A woman in Houston, Texas named Theresa Escobedo recently reported that she saw Jesus in a tree in her front yard. Apparently he had been there for quite some time, only nobody noticed until they cleared away some branches and saw his image embedded in a big knothole in the tree. "I mean, people might think I'm crazy," Escobedo told a reporter. "But I know I'm not, 'cause why would he appear on a tree?" As might be expected, neighborhood opinion was divided on the Jesus image, if not on Escobedo's sanity. One neighbor agreed only that the knothole appeared to resemble a man with a beard. "It's probably nature that grew the tree like that," he commented. "It's not Jesus on the tree." Another neighbor shared Escobedo's belief that the bearded man had to be the Lord "because that's the image that I have in my heart of Jesus."
As it happens, Jesus sightings are almost as common as Elvis sightings, based on those oddball news stories that turn up regularly in supermarket tabloids or on TV. Granted, the King of the Jews is less apt than the King of Rock and Roll to appear in the flesh. Over the last 30 years or so, the image of Jesus has been spotted on a tortilla, a garage door, a soybean oil tank, the chimney of a suburban bowling alley and other unlikely settings. The only common thread is that each manifestation constitutes a kind of Rorschach test of religious belief. The true believers see Jesus in the knothole, whereas everyone else sees a guy with a beard.
How do we even know what Jesus looked like? The biblical sources are pretty sketchy; in fact, his contemporaries left behind no physical description of him whatsoever, nor is there any image from that period to go by. Artists and iconographers in later periods were therefore given free rein to recast him into the mold of their own time and place. This accounts for the blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus that now graces many wall calendars, not to mention the autographed pictures of Jesus Christ that a local evangelist once peddled to listeners on a radio station in Del Rio, Texas.
The image appearing on the Shroud of Turin, if genuine, would constitute the only surviving image of Jesus as he actually appeared shortly after his death. However, its authenticity is hotly debated. Adherents believe this linen cloth covered Jesus' body as he lay in his tomb. The life-sized image imprinted on the cloth shows a tall, bearded man with wounds consistent with biblical accounts of Jesus' final scourging and crucifixion. There is an apparent wound on his one visible wrist, rather than on his hand. This accords with the historical method used to nail victims to a cross but runs counter to the way crucifixions are normally depicted in religious art. But skeptics are quick to point out that the shroud's provenance can only be traced to the 14th century, which is roughly as far back as radiocarbon dating tests place it. One of the earliest mentions of the shroud comes from a medieval bishop who identified it as a clever forgery intended to extract money from the faithful. Church authorities now wisely refrain from weighing in on the shroud's authenticity.
The debate surrounding the Shroud of Turin may be of some historical interest but is basically beside the point. If it is some image of God that we seek, we might just as well look to ourselves, since we are created in his image. For many, of course, the notion that God has any physical appearance at all is naive, if not idolatrous. Jews in biblical times were strictly forbidden from worshipping images or even of fashioning the likeness of any living thing. They threatened to stone Jesus for blasphemy when he dared to say, "I and the Father are one." The issue, however, was not who Jesus claimed to be but who they were. They could not comprehend the answer that he gave them, nor would they been able to bear it if they had understood. Yet the truth he offered them was unassailable, since he did nothing more than quote from the Psalms. "You are gods," he told them.