How many new and different versions of the Jesus story can the medium of film accommodate? Judging by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s new film Son of God, not too many: this is the traditional, predictable, stripped-down niceness taught in Sunday schools and nativity plays. But for a bare-bones presentation of Jesus, there sure seems to be a lot of flesh on screen—and what attractive flesh it is. With carefully styled hair, omnipresent smile, and sparkly eyes that say, “I see into your soul,” Diogo Morgado’s Jesus really puts the carnal in incarnate.
It’s not just me, I assure you: the Portuguese actor playing the Son of God has inspired the twitter hashtag #HotJesus. CNN anchor Carol Costello confessed to “gawking” at the actor. When CNN is getting hot and bothered for Jesus, that in itself is newsworthy.
Burnett and Downey’s film is adapted from the runaway success TV series that aired on the History Channel last year. The development process for the lengthier series involved a slew of Biblical scholars and religious leaders (full disclosure: I was one of them) who competed with debatable success to keep the show historically accurate and religiously squeaky clean. The space between historical accuracy and religious fidelity is pretty narrow indeed—might as well make it look as good as you can.
But must superhuman abilities translate into supermodel looks?
Historically, they almost always have. From Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation to Robert Powell’s Christ in Zeffirelli’s masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus has always had chiseled cheekbones, if not buns of steel.
Arguably, Christian art has been gussying up Jesus since ancient times. The portrayal of Jesus in a Roman mosaic from sixth century Ravenna, for example, communicates power, imperialism, conquest and… the ideal masculine form. Who doesn’t love a man in uniform?
But did Jesus actually look like this?
So far as the historical Jesus who walked the roads of ancient Galilee goes, we simply don’t know what he looked like. Some ancient biographers devoted plenty of space to the appearance of their subjects, but the Gospel writers did not think Jesus’s features important enough to mention. While Jesus at the Transfiguration is described as sparkly as Edward Cullen, the Gospels do not describe the shape of his nose, the glossiness of his hair, or the firmness of his midsection. While, theologically speaking, Jesus is a human being, there’s nothing in the Bible about him looking like a Greek God.
Nor should we assume that he must have been good looking just to gather attention. Even in the ancient world, personal charisma did not always mean glossy locks and carefully trimmed beard. While the ancient Greeks were just as looks-obsessed as us, both Aesop (he of the fables) and Socrates (he of the hemlock and pedantic questions) were described as ugly. The Apostle Paul, who had no shortage of female admirers, is depicted in one early Christian text as a small, bald, bow-legged man, who sported a unibrow and sometimes the countenance of an angel.
Even though the descriptions of ancient witnesses essentially yield a blank slate, and this might seem to give filmmakers some leeway in choosing the hunk of their choice, there are some logical and historical constraints that no one really seems to acknowledge. Jewish actors are almost never cast to play the Son of God. Nor is anyone whose physical features resemble those of ancient Mediterraneans. On the basis of skeletal remains, physical anthropologists estimate that the average first-century Galilean male was around 5’ 4” and 136 pounds. But there has yet to be a single cinematic life of Jesus in which the protagonist shares (PDF)the build of your average teenage girl.
This is more serious than the Hollywood tendency to turn everyday people into pin-ups (think Denise Richards as nuclear scientist Christmas Jones in the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough). There’s more at stake in artistic representations of Jesus. When a bombshell plays a professor on screen the negative fallout is limited to the crushed expectations of the freshmen class; when Jesus is portrayed as a lily-white rock star it reinforces a system that privileges certain kinds of beauty.
In an interview with The New York Times, Morgado defended his casting, saying that his looks might make Jesus “more appealing” to a wider audience. Popular prejudice confirms Morgado’s suspicions: studies show that beautiful people are viewed as healthier, more likeable, and more trustworthy. In the absence of any real evidence for the appearance of the historical Jesus it says a great deal about us that we assume that Jesus must be attractive to be appealing.
Christians may be shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to casting Jesus. When Jesus is made all sexy for the screen, doesn’t it suggest that his words and deeds aren’t powerful enough on their own? They seem to have been for Paul. And Jesus himself doesn’t seem to have wanted to get us hot under the collar. But as long as beauty is linked to power, success, and moral goodness, silver-screened Jesus will continue to lead us into temptation.