Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Face of Jesus

What did Jesus look like?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. 

This question came to my mind again recently when my grandmother pointed out a guy at a concert we were at and said that he looked just like Jesus. He was of average height, had shoulder length dark hair, and a full beard. Now with no disrespect meant at all, the guy was kind of homely looking, unassuming, someone who I would not give a second thought. Confession, I thought he was homeless actually. Ok so that sounded disrespectful. Cue the big kick in the face when I realized that both my grandmother and I had our own different cultural preconceptions about what Jesus looks like, founded on what? Whatever artists and filmakers view as "typical?"

In December 2002 Popular Mechanics did a cover story called "The Real Face of Jesus." Using "forensic anthropology" scientists and archaeologists combined to investigate what a first-century Galilean Jew might have looked like, with medical artist Richard Neave commissioned to do the rendering. The article describes the process:

"The first step for Neave and his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived and preached. Semite skulls of this type had previously been found by Israeli archeology experts, who shared them with Neave. With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray "slices" of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles and skin overlying a representative Semite skull."

How tall would a first-century Jew be? "From an analysis of skeletal remains, archeologists had firmly established that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 ft. 1 in., with an average weight of about 110 pounds." So apparently, I'm taller and heavier than Jesus! Now that's weird! But it's good to have our cultural preconceptions—even prejudices—challenged.

There are numerous physical details about Jesus' appearance that can be determined from the Bible. We do know that he was in his early 30s when he began his ministry. Jesus may or may not have had long hair or a beard. Irrelevant matter though. I wonder what the length of anyone's hair has to do with their impact in the world. Unless you're Troy Polamalu, who's hair is three feet long and insured for $1 million.

Isaiah's messianic prophecy does suggest that there was nothing unusually attractive about Jesus ("he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him," Isaiah 53:2). Is it taking it too far to say that Jesus was homely, unattractive or ugly? 

Here's where I'm going with this. I am sad to say that I regarded the guy at the concert with some sort of disdain, and my grandmother sort of revered the same guy, just based on his outward appearance. I always thought that if I ever came face to face with Jesus, I would be completely blown away by his beauty, and the forgiveness and mercy in his eyes. Still might be the case someday. But I keep thinking about how so many people just missed Jesus back then.

Who could have cared about the birth of a baby while the world was watching Rome in all her splendor? All eyes were on Augustus, the caesar who demanded a census so as to determine a measurement to enlarge taxes. At the time, who was interested in just another couple making a long trip to be counted for the census? What could have possibly been more important that Caesar's decisions in Rome? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in Bethlehem?

Well, God sure did. Augustus was only a pawn in God's grand plan. While Rome was busy making world history, God showed up. He pitched his fleshly tent in silence on straw... in a stable. The world didn't even notice. Reeling from the wake in Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Mary's little Lamb.

Just because Jesus didn't come down from Heaven in a fiery chariot and stage a coup to take over Rome, most of the inhabitants of the Roman empire overlooked him and his work. An itinerant preacher, with no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) is this guy right here!

A man who walked and served among the poor, needy, marginalized and oppressed, is my King. I only pray that I seek and serve him every day of my life. Do you know him?

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