Unhealthy Idolatries of Jesus & Mary

Unhealthy Idolatries of Jesus & Mary October 14, 2019
Unhealthy Views of Jesus and Mary are Far From Reality
Photo by Ali Hegazy on Unsplash

Unhealthy Christology!—Our imagined Jesus and Mary are a far cry from the historical truth of starving Galilean peasants.

Is your imagined Jesus unhealthy? How do you picture the historical Jesus, physically speaking? Imagine Jesus walking about in first century Galilee. How does he appear? Did being God’s only begotten Son mean that Jesus was impervious to infectious disease, malnutrition, poor hygiene, nonexistent sanitation, tooth decay, parasites, bad eyesight, and rampant village violence—all common realities to his world?

Unhealthy Views of Jesus Divorce Him from Peasant Realities

Jesus was a peasant artisan in a hamlet called Nazareth. We are made to think of Jesus as a carpenter as per our faulty ethnocentric English translations, and the corresponding devotional image is often anachronistic to carpenters from 19th century abundance and 20th century superabundance. But the Greek word is tekton, and can refer to any Mediterranean lower class male working in wood or metal.

Leave Unhealthy Views and See Jesus Rightly
Fellow Dying Inmate (with inspiration from Donato Giancarlo) / All rights reserved

If Jesus’ family specialized in the yokes of oxen, as legend suggests, then his family would have been of the poorest in Israel. Far too many homilies pool the ignorance that the Holy Family was “Middle Class.” That’s completely bogus. Worse, it leads to unhealthy behavior unfit for those called to be Christians.

While larger Israelite villages and towns would showcase various craftsmen and artisans, this was not the same for tiny hamlets like Nazareth with just around 200 people. Without travel, Jesus and his family would assuredly starve. But such travel for survival marked itinerant artisans like Jesus as being socially deviant. In his society, only the degraded and expendables were beneath his family.

Unhealthy Picture

So picture Jesus standing in the village square for work as an artisan or day laborer. Looking at his parables, and what we know about peasants and their treatment from his time, it isn’t hard to catch glimpses of him. Read the parable of the tenants, or the parable of the day laborers.

Now consider also 45 to 60 migrant workers from our time, huddled together in a trailer without AC or running water, after a day of backbreaking work picking our avocados and tomatoes. They band together to pray in their humble gathering place. These are nothing-people, throw-away people—people like Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and their fellow villagers from Nazareth. Let’s take the “IN” of Incarnation, seriously.

Unhealthy understandings of where our food comes from. Migrant workers, in distance, delicately lift and separate the greens from large sweet potatoes, at Kirby Farms in Mechanicsville, VA on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013.
USDA photo by Lance Cheung / Flickr

Jesus, Peasant Artisan among Day Laborers

Although Jesus was an artisan, most days he would take work as a day laborer. To most ancients, day laborers ranked beneath slaves. They starved with fifty to 100 people in your village household complex, desperately scratching out survival. From where do the ingredients of Jesus’ parables come? These come from being terribly marginalized, crushed down by debt and poverty.

Workers like Jesus were not guaranteed a minimum wage. In fact, wages were depressed. Day laborers never got hired two consecutive days. Because of the epidemic of land foreclosure in Jesus’ time, numbers of competing day laborers soared, filling the village squares. They therefore had no bargaining power. The stewards who hired them held all the cards.

The Western individualistic strategy of job hunting was nonexistent in Jesus’ world. What these despised day laborers and itinerant artisans would do would be to wait around all day in the village square. They were not permitted to inquire about work opportunities—prospective hirers came to them. These people were treated like dirt, went without advocacy, survived on the margins, and always were near death, just a step away from being a soon-to-die expendable. This bleakness is the origin place of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Healthy Vision of Jesus

Given all of that, how do you picture Jesus? How did he physically look working in the Galilee? How handsome was he? How tall and robust was he? Was his hair clean and healthy-looking? And how about his teeth?

And how do you imagine his mother, Mary, the village peasant woman? Does she look like a German Goddess all dressed up in blue? Was she, back in first century Galilee, a healthy example of womanhood? Was she clean and well-manicured, with sparkling-white teeth of perfect dental health? Did she smell like roses?

Think of all the religious art where Mary and Jesus are depicted smiling. If the historical Mary or the prepaschal Jesus smiled at you, what would you see?

Unhealthy Distortions

Our Jesus movies (including Mel Gibson’s), Christian storybooks, religious clip art, devotional material, and Sunday school programs’ visual aids have damaged us in unhealthy ways. The nonsense that is the Shroud of Turin has set up psychological blocks to what is about to be presented.

No offense, but the ludicrous idea that we “know” what Christ looks like because we “know” that the Shroud of Turin must be the historical burial cloth of Jesus is nonscholarly opinion. The idea of the Shroud’s authenticity, held by some as if had dogmatic weight, is hotly contested by many scholars. Catholics are not obligated to believe it is real.

We have an unhealthy addiction to holy card sentimentality and 19th century romanticizing the peasant life of the Holy Family. Christmas pageants wrongly harmonizing “Matthew” and “Luke” reinforce our cheap grace feels.

Scholarly Corrections

These things are all deceits and distortions, honest ignorance or sincere stupidity that distance us from the truth of peasant life. Worse, they keep our parishioners and parishes mired in unhealthy status quo complacency, far from metanoia we desperately need! “Happy Birthday Jesus!” at Christmas time is an American fantasy. Scholar Richard Rohrbaugh explains:

“Birthrates in the first century were approximately forty per thousand per year, twice that in the U.S. today, though death rates were even higher still; hence in the modern world we have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and a rapidly rising population. Infant mortality rates have been estimated at 30 percent in many peasant societies today, and that may well have been the case in first-century Palestine. Of the children who made it past infancy, a third were dead before the age of six. By age sixteen, 60 percent had died. By age twenty-six, 75 percent were gone and by age forty-five, 90 percent were dead. Only three percent made it to age sixty.”

(See The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective by Richard Rohrbaugh and The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity by Thomas Carney, page 88)

Jesus Died an Old Man

Jesus died an old man—30ish was old for his world, folks! Four out of five people in his audience were younger than he was. The majority of these people, living in extremely unhealthy conditions, were facing death within a decade. During the first days of the Jesus Movement, most of the Twelve were probably in their teens. They were dirt poor and infectious disease ravaged their towns and villages.

If you were a peasant and reached 30 years old in Jesus’ world, you almost certainly suffered with terrible eyesight, teeth rotting out of your head, and internal parasites. Your inescapably unhealthy body would be ravaged by protein deficiency. One half of every comb recovered at digs from Qumran, Masada, and Murabbat show signs of lice with eggs—suggesting how unhealthy life was in Nazareth.

(See Death and Disease in Ancient Israel, pp. 146-59, by Joseph Zias and Ancient History of Palestine, p. 98 by David Fiensy)

Jesus’ Diet was Terrible & Village Life Knew Rampant Violence

Richard Rohrbaugh and other scholars inform us of the horribly insufficient diet of first century Galilean peasants. Says Rohrbaugh, approximately one-fourth the caloric intake of a male Palestinian peasant came from alcohol, with half of all calories from bread.

(Read The Diet of Palestine in the Roman PeriodIntroductory Notes, pp. 41-56 by Megan Broshi.)

Middle Eastern village life is agonistic. The same was true 2,000 years ago. Violence in Jesus’ village settings was routine. In the Gospel called “Mark” alone one finds fifteen reports of common Middle Eastern village violence (1:14; 1:45; 3:6; 3:27; 5:3; 6:16–28; 10:33–34; 12:1–8; 12:40; 12:41–44; 13:9–13; 14:1; 14:43–48; 15:7; 15:15–20).

(See “Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day” and “The Countryside in Luke-Acts” in “The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation” pp. 152-64, by Douglas Oakman; edited by Jerome Neyrey.)

No Way to Control Infections

The gravest threat to life came by way of infectious diseases. Ancients had no means of controlling infection. Rural areas depended on shamanic folk healers like Jesus as professional physicians usually were out of the question. Modern physicians were unknown to the world of Jesus. Sanitation was nonexistent—this caused disease rates to soar.

Being Serious with the Prefix “IN”

Taking in all of this, how does Jesus—truly human!—and Mary, look now? Taking the “IN” of Incarnation seriously is a messy business! Love is a messy business! Can we love someone whom we grossly misrepresent?

Consider our parishes and dioceses! Do they look and smell of Jesus and Mary and people like them? Or are they too well-dressed, too successful, too clean?

There are moral limits to verbal orthodoxy. Saying Jesus is truly human is insufficient. Let’s live this truth, smell this truth, kiss this truth, invite this truth to sit next to us in our comfort-places where, all too safely, we speak about them. Our parishes should look very different if we do. Even a diocesan gala thrown for the benefit of the despised (and criminalized) poor and migrants are far away from where they languish.

Writing and at the Amazon Synod, Pope Francis continues this challenge, urging us to make Christ-the-poor a co-participant in our plans and workings to bridge the gap between the comfortable and the despised and starving “nothing people.”

Getting Real

Tossing crumbs from a soup kitchen is not Biblical mercy nor is it transformation. But a CEO or “successful” entrepreneur walking and smelling the garbage dump home of Christ-the-poor is the sign of incarnational empathy. Such face-to-face, heart-to-heart love incarnates a living confession that we, the well-off, are also terminally ill, but deluded by our vanity walls into a make-believe we are immortal, somehow removed from being born between urine and feces like Cornell West says, and soon to be a feast for worms as we must.

And it gives living flesh to love. Here is the true ontological! Here is the truly authentic life! This is the place of authentic Eucharistic life. Only here can sinful structures change. Will we see the real Jesus?




"I don't want to be a fuss-budget but to help you be better, because you ..."

Jesus’ Infancy Stories—All True, Some Facts
"BeeryUSA asks a valid question.It is reasonable to believe something based on facts, but when ..."

Jesus’ Infancy Stories—All True, Some Facts
"Yes, the literal sense is important. Yes, Mediterranean culture, more specifically Israelite/Judean culture, is important. ..."

Jesus’ Infancy Stories—All True, Some Facts
"The first interpretation of Scripture is Mediterranean culture. Why? The Literal Sense (what the author ..."

Jesus’ Infancy Stories—All True, Some Facts

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • mparks12

    This is all silly. We are supposed to “idolatrize” Jesus – He is God. I think you meant not to have an idealized image. However, you are wrong on your account of Him also. Jesus was a builder, techne in the Greek, at least a craftsman and probably worked on the building of the Decapolis, ten cities near Him. Civilization was quite robust in that time – you could get a letter from Rome to Jerusalem in three days. Jesus was not a primitive. The Jews were not primitive, and their special laws resulted in an average lifetime of 70, believe it or not. The people of the time had great ways to control infections with garlic and honey, ways that we are just now discovering. They could control disease outbreaks with the antiviral/antibacterial immune boosting olive leaf. And I am sure they had more solutions than we are aware of. Moreover, they washed their hands and their food. Unlike many peoples. The Jewish diet was good, but yes, I will agree that village life could be violent – because of the Roman rule and punishments. Richard Rohrbach is not what I would think of when I think of a Biblical scholar. This whole piece is rather tendentious.

  • H S

    These are not facts nor even interpretations of facts. They are typical of today’s tendencies to think that we are so clever and intelligent that we should know best. And then we speculate and extrapolate. Mel Gibson’s film is largely based on the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Jesus was an exceptional human being. Sin and its consequences had no grip on Him. He was born of a virgin, the historical Virgin who was herself born immaculately. That Jesus cured diseases and raised people from the dead is a fact. He commanded the weather and all natural laws. That He was the victim of these diseases is not recorded anywhere. When in Mel Gibson’s film I saw the child Jesus running, stumbling and falling, I could not help thinking of the words of the psalm 91.12 and repeated by the devil in Mt 4.6: lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

  • Ame

    St. John of the Cross, in his Ascent of Mt. Carmel, gets to the heart at the mystery of the Incarnation, the ordinary humanity of Jesus that can be seen in even the most despised among us, overcoming our repulsion of the poor, becoming poor and nothing in order to be emptied of pride and vainglory and vanity and saving face and worldly honor and class. While God comes to the prophet, the visionary, and artist in Beauty, as He is infinitely Beautiful in the beatific vision and has implanted in our hearts a desire to seek and reveal the beautiful….we alas make idols out of the beauty created by human hands. We cling to these things and let them replace the incomprehensible face of God. True imitation of Christ, the Son of God who came to remind us that ALL humanity was created good and to bring humanity to salvation, consists not always becoming materially poor but realising that what you receive as gift you must then give as gift, that you must not fear the poor, but be willing to sit with them and share in their joy and sorrow, as well as helping them meet their material needs. The poor WILL always be with us, as Jesus says. Will we be with them? Will we wish to be perfect as the Father is perfect by letting go of our attachments and preferences that enslave us, that make us spiritually poor? So yes, we must enjoy the gifts of artists who bring us beautiful images of Jesus and Mary, as meditate over more realistic representations of them. And we must find them in our neighbors, especially the poor.

    For all his unbelief, crassness, and bad boy history, Anthony Bourdain was certainly a man who had the spirit of the Law of God written on his heart. He went around the world and broke bread with even extremely poor people, but let them show the best of themselves in their hospitality and wisdom. I hope he had seen the glory of God and came to belief for even just a moment before his last breath.

  • HereB4

    “Did being God’s only begotten Son mean that infectious disease, malnutrition, poor hygiene, nonexistent sanitation, tooth decay, parasites, bad eyesight, and rampant village violence—all common realities to his world—made Jesus exempt from their effects?”
    Is this supposed to be a sentence? Your usage errors would not matter to me if your content was worth ploughing through them
    – but as things are, they do matter.