The most popular post I have ever written is “The Black Jesus”“. On a daily basis I get over 10 times as many hits for that piece than any other. I have no illusions as to why – it has nothing to do with my writing or my thoughts, it’s just the title that attracts the search engines. Millions of people are fascinated with Jesus and many of them seem to be intrigued by what he may have looked like.
The Bible never really attempts to flesh out the physical characteristics of the many of people it tells us about. The authors either were not interested or they felt it best to leave these things to our imaginations. And our limited imaginations, over the centuries, have come up with a pretty standard picture of Jesus. Sort of a stock Christ.
It has been said that he was the only person who committed no sin, that he was perfect. When we think of a perfect person we tend to conjure up images of physical perfection. Whether as a Semite, a European or even an African, Jesus is always portrayed as a rather attractive man. It seems only natural. After all, to many of us, he is God incarnate.
It stands to reason that God as man would personify the best characteristics of humanity, physically as well as intellectually. Tall, strong, handsome, clear eyes, nice smile, beautiful hair with good skin and physically fit. Sort of like a less buffed-up Fabio. Brad Pitt with long hair and a beard. The pulp-fiction writing Catholic priest, Andrew Greeley, has even suggested that Jesus must have been particularly attractive to women.; a candidate for People Magazine’s issue of the “Sexiest Man Who Ever Lived, Died and Lived Again”.
One of the most oft quoted Old Testament scriptures, believed to be a foretelling of his life, is that of Isaiah 53. In that description of the Messiah we hear:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
This certainly does not sound like your typical matinée idol. Some say that this is a description of what was done to him with whips and nails, not of how God the Father created him. But why does this necessarily have to be the case?
Gary Wills, in his book “What Jesus Meant” has suggested that the Messiah most likely was not very beautiful, was probably physically unassuming and perhaps even very weak. Maybe he even suffered from a medical ailment or a physical disability. Weak and wounded people of the Gospels are attracted to, and find comfort in, Jesus.
At his crucifixion he was even too weak to carry his own cross beam, which all of the condemned were expected to do. Later, Pilate is surprised that Jesus had died in the course of just one afternoon. It usually took many more hours, perhaps even days, for most of those crucified to finally die. That was the point of this horrible torture, to be left hanging there, suffering and humiliated, for every passer by to see and mock. This was why no Roman citizen (such as Paul) could be executed in this demeaning fashion. Jesus surely would have been weakened by the brutal scourging; but there is no reason to think that he received a more severe punishment than any of the other condemned.
Considering Jesus’ message of strength through weakness, this makes sense. If God was to truly understand the pain of our infirmities and the weight of our sorrows, if he was fully man, wouldn’t it make sense that he be like the least of us? Jesus tells us that God cares for what is inside us, in our hearts, not how we look or what we have acquired. He tells us that we must stop being concerned with money, power, fame, physical beauty and strength. That a person who is handicapped with disease and injury is not “steeped in sin”, as the religious of that time preached (John 9). If this is truth, wouldn’t God put his money where is mouth is? (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)
Why is this important? Does it really matter? Perhaps it might to someone who is suffering from circumstances beyond their control.
I am reminded of the tragically missed opportunity when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s handicap was kept hidden from the world. What inspiration he could have provided to people who were feeling less than ‘perfect’ because of their infirmities. What an example he could have made for those who tend to look on the ‘weak’ as being less capable than the strong. And Roosevelt was merely the president.
There is no good reason, Biblical or otherwise, to suggest that Jesus was, in some physical way, perfect. Or, much less, even ‘average’.