“Welcome to Zingcreed, the unique Christian/Atheist blog. It is my personal polemic where I think aloud about religion and the world. I hope you find something interesting here. If you enjoy it you will probably also like ‘Jesus’ Dark Side’, my most viewed Post, and ‘Nazareth a.k.a. Nowheresville‘ Also Naked Jesus – a cock and bull story?” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.
Jesus is usually portrayed as a light-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed, tall, handsome Caucasian with a high forehead and an alpha male bearing. This is such a stalwart icon of Western culture that to suggest anything contrary or corrective to that image is tantamount to heresy. (i) But this is most unlikely to be how he really looked . In an attempt to set the record straight, I am here looking at what his appearance and early life would probably have been like. It’s no use trying to get close to Jesus (assuming that’s what you do want) if you’ve got a totally false image of him in your head to start with. We are of course dealing with probabilities here, not proofs.
(1) “Palestinian Jews of late antiquity were small people by our standards. The ancient pagan writer Celsus, when describing Jesus, said ‘His body was little, ugly and undistinguished.’ The Christian scholar Origen, replying to Celsus, does not deny the charge which had earlier been referred to by a number of other Christian authors including Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria (ca.200 CE) .” (ii)
A Discovery Channel special utilizing the latest in forensic technology reconstructed what Jesus might have looked like. The result fomented an outcry. Columnist Kathleen Parker was so distraught that she fretted that the Jesus she knew as a child was being replaced by “the kind of guy who wouldn’t make it through airport security.” (i)
Sounding like an american cop describing a suspect, one modern writer confidently states Jesus was “five foot five to five foot seven tall and weighed 130 to 170 pounds.” (iii)
Confirmation of his smallness of stature is suggested in Mary Magdalene’s conversation with the man she thought was the gardener at the tomb “Have you carried him away? Tell me where you have laid him and I will lift him up.” (iv)
(2) One 2nd century writer described Jesus as being bald, but a contemporary said he wasn’t, so I guess they cancel each other out.
You have to read her book to get the full context for the next statement: “Jesus would normally have had the long hair and beard of a Nazirite, a jew who had taken an ascetic vow; for Essenes it also indicated a celibate state. But during the times when he fulfilled the rules of the dynastic order he would have shaved his beard and cut his hair short.” (v)
(3) As a jewish boy, Jesus would have been circumcised 8 days after birth. This was the requirement laid on the people by the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) (xi)
(4) Living in a rural peasant community in the eastern Mediterranean Jesus was probably exposed to a merciless sun for hours on end, i.e. he would have been dark. (I’ve seen building labourers in Italy whose bare backs were as dark as many Africans).
(5) When I was in charge of Jewish Assembly in a boys’ school in east London, the pupils would always finish off with a prayer called “The Shema” which they recited in hebrew from memory, after first fishing around in their blazer pockets for their kippas (skull caps). (vi)
As a practising Jew, Jesus would also have been expected to say this prayer twice a day, on getting up and on going to bed; whether in Hebrew or in Aramaic I don’t know, but probably in the latter as that would have been the language used in his local synagogue. (vii)
The Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (viii)
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and bind them on your foreheads.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”
Jesus, although probably unable to read the Hebrew scriptures, lived by Aramaic targums (paraphrases of the Torah) he had heard in the synagogue, and by ethical maxims such as Lev. 19:18, the only verse he ever quoted (?). (xii, p.151) It says “Do not seek revenge or seek a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” In the Wilderness, Jesus quotes 2 other verses from Deut. 6 in his argument with Satan. (xv)
(6) Jesus and other kids in Nazareth were possibly taught Torah in the synagogue, (although note that Aslan (xiii) claims Nazareth itself didn’t have either a synagogue or a school), and although as an adult he is said to have preached and argued there, scholars seem to think that Jesus and all his disciples (like practically everyone else outside the ruling elite at that time) were not well educated and were illiterate or at best, semi-literate. The most thorough examination of literacy in Palestine, by Prof Catherine Hezser, shows probably only 3% of Jews in Palestine were literate at the time of Jesus. These would be the people who could read and maybe write their names and copy words. Far fewer could compose sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books; and they would have been the urban elites. John chapter 8 describes Jesus writing on the ground but this passage was not originally in the gospel of John but was added later.(ix)
(7) Descendant of an “illegal” immigrant? “The whole Bible is filled with people who are outsiders. Ruth “the Moabitess” (code for “outsider”) is shown hospitality and eventually some fine romance by Boaz, whose cross-cultural marriage is a part of the genealogy that leads up to Jesus (Ruth 2-4) So Jesus had an “illegal” great grandmother.” (x)
(8) If his parents really fled into Egypt and Jesus was born in a manger in a stable far from home, while Herod slaughtered the innocent, that made him a refugee of the sort all too common in the world today.
(9) Jesus never ate pork or shellfish, as Jews considered such foods to be impure and abominable (Lev. 11; Deut. 14) No bacon sarnies then! (that’s English slang for a sandwich)
(10) Jesus worked as a tekton or carpenter-cum-builder. Talmudic tradition, perhaps with oblique reference to Jesus, associates carpenters with adultery or fornication.(xii) The Romans used the term tekton as slang for any uneducated or illiterate peasant, and Jesus was very likely both. (xiii p.34) There wouldn’t have been enough work for him as a labourer in Nazareth so he probably helped with the rebuilding going on in the city of Sepphoris a few km away. Scorsese in his film “The Last temptation of Christ” shows him busily making crosses for the Romans to crucify dissidents on! Maybe he repaired fishermen’s boats down at the Sea of Galilee, too. Justin (in Oakman ref xii, p.69) reported that Jesus made ploughs and yokes.
(11) Jesus was a bastard and thus of questionable status within Israel. As Oakman puts it (xii, p.68, 151) “the peasant reality of Jesus’ origin is quite crude” and “the common tradition behind the birth stories of Matthew and Luke attest to the illegitimacy of Jesus.” The specific circumstances of the conception by Mary were most likely rape, fornication or prostitution. It is possible the historical Mary (as a widow or through debt) had been forced into degraded work such as prostitution c.f. John 8:41 “‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested.’The only father we have is God himself.'” and Thomas 105 “Jesus said ‘Whoever knows the father and the mother will be called the child of a whore.'”
It is interesting to speculate that Jesus’ compassion for widows and prostitutes had something to do with his own origins. (xii)
“Mark 6:3 by referring only to Jesus as “son of Mary” suggests that Jesus’ family situation is unusual in a patriarchal culture (consider that Jesus’ most immediate associates Simon and James and John are identified by their fathers: son of Jonah/John or sons of Zebedee.). For whatever reason, Jesus seems to have been a fatherless child. Most likely, under the stigma of illegitimate birth and without land to work, he was compelled to find a trade. He entered the ranks of peasant artisans and as a tekton travelled to where the work was.” (Oakman ref. xii p.68)
(12) Dan Brown would have us all believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered children. A more convincing approach to this contentious topic is to consider that everyone had a wife. It would have been almost unthinkable for a thirty year old male in Jesus’ time not to have one. Celibacy was an extremely rare phenomenon in first century Palestine. (xiii)
(13) Jesus was not skilled at languages: like the overwhelming majority of Jews in his time he would have only had the most rudimentary grasp of Hebrew, barely enough to understand the scriptures when they were read to them at a synagogue, and certainly not enough to communicate with – even in its most colloquial form. The lower classes like him spoke a local dialect of Aramaic, plus a smattering of Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. (xiii) This might have been needed for negotiating contracts with his customers.
(14) Jesus’ name is ‘Joshua’ in Hebrew; Yesus in Greek, and ‘Yeshua’, or ‘Yeshu’ for short, in his mother tongue Aramaic. ‘Jesus’ is a latinization.
(15) Men’s clothing at that time consisted of 2 garments: a long shirt or tunic topped by a coat or cloak. In a parable Jesus talks of giving away the under garment as well as the top one. This is a joke. It would leave the donor starkers, and would embarrass the recipient. He is trying to make a point in a dramatic way. (Mt 5:40)
(16) The feeding story (Mk 6:38-42) depends on knowing that 5 loaves and 2 fishes represent approximately a daily subsistence meal for a family. (xii p.72)
(17) Everyday resistance was an automatic reflex for the oppressed people of Galilee. (xii p.72) “The prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labour, food, taxes, rents and interest from them. Jesus may have taken part in forms of resistance such as foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.”
(18) Jesus’ areas of expertise, like those of any peasant of the time living in the Eastern Mediterranean, appear to have been agrarian. As a child he would have helped in the fields. His parables show an intimate familiarity with agrarian activities – sowing, harvesting, granaries, vineyards, orchards, estate agriculture,- and agrarian personnel – landlords, estate overseers, temporary labourers, agrarian conflicts. As a tekton (labourer/carpenter) Jesus’ experiences became wider than those of the village alone.
(19) Jesus, as a child of his time, would have believed that the earth was flat and that the earth was at the centre of the universe. (xiv)
(i) Felten, D.M. & Procter-Murphy,J. “Living the Questions. The wisdom of progressive Christianity” Harper (2012) p.41
(ii) Origen “Contra Celsum” VI: 75, quoted in Don Cupitt “Reforming Christianity” (2001) p.11
(iii) Charlesworth “The historical Jesus, an essential guide” Abingdon Press (2008)
(iv) Jn 20:15
(v) Thiering, Barbara “Jesus the Man” Doubleday (1992)
(vi) Shema is pronounced “shih-mar” with the emphasis on the second syllable.
(vii) Kaylor, R. David “Jesus the prophet” John Knox Press (1994) p.91
(viii) To see a hebrew version of this prayer complete with english pronunciation, go to jewfaq.org/prayer/shema. A sung version can also be heard online.
(ix) Ehrman, Bart “Did Jesus Exist?” Harper (2012) pp.37,48,349
(x) Shane Claiborne in “Red Letter Christianity ” Hodder & Stoughton (2012) p.140
(xi) Sanders, E.P ,”The historical figure of Jesus” Penguin (1993)
(xii) Oakman, D.E. “The political aims of Jesus” Fortress Press (2012) p. 150 n.4
(xiii) Aslan, R. “Zealot; The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Westbourne Press” (2013)
(xiv) Borg, M. “Meeting Jesus again for the first time.” Harper (1994) p.116
(xv) Zingcreed Post: Jesus’s 3 authentic biblical quotations
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