Last week I posed a historical question: when Jesus entered public life (at the age of 30) did he have all his teeth? It is a question which can’t be answered with certainty. There is no physical description of Jesus from contemporary sources to help us nor are there any physical remains, so to address the question you look analogically at what happens to 30 somethings who have limited access to dental care. Consider this: what would you look like today without the benefit of braces earlier in life? how about the bridges, the caps, the crowns, the whitening toothpaste? The chances are good you wouldn’t have that perfect, made for TV smile.
This historical question has a theological component. You see most people have some image of Jesus in their heads. As they read the Gospels or pray, they imagine Jesus looking one way or another. Those images have been laid down in our experience. It may have come from a painting you saw on the wall in Sunday School like Sallman’s the Head of Christ (1941; see the Warner Sallman Collection).
It could have come from a favorite movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Jim Caviezel is a dashing, leading man type who portrayed Jesus in Gibson’s 2004 epic drama.
Or perhaps your favorite is the Laughing Jesus who has a nice set of choppers.
But there is another place where our image of Jesus comes. From our theology. Orthodox theology tells us that Jesus is fully God and fully man. This means, at least in our sanctified imaginations, that Jesus is a perfect man, a man with no physical flaws or blemishes. A man taller than most, with eyes more penetrating than most, with teeth perfect and whiter than most. Our commitment to the divinity of Jesus often trumps our understanding of his humanity so that we could well imagine the infant Jesus speaking fluent Chinese from the manger.
But to embrace the incarnation, a central tenet of faith, we must take seriously Jesus’ humanity. A truly human Jesus would have to learn to speak proper Aramaic and Greek. He would have to practice his letters to form them properly. What else could Luke mean when he said that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2)? He would have had to apprentice with his father in the carpenter shop in order to make goods his neighbors needed. He would have had belly aches, vomiting, and diarrhea. He would have been laid up for days with the flu and had bunions and blisters on his feet. A truly human Jesus would have had toothaches and probably lost some teeth before he was in his 20s. Fortunately, his wisdom teeth would have come in about then in order to fill in the gaps and help chew his food.
We are not very comfortable with a truly human Jesus because we’re not comfortable in our skin. So I guess it makes sense that we would think Jesus had a different kind of skin, skin that wouldn’t blister in the sun, freckle or wrinkle with age. Our Jesus may have been the Word made flesh (John 1) but He had a different sort of flesh than ours.
The 2nd century Christians known as the Gnostics were so uncomfortable in their skin that they denied Christ his. He only appeared to be human. He only seemed to suffer for there can be no true participation of the divine in the ugliness of humanity.
If the incarnation is true, if God has become flesh and dwelled among us in the historic person known as Jesus of Nazareth, and if Jesus truly died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave, then this body we inhabit matters. It matters to God. It must also matter to us.
This is such an interesting article. Thanks for posting!
True, but a number of early Christians writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, were quite capable of imagining an “ugly Jesus” on the basis of Isa. 53:2-3: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (NRSV).
Good point. That is certainly a creative reading of Isaiah 53. I’d like to see a movie about Jesus where Jesus is average height or shorter than most, where Jesus isn’t played by a leading-man, good looking type of fellow, but played by an average looking person.
I’m not sure I’d describe him as an ugly Jesus. Jesus could have lost some teeth which would not have been visible when he smiled. Most caps and crowns, for example, are in the back. But even if he had teeth missing in front, since most people would have been in the same condition, no one would have thought anything about it.
I wonder if Jesus told jokes. Did he have a tenor or baritone voice. Did he know about modern times coming down the pike with TVs, cars, telephone and healthcare? 🙂
I don’t know if the dental thing is really so much because we’re uncomfortable with a “truly human” Jesus as it is because we have a modern view of what a human looks like. Remember, the old Italian painters depicted Bible characters with dark hair and olive complexions, while their Dutch contemporaries tended to go for a more blond look. Maybe Brits wouldn’t blink at a Jesus with crooked teeth, but Americans obsessed with braces most definitely would.