The discovery of Yeshua’s face in a Byzantine church in the Negev Desert shows a more Jewish Jesus than the long-haired Christ portrayed in later European art.
The 1,500-year-old painting was uncovered at the archaeological site of Shivta, a Byzantine village in southern Israel. The face of Yeshua shows a younger man with cropped curly hair, vastly different from the flowing robes and long hair usually found in Western depictions of the savior.
“This figure is more Jewish, more Middle Eastern, Semitic,” Howard Bass, pastor of Nachalat Yeshua Congregation in Beersheva, told KNI. “He morphed into a less Jewish, less Semitic figure that later church iconography made of him.”
Bass also points out that this portrayal suggests that Jesus wasn’t a Nazarite.
“Everyone speaks of him as having long hair,” he noted. “I think that’s because people think he’s a Nazarite and doesn’t drink any alcohol, no wine. Most Christian church thinking is that Jesus didn’t have long hair and that he didn’t drink wine — and now we can’t say either.”
Nazarites were separated to God with the physical evidence that they couldn’t cut their hair or drink alcohol.
“He was separated to God, but he wasn’t a legal Nazarite,” Bass said.
When Christianity arrived in Europe, artists there depicted Jesus more like them, which made by default him less Semitic looking. Bass contends that the Byzantine depiction found in Shivta is probably more accurate to what Yeshua actually looked like— it was closer to the time of Jesus and it was found in the same land he was raised.
The finding is also important in that it highlights the Negev as a Christian pilgrimage destination.
“Most people think of the Galilee as having a Christian heritage because thats where Jesus did his ministry,” Bass said. “But we have all these Negev findings now that show there were Christians, and perhaps Messianic Jews and Arabic people becoming believers in the Negev until islam came in and drove them.”
The painting was found in one of three churches at the site. Shivta, a Nabataean town, was settled in the early Roman period and reached its peak during Byzantine times (5th–6th centuries AD). Founded around 1 century BC, Shivta forms part of the series of UNESCO Heritage Site Desert Cities. In fact, Bass’s congregation toured the Christian site, about 30 miles south of them, a few years ago.
Shivta is a large and impressive archaeological site. The city was abandoned not destroyed. It contains three Byzantine churches (a main church and two smaller churches) and baptismal font in the shape of a cross.
During the 3rd – 4th Centuries CE the Nabateans converted into Christianity and logically big churches in all of their cities. T
Emma Maayan-Fanar and her research team revealed the finding in the journal Antiquity in August. They write that Jesus’ face is set in a larger depiction of Jesus’ baptism and is “the first pre-iconoclastic baptism-of-Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land.”
“Those who know the iconography of early Christianity can recognize such an image even from almost nothing,” said Maayan-Fanar explaining that early Christian art and iconography of that time utilized well-known patterns for Jesus including short hair.
John the Baptist is also identified in the same painting.
The researchers said the finding is “extremely important.”
“Thus far, it is the only in situ baptism-of-Christ scene to date confidently to the pre-iconoclastic Holy Land. Therefore, it can illuminate Byzantine Shivta’s Christian community and Early Christian art across the region.”