Isn’t history funny? The masculinist, militaristic war machine of Western culture, for going on two millennia, has worshipped, and rooted its existence in a deity who was, on earth, an androgynous guy with very pretty hair. Look at him: Jesus is feminine, delicate, strange.
To read the Bible, you’d learn all that is wrong. In the New Testament, there isn’t any description of Jesus.
Well . . . that’s not exactly true.
Jesus is understood, by the faithful, to be described in prophesis. The Jews who accepted him as a messiah would have known these references, and so there might be a recognition of this imagery.
We have Isaiah 53:2: “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”
The words are famous, but misleading. The Hebrew word for ‘beauty’ doesn’t refer to physical appearance. “This use of hadar is rooted in the ancient concept of a king or of a royal city,” notes Vine’s Expository Dictionary. The reference, rather, is to office or rank.
The Jewish messiah will not be seen as a political authority, is the idea. As a commoner, Jesus was understood to fulfill that.
There are other Old Testament messianic passages, however, that do speak of the messiah’s physicality. There’s Isaiah 33:17 (“Your eyes will see the King in His beauty”), but more to the point, since the surrounding passage is identified as messianic in Hebrews 1:9, there’s Psalm 45:2:
Youthful in beauty you are, beyond the sons of men; grace was poured on your lips; therefore God blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O powerful one, in your bloom and beauty . . .
“The king is celebrated as the most beautiful person among human beings,” notes the scholar Hans-Joachim Kraus. “The reference is to his beaming appearance, the extraordinary majestic bearing (Ps. 50:2).”
This word for ‘beauty’, yaphah, is used of human appearance, as in the Song of Songs 7:6, “How beautiful you are” — speaking of the girl.
Or Ezekiel 16:13, “You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.”
If a Christian is looking to Old Testament prophesy for a portrait of Jesus, then that might be of a ‘beautiful’, somewhat feminine man.
An early anti-Christian strategy was to assert that Jesus was ugly, citing Isaiah 53:1–3. In the 2nd century, the anti-Christian Celsus says, “Jesus’ body was no different than any other, but, as they say, was little and ugly and undistinguished.”
That was dismissed by Origen, the early Christian writer, for whom Psalm 45:2 was the guide. Jesus’ body, he says, “was not only distinguished among human bodies, but was also superior to all others.”
The subject is not theologically irrelevant. Throughout the Old Testament, as Athalya Brenner notes, “physical appearance and physical beauty matter. And so does the lack of beauty.”
David Penchansky observes, in a study of beautiful humans in the Bible, that this quality “contains great promise, great creativity, but also great danger.” Narratives change based on the entrance of a beautiful person.
And the beauty that matters, in regard to men, is androgynous. A description of Joseph, in Genesis 39:6, is nearly word-for-word the same as the beauty of his mother, in 29:17. The translations have her “beautiful” as he’s “handsome.” The text clearly intends to mirrors them.
Moses was “beautiful before God” since a baby (Exodus 2:2 LXX; Heb. 11:23; Acts 7:20). The beauty of Saul, as well, is noted (1 Sam 9:2), and David is really a sex symbol, to women and men (1 Sam 17:42; 1 Sam 16:12). His appeal is different than typical masculine profiles, as he notes in Psalm 151: “My brothers were handsome and tall, / but the Lord was not pleased with them.”
When David’s son Absolom ends up being extremely beautiful (cf. 2 Sam 14:25) this seems to be understood as a sign of his spiritual importance. That Absolom is beautiful is a mark he’s to be the king. It remains a sign of godlike and messianic character, as with the man in the Song of Songs (1:15, 4:7).
The prophet Daniel and his friends are ‘good-looking’ (Daniel 1:4, 10), which seems to provide the basis of their status in the pagan court. As again with Esther (2:7), the physical beauty of God’s chosen figures is a force that announces their divine status.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have further description of the messiah. In 4Q534–536 d, discussed by Simon J. Joseph as a messianic prophesy, we learn his “hair will be red” and there will be “lentil-like marks” on his thigh.
Here is more of the fragment:
In his youth, he will be like … [like a m]an who knows nothing until the time when he knows the three Books. And then he will acquire prudence and learn und[erstanding] … w[ise] seers come to him, to his knees. And with his father and his ancestors … of brothers will hurt him.
That this may pertain to Jesus is possible even within the context of the New Testament. In John 1:29, John the Baptist sees “coming toward him” and recognizes him as the messiah.
How he recognizes Jesus is not disclosed, but note that John, as often speculated, may have been from the Qumran community.
That Jesus is not described, overtly, is important. It might, suggests Brittany E. Wilson, “stem from a Jewish concern to avoid depictions of the divine and thus avoid idolatry.”
It has a practical effect. Graham Ward notes that the lack of description allows men and women to be drawn to him without “questions of sexuality”.
This absence of physical description, he says, “does not prevent or stand in critical judgement of a sexual element. It simply overflows the sexual such that we cannot, without creating a false and idolatrous picture of Christ, turn this man into an object for our sexual gratification. This man cannot be fetishized, because he exceeds appropriation.”
Jesus is not un-sexualized. Rather, the lack of description makes his body available to everybody. As Ward says, “the body of Christ can cross boundaries — gender boundaries, for example. Jesus’ body as bread is no longer Christ as simply and biologically male.”
We can feel Jesus’ sex appeal in the text. It is warm and open. Crowds and children love him. “The sexual charge is evident in the delight taken by the soldiers in abusing his body and in the palpable sense of power created through the contrast between Pilate’s towering authority and Jesus’ submissiveness,” notes Ward. There is, he feels, an “energetic force-field within which this body is placed and its power to effect, to draw in.”
Why did Christianity like to think of Jesus as somewhat feminine, even when it favored, consciously, aggressive and ‘masculine’ profiles?
This drama brings us to the fascinating story of the Head of Christ by Warner Sallman, which for the latter 20th century was a classic depiction of Jesus.
The painting’s official story, as recounted in Jack R. Lundbom’s Master Painter: Warner E. Sallman, begins in 1914 when the ‘master’ is a young man being challenged to paint a portrait of Christ who is “forceful and masculine, rather than weak and effeminate, as was often the case.”
The image Sallman did, decades later, was of a vaguely Italian guy with rather amazing hair, posing and lit like a Hollywood star.
“In Sallman’s Head of Christ we have a pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo Shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died and rose again!” seethes a contemporary critic.
“The most famous picture of Jesus makes him look weak and effeminate,” fumes another. “You present this famous picture of Jesus on some of our mission fields and the people say, ‘Your God looks weak.’”
But Sallman’s Jesus became the clear inspiration for the male “hippie” look the Baby Boomers favored, which dramatically blurred gender barriers.
To look over Christian depictions of Jesus, we find it all over the map. But it’s never aggressively male.
Why is that?