What did Jesus really look like?

I have written previously about whether Jesus had a beard, and three years ago commented on the discussion by Joan Taylor (of King’s College, London) about what Jesus looked like. Joan has now produced a terrific book drawing together her research, and the book takes us an intriguing journey into how people thought about Jesus.

The opening chapter explores a serious puzzle in the New Testament, one which we are so used to that we do not even realise that it is there. Why do the gospels accounts include no description of Jesus’ appearance? There is a view around that the gospel writers were not eye-witnesses and so did not know, and that the gospels as ancient ‘lives’ were not concerned with such questions, since the question of Jesus’ appearance have no bearing on this theological importance. But Taylor demonstrates how mistaken such assumptions are. She agrees with the position (promoted by Richard Bauckham) that the gospels are connected with eye-witnesses, so it would have been possible to include a description of Jesus. But she offers three reason why we might expect to have some description of Jesus included.

The first relates to the gospels as first-century ‘lives’, as demonstrated by Richard Burridge some years ago. The verbs centre on the action and teaching of the main character, Jesus; the account is not linear, but gives particular focus to centra, revealing events; and a key focus is the way the main character dies, telling us the most important thing about their life. But, Taylor notes, other ‘lives’ of the time consistently do refer to the appearance of the heroes they describe—a good example being Suetonius who describes Augustus as ‘unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life’. Though she does not mention this explicitly, it is part of the Greek tradition summed up by the phrase kalos kai agathos:

In a strict sense kalos kai agathos just means “beautiful and good,” but a better rendering would be “fine and noble,” or “superior and excellent,” or even “the best that a man can be.” The phrase was used to refer to an ideal of life and behavior that every Greek cherished for himself, even if he could not embody it totally.

The outward, noble appearance of someone communicates the person’s inner virtue. This belief in the importance of appearance extended to contemporary Jewish views of Moses, who was thought to be tall and good-looking—even when he was only three years old! But this opens up the second factor—that the biblical record in the OT also notes how handsome the leaders and kings of Israel were. Joseph was ‘handsome in form and appearance’ (Gen 39.6); Moses was indeed a beautiful baby (Ex 2.2); Saul was exceptionally tall and handsome (1 Sam 9.2); though Samuel is not to choose his successor on the basis of looks, nevertheless David is also very attractive (1 Sam 16.12); and David’s son Absalom is fantastically attractive (2 Sam 14.25–26). If Jesus follows Joseph in being harmed by his people, but through that saving them from disaster, if he is the new Moses (as Matthew, organising his teaching into five ‘books’, would have it), if he is the true Davidic king—how surprising that the gospel writers ignore this important tradition.

But the third issue is the most intriguing. The gospel writers, and especially John, are emphatic about the physical reality of Jesus, the Word who ‘became flesh and tented amongst us’ (John 1.14). John tells us that Jesus was hungry and thirsty, that he was misunderstood and lauded, that he wept at the loss of a friend, and that the ‘beloved disciple’ (almost certainly John himself) leant on his chest whilst dining—and yet we are told nothing of the ‘flesh’ itself. Part of this is the gospel’s theology of sight, summed up in both John 7.24 (‘Do not judge by appearances’), the healing of the man born blind in John 9, and the summary conclusion in John 20.29, where seeing is not believing but believing is the true seeing.

Taylor then takes us on a journey through a number of traditions of the depiction of Jesus in art. The first is what she calls the ‘European Jesus’, the image that comes up immediately if we do an internet search for images of Jesus, which is expressed in Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, and which has frequently shaped film depictions in Western productions. She traces this image to a description in the fourteenth-century Letter of Lentulus, supposedly written by a first-century eye-witness of the gospel events, but full of historical anomalies. The most concerning aspect of this popular depiction (in one form, by Warner Sallman, distributed to all American service personnel in the Second World War), is that it removes Jesus from his historical context as a Jew—though the Jewishness of Jesus has been at the centre of academic study for the last 50 years.

The second tradition is quite distinct, and is associated with Veronica, supposedly the woman who was healed from the issue of blood (Mark 5.29) who (also supposedly, wiped Jesus’ face with a cloth which was then imprinted with his image. Taylor does a forensic job in tracing how this story arose from a misinterpretation of a third-century bronze statue of Asclepius and Hygeia, which is interesting in itself.

The third tradition of Jesus’ image is perhaps the most well-known. It relates to what are known as acheiropoieta, a Greek phrase meaning ‘not made by human hands’, which are images made as imprints of Jesus—the most famous being the Shroud of Turin. After exploring other earlier acheiropoieta, Taylor gives a good summary of the issues relating to the Shroud, including noting that the weave of the cloth is clearly mediaeval, the issues around the pigmentation, and the fact that its description as a sudarium or ‘sweat-cloth’ is historically anomalous. She concludes with an intriguing thesis: that this was indeed a burial cloth, and that the marks have indeed come from a human corpse, but that it is from a mediaeval pilgrim who sought to imitate Jesus in his death (compare Phil 3.10…!), so that the image actually tells us what people in the 13th century thought Jesus might have looked like. As with previous traditions, the connection with the historical Jesus falls short.

The next two traditions take us back much earlier, to the fourth century: the image of Jesus as ‘Almighty’, depicted as ruler of the world (cosmokrator or to use the biblical term pantokrator); and the image of Jesus as ‘boy wonder’, a youthful god-like figure (which includes the image from Ravenna on the cover of the book and shown at the head of this article). In both cases, Taylor demonstrates how these are dependant on existing pagan religious traditions, particularly of Zeus and Serapis for the first, and Dionysus, Hermes and Apollo for the second. In the catacombs on Rome, Jesus appears holding a staff like Moses, whose depiction from Dura Europos Jesus resembles closely. Two final artistic traditions complete the collection: Jesus bearded like a contemporary early philosopher; and Jesus as an unkempt vagabond, based on the interpretation of Is 53.2.

In the closing chapters, Taylor then returns to the question she began with: why is Jesus’ appearance not described in the gospels? In particular, why is he not described as either impressive and good-looking, or unimpressive and disfigured? The most obvious answer, she concludes, is simply that he was neither; he was a typical and undistinctive Jewish man of his day. She then goes on to explore what Jesus as a typical Jewish man would look like, offering an engaging mixture of biblical texts with historical evidence. Jesus might well have been 5 feet 5 inches tall (the average for his day), slim, reasonably muscular, with olive-dark skin, brown eyes and short dark brown to black hair. It is not clear historically whether he would have had a beard (though I think there are some other arguments here!), and he was likely in his 30s during his ministry and at the time of his death.

Her penultimate chapter explores Jesus’ clothing and what that would have looked like. She draws on a range of historical sources, but, as before, it is the supposedly ‘symbolic’ gospel of John which gives us the most historical detail.

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.

As 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’.

Overall, Joan Taylor has probably offered the definitive and most comprehensive exploration of the question posed: What did Jesus look like? I think I would like to press further to note two issues, one historical and the other theological. On history, two things are worth noting. As I explore in my discussion of Jesus’ beard, it is clear 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.

But the theological point is equally important. Taylor touches on this at several points in the book, but does not fully develop it. The history of the different traditions of depiction show that, in each case, those perpetrating these portraits were convinced that they had a connection to the historical reality of Jesus. But what is equally clear is that, in each case and in differing ways, the portraits were in fact shaped by cultural and theological issues. Though claiming to be about the fact of Jesus, they actually expressed his significance. In the NT writings, the repeated emphasis is that Jesus was the divine presence become one of us; in this sense he is an ‘everyman’, and that is why, in Paul’s writings as well as elsewhere, Jesus is not simply a first-century Jewish male, but the archetype of all humanity. The specific details of his appearance are not simply ignored as of no importance, but (it seems to me) deliberately set aside (for example in John’s theology of true seeing) in order that all might be able to relate to him as one like them.

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26 thoughts on “What did Jesus really look like?”

  1. Due to our propensity to worship images, other than sketchily prophesied , we are not meant to know what the Messiah looked like. Making an image is prohibited.

    • For personal reasons I’m rather fond of the ‘depiction’ of Jesus based on the Letter of Revelation which the window behind the Holy Table at St Aldhelm’s Weymouth. ? and ? are at its outer edges, 7 lamps and 7 stars across the width. It has no details in the face just a golden glow. Never tempted to worship it though…

      • Ian H,
        An off-topic comment! I have wondered before if ‘Ian H’ was ‘our Ian’ and when I just saw your mention of Weymouth I wondered again! If you are ‘our Ian’ I hope all is well with you and your family – I often think of you. (Good wishes and blessings if you are not ‘our Ian’, of course! 🙂

  2. Yes, I agree. The gospel-writers are not treating Jesus as merely one biographiable individual among many. This is a subtle but important difference from ancient biographies in general.

    Suetonius’s little appearance / physiognomy summaries are extraordinarily helpful, as is the one in the Acts of Paul. Philip Esler’s very good talk on the earliest iconography of Peter and Paul at BNTC 1999 seemed to show that the Acts of Paul picture had a lot going for it, and also that we can have a fairly good idea of what both Peter and Paul looked like.

      • I also had the vaguest memory that they may have been – however, could find no leads. (Of his own oeuvre, The Early Christian World, 2 vols (Routledge, 2000), which he edited, may perhaps contain mention of the main points??)

        • I suspect one of the following from Wikipedia list:

          Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (1987)
          The First Christians in Their Social Worlds: Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation (1994)
          Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context (1995) editor
          Galatians (1998)
          Christianity for the Twenty First Century (1998) editor
          The Early Christian World, two volumes (2000) editor
          Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (2003) (Spanish translation in 2004 and Italian translation in 2008)
          Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez’ Christ with Martha and Mary as a Test Case (2004) with Jane Boyd[45]
          New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (2005)
          Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in Its Social Context (2005) editor
          Lazarus, Martha and Mary: A Social-Scientific and Theological Reading of John (2006) with Ronald A. Piper
          Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience (2011)
          Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and An Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (2017)
          The Blessing of Enoch: 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology (2017) editor
          The Early Christian World (2017) editor
          God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers: Re-interpreting Heaven in 1 Enoch 1-36 (2017)

  3. At the very end of the great controversies over the nature of Christ that so troubled most of the first millennium AD, St John of Damascus and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (8th century) pointed out that the Old Testament did not prohibit images altogether, since God himself commanded Moses to make the cherubim on the very ark itself, an image of a snake, and so forth, but that it did prohibit images of God, because God was beyond every attempt to portray him, and because idolatry (the worship of what is less than God) is a perennial human problem. The fathers understood from this that God forbids us to invent images or to produce religious icons out of our imagination. They also affirmed that in particular we are not to make images of God, and that we were not to worship images of any kind (even those of Christ). And you won’t find any time in Christian history when the church ever did. But obviously the Jews who were roughly contemporaneous with Christ didn’t have any trouble putting frescoes of biblical events on the walls of their synagogues, or images of the zodiac etc in the mosaics of their floors, as we know from several examples, and the same sorts of imagery are found in the catacombs and so forth. There is no surprise in the fact that we find images of Christ in the very earliest Christian art that still survives.

    But St John of Damascus, the Seventh Council, and others of the 8th century and thereabouts noted a further point, an important theological one: prior to the incarnation, it was not possible to make an image of God, for ‘God, no one has seen, ever’ (John 1.18). But Jesus Christ, the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15), had truly become incarnate, and hence had truly made the invisible God visible in himself. This was a fact of great significance in an era when many were inclined to deny not only the real, physical incarnation of the Son of God, but also the use of icons in church— not least because of pressure from Islam. The fathers insisted that to say we should not make images of Christ was tantamount to denying the incarnation itself, for it suggested that the flesh of the incarnate Word was somehow not the same as ours. They insisted that the church not only can, but must make images of Christ and, by extension, of the saints— in order to fully confess our faith in the incarnation. This is the theoretical basis of the very strong traditions concerning iconography that you find in Orthodox Christianity.

    Those who are interested in this topic may wish to have a look at St John of Damascus’ work on icons, which is readily accessible from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in New York under the title, Three Treatises on the Divine Images. Keep in mind that St John spent much of his life in captivity under Islam, so the idea of an imageless Christianity was not for him a matter of idle speculation. There is also St Theodore the Studite’s book, also published by SVS Press under the title, On the Holy Icons. In general, the fathers of that period did a lot of very interesting and important thinking about images— what was possible and not possible for an image to convey, the relationship of image to truth, and the ability of images to express the truth or to mislead, etc; and this all led to further important considerations of the relationship of matter to spirit, and so forth.

    At almost the same moment, Charlemagne’s court theologians were publishing (as i recall, in the Isidorean Decretals but maybe not) their opinion that art had no particular relation to truth and was merely decorative. So a proper theology of the image never developed in the West, and this also contributed to the hypertrophy of rationalism in Western thought.

  4. Does anybody link this part of the Isaiah 53 passage that is connected to the part that the eunuch told Philip he was reading?

    he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
    3 He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;
    and as one from whom others hide their faces*
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

  5. Ian,

    As I said on your Facebook post, the Second Commandment would be behind the lack of description here. Furthermore, this is speculation, but the inference from John 4:20, “God is spirit,” followed by John 1:14, “The Word became Flesh,” was probably enough of a description that the gospel writers were content to write. Paul seemed (?) to indicate that “he knew Jesus after the flesh,” but that may be a stretch.

  6. Mark, possibly recording Peter’s eye-witness memories as well as possibly his own, gives frequent strong hints that Jesus must have had piercing eyes and a striking gaze!

    “He looked around at them with anger” – Mark 3:5
    “Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” – Mark 3:34
    “But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it” – Mark 5:32
    “Jesus looked at him and loved him” – Mark 10:21
    “Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich…'” – Mark 10:23
    “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible…'” – Mark 10:27
    “Jesus … went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything…” – Mark 11:11

  7. I’m surprised at there being no reference to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, arguably the most quoted OT prophecy by the NT writers. 53:2 gives a clear, and not very impressive, physical description of somebody, whoever is the subject of the rest of this prophecy.
    However, when the NT church read the detail of this chapter, they found there such a clear and eloquent exposition of the life, treatment and death of Jesus, that they could only regard it as the prophecy that most accurately described what they themselves had witnessed, and to which the Gospel writers attested.
    If, however, Jesus himself had actually been 5 feet 5 and muscular, as per everyone else, instead of being not at all physically attractive as 53:2 says, then you might have found some small reference to the fact in the NT narratives. And it would have been strange, because absolutely everything else in that chapter fitted the facts exactly.

    • I was going to refer to it, but found it actually a quite complicated issue.

      -Had Jesus, for example, been 5 foot 7 and brown haired with a short beard, those 3 unremarkable features would have illogically been held up as holy for ever after (cf. Sybil Fawlty reverently intoning ‘Col-ches-ter??’).

      -Then (as mentioned), if he is largely being viewed as God or as everyman or the true Israel or as archetypal in some way, then any mention of specific features will be rather jarring and will work against that main thrust.

      -But if he were unremarkable in appearance (Isa. 53) – as indeed he may very well have been – then that creates its own massive problems. First, being Jesus, the rush would have been out to prove that he was archetypally or supremely unremarkable, the most unremarkable there could ever have been. How could Jesus have been vaguely or slightly unremarkable, or vaguely or slightly anything? This verse is not exploited by the NT writers, unlike most of the verses in this passage – perhaps because it creates this impossible situation.

      • To which I must add: Christ must have been remarkable in his presence, his eyes, his drive etc.; and that tends to eclipse more or less completely considerations of form / shape / physique. If we consider the most beautiful or attractive people we have ever met, what was remarkable about them came from within.

        • And Christopher,
          He carried authority, whatever his physical stature.
          With all this, prohibition against making images of God, Jesus being everyman (the last Adam and a new humanity in him) the true Israel, and a Jew, (not a white European as often depicted) nor African (black as sometimes depicted) or any other nationality or ethnicity and from a time when there was still a largely oral tradition, were we meant to know what he looked like? Look at the fascination this post has garnered and any image (actual likeness) would have been venerated, demeaned, rubbished or ridiculed, by those of other faiths and none. Would it have convinced people that He is God, in which the fullness of God dwelt, rather than the carpenter from Nazareth? Would we sing heartily, “we stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene” while gazing on a graphic? Would it not have focussed attention on his exemplary humaness which we have to strive to replicate, not the full glory of God, and Saviour and the awesomness of the awesome God made flesh.
          And would it not have detracted from the reasons, the necessity, for the incarnation and his substituitionary atonement?
          We’ll just have to be patient, till we see him face to face and in the meantime glorify him and enjoy him foverever, with the foretaste we have now.

  8. Thank you, Ian Paul, for this post which I find really interesting. I have many thoughts about it, but I also feel a bit out of my depth with this subject, so I won’t comment on it here.
    I also read with interest a comment from Ian H, wanted to make an off-topic comment to him, then thought it best not to hijack your page with an off-topic comment, then thought you probably wouldn’t mind if it, so I have now gone ahead, and trust that is OK with you!

  9. Fascinating.

    I’ve always believed that the New Testament’s silence on the physical appearance of Jesus was borne out of a natural reticence about making ourselves an image in the form of anything in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth — even if the thing depicted was the very Saviour whom we willingly worship and adore. I guess that’s similar to your conclusion — the physical description of Jesus has been deliberately set aside, to allow us to ‘see’ Jesus properly.

    The same reticence persisted well into the second century. I can’t recall any speculation about Jesus’ physical appearance until Irenaeus’ discussion about Jesus being an “old man” around 180 A.D. (Against Heresies 2.22.4-6), and even then his discussion is theologically driven.

    This point, of course, was spectacularly overlooked at the Second Council of Nicaea in A.D. 787 in the debate over veneration of images!

    Keep up the good work!


  10. One place that many biblical scholars, Christian and otherwise, have not felt shy of giving images of Jesus is on the front covers of books, scholarly and popular, about the historical Jesus, a subject of much literary production for around 30 years now. Often, the pictures are shamelessly inappropriate. What, for example, is the relation of the Christ Eleemon that esteemed scholar and ecclesiast Tom Wright has pasted on the front of Jesus and the Victory of God to the pages inside? Is this meant to be historical and, if not, what does it say about his arguments that such an obvious fiction portrait illustrates his subject? James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered has as its cover picture a fictional rendition (complete with lamb!) of the crucifixion. Should we take it that these Christian biblical scholars (as admittedly random examples) have pre-judged their historical enquires with these pictorial clues on the front of their scholarly products? One could also mention the covers of the successive volumes of John Meier’s “A Marginal Jew” series of books on the same subject. For those who want to think more about this Stephen Moore’s essay “On The Face and Physique of the Historical Jesus” is a culturally interactive approach to the question and was written around 20 years ago.

  11. I’m also reminded of this I wrote in my own “The Posthistorical Jesus”. I recommend you google for yourself as I expect you’ll then see the extent of the problem.

    “I want to set you a task, one I recently gave myself. Type “Jesus” into the Google search engine and select “images”. What you will almost certainly get back, as I did, is a cavalcade of white Jesuses, the recorded history of popular images of Jesus over decades, if not centuries or even two millennia. This is passing strange if you think about it since the one thing we do know, if we know anything about the historical Jesus at all, is that he was a first century Palestinian Jew. And first century Palestinian Jews, might I suggest, were not white men. My hits also contain one black Jesus, equally inaccurate (and a blackface version of a Warner Sallman white Jesus to boot, which is worse), and one reconstruction of the face of a first century Palestinian Jew from the 2001 BBC TV series, Son of God. These aberrations aside, I am confronted with a cultural tide of whiteness, a testament both to cultural hegemony and to the idea that people want a Jesus like them. Not just Jesus’ robes are white in the collective imagination it seems. Perhaps the transfiguration that resurrection seems to demand makes everybody white and I am just not yet aware of it?”


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