Books interview: Joan Taylor

The professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism and author of ‘What Did Jesus Look Like?’ on puzzles, a chance encounter with ‘Jesus the Jew’ and 1st-century fashion

February 2, 2018
Joan Taylor

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

As a child, I loved mystery and detective novels – Nancy Drew stories. I relish a good quest, a puzzle.

Which books first piqued your interest in archaeology – and in particular the archaeology of the New Testament?

My interest in material culture was piqued after reading Geza Vermes’ book Jesus the Jew when I was 22. I found it on the shelves of the Penguin Bookshop in London’s Covent Garden when I was working there in retail, as a Kiwi abroad, before I began studying the ancient world. Vermes did not particularly look at material culture, but he understood Jesus within 1st-century Judaea, and after reading his book I travelled to Israel-Palestine and visited archaeological sites and museums. I still have my notebooks from my travels. I was such an archaeology nerd.

Which books led you to explore the unusual topic of your new book, ‘What Did Jesus Look Like?’?

I had a King James Version of the Bible with pictures that presented Jesus as a European dressed in somewhat Arab clothing. This was my template for Jesus when I was young. The book that first got me started on thinking about what Jesus really looked like was Ian Wilson’s The Turin Shroud. The scientific studies and the responses to them show how much people really want to “see” Jesus accurately. In addition, Yigael Yadin’s book on discoveries in ancient Dead Sea caves, Bar-Kokhba, showing brilliantly preserved clothing, illuminated what Jesus wore. Throughout my career, I’ve always found the appearance and clothing of historical figures fascinating, but to say to my fellow scholars that I really wanted to work on Jesus’ sandals seemed a little lightweight. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I could imagine certain male colleagues commenting knowingly that I was interested in “fashion”. Now I just don’t care about that! And also, the body and ancient dress have both become more mainstream subjects of study.

Which general accounts of the iconography of Jesus across the centuries would you recommend?

Thomas Mathews’ The Clash of Gods and Robin Jensen’s Face to Face are my top picks for exploring how Jesus has been visualised over the centuries.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

I am also a creative writer (usually under the name Joan Norlev Taylor), and I gave a copy of a collection in which I have a short story – Fresh Ink – to my mother and two friends.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Mary Beard’s wonderful Women and Power and M. R. James’ Ghost Stories . I always love the fact that James, like me, could combine historical work with creative writing. I also think that having the tendency to imagine has led me on to this topic of Jesus’ physical appearance, because a fiction writer needs to imagine what a character looks like.

Joan Taylor is professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. Her latest book is What Did Jesus Look Like? (Bloomsbury).

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