Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Re-envisioning Jesus


We are concluding our Christmas celebrations -- they go on at least another week -- but the main conversation is over, and we're looking into a new year.  But, if we step back a moment and think about our celebration of Jesus' birth, a question emerges -- what did this child look like?  What features might the baby Jesus have?  And what did the parents look like?  If you look at the creche scenes and the cards, the Holy Family probably looks fairly European  -- maybe even Scandinavian. 

In a book that I reviewed yesterday, Curtiss DeYoung's Coming Together in the 21st Century, a different vision is offered.  DeYoung, who is White, suggests that Jesus, as a 1st century Palestinian Jew, would have been Afro-Asiatic in ethnicity.  We tend to envision the Jewish people as White Europeans, but is that an appropriate sensibility?  So, what if the typical 1st Jew looked a lot different from the typical picture of Jesus, who has blue eyes and light brown hair.  What if, the historical Jesus was dark in complexion and in hair color?  As we think about the question, note that although the gospels don't speak of his visage, Matthew suggests that the family fled to Egypt to hide from Herod.  DeYoung suggests that this would mean that the family could blend into an African population.

So, how did Jesus become European? 

Why was the image of the historic Jesus of Nazareth, born in Palestine to a people at the crossroads of Asia and Africa, transformed into a geographically distant one?  The earliest representations of Jesus do not even include human characteristics.  They were symbols, such as a fish or a lamb.  The first images of Jesus in human form were of a young "good shepherd," often with a Roman look.  These first appeared in the third century in the Roman catacombs.  Eventually adult representations of Jesus began to appear.  The earlier ones pictured Jesus with "an Oriental cast" and a "brown complexion."  (p. 54-55).

The reason that these images became more European are pretty self-explanatory -- they fit the new setting.  The problem is that they soon became set in stone, and even in new contexts the European Jesus came to dominate.  There are consequences to this, which I'll lift up in a later post.  But I'd like to start the conversation with this:  How should we envision Jesus?

 

2 comments:

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob,

Many years ago when I was a young associate pastor, there was a curio cabinet in one of the rooms of the church that had nativities from all over the world. A church member who had traveled extensively and collected them. After her traveling days were over, she donated most of them to the church.

The one thing that always struck me as I looked inside the glass was that Jesus and all the characters were portrayed as how they would look as if they came from that country. The Japanese nativity looked Japanese, the German one looked German, etc.

While it is not unimportant to ask how Jesus actually looked, I have always beleived that it was theologically correct to portray Jesus in the context in which he is portrayed. The gospel is, after all, offered to everyone.

Anonymous said...

Image is an interesting thing. I never seem to physically visualize Jesus in my own mind. Except maybe some robes. That's an interesting mind exercise. I guess he has the potential to look like me, but I haven't quite focused enough on it? David Mc