ancient image and the way Western perceptions consider Christ’s appearance. In the West, Jesus is often depicted as a tall man with long flowing hair and pale skin, but Christian Post describes the ancient image as of a man “with short curly hair, a long face and an elongated nose.”

Earlier this year, Joan E. Taylor, professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, released a book which attempts to answer the title question, What Did Jesus Look Like?. He wrote on the topic for the Irish Times:

“The early depictions of Jesus that set the template for the way he continues to be depicted today were based on the image of an enthroned emperor and influenced by presentations of pagan gods. The long hair and beard are imported specifically from the iconography of the Graeco-Roman world. Some of the oldest surviving depictions of Jesus portray him as essentially a younger version of Jupiter, Neptune or Serapis.

“In terms of a color palette then, think dark-brown to black hair, deep brown eyes, olive-brown skin. Jesus would have been a man of Middle Eastern appearance. In terms of height, an average man of this time stood 166 cm (5 ft 5 in) tall.”

While the exact date of the work of art is not yet certain, Shivta is believed to have been founded around the 2nd century. The image of Christ is most likely between 1,500 and 1,800 years old.

The ruins of the ancient settlement were discovered in 1871, but in all the time archaeologists have been studying the site, no one has ever noticed the image before. There was, however, another image discovered which symbolizes the transfiguration, but does not show Christ’s face.

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