The term “weaponized Jesus” comes from an article I read on politicsusa.com, from November 2013, titled “The Religious Right With Their Weaponized Jesus Are Not Christians.” It’s worth a read, if you enjoy the political-religious debate.
I eventually traced the phrase back to a 2010 story in Mother Jones. It’s a good description of the way some fundamentalist Americans are taking their religion. But that’s not at issue right now. It’s the guy on the left of the movie still that I want to write about.
Someone on my Facebook stream recently posted the picture above and talked about how she loved the show. It shows a still short from a movie called “Son of God.” I hadn’t heard of the movie before this FB post, so I had to read more about it because I’m pretty sure that the hippie guy in the still doesn’t look anything like what a Middle-Eastern, radical Jewish preacher called Jesus* would have really looked like.
This guy looks a little too much like Russell Brand, or a younger Brad Pitt, and not quite enough like the Roman-era, Palestinian Jew he would have been. And where was his hat?
If you watch the trailer, you’ll see I’m right. That might be one reason the movie got a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but there are many more. The movie, it turns out is a spin-off from the History Channel’s apparently successful Bible series (didn’t see it), but the film was apparently crafted from content edited out of the TV series. As it says on the IMDB site:
…there was a reason all of that footage was cut. If it wasn’t good enough for television, how can this possibly be good enough for the cinema? Well, it’s not. This movie is a bore. With an unnecessary 138 minute run-time, the film drags through dialogue delivered at a pace slow enough for the slothful to keep up. Even then the script isn’t interesting. The selections of the gospel that get quoted are mercilessly butchered. And that’s another thing, if not the most important criticism of a movie of this caliber — the filmmakers had no respect for the source material.
But this isn’t a movie review, per se, since I haven’t seen the film (nor have I seen Mel Gibson’s overly-violent Passion of the Christ, although from the stills I’ve seen, actor Jim Caviezel, playing the Jesus role looks like he, too, is miscast…). It’s about history, ideology and cultural prejudices.
The questions of who and what the historical Jesus was (and even if there was a historical Jesus – not everyone believes so) are still much alive today – the Smithsonian will host an all-day seminar about them in March, led by Prof. Bart Ehrman. Were I able to get there, I’d attend. religious or not, the history of Christianity is very interesting and its origins even more so (I’ve read several of Ehrman’s books and quite enjoy his writing and the intellectual challenges he poses).
Since I can’t, I spent some time reading what other sites had to say about how Jesus might have looked and acted.* The political article linked above offers this suggestion:
…we don’t know what Jesus actually looked like. But we do know that he was not the strangely Germanic blond guy of popular imagination. He was a dark-skinned Semite:
Hard to argue with the logic. Although some efforts at historical reconstruction might be considered a little more flattering to our preconceptions, they are less realistic. The image on the right comes from a three-part British documentary, also called Son of God, that, as Wikipedia tells us:
…ends with a facial reconstruction suggesting what Jesus may have looked like. Using one of three first-century Jewish skulls from a forensic science department in Israel, a clay model is created through forensic anthropology by Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the Unit of Art in Medicine at Manchester University. The face that Neave constructs suggests that Jesus would have had a broad face and large nose, and differs significantly from his traditional depictions in renaissance art. Additional information about Jesus’s skin colour and hair is provided by Goodacre. Using third-century images from the Dura-Europos synagogue—the earliest pictures of Jewish people —Goodacre proposes that Jesus’s skin would have been “olive-coloured” and “swarthy”, and much darker than his traditional Western image. He also suggests that Jesus would have had short, curly hair and a short cropped beard.
The historical Jesus wouldn’t have looked anything like the hippie guy in the film above, or the pale-skinned guy in the left image, either. This swarthy chap on the right wasn’t Jesus, of course, just a reconstruction of a typical male from the period, but certainly a better representation. Commenting about Jesus in The Guardian, BBC’s former Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen noted:
“He was a Middle Eastern Jew. If you go to Jerusalem today, a lot of people look like that.”
The reconstructed image proved controversial, but also had many supporters, some who want to restore the portrayal of Jesus to more historical accuracy.
Even Popular Mechanics weighed in on it:
From the first time Christian children settle into Sunday school classrooms, an image of Jesus Christ is etched into their minds. In North America he is most often depicted as being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed.
We have no description of the man, but we do know generally what people looked and dressed like in that region in that time. As a Jew, Jesus would have likely worn a head covering, and had fringes (tzitzit) on his clothing. A robe is mentioned – chiton, in Greek – although this can also be translated as coat, and a himation, an outer garment which can be translated as cloak or tunic. There’s no indication if these were strictly ceremonial or general daily wear, their material or their colour.
But he might have followed the Greek tradition in clothing or even the Roman fashions as some Jews did (although given the anti-Roman sentiments of the Zealots and other contemporary apocalyptic Jewish groups like that to which Jesus belonged, this is unlikely). We just don’t know for certain.
Some assumptions about Jesus’s personal grooming are made, but again, no one knows if Jesus had long or short hair, a beard, wore a hat or a robe or what type of footwear. Some of these assumptions reflect our own tastes, rather than history: they are what we want Jesus to look like.
It’s unlikely he had long-hair, though, given the early Christian popularity of close-cropped hair that Josephus wrote about, as well as the general fashion trend of short hair in the Mediterranean civilizations at that time.
Bearded? Again, debatable, although it was the style of observant Jews in his time. But full or cropped? Who knows?
No one drew a portrait of Jesus when he was alive (it would have been a ‘graven image’ prohibited as per the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus). No one wrote a physical description of him.
The oldest portrait of Jesus is dated about two centuries after he died, and shows him “… as a beardless young man of authoritative and dignified bearing.” The whole bearded-hippie look doesn’t settle in until the sixth century CE. He becomes the blue-eyed, high-browed Aryan hunk we see today only in the 19th century as virulent anti-Semitism spread through the West:
By the 19th century theories that Jesus was of the “Aryan” race, and in particular of Nordic appearance, were developed and later appealed to advocates of the new racial antisemitism, who wanted nothing Jewish about Jesus. Houston Stewart Chamberlain posited Jesus was of Amorite-Germanic extraction. Madison Grant claimed Jesus for the Nordic race. This found its most extreme form in the Nazi theology of Positive Christianity. Scholars supporting the radical Aryan view also argued that being a Jew by religion was distinguishable from being a Jew by “race” or ethnicity. These theories usually also include the reasoning that Jesus was Aryan because Galilee was a supposedly a non-Jewish region speaking an unknown Indo-European language, but this has not gained scholarly acceptance (in fact, Galilee had a significant non-Jewish minority, but these spoke various local Semitic languages).
People have always mythologized their heroes, icons and leaders and turned them into a reflection of their own goals, prejudices and aspirations – cultural and personal. Sometimes this reflects reality, sometimes it becomes a caricature. The Nordic Jesus says more about his followers than about the man himself (you might want to read Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God or Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian to take this historical research a step further).
Keep in mind that photography isn’t even 200 years old – the ability to capture a person’s likeness exactly is still relatively new. And even so, we often alter it to suit the needs of art or our agendas. Consider how advertising reshapes women into stereotypes. Compare the travesty the TV series, the Tudors, made by portraying the unlikely Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, versus the efforts made to portray Abraham Lincoln accurately by Daniel Lewis Day in Spielberg’s eponymous film.
Scholar Claudia Setzer wrote in Frontline, for PBS, in 1995
The images of Jesus throughout history are as varied as the people who have embraced him-the Son of God, the Divine Word by whom the world was created, the Passover sacrifice on behalf of the people, the Suffering Servant who takes on the sins of the world, the new High Priest, or more recently, Jesus the intellectual genius, the liberator of the oppressed, or the feminist. Each group and generation sees in Jesus a reflection of itself.
Writing in the HuffPost in late 2013, theologian Greg Carey said,
The first important point begins with the recognition that, historically speaking, most cultures have portrayed Jesus and the saints in their own image. This is no new phenomenon. Ethiopia represents one of the church’s most ancient national expressions. We’re hardly surprised that Ethiopian iconography portrays a relatively dark-skinned Jesus. No less surprising is the tan skin of Saint Nicolas in Eastern iconography. Whether we should call his representation “white” is a matter for judgment.
Things grow more serious when one culture claims — over against others — that its portrayal of Jesus is somehow more valid than theirs. It’s no surprise that in the United States, where white people have historically determined how Jesus looks in everything from portraits to stained glass windows to children’s books, someone might assume that “Jesus was a white man, too.”
And in the age of easily Photoshopped images and mass media, it further gets hammered into the popular imagination: Jesus was not just a white guy, he was a hunk. And a hunk with guns, as the popular meme spread online: the weaponized Jesus. Well, that was also spoofed pretty quickly.
This changing Jesus has spawned varying images that compete for adoration over the centuries. This in turn became a ‘my Jesus against your Jesus’ challenge. Yours can’t be the real one because his hair is too short. Your’s is false because his eyes aren’t blue. You must be heretics because your Jesus doesn’t have white enough skin. It makes me almost admire the Islamic prohibition of portraying the Prophet; because they avoid this sort of factionalization over superficial imagery.
In fact, the competing, different portrayals distract people from the message they are supposed to represent: the dogma of the image rules our shallow culture, not the content behind it.
Trying to identify the historical Jesus is complicated by the dogmatic Jesus running interference. Some people simply don’t want their own imagined Jesus to be changed or even challenged; they treat any historical research or alternate imagery as heresy. A change in image makes them suspicious of the message it might entail.
But there is no authority one can fall back on. History, seen from a perspective two thousand years later, isn’t as simple to re- or deconstruct as it is today. We don’t have the records or the documents, and what we have may not be authentic. Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman wrote:
Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle — Peter, Paul or James — knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery… Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere … will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter… The same is true of many of the letters allegedly written by Paul. Most scholars will tell you that whereas seven of the 13 letters that go under Paul’s name are his, the other six are not. Their authors merely claimed to be Paul… Whoever wrote the book of 1 Timothy claimed to be Paul. But he was lying about that — he was someone else living after Paul had died.
Which makes it hard to use even those few existing sources – notably the New Testament – for historical accuracy. Dogma, again, intervenes. As Wikipedia notes:
There is no physical or archeological evidence for Jesus, and all the sources we have are documentary. The sources for the historical Jesus are mainly Christian writings, such as the gospels and the purported letters of the apostles. The authenticity and reliability of these sources has been questioned by many scholars, and few events mentioned in the gospels are universally accepted.
Is a person’s faith is more prone to wander if their deity doesn’t look like them? Or is it a matter of reinforcing local ideologies that made Jesus into a caricature that could be used for propaganda? Certainly the whole underpinning of the rampant anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries would have come unravelled if Jesus was portrayed accurately as a Jew, not an Aryan wet dream.
I’m not likely to ever watch the film, so I won’t go into fits about historical accuracy of the portrayal while it’s running. But if you watch it, keep in mind that it’s more Hollywood than history on the screen.
* And just to be clear, there wasn’t even anyone named Jesus back then. First of all, there is no letter J in the Hebrew alphabet nor in Greek or Latin. The J doesn’t fit into the Western vernacular until about 500 years ago (and even later in English). Here’s what Wikipedia says of the origin of the name Jesus:
The proper name Jesus used in the English language originates from the Latin form of the Greek name (Iesous), a rendition of the Hebrew Yeshua , also having the variants Joshua or Jeshua.
There wasn’t a John, Jeremiah, Joseph or even Jehovah either because no one used the J in pronunciation. In fact, there wasn’t even a letter J in English until the early 17th century (see Wikipedia). So praying “Help me, Jesus!” is calling out to the wrong guy. His name was Yeshua.
So where did the final “s” of “Jesus” come from? Masculine names in Greek ordinarily end with a consonant, usually with an “s” sound, and less frequently with an “n” or “r” sound. In the case of “Iesus,” the Greeks added a sigma, the “s” sound, to close the word. The same is true for the names Nicodemus, Judas, Lazarus, and others.