Spendlove uses Hebrew word usage in Isaiah 52 and 53 to suggest that Christ may have suffered from debilitating and disfiguring illness, fulfilling the prophecy that his appearance would be marred (mishchat, also meaning deformed or impaired), in contrast with the noted beauty of Israel’s other savior-like figures.
The SummaryIn this article, Loren Spendlove summarizes arguments regarding Christ’s physical appearance, using passages in Isaiah 52:14 and Isaiah 53:2-4 to suggest that Christ was prophesied to be unattractive, and perhaps even physically disfigured. This argument is based on Isaiah’s use of (and Abinadi’s reference to the Hebrew terms toar (“form”), mareh (“appearance”, translated in the KJV as “beauty”), mishchat (“marred or deformed”), machovot (“sorrows”, which could be better translated as “pain”), and choli (“grief”, which could be better translated as “sickness”). The connotation of these words suggest that Christ’s physical appearance was prophesied to be undesirable and potentially deformed, and that he would be a man of pain, acquainted with sickness—characteristics that may have made it easier to understand and care for our own pains and sicknesses. Spendlove contrasts this with descriptions of Israel’s physical saviors, as well as other biblical figures with noted beauty: Moses, Joseph, David, Esther, Judith, Mary, and Rachel. (Appendices also include additional references, including one to the Nile cows of Pharoah’s dream.)
In clarifying the language used by Isaiah, Spendlove notes that the Hebrew word for “form” generally refers to the body, while “appearance” or “beauty” refers to the face. Both words are used throughout the Bible in descriptions of physical appearance. Beauty is often used Biblically (and elsewhere) to communicate or symbolize power, with the nouns toar and mareh implying that beauty was used actively, with it contributing to the success of those who had it. For instance, though Joseph’s physical beauty got him entangled with Potiphars wife, that circumstance ultimately allowed him to save his family. Esther’s beauty similarly allowed her to prevent the slaughter of her people.
The word for “marred” is also used elsewhere in the Bible, with reference in Leviticus to deformed and disfigured lambs being unfit for sacrifice. Spendlove suggests that, if Christ was marred in the way similar to those lambs, it would help explain why he cited the proverb, “Physician, health thyself”, as those who knew him might be confused as to why he could heal others, but did not heal his own apparent deformity. It could also explain how Christ’s disciples often didn’t initially recognize him following his resurrection. Though the Gospel writers are silent on Christ’s physical appearance, and seem to actively avoid that aspect of Isaiah’s prophecy, the potential for Christ’s homeliness was amenable to early Christian scholars like Tertullian.
As to why Christ would choose to come to earth in an unattractive form, Spendlove speculates that it would allow Christ to appear “in disguise”, without his true majesty, similar to how Abinadi came in disguise to the people of Noah. It may also have allowed him to be rejected as Israel’s liberator in the physical and military sense, freeing him to complete his spiritual mission. Christ’s power was not in his beauty, but in the word of God, by which he both ministered to others and called them (sometimes sharply) to repentance.
Spendlove uses this article to make an interesting suggestion, and one that, barring specific revelation or a heretofore unknown contemporary description, will never be disproven during the bounds of our mortal experience. We can’t know what Christ looked like in his mortal form. Some lucky few might be able to tell us what he looks like now, but according to Spendlove, those two images wouldn’t be one and the same, and may not even be recognizable. One could ask whether it matters what Christ looked like, and, to my mind, it probably doesn’t matter much. The core aspects of the gospel and the atonement would still apply if Christ was actually as handsome as commonly portrayed. But perhaps Christ’s physical appearance meant something—maybe it had a useful spiritual purpose. If so, Spendlove’s proposal gives us clues to that purpose.
I do wish, though, that he had addressed what to me has seemed an obvious alternative—that references to Christ’s marred appearance, his sorrows and his pains, instead characterize the act of atonement itself. Surely an event that caused him to bleed from every pore would also temporarily marr his appearance, and make him a man of sorrow, familiar with the pains and sicknesses of those for whom he suffered. Despite Spendlove’s suggestion that Christ experienced a lifetime of pain and illness, might these descriptions have been earned through an hour or two of pain in the garden? Such wouldn’t necessarily explain away Spendlove’s core arguments, but it would provide a competing account of Isaiah’s prophecy, and one that would be worth discussing.
Regardless, we might be well served to remember one key fact: every image of Christ you’ve ever seen is wrong. Someday you’ll see him as he is, and perhaps even understand him as he was. But the important part is that you will recognize that face. Whether disfigured or not, it will be the face of your brother, your savior, and your redeemer. When that happens, I think we’ll look at him the same way he’ll look at us, not on the outward appearance, but on the heart.