What did Jesus look like?

In this post, Joe Carter respectfully disagrees with one of John Piper’s sermons, entitled “What Color Should Jesus Be?” (Friends who visit Carter’s post will recognize several of the paintings from my recent teaching series on world religions. I guess there are only so many public domain pictures of Jesus out there.)

Piper, in considering how Jesus should be portrayed, says (note that this is Carter’s transcription of the sermon),

But I think they should probably be black portrayals of Jesus, and white portrayals of Jesus, and Chinese portrayals of Jesus. And everybody knows that they’re not accurate. There isn’t one that’s accurate. That’s why it’s legitimate to do lots of inaccurate works. Because you just say we all know that we don’t know what he looked like so what we want to say with our inaccurate Jesus is something true about Jesus. Namely, he’s there for everybody.

Carter objects, observing that we know that Jesus was a 1st century Semite, and therefore was definitely not black, Chinese, or white. Carter writes,

The fact that no particular rendition can be completely accurate does not make it “legitimate to do lots of inaccurate works.” Unless the work is intentionally abstract, then a degree of realism is to be expected from the artwork. By offering a portrayal that intentionally veers from the Biblical portrait of Christ, the artist is using Jesus to further a particular racial, ethnic, or political agenda.

I think Carter is putting art into too small of a box here. There are a lot of options between “intentionally abstract” and “realism.” An artistic depiction of Jesus is not like your snapshot of your grandma. If an artist takes the time to depict Jesus himself (as opposed to a Christ-figure), it’s hard to imagine that he or she doesn’t have an agenda. Now, we might disagree with the artist’s agenda – then again, we might wholeheartedly endorse it – but that’s a completely different matter. Artists are not Polaroid cameras: even “realistic” art is created for some purpose.

Depending on the context, any depiction of Jesus is going to carry with it connotations of one or more of the following:

  • the two-thousand-year tradition of Christian art and iconography
  • depictions of Jesus in 20th century art, likethose of Marc Chagall or Robert Mapplethorpe
  • popular devotional pictures of Jesus (including black or Asian images)
  • children’s story book versions of Jesus
  • movie and television images of Jesus

I’m sure there are more that could be mentioned. Good artists will be aware of these connotations and use them for their own purpose. Good artists will also be aware of the potential reactions that their audience(s) will have to their portrayal of Jesus.

The specific historical context of Jesus’ life on earth, his teachings, and his crucifixicion and resurrection is extremely important and must be kept in mind constantly. A Christian artist (like any Christian) should be immersed in Scripture and be intimately familiar with Jesus’ teachings, the stories in Scripture, etc. But there are a tension between the truth of this specific historical context, the truth of the Incarnation (that God became one of us), and the truth of the Trinity (that Jesus existed eternally as God the Son before his birth to Mary).

A while back, one of our preachers asked us to imagine Jesus walking down the aisle of our church and sitting down next to us. It occurred to me that, if this happened, would I even recognize Jesus? Or would he have looked just like an “ordinary” person, indistinguishable in appearance from anyone else in our church? Jesus,

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8)

Jesus has become such a stereotyped figure in our culture, that it’s easy to forget the scandals of the Incarnation and the Cross. Art, by its immediacy and emotional impact, can bring it home to us that, yes, Jesus became a human being, and, yes, he died on the cross so that we may live.

There are clear dangers in attempting to portray “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), especially if that portrayal is so well done or becomes so popular that it dominates the imaginations of worshippers. However, I believe that there are also ways to portray Jesus in art, regardless of the ethnicity of the portrayal, that are appropriate, faithful, and maybe even necessary. Carter seems to think that anti-semitism fuels non-Jewish depictions of Jesus. On the contrary, I think Christian depictions of Jesus (I’m not talking about portrayals of Jesus in voodoo art, Hindu temples, or other nonChristian contexts) are almost always motivated by a desire to make Jesus more real to the audience. It’s the same motivation behind good preaching – translating Biblical truth into a community’s specific context.

As always, the challenge is being faithful to Jesus. Merely being accurate in ensuring that a painting of Jesus has adequately Semitic features is no more faithful to Jesus, in my opinion, than wearing sandals can be said to be “following in Jesus’ footsteps.” Assuming that Carter records Piper’s words accurately (and I trust that he does), let me go on record as agreeing with Piper’s call to artists. There should be black, white, Asian, and yes, Jewish portrayals of Jesus in art – all faithful to the Biblical witness of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

May God use the work of Christian artists to teach and encourage us to follow Jesus, be conformed in his likeness, and live as new creations in Christ.

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