What on earth did Jesus look like?

“I’ve never been able to picture my wife in my mind – and now I know why,” writes Dominic Lawson in today’s Mail. I hope Mrs Lawson will be satisfied with the ensuing explanation. I am not.

Mr Lawson and I have a few mutual friends, but we’ve never met. Hence I don’t know what his religion is, though by the general tenor of his writing one suspects that his answer to this question would be ‘none’.

That explains why, in common with most modern men (a designation I never use as a term of praise), he feels the urge to look for a physical, in this case medical, explanation for a phenomenon with a strong spiritual dimension.

This explanation goes by the term ‘aphantasia’, invented by the professor of cognitive neurology Adam Zeman, who happens to be Mr Lawson’s school friend. Those afflicted with this condition, about 2.5 per cent of the population according to Prof. Zeman, are incapable of generating visual images in their minds – they have no mind’s eye.

I’m not qualified to judge Prof. Zeman’s findings or indeed to understand some of the recondite terminology he uses. Neither, I suspect, is Mr Lawson. But being by nature a rather incredulous sort, I may venture a guess that there may be more to it than merely a medical condition.

Mr Lawson, who in general tends to vouchsafe more personal details than we care to know, claims he has no visual memory at all. That must be most unpleasant, and one hopes he still manages to recognise people he hasn’t seen for a few days. The inability to do so may upset some editors, those who don’t like their employees asking “And who might you be, my dear chap?”

Now, if you don’t mind my offering a personal detail of my own, my visual memory is rather good. I can’t claim I never forget a face, but I do so rarely. Most of the time I can easily recognise a casual acquaintance of 40 years ago, and even, to the best of my rather poor ability, sketch his face from memory.

Yet I too have trouble visualising my wife’s face after a day or two apart, this with no aphantasia affecting my encephalo-optical function. The explanation for this must lie in a sphere considerably more complex than one describable by professors of cognitive neurology.

We see those we love differently from the way we see others, and the greater the love, the greater the difference. When a man looks at someone close to him, especially his wife with whom he is, according to St Paul, “one flesh”, he employs a vision other than purely optical.

He doesn’t just see a combination of geometrical shapes, sizes and colours. His eye acquires the X-ray ability to see beyond the physical surface and deep into something infinitely more important: the metaphysical essence. Depending on the kind of vocabulary one is comfortable with, this may be described as the spirit, the heart or the soul.

Because it’s infinitely more important, this essence overshadows the purely physical image or even completely obscures it, as powerful pictures can do. Many who have seen Mont Blanc, even those suffering from aphantasia, will remember its snow-capped summit, but few will be able to describe the trees at the mountain’s foot.

This brings us to the question in the title: What did Jesus look like? The iconic images we all know are not, nor are claimed to be, accurate physical representations. The painters, after all, never saw Jesus in the flesh.

However the evangelists did, and they preserved many of the words Jesus uttered during the months they spent together. Even more important, they memorised, and decades later conveyed, the deep meaning behind those words, the divine significance of the message.

Yet none of them left even a sketchy description of Jesus’s appearance. We can surmise some physical generalities, such as the obvious fact that Jesus didn’t look very different from the ambient Jewish population. If he had, Judas wouldn’t have had to identify him to the arresting detail of Roman soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane.

But the evangelists’ memory didn’t retain any individual physical details, which must have made Jesus look as different from other people as Mr Lawson looks different from me. Why?

Because their visual memory was subjugated to their spiritual vision and the all-conquering love they felt for Jesus. They remembered so little because they loved so much.

Then again, all four of them may have fallen into the 2.5 per cent of the population suffering from aphantasia. I’m sure Prof. Zeman and Mr Lawson would be satisfied with this explanation. Are you?








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