Monday, April 01, 2019

"We don't know what Jesus looked like"

In my experience, there are roughly three objections to "pictures of Jesus". One invokes the 2nd Commandment. That's an important objection, which raises a number of complex issues. I think it fails, but it needs to be taken seriously. 

Another objection is the "Nestorian" charge. That's a silly objection, and it could be countered by accusing opponents of Monophysitism.

The third objection is that we don't know what Jesus looked like. Here I'll make four brief observations:

i) Christians need to be careful about referring to Jesus in the past tense. Certainly there are contexts in which it's correct to refer to him in the past tense. When we talk about what Jesus said and did during his 1C ministry. It is, however, striking how often Christians automatically slip into the past tense when referring to Jesus, even though we believe he's alive. So even if the objection were correct, it should be expressed in the present tense: "we don't know what Jesus looks like," rather than "we don't know what Jesus looked like."

ii) I'd add that if Jesus continues to appear to people, then there's a sense in which they do know what Jesus looks like. I'm referring to reported visions of Jesus or heavenly near-death experiences. However, that's not something I'd emphasize because even if some of these are genuine, Jesus may be adapting his appearance to the viewer's cultural expectations to be recognizable to them.

iii) If the Shroud of Turin is authentic, then we have a body-length (front and back) photograph of Jesus. Indeed, a photographic reproduction with 3D information. 

I don't have a firm opinion regarding the authenticity of the Shroud. I just haven't kept up with the research. My point, though, is that it's not a given to say we don't know what Jesus looks like. 

iv) Finally, the objection is arbitrary. We don't know what biblical figures in general looked like. But in my experience, Christians who object to "pictures of Jesus" don't object to movies about Noah, Moses, King David, King Solomon, St. Paul, or the Patriarchs, &c. 

1 comment:

  1. Those who apply the 2nd commandment this way often argue that videos of actors playing Jesus could convey facial expressions and body language that wouldn't be faithful to the way Jesus really did behave in those stories and therefore result in people believing things about Jesus and His attitudes that weren't true. But a similar objection could be said about the inflections people necessarily place in Jesus' mouth when reading those portions of Scripture that record His statements. To be consistent, shouldn't they forbid the audible verbal reading of Jesus' statements in the New Testament, and of YHVH in the OT? Think of Alexander Scourby's reading of Jesus' "Woes" in Matthew 23 in the KJV. As dramatic as the reading is, Scourby is inputting his own attitudes into it that aren't original. Since Jesus likely spoke them in Aramaic and not English.

    This is why as uncomfortable as I am of pictures and videos of Jesus and theophanies, I don't think they should be completely banned. The incarnation and Biblical theophanies of God were meant to be seen at the time they occurred and conceived of mentally when read from Scripture and recollected. Very few strict iconoclasts can consistently block out mental images of Jesus when they read the Gospels. Even if it's just an amorphous humanoid-type form. The New Testament is just too full of visual detail (e.g. the description of the Passion and the cross of Christ; or of the glorified Christ in Rev. 1:13ff.). The best thing to do is just to constantly remind people that these are approximations of how theophanies and Christ looked and sounded, and to warn them not to derive too much from them beyond the propositional teaching found in Scripture which is more certain and safe to believe.