Friday, December 13, 2013

Jesus, The Cultural Canvas

Megyn Kelly of Fox News apparently thinks that Jesus was white. Yes, this is a rather unsophisticated claim, but not particularly surprising. It's probably the case that all, or almost all, of the images of Jesus she has encountered depict Jesus as having European features. This is the most common representation of Jesus' ethnicity in European and North American art. Should a national news persona be more informed than this? Yes, but, again, it isn't surprising that she wasn't. 

In the early years of the twentieth century Albert Schweitzer wrote Von Reimarus zu Wrede, which came to be called in English The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The book surveyed about a century of scholarship on Jesus and then put forward Schweitzer’s own Jesus who was characterized by what he called “thoroughgoing eschatology.” In this work, he argued that from the various accounts of the historical Jesus we learn more about the scholars who produce the accounts than we do about Jesus himself; scholars tend to produce accounts of Jesus that reflect the scholars’ own values. This is no less the case in our own time than in Schweitzer’s.

As Kelly’s comment demonstrates, it is not simply biblical scholars who re-create Jesus in their own image, but artists, actors, preachers, and virtually anyone else who has an interest in Jesus’ portrayal. Forensic scientists have produced an image that might actually be somewhat historically accurate, but, then again, we really can’t know. If you’re not familiar with this image, visit Matt O’Reilly’s blog site and see his post on the “Popular Mechanics” Jesus.

Images reflect cultural values, and so our images of Jesus tend to reflect the values of the cultures in which they were produced. One of the things I have long puzzled over, however, is why the evangelists never told us what Jesus looked like. We have four accounts of Jesus’s ministry dating from the first century, yet not once is there a hint of what Jesus may have looked like. I’m not aware of physical descriptions in non-canonical texts from the second or third centuries, either (though if you know of some, I’d appreciate your pointing these out to me). This is particularly puzzling in light of the fact that physical appearance and character were closely linked in the Greco-Roman mind. In other words, you could derive information about a person’s character by observing his or her physical features. Ancient biographies, the genre with which some scholars associate the gospels (or at least some of the gospels), often included physical descriptions of their subjects in order to indicate the nature of their character. Entire handbooks were devoted to this pseudo-science, which we call “physiognomics.”

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the Physiognomics attributed (falsely) to Aristotle:

The characteristics of the brave man are stiff hair, an erect carriage of body, bones, aides and extremities of the body strong and large, broad and flat belly; shoulder-blades broad and far apart, neither very tightly knit nor altogether slack; a strong neck but not very fleshy; a chest fleshy and broad, thigh flat, calves of the legs broad below; a bright eye, neither too wide opened nor half closed; the skin on the body is inclined to be dry; the forehead is sharp, straight, not large, and lean, neither very smooth nor very wrinkled.

The signs of the coward are soft hair, a body of sedentary habit, not energetic; calves of the legs broad above; pallor about the face; eyes weak and blinking, the extremities of the body weak, small legs and long thin hands; thigh small and weak; the figure is constrained in movement; he is not eager but supine and nervous; the expression on his face is liable to rapid change and is cowed. (LCL 3.807a.31-807b.13)

Physiognomic thinking was quite common in the Greco-Roman world. It was not simply the property of educated elites, but a mindset that permeated the culture. It appeared in both official biographies of emperors and popular novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Alexander. So why, then, did the tradition fail to pass down through the evangelists any physical description of Jesus? 

Personally, my opinion is…. 

I don’t know.

I might, however, suggest that perhaps Jesus did not fit the common physiognomic ideals of his day, and therefore traditions about his physical appearance were not preserved. Perhaps the evangelists were influenced by Isaiah 53:2: "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." It could  also have been that there was a current of anti-physiognomic thought in early Christianity. Mikeal C. Parsons argues that in Luke-Acts one sees an intentional subversion of physiognomic conventions (see his book,  Body and Character in Luke and Acts: TheSubversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity [Baylor, 2011]).

Whatever the reason, however, I thank God that there is no physical description of Jesus in the Bible. Such a description would inevitably lead to one group claiming favor over another based upon physical characteristics. Christ is available to all people equally, and no group should claim any special privilege over another. However Jesus may have looked, the evangelists did not feel that this was what was important to say about him. Rather, they wanted us to know that in Jesus, God brought truth, life, and redemption. Whenever we put proprietary claims on Jesus, we shift the focus away from the biblical witness of him and make an idol of our own cultural values. He becomes a canvas upon which we paint our own ideals. 

Schweitzer said of Jesus, “He comes to us as One unknown.” How true that is, and in so many ways. 

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