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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.

 

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