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Did Jesus Have All His Teeth? (Part 2)

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. 

Sallman's Head of Christ
Sallman’s Head of Christ

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.

Jim Caviziel as Jesus
Jim Caviziel as Jesus

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.

The Laughing Jesus
The Laughing Jesus

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.

Did Jesus Have All His Teeth?

 So, here is an interesting question: did Jesus have all his teeth?  Now I’m not asking whether Jesus was born with a full complement of primary (or baby) and permanent teeth.  I’m wondering whether Jesus had all his teeth when he left behind his private life in Nazareth for the more public life of an itinerant preacher and healer.  According to Luke, he was “about 30” at the time. The question was prompted by two things.  First, a conversation with colleagues, Dr. Randy Richards, dean of theology at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Dr. Rodney Reeves, dean of theology at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.  We had co-authored a book in 2007 entitled Rediscovering Paul (InterVarsity).  Randy had been a missionary in Indonesia for 10 years and had worked closely with indigenous populations far removed from the kind of health and dental care available to most western people.  Second, last week I was in Boston and visited the Peabody Museum at Harvard.  There was a photo-exhibition of indigenous people from Papua New Guinea.  I noticed that most people photographed were missing teeth.  Many of those people were of the same age as Jesus when he started his public ministry.   

This may sound like strange question.  I can hear someone say, “Of course, Jesus had all his teeth.  This is America and we have the best health care and dental care in the world.”  Someone else might state, “Of course he did.  I have seen the movies.  Jesus was a good-looking, leading-man type.  Taller than most.  He was a bit somber, but he did smile and I’m sure he had all his teeth.” Someone else might declare in good faith, “Of course he did.  He was God’s Son.  He may have been human but God the Father would have protected him from tooth decay and other disgusting human maladies.” Jesus Passion of Christ

Now this is first of all a historical question and historians base their conclusions on evidence.  That evidence comes primarily in two kinds: literary and material.  Literary evidence refers to written documents composed roughly from the relevant time period.  Material evidence refers to the kinds of things archaeologists can dig up.  To answer my current question we would need some physical description of Jesus from a contemporary source and the body of Jesus to examine. 

The earliest sources we have for Jesus (Christian and non-Christian) provide no details of his physical appearance.  We don’t know how tall he was.  We don’t know the color of his skin, his hair, or his eyes.  The sources provide no description at all.  We assume he had a beard based primarily on what was customary for men at the time.  Now this may strike us as strange given our level of interest in peoples’ physical appearance.  But our interests are different than the ancients’. Ancient biographies—the NT Gospels are types of biographies—were most interested in what a person said and did.  That was the measure of a man, not the color of his eyes or the strength of his jaw.    

So there is no literary evidence.  What about material?

Well, if Christianity is correct, then the body of Jesus was transformed into a new kind of body at the resurrection on the first Easter.  Therefore, no human remains would be available to examine.  If Christianity is not correct, then the bones of Jesus could still be among us.  The problem is: how would we know if we found them?  Assume for a moment we unearthed a bone box (an ossuary) marked with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph.”  Would that prove that we had discovered the remains of Jesus.  No.  Both Jesus and Joseph were common names at the time.  To date no one has made a credible case that the bones of Jesus have been identified.  So there is no material evidence to examine in order to shed light on this question.

toothbrushOK, if we have no literary evidence or material evidence to go on, what do we do?  Well, we proceed cautiously and consider the experience/culture of people who are roughly analogous to the time of Jesus.  What happens generally to people who are 30 plus years old who do not have access to fluoride in the water, modern toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss, and the kind of dental care we are accustomed to.  Now this is not to say that Jesus and his contemporaries had no dental hygiene at all.  We know that ancient peoples used chew sticks, bird feathers, and twigs to clean their teeth.  We know too that Greeks and Romans had developed what we might call toothpastes that were rubbed onto teeth with their fingers or rags. These methods were better than doing nothing at all. But even with these we don’t have to look far around the world to see that many adults in their 20s to 30s begin losing their teeth to decay and periodontal disease.  In fact most people who have no access to dental care begin losing teeth in their 20s.    

Tooth decay is caused by a combination of bacteria and food.  Bacteria feed on the sugar in the foods we eat to create acids and those acids break down our enamel causing decay.  Enough decay means we lose the tooth.  The normal diet in Jesus’ time would not have included as many sugars as ours, but the wine people drank had some antibacterial properties.  But that was not likely to have been enough for people to have kept all their teeth into their 30s or 40s.

It is always a bit dicey to move from the general to the particular.  What is generally true for most people is not always true for an individual.  While most people in their 30s across the world with limited dental care suffer tooth decay and loss, we cannot say for certain what has happened to a specific person in the past.  So, did Jesus have all his teeth when he embarked on his public ministry?  Probably not.   We cannot say for sure.  But even if he had, no one listening to Jesus teach would have thought it strange because most everyone they knew of that age had lost one or more teeth.Jesus reconstruction

Now, as I said, this is first of all a historical question, but since Christianity is a faith based in history there are theological ramifications as well.  In the next post we will explore some of those.

 

Judge Not

Someone last week accused me of being “judgmental.”  My first thought was to respond, “how judgmental of you!”   But I thought better of it.  Instead I submitted my “questionable” comments to other people whom I trust and they disagreed that my tone was judgmental. I did later tweet the following: “If you accuse someone of being judgmental, are you being . . . judgmental?”

I looked up the word “judgmental” in dictionary.com.  Here is what it says: “1. involving the use or exercise of judgment; 2. tending to make moral judgments.”  Based on that definition, it seems to me all of us need to be “judgmental.”  All of us need to exercise judgment, hopefully good judgment.  All of us should be thinking about morals and ethics, pondering the consequences of our actions, and advocating for what is good and true and right.  Seems to me we do this all the time.sawn-off-boards-wood-sawdust

Generally, Christians who want to accuse others of judging point to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1ff).  Here is the King James Version:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

If you study it carefully, you will notice that Jesus’ teaching has four parts:

(a) an admonition . . .  do not judge

(b) a rationale . . . for you will be judged in the same way, by the same standard 

(c) an example (in this case a particularly ludicrous example) . . . the log in your eye/ the dust in the other’s eye 

(d) a restatement and clarification of the initial admonition . . . take care of your own issue before you try to address someone else’s

Some people have thought Jesus prohibited his followers from ever exercising judgment or expressing an opinion.  Not true.  If so, then Jesus violates his own principle time and again.  In fact in the very next breath Jesus says: “Don’t give precious things to dogs.  Don’t cast your pearls before swine. . . . “ (Matthew 7:6). Now Jesus isn’t talking about pets and barnyard animals.  He is talking about people. Some people are dogs.  Some are swine.  In other words some people are like animals, unable to distinguish between one thing or another.  You don’t share with them holy and precious things; they will ruin them and then turn on you.  Later in Matthew (chapter 23) Jesus criticized the Pharisees for loving attention, keeping people from God, and stealing from the poor.  He says, “Woe to you Pharisees, woe to you who teach the law, hypocrites!  You traverse hills and mountains and seas to make one convert, and then when he does convert, you make him much more a son of hell than you are. . . Woe to you , teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like a grave that has been whitewashed.  You look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside you are full of moldering bones and decaying rot” (Matthew 23:2-39). Seems to me Jesus has made a judgment.  Seems to me he has expressed a judgment. Seems to me he is not being very PC.  So what do we make of it? 

First, let’s recognize that Jesus was a deeply polarizing figure.  People either loved him or despised him.  He made a lot of people angry, particularly people in power. Ultimately, he was crucified on a Roman cross for sedition. Let’s leave behind the silly, adolescent notion that Jesus walked around spitting out witty aphorisms and telling everybody to get a long.  Jesus’ wasn’t crucified for being “nice” and urging everyone to be “nice” too.  He came into a world deeply marred and broken.  Some powerful people had vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  Jesus muddied their water.

So what does Jesus want us to do?  Well, he wasn’t saying: “don’t form an opinion.”  He wasn’t saying: “don’t express an opinion.”  Based on the entire teaching–admonition, rationale, example, and restatement—Jesus was urging his followers to examine themselves first before seeking to correct another brother or sister.  In other words, correction is needed in the church. Your friend may have something in her eye.  She needs help getting it out. But before you can help her, you must remove the obstruction in your own. 

If you are addicted to money and what it can buy, don’t go around correcting others for the same problem. Do they need help? Absolutely.  But you are not the best person to offer correction.  If you have trouble being faithful to your husband, don’t condemn somebody who is struggling with the same problem.  Does she need help?  Absolutely.  But you are  not the best person to offer counsel.  If you have a tendency to lash out in anger, don’t be hyper-critical of a brother with an anger-management issue.  Does he need help?  Absolutely.  But you’re not the one to be able to bring correction.  At least not until you have dealt with your own issue successfully.

Here is the punchline of Jesus’ teaching: “Remove the plank from your own eye, and then perhaps you will be able to see clearly how to help your brother flush out his sawdust” (Matthew 7:5, The Voice)

Carmen Christi–Hymn to Christ

Philippians 2.5-11.  Christ enthronedFor Paul, the story of Jesus provided the greatest example of what this humility looked like when it was embodied in a life.  He found that story told powerfully and succinctly in an early Christian hymn.   No other passage in the NT has been studied more thoroughly.[1]    Given the poetic, parallel structures and its unusual wording, the hymn was likely a preformed tradition that Paul incorporated into his letter.  Exactly who wrote it, for whom and when are questions worthy of speculation but unlikely to bring certainty.  The fact that Paul included this preformed tradition in his letter to the Philippians indicates his complete agreement with its theology.  Even if Paul didn’t write it, he did agree with it.

Paul earnestly desired for the “mind” of Christ to shape the lives and community in Philippi.  He sets up Jesus as the lordly example of humility and selfless service.  The hymn is constructed around two movements: (1) the descent (katabasis) from equality with God to the humiliation of the cross and (2) the ascent (anabasis) from death to exaltation/ resurrection by God and universal acclamation by all creatures.  The descent can be graphically portrayed (2:6-8):

Though he was in the form of God

   He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped

      He emptied himself

         Taking the form of a servant

            Becoming in the likeness of men

              Being found in form as a man

                He humbled himself

                   Becoming obedient to death

                     Even death on a cross

Likewise the ascent (2:9-11)–(note: read bottom to top)

                 To the glory of God, the Father

               “Jesus Christ is Lord”

             Every tongue confess that

          (of heavenly, earthly and subterranean beings)

       Every knee shall bow

     So at the name that belongs to Jesus

  And bestowed on him the name above every name

Therefore God highly exalted him

There are a number of interpretive schemes for unraveling the meaning of this hymn.  James Dunn notices the number and the sequence of Scriptural allusions to Adam and concludes that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 is “the fullest expression of Adam Christology in the NT” (cf. Heb 2:5-9).[2]  In particular he notes that Adam is made in image of God (cf. Gen 1:27) and is tempted to grasp at equality with God (cf. Gen 3:5).   The first man fails, of course, and becomes an obedient slave to corruption and death.  Ultimately, in Jewish tradition Adam is glorified.  For Dunn and other interpreters, Jesus provides the converse of Adam, particularly in that the second Adam did not try to grasp for equality with God (something He did not have).  Rather He emptied himself and humbled himself by being willing to die a criminal’s death on the cross.  Given other Adam-Christ typologies in Paul, there may well be a subtle allusion to Jesus as a new Adam who reverses the curse of Adam’s sin.  But this does not cover the interpretive canvas. 

Michael Gorman suggests that the humiliation-exaltation pattern in the hymn is based upon a similar pattern found in the fourth servant song (Isa 52:13—53:12).  Although he does not discount other options, he believes the Christ hymn would have been patterned after and read according to the final servant poem augmented by Isa 45:23.  Isaiah’s servant song depicts the Servant of YHWH

  • exalted and lifted up (Isa 52:13)
  • despised and reject (53:3)
  • pierced for our transgressions (53:4)
  • led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7)
  • cut off from the living (53:8)
  • he will see light (53:10)[3]
  • God allots him a portion with the great (53:12)

The humiliation and exaltation pattern in the fourth Servant poem does appear to provide further background for understanding the model for the Christ hymn. 

One of the important interpretive questions we find in the text has to do with the meaning of the phrases “existing in the form of God” and “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Most scholars take these as a reference to the preexistence of Christ.  Prior to his entrance into the world, he existed in the form of God.  Nevertheless, he decided not to hold onto his equality with God.  Instead he emptied himself and became a human being.  According to this construal, the hymn is a statement of the preexistence and incarnation of Christ, a divine person.  But not all agree that the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ occurs so early.  As we have seen, Dunn interprets this as an allusion to Adam made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and seeking to become “like God” by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:5).  Accordingly, these phrases should not be read as referring to the preexistence or incarnation of Christ. 

Again, while a subtle allusion to Adam is possible, some form of preexistence must be in view from one who was in the form of God and who became man.  If he had to become “man,” he was not “man” before.  There is no reason to conclude the Christ hymn does not assume the preexistence of a divine being who subsequently became the man we know by the name “Jesus.”  Yet the hymn is silent on the salient points we are interested in.  Some have tried to flesh out the extent of the self-emptying by naming which attributes he gave up on his journey toward the cross.  But this is more reading into (eisegesis) than reading from (exegesis) the text.  At the end of the day the decision to lay aside equality, empty himself and humble himself had only one thing in view: the cross. 

As a result of his faith obedience, God super-exalted the crucified Jesus and gave him the name above every name (2:9).  Some, inspired more by our hymnody and praise choruses than Scripture, have wrongly concluded that “the name above every name” is the name “Jesus.”  But Jesus was a common name then and now.  It can hardly be a candidate for the name above every name.  The genitive case “Jesus” in 2:10 is best taken as a possessive genitive, i.e., at the name that belongs to Jesus.  Three things are certain about the “name”: (a) it is a name bestowed upon him in the exaltation-resurrection; (b) it is a name above every name; and (c) it is a name that belongs to Jesus.  So what is the name?  Given all we know from the hymn and given the reverence accorded the name of God in Hebrew Scriptures, the name must be LORD (kyrios), God’s holy, unspeakable name (Hebrew, YHWH).  In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, kyrios (translated “Lord” in most versions) consistently renders the divine name, a name so holy it was protected by one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:7).  This conclusion is assured by the universal acclamation of all heavenly, earthly, and subterranean creatures.  When the name that belongs to Jesus is expressed: “every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11, alluding to Isa 45:23).  These phrases belong to one of the most significant monotheistic passages in the Old Testament and refer originally to the worship of YHWH.[4]  Paul has deliberately taken scriptural language regarding the veneration of Israel’s one God and applied it to the risen Jesus.  This is a remarkable appropriation of God’s name and worship addressed to Jesus.  As Larry Kreitzer noted: “it is difficult to imagine any first-century Jew or Christian even remotely familiar with Isa. 45 hearing this final stanza of Phil 2.9-11 without recognizing that words of theistic import have now been applied to Jesus.”[5]  Despite this, for Paul, the unique identity of God, including his name, and his exclusive right to worship are not threatened by the universal acclamation of Jesus as “Lord.”  Since the Father has bestowed upon the crucified Jesus His name, the apostle understood that the worship of Jesus by all creatures brought glory to God and fulfilled His will. 


[1] E.g., Ralph Martin, A Hymn to Christ

[2] Dunn, Theology, 286. 

[3] The reading the Dead Sea Scrolls on Isa 53:10 (e.g., 1QIsaa) is different that what we find in many Bibles today.  Whether the Servant sees “light” or “his offspring,” the end of the Servant poem depicts some kind of exaltation of the Servant who has poured out his life to death for many.   Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999). 

[4] David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology

[5] Larry J. Kreitzer, Jesus and God in Paul’s Eschatology (JSNTSup, 19; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 116.

Easter: The ‘Big Bang’ of the New Creation

 I’m still thinking about Easter.  I know.  Easter is already past; I should be on to something else now.  But frankly, Easter is just one of those days that takes time to process.  When you think of it, Easter is more than a day; it’s a season.  Truth be told, every Sunday is “a little Easter” as we gather together to celebrate the risen Lord.big bang

As I was thinking about Easter, I also had reason recently to refer students in my New Testament class at HBU to 2 Corinthians 5:17.  This is an amazing passage about the new creation.   As anyone knows who is familiar with Greek and biblical theology, Paul’s language here is a notoriously hard to translate.  We struggled with that passage in The Voice.

Here is how we rendered it:

Therefore, if anyone is united with the Anointed, that person is a new creation.  The old life is gone—and see—a new life has begun!

The language of new creation is not original with Paul.  It goes back to the message of Isaiah who looked beyond his own day to a time when God will do something new and amazing in this good—but now disordered—world he had made.  What he will do, according to Isaiah, will be so astounding the only language to describe it is the language of “new creation” (Isaiah 65:17-25).  In John’s Apocalypse it is described this way (Revelation 21:1):

I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new.  Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been had passed away, and the sea was gone, completely.

When we turn to the New Testament, we discover that the new creation has in fact already begun.  It began on that first Easter when the dead body of Jesus—composed as we are of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements—is suddenly and miraculously transformed into a new kind of body, a resurrected body.  In that moment a piece of the old order became new.  In that moment a piece of the earth—because we like Adam are all made of dust—became eternal.  Easter is “the Big Bang” of the New Creation.

No one was there to observe it, but no one can deny that in that moment everything changed.  As the risen Jesus appeared to one after another, the beleaguered and defeated disciples become powerful witnesses to the greatest miracle in history.  The church—which began small like a mustard seed—started to grow at an amazing pace and in a few decades stood to challenge the power of Rome.  If Jesus is Lord, they thought, then Caesar certainly is not.

Today the empire and her leaders are long gone.  Only fractured monuments to her greatness remain.  But the Church Jesus established is not only present; it has filled the earth.  To borrow a line from one of Jesus’ parables: the birds of the air are making their nests in it.

Paul wants the Corinthians to know that those who are united with Jesus through the ritual cleansing of baptism have entered into that new creation.  Their old lives are put away.  Their new lives have begun.  But the Lord’s emissary does not claim that they are new creations in and of themselves.  They are made new only in relation to the One who was crucified, buried, and raised to new life.  They are made new in that very first Easter.  In a sense they were there on the cross and in that tomb, already united with him.  Paul’s point is personal, but it is more than individual.  Every person who turns to Jesus is not only new creation, he or she enters into a community of individuals graced to be full participants in that new creation which began that first Easter.