The face of Jesus Christ we know is fantasy. It’s an image adapted and refined through centuries of art — and politics.

Now, a new discovery has ignighted new debate about what the character at the centre of the bible’s New Testament may have truly looked like.

It was found ona ruined wall at the site of the ancient city of Shivta, in the Holy Land’s Nagev Desert,

It’s heavily eroded. But several shapes can still be discerned from what remains the 1500 year old church.

It’s a scene familiar to Sunday school scholars the world over: Christ being baptised in the River Jordan.

Painted some 500 years after the event it depicts, one outline shows a curly-haired, long-featured, large-eyed man with a large semetic nose.

Historians say the city of Shivta was established during the first century AD as a caravan stopover for Christian pilgrims travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. But, by the 9th Century, it had declined and been abandoned.

Only a portion of this Shivta church survive. One part is the baptistery, a nook reserved for the sacred Christian ritual.

Photos of the heavily eroded remnants of the painting decorating that space were taken by an Israeli team excavating the site. They were published in the journal Antiquity.

While records of the painting date from exploration of the site in the 1920s, “If you don’t have a good camera and a good photographer, nothing will be visible,” Maayan-Fanar says.

It’s one of only a very representations of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land dating from that time.

The fragment is part of a much larger scene of the baptism of Christ, including a larger character identified as John the Baptist. Only careful future study will unveil further details, if they survive.

Is this 6th century recollection of Christ’s appearance, found in the Holy Land itself, more likely to be accurate?

“It would be wonderful, but how would we know?” says art historian from the University of Haifa in Israel Maayan-Fanar, who discovered the image.

Art historians say the depiction of Christ with short hair was common in the early eastern Byzantine Empire — which included Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

But, eventually, this perception was overwhelmed by new artwork from western Byzantine featuring the well-groomed long hair that continues to be a prominent feature of his portraits even today.

The physical features of the ‘son of God’ have long been left to artistic and cultural imaginations.

No descriptions of Christ’s physical appearance survive in the collection of vetted tales assembled into what we now know to be the bible in 367AD. And yet, such is the power of the modern image now attached to his identity that it is instantly recognisable.

Long, wavy black hair. Piercing blue eyes. Pale skin. A short trimmed beard. Long robes with baggy sleeves.

None of this is accurate. But it’s a powerful exercise in establishing an easily identifiable ‘brand’.

“There were many reasons why Jesus was portrayed in what has become the worldwide standard, and none of them were to do with preserving historical accuracy,” Professor of Christian Origins Joan Taylor, author of What did Jesus Look Like.

While she concedes the Holy Land at the time was a hub of trade between Judea, Europe, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, it was practice for devout Jews to only marry within their own communities. This means his features

Based on analysis of skeletons from the region dated to the First Century AD, Professor Taylor concludes that Jesus was “probably around 166cm (5 feet 5f inches) tall, somewhat slim and muscular, with olive-brown skin, dark brown to black hair, and brown eyes.”

“For me, Jesus’s appearance is not all about flesh and bones. After all, our bodies are not just bodies. Instead, it’s all about the social symbols and messages of identity perceived by viewers of art through the ages”.

Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies M J C Warren of the University of Sheffield argued a similar point, stating a BBC reconstruction showing a dark-haired, brown-skinned, brown-eyed man with a weathered face was a much closer approximation than that of common culture.

Ms Warren points out not even Jesus Christ’s own followers were always certain of his identity. In the Gospel of John, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. After the resurrection, his disciples — who are fishing — fail to recognise Christ when he appears to them.

And, in Matthew, Jesus’ face is only described as ‘shining’ when he talks to Moses and Elijah.

So, perhaps it’s not all that odd history has left no clear description of Jesus the man.

The oldest known depictions of Christ come from paintings and carvings made to decorate coffins and the catacombs they were held in.

They were made some 200 years after his death.

One of the best, says Ms Warren, is in the Syrian church of Dura Europus. It shows Jesus healing a paralytic.

“While it is difficult to see facial details, this Jesus has short hair and is clean-shaven,” she says.

And this is evidence that his image says more about his viewers, than the man himself.

“Jesus’s appearance reveals quite a lot about how portraits of him begin to function in Early Christian communities,” she says. “Jesus is wearing a garment typical of Roman men: a tunic with pallium. Jesus is usually depicted, regardless of his facial features, as conforming to Roman expectations about how virtuous men appear.”

The Christ as we now see him began to emerge in the 6th Century, such as in a surviving icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.

“We can clearly see the emerging tradition of depicting Jesus as longer haired, pale-skinned, and bearded. Here he is also wearing the dark brown garment typically associated with monastic communities, illustrating the shifting values imbued in depictions of Jesus.

“One of the main things we can take away from these early images of Jesus is that … Jesus’s appearance is imagined as matching up with societal expectations of what people ought to look like.”

It’s not just the face of Christ that is problematic.

“Jesus’s garb would have been a far cry from the depiction in da Vinci’s The Last Supper,” Professor Taylor says.

Such features of the modern Jesus have been created to suit what little the bible does say about the man.

There are his shoes. The books of Matthew, Mark and John clearly say Jesus Christ wore sandals. Professor Taylor says examples of these from the era have survived.

“There are (other) incidental details,” she adds. “From the Bible (for example, Mark 6:56) you can discover that he wore a mantle — a large shawl (“himation” in Greek) — which had tassels, described as “edges”; a distinctively Jewish tallith in a form it was in antiquity.”

This would usually have been made of wool. And men of the era preferred them undyed, Professor Taylor comments. But, in truth, it could have been large, small, thick, thin, brightly coloured — or bland.

The Book of Matthew says Christ’s garments ‘became white as the light’ during the Transfiguration on the mountain with Elijah and Moses.

The Apostle John adds Christ’s tunic was made of a single piece of cloth.

“That’s strange, because mostly tunics were made of two pieces sewn at the shoulders and sides,” Professor Taylor says. “One-piece tunics in first-century Judaea were normally thin undergarments or children’s wear. We shouldn’t think of contemporary underwear, but wearing a one-piece on its own was probably not good form. It was extremely basic.”

Also, the book of Mark recounts a tale of Christ criticising those who wore long tunics tended to be rich, and somewhat impressed by their own attire.

Theologians often argue about its significance. But biblical stories tend to depict Christ as a champion of the poor.

“Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Jesus was remembered as looking shabby by a scholar named Celsus, writing in the mid second century, in a treatise against the Christians,” Professor Taylor argues.

“Celsus did his homework. He interviewed people, and he — like us — was quite interested in what Jesus looked like. From Jews and others he questioned, he heard that Jesus ‘wandered about most shamefully in the sight of all’ … From the perspective of respectable people, we can surmise then that Jesus looked relatively rough.”

Scruffy. Unkempt. In his underwear.

“I doubt his hair was particularly long as depicted in most artwork, given male norms of the time, but it was surely not well-tended,” Professor Taylor says. “Wearing a basic tunic that other people wore as an undergarment would fit with Jesus’ detachment regarding material things”.

Just as modern preachers have to dress to impress their audiences, so too did the historical Christ, she argues.

And his audience then was very different to what it is now.

“This, to me, is the beginning of a different way of seeing Jesus, and one very relevant for our times of massive inequality between rich and poor, as in the Roman Empire Jesus aligned himself with the poor and this would have been obvious from how he looked.

“The appearance of Jesus matters because it cuts to the heart of his message. However he is depicted in film and art today, he needs to be shown as one of the have-nots; his teaching can only be truly understood from this perspective.”