Monday, February 18, 2013

What makes them think it's Jesus?

This portrait is of . . . whom?

The Associated Press: Ohio school board votes to keep Jesus portrait up:
JACKSON, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio school district decided Tuesday night to keep a portrait of Jesus hanging in the school where it's been 65 years, denying a federal lawsuit's claim the portrait's display unconstitutionally promotes religion in a public school. 
The Jackson City Schools board offered a constitutional justification of its own in voting 4-0 to keep the portrait up in its middle school, saying it must protect students' free speech rights. The vote drew cheers and applause from the dozens of people gathered in the elementary school gymnasium. 
After huddling with attorneys in closed session for more than an hour, the school board said the portrait belongs to the student group that put it up, the Hi-Y club. The portrait's frame is inscribed with the club's name and the Christian-based service group is the portrait's owner, not the school, the board said.
So there is a portrait of a man hanging in the school that the ACLU and presumably some others have challenged in court as a violation of the Establishment Clause because, they say, it is a portrait of Jesus.

Why do they think that? To say that it or any other representation of a man's face is a portrait of Jesus is as valid as saying that someone has a photograph of Charlemagne.

There is no such thing as a portrait of Jesus. No one knows what Jesus looked like. No one who knew him in person has been alive for more than 1,900 years. There has survived no contemporary, reliable description of his appearance.

A few years ago, Time magazine ran a cover story on what Jesus probably looked like, based on ethnic lineages of first-century Judeans. The cover featured this portrait:

The image was made by forensic anthropologists in Britain working with the skulll of a verified first-century Judean man. Popular Mechanics also reported on this image:
Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history. 
But the anthropologists never said that Jesus actually looked like this. The image's features are best understood as generalized features of Judean men during Jesus' day. The image is presented as one of Jesus' likely general, not specific appearance.

So the ACLU goes to court to have a federal order to take down a portrait of Jesus in a school. I say again: on what basis can the ACLU claim that the identity of the subject of the portrait is Jesus? After all, the most common modern representation of Jesus (the first picture of this post) bears little resemblance to the only (disputed) historical (but nonbiblical) description of Jesus:
The only physical description of Jesus that does exist is from a copy of a letter from the Roman consul Lentulus to the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  This document was discovered in a Monastery with copies of other ancient documents.  According to the copy of the letter, the original letter from the consul was dated to the 12 year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.  Scholars have historical verification that a certain Roman consul named Lentulus was in Judea at the time of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. His influential family is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in his book Antiquities of the Jews. Scholars are divided, however, as to the authenticity of the letter.  Lentulus' letter is presented an official report to the Emperor Tiberius.  In his letter Lentulus describes the condemned man named Jesus of Nazareth as having: a noble and lively face, with fair and slightly wavy hair; black and strongly curving eyebrows, intense penetrating blue eyes and an expression of wondrous grace.  His nose is rather long.  His beard is almost blonde, although not very long.  His hair is quite long, and has never seen a pair of scissors.....His neck is slightly inclined, so that he never appears to be bitter or arrogant.  His tanned face is the color of ripe corn and well proportioned.  It gives the impression of gravity and wisdom, sweetness and good, and is completely lacking in any sign of anger.  (Holy Land Magazine, Franciscan Holy Land Press, Spring 1998). Whatever information Tiberius received concerning the strange progress of events concerning the death of this Jew, he was shaken enough to present a shocking suggestion to the Roman Senate.  There is some historical evidence to support the claim that Tiberius was so convinced of Jesus' resurrection from the dead that he attempted to have Him declared a "god", but the Roman Senate refused to approve this provincial Jew's admission to the Roman pantheon of gods.
(Italics original) The historicity of this description is disputed, however, and not generally accepted by historians.

Update: The thought occurs to me that the school's Hi-Y club should just get an art student to draw or paint a representation of a first-century Judean man and hang it on the wall with no claim of a particular identity of the man represented. Then let the ACLU try to prove that it is of Jesus. Of course, the ACLU would first have to prove that it knows what Jesus looked like to begin with. Or maybe the club and school could just use that defense now.

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