WHY DO CHURCHES tend to have have a picture of European Jesus hanging on their walls?
I got that question in an email yesterday.
You know the picture. Reddish-brown hair. Stylish beard. White robe–with some copies showing him wearing a red sash.
Warner Sallman of Chicago painted the portrait in 1941.
His Jesus looks a little Swedish to me.
Far as I know, the Vikings didn’t show up for another 800 years, and I don’t remember reading anything about them sailing a meandering voyage to the Middle East.
But a lot of Swedes immigrated to Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Here’s the fact:
We don’t have a clue what Jesus looked like. And we should just go ahead get over it.
I stopped imagining what people looked like back in college, after my first reporting assignment for the Daily Kent Stater.
I was assigned to write an article about the candidates for Homecoming Queen, interviewing them over the phone.
The sweetest gal, with a pleasant voice and a gentle spirit, was no friend to the camera. Or visa versa. I’m not sure which.
Once I saw her head shot in the article with my byline I decided never again to try to picture someone without seeing them with my own two eyeballs.
It’s the truth. I never ever try to imagine what someone looks like based on their voice alone.
How much less should we do it when we don’t even have the voice of Jesus? And I’m trying hard not to imagine him with the voice of Barney Fife. That would so mess up the Sermon on the Mount for me.
The earliest Christian writers on record who tried to imagine what Jesus looked like said he was ugly.
They based that on a literal reading of a prophecy Isaiah wrote 700 years before Jesus: “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look” (Isaiah 53:2, The Message).
But not everyone agrees Isaiah was talking about Jesus. Most Jews certainly don’t. And our Old Testament is Their Book. We got it from them.
Jesus did show up in one letter said to have been written by the Roman governor before Pilate, a man supposedly called Publius Lentulus. Writing to the Senate, Publius described Jesus.
Sadly, everyone and his brother considers the letter a work of fiction. There’s no record that Publius ever lived–let alone wrote a letter to the Senate about a carpenter’s son.
In this apparently imagined piece, the writer described Jesus:
- medium size
- hazelnut hair, wavy, parted in two on top
- no wrinkles or spots
- reddish complexion
- perfect nose, mouth, chin
- full beard, divided at the chin
My personal feeling, however, is that we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Jesus looks a little like Danny DeVito.
It could happen. And that would help explain why not one of the Gospel writers described him.
Fact is, it doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like.
As God once told Samuel, who was on a mission to find Israel’s next king: “Man looks at how someone appears on the outside. But I look at what is in the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIRV).