What did Jesus look like?

face-of-jesus-01-0312-mdnThere’s a subject which everyone is talking about, and which threatens to split the church. Jesus does not mention it explicitly, but he does not contradict the clear references that we find in the Old Testament. Some would argue that it is a question of indifference, of adiaphora, where others point to the consequences of going against the implicit assumptions of the Bible as undermining Scripture’s authority in the contemporary church. They say that the only reason Christians are now changing their view is because of changes in culture, and we in danger of simply conforming to the world around us. This pressing question, is of course, whether men should be clean shaven.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist that!) Last year I wrote on the question of whether Jesus had a beard, and noted that, in early iconography, Jesus was often beardless until around the sixth century. This was because images of Jesus aimed not to reproduce his likeness, but to express his significance within culture. So if Jesus was depicted as an all-powerful deity, he might look like Zeus; if he was a wise teacher, he might be made to appear like a philosopher. Fashions changed, and when wise men were generally depicted as bearded, so was Jesus. (There is some theological significance to this, to which we shall return).

There are several reasons why I think Jesus did not have a beard. First, beards are mentioned in the Old Testament quite frequently, but not at all in the New Testament. (In other first century accounts, such as Josephus, no mention is made of Jews having beards.) In particular, the ‘servant’ in Is 50.6 has his beard pulled, and this account appears to have shaped the accounts of Jesus’ trial and mocking—and yet without mention of anyone pulling his beard. If he had had a beard, it would have been pulled, and if it had been, there is no doubt the gospel writers would have mentioned it.

Last month, I came across a great article by Joan Taylor, Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. It was published in The Ancient Near East Today, the journal of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and is available online on their blog. (You need to register to read the whole article, but it is free and involves no commitment.) Joan also notes the way that iconography of Jesus was determined by his significance, not by any sense of physical likeness. On the question of beards, she thinks he might have been bearded for practical reasons (as he was itinerant) or to follow the habit of philosophers, but she makes these important observations:

He did not have a beard just because he was  Jew. A beard was not distinctive of Jews in antiquity. While by the time the Babylonian Talmud was written in the 5th-6th centuries beardedness might have been common for Jewish men (b.Shabbat 152a, ‘The glory of a face is its beard’), it was never identified as an indicator of Jews in the 1st century. In fact, one of the problems for oppressors of Jews in the Diaspora was identifying them when they looked like everyone else. However, the Jewish men on Judaea Capta coins (issued by Rome after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE) are bearded but with short hair; this is probably how Romans imagined Jewish men in Judaea, even if in the Diaspora a Jewish man may have looked like every other guy.

61fkcDUuuwL._UX250_Taylor then goes on to discuss other aspects of Jesus’ appearance. The first thing to note is that Jesus’ clothing was, unlike John the Baptist’s, unremarkable, as few comments are made about it in the gospels. In contrast to contemporary depictions in film, Jesus would likely have worn a short, knee-length undergarment (the chiton, usually translated ‘shirt’; see e.g. Matt 5.40, Luke 3.11, John 19.23). Long clothing was ‘girly or godly’, either worn by women or the wealthy who did not have to work. This garment would invariably have had two band of colour, running from the shoulder to the hem, front and back, but be otherwise undyed.

On top of the chiton, Jesus would have worn a himation; it was this that that woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch. This term occurs 41 times in the gospels, and is usually translated ‘garment’ or ‘cloak’ (see Matt 5.40, 21.7, Mark 5.27 and so on). This would normally have been dyed a colour; it becomes white only at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.3, Matt 17.2,).

It is clear from clothing found in Masada and the caves by the Dead Sea that clothing was often very highly colored. The ordinary people of Jesus’ time loved color and their clothing has beautiful shades of red, green, and types of purple designed to imitate the colors favoured by the wealthy. Their cloth was durable and they did not wear earthy hues but vibrant ones, especially for their himatia.

Two other insights about Jesus’ clothing come from some details in the gospels. In Luke’s account of the woman with an issue of blood, she is said to touch the kraspedon of Jesus’ garment (Luke 8.44, compare Mark 6.56). There is some debate about the precise meaning here—is it just the fringe or edge of his himation? Or is it, as in Matt 23.5, referring to the tassels on the four corners of the garment, in obedience to Mosaic law (Num 15.38, Deut 22.12).

Secondly, John offers details about how Jesus clothes are divided up by the soldiers at his trial in John 19.23. They divide his himatia into four lots. This is because he would have had two garments, and each one would normally be made of two pieces of cloth, one for the front, and one for the back, joined at the shoulder.

The Roman soldiers divided his mantles (himatia) into four shares (John 19:23), indicating that he was wearing two mantles each made of two pieces of cloth that could be separated. This is especially interesting. One of the himatiawas probably a tallith or prayer shawl. This was traditionally made of undyed creamy-colored woollen material with blue-striped edges and fringes, which would be drawn over the head when praying. While there were no fringed mantles found in the Cave of Letters, there was blue wool with fringes (tzitzith), possibly used to make them.

However, his chiton was made of one piece, which was more expensive and less practical. If you spoiled the front of this ‘shirt’ through wear and tear, then if it is in two pieces you could replace the front whilst still retaining the less worn back half. Taylor comments on this:

The soldiers did not want to rip his chiton, since it was made as one piece of cloth. It could not be separated out into pieces as was sometimes the case so they cast lots for which soldier would take it. This is curious because one person described as wearing a seamless garment is the high priest (Josephus, Ant. 3:161). Was John trying to make some hidden allusion to the high priest? Or was he simply recording a peculiarity of Jesus’s tunic? I favor the latter, because in this Gospel Jesus’s clothing is very carefully described.

Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_SeaAs with other details in John which could be historical or symbolic, I would answer ‘Both/and’ rather than ‘Either/or.’ When Nicodemus came to Jesus in the evening, was this the time of day, or was it symbolic of his little light on who Jesus was? When the woman at the well meets Jesus at noon, is this because she was shunned by her fellows, or because she recognises Jesus for who he is in the light? When Judas goes out, was it at the night hour, or was it the moment of greatest human darkness? In every case, the answer is ‘both’.

John provides us with further detail on Jesus’ clothing:

Indications that Jesus wore a regular mantle as well as the tallith mantle are found not only at the crucifixion scene but also on another occasion:  Jesus takes off his mantles, himatia, when he washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:4, 12). Here there is a distinction made between the mantles he took off and the tunic he kept on. The Gospel of John, therefore, provides a specific indication of what Jesus wore which correlates with the presentation of the night of Passover eve as cold (John 18:18, 25, cf. Mark 14:24). Jesus would have worn a mantle for warmth along with a distinctively Jewish tallith, as other Jewish men would have worn in cold weather. In wearing two mantles, one of which was a tallith, Jesus’ clothing would have identified him as a Jew like any other.

One thing Taylor confirms: Jesus would have worn sandals. So one traditional aspect of Jesus’ depiction in the media holds good. The best depiction of Jewish dress comes from frescoes in the oldest preserved synagogue we know of, at Dura-Europa in eastern Syria. They show Moses (pictured, above right) dressed in the knee-length chiton with the bands of colour running down from his shoulders, and women in contrasting longer clothing.

All this discussion does have some serious theological significance. As I noted in my previous post, this confirms that the gospel writers were constrained in their account by historical reality—and particular so in the case of John. What he writes is confirmed by archaeological evidence of first-century clothing, in ways we might not have expected. Secondly, we need to be aware that the gospels writers had the opposite challenge to us. The challenge for the first generation of Jesus’ followers was to understand this human person, whom they had known, as part of the identity of God. Our problem is precisely the opposite: to understand this person who is part of the identity of God, as being a real flesh and blood human being.

Third, there is the interpretive question, how does Jesus relate to our culture? Taking seriously information about how the historical Jesus would have looked prevents us from making him in our own image. Despite the lovely coloured pictures in the RSV I was given when I went to secondary school, Jesus was not white-skinned and blue-eyed, with lovely, wavy, blow-dried hair. But the lack of information about his physical appearance in the New Testament means that, like the first generations of Christians, we can express who Jesus is in our own cultural terms—as long as we recognise that this is what we are doing, and allow others to express him in their cultural terms as well.

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9 thoughts on “What did Jesus look like?”

    • Thanks Jonathan. I think we know two sets of things:
      . the words in the New Testament
      . examples of actual clothing and some key information from illustrations, such as the Dura Europos frescoes.

      Putting these two things together offers the picture that Joan Taylor paints…though there has to be a little joining up, such as the comments Joan makes about Jesus’ second himation being a prayer shawl.

      Does that make sense?

  1. Ian, sorry, but no way is this a thing indifferent. Gotta take a stand. Schism, now! 😉

    Seriously, really enjoyed this. One of your best: seamlessly weaves a snapshot of the past with its theological implications. Makes Jesus of Nazareth simultaneously earthly (and earthy) and exalted.

    I agree that Jesus’ appearance can be represented in culturally relevant terms, be it African, European, or Asian (the Buddha-like Jesus sometimes found in Japan especially tickles me!), so long as it’s remembered that his Middle Eastern Jewish origins lie beneath the veil.

  2. Thanks for this, Ian. I think I’d want to question Taylor’s contention that Jesus would have covered his head while praying (in the comments you cite on John). If this was normal 1st century Judean practice, I think it would have been hard for Paul even in the Diaspora to say “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head” The whole debate in 1 Cor 11 is really interesting for the construction of appearance.

    • Thanks Doug. I understand your argument, but I think you are arguing from a (mistaken?) reading of Paul back into first century practice. I don’t have primary sources to hand, but I think Joan’s observation is rooted in historical study. As Lucy Peppiatt Crawley points out (in her new book I am reading), what we know of Jewish practice contradicts what Paul says here, and this is one of several key facts which completely undermine the traditional reading of this passage.

      • Thanks for the response, Ian. I’ve yet to read that book, but a) I will need some convincing that 11.4 is a Corinthian quote to which Paul responds – which I think is the point she makes? And b) if it is a Corinthian quote then the absence of any counterexample in Paul’s answer from some other putative Judean practice here is strange.

        I’m quite open to having a traditional reading undermined here, but I’m also instinctively suspicious of readings that make Paul quite so conveniently congenial to a twenty-first century understanding, whether by using speech-in-character or some other method.


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