Monday, January 6, 2014

What did Jesus look like?

What did Jesus look like? Unfortunately, no one knows the answer to this question but one thing we can be sure of is that he did not look like the image portrayed in art and movies.

Jesus was a Jew from Palestine which means that his skin was darker than those of us from Norwegian ancestry. Most Jewish men in Jesus’ day wore long untrimmed beards (think Duck Dynasty) and there is no reason to think Jesus was any exception. We don’t know how long Jesus’ hair was but I wonder if the image of a long-haired Jesus comes from confusing Nazarene with Nazarite.  Jesus was a Nazarene, i.e. someone from Nazareth, but we have no reason to believe he was a Nazarite which is someone who took a religious vow that involved not cutting one’s hair (like Samson).

Jesus was an itinerant Jewish prophet, which meant that he and his disciples traveled from town to town along dirty, dusty, and sometimes muddy roads littered with the droppings sheep, goats and other animals. Bathing and oral hygiene was a luxury that Jesus and his disciples probably rarely enjoyed. As a result they were often dirty, sweaty, stinky and may have had bad breath! In other words, the image of a nicely groomed and squeaky clean Caucasian Jesus with pearly white teeth is the stuff of pious western imagination. This much is pretty certain.

I’d like to press a bit further, however, and propose that Jesus may have been a physically large man. I would imagine Jesus something like a bearded Jewish version of Hoss (Dan Blocker) in the old Bonanza TV series, or Michael Oher, the Baltimore Raven’s tackle who was portrayed as a gentle giant in the movie, Blind Side.

People in Jesus’ day tended to be smaller than they are today so I’m not suggesting that Jesus was actually 6’4” or 300 pounds like Dan Blocker or Michael Oher. I am suggesting, however, that Jesus, like Saul in the Old Testament, may have stood head and shoulders above the rest—and was probably powerfully built. In the Gospels Jesus is described as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). A carpenter may have made furniture. On the other hand, a carpenter may also have worked with large, heavy beams for building construction. The Greek word for carpenter could also mean stone-cutter. If so, it would mean that Jesus regularly worked with large stones. Working with heavy beams or large stones would tend to make someone quite strong.

Let’s adopt the idea of a large, powerfully built Jesus as a hypothesis. The strength of any hypothesis is its explanatory power and this hypothesis would explain several pieces of evidence in the Gospels.
First, it would explain why Jesus was attacked for being a glutton (Matthew 11:19). After all, no one calls a skinny person a glutton no matter how much they eat. Olympic swimmers, for example, may consume thousands of calories but no one accuses them of gluttony because they are thin.

Second, it would explain why no one is ever recorded as trying to stop Jesus when he overturned the money changers in the temple. If Jesus was just average size, why wouldn’t someone stand up to confront this man who was destroying their livelihood in front of their very eyes?

Third, why is it that the Gospels only record Jesus as having been confronted by groups of people—never by individuals?  Numerous times in the Gospels people get so outraged at Jesus they want to kill him, but no one ever dares to shove him down and tell him to shut up. Perhaps the Gospels just don’t record such instances, or perhaps Jesus mere physical appearance was enough to intimidate most would-be attackers.

Fourth, a large Jesus would explain a very puzzling story surrounding his preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. The crowd became outraged and “drove him out of the town” and intended to throw him off a cliff. Once they got to their destination, the text says “he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30). This could be explained as a miracle but there might be a more down-to-earth explanation. Suppose Jesus passively allowed himself to be driven out of town but, because “his time had not yet come,” he would not allow himself to be thrown off a cliff. Perhaps he then turned on his captors (maybe throwing a few of them aside like tables in the Temple courtyard) and then walked through the crowd with no one person daring to be the first to try to stop him.

Fifth, one might wonder whether his size was a contributing factor in his early death. Scholars have long noted that people generally survived crucifixion much longer than Jesus did. This could have been supernatural. After all, Jesus did give up the spirit—No one took it from him. Without denying that Jesus gave up his life, there may have been a natural explanation as well. For example, a person’s survival time on the cross may have been inversely proportional to the severity of the flogging. On the other hand, it could also be that Jesus’ size and weight caused his heart to give out earlier than would be the case with average size men. It could also be a combination of all three.

Finally, when Jesus was arrested, it was not by a few temple policemen but “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47). The perceived need for this crowd could be because Jesus was known to travel with a group of disciples, some of whom were armed (Matthew 26:51); but if Jesus was a big man who was powerfully built, it would make sense for the authorities to be prepared just in case of violent confrontation with the one who had just that week singlehandedly disrupted temple business.

One possible objection to this theory could be that being overweight is sin and Jesus was without sin. The western world today is obsessed with being thin but this obsession may be more cultural than biblical. The Bible never speaks in terms of being overweight. It speaks of the sin of gluttony. Wealthy elites would sometimes eat until they couldn’t eat anymore, and then induce vomiting—not because they had an eating disorder but simply so they could go back to the party and eat more, like a never ending Thanksgiving dinner! I would suggest that this is an example of gluttony. Jesus was not a glutton. Besides, I’m not suggesting that Jesus was morbidly obese, just big. Being a big man could open him to false charges of gluttony.

While no one knows what Jesus looked like, I would argue that it is more likely than not that Jesus was a tall, large, and powerfully built man. But so what? What difference does it make? Ultimately it doesn’t make any difference—or the Gospel writers would have mentioned it. On the other hand, a large powerfully built Jesus does make sense of some otherwise puzzling data in the Gospels.

But there may be a more practical implication. I would suggest that one of the biggest obstacles to men accepting the Gospel is the stereotype of Jesus as the meek and mild wimp. Few men want to follow a meek and mild wimp! Regardless of Jesus’ physical size, the stereotype is false. Jesus was no wimp.  Jesus was fearlessly confrontational and his bravery in facing even life-threatening danger was second to none. Nevertheless, the image of Jesus as a gentle giant like a Hoss or Michael Oher would be a much more evangelistically appealing to most men than an ancient version of Mr. Rogers.

Another practical implication is that the discussion itself may help to stem the tide of creeping Docetism—the idea that Jesus just appeared to be human. All Evangelicals believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, but in popular Christianity the humanity of Jesus is often given little more than lip service. We sing, for example, of the “Beautiful One I adore” which is a wonderful song as long as we remember that “Beautiful One” was probably not the first phrase that came to mind when someone saw Jesus coming down the road. 

Without in any way downplaying the deity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus is important because we must never forget that Jesus felt those thorns on his brow, the lash on his back and the nails in his hand just as we would have. Jesus’ humanity was important because “he himself has suffered when tempted, [so] he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 ESV) and he is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). The humanity of Jesus is important because we do not just get our instruction for life from divine communication with the cosmic Jesus, but from the divinely inspired remembrances of the teachings of the real human Jesus as he traveled from place to place with his disciples. 

What Jesus actually looked like is not important. That Jesus was not only God but was also human is extremely important.