Did you know that God has a nose? And when he gets mad it turns red?
“Wrath” is a euphemism, of sorts. The Hebrew word is ‘aph, “nose.” In many places in the Bible, God’s nose burns hot.
I’ve been thinking about God’s nose quite a bit lately. God, in the early parts of the Old Testament, is a much more human figure. He has a nose and hands and he appears wearing robes. What did God’s nose look like? An upturned nose? A hook nose? A long Roman nose? The question seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? “Paint a picture of God” is a request that is likely to either elicit blank stares or to cause someone to go an meditate to try to channel some abstract mystical sensation. To draw God would be to limit him.
One of the things that has set me on this train of thought is the recent uproar over the depiction of Muhammad in an anti-Islam Youtube video. This has brought the issue of the depiction of Muhammad to the fore again. Most Muslims believe that prophets should not be visually depicted because it can lead to idolatry. Christians, of course, take the opposite approach when it comes to their prophet with images of Jesus on everything from Facebook pages to barn roofs to bumper stickers.
The interesting thing about all these images of Jesus is that they do not really look like him. When a team of forensic anthropologists were asked to create an image of what the historical Jesus might have looked like, this is what they produced:
Does it really matter?
I looked up the question “What did Jesus look like?” and found this from the Archdiocese of Washington:
“The very question, “What Did Jesus Look Like?” says a lot about our modern age,” they wrote. “And the silence of the Bible as to the physical appearance of most of its principal characters says a lot too.We live in a very image driven culture… The fact that the Bible has so little to say about the physical appearance of Jesus or most of the main figures gives an indication that such facts were of less significance to the people of that time.”
I am not sure this is true. While I would be willing to believe we are more focused on appearance than people in ancient times, I suspect the reason Jesus is not described physically comes down to something else.
I remember reading an account once by a Chinese university exchange student who was surprised when he heard one of his new American classmates describe someone as “a girl with brown hair.” It had never occurred to the Chinese student to identify someone based on her hair color. Everyone where he came from had black hair. It would be like saying, “that girl with the two arms.”
It may simply be that the communities where Jesus lived and taught were ethnically homogenous and saying Jesus was a man from Nazareth was enough to convey the basics of his appearance. To describe someone as having “brown hair and brown eyes” would not have told people much. You might just say, “He is a Roman,” “He is Greek,” “He is a Jew from Nazareth.” Or, in an era when most people never strayed far from where they were born, and where villages were small and intimate, “He’s that guy over there.”
In the orthodox churches of Russia and Greece, when an artist studies to paint icons, he learns that an icon must not look like the person it portrays. It should not be like a photograph. That would be too literal and limit the subject too much. To be an icon, it should be more than an image. It should hint at a greater reality. The idea is that this will keep the icon from becoming an idol. You will not be fooled into thinking the image is the real thing.
In that way of thinking, maybe it is not a problem that our Jesus looks like a Viking hippie. His Northern European features represent the part of us (the Northern Europeans who created the images) that aspires to follow the way of Christ. Christ is not something other, Christ is one of us. This archeological image of a man ignores everything that Christ has become in Western culture.
There is something to be said for that. Yet red-haired Jesus creates problems too.
The other day I decided I wanted to know what the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke sounded like. I looked up Youtube videos of the Lord’s Prayer in the language. Here is one:
When I listened to a few of these and the sounds of the language, I tried to imagine someone who looked like the man in the picture above standing, say, in an airport or outside a church, speaking these words. How would people react? Might they suspect he was some kind of terrorist?
We have been so effective in making a Jesus that looks like us that we have been able throughout history to see the Jews as “other” and people from the Middle East as “other,” all while praying in the name of a Middle Eastern Jew. What if it were possible to paint an image of Jesus in which he looked Middle Eastern and Jewish and also like us? (Using “us” here, of course, is assuming quite a bit about you. You may well not be part of this light-skinned “us.”) Is it possible to paint the “likeness” without resorting to physical resemblance? Can all of that even be captured in a single portrait?
So what shape is God’s nose? What about his eyelids? What color is his skin?