Dr. Scot McKnight, Author of The Jesus Creed, Also Comments on Christ’s Physical Appearance
Dr. Scot McKnight, a recognized authority on the historical Jesus, said he is often surprised that Christians fail to embrace the realistic aspects of Jesus’ humanity. “He wasn’t just sort of a zombie,” the scholar said, nothing that Christ’s need to eat and sleep were real.
Faithfully Magazine spoke with McKnight on the occasion of his participation in HISTORY’s new series, “Jesus: His Life.” McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, was among a diverse group of religious leaders and scholars who contributed to the eight-part program that paints a picture of Jesus from the perspectives of Joseph, Pontius Pilate, Judas, and others who knew him or encountered him during his life and ministry.
Read Faithfully Magazine‘s Q&A with McKnight below. The interview was conducted via phone. The transcript was lightly edited for clarity.
You’ve been writing and speaking about the historical Jesus for a very long time. I’m sure you get all kinds of questions. Have you ever encountered any bizarre misconceptions that even Christians themselves have about Jesus?
You know, this is really interesting because as a professor and as a lifelong learner about the Bible and Jesus, I would say yes. It never seems to change that people are shocked by the humanity of Jesus… He was a first century Galilean Jewish artisan. And I am continually amazed at people who just do not think of him in realistic categories. Our Christian creed emphasizes that he is both God and man, fine, and I believe that. But in being fully human, he was fully human. He wasn’t just sort of a zombie. He was a fully human person who had to eat and had to sleep and had to learn and grow and felt pain and felt anger. I find that to be continually surprising to me that we have not embraced this more.
How could a Christian’s faith or worldview be enriched by embracing more of Jesus’ humanity?
The writer of Hebrews tells us that he was tempted in every way like we are. So everything we go through, we can say that Jesus has been here, Jesus knows what this is like. And these are very common things. To be lost, to have parents—or maybe, you know, most people think his father died—to have brothers and sisters who don’t like him. (In the Gospels) we have all these sort of ordinary experiences that Jesus experienced, just like we do. So I encourage my students at Northern Seminary to think of Jesus as a real human being who lived life the way we live life. He didn’t walk like a hovercraft with his feet three feet off the ground. He walked on sandals and stubbed his toes and everything normal that we experienced Jesus went through himself.
Are there any hints in the Bible about Jesus’ physical appearance? Also, how likely is it that Jesus’ physical appearance would have factored into how he was received or rejected with the message that he was the Messiah?
That’s a good question. I think, number one, what we know about Jesus’ physical appearance can only be taken on the basis of probabilities based on skull recoveries and body types from first century Galileans, that’s the best we can do. And there has been some very good work—Mark Goodacre at Duke University Divinity School did some work on this. There’s a picture of Jesus out there (and) he does not look like a Scandinavian. He does not look like a European. He looks like a Middle Eastern, and that’s exactly what a Mediterranean-Middle East man of the first century (would look like). So that would be the best we could do because there’s nothing in the Gospels about what he looked like.
The other side of it is you might say that there was nothing about Jesus that was noteworthy physically. In other words, had he been eight feet tall like Samson, had he been something really special physically probably something would have shown up. Had he been seriously, let’s say, wounded at some point so he had a bad limp, I think it would have been noticed. But the absence of information is probably an indication that he was very average looking. The actor who plays Jesus is not the beauty that you would see connected to Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s movie or that has been shown in many movies in the past. I would say that the Jesus of this set of episodes is physically underwhelming and in that sense he looks pretty normal. I think they did a very respectable job on how they picked out the physical appearance of Jesus.
What are some takeaways for you from “Jesus: His Life?”
I one time wrote a book called The Jesus Creed in which I looked at various people around Jesus. I wasn’t asking the specific question of what they thought about Jesus, but as a professor of the Gospels, I have many times approached this (with), ‘What did the John the Baptist, etc. think of Jesus?’ So I thought the idea was just fantastic. I think it’s very helpful to have different perspectives on Jesus from people who knew him. To me, the scenes are very credible. The commentary, while coming from many diverse voices, is almost entirely affirmative of what the gospel depictions say. So this is not one of these conspiracy theory-driven productions. It is rather going to be encouraging to ordinary Bible-believing churchgoing-type Christians and it’s not spinning a bunch of theories. I was very impressed with the commentary, with the videos, and with the episodes that they they reconstructed. I thought it was very well done.
You’ve been studying Jesus and the New Testament for decades now. Do you still find that there’s more to uncover or learn about Jesus?
I live in a world of people who are very hard working academics who are always studying new texts, new evidence, archaeology, (and) ancient social cultures. I think every year I find new studies that bring light to the Gospels, that shed light on Christianity, and on the importance of of the life of Jesus in Christianity.
A total of 28 religious leaders and scholars reflecting a broad theological spectrum provided commentary for “Jesus: His Life.” Among them are Robert Cargill, Christena Cleveland, Bishop Michael Curry, Rabbi Joshua Garroway, Nyasha Junior, Father James Martin, S.J., and Joel Osteen.
Osteen also served as executive producer for the series. He wrote the introduction to the companion book based on the HISTORY program.
“Jesus: His Life” premieres with two episodes airing weekly beginning March 25 and concludes the week before Easter Sunday.