Sunday, April 11, 2004

An Easter message: What Jesus looked like

Today, let us turn from the realm of politics. Let us consider the origins of Christianity.

Most people think that we have no physical description of Jesus. What if that common presumption is wrong?

The gospels do not describe him. Neither do the epistles. Neither do the non-canonical gospels. Neither do we find a description of Jesus in the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus -- at least, not in any manuscript of Josephus that has come down to us.

In fact, Josephus (in the standard version of his works) never refers to Jesus at all -- even though he describes many less-important figures, and even though at least one early church father reports that Josephus did discuss the founder of Christianity. If those passages ever existed, they have gone missing.


In the eighth century, the archbishop of Crete, one Andreas Hierosolymitanus, quoted a description of Jesus Christ which (he said) could be found in a version of Josephus extant at that time. Andreas' report is startling. Jesus, he said, was a dark-skinned hobbit-sized hunchback with a big nose, thinning hair, a patchy beard, and eyebrows that joined in the center in a monstrous fashion.

Yes, I hear you asking, but did he have any distinguishing characteristics?

Other early Christian writers -- Tertullian, for example -- make reference to Jesus being disfigured and un-handsome. The weight of what little evidence we possess suggests that Jesus was...well, ugly.

Let us suppose that Andreas had the straight skinny. Would widespread distribution of this information have impacted the attractiveness of the new religion? Would Christianity have spread so rapidly and so widely if the world understood that the faith's central figure was dark, short, unattractive and "differently abled"?

Such considerations shouldn't make a difference. Nearly everyone will agree on that point. But that's not the question I'm asking. Would Christianity have gained fewer converts if everyone knew that Jesus looked like Quasimodo?

I wonder.

Happy Easter!

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