- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Direct gaze, broad cheeks, a hint of worry at the brow: This is a man in midsentence, perhaps.

He is not beatific. Ethereal aura has been replaced by squint lines and a certain urgency of expression.

This is a realistic approximation of how Jesus Christ looked, according to producers at the BBC and the Discovery Channel.

In a joint project, the two broadcast groups hired forensic experts to create a computer-generated image of Christ, based on a 2,000-year-old skull of a man who once lived in Israel.

"We're not suggesting this is Jesus," said executive producer Gaynelle Evans. "This is the representation of a first-century man, based on archaeology, forensics, history and art."

The image will soon be a TV star though, highlighted on the three-hour special, "Jesus: The Complete Story," which airs on the Discovery Channel on Easter evening, April 15.

"This face is not what you would expect," Ms. Evans said. "He looks older than 30. But we considered the region's harsh climate and the shortened life span of the time."

Vermeer, it's not. Regardless of style, however, such a portrait can have much impact.

"There is the human need for that image," noted the Rev. Thomas Heppell, dean of the School of Religious Studies at Catholic University.

"We keep photos of those we love handy this is the same idea. But a fundamental Christian belief is that the divine became human. We want that human image near us. This idea is not found in the Jewish or Muslim faiths."

Medical artists, historians and other researchers on the project consulted third-century frescoes of Jewish faces for accurate skin tone and hair color. Based on a passage from Corinthians, they deduced that Christ did not have long hair.

"We also consulted Jesus Christ's genealogy," said Ms. Evans. "There were African and Asiatic women in his background."

The production team itself bristles with experts from the United States, Britain and Israel including a criminologist, an astronomer and a theologian from Westminster Abbey. History, myth, spirituality and biblical accounts merge on sets built to look like Bethlehem and Nazareth and there will be special effects, of course.

The program reveals "the strikingly subversive way" in which Jesus worked, according to production notes. Viewers will no doubt encounter both standard views and alternative takes.

"This program is addressed to everyone, not just a Christian audience," noted Ms. Evans.

The last portion of the program "depicts how Jesus might have looked, given his Jewish heritage and carpentry work a far cry from the pale, thin, long-faced man usually depicted in Christian iconography."

Which lands the production in potentially controversial territory.

Last month, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was outraged by a photographer's version of the Last Supper, which showed Jesus as a naked black woman.

"Yo Mamma's Last Supper," was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which last year featured a painting of the Virgin Mary festooned with elephant dung.

Mr. Giuliani wants to establish a set of public decency standards, and has threatened to take his case to the Supreme Court.

"Why can't a woman be Christ? We are the givers of life," said the photographer, Renee Cox. (Maybe because Christ was a man.)

Last year, the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly newspaper distributed in 96 countries, created an emotional stir nationwide after publishing the results of its "Jesus 2000" art contest.

More than 1,700 entrants sent in their renditions of Jesus "for the 21st century." Winner Janet McKenzie, who used a young Vermont woman of mixed race for her model, was flabbergasted at the depth of response which ranged from accolades to hate mail.

The painting "isn't about race or gender," she said then. "It's about the essence of Jesus, which is about grace and love, first and foremost. It is not meant to fix the world's problems. It's not meant to be anything other than it is."

In Britain, the Church Advertising Network recently sent out 50,000 leaflets and posters that depicted Jesus Christ as revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The slogan read: "Meek. Mild. As if. Discover the Real Jesus."

"We want people to realize that Jesus is not a meek, mild wimp in a white nightie, but a real, passionate and caring person," said the Rev. Tom Ambrose, a spokesman.

Critics said that associating Christ with the Argentine Marxist was not "relevant" to Christianity.


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