Will The Real Jesus Please Step Forward?

Forensic anthropologist Richard Neave has given us the most accurate portrayal of Jesus to date. This still will not change the ways we misrepresent his identity. 

Rights over the real Jesus have been contested since the day the man died. While the compiled gospels reveal different aspects of the carpenter’s life, in modern times nobody has been more successful at deciding what Jesus looked like than Warner Sallman. According to his publishers, his Head of Christ has been reproduced over 500 million times. Since 1940 his is the image, in the West at least, that has dominated.

Yet the faithful always want their deities to look and act like them. Head of Christ is the perfect American Jesus the way Joseph Smith is the perfect Christian-American prophet. Biblical lore, he claimed, would again go down, only this time on America’s soil. Sallman nailed the image, and ever since Jesus has been considered pretty much American.

Americans are not alone in this assumption. Jesus takes on the characteristics of whatever culture is depicting him. That has always been the case; it’s quite challenging to imagine it otherwise, given our innate love of ourselves and the community we chose to associate with. Sallman simply had a fanatic marketing machine behind him that propelled his painting to inconceivable borders.

Enter forensic anthropology. Medical artist Richard Neave, who has in the past reconstructed the faces of Alexander the Great and King Midas, took a stab at the famous prophet. His conclusion, pictured above, fits the bill of the Semites of the time when Jesus was alive, much to the consternation of those who grew up believing Sallman had the inside scoop.

I’m not convinced that churches worldwide will be replacing Sallman’s images anytime soon. Accepting evidence that contradicts previous claims is one of the more challenging aspects of being human. Perhaps nobody put this more to the test than social psychologist Milton Rokeach. 

In 1959, Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophrenics at Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital. For roughly two years Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor (all fake names) worked together and lived alongside one another, meeting daily to discuss, among other things, their personalities. This unique experiment was especially eye-opening considering all three men thought they were Jesus Christ.

Joseph Campbell famously stated that Buddhists don’t dream of Jesus. Context and upbringing are everything in one’s religious life. If the main image you’re presented with is a serene, meditating Siddhartha, that will imprint in your mind. Such is the case with Jesus. The Ypsilanti patients were not all religious before schizophrenia set in. Growing up in Western cultures, Jesus’ image was inescapable. The sons of God all assumed that he must be them. 

Regarding identity, Rokeach began with three assumptions:

  • Not all the beliefs a person holds are of equal importance to him; beliefs range from central to peripheral.
  • The more central — or, in our terminology, the more primitive — a belief, the more it will resist change.
  • If a primitive belief is somehow changed, the repercussions in the rest of the system will be wide — far wider than those produced by change in a peripheral belief.
  • He goes on to write that identity is a social as well as individual question. We don’t create our identities in a vacuum. We need the reflection of the outer world to understand who we are; that self is a fluid, dynamic character that changes with the situation. At root, we all have one self we believe to be a static, consistent being throughout our life, though that too is always in flux.

    For the paranoid schizophrenics in Rokeach’s study, this was the case. When their identities were questioned in the presence of others claiming the same identity, they reacted in different ways. First there was resistance; the other two had to be lying, false gods. With more exposure one slowly yielded. The other two, while never giving up their delusions, called into question their identity in startling ways.

    Rokeach later felt his experiment was morally questionable. He regretted doing it considering the incredible stresses placed on his three patients. But his research (and subsequent book) offers us lucid insight into the nature of identity: how we create our own; how we imagine the identities of others; how we act when our identity is brought into question.

    No identity in recorded history has been claimed more than Jesus Christ. No figure has been misquoted to fit various agendas as often as this man. And, given that there is no DNA or anthropological evidence of his true existence to go by, this will be the case for some time. Neave’s insightful portrait does at least give us a more realistic glimpse than ever before. What was truly going on inside that head will most likely forever remain a mystery. 


    Derek Beres is a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor. Follow him on Twitter @derekberes.

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.