The other day a few of us were discussing how Jesus looked. Not surprisingly, our opinions differed. He lived 2,000 years ago before cameras were invented. And he was Jewish, which meant that images were forbidden. (The first commandment forbade idols.) Therefore we have no accurate picture of him. This has not stopped people from depicting him. I did some research on Jesus’s appearance, and you might find my discoveries interesting.
What color skin, hair, and eyes did Jesus have? People in his country were like Egyptians. They had olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes. No way would Jesus have been a first-century Brad Pitt. From living outdoors, his skin would have been tanned and weathered.
What was his build? Based on skeletons from his country and era, Jesus was about 5’5″. Because of his job as a carpenter and his many journeys, he must have been lean, muscular, and strong. It’s surmised that if he were handsome, the evangelists would have mentioned it since Moses and David were described this way. Also Jesus apparently had no remarkable features that set him apart from others. That is why in the garden Judas had to kiss Jesus to identify him for the Roman soldiers. And also why he so easily vanished in a crowd several times.
What does Jesus look like in the earliest pictures? Early on Jesus was depicted as a shepherd. One that has come down to us is in the Catacomb of Callistus, dated 3rd century. It shows Jesus with short, curly hair and no beard.
Another early picture from 235 AD is from a church in Syria. It shows the curing of the paralytic. In it Jesus also has short hair and no beard.
People speculate that when Jesus lived, men had short hair and if they had a beard, it was short. They trimmed their hair and beard with a knife. One reason proposed for this shortness was to deter lice. Besides, Paul commented, “Long hair is a dishonor for a man” (1 Corinthians 11:14).
Richard Neave, a forensic anthropologist, used a first-century skull of a Jewish man and in 2001 created an image of Jesus based on it. In it Jesus has black, curly hair, a mustache, and a trim beard as was common for Jewish men at that time.
How did we inherit the concept of a long-haired, bearded Jesus? During the time of the Byzantine Empire, emperors had long hair and full beards (perhaps styled on Zeus). To emphasize the royalty and majesty of Jesus, artists began portraying him this way and enthroned in the late 4th century. This is the “Jesus” that has prevailed since then. The mysterious figure on the Shroud of Turin promotes this image. However there are strong arguments for and against the shroud’s authenticity.
What did Jesus wear? Sandals of course. His tunic was knee-length and he had a long mantle. His clothing was undyed wool, which was cream-colored, not white. He wore the tassels God commanded Jewish men to wear on the four corners of their garmet.
What about his face? The face of Jesus must have been warm and friendly, reflecting his loving, compassionate nature. People flocked to him for cures, and children were not afraid of him.
In a way, not having an exact picture of Jesus is a blessing. Worldwide, people have presented him (and his mother)to reflect their own society, therefore making him easy to identify with. So we have an African Jesus, a Japanese Jesus, and so on.
The important thing is that we recognize Jesus in other people. He looks not only like saints but like our cantankerous neighbor, the black sheep in our family, the homeless person under a bridge, and our personal enemy. We also see Jesus whenever we look in a mirror. Gerard Manley Hopkins acknowledged this in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” when he said, “Christ plays in ten thousand faces.”
If we treat others and ourselves with loving kindness, someday we will have the privilege of seeing Jesus face-to-face. The mystery will be solved!
- When you pray to Jesus, how do you picture him? What is your favorite depiction of Jesus?