Day: 8 June 2011

transient theological thoughts (1)

This might become a series of posts and it might not; I’m not going to bother with deciding that now.  However there will be three posts with this heading, each describing a particular theological idea that piqued my curiosity.* Although, seeing that there will be three and seeing that I’m a faithful church-goer, and since anything done in the church more than twice constitues a tradition; it seems as though these three posts establish a tradition I now have to uphold. (Crap. Walked right into that one). With that, here’s the first topic:

Jesus Ain’t No Looker
(Got your attention, hopefully). I’ve mentioned before that while doing my research I continually seek opportunities to learn more, especially in areas outside of my field of interest. In some ways this is because I (occasionally) miss being in a classroom, but it’s primarily due to my awareness that learning is never finished; there is always something more. Lately, I have been listening to a series of theology lectures on iTunesU and for the most part they have been quite good.

However in the most recent lecture, while dealing with modern views or conceptual images of Jesus, the professor** made a passing comment about Jesus’ appearance. He said: ‘The Bible says that [Jesus] had nothing in his appearance that would attract us to him. Nothing.’ This professor then went on to quote (loosely) Isaiah 53.2-3 to support his claim. For those unaware, this sort of argument is nothing new. Interestingly, Franz Delizsch briefly mentions the contrasting portraits of Jesus before and after Constantine, where previous depictions were ‘repulsive’ while later versions portrayed ‘ideal beauty’ (Isaiah [1884], 2.307 n.1).

Here are my thoughts on the matter. While I sympathise with the professor’s desire to move away from overly polished or idealised protraits of Jesus (especially those dictated by modern standards of beauty and acceptability), I cannot agree with his explicit–not to mention, absolute–claim. Moreover, I cannot bring myself to see Isaiah 53.2-3 as ‘biblical evidence’ that Jesus’ everyday appearance was completely unattractive. Why (on both)? Because aside from this solitary reference, there is no biblical testimony concerning the appearance of Jesus. Thus, the professor’s argument is one from silence. (Similarly, the polished and idealised depictions of Jesus are also without biblical foundation. We simply do not have enough information to decide either way). But what about the Isaiah passage?

My concern here is that the text does not speak of the ‘servant’s’ normal, everyday appearance; that’s not the focus of the prophecy. Instead, the context of the passage (i.e. 52.13–53.12) reveals that the focus of the prophecy is absolute exaltation from complete humiliation. Moreover, this larger context shows that the specific (ugly) appearance in question results from a specific series of events later in life and not to genetics. Let me explain.

Isaiah 52.14 contextualises the ugliness of 53.2-3: the unsightly form or appearance of the ‘servant’ results from him being ‘marred more than any man’. Isaiah 53.5 and 7 continue this theme by noting the piercing, crushing, scourging, oppression and ultimate sacrifice of the ‘servant.’ It is from this marred, humiliated and unsightly state that the ‘servant’ will be exalted, and this marred, humiliated and unsightly state that Isaiah 53.2-3 describes; the physical appearance of the servant (on a daily basis) is simply not a matter of concern (cf. John Calvin, Isaiah [1850], 4.114). From the perspective of fulfilled prophecy, Christians understand this Isaiah passage to refer to Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion; it’s not a desription of people’s musings on Jesus’ physical appearance as he wandered around Galilee and Judea.

* Feel free to jump in and give your thoughts on any of these three posts.
** For my non-US friends, read ‘professer’ as ‘lecturer’. I used ‘professor’ because the guy in question is in the US and because I didn’t feel like having ‘lecturer’ written right after ‘lecture.’