by Valerie Tarico
March 15, 2015

from ValerieTarico Website

Spanish version


Valerie Tarico

 is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.

She is the author of Trusting Doubt - A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of

Her articles can be found at

Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.




Lyrics for the rap song, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), include the following line:

The white image, of Christ, is really Cesare Borgia.

The idea that our modern image of Jesus could be based on a ruthless power-hungry illegitimate son of a pope is startling and farfetched. But it is no more bizarre or fanciful than many other ideas about who Jesus was or what he looked like.


And it does have an interesting tale behind it.


To understand the Borgia story requires a bit of context.





It's All Guesswork


In contrast to what many people believe, we have no authentic physical artifacts confirming the gospel stories, nor descriptions of Jesus from any of his contemporaries.


Even the gospels themselves never claim to be eyewitness accounts. Scholars now believe that the stories of Jesus' life and ministry that have been handed down to us - both within the Bible and outside - were written decades (or more) after Jesus would have lived, by unknown authors.


This means that Christians have been free for almost two millennia to depict Jesus in a form that best suits their own culture and purposes, and they have.


Not long ago a picture of a cherubic golden-haired Jesus circled Facebook with the following caption,

"Mommy, why are we the only white people in the Middle East?"

The answer, obviously, lies more in the psychology of human racism than in any likely historical reality.


In 2002, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, analyzed skeletal remains of Semitic men from the first century and applied the tools of his trade to construct a model showing a "most likely" head of Jesus.


His model is broad featured and swarthy, with a wide face framed in the beard and cropped, tight-curled hair characteristic of Jews at that time. The head is scaled for a muscular male frame about 5"1" in height, average for the time and place.


As author Mike Fillon put it,

"In North America he is most often depicted as being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed.


A person with these features and physical bearing would have looked very different from everyone else in the region where Jesus lived and ministered."




The Evolution of Jesus


Fillon could have added another word to his description of the standard American Jesus: hot. (Former Catholic, Julia Sweeney, jokes in her monologue, Letting Go of God, that the Jesus on her childhood bedroom wall helped her discover the pleasures of her own body.)


The eyes of a standard American Jesus, whether brown or blue, are intense; his skin flawless; his features either aristocratic or classically masculine. Even on the cross, his muscles are well defined.


In a culture that cares tremendously about youth and beauty, Jesus is a fine specimen of manhood.


But that was not always the case.


The earliest Christians depicted Jesus via pictograms such as the anchor, peacock, or the still popular fish. Jesus worship at the time was furtive but also imbued with the Jewish aversion to "graven images," and early Christian leaders sought to differentiate their emerging religion from pagan traditions that used statues and other art to symbolize Gods.


Church fathers including Irenaeus and Clement wrote disapprovingly about any image representing Jesus, and the Synod of Elvira in 306C.E. forbade it. Also, at least some early Christians believed Jesus was quite ordinary in appearance.


Justin and Tertullian cited words they believed to be a prophecy from the book of Isaiah:

"He had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him".

(Isaiah 53:2)

In the Quran, Mohammed flies to Jerusalem where he meets with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and Jesus is the smallest of the three.


Other early writers describe Jesus as slight, ordinary, and even unattractive. These writings cannot be assumed to give a picture of any actual historical Jesus, but they do reflect images circulating at the time they were written.


Over time as Judaism and Christianity adapted to the Roman Empire, both traditions softened to religious art with human figures. Third century images show Jesus as an infant and then a beardless youth, dressed and groomed according to the fashions of the time.


After Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artists merged Jesus into traditional images of the regal Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, just as the birth celebration of Sol Invictus at the end of December became the birthday of Jesus.





Jesus Matures, Becomes Tall and Beautiful


It wasn't until the early Middle Ages that Christian iconography converged on the bearded, mature Jesus familiar today.


Around the same time, writers and artists sought to show that Jesus had outward beauty and stature to match his spiritual beauty and Divine origins.


Forged writings and fake artifacts have been common throughout Christian history - from the New Testament books written in the name of Paul to modern manuscript fragments hinting at the marital status or sexuality of Jesus - and in the Middle Ages, forged relics helped to create the modern image of Jesus.


The Shroud of Turin, which was just one of many Jesus shrouds in circulation at the time it appeared in the 14th Century, "revealed" a Jesus who was tall (5'11 - 6'), with long hair and beard surrounding a long face.


In the 15th century, a letter from a Roman Governor of Judea, Publius Lentulus, to Tiberius Caesar emerged.


The forged letter, now housed in the Library of Geranini in Rome, waxes eloquent about the physical presence and beauty of Jesus:

His hair is the color of a ripe pecan which comes to his ears, and from there it falls into graceful waving curls that cover his shoulders, turning into a brilliant reddish earth color. It is parted in the center from the crown according to the fashion of the Nazarenes.


His forehead is smooth and serene, his face is without wrinkle or spot, his nose and his mouth are formed in exquisite symmetry.


His beard is thick; the same color as his hair, not long, and it is separated in the center. His eyes are exceptionally sweet and calm; they are serious and inspire fear; they have the power of the sun's rays. No one can stare straight into His eyes...


He has the most perfect body in the whole world. He is a man of extraordinary beauty and divine perfection and exceeds in beauty all of the sons of men, as does his mother, who is the most beautiful woman ever seen in these parts.




Back to Borgia


In this context - the absence of physical or eye witness evidence, the evolution of Christianity, the fusion of Christianity and political power in Rome, and the convergence on a regal, beautiful Jesus - we can return to the Borgia story.


As the tale goes, European crusaders were troubled by the idea of killing Middle Easterners who looked like Jesus, and the ecclesiastical powers of the Catholic hierarchy wanted to assure crusaders that Jesus was not at all like the people they were slaughtering.


Cesare Borgia had the perfect visage to provide an alternative.


The story likely derives from portraits of Borgia, for example here, here, and here, and the similarity to many paintings of Jesus, as in this side by side pairing.


Also, Borgia is said to have employed Leonardo Da Vinci as a military engineer from 1502-1503, which has led to speculation that Borgia's visage could have influenced Da Vinci's religious art.


However, the Crusades that focused on the Holy Land, those which would have required crusaders to slaughter primarily civilians of Middle Eastern descent, occurred centuries before either Borgia or Da Vinci lived.


Crusades during the 14th and 15th Century were fought primarily to defend or reclaim previously Christian territory from the expanding Ottoman empire in regions that are now part of Europe or Turkey.


Any similarity between paintings of Borgia and Jesus is more likely attributable to the fact that both were influenced by European aesthetic preferences and ideas of what powerful men should look like - which is a story of its own.





Deeper Realities Behind the Borgia Jesus Story


The Borgia-Jesus connection, while apocryphal, has resonated with many people in part because it lines up with aspects of Christian history that are grounded in much better evidence.


We know that popular images of Jesus were adapted to cultures where Christianity was being promoted or had gained broad acceptance.


We know that these images were modified and refined for purposes that were political as well as devotional (for example, the images of Jesus as Sol Invictus). And we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Medieval Christians sought to distance themselves from the Jewishness of Jesus.


Medieval Europe forced Jews into ghettos, pioneered the arm band that was resurrected by the Nazis, caricatured Jewish physical features in art and literature (think Shakespeare's Shylock), and invented the "blood libel" that still crops up among Islamists and at conspiracy sites.


Small wonder then, that a story about the Church seeking to whiten Jesus in order to further dehumanize Semitic people has some resonance.


More broadly, the story says something about each person's tendency to create God in his or her own image and in the words of Anglican theologian Charles D. Hackett, to,

"appropriate him in the service of our cultural values."

At its most benign, this tendency is illustrated by a popular Christmas carol:

Some children see Him lily white
The Baby Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
With tresses soft and fair
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
The Lord of Heav'n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair

The song is tender and speaks to the broad appeal of a special baby sent by a God who loves us. The idea of little children picturing a baby Jesus like them is sweet.


But the inability of adults to think beyond the constraints of our own race and culture is less heartwarming. And simply depicting Jesus in different colors, as the song does or as some artists have done in recent years, doesn't solve the problem.


As one African commenter observed online:

If the color of Jesus didn't matter, then the pictures posted everywhere would correspond with the description in the Bible… but with history in mind a white Jesus has a detrimental effect on the black masses...


The question at hand is "how many white people would accept a black Jesus?

Bongo Bmenzo

How many people would accept him even as a 1st century rabbinical Jew?


Only in the last few decades have scholars begun to explore what it might mean to really understand the figure of Jesus as a man of his time and place, both physically and spiritually.


Dozens of books have been written on the topic in recent years, by Christians, secular scholars, and Jews.


Even so, Christian animosity toward Jews persists unabated in some sectors. Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic torture porn, The Passion of the Christ, sold to full houses of bussed-in churchgoers. More recently, when Bonnie Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation published a book of wildly anti-Semitic hate mail from Christian fundamentalists, she received more of the same.


In an effort to distance themselves from the image of a Semitic Jesus some conservative Christians have even laid out the following (transparently self-serving) argument:

Since God impregnated Mary, he must have, "fashioned the necessary genes and chromosomes that could be the vehicle of Christ's person in uniting with those in the body of the virgin."

This means Jesus had some unknown kind of DNA that came straight from God, and so he could have had any shape of face, eye color, skin tone, build or height.


Ergo, there's no reason to assume that he looked like a typical Palestinian Jew.


Whew. Now we can all go back to picturing Mark Ryder or Diogo Morgado or whichever modern imaginary Jesus most inspires our spiritual - or carnal - devotion...












Nine "Facts" You Know 'for Sure' about Jesus...

That are Probably Wrong
by Valerie Tarico
February 26, 2015

from ValerieTarico Website

Spanish version



Jesus has been described as the best known figure in history, and also the least known.


If you mentioned the name "Jesus" and someone asked Jesus who?, you might blink. Or laugh...


Even people who don't think Jesus was God, mostly believe they know a fair bit about him. You might be surprised that some of your most basic assumptions about Jesus are probably wrong.


We have no record of anything that was written about Jesus by eyewitnesses or other contemporaries during the time he would have lived or for decades thereafter, and as best scientists can tell, all physical relics of his life are later fakes


Nonetheless, based on archeological digs and artifacts, ancient texts and art, linguistic patterns, and even forensic science, we know a good deal about the time and culture in which the New Testament is set.


This evidence points to some startling conclusions about who Jesus likely was - and wasn't.


  1. Cropped hair, not long


    Jewish men at the time of Christ did not typically wear their hair long.


    A Roman triumphal arch of the time period depicts Jewish slaves with short hair. In the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses male hair length.

    • "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?"

      (1 Corinthians 11:14 NRSV).

    During the 1960's conservative Christians quoted this verse to express their disgust against the hippy movement and to label it as anti-Christian.




  2. Married, not single


    When an ancient papyrus scrap was found in 2012 referring to the wife of Jesus (most likely a forgery), some Catholics and Evangelicals were scandalized at the very thought.


    But unlike the Catholic Church, Jews have no tradition of celibacy among religious leaders. Ancient writers documented exceptions like the Apostle Paul or the Essene sect precisely because they violated the norm.


    In the Gospels, Jesus is called rabbi; and all great rabbis that we know of were married.


    A rabbi being celibate would have been so unusual that some modern writers have argued that Jesus must have been gay. But a number of ancient texts, including the canonical New Testament, point to a special relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.


    For example, the non-canonical Gospel of Phillip says,

    • "[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth."



  3. Hung on a pole, not necessarily a cross


    For centuries scholars have known that the Greek New Testament word "stauros," which gets translated into English as cross, can refer to a device of several shapes, commonly a single upright pole, "torture stake" or even tree.


    The Romans did not have a standard way of crucifying prisoners, and Josephus tells us that during the siege of Jerusalem soldiers nailed or tied their victims in a variety of positions.


    Early Christians may have centered in on the vertical pole with a crossbeam because it echoed the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of life, or simply because it was more artistically and symbolically distinctive than the alternatives.


    Imagine millions of people wearing a golden pole on a chain around their necks.




  4. Short, not tall


    The typical Jewish man at the time of the Roman Empire was just over five feet tall, which makes this a best guess for the height of Jesus.


    That he is typically depicted taller derives from the mental challenge people have in distinguishing physical stature from other kinds of stature.


    Great men are called "big men" and "larger than life." In ancient times they often were assigned divine parentage and miraculous births, and the idea that Jesus was uniquely divine has created a strong pull over time to depict him as taller than is likely.


    A good illustration of this is the Shroud of Turin, which is just one of many such Jesus-shrouds that circulated during medieval times and which bears the (now reproducedimage of a man closer to six feet in height.




  5. Born in a house, not the stable of an inn


    The miraculous birth story of Jesus is a late, maybe 2nd century addition to the Bible, and consequently it contains many fascinating mythic elements and peculiarities.


    But the idea that Jesus was born in a stable got added to the Christmas story even later. In the original narrative, Joseph and Mary probably would have stayed with relatives, and the phrase "no room for them in the inn (gr: kataluma)" is better translated "no room for them in the upper room."


    Later storytellers did not understand that people of the time might bring animals into their ground floor, as in Swiss housebarns, and they assumed that the presence of a manger implied a stable.




  6. Named Joshua, not Jesus


    The name Joshua (in Hebrew Y'hoshuʿa meaning "deliverance" or "salvation"), was common among Jews in the Ancient Near East as it is today.


    Joshua and Jesus are the same name, but are translated differently in our modern Bible to distinguish Jesus from the Joshua of the Old Testament, who leads the Hebrew people to the Promised Land. In actuality, though, the relationship between the two figures is fascinating and important.


    Some scholars believe that the New Testament gospels are mostly updated retellings of the more ancient Joshua story, remixed with episodes from stories of Elisha and Elijah and Moses.


    A modern parallel can be found in the way that Hollywood writers have reworked Shakespearean tropes and plot elements into dozens of modern movies (though for a very different purpose).




  7. Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history


    Whether Jesus had 12 disciples who ranked above his other devotees is an open question, as their names vary from list to list.


    Since the Gospels echo the story of Joshua, the "12" apostles most immediately mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. But the number 12 was considered auspicious by many ancient people, including the Israelites, and the 189 repetitions of the number 12 in the Bible ultimately may derive from the same pre-historical roots as the 12 signs of the zodiac and 12 months of the year.


    Astrotheology or star worship preceded the Hebrew religion, and shaped both the Bible and Western religions more broadly.


    One might point to the 12 Olympian Gods or 12 sons of Odin, or the 12 days of Christmas or 12 "legitimate" successors to the prophet Mohammed.




  8. Prophecies recalled, not foretold


    Even people who aren't too sure about the divinity of Jesus sometimes think that the way he fulfilled prophecies was a bit spooky, like the writings of Nostradamus.


    In reality, Scooby Doo could solve this one in a single episode with four pieces of information:

    1. First, Old Testament prophecies were well known to 1st century Jews, and a messianic figure who wanted to fulfill some of these prophecies could simply do so. For example, in the book of Matthew, Jesus seeks a donkey to ride into Jerusalem "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet" (Matthew 21:4).

    2. Second, "gospels" are a genre of devotional literature rather than objective histories, which means that the authors had every reason to shape their stories around earlier predictions.

    3. Third, scholars now believe that some Bible texts once thought to be prophecies (for example in the Book of Revelation) actually relate to events that were past or current at the time of writing.

    4. Finally, a psychological phenomenon known as the "Barnum Effect" ensures that those who want to believe in prophecies (or astrology, for that matter) will find amazing coincidences if they look hard enough.



  9. Some Jesus quotes not from Jesus, others uncertain


    Lists of favorite Jesus sayings abound online.


    Some of the most popular are the Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, etc.) or the story of the woman caught in adultery (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which, we are told, sums up the Law and the Prophets.)


    Which words actually from Jesus? This question has been debated fiercely by everyone from 3rd century Catholic Councils to the 20th Century Jesus Seminar.


    Even Thomas Jefferson weighed in, but much remains unclear. The New Testament Gospels were written long after Jesus would have died, and no technology existed with which to record his teachings in real time, unless a he wrote them down himself, which he didn't.


    We can be confident that at least some of the wise and timeless words and catchy proverbs attributed to Jesus are actually from earlier or later thinkers. For example, the Golden Rule was articulated before the time of Christ by the Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who similarly said it was the "whole Torah."


    By contrast, the much loved story of the woman caught in adultery doesn't appear in manuscripts until the 4th century. Attributing words (or whole texts) to a famous person was common in the Ancient Near East, because it gave those words extra weight.


    Small wonder, then, that so many genuinely valuable insights ended up, in one way or another, paired with the name of Jesus.


The person of Jesus, if indeed there was a single historical rabbi at the root of our traditions, is shrouded in the fog of history leaving us only with a set of hunches and traditions that far too often get treated as knowledge.


The "facts" I have listed here are largely trivial; it doesn't really matter whether Jesus was tall or short, or how he cut his hair. But it does matter, tremendously, that "facts" people claim to know about how Jesus saw himself, and God and humanity are equally tenuous.


In the words of Mark Twain:

It isn't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just isn't so.

The teachings attributed to Jesus mix enduring spiritual and moral insights with irrelevancies and Judaica and bits of Iron Age culture, some of which are truly awful.


That leaves each of us, from the privileged vantage of the 21st century, with both a right and a responsibility to consider the evidence and make our own best guesses about what is real and how we should then live.


A good starting place might be a little more recognition that we don't know nearly as much as we'd like to think, and a lot of what we know for sure is probably wrong.