Jefferson Speaks On Jesus’ Image During Fleer Lecture

‘What Would Jesus’ Selfie Look Like? – The Historical Jesus Vs. Jesus In Christian Art’

February 28, 2019

By MAGGIE GEBHARDT / mgebhardt@centralmethodist.edu

Lee Jefferson at the Fleer Lecture

When one thinks about Jesus, a certain image comes to mind. In the United States, typically, it’s the gentle, blue-eyed, light skin, bearded man. But for years and years, all over the world, the perception of Jesus’ appearance has evolved in accordance with the people who reflect upon it.

These changes, and the many different ways Jesus is imagined to physically look, were discussed Tuesday, Feb. 26 during Central Methodist University’s annual Gilbert and Ruth Fleer Lecture on Values-Based Education.

Lee Jefferson, the NEH professor of religion at Centre College, presented “What Would Jesus’ Selfie Look Like? – The Historical Jesus vs. Jesus in Christian Art” for a crowd of CMU faculty, staff, students, and campus visitors.

As he spoke, Jefferson reflected on the historical inconsistencies surrounding the perception of Jesus’ appearance – more specifically, how he has been portrayed in a variety of ways in Christian art.

He provided examples of the different ways Jesus has been interpreted, ranging from “the good shepherd” and “the miracle worker” to images depicting Helios – the Titan god of the sun.

Depending on those who were creating the art, what area of the world they lived, or during what years, it’s impossible to argue with the fact that the appearance of Jesus changes. But why?

According to Jefferson, historical Jesus has evolved over time to match the beliefs and spiritual needs of certain Christian groups. In other words, Jesus “mirrors” his audience – thus providing a source of comfort.

At the beginning of his lecture, Jefferson showed a rendering of what historical Jesus probably looked like – a Palestinian Jew with dark hair and dark eyes. He said the idea of such an appearance tends to cause confusion and negative reactions.

“In fact, this image is probably closer to the historical Jesus, rather than the Sallman Jesus,” he said. 

Part of it, likely, has to do with dating. The Letters of Paul are closest to the life of Jesus, so the New Testament authors didn’t know the historical Jesus. More specifically, Paul didn’t. He knew the risen Jesus, according to Jefferson.

“So, what do we do? We kind of fill that gap with our own idea of what Jesus might look like, and that has created the early Christian artistic tradition of these conceptions of Jesus.”

Jefferson is the author of Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art, and co-author of The Art of Empire: Christian Art in its Imperial Context.

He has worked on excavations in Israel, traveled and taught courses on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and researched on church art in Rome featuring Jesus performing miracles.

Currently, he is working on a book focusing on the doors of Santa Sabina, Rome, and a particular panel featuring Peter and Paul.

Jefferson received his bachelor’s degree from Sewanee-University of the South and a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University. He earned his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in religion from Vanderbilt University.

Gilbert and Ruth Fleer, Bentonville, Ark., are the founders of Central Methodist’s Fleer Lecture Series. Both are CMU alums, and Gilbert was assistant professor of religion at Central from 1959 to 1965.

The 2019 Fleer Lecture was co-sponsored by CMU’s English, Foreign Languages, Philosophy and Religion Division, and by the CMU Advancement and Alumni Relations Department.