Many Christians believe the only true depiction of the face of Jesus is on the Shroud of Turin – the alleged burial cloth that bears the imprint of a man but has been carbon-dated to the Middle Ages. Another purported depiction is the Veil of Veronica, a cloth bearing an image that some believe was imprinted with the face of Jesus before the crucifixion. There are multiple cloths alleged to be Veronica’s and no testing has been done on any of them. Now, a controversial biblical scholar is back in the news with an update to his book claiming a first century bronze coin that many believe is engraved with the face of an ancient Mesopotamian leader is actually the earliest image of Jesus.
The theory is presented by British historian and author Ralph Ellis. The image he’s referring to is on a tiny 24mm-wide bronze coin that has been dated to the first century CE. The dots he connects to identify the face are interesting, albeit controversial to both historians and Christians.
Let’s start with King Manu. Ellis uses this name on the coin to refer to an historical figure mentioned by first century historian Flavius Josephus as Izates, a king of Adiabene around 15 CE. Some recent historians think Izates was a Nazarene Jew who lived in Jerusalem and was a leader of revolts that eventually caused the Great Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 CE -- revolts for which he was possibly crucified.
Because of the time period of Izates' rein, his leadership of the Jews against the Romans and his death by crucifixion, Ellis makes the controversial final dot connection that Izates/Manu and Jesus are the same person, thus making the image on the coin the face of Jesus.
For those getting their heresy accusations ready, there’s no tougher nor more dangerous job than being a biblical historian.
Ellis explains all of this and more in his book, Jesus, King of Edessa, which was published in the US in 2012 and is being released in the UK this week – hence the many recent articles on Ellis and the coin. Ellis sees the coin as the ultimate proof of the Jesus/Manu connection. For example, he claims what was thought to be the “traditional tiara of the Edessan monarchs” is actually the crown of thorns from the account of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Ellis expects Christians to object to this controversial theory, but many historians have problems with it as well. The coin contains the name “King Manu” in Aramaic and some believe that it actually refers to Manu VIII, who reigned at least 70 years after Izates.
Based on the evidence he presents, it’s tough to agree with Ellis’ statement that the image of the coin is Jesus “beyond any reasonable doubt” or that it’s “one of the most important discoveries in modern history” or even the “icing on the cake.” However, he’s right that the history of the leading figure of the past 2,000 years needs to be studied and biblical historians need to be allowed to do their job, especially in filling in gaps in the biblical accounts and the early period of the religion before the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
Then again, it’s an interesting idea. What are the implications if it's someday found to be true?
Send your complaints to Ralph Ellis or just don’t buy his book.