Monday, October 17, 2011

Interpreting Jesus

At the risk of stating the obvious, a “picture of Jesus” is an artistic interpretation of Jesus. A visual interpretation. In principle, a visual interpretation of Jesus is no different than a literary interpretation of Jesus, such as a commentary on the gospels, or a monograph on the life of Christ.

Take Hunt’s famous painting: "The Light of the World." That’s based on his reading of the NT, as well as Victorian sermons. From a theological standpoint (in distinction to aesthetic considerations), it’s only as good or bad as his 19C English evangelical theology. 

When I look at that painting what I see is one man’s interpretation of Jesus. Just as when I read Adolf Schlatter’s Do We Know Jesus?, that’s just one man’s interpretation of Jesus–with all the limitations inherent in that exercise. 

35 comments:

  1. How can you interpret visually the only-begotten Son of God when there is no valid physical description (let alone artwork or photography) source material from which to work?

    How can such an interpretation be anything other than error-prone, and thus deceptive, regardless of the intent?

    One determined to create such things must avoid the glaring fact that we have no record of what Jesus actually looked like. Such iconography can only ever be error without one, hence why God discouraged such practice both via old testament commandment and by distinctly avoiding physical descriptions of Jesus in the new.

    If we don't smell even a whiff of the 'false fire' offering error in even the most "well-intentioned" motives and artistic actions to picture Christ, we might need to clear our sinuses.

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  2. "In principle, a visual interpretation of Jesus is no different than a literary interpretation of Jesus"

    In which principle? In terms of providing an interpretation? Perhaps that's so. Yet in other principles, it may be distinguishable.

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  3. The gospel narratives describe actions of Jesus. A Bible illustrator can depict those actions–just as we can make historical movies about famous men and women, even though we don't know what they looked like.

    That's only "deceptive" if you labor under the illusion that an actor is supposed to look like Caesar or Charlemagne.

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  4. This is the legacy you're defending whether you intend to or not: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconography#Christian_iconography
    Zeus, Rome, etc.

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  5. Jacob,

    From another angle, some people have seen many representational similarities between the features of early iconography and the visual characteristics discerned from studies of the Shroud of Turin. As top scholar Gary Habermas mentions (in a discussion of historical references to the Shroud, emphasis mine):

    "Very briefly, such data includes a few historical citations of the shroud, one as early as the second century (Braulio of Seville), a sermon concerning it given by a church official, and paintings of Jesus' face that, after an apparent rediscovery of the shroud, were plainly based on it even down to the exact position of numerous bruises. Additionally a detailed and very intriguing early Christian tradition exists that asserts that a mysterious cloth containing the imprint of Jesus' face had been carried by Thaddeus, Jesus' disciple, to Edessa, a small kingdom in what is today Turkey. After a stay of several hundred years it was moved to the city of Constantinople. From here its modern history is well known as it was taken to several cities in France and then to Turin, Italy."

    You can see the similarities at this site. I only offer it up for the convenience of having the two images of an early iconography tradition and the Shroud of Turin side by side, although many of the comparisons mentioned at the bottom of the article were mentioned by Habermas during his most recent presentation on the subject at the 2010 EPS conference.

    Consider, as well, Emanuela Marinelli's paper (PDF) on broader bodily characteristics.

    (Even if the Shroud of Turin is not from Jesus' body, it still gives us visual clues of how someone within Jesus' racial group would have appeared.)

    I haven't studied the issue thoroughly, so I can't say with great confidence that there is visual data of Christ available. But the idea that we have absolutely no visual data of Christ whatsoever is not entirely obvious either. (This also seems to ignore that we know the specific era and region of the world Jesus came from, so we can eliminate a variety of possible physical features--such as most skin tones.)

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  6. One obvious difference is that with respect to commentaries on Scripture and monographs on the life of Christ we have access to the Scriptures where objective claims can be debated on the respective merits of the exegetical and hermeneutical principles employed.

    Regarding depictions we have sheer imagination and assertion.

    Plus we have the Second Commandment prohibitions against the fashioning of images with no parallel or similar command about employing literary media (except of course for adding to/taking away from God's Word).

    In Christ,
    CD

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  7. "Regarding depictions we have sheer imagination and assertion."

    That's just not so. Take the story in Mark 2 about Jesus healing the paralytic let down through the roof. We can assess a visual description from the information given in the account.

    I just refuse to believe that any sane person could think there is even a hint of idolatry in an artistic depiction of some event in the life of Jesus. Maybe people who try to make a distinction between a word-description of Jesus and his actions and an artistic description are forgetting that letters and words themselves are symbols, drawn on paper. Letters and words are icons representing some situation or state of affairs.

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  8. The book of Isaiah repeatedly gives us physical descriptions of a messianic figure now known to be Jesus. The gospels sometimes describe Jesus' body and clothing, for example, and Revelation goes into even more detail.

    I also want to reiterate what Matthew said about the Shroud of Turin. Habermas probably is the leading resurrection scholar of our generation. He places the likelihood of the Shroud's authenticity at about 80%.

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  9. J.D.,

    isn't it really a rendering of the picture of the Words in the form of a depiction or image of Christ that we take issue with rather than what the Words by them self depict within one's heart and mind when reading them so we come to know the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Eternal Life, in this life before we, too, pass to Their Eternal Glory in Christ?

    I believe we go beyond the intent of the Word, violating the 2nd Commandment, when we depict in any artistic form, sculpture, painting, drawing or other, these Words:

    Joh 14:5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
    Joh 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
    Joh 14:7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
    Joh 14:8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us."
    Joh 14:9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
    Joh 14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
    Joh 14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
    Joh 14:12 "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.
    Joh 14:13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
    Joh 14:14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
    Joh 14:15 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
    Joh 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever,
    Joh 14:17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
    Joh 14:18 "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
    Joh 14:19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.
    Joh 14:20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
    Joh 14:21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."


    If ever there was a time and place to change the meaning of the 2nd Commandment and make it as a "new" Commandment, giving artistic license to render a depiction of Christ, I would think that incident, there, would have been the time and place to do it?

    Maybe Jesus could have said by adding to those Words, ""ok" guys, I am that Prophet Moses referred too in the Scriptures and now I give you a "new meaning" to the 2nd Commandment. Here, give me papyrus or vellum and an ink pen and I will draw for you what the Father looks like and the Holy Spirit looks like so that when I am taken out of this world and I am raised from the dead and we send the Holy Spirit to you and we manifest Ourselves to you, you will know it is We and not some fallen demon or the Devil himself masquerading as Us? So for that reason I will do a self portrait and then you can pass it down through the ages, replicating it to keep my likeness fresh in everybody's mind even to everyone in the 21st Century when the debate will come up again about artistic renderings of Our form and likeness, even though no man has seen the Father, just Me! As I said, if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father."

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  10. How can you interpret visually the only-begotten Son of God when there is no valid physical description (let alone artwork or photography) source material from which to work?

    That question could be asked of 99.99999999999999999999999999% of all people before the development of photography.
    Not a good question.

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  11. Why is it not a good question? It pertains to the discussion specific to iconography of Jesus and lack of source materials. I don't think we're concerned with someone getting Julius Caesar's image wrong, for example. He's not Jesus.

    Even on a practical level, there are no visual source materials or physical descriptions of Jesus, so how can it be anything OTHER than imagination and thus invalid and inauthentic?

    How can it enhance anything related to one's worship or understanding of Jesus to use something that is at its core faulty?

    What is it that you fear if you were to give up all iconography of God, such that we strain for exceptions to try to prove against a rule that covers the norms?

    Why the urge to seek out gray areas instead of avoid them out of respect for the Christ?

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  12. I don't think we're concerned with someone getting Julius Caesar's image wrong, for example. He's not Jesus.

    I'm responding to you on your own grounds.
    You raised the objection that you don't know what Jesus looked like. You don't know what ANYONE looked like before photos. So what?
    What I'm saying is: Use another argument.


    how can it be anything OTHER than imagination and thus invalid and inauthentic?

    Are you prepared to say that about EVERY PORTRAIT of ppl from before photos?
    And so what? Tell me the so what.


    How can it enhance anything related to one's worship or understanding of Jesus to use something that is at its core faulty?

    I don't think it does or could, particularly. I'm criticising those who make a big deal out of it in others.


    What is it that you fear if you were to give up all iconography of God, such that we strain for exceptions to try to prove against a rule that covers the norms?

    Icons OF GOD are wrong.
    Icons of THE GOD MAN are not the same thing. If you doubt such, please explain how Jesus was apparently not really incarnate and not really a man.

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  13. You raised the objection that you don't know what Jesus looked like. You don't know what ANYONE looked like before photos. So what?
    What I'm saying is: Use another argument.


    No, not me, YOU. YOU, as in those who create such false images. THEY have no idea what he looked like. Which is precisely the point I'm making. "So what?" So by implication (to those who do such things) stop doing it, since they're only ever going to be false images.

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  14. 1) So what?

    2) Do you have a cross of any kind? Do you wear one, have one hanging on your wall, etc?

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  15. 1 - So it's wrong.
    2 - No, I don't. But even so, does the cross represent Christ himself, or his salvific work? I'm not aware of anyone that pictures Jesus as a pair of perpendicular wooden beams. i.e., I don't think you're making a valid comparison to the topic at hand: Interpreting Jesus or iconography of Jesus.

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  16. 1) "That doesn't look like Jesus" != "it's wrong".

    2) We don't have any way to know whether the crosses we draw or wear resemble the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
    Wouldn't that break down your argument? Again?

    Where does the Bible say "don't make an image of a man"?
    That is very relevant b/c any depiction of Jesus that I'd deem acceptable would depict His HUMAN BODY. One can't depict the divine nature, which is why one shouldn't try. But humans are depict-able.

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  17. 1) "That doesn't look like Jesus" != "it's wrong".
    No, the argument is "It's trying to represent Jesus therefore it's wrong"
    Curious: Are you being this obtuse on purpose or is it the best you can offer?

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  18. Jacob wrote:

    "Even on a practical level, there are no visual source materials or physical descriptions of Jesus, so how can it be anything OTHER than imagination and thus invalid and inauthentic?"

    We've given you examples of information we have about Jesus' appearance, and you keep ignoring those examples. You're also assuming your own standards without demonstrating them. Why should we think it's "invalid" to produce a picture of Jesus that's understood to be inexact? If a painter knows that his painting of Jesus is an approximation rather than an exact duplicate, and the audience viewing the painting knows it, then what's "invalid"?

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  19. Why aren't we starting from the Biblical standard, instead of man-made ones?

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  20. Jacob wrote:

    " Why aren't we starting from the Biblical standard, instead of man-made ones?"

    What Biblical standard are you referring to, in what sense are we supposed to "start with it", and how have I failed to do so?

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  21. Rhology,

    That might be the case if people were merely attempting to represent Jesus' human nature, but they aren't. They are either attempting to represent Jesus' Person, and His Person is divine, not human, or Jesus as a whole (the God-man). So the divine Person of the Son is being represented (not depicted) with a human image.
    In any case, we can all speculate til kingdom come. What we need to do is ask whether John adopts the Sinai Theology in terms of how we are to think of Jesus. That's the important question. If he does, then whether one can depict His actual form is irrelevant, as any image to represent Him would be prohibited.

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  22. Hodge,

    Why assume an artist is trying to represent the person of Christ? What if he's merely attempting to illustrate an action of Christ recorded in the Gospels? In a sense, it's the action that represents the person of Christ via the work of Christ in the gospel narrative.

    Likewise, why assume it's wrong to represent Christ with a "human image." After all, Christ projected a human image when he was here on earth. That's all the observers could see. His body. Corporeal actions.

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  23. Jacob,


    Are you being this obtuse on purpose or is it the best you can offer?

    It's both.
    Now that we've got the mean-spiritedness out of the way, let's focus on the issue.


    the argument is "It's trying to represent Jesus therefore it's wrong"

    What's wrong with representing a man?



    Why aren't we starting from the Biblical standard

    Where does the BIble say "thou shalt not create an image of a man"?



    BC Hodge,
    That might be the case if people were merely attempting to represent Jesus' human nature, but they aren't.

    Isn't that going to the motivation of the painter? How do you know that?
    In representing Jesus as a Jewish peasant, you are by default representing His unglorified, visible, human nature at the time of His humble incarnation. I don't see the problem.




    They are either attempting to represent Jesus' Person, and His Person is divine, not human

    Hold on a moment. He is one person, and from the time of His incarnation as a zygote unto eternity, He is BOTH God AND man.

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  24. Steve and Rho,

    You're right to say that I'm projecting what is often the case with paintings and such I've encountered to be normative. It may not in fact always be the case.
    However, I'm not sure how we divorce an image of Christ that is meant to depict an act from an image that is meant to represent Christ. They both seem to represent Him, not depict Him (unless you're Jan Crouch).
    For me, because I think it's linked to Sinai Theology, I would have to ask the question if YHWH would have a problem of an image that represented Him for the purposes of depicting an activity versus His Person (again, that dichotomy works just for depiction, not necessarily representation). So if YHWH would have issues with the making of the image that is meant to represent Him at all, then I would apply to an image that meant to represent Christ (for whatever purposes it's being created).

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  25. Rho,

    He has two natures, divine and human, from the time of His incarnation on, but He has been, is, and always will be only One divine Person. He was never a human person, but a divine Person with a fully divine and fully human nature. So a distinction between depicting Christ as a human person cannot be made. That's Chalcedonian.

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  26. Given that He as a Divine Person with a divine nature and a human nature was visible for a time on Earth, I don't see the problem or the violation of the 2nd Com.
    If the apostles of the Lord had been tempted to do so, would they have had to resist the temptation to remember what Jesus looks like?

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  27. "Why assume an artist is trying to represent the person of Christ?"

    One might assume that from the title of the piece. For example, "Jesus heals a leper" would indicate that the artist is trying to represent:

    1) Jesus
    2) Leper
    3) Healing taking place

    -TurretinFan

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  28. I think the point that Jesus is making in G of John is that the physical appearance is not a means through which anyone can know Christ. Hence, the apostles, even though they have seen Him, are at a disadvantage of knowing Him when He physical stands before them. They are told that it's to their advantage in His leaving for this reason. So, even though they have seen Him, the Holy Spirit must now come and bring them into all of the truth that He spoke to them (i.e., the unseen must carry them away from the seen and to the hearing of the Word). This is also how they see the Father (i.e., through the words of the Son--If you've seen Me, you've seen the Father obviously refers to "seeing" something unseen, not seen). I also don't think it's a problem for us in glory to see the incarnate, glorified Christ, because our tendency toward idolatry will be removed at that point.

    But, again, I'm not arguing against all mental images of God/Christ, but against making physical images that function as representatives of God/Christ that in return may cause one to worship God/Christ through what is seen rather than through what is heard. As Calvin said, our minds are idol factories. As such, the recreation of Christ's physical image I believe is forbidden by the 2d Commandment, because it works toward faith by sight rather than faith by hearing.

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  29. Jesus is a divine-human person, contingently so.

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  30. Of course, problems will arise when you want to ascribe *all* of Jesus' *beliefs* to a divine person. Either, you'll need to have beliefs held by no person, or you'll need to account for how a divine person, and only a divine person, could believe *he* was thirsty, tired, hungry, weak, here and not there, ignorant of things, etc.

    This of course gets into deep philosophical-theological waters, but it's not going to be solved by hand waving about Chalcedon, as I believe my view is fully consistent with Chalcedon.

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  31. Paul,

    LOL. I definitely don't have much time to spend on this one, as, you yourself have said, the subject is complicated. I was simply supposing that we all agreed on Chalcedonian language, and meant to spring from there. However, I don't know how Jesus can be a divine-human person without denying Chalcedon. Is He a mixture or two persons? Is He two Persons coming together in unity? The divine person can know he is thirsty, and receive the condition of being thirsty because of His human nature (his nature gives His Person abilities and expressions). There's no inconsistency there. In any case, I've enjoyed the discussion with everyone, but I really need to get back to the mountain of work I have to do. God bless all!

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  32. B.C. Hodge,

    LOL. Now, Jesus is not a "mixture", he's a divine-human person, a sui generis person, neither only a divine person nor only a human person nor a mixture of persons, but a divine-human person (hence the hyphen, like God-man).

    I don't understand how the divine person can know that *he* is thirsty; namely, because divine persons can't thirst! Likewise with ignorance, knowledge of not being omnipresent, etc.

    I think the denial of divine-human person status is wise when meant to imply the denial of monophysitism (which is I think the context of Chalcedon) or kenotism. And of course, Christ is *essentially* a divine person. So if speaking essentially, you'd not want to say divine-human person. However, to deny full stop that Christ is in any sense a human person is wrongheaded to me. For, among other things, I believe it undermines his mediatorial and representative roles. Christ is a human being in that he is a complete human being, and he possesses personhood.

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  33. On the matter we can refer to Shedd's discussion of "the complex person" of Christ, who is "the theanthropic person."

    One of the basic arguments needed to be handled first in these discussions is where the command "though shalt not make images of God-men," or "theanthropic persons" is to be found. For example, Jesus is God, but he's not *just* God. For the "is God" argument is met with the equaly weighted counter that Jesus "is man," and it is permissible to make images of men. Thus, those two arguments cancel out. They seem to be equally sound arguments for contradictory conclusions. And so, the command could be taken to be a command about making images of "just God," and since Jesus is not "just God," the command doesn't apply to him.

    Much of this then gets into philosophical theology as it does exegesis, and perhaps moreso---apologies to mere say-so's of (over)reactionary Reformed, so i say. And so it's improper to try to act as if the debate doesn't demand the intrusion and help of that old and faithful handmaiden, philosophy. The lack of desire to go this route on the part of most anti-images folk, and the subsequent arguments they seem to muster, amount to me to be theological bullying. This explains the constant appeals to piety and quick dismissals of Reformed, if not Christian, status.

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  34. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.

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