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  • Jon Taylor

Artistic Impressions vs The Historical Jesus

Updated: Sep 13, 2019

The National Gallery - Trafalgar Square, London

From previous visits to the National Gallery, I was struck by the amount of biblically themed art and artistic license employed. A visitor from a newly discovered tribe or remote region, may well be led to assume that the Lord and His disciples were of distinctly European origin. Based on their attire, they appear to have somehow walked on this earth either in the late Middle Ages or possibly during the renaissance or Victorian era. That much was evident from observing many finely produced paintings from an array of the work displayed. The problem is that we reside in a largely biblically illiterate society, particularly amongst Millennials where the basics of Bible teaching has been undermined in the educational curriculum. If we rely upon artwork and our imagination rather than historical evidence and God’s revealed truth, the gospel is reduced to an ideology of good works constantly being reinterpreted which is powerless and distanced from the truth. The last time I went to get my hair cut, the barber explained that he was a 21st Century Christian which when he explained what that entailed, had no more significance than the gospel presented through culturally biased artwork on a take it or leave it, pick and mix worldview. Similarly, Rastafarian art considered at face value would suggest a Messiah emerged somewhere from the Rift Valley with an Afrocentric appeal to ‘the diaspora’ drawing an especially Jamaican following. Granted that the allegorical message of Rastafarianism is perceived as ‘the deeper meaning’ in both cases there is an ideological bias in the form of propaganda being presented.

On this occasion however, I listened in to an art lecturer commenting on a painting which included a scene of the crucifixion. Attention was given to the size of the characters reflecting their importance and the representation of angels in relation to death and what was and wasn’t included. Not surprisingly attention wasn’t considered in relation to the historical narratives provided in the gospels or important literature written around that time. It was as if the paintings were inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays rather than an historical occurrence. Sure, this is an art gallery not an archaeological museum though impressions can be influential and persuasive. This isn’t to denigrate the use of art in connection with the Bible since remarkable artwork was used for the construction of the tabernacle and the temple. On a recent visit to the Jewish Museum in London it was great to view and read about beautifully sculptured furniture and what it meaningfully represented. This wasn’t purely for aesthetic effect since the design of the temple and its finer details foreshadowed the Messiah who tabernacled (dwelt) among us (John 1:14). Moreover the designs and dimensions of the tabernacle and required contents were given by God (Exodus 25:1-40). I know of believers who are skilled craftworkers who had they lived a few millennia ago would have been invaluable in that work and who today have made some fine furniture such as pulpits and a table for the Lord’s Supper with the emphasis wholly focussed on the glory of God. In former years, stain glass windows did on occasions provide the basics of biblical narratives to make messages comprehensible to those who couldn’t read or when the Bible was overwhelmingly read solely in Latin and inaccessible to the masses. The Historical Jesus We live in a society where many claim that they are living ‘in the here and now’ yet bury their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich considering how we got here and where we are heading. The deep questions of life are ignored as if they are of no greater value than politics. The tragic irony is that they are not really thinking about the present at all, but rather choosing to measure meaning in life, through the subjective medium of their experience and intuition. The reality is that even our conscience is not fool proof, since though we have been created in the image of God, we naturally do what is right in our own eyes. We therefore need to explain that the gospel once for all delivered to the saints was not set in a nebular, cultural and historical vacuum but that the Prince of glory entered into to our world, in the midst of three large continents and that through His unique life, message of redemption and resurrection, changed the face of history and turned the world upside down. The gospel is for everyone and transcends our human backgrounds, biases, causes and categories. We need to articulate that the Bible is the most commonly read book in the world for a reason and though it was written millennia ago, speaks clearly about how God has revealed Himself, and how we can know Him and receive forgiveness for our sins and eternal life in Him. The crucifixion of our Lord was a historical event to which history testifies. No credible historian would deny that Jesus was a historical figure and with the records provided by several independent historians they would be incredibly foolish to deny the event of His crucifixion. This calls for consideration of the evidence presented by eye- witnesses and His disciples, and the Apostles who penned the New Testament. His resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection, so therefore we need to consider not merely our desired destination, but our everlasting destination based on the truth that the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth has revealed. We all have a birthday; yet we also have a day when our short sojourn on this sphere we call earth will cease. There is a day appointed for judgement for which we will all have to give an account. Not one of us can evade that reality. The happiest day is when we came to faith in Him alone and had our sins washed away, secure in the hope that He who knew no sin became a sin offering for us that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21) and that for those who have repented, trust and follow Him, He has gone ahead to prepare a place for us (John 14:1-3).

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