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Switch to Forum Live View A Physical Description of Jesus
6 years ago  ::  Sep 29, 2008 - 4:54AM #1
Blü
Posts: 25,092
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The NT gives no physical description of Jesus at all.

That omission rather strongly confirms the idea that none of the authors was an eyewitness - you'll recall that no one claims to be one - and adds further weight to the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all.

This link discusses the point. One thing it says is -

It is interesting that most of the earliest depictions of Jesus are of a youthful, Apollo-like deity.  But after Christianity is placed under the protection of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the images of Christ change dramatically and almost exclusively to the bearded Christ.


Assuming that''s a fair summary, it fits well with Paul's sky-god.  It also fits well with a gnostic or mystery origin for the Jesus story.

The site also says (my ellipses and paragraphing) -

The only physical description of Jesus that does exist is from a copy of a letter from the Roman consul Lentulus to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. ...  According to the copy ..., the original ... was dated to the 12 year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius [ie 25-26 CE].  Scholars have historical verification that a certain Roman consul named Lentulus was in Judea at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. [Do they?] His influential family is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in his book Antiquities of the Jews.   Scholars are divided, however, as to the authenticity of the letter. ... Lentulus describes the condemned man named Jesus of Nazareth as having:

a noble and lively face, with fair and slightly wavy hair; black and strongly curving eyebrows, intense penetrating blue eyes and an expression of wondrous grace.  His nose is rather long.  His beard is almost blonde, although not very long.  His hair is quite long, and has never seen a pair of scissors…..His neck is slightly inclined, so that he never appears to be bitter or arrogant.  His tanned face is the color of ripe corn and well proportioned.  It gives the impression of gravity and wisdom, sweetness and good, and is completely lacking in any sign of anger. 
(Holy Land Magazine, Franciscan Holy Land Press, Spring 1998).


This site says it's a 13th cent forgery.  Certainly it sounds like hooey to me.  But it would certainly account for the countless illustrations of a well-shampooed Jesus with wavy chestnut hair who looks far more like a middle-class Swede about to Volvo to a toga party than a Jewish peasant from the eastern Mediterranean in the Roman era.

On top of that it seems to be clearly at odds with a few hints in the NT.  If you assume an historical Jesus then you can argue that -

First, descriptions of him were omitted because he looked terrible.

Second, Luke 4: [23] And he [Jesus] said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.'"

Those would be odd lines to place in Arnie's mouth.  They suggest some visible physical deficit, or at the least a puny build.

Third, John 19: [19] Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

Whether the author's intention is to mock the Jewish leaders or Jesus, again the joke won't work if Arnie's under the sign.

Fourth, the tales of the crucifixion are told in terms of Jesus dying on the same day before sunset - that's to say quite quickly relative to the normal time it took.


Finally (and irritatingly) I recall reading years ago, in a book (or possibly a magazine) that I now forget, an allegedly historical description of Jesus as having a crooked back and eyebrows that met in the middle.  If that story rings a bell with any of you, I'd be grateful for illumination.

Have I overlooked anything?  Any thoughts?

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6 years ago  ::  Sep 29, 2008 - 12:34PM #2
MisterC
Posts: 1,865
I'm not certain that physical descriptions of the protagonists were a part of writings back then.

Mark's story, it seems to me, is as much parabolic allegory as anything else... The protagonist Jesus doesn't need a physical description. John's odd tale has Jesus being a heavenly envoy, so a physical desciption would not be neccesary (if possible). In the other two, Matt and Luke, we seem to find a need to follow up on Mark's "son of Mary" comments. They were probably sensitive to the rumors of Jesus being a mamzer. If there was a description of someone whose features were more Roman than Middle Eastern, it would, on one hand, assure that those rumors were true and, on the other, present this "son of God" in the same physical image as the Roman sons of God, the Caeasars.

Naming the gospels... That tradition began in the second century. By the fourth century, Eusebius speaks of Mark being a buddy of Peter, Luke being a buddy of Paul, Matthew being one of the disciples and John (of the gospel, not Revelation) being a geezer writing about the early days of Jesus. Of course, this is high on myth making and low on veracity.

You might be thinking of the drawing done for Discovery Channel, speaking of a modern image of Jesus.  It caused quite a bit of controversy, as I recall. (I think there was even a Popular Science or Popular Mechanics that had the picture!
It is under "2" at this link:
http://www.insearchofjesus.org/faceofje … composites
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6 years ago  ::  Sep 29, 2008 - 10:52PM #3
Blü
Posts: 25,092
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Mr C

Yes, I agree - only a real historical Jesus could have a likeness; so the question is really whether the stories had any single tradition about his looks.

Thanks for the gallery of modern Yoyzels - Ingmar, Lars, Gunnar and Sven all fresh from the shower.  As you say, the face authentic to the era is the interesting one.  That's not the 'bowed back and joined eyebrows' description I was thinking of, though, nor does my net searching mention anything of the kind, so it would appear to be a false report.

The ancient Greek and Roman writers routinely comment on character traits, less so physical descriptions, which they tend to mention only where it seems directly relevant - such as how eg Horatius Cocles and Cicero came by their cognomina.  Thus Plutarch tell us eg ‘... many also derided Galba, ... saying, that as soon as this wrinkled, bald-headed man should be seen publicly at Rome, they would think it an utter disgrace ever to have had such a Caesar’, but also that ‘Cimon ... was ... of a fairly handsome person, according to the poet Ion, tall and large, and let his thick and curly hair grow long’.  Descriptions are much harder to find in Tacitus, of course.

Still, if there were an historical Jesus, or a popular concept of one, is it unfair to think that at least one of the unknown number of gospel authors might have given a direct clue as to the physical presence of his hero instead of the fragments I mention above?
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6 years ago  ::  Sep 30, 2008 - 2:48PM #4
MisterC
Posts: 1,865
"Still, if there were an historical Jesus, or a popular concept of one, is it unfair to think that at least one of the unknown number of gospel authors might have given a direct clue as to the physical presence of his hero instead of the fragments I mention above?"

It is interesting that there isn't. I think it would depend to some extent on exactly "what" the gospels are. I don't think there is a real consensus on what they are. I tend, like Thomas L. Thompson, to see the books as being more metaphorical, an amalgamation of Ancient Near East myths than, for instance, biography. We can also see the kinship of the first written, Mark, to the Greek hero genre or to the epic.

If, however, there was a "historical Jesus," what about him made him historical? Apparently not anything to do with any physical attributes (like for instance, the mythical Samson).
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6 years ago  ::  Oct 09, 2008 - 12:51PM #5
costrel
Posts: 6,226
Blü,

The Letter of Lentulus is presented in English translation in J. K. Elliott's New Testament Apocrypha: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), pages 542-543. Elliott describes the letter this way:

This thirteenth-century text is given in the form of a letter purporting to have been written by a Roman official, Lentulus, at the time of Tiberias Caesar. This detail is found in some (but not the oldest) of the manuscripts. The original language is Latin, but a Syriac Letter of Lentulus was found in the Mingana collection (Syr. 47). Persian and Armenian translations also exist. - page 542


According to M. R. James (The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and and Apocalypses, with Other Narratives and Fragments [Oxford: Clarendon P, 1924]) the description of Jesus in the letter of Lentulus

follows the traditional portraits closely, and was no doubt written in presence of one. The Greeks, it may be added, had similar minute descriptions of the Apostles and the Virgin - just as they had of the heroes of Troy. - page 478


Finally (and irritatingly) I recall reading years ago, in a book (or possibly a magazine) that I now forget, an allegedly historical description of Jesus as having a crooked back and eyebrows that met in the middle.  If that story rings a bell with any of you, I'd be grateful for illumination.

I remember that article, but I seem to recall that it was describing the physical characteristics of Paul (which itself is problematic!). I also recall reading somewhere that the Greek icons of Jesus (as the long-haired and bearded ascetic dressed in a habit) were probably based on the images of the Early Desert Fathers - the first Christian monastics.

Incidentally, Daniel Caner, in Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California P, 2002) writes that

It has often been observed that church leaders of this period [circa 313-418 CE] identified ascetic practices such as [...] the wearing of long hair (by men) and short hair (by women) with heresy partly because such practices effaced commonly recognized categories on which the Roman social order and hierarchy was based. - page 16


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6 years ago  ::  Oct 10, 2008 - 12:15AM #6
Blü
Posts: 25,092
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MrC

Yes, the argument that he was physically slight, or not prepossessing, or even handicapped, is easier to make (from those few little inferences I mentioned) than that he was a Jewish Herakles.

The elusiveness of the description, the lack of a concept of his physical presence, is (as we all seem to agree) another little weight on the 'no historical Jesus' side of the scale.


Costrel

Thanks for the clarification on the purported Lentulus description.  Simply by reading it, it comes across as another of those transparent far-too-good-to-be-true stories so beloved by Christian forgers.

Thanks too for the possibility that I'm thinking of Paul with crooked back and eyebrows that meet.  It's probably as authentic as everything else we're talking about.

Thinking about your note on long hair being out of favor in the 3rd cent CE, I checked out the images of Roman emperors. 

From Julius (acceded 49 BCE) to Traian (died 117 CE) they were all depicted as short-haired and clean-shaven. That covers the era of Jesus, Paul and the gospel writers.

From Hadrian (117-) to Caracalla (-217) they're all shown as bearded but not particularly long-haired.

In the first half of the third century (217 to 250) we have 12 cleanskins, 1 mo and 2 beards.  In the second half (250 to 307) we have 2 cleanskins and 10 beards.  And 307-337 we have the clean-shaven Constantine I.

As for Jesus, here's a gallery of images from very early on - click to enlarge.  They seem to support the sky-god aspect.
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6 years ago  ::  Oct 11, 2008 - 4:47PM #7
DCH
Posts: 5
I am surprised no one has mentioned Robert Eisler's _Messiah Jesus & John the Baptist_ (1931).

He combines the descriptions found or hinted at in the Letter of Lentulus, Slavonc Josephus (he thinks it preserves remnants of the lost Aramaic original of his _War_, which I now doubt is the case), fragments of actual arrest warrents discovered in ancient Egyptan garbage dumps, and the Jewish Toledoth Jesu, Talmud & Midrash. He also looks at info in Origen, Augustine and Christian art in general. There is also a discussion about descriptions of Paul, and how characteristics attributed to Paul (his thorns in his flesh) being transferred to Jesus in art, etc.

Eisler can be mighty speculative, but he dredges up a lot of interesting info. Most sources say Jesus (as well as Paul) was 3 cubits tall (most ancient cubits were about 18 inches, so a bit less than 5 feet tall).

DCH
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6 years ago  ::  Oct 12, 2008 - 7:38AM #8
Blü
Posts: 25,092
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DCH

1931 (I also found the date 1929) seems long enough ago for Herr Eisler's book to have been processed pretty thoroughly by the academic mill, so I'd guess his speculations were deemed to be just such.

Five feet tall was a very usual height back then - Greek and Roman soldiers have left us skeletons and armor appropriate to that size and no doubt there are other researches as well.
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6 years ago  ::  Oct 12, 2008 - 3:05PM #9
DCH
Posts: 5
Blu,

_The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist_ (London: Methuen & Co, 1931) is Alexander Krappe's abridged English Translation of Eisler's _BASILEUS OU BASILEUSAS: Die messianische Unabhaengigkeitsbewegung vom Auftreten Johannes des Taeufers bis zum Untergagg Jakobs des Gerechten_ (2 vols, Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1929-30).

Of course, I wonder if something like this is where the expression "Where did you read that Krappe?" came from.

DCH


Blü wrote:

.
DCH

1931 (I also found the date 1929) seems long enough ago for Herr Eisler's book to have been processed pretty thoroughly by the academic mill, so I'd guess his speculations were deemed to be just such.

Five feet tall was a very usual height back then - Greek and Roman soldiers have left us skeletons and armor appropriate to that size and no doubt there are other researches as well.


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6 years ago  ::  Oct 12, 2008 - 9:23PM #10
haggaion
Posts: 1,972
For all we know, Jesus might have looked like Blu there, like a guy hit by a sack of flour.
:)
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