People will not let the reality of the Jesus they encounter in scripture see the full light of day. For many, it is plain ignorance. For others, including those deeply committed to biblical truth and regular Bible readers, it is surprising that they also join in remaking Jesus of Nazareth into the Jesus of Hollywood. They learn to take scripture quite seriously and ignore some of it all at the same time.
Philip Yancey, in his now-classic best-seller, The Jesus I Never Knew, has confronted countless thousands of church going Christians with a vibrant, radical, inspiring, and a little frightening version of Jesus deeply rooted in the biblical narrative. As an unsolicited plug, if you haven't read it, get it and read it.
Yancey focuses on tremendously important stuff: radical discipleship or confronting a materialistic worldview. This post has a much more limited goal. I want to just glance around the edges. What do we think Jesus and his buddies and groupies looked like? It's not a question that will prompt scholars to initiate yet another quest for the historical Jesus. But, it is not entirely unimportant, either.
We make Jesus and his world pretty attractive. His opponents are almost cartoon-like in their evilness. His mother looks just like she ought to be on the cover of Today's Galilean Woman. We make his most shocking statements (How happy you are when you're grief-stricken...) a good deal more reasonable than they originally sounded. In this, we erode the gritty reality of the gospels and unintentionally contribute to the sense it all sounds a little like embellished tall tales cleaned up to show on the Disney Channel.
Jesus, we are told repeatedly every December, was born in a lowly stable. Forget, for a moment, that the word stable isn't actually in the narrative and let's face an even bigger issue: Does the traditional depiction of Jesus' birth look remotely lowly? Heavenly light beams down from above, as peace-loving animals surround the manger, oddly constructed in exactly the size that allows it to also serve as a crib. The straw looks soft. The baby looks clean and happy. No flies buzz around scattered half-dried manure. Altogether a lovely scene. One is left feeling sorry for the likes of poor Octavian born in a cold stone room somewhere in the city of Rome.
Isaiah predicted that the suffering servant would not be physically attractive (Isaiah 53:2). We know the people of that era who saw Jesus never seemed surprised that he was a carpenter from a small rural backwater hamlet called Nazareth. King of the Jews was a bit of a leap for some of them. And yet, in spite of this, he stands there in our imaginations with Hollywood good looks, perfect posture, and with a mouth filled with perfect white teeth. In every painting with Jesus walking along with the disciples, people never have to ask which one is Jesus. It is obvious. The attractive guy with the loving face, along with the only white robe in the group, is a dead give away. And then there's that halo...
The good Samaritan is so universally enshrined as the epitome of a kindly stranger, children grow up with the assumption that all Samaritans were good: a whole race of kindly merchants wandering about the Holy Land looking for wounded strangers to help. However, if you started a "Samaritan Fund" in the first century, people would know you wanted money to keep those dirty Jews out of Samaria and rebuild the true temple on Mount Gerizim that had been destroyed by a cruel Jewish army in 129 BCE.
The younger son who flees with the inheritance is certainly foolish to have squandered all that money on riotous living, but manages to still remain a sincerely sorry and likable fellow. Meanwhile, the elder brother is a mean-looking angry self-righteous jerk we're pretty sure the father never liked that much to begin with. The scandalously unfair generosity becomes an entirely understandable example of ordinary fatherly love that everyone seems to expect and enjoy except for mister party pooper.
The prostitutes Jesus is criticized for being around all turn out to be misguided and yet still charming women just trying to make ends meet. No doubt, they grew up psychologically wounded from emotionally distant fathers and were only waiting for a kind word from a handsome stranger to recover their lost sense of self esteem. Like the story of Sleeping Beauty minus the kissing.
A beautiful gospel about a beautiful savior brought to us by the beautiful people.
If the real Jesus, the one Philip Yancey writes about, showed up, the sight might be dramatically outside our deeply ingrained stereotypes. In would walk a short swarthy looking man with scraggly beard, unkept hair and some crooked teeth. But, we'd simply refuse to believe any who looked than plain, that flawed, that rough, could possible be eternal Logos incarnate in immaculate humanity.
In the world he was, and the world was made by him, and the world ignored him. He came into the things he had made, and the people whom he loved turned their backs on him. However, to those who did let him in—who lived up to his name—he gave the right to be God’s children. (John 1:11-12 The Cotton Patch Gospel)
Note: The left side painting above represents scholarship's best guess at what a typical Galilean laborer would have looked like in the first century.
For some additional reading on the basic question about what Jesus might have actually looked like, you may want to click and link into an excellent article in Biblical Archaeology Review from July, 2011