Jesus Christ, Cover Star

It's that time of year again for the newsweeklies: Christ-as-Cover-Boy time. How has the Jesus Cover Story been packaged over the years? How has it changed (or not)?

It’s that time of year again for the newsweeklies: Christ-as-Cover-Boy time.

Jesus, of course, is as reliably evergreen a cover subject as they come — ever-mysterious, ever-controversial — and one that, naturally, pops up annually on newsstands around Easter and/or Christmas. With the appearance this week of two visually similar Jesus Cover Stories (Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report), we wondered: How has the Jesus Cover Story been packaged over the years? How has it changed (or not)?

Often, such covers involve a painting of a cherubic Jesus cradled in Mary’s arms accompanied by a question (some variation on Who Was He?) or a nod to some book or bit of research which shows How Jesus Isn’t Who You Thought He Was. Such is the case this week with Newsweek’s and U.S. News’ dueling Jesus covers — which, although they feature paintings from entirely different centuries, can be hard to differentiate for a newsstand browser with no art history training.

On U.S. News’ cover, reporter Jay Tolson is “In Search of the Real Jesus” — having apparently lost track of Him sometime after March of 2004 (when Tolson wrote a cover story titled, “The Real Jesus.”) While Time “Search[ed] for Jesus” on a December 1996 cover (and “Search[ed] for Mary” back in 1991), its cover has thus far been Jesus- (and Mary-) free this year (ditto the years 2000-2003). Not so Newsweek, with the current cover headline: “The World of the Nativity: How First-Century Jewish Family Values Shaped Christianity” (which reminded us a bit of Tolson’s above-referenced 2004 Jesus Cover Story for U.S. News, subtitled,-“How the Jewish reformer lost his Jewish identity.”)

Disappointingly, our study of the evolution of the Jesus Cover Story was hampered by poor technology: U.S. Newsonline archive offers no cover images and only dates back to 2003 (when, on December 22, Jay Tolson co-authored a Jesus Cover Story called, “Jesus in America”). Newsweek’s online archive also lacks cover images (it appears there was a Jesus Cover on December 13, 2004 titled, “The Birth of Jesus.”) Time, however, has a complete cover archive on its Web site (searchable, with images) dating back to 1938, enabling us to really drill down into Time’s history of Jesus Covers. There have been 21. Here are two of our favorites — each a divine sort of mini-time capsule:

From the dawn of the dot-com days, the December 16, 1996 cover: “Jesus Online: How the Internet is shaping our views of faith and religion,” a story sprinkled with now-quaint references to the “World Wide Web,” online “bulletin boards” and “AltaVista,” a “powerful Internet search engine.” The reporter wrote, excitedly: “Look for Christ on the Web and you’ll find him — some 146,000 times.” (Compare that to the more than seven million hits you get when you Google Christ today).

From an era when many men looked like Jesus, the June 21, 1971 cover, featuring a psychedelic, lavender-faced cartoon Jesus and a report on “The Jesus Revolution” (“Jesus is alive and well and living in the radical spiritual fervor of a growing number of young Americans who have proclaimed an extraordinary religious revolution in his name….It is a startling development for a generation that has been constantly accused of tripping out or copping out with sex, drugs and violence…”)

In fact, we got a little carried away fiddling with Time’s cover archive and, although you can’t judge a magazine by its cover (can you?), we present to you some of the fruits of our fiddling: a sampling of people/topics (as categorized by Time) and how many times Time, according to its searchable archive, has featured them/it on the cover:

Dogs: 7
Cats: 2

Darth Vader: 4
Dick Cheney: 3

Models: 6
Obesity: 1

Journalism: 40
Poverty: 14

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.