Jesus Lets Himself Go

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper


Carpentry is hard work, as Jesus must have known. The occasions when I head to the basement and chew through wood with an electric saw and nail boards together through pre-drilled pilot holes always leave me feeling like I’ve burned a few calories. Not to mention walking everywhere. No Hondas, Volkswagens, or Smart Cars in those days. A guy could sure build up an appetite. My wife pointed me to Newsweek’s blog this week, where a story about the portion sizes portrayed in paintings of the last supper over the past millennium is posted. The conclusion drawn: the food servings have continued to escalate in size as food production and acquisition have become easier.

This is not so surprising, given that what people value is what they portray in art. As I’ve mentioned before, Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus, demonstrates that portraits of Jesus reflect the self-perception of the society in which they are produced. Few attempt to make a life-like representation, largely because no one knows what Jesus might have looked like.

Jesus as an ordinary guy

A few years back, Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the University of Manchester reconstructed, based on forensic research, what he believes Jesus likely looked like. The portrait is not handsome, and to be fair, not based on the actual skull of Jesus which has been missing for a couple of millennia. I used to ask my students in Intro to Christianity what difference it would make if Jesus was not good-looking. They tended to react strongly – particularly those of Christian disposition – there was an inherent blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus might not have been drop-dead handsome.

Now, if we gently push his chair back into that fateful table one more time, we might wonder how an overweight Jesus might appeal to those who struggle with weight issues. More of him to go around, as the saying goes. I’ve viewed much religious art in my time, but I’ve never seen a love-handled Jesus, let alone a chunky savior. And perhaps that is the biggest miracle of all, given that he eats more each passing year.

13 thoughts on “Jesus Lets Himself Go

  1. Wow, something to really think about. Once again, you’ve given a different viewpoint on a subject I only thought had one. Thank you.

    I can definitely see how some “hardcore” Christians would get offended at that!

    “Not MY Jesus!”

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    • Thanks for commenting Sean! I’m glad to see you’re still in the audience. As you know from class, I live for presenting differing perspectives. If they make even one person think, then I count them as a success.

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  2. I would blasphemously compare the situation with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas in the 70s. He was fat, greasy, rambled along, but it seems the audience still saw the sexy singer from decades earlier in him. There’s hope yet for fat Jesus.

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    • Good comparison! In America everyone knows about the fat Elvis, yet many still pine for him. Not quite a savior, but he’ll do in a pinch.

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  3. I am under the delusion that a lot about Jesus is invented from confusion between a number of events.

    Just try and tell a fundamentalist that a fair death date is 25CE and BC, AD as applied to Jesus is not the same as the current BCE, CE. You’ll get some very interesting attack.

    The classic one is “all scholars” agree he died around 30CE. I take it this scholar must be a salesman for “weight watchers”.

    Great example Steve, it indicates that scholarly examination isn’t an agreement written 2000 years ago.

    I am about to go for a run.. If the jesus in the imagery was porky.. he woud look as I.

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  4. I had a colleague who would contend (only partly tongue in cheek) that Jesus was short, fat and bald. Her proof texts were: the story of Zacchaeus which is awfully imprecise about exactly who the “he” is who is short; the pharisees accusation that Jesus was a drunk and a glutton; and (more improbably) the claim that the hairs of his head could be numbered. As someone who is myself definitely bald and “compact”, I revel in the idea.

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    • Thanks, Steve! I haven’t heard anyone suggest this before. It is amazing how often people confuse physical attractiveness with the substance of the message. I shall have to remember this!

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  5. Thanks for the interesting post, Steve.

    The face you reproduce above was actually the result of several players including Joe Zias and me. Neave was only one of those involved in the process. If you watch the documentary itself (Son of God, UK; Jesus: The Complete Story, US), it is presented as a collaboration between Neave, Zias and me. I provided advice on the appearance — hair, beard, skin colour etc. We should also not forget Redvision in Manchester. They took the reworked skull and mapped it onto the computer so that it could be manipulated in accordance with my suggestions.

    I wrote about my experiences a little here:

    http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2004/02/what-jesus-really-looked-like-updated.html

    I should perhaps revisit it again now that the years have passed.

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    • Mia culpa, Mark! I just remembered seeing this reconstruction in a video years ago and couldn’t recall the details of its origins. A quick web search brought up Neave’s name. I’m glad to include you in the credits! Thanks for giving more details!

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  6. I have a Buddhist friend who always said he’d have more room for Christianity if Jesus were fat and happy with life, like Hotei, rather than a severe ascetic.

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