Showing a bearded man with what appears to be a crown of thorns, this ancient coin depicts what a British author claims is the first accurate likeness of Jesus. The way Jesus really looked has always been a matter of intense speculation.
One problem is that early Christians did not want idols to be worshipped – as a consequence images of Christ were not kept. However, scholars have always thought that it showed the face of Manu, ruler of the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Edessa in what is now south-eastern Turkey. But after nearly three decades of research, biblical historian Ralph Ellis argues that Manu and Christ were the same person.
The writer, whose claims are bound to cause controversy, said similarities between the two figures cannot be a coincidence. In a book published in the UK recently called Jesus, King of Edessa Mr Ellis calls it ‘one of the most important discoveries in modern history’.
Dating from the first century, the tiny bronze coin is just under one inch in diameter.
Mr Ellis, a professional pilot originally from Chester, claims his research suggests Jesus was in fact a warrior king called ‘Izas Manu of Edessa and Adiabene’ who also had his sight set on freeing Judea and its people from the Roman Empire. If he’s correct, the coin’s image is the one and only portrait of Christ from this era.
Although Jesus is the most painted figure in all of Western art there is no physical description of him in the Bible. The familiar image of him with long hair and a white robe is said to be a later invention dating from the 6th century. Mr Ellis, 59, admits his conclusions contradict the New Testament story of Christ and critics appear to have highlighted flaws in his theory.
He said: ‘The connection between Jesus Emmanuel and King Izas Manu is a controversial one, but the similarities are simply too great to be mere coincidence.’
He added: ‘Within historical scholarship there hasn’t been a great reception of this theory.’
Mr Ellis called the coin the icing on the cake, hoping historians build up a strong case for the true identity and genealogy of the Biblical Jesus.
But Tom Eden of London-based coin auctioneers Morton & Eden said he found the interpretation of the headgear on the coin implausible. ‘The King is wearing a conical crown, not, in my opinion, a crown of thorns.’
Per contra, art from later periods shows Christ with long hair, a beard and robes, but experts say it would have been unusual for many men to have facial hair in the first century.
Joan Taylor, professor of Christian Origins at King’s College London said the exceptions were slaves and those who had taken a vow to stop drinking. Jewish men – in common with civilised Greeks and Romans – were typically clean shaven.
The very earliest depictions of Jesus tended to show him as a clean-shaven shepherd around 200-300 AD. The more modern portrayals started in the 4th century AD when Byzantine artists depicted him as a younger version of Zeus – who was shown with a flowing beard and long hair.
Another commonly held view of how Jesus appears comes from the Shroud of Turin. While some believe the image imprinted on the death shroud is genuine, radiocarbon dating suggests it was made around 1200-1300 AD.
These various theories of how Jesus looked are one of the greatest mysteries of our age. No one has so far been able to depict a true image of Christ and arguably no one ever will; unless, of course, the Good Lord were to project it from the heavens; in which case, praise be to the Lord is perhaps the appropriate refrain.