A few years ago, for a BBC documentary, a forensic scientist took the skull of a first century Palestinian man and using plasticine, reconstructed his face the way they do on television crime shows like CSI.
What emerged was a thick-necked, swarthy man of Middle Eastern appearance. He had a heavy brow and a round, broad nose. His eyes were the deepest brown (almost black) and his head was crowned with tight, oily, black curls. He looked not unlike an Al Qaeda operative or an ISIS fighter.
The point of the exercise was to show what Jesus might have looked like if he resembled the average Galilean 2000 years ago.
That plasticine face caused quite a stir at the time. Could Jesus really look so, well, Middle Eastern? We are so used to Christian religious art that depicts a feminised Jesus as blonde and blue-eyed, staring wistfully into space. These pure-as-the-driven-snow images are trying to capture his holiness and the depth of his spiritual power. In them, Jesus is crowned with halos and swathed in religious robes.
But they forget that this holy one was born and lived as a typical Galilean near the modern-day border between Israel and Lebanon. Galileans were noted for being a rough and ready bunch. Surrounded and influenced by various gentile nations in Jesus’ day, Galileans weren’t very observant Jews. It was considered laughable that a rabbi could come from such a place. When Jesus travelled south to the Jewish heartland to begin his public campaign, the more pious southerners won’t even listen to his teaching because of his background.
He gathered around him a band of largely uneducated young men. Being mainly fishermen, these first followers were probably drawn to his unsophisticated northern demeanour. He didn’t look or act like a typical religious leader. He scorned false Jewish piety and trampled on their exclusive traditions. He refused to observe the Sabbath correctly. He enjoyed the hospitality of the riff raff of Hebrew society – tax collectors, prostitutes and others euphemistically called ‘sinners.’ He was seen as a drunkard and a glutton.
All this behaviour makes sense when you look into the dark eyes of the plasticine face of the BBC man.
He’s a Middle Eastern radical, a wild man corrupting the ideals of impressionable young men.
No wonder the religious leaders of his day wanted him dead.
Not just silenced.
The wild Galilean was clearly a threat to institutional religion, not just in Israel, but everywhere.
And here is the astonishing nature of Jesus’ ministry. It strips away the barriers that exclude the poor, the ordinary, the everyday person from connecting with God. Jesus is holy and beautiful indeed, but his true beauty is to be found not in his face, but in his compassion for the marginalised and his relentless dismantling of the exclusivity and control of religious institutionalism.
As pastor Bryan Loritts recently tweeted, “I find it helpful as an American to remember the church is headed by a Middle Eastern man who never spoke a word of English.”
We need to fall for Jesus’ deep spiritual strength again. We need to see his gentleness with the poor,
his power over darkness,
his strength in the face of opposition.
But if you really want to ‘get’ Jesus you have to remember he was a wild, untamed Galilean who turned the idea of religious faith on its head (God comes to us, we don’t come to him) and who changed the world forever.
[A version of this post first appeared in Jay Jeffries (ed.) Awaken the Spirit: the Sacred Texts of Jesus, Melbourne: Amethyst Books, 2014]