Having been raised on the gulf coast of Florida, I spent a lot of my ill-spent youth at the various beaches ringing our city. Indeed, the best adolescent job I ever had was as a beach boy on Treasure Island, where I dutifully manned the bath house or put up umbrellas and chairs for elderly folks. On the beaches were numerous hotels and motels catering to the tourists. Many of them in their advertising proudly proclaimed themselves to cater to a “restricted clientele.” When I asked my father what that meant, he told me that it was a polite way of saying that they did not rent to Jews. Not knowing a single Jew, I asked my father how could they tell if a would-be renter was Jewish. Dad wasn’t sure, but he did say that he had Jewish colleagues at the local high school where he taught and they seemed fine to him.
That kind of overt anti-Semitism is a thing of the past thanks to civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but it is curious that it was common in the 1950s even after the horrific revelations of the Nazis during the war. I thought about that incident from my past a couple of years ago while writing a long essay on the figure of Christ in art.
We have no idea at all about what Jesus looked like. The Gospels never indicated whether he was short or tall or handsome or plain. Some early writers insisted that he was ugly so as to deceive the devil, while others urged us to think of him as elegantly beautiful. We think he wore a beard as an adult, but beyond that, we have no clues at all.
The result of that descriptive lacuna has meant that the Christian tradition was granted a blank slate allowing the artistic imagination to fill in the silence of the gospel stories. The Christian imagination, given such license, responded wildly. We have depictions that range from monumental figures of Christ found in byzantine mosaics to chubby Italianate babies by the Renaissance masters. Today, as the Christian presence grows in the non-western world it is common to find Jesus depicted as an Indian guru or a Chinese wisdom figure or a regal African chieftain. The constant thread of these poly form depictions is that somehow Jesus must be shown for what he was: a human being.
There is one other proviso to which we must attend. Jesus was not some kind of generic human being — not some abstract “Everyman.” Jesus was a historical figure born into human history into a particular time, in a particular culture, and at a specific time. Not to put too fine a point on it: Jesus was born a Jew in the far corner of the Roman empire as a non-citizen of a conquered people. As St. Paul put it succinctly, Jesus was “born of a woman; born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). He was born, in short, as a human being into a Torah-observant family. As followers of Jesus, we are somehow implicated in the tradition from which he sprung. It is in that sense that prompted Pope Pius XI, many decades ago, to say that “spiritually we are all Semites.”
To understand the New Testament, it is absolutely critical to read it against the background of the Old Testament. Indeed, it is the case that much of the New Testament itself harkens back to the Old Testament in a fashion that, unless we see that link, we read, for instance, the Gospels incompletely and, as it were, in a void. Every serious biblical commentator insists on that point. My own Notre Dame colleague, John Meier, has insisted on it in four fat volumes with more to come on his study of Jesus as, as he puts it, a “marginal Jew.”
Looking back on that old memory of pettifogging prejudice (a vicious prejudice I was too young and too callow to understand fully) has led me to think once again how radically Jewish Jesus whom we call the Christ — itself a Jewish fact since “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah” — truly is. It also leads to a startling paradox: Had Jesus come back in glory in the mid-1950s, he could not have found shelter in the motels off St. Petersburg, Florida, for as Mary and Joseph learned in their trip to Bethlehem when he was due to be born “there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology (Emeritus)
at the University of Notre Dame.