What did Jesus look like? That’s a question that no book in the New Testament seems interested in answering. Growing up around illustrated Bibles and Sunday school flannelgraphs that depicted the Saviour as a tall, handsome, bearded Caucasian figure with wavy, chestnut locks, it never occurred to me that the Gospels were devoid of any physical description.
Let’s consider some texts about other characters from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here is how the appearance of Aesop is described in Life of Aesop:
He was truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped – in short, an absolute miscreant.
Though the actual existence of Aesop is dubious, character descriptions are an important part of a biographical text¹, and the appearance of Aesop helps convey his character as a “mad wise man”.
Diogenes Laertius describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as follows in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:
Zeno…had a wry neck, says Timotheus of Athens in his book On Lives. Moreover, Apollonius of Tyre says he was lean, fairly tall, and swarthy—hence some one called him an Egyptian vine-branch, according to Chrysippus in the first book of his Proverbs. He had thick legs; he was flabby and delicate. Hence Persaeus in his Convivial Reminiscences relates that he declined most invitations to dinner. They say he was fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.
Alexander the Great is described thusly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:
The statues that gave the best representation of Alexander’s person were those of Lysippus…, those peculiarities which many of his successors afterwards and his friends used to affect to imitate, the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness. But Apelles, who drew him with thunderbolts in his hand, made his complexion browner and darker than it was naturally; for he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast.
Perhaps the closest thing we get to a character description in the Gospels is Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist:
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt. 3:4)
However, there are certain Gospel passages related to Jesus’ appearance that fostered an interesting belief among early Christians: Jesus was a shapeshifter.
Let’s establish some terminology. It was common in ancient literature for both gods and humans to undergo metamorphosis, changing form from one to another. Baukis and Philemon becoming trees in Ovid’s Metamorphosis is one example. Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt would be a biblical example.
Polymorphism is a special category of metamorphosis. In Greco-Roman literature, it was the ability of divine beings to change their own form. (Not all scholars use this definition, but it seems the most suitable one for this article. See Lee, p. 177.) A polymorphic god can change forms sequentially, or even appear in different forms to different people at the same time.
So how does this apply to Jesus? There’s a clear example of metamorphosis in the Gospels that should immediately come to mind: the Transfiguration.
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he metamorphosed [Greek: metemorphothe] before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2-3)
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he metamorphosed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matt. 17:1-2)
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9:29)
Mark explicitly tells of Jesus undergoing a metamorphosis for his three closest disciples, though he mentions only the changing of Jesus’ clothes as far as details go. Matthew and Luke both add that the appearance of Jesus’ face also changed. (John does not mention the Transfiguration.) This story seems to be based in part on Moses’ encounter on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24 and 34, and its many parallels include the six-day waiting period and the shining face. However, Moses himself is not said to metamorphose in Exodus.
Polymorphism in Resurrection Appearances
In Luke 24, we have a curious story about a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Shortly after a group of women find Jesus’ tomb empty, Jesus himself appears to two of his own followers (Cleopas and an unnamed companion) while they are walking to Emmaus. Jesus joins them and engages in conversation about the interpretation of the scriptures while they walk, and yet they fail to recognize him until they reach their destination, at which point Jesus vanishes. Whether metamorphosis is involved is ambiguous, since v. 16 simply says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus’ vanishing act, however, implies that his body was not that of a normal human.
Furthermore, the long ending of Mark — which was not original, but still dates most likely to the second century — explicitly describes the encounter as polymorphism:
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. (Mark 16:12)
John implies a similar change in Jesus’ appearance. During his first appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, she mistakes him for the gardener (20:14). John’s Jesus also seemingly has the ability to change his body’s physical properties², for he twice appears to the disciples while they are in a locked room (John 20:19-29) — a miraculous act that is also briefly recounted in the aforementioned long ending of Mark. Then, in ch. 21, he shows up in Galilee while several disciples are fishing, and only “the disciple whom Jesus loved” recognizes him — probably an editorial addition, since this disciple is not mentioned in v. 2 (Bultmann, p. 702). The statement that the disciples “did not dare” to ask Jesus who he was (v. 12) implies something strange or unrecognizable about him.
Other Hints of Polymorphism in the Gospels and Acts
There are other Gospels passages that can be explained by polymorphism even if this is not explicitly intended — and some early commentators did interpret them that way, as we shall see further on.
In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus’ speech in the synagogue at Nazara so angers all his listeners, that they attempt to throw him off a nearby cliff. Jesus makes a miraculous escape, the nature of which is left vague.
They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:29-30)
John 8 narrates a similar incident which takes place at the temple. After Jesus’ words enrage the Jews, they attempt to stone him, but he somehow hides and escapes.
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:59)
Interestingly, numerous manuscripts of John append Luke 4:30 (“he passed through the midst of them”) to John 8:59 to describe how Jesus got away (Foster, p. 75). The two incidents were clearly understood to be related. In both cases, Jesus becoming unrecognizable would be one way of explaining the escape.
Christ’s appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts is also a resurrection appearance, albeit one that takes place after the ascension (and I would argue that the resurrection and ascension were the same event in pre-Gospel theology). Here, Jesus appears to Paul in the form of a bright light (9:3), while his travelling companions see nothing at all.
Lastly, there is the matter of Judas’ kiss. In Mark, Jesus has been regularly preaching in the temple, and he has become so popular that the priests can’t arrest him in public. (“Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me,” observes Jesus in Mark 14:49.) And yet, when the priests and other temple functionaries arrive at Gethsemane, Judas has to kiss Jesus so they know which man to arrest — as if he isn’t known to them by sight. (Luke and John omit the kiss and have Jesus identify himself directly to the soldiers and priests, which gives Jesus a more direct role in the arrest but does not eliminate the recognition problem.)³
The Theriomorphic Christ of John’s Revelation
Once source I read (I forget which) while researching this article stated that unlike the Greco-Roman gods, Jesus never took on animal form. That is not true, strictly speaking. Throughout the book of Revelation (starting with 5:6), Jesus appears in the form of a lamb; and in fact, that is the only form in which he is worshipped (Moore, p. 242.).
Another Early Account of Polymorphism
The Ascension of Isaiah is a fascinating proto-Gospel of sorts. The latter portion, which tells of Jesus’ original descent from Heaven in order to take the form of a man, was probably written in the late first century (Knight, p. 154), and thus is roughly contemporary with the canonical Gospels.
In this text, Isaiah sees in a vision how Christ Jesus, who resides in the seventh heaven with God the Father, will descend to the first heaven (our own world, which extends from earth to the firmament) in order to defeat the Satanic principalities and powers — a way of describing Christ’s mission that is also fairly common in the epistles. However, in order to do so, Jesus is required to travel incognito, changing his form as he passes through the five lower heavens in order to resemble the angels that inhabit them.
Go and descend through all the heavens; descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in Sheol; but to Hell thou shalt not go. And thou shalt become like to the form of all who are in the five heavens; and with carefulness thou shalt resemble the form of the angels of the firmament and the angels also who are in Sheol. And none of the angels of this world will know that thou, along with me, art the Lord of the seven heavens and of their angels…[so] that thou mayest judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world and the world which is ruled by them…. (Ascension of Isaiah 10.8-12)
Second-Century Christianity and Beyond
The Acts of John and the Acts of Peter
Jesus’ ability to take on different forms is developed further in the mid-second century. In the Acts of John, the Zebedee brothers are perplexed when they discover that Jesus appears differently to each of them, and that his appearance keeps changing.
For when [Jesus] had chosen Peter and Andrew, who were brothers, he came to me and my brother James, saying “I need you; come to me!” And my brother … said: “John, what does he want, this child on the shore who called us? And I said, “Which child?” And he answered me, “The one who is beckoning to us.” And I replied: “Because of the long watch we have kept at sea, you are not seeing well, brother James. Do you not see the man standing there who is handsome, fair and cheerful-looking?” … And when we had brought the boat to land, we saw how he also helped us to beach the boat. And as we left the place, wishing to follow him, he appeared to me again as rather bald-headed but with a thick flowing beard, but to James as a young man whose beard was just beginning. (Acts of John 87-89)
According to the narrator (purportedly the apostle John), Jesus was unusual in other ways. His was solid at times but incorporeal at others, and he left no footprints when he walked (§93). During the crucifixion, Jesus appeared to John as a cross of light (§98).
In the Acts of Peter, Peter teaches a group of Christians that Jesus had taken on human form as part of his salvific mission, and that his appearance varied according to the beholder: “For each one of us saw [Christ] as he was able, as he had power to see” (§20). In the next section, Christ reveals himself to some blind widows, appearing as an old man to some and a youth or child to others. Peter concludes that the Lord’s “variety of forms” demonstrates how little people are able to comprehend of God.
In both Acts of John and Acts of Peter, the Transfiguration is described as a preview of Christ’s true appearance. In the former, Jesus becomes a glowing giant whose head reaches the sky (much like the risen Jesus in the Gospel of Peter); in the latter, Jesus is transformed into a blinding, ineffable radiance.
Clement of Alexandria
Church father Clement of Alexandria wrote the following around the year 200, in which he claimed that Jesus’ body was unlike that of an ordinary person:
…in the case of the Saviour, it were ludicrous [to suppose] that the body, as a body, demanded the necessary aids in order to its duration. For He ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with Him to entertain a different opinion of Him; in like manner as certainly some afterwards supposed that He appeared in a phantasmal shape. But He was entirely impassible; inaccessible to any movement of feeling—either pleasure or pain. (Stromata 6.9)
The idea that Jesus did not need to eat may come from John 4:31-35 (see footnote 2). Clement portrays Jesus here as a model of perfect impassibility that Christians are to strive for. At the same time, he tried to distance his own view from that of the Docetists; more on that below.
It’s not entirely clear to me whether Clement thought the earthly Jesus was polymorphic (Ehrman believes so; see Lost Christianities, p. 178). It is clear, however, that Clement understood Jesus to be the incarnation, through birth, of an angel (the Logos) who had in the past appeared to Israel in another form. (Paid. 1.7; see also Gieschen, p. 194.)
Church father Origen concurred with the polymorphic traits of Jesus described in the apocryphal Acts above. In Contra Celsum (248 CE), he wrote:
Although Jesus was one, he had several aspects; and to those who saw him he did not appear alike to all. … Moreover, that his appearance was not just the same to those who saw him, but varied according to their individual capacity, will be clear to people who carefully consider why, when about to be transfigured on the high mountain, he did not take all his disciples, but only Peter, James, and John. For they alone had the capacity to see his glory at that time, and were able also to perceive Moses and Elias when they appeared in glory, and to hear them conversing together, and the voice from heaven out of the cloud. (Cels. 2.64. Translation by Henry Chadwick, 1965.)⁴
In the same passage, Origen marshals the arrest story as further evidence of Jesus’ changing appearance:
And it is clear that he did not always appear the same from the remark of Judas when about to betray him. For he said to the crowd that came with him, as though they did not know him, ‘Whomsoever I kiss, it is he’.
A little further on in the same passage, Origen uses Christ’s polymorphic character to defend the fact that Jesus in the Gospels has no public appearances after his resurrection. Jesus’ post-resurrection body was apparently invisible to most people: “All those who formerly saw him could not look upon him, as he no longer had anything about him that could be seen by the multitude.” For Origen, only the apostles had the capacity to see Jesus in his resurrected body, and even then only intermittently.
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius, the influential figure known for his writings about church history, took much the same view as Origen. When Constantia Augusta, the half-sister of Emperor Constantine, requested a picture of Jesus, Eusebius wrote a reply stating that Jesus appeared in different forms during his earthly ministry, and took on a “glorified form” after Easter that surpassed the abilities of the senses to behold, and could not be depicted by “lifeless colours and shades”. Also like Origen, he understood the transfiguration to be an early manifestation of that form. (Louth, p. 262)
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
I’ve given just a small example of texts describing the polymorphism of Jesus in various ways, spanning the first several centuries of Christianity. Other Christian documents with polymorphic christology include the Shepherd of Hermas, the Physiologus, the Apocalypse of Elijah, the Apocryphon of John, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Philip, the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the Revelation of the Magi, the Armenian Infancy Gospel, and Pseudo-Cyril’s On the Life and the Passion of Christ. These writings encompass a wide range of dates (from possibly the first century to the ninth century), locations, and Christian sects. We read of a Jesus who could alter not only his facial appearance, but his stature, his age, and his corporeality — and could do differently for different observers at the same time.
Jesus in Early Christian Art
Christian art showed similar diversity. Jesus was even depicted with female features at times! Thomas F. Matthews (p. 98) writes (emphasis mine):
The alarming truth is that, travelling from Rome to Constantinople…the Christian pilgrim would have encountered a dizzying diversity of Christ types. From church to church the Lord would undergo the most radical metamorphoses. Now calmly conversing with a circle of disciples, now climbing rosy clouds into the empyrean, now sitting on rainbows and waving to the viewer from a great bubble of light above the landscape, Christ’s face was alternately old and grave, youthful and vigorous, masculine and feminine. Staring at the glittering apse must have been like experiencing a series of volatile hallucinations. The early Christian Christ was truly polymorphous.
And regarding feminine depictions of Christ:
Appearing in Gaul, Rome, Ravenna, and Thessalonica over a stretch of time from the mid-fourth century to the beginning of the sixth, [the feminine Christ] cannot be written off as a regional or transitory development. At the same time, the variety of contexts in which the feminine Christ appears suggests that there may not be any single explanation. (p. 135)
Polymorphism vs. Docetism
Polymorphism is sometimes equated with docetism, a theological viewpoint denying certain aspects of Jesus’ humanity that arose during the second century and was ultimately condemned as heresy. However, the essence of docetism that made it heretical seems to have been its denial of Christ’s suffering during the crucifixion, and the specifics took many forms; some said it was because Jesus was replaced with Simon of Cyrene or another substitute on the cross; others that Jesus’ incorporeal body could not suffer, or that the spirit of Christ left Jesus before his death. In short, it is the denial of the crucifixion and not claims about Jesus’ incorporeal nature that define the docetic heresy. Thus the Ascension of Isaiah is not a docetic text despite what some claim (Knight, p. 151).
Edinburgh University professor Paul Foster describes polymorphic christology as a feature of both docetic and proto-orthodox texts:
A close study of a range of polymorphic depictions of Christ shows how by drawing upon the embryonic understandings of polymorphism in the New Testament, both docetic and proto-orthodox Christologies were able to use the ability to appear in multiple forms to advance their own perspectives on the nature of the person of Christ. (Foster, p. 99.)
Similarly, addressing claims that Christ’s polymorphy implies Gnosticism, Pieter J. Lalleman writes, “We cannot say that polymorphy is a sign of Gnosticism, although Gnostics used it.” (p. 117)
Satan the Shapeshifter?
Some early Christians may also have believed that Satan could change his form. This view is attested already in 2 Cor 11:14: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The Acts of John (§70) and Acts of Thomas (§44) also refers to Satan as being “polymorphous”, though how this ability is manifested is unclear. The Apocalypse of Elijah, a third-century Jewish work that was probably reworked by Christians, describes the “Lawless One” as being difficult to recognize because of his ability to change his appearance, looking either young or old.
Beliefs about the polymorphic nature of Satan could be rooted in an angelomorphic understanding of his essence, much as Jesus was often regarded as an angelic figure. Early beliefs about Satan were unclear and difficult to categorize, however; see my earlier article on that.
Our earliest extant writings about Jesus provide no physical description. However, he was often understood to have been an angelic or divine being who could take on any physical appearance, or even several at once to different people. This applied to his corporeal body on earth — whose physical characteristics he could alter — as well as the spiritual body which he possessed in heaven before the incarnation and after the resurrection. The seeds of this belief are found in the New Testament and other early Christian texts, such as The Ascension of Isaiah. This belief was developed more fully by second- and third-century writers and is particularly prominent in the various apocryphal Acts as well as in early Christian art. It was eventually adopted by Docetists and Gnostics but is not an exclusively Docetic or Gnostic doctrine.
- However, it was apparently extremely rare for Greek novels to describe the physical characteristics of their characters. (Koen de Temmerman, Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel, 2014, p. 39.)
- There is at least one other passage that hints at Jesus’ non-physical nature: John 4:31-35, in which Jesus appears to have no need of earthly food, telling his disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” On the other hand, Luke 24:42 has the post-resurrection Jesus eat precisely in order to demonstrate his corporeal nature.
- Albert Schweitzer theorized that it must not have been Jesus’ identity which Judas betrayed, but his secret claim of being the Messiah, in order to inflame onlookers. Wells (1992, p. 152) gives several reasons why this explanation does not fit Mark’s narrative.
- Similarly, in his Commentary on Matthew (12.36), Origen writes: “…the Word has different forms, as He appears to each as is expedient for the beholder, and is manifested to no one beyond the capacity of the beholder.” In context, Origen is describing the ability of believers to re-experience the Transfiguration in person, much like what we read in the Acts of Peter.
Simon S. Lee, “The Transfiguration Remembered, Reinterpreted, and Re-enacted in Acts of Peter 20–21”, Jewish and Christian Scriptures: The Function of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-canonical’ Religious Texts, 2010.
Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary.
Paul Foster, “Polymorphic Christology: Its Origins and Development in Early Christianity”, JTS 58 (2007).
Stephen D. Moore, Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation: Sex and Gender, Empire and Ecology.
Jonathan Knight, “The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic?”, The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland.
Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence, 1998.
Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities:The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, 2003.
Andrew Louth, “From Doctrine of Christ to Icon of Christ: St. Maximus the Confessor on the Transfiguration of Christ”, In the Shadow of the Incarnation.
Thomas F. Matthews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Revised Edition, 1993.
Pieter J. Lalleman, “Polymorphy of Christ”, The Apocryphal Acts of John.
19 thoughts on “Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition”
I wonder of Matthew 28:17 is relevant:
The word “some” is not in the text, but some translators, like those of the NRSV above, believe it is implied. Others think that the same “they” who worshipped Jesus doubted. I had never thought of this passage in the same light as Mark 16, John 21 and Luke 24, but perhaps I should? As an aside, some apologists explain the doubt as doubt about what to do next or doubt that Jesus alone rose instead of a corporate resurrection, but this seems unlikely (assuming, arguendo, inerrancy), since harmonization scenarios have this appearance as the third one, after two appearances in Jerusalem.
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Good catch, you’re probably right. That one didn’t occur to me.
Ha, I just wanted to mention Matthew 28:17 as well! 🙂
Another really good and interesting analysis of an intriguing aspect of the whole story.
See my related comment at http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1924&start=60#p53805 .
The phrase present usually does mean a change in subject but is usually made clear by the context of surrounding information. Here there is no accompanying context so adding “some” or not adding it are both possible translations. I’ve never seen a translation omit “some” here but there are Christian commentators who argue for its omission.
Also interesting is that Textual Criticism indicates that there was no personal pronoun (“him”) in the original and lack of the personal pronoun with “worship” in the Christian Bible normally refers to God. Thus we have two significant Textual issues here we may mean that whatever was originally written here has not survived with any extant evidence.
I think the issue of Jesus’ appearance (so to speak) was initially caused by the original Gospel narrative “Mark” being clearly Separationist. Jesus explains in the lala how the faithful will be able to recognize him, through actions, and not appearance. This is consistent with Separationism. The divine part of Jesus Christ, is the Christ, or Spirit of God, and this will be bestowed on a Player to be Named later and not necessarily the Jesus (son of man) of the Gospel.
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This is very interesting. I knew of the legend of Saint Christopher to whom Christ appeared as a child, but I didn’t realize that the idea was so common.
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Thanks for the comment, Koray. I had never heard about that legend, but it seems to fit right in.
I’ve often wondered whether the mistaken identity stories of post-resurrection appearances are glimpses into one of the sources of belief in the resurrection. In particular, that after being unable to locate Jesus’ body and having been influenced by Jesus teaching of an imminent end of days, which included a resurrection, some followers began telling of experiences in which they think that they may have encountered Jesus. These “maybe that was him” episodes then perhaps grew into the more interactive tales we have in the gospels. Though speculative, this seems plausible to me and let’s not forget that corrective lenses weren’t around yet – sometimes we forget about things like that.
What do you think? Are the stories of mistaken identity more likely to have roots in real events or to be wholesale inventions? If the latter, what was the author’s intent – to emphasize a change in the resurrected body?
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While it makes sense for the Patristics to speak of Jesus in polymorphic terms (bc that is just what they knew gods to do) I don’t necessarily buy this to be a theme in the canonical Gospels. Incidents like the Judah kiss speak more to the symbolism of that action in its larger context and I don’t think the author was subtly implying Jesus had taken a different form from previously.
As for the post resurrection stories, I think you see in the early tradition the concept that the resurrection wasn’t a literal bodily resuscitation but a spiritual reality embodied by his followers. In the Emmaus story, when do they recognize Jesus? At the breaking of the bread; thus the story is about the resurrection being present during Communion; the polymorphic angle is simply a means to convey that larger message. Ditto with John; the Disciple who Jesus Loves only recognizing Jesus at first points to his authority as a Christian leader and a claim thay he was among the first to “experience” the risen Christ.
Andrew, I agree that many of the examples, particularly outside the post-resurrection stories and Transfiguration, might not have polymorphism in mind. (You’re probably right about the Judas kiss.) But because they invite speculation in that direction, they seem to have influenced the development of polymorphic christology, which is already in full bloom in the second century. Perhaps this is partly because authors who came after Mark — including the other canonical Gospel authors — often failed to grasp the complicated symbolism and rhetorical strategies of Mark. By over-literalizing the story, they needed to account for some of Jesus’ stranger physical manifestations.
Of course, that is true of much (or perhaps all) of what Jesus says and does in the Gospels, so polymorphism and other miraculous phenomena do not necessarily signal that one pericope should be taken metaphorically while the others are taken literally. Conversely, just because the polymorphism is used in a story that symbolizes the Eucharist doesn’t mean the polymorphism itself is not to be taken seriously.
At any rate, it seems that the resurrected (and polymorphic) Christ was the only one that the earliest Christians expected to encounter for themselves, so he was the only one that mattered, so to speak.
Deane at Otago refers to a thesis on this subject: https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/6453
Well, personally I tend to believe that Jesus Christ left a “photo” of Himself in the Shroud of Turin – at first I took this as one of a catholic legend, but later learned from internet resources that this shroud could be indeed authentic. I traveled to Turin myself last year to see it with my own eyes. From the shroud the face and body of Christ could be reconstructed, so finally He appeared to look like a quite normal middle-eastern man with a very strong and kind facial expression. Maybe that’s just superstition and it may be intentional that the NT never gave a physical description – we should worship Christ as invisible God, not making an icon and worship an image. Probably that was the idea behind it.
Thanks for the comment, Chris. To my knowledge, the shroud is almost unanimously regarded as a fake by scientists. The “bloodstains” contain ingredients of Medieval European vermillion paint. The fabric weave is unlike any used in Palestine at that time. Carbon dating has shown that the flax from which it was woven was harvested in the late 13th or early 14th century. The shroud itself has no known history or provenance prior to 1353 CE, and the church’s investigations at that time concluded it was a fake. Even the forger himself reportedly confessed to his handiwork.
Nice summary Paul. Other reasons to conclude fake:
1) The relatively weak evidence that there even was a burial shroud.
2) Multiple Christian claims of different burial shrouds.
3) Evidence that “The 1973 Italian Commision” results supported a 14th century date.
4) The only qualified general forensics tester, McCrone, concluded 14th century.
5) The shroud has failed every standard forensics test for evidence of blood.
6) McCrone successfully recreated comparable shrouds using 14th century type materials which are indistinguishable from the shroud.
See my related book review of McCrone’s related book here:
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I mean . .all of the tests point to around 14th century. It first appears in the historical record in the 14th century. How people could think this is just a complete coincidence boggles my mind
Not to mention consider the circumstantial evidence, Motive and Opportunity. In general relics were big business at the time and specifically this shroud was. I always picture the Pope at the time thinking like Richard Belzer in the classic “Night Shift”, “You didn’t give us one nickel”.
[…] idea of a “shapeshifting” Jesus see Paul Davidson’s excellent treatment “Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Traditions,” as well as Deborah Thompson Prince’s important observations in, “The […]
Hi, in your passage about the kiss of judas, I am not peresuaded that your interpretation is correct (the fact that jesus could have change of apperance), an idea that Origen developped around 200 EC. Indeed this conclusion is purely speculative. First, at night, even under the full Moon, in a garden of olive trees it is still quite dark. Moreover, even if John is the only one to say it, it specifies that the guards carried torches (John 18:3). Moreover, everything indicates that Jesus was waiting for his arrest and therefore had no reason to want to escape to their sight.
Yes, that interpretation of the kiss is speculative, and my purpose is to show that some early exegetes (i.e. Origen) understood it that way — not necessarily that the author intended it that way.
Most commentaries on Mark focus on the irony of the kiss as a means of betrayal. A few are clever enough to note possible narrative influence from 2 Samuel 20 (Joab betraying Amasa with a kiss). None I consulted suggested that the kiss was actually needed to identify Jesus. I think any interpretation of the passage that Jesus could not be arrested without help at identifying him introduces some difficulties.