Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I saw my share of nearly nude Christs hanging on a cross. Jesus is depicted as very thin, but often fit. As Ted Alexandro would say, Jesus has great abs (“He should put out his own work out tapes – ‘Body of Christ’… ‘Cross Training’…”). To an extent this makes some biblical sense since Jesus was poor, and so has the body of a traditionally undernourished man. He just went on a 40-day… air (?) cleanse (manna cleanse?) earlier that year after his baptism (well, from a Synoptic perspective), and he definitely gets his cardio with all that walking.
Consider some Medieval representations:
[And Jesus said, “Bam! Look at those abs!”]
Or some 17th Century depictions:
[“Bro, you gonna hit the gym with me or what?”]
The trend continues in more recent contributions:
Notice that these images range over centuries, cultures, and media. This is somewhat odd, since others can have other body types:
More recently, we even have what appear to be Christians uncomfortable with the image of a weak, mortal Christ on the cross, reimagining Jesus as a ‘roided out bodybuilder:
In discussing the various ways the crucifixion is depicted with my classes, I noticed something else: not only is Jesus unusually fit (sometimes unrealistically fit), he’s also hairless. Bare chests and bare stomachs all around. Sometimes he apparently shaves under his arms. I have no problem with a Jesus who manscapes, but it seems odd that the trend is so pervasive. Why is Jesus never hairy? I would say that most Mediterranean men have some hair on their bodies, yet Jesus consistently does not. Some of this is just painting style / ability. After all, despite his big bushy beard, Peter is also depicted as well-waxed above.
The trend has rubbed off on literature, though. Consider this description of Jesus in Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas: “A queer man. The beard was sparse and the chest quite hairless, like a boy’s.”
I don’t know that artists are really saying something with Jesus’s hairlessness – body hair is just difficult to paint or to carve. I just think it would be more realistic and obviously different to depict Jesus as more of a Tom Selleck type.
But let’s return to Jesus’s fitness. One thing that being skinny communicated to many people was ordinariness. Jesus represented the average person, not some burly action-movie star, and not some waxed hipster on a kale smoothie diet. Skinny and fit is not strictly average for a guy in his 30s in Western culture, certainly not in ‘Merica where Type 2 Diabetes is a major contributor to our mortality. Due to shifting aesthetics, Jesus’s thin frame has moved from weak and pathetic to a bit idealized and even hot. So what about a hefty Jesus?
Here’s why I think a chubby Jesus would work. Jesus was known as a glutton and a drunk (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Granted, these people are perhaps not Jesus’s best friends, but Jesus doesn’t deny that he likes to eat, and if he were hungry and sober all day, the accusation wouldn’t stick. His point in citing this characterization of himself is not that they’re wrong, only that they’re hypocritical for giving John the Baptist guff for fasting and him for eating—make up your minds, guys. Now, we know Jesus likes to drink: his first public miracle is turning about 120 gallons of water into good wine at a wedding where everyone’s already hammered! His last action before he’s arrested is to institute a ritual that involves drinking wine in memory of him. So there seems to be some evidence to back up the accusation of drinking. But what about the gluttony?
Well, unlike the Pharisees and John’s disciples, Jesus does not ask his followers to fast (Mark 2:18-20; Matt 9:14-17; Luke 5:33-35 [notice that an analogy built on wine follows])—at least not while he’s around! They can do that after he leaves. In fact, they don’t even stop eating when Sabbath rules should stop them because, darn it, Jesus needs his snacks! (Mark 2:23-28 and pars.) He compares the Kingdom of God to food (Mark 4:1-20, 26-32 and pars.), and himself to grain (John 12:24) and to bread (John 6). He declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and appears in a christophany to Peter just to tell him to eat (Acts 10). He provides food for mass crowds (four or five thousand) to carb-load on at least twice. Jesus is constantly at meals with people, and his most solemn moment right before his arrest is a Passover meal for which he personally attends to the menu (Mark 14:12-16 and pars.). And again, at this meal he institutes a ritual in which his followers should eat and drink in his memory. I mean, he gets so hangry at a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it’s not even in season that he curses it forever (Mark 11:12-14 and pars.)! A guy who blesses his disciples and says they will inherit the kingdom because “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matt 25:35, although in context…) is just begging for a husky depiction.
If people don’t like the aesthetics of a fat, hairy Jesus, especially one naked on the cross, all the better. An argument could be made that he’s supposed to be pathetic up there, humble, mortal, and weak. Is it not meant to be that only through the eyes of faith you would see the glory in that moment? If Jesus has been sexualized more and more lately, perhaps it’s because a good portion of the people looking at depictions of him are wondering how many crunches Jesus did that morning, or why the sculptor had to be so historically inaccurate and put a loin cloth on him. An out-of-shape Jesus would be a call to the average person to “take up his cross,” not to go get lipo and a full-body wax.
So if anyone knows where I can get images of fat, hairy Jesus that are still reverent, let me know. And if you create icons or depict Christ yourself, I encourage you to consider a husky, hirsute Savior.