1 Jun 2017

Picturing Jesus, the Jew: Images Project and Shape Theology

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Black History, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Race Relations

A Lesson from Frederick Douglass

If the proverb, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” has any validity then European and American disciples have spoken millions of words regarding Jesus. But pictures do more than say words. Images shape the words we say and the ideas the words express. Frederick Douglass, the profound crusader for human rights and dignity of the nineteenth century, knew the power of images. Images of blacks in America both expressed and shaped the profoundly distorted and racist ideology that prevailed across this nation.

Zoe Todd, Celeste-Marie Bernier and Henry Louis Gates give us a powerful window into America and Douglass’s subversive attempt to reframe the hearts and minds of people in Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American. Douglass, an escaped slave, directly addressed the power of images in at least three different lectures: “Lectures on Pictures” (1861), “Age of Pictures” (1862), and “Pictures and Progress” (1865/6).  “The picture making faculty is a mighty power,” he stated in 1861. Thus in the 1881 edition of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass there are seventeen engravings. In stark contrast to prevailing stereotypes of servile and buffonish characters we are confronted with a tall, bold, even proud figure of extraordinary character. The images, Douglass believed, explicitly countered the way white folks saw blacks and shaped the way blacks would see themselves.   All the good in the world, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is righteous, industrious, intelligent was portrayed as white. Douglass did not want to reinforce powerful images that confirmed white people’s prejudice.  The visual image was a profound tool for shaping the subconscious mind of both whites and blacks.

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ has been printed over 500 million times

Jesus the White European

Quite possibly the most dangerous leaven upon modern disciples way of seeing Jesus was Warner Sallman’s 1940 painting “Head of Christ.” Sallman’s painting actually began in the 1920s has become the visualization of Jesus for literally hundreds of millions of people. It hangs in churches, on small devo cards for Bibles, book marks, and other places. The picture functions subconsciously refashioning Jesus into something very different than he was. When people close their eyes and have “visions” of Jesus it is Sallman’s portrait of Christ.  Christ has become white, with white values and loyalties, and is as American as baseball and apple pie. The white Jesus is indistinguishable from our projected prejudices and he supports our agendas whether racial or theological.

Sallman’s portrait of Jesus is just one of thousands of images of Jesus that, reaching back to the medieval period, project what the community believes about Jesus and reinforces and shapes those beliefs. For the mass of illiterate folks that inhabited Europe their encounter with Jesus was through his visualization in stained glass, passion plays, and other forms of visual art. On one level there is nothing wrong with this.  On another the view of Jesus the masses gain is the one that is just like them. Jesus has been made “one of us” and not “one of them.” This made treating them as undesirable far easier.

By the time of the high medieval period, European Jews had been stripped of most rights and were considered “wards of the church.” Jews were demonized. They were frequently persecuted, their books burned and sometimes given the option to confess Christ or die. Jews were far better of in Moorish Spain than in Catholic Spain. Jesus was separated from his Jewish context theologically.  Art followed theology and then art shaped the theology of the common person. Jesus was “not one of them.

Just as Aaron called the Golden Calf Yahweh (Ex 32.4-5), so a more palatable Jesus was fashioned.  Jesus was refashioned into our image, he became in fact an idol of our own making.

The catastrophic affects of de-Jewing Jesus range from Marcionism, Gnostic heresies to Jewish pogroms to the Holocaust, and the Klu Klux Klan and legalism.  Blum and Harvey in their epic work, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America have shown the extensive interplay between racism, racial violence and images of Christ in American history. The non-Jewish Jesus is an ideology that needs to die.

Now, I do not believe that all artists were anti-semitic and racists. But their art projected what was held to be true by the community as a whole. And at the same time it reinforced those subconscious values as true.

Classic Renaissance art can be stunningly beautiful and even worshipful.  I enjoy museums full of art. At the same time we must recognize the long, sad legacy of a European Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a “man of the world” as Jarslov Pelikan noted beautifully in his Jesus Through the Centuries, His Place in the History of Culture.  So Christians can embrace a multicultural Jesus that is brown, black, and yellow. But as Pelikan noted, and this important, we need to know that it is only as Jesus the Jew that he is for the world.

One of the tens of thousands of booklets published and online that proclaim an Anti-Jewish “Gospel’

Picturing Jesus the Jew

Jesus is, not was, a Jew. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a traditional, and epically, Jewish picture of Jesus.  It is a picture many gentiles do not find exciting or even meaningful. So we skip it.  It’s sort of like Cubism in a way.  Going from Leonardo to Picasso can be disorienting for some and the temptation is to just skip that room in the museum of modern art. Matthew’s opening picture is a genealogy, it is a list of names but a powerful portrait nonetheless of the Jewishness of Jesus.  Matthew’s portrait states unequivocally there is no Jesus that is not Jewish down to his bones.

Jesus’s blood is deep in the ancestry of the Jewish nation. Matthew says Jesus is born a Jew, and of Jews. Jesus grew up as a Jew.  Jesus lived as a Jew. Jesus prayed as a Jew. Jesus taught as a Jew. Jesus read the Bible of Jews. Jesus was killed by Romans as the King of the Jews. And Jesus is raised as a Jew.  Jesus will be for eternity the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of Mary.

We are not simply affirming that Jesus is ethnically a Jew, though that is non-negotiable. But that Jesus embraced a Hebraic worldview.  Jesus’s arguments with other Jewish teachers are very much like the kind of arguments that the Mishnah and Talmud record of hundreds of rabbis that argue endlessly with one another.

Goldstein has given us a wonderfully beautiful work to envision Jesus. But even here Jesus may need deeper tones

It is rather easy to de-Jew Christian faith if we have already de-Jewed Jesus. It is much harder to place the Way in conflict with the “Old Testament” when we see Jesus living, breathing, acting, praying, and teaching things that the Hebrew Bible clearly affirms and that most Jewish teachers in the first century agree with.

What if the picture of Jesus that hundreds of millions had in their head, as they read the Gospel of Matthew chapter 23, was a man with brown skin, head covered in a prayer shawl with zitzit dangling on the corners, and with a phylactery on his forehead? How would that make Matthew 23 look different and be understood differently?

What if we had paintings showing Jesus, his disciples and the early Way in Acts 2, 3, 21, etc entering a mikveh as they enter the Temple … or the synagogue in Luke 4 (the recently discovered synagogue at Magdala that dates to the time of Jesus had a mikveh so it seems that when Jews gathered to read the Torah in the synagogue they followed the temple’s ritual purity laws).  Jesus, nor anyone, could even get in the door of the Temple without going through ritual washing.

When you close your eyes, does the Jesus you see have a prayer shawl on? is he wearing tassels? Is he Jewish?

What would happen? I think we would be more faithful readers of the Gospels. What would happen to our debates about all kinds of things if we had images in  in our heads of Jesus dripping wet coming out of ritual purification, or of Jesus dancing during the Festival of Booths as the Levites played loudly and joyfully to the Lord? Or Jesus praising God for the Maccabees during Hanukkah? Or Jesus celebrating over a nice sized glass of wine with the bride and groom at Cana? Might not some of our debates loose their urgency?

Our visual images of Jesus reinforce the historic anti-Jewish (which becomes an anti-Old Testament) perspective brought to the Gospels and the pages of the New Testament. This prejudice causes us to miss stuff … read right over it in fact … sometimes just simply miss it. Let me give a couple of examples.

First, it is common in Restoration/Evangelical circles to assume that Jesus was negative of the Temple as an institution. The Temple represents all that Protestant Christianity has rejected, its notions of sacred space, its “ritualism” (which means “legalism” to Evangelicals), sacrifice, and for Church of Christ folks it has instruments.  But there is no evidence for Jesus’s negative attitude in the Gospels but it is assumed and reinforced through our de-Jewing of Jesus.. The Gospels, especially John, depict Jesus routinely traveling to the Temple to participate in its worship (cf. John 2.13, 23; 5.1-2; 7.1-2, 14, 37; 10.22ff; 13.1; No wonder Luke says Jesus’s family went to Jerusalem for the Passover every year, Luke 2.41-42).

But I want to focus on a famous text that is often only half read, the “cleansing” of the Temple (Mk

When your Jesus gets up to read the scroll, is he a recognizable Jewish rabbi?

11.15-17). We all know that Jesus turned over the money tables. But what about that line in 11.16, that we in our gentileness miss the picture like a failure to appreciate Picasso because we have no use for Cubism.

He [Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

Here, in neon lights, Mark indicates Jesus’s concern for the purity, or sanctity, of the Temple. This is in fact a remarkably Pharisaic concern! The Mishnah (Berakhot 9.5) reads,

Man must not be light with his head [frivolous] near the eastern gate, for it is near the foundation of the Holy of Holies. One may not enter the Holy Mount with his staff, or with his sandal, … or with dust on his feet, and may not make it a short cut, spitting is forbidden …”

Jesus is portrayed, as radically protective of the ritual purity of the Temple in this passage … and we read over it and miss the passionately Jewish zeal that is given to us by Mark about Jesus.  Perhaps Luke was accurate in recording the teenage Jesus as describing the Temple of Jerusalem as “my Father’s house” (Luke 2.49).

What would happen if we picture Jesus in the Court of Women, singing, dancing, clapping his hands as the women danced and the Psalms were sung as the Levites played harps, lyres, trumpets, and tambourines?

My second example comes from the Gospel of John (15.1ff). Jesus says “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinegrower.” In the context Jesus had been teaching, as was typical for rabbis, in the Temple (sometimes readers loose sight of the fact that in terms of time, John 13 to 19 occupies a mere twelve hours). This is an image with deeeeeeeeep roots in the Hebrew Bible to begin with.

But in the Temple, on gateway to the sanctuary itself, was a beautiful and exquisite golden vine that had golden leaves, clusters of grapes and branches. Only the High Priest could pass through this gate, but pilgrims from around the known world would (through a priest) hang gifts on the various branches of the vine.

When Jesus uttered these words there is not a Jew sitting around the table with him that could not have had this most astoundingly beautiful Vine from the Temple flood into their minds. Life comes to Israel and the world through that gateway, through that Vine. The Holy of Holies passes through Jesus. That gateway (as in Mark) Jesus was passionate about protecting it.

What would happen if we picture Jesus the Jew as a man without light skin, light hair and blue eyes?

Just two quick examples of where the Jewishness of Jesus comes shining through but we tend to miss because our Jesus is not quite as Jewish as the Man from Nazareth really was and is …

Wrapping Up

How we picture Jesus is not some quaint academic matter.  It is not a note for a footnote in a book to make sure we have Jesus’s DNA correct.  How we picture Jesus is deeply rooted in and projects our vision of the Christian faith itself.  The apostle Paul certainly believed that Jesus was for the world. But Paul refused to let the Jewishness of Jesus be a mere academic point that we can acknowledge and then move on. He made the Jewishness of Jesus part of the Gospel itself.  This will shock some folks because they think the fact that Jesus died for our sins is all that matters.  But that is not exactly what Paul says.  The apostle states quite clearly what the “gospel of God” consists,

which he [God] promised before hand through his prophets in the holy scriptures [Hebrew Bible], the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holines by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Messiah our Lord” (Romans 1.2-4)

Remember Jesus Messiah, raised from the dead, a descendant of David — this is my Gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (2 Timothy 2.8-9)

There is no Savior of the world that is not the Jew from Nazareth, the Son of David, the Son of Mary, the one who is pictured so powerfully by Matthew in his series of portraits of Jesus in Matthew 1.1-21.  The Savior is the King of the Jews and he gathers all the nations to himself in the Great Commission as the Psalm stated so clearly “I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2.8). Paul’s Gospel is the proclamation, not of some universal man, but that the Davidic King has come and he calls for allegiance even from the nations.  In the heart of Rome, the center of the Empire, Paul said the Gospel declares Jesus, the Jew, is King and Caesar is not.

Frederick Douglass knew the power of a picture.  He new that images can be used to reinforce stereotypes and enforce a certain worldview.  He also knew that pictures can be subversive and reframe how we see reality. When we embrace the image of Jesus the Jew we might also move along and accept the reality that Jesus is and will eternally be the Israelite son of David, son of Mary, the Jew from Nazareth. Such a reframing can make our Christian faith far more biblical than we dream or imagine.

We need to retire Warner Sallman and embrace a Messiah that looks like what he is: a Jew.

Get Clara Maria Goldstein’s wonderful Missing Paintings of Jesus as a Jew.

One Response to “Picturing Jesus, the Jew: Images Project and Shape Theology”

  1. Dwight Says:

    This is an attempt to make Jesus look more like us, in a Western sense, so we can associate, instead of us looking more Jesus in the Jewish sense. There has been an attempt to disfranchise Jesus from being a Jew and even when Jesus answers questions, it is argued that He is giving Christian law, even while confronting Jewish law. The problem is that Jesus never argues against the OT law and always confirms it, as the OT law was from God and He was God.
    But we need to see who Jesus was, not who we want Him to be. We need to become more like Him, not make Him more like us. This doesn’t mean adopting Judaism, but rather adopting Jesus as He was.

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