What Did Jesus Really Look Like?

Can anyone answer the question "What did Jesus look like?"

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

What did Jesus look like? This popular cover of the November/December 2010 issue of BAR juxtaposes two artistic representations of Jesus’ face. Photo: BBC Photo Library (left); Mosaic of Jesus from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey/Photo by Pavle Marjanovic (right).

Novelists, script writers and casting directors have piqued our interest. Jesus may be one of the best known and most talked-about people of ancient history. But what did Jesus look like? In “Painting a Portrait of Jesus,” D. Moody Smith examines the difficulties in answering this question.

Many ancient accounts of a person’s life give us a hint of the person’s physical appearance. For example, the Old Testament tells us that King David was ruddy and handsome. But the New Testament never goes near the question “What did Jesus look like?”

Actually, as Smith points out in his article below, we don’t know much about the personal life of Jesus either. We’re given some insight into his family: the Gospels name his mother and brothers—including James, who became a leader of the first-century church in Jerusalem—and mention unnamed sisters. John 1:45 refers to Jesus as “son of Joseph,” though after the Nativity narratives Joseph isn’t mentioned as a player.

Some of Jesus’ followers were women, including Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of John implies a close relationship, including her role in the resurrection story. Was Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus, as envisioned by Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ and Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code? Most Jewish men would have been married, but it seems not likely for Jesus’ contemporary John the Baptist. And the apostle Paul writes that he was single. So Jesus being single and celibate was very possible.

In the Roman catacombs we see our first representations of Jesus. But could they, in Rome, know the answer to the question “What did Jesus really look like?” There he was depicted as a beardless shepherd. By the fourth century, Jesus is shown with a beard, as we often see him represented today.

Since ancient times, gaps in Jesus’ story have prompted writers to imagine stories. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells of a child Jesus creating birds from clay. The Gospel of Judas gives a positive take on Jesus’ relationship to Judas Iscariot. D. Moody Smith asks below in “Painting a Portrait of Jesus”: Did any of these writers give us a clearer answer to the question “What did Jesus really look like?” Not really. That we’ll just have to imagine.
 


 
The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
 

 

Painting a Portrait of Jesus

by D. Moody Smith

We are awash in Jesus fiction. It’s not surprising. Jesus is the best-known figure of history, but in many ways he is also the least known. This makes a great subject for the novelist.

Most ancient bioi (Greek plural of the word for “life”), like modern biographies, describe the subject’s appearance. Even Old Testament descriptions of King David, for example, allude to his physical attractiveness (1 Samuel 16:12; 17:42). But the New Testament Gospels contain no reference to Jesus’ appearance, much less a description of him. We don’t know what he looked like.

This strange omission conforms to the New Testament depiction of Jesus generally. We are told little of his personal life or relationships. The one exception is his family. His mother, brothers and sisters figure in the gospel story (Mark 6:1–6). His brother James, who had not been a follower, evidently claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). James then became a major leader in the earliest church (Galatians 1:18–19; 2:9). But Joseph does not appear during Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus is rarely called “son of Joseph” (John 1:45). From antiquity it has been inferred that Joseph had died before Jesus’ ministry began. That is quite possible, although we are not told in the New Testament itself. Joseph is simply absent.

Moreover, we learn nothing about Jesus’ relationship with women, other than that women were among his followers (Mark 15:40–41; Luke 8:1–3). Prominent among them was Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of John she alone sees Jesus outside the tomb after he has risen from the dead (John 20:11–18). This touching scene presupposes a close relationship not otherwise revealed in the Gospels. Was their relationship intimate? Did Jesus beget progeny by her?

That he did is the thesis of the popular novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. The ostensible facts about Jesus “revealed” in the course of the book’s narrative are actually fictitious. The view that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene had already been suggested in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
 


 
Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father? If not, who was Jesus’ biological father? Andrew Lincoln examines what early Christians thought about conception and explains how views about this subject have changed over time.
 

 
Of course, any normal Jewish man would have been married. But was Jesus “normal,” or were the times normal? In fact, it is improbable, on strictly historical grounds, that Jesus was married. Jesus’ mentor was John the Baptist. The Baptist’s diet, dress and wilderness venue scarcely befitted a married man (Mark 1:4–6). Like the Jewish inhabitants of the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) community, the Baptist lived in the wilderness practicing an ascetic life and awaiting God’s intervention in ordinary history.

Jesus’ apostle Paul of Tarsus, himself a Jew, was also single and counseled believers to remain as he was because the time of crisis was at hand (1 Corinthians 7:25–31). Jesus himself spoke of those who had become eunuchs (celibate) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12), probably alluding to his own practice.

The earliest apparent representations of Jesus are in the Roman catacombs. The art is stereotypical as are other portraits of this period. In these portraits Jesus is portrayed beardless, as the Good Shepherd. By the fourth century, however, he has grown a beard and begins to look more familiar.

There are large lacunae, blank spaces in the Gospel descriptions of his life that are inviting to fiction writers, ancient as well as modern. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not the same as the Nag Hammadi gospel attributed to Thomas) tells the story of the five-year-old Jesus making 12 birds from the clay in a stream, presumably unaware that it was the Sabbath. Joseph rebukes the child, whereupon Jesus claps his hands and the birds fly away. The so-called Gospel of Peter depicts in fantastic and obviously mythic terms the emergence of the risen Jesus from the tomb. The recently published Gospel of Judas supplies a story of Jesus’ positive relation to Judas Iscariot that accounts for his betrayal as, in effect, an act of obedience to Jesus. Recent books and films continue to fill these gaps. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is only the most famous.

——————

Painting a Portrait of Jesus” by D. Moody Smith originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2007.
 

 
The recent discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment reignited the discussion on Jesus’ marriage. Read more about the early Christian text featuring the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …,’” as well as new scientific tests conducted on the papyrus fragment.
 

 

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  1. gavin says

    I regret having to be so blunt, but this is apologetic drivel. At least the opening sentence is correct: we are awash in Jesus fiction – especially from the canonical gospels. What makes any of their miracle stories more plausible than the “so-called” Gospel of Peter’s “obviously mythic” ones? Such arbitrary judgmentalism only builds up the wall between “Biblical archeology” and real science. BTW, the “Slavonic Josephus” has a possible physical description: he was short, stooped, with a long nose and face, thinning hair and scanty beard, and a unibrow.

  2. Eli says

    Hurray for gavin. I too find Hershel Shanks editorial bias tiresome and boring. Though I still get alot out of BAR, my eyes get alot of practice rolling over the contorted efforts to make the Bible literal. Why is it called faith if one needs the Bible to be factual? HS has been successful appealing to a certain generation, but surely the time will come for a more secure Christian editor such as Thomas L. Thompson.

  3. Alene says

    Why in the world is the “Gospels” of Thomas and Judas referenced? Is the writer of this article supposed to be an expert or is this an opinion piece?

  4. Cal says

    The reason for people to believe the bible to be factual is because it is inspired, therefore why would God deceive? And if you don’t believe it’s inspired, then there’s no faith unless out of ignorance. The faith is in Jesus and God, the bible is the way it is presented to us.

    Also those other “gospels” are known to be dated far later than the 30-60 years after his death that the gospels were written. The other “gospels” are largely written based off the real ones with a gnostic style and additions. They also contradict Judaism and were written in countries outside where history shows Jesus to have been, so they couldn’t have been first hand witnesses.

  5. Carolyn says

    Ah, dear souls, in our human quest to know human things, we muddle, and dare I say mislead, the real purpose of our Lord. Humankind can no more understand our God than truly fathom an expanding universe. It is the love and forgiveness of sin with a promise of eternal life that provides truth and indeed meaning to our earthly lives.
    Kind regards,
    Carolyn

  6. 1611truths says

    One thing is almost certain. Jesus did not have long hair, because the Bible says that if a man has long hair it is a shame unto him (1 Cor. 11:14). The Bible says he has no form or comeliness and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2) In other words, all of the modern images of Jesus are false. First of all, we aren’t even supposed to be making images of Jesus (Exo. 20:4). I would venture a guess that when the antichrist comes to power, he will look exactly like all the Catholic portraits of Jesus, with long hair and feminine features. Anyone who doesn’t know what the Bible says about Jesus will be deceived and follow him.

  7. Cleo says

    I understand that this is not a theological article so i will not blabber to much about it. However it fails to underline a basic fundament of all ancient churches (orthodox,catholic, oriental, assyrian, indian etc) all of which depict jesus.
    The fundament is that the representation is symbolic and not factual… when he is depicted in white he mimics a greek philosopher, when he is depicted with crownjewels, a king and whatsoever…
    NONE of these depiction represent his actual form and that is a DOGMA, since the icons tend to teach the flock and not provide a real image= idol.

  8. Walt says

    I am quite certain that Christianity would not be so popular in the western world had Jesus been depicted as looking like he most likely would have looked in his time. It really is one of the best, if not the best, marketing campaign ever to have existed.

  9. Francis says

    To the question posed here:

    Can anyone answer the question: What did Jesus look like?

    We answer YES!

    We can know exactly what Jesus of Nazareth looked like, and we can know exactly to what extent He suferrred for out sake, by beholding the Singular Image He created of Himself, by His Resurrection from the dead – that we see in the Shroud of Turin… it is impossible that the Singular Image of the Shroud of Turin could have been during the Middle Ages – therefore it is not a medieval relic.

  10. Francis says

    There is also very compelling evidence that the Image of Edessa, and the Shroud of Turin – are indeed one and the same – Ian Wilson and Mark Guscin have found over 400 images of Jesus of Nazareth – modeled after the Image of Edessa, and their resemblance to the Face of the Man in the Shroud of Turin – is striking.

  11. Karole says

    I was praying at my table in the kitchen when suddenly I saw a vision of King Jesus Christ, His hair was dark and around His neck, His eyes were pearcing He had a clam affect about His looks He seemed to be looking right into my eyes and His voice was presise as He called me child. I was not able to see what color His skin was for it happened so quickly and He was gone from view. The garmet He was wearing was snow white and I only saw it down to His waist.. This is my account of the Dear Lord and Savior. I am a saved Jew.

  12. tia says

    apparently jesus had a afro

  13. ralph says

    i think everyone should sit back and pick up the book that is inspired by the Holy Spirit the only book that gives us direction and understanding in how should we live it does mention what a person looks like because through the blood of Christ we all will be transformed, we should worry how we stand in front Him and not some books that man wrote which is not inspired by God. May the Love and peace of the Lord and blessings be upon you

  14. Kris says

    This is all tom foolery. If you know the bible then you know how Jesus looked. He is not white.

  15. Ryan says

    We all have our own versions but truthfully, Jesus the Christ Son OF God is and will be in our hearts its by faith and we believe in him with that faith we truly will know how Jesus really looked like, seek knock and you you will find the truth,

  16. Alba says

    You know.. What does it matter anyway what our Lord Jesus Christ looked like? He was a man, with a human body. In the end His body was completely destroyed for us, and His blood shed for the remission of our sins. From the cat of nine-tails used to peel His flesh off completely from front to back, exposing his epidermis and bones all over his torso and legs… To tearing His beard off from His face, then beating His face to a pulp before a troop of 600 men spitting on it, then forcefully pushing a crown of thorns inside His skull, to ultimately carrying a cross so heavy His exposed shoulder blade bones couldn’t bear it. Then at the end he was nailed to that same cross and hung for 3 hours before suffering the worst pain of all.. the separation from His Father in heaven. The pain of our sins and the separation from His Father was too great. Jesus died of moral pain. His heart exploded in His chest cavity. I am a believer in Jesus, the Son of God.. saved by His grace and love. I don’t care if He was blue with yellow hair and 2 feet tall. I worship Him and love Him in my heart. And If i never see Him in my lifetime, I will still serve Him until I die. God Bless.. And may you all get to know Him before you die.. He is the way, the Truth and the Life.

  17. DONALD says

    I always accepted the verse in Isaiah 53:2 as a few words on His appearance.”…He has no form nor comeliness and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him.” the word “comeliness” is defined as beauty and it says Jesus had no comeliness but when we see him there is nothing more beautiful than He.

  18. David says

    OK….we can have a GENERAL idea of what Jesus looked like…He was a Middle Eastern Jew, so look at the Jews and Palestinians and Lebanese…you’ll have a good idea. Also, His hair would most likely have been nappy….look at the Fayyoum funeral portraits of the first century.
    We canNOT use the Shroud of Turin as a guide…it is a Medieval ICON…lovely, piously made, but NOT a “photo” of the Resurrection.
    Also we cannot use Isaiah’s prophecy (“He had no beauty that we should desire Him…”) literally…the early believers saw in it a SPIRITUAL description, not a literal one.
    Let’s face it…we don’t know exactly what the Lord’s physical pre Resurrection form looked like and, really, it doesn’t matter. St. Paul said that “once we knew Christ according to the flesh” but no longer. Now He is the Life-giving Spirit…that should be enough for anyone.

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  20. Jami says

    Thirty years ago, I had a dream of Christ’s second coming. I saw him face to face. This is what I saw….
    I was in the desert with many people; I could not count. There was nothing there, but sand, space and the sky. There was a blinding bright light in the sky. I had to shield my eyes with my hands to look, and I could make out Jesus in a cloud. Slowly, he showed himself clearly, while I heard many people moaning as if they were in pain. I was overjoyed! The scene changed. It seemed the whole world was in a queue, waiting to stand before Christ. He was standing next to a huge barrel full of water. He had a dipper and gave each to drink. When it was my turn, I looked hard into his eye’s to read them, but he would not let me. After what seemed like the world, stood and drank before Christ, we went back to the desert and sat down. There was a eerie silence for many minutes (I don’t know how long), but it was a silence that was frightening. Then I heard people screaming; terrifying screams that you would never forget. I looked around from where I was sitting, and I saw people being violently jerked up and literally tossed away. I don’t know where they were thrown. The person sitting next to me was tossed away, and I began to pray, “Father, please don’t let this happen to me!” Next, I realized I was elevated off the ground and saw my feet tangling in mid-air, then I woke up. It was the most profound dream I’ve ever had. I believe it was a prophetic dream. I will never forget the face of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is the same as the Shroud of Turin. Mind you, I never saw the shroud before I had this dream. I can describe Jesus as homely. He has a thin face with hollow cheeks with a scraggly beard. He has a large, kind of hooked nose. His eye’s were neither large or small, and as I looked into them, I knew I was looking at wisdom itself. There was no emotion in his eyes. In the end, we will all come before him; even the non-believers.

  21. Truthey says

    This website is not correct… Please refur to this link… http://www.thenazareneway.com/likeness_of_our_saviour.htm

  22. Timmy says

    He had a clam effect? He looked like a clam. That’s what I thought.

  23. Johnna says

    Read Psalms 22 and focus on verse 17where He says He can count all His bones. (I presume from all His fasting and travels). Then read Psalms 69, and these 2 Psalms tells how He was treated during imprisonment and at His crucifixion. Another place or Psalm He says “a body You have prepared for me”. Concordance it.

  24. Thomas R. says

    Of course writers in the renaissance era would have attempted to depict Jesus Christ as an attractive, white Jewish man with a neatly trimmed beard. A carpenter’s apprentice that walked everywhere under the Middle Eastern sun had to of been able to associate with the people in order not to be immediately recognized. Jesus desired learned obedience, not recognized obedience. How could His Mission be fulfilled that way. How could the New Testament be accepted if not by faith?

  25. Judah says

    we don’t know how he looked like, because he didn’t exist.

  26. anthony says

    I think it’s relevent for accuracy – it’s unsettling to many white western Christians that he looked more like Osama bin Laden than them. History channel has an interesting reconstruction from the Shroud of Turin: http://www.history.com/shows/the-real-face-of-jesus

  27. Nazeem says

    It is amazing how people perceived Jesus in the previous comments. It is possible that Jesus was a black man given the fact that he was from the Middle East. At least he was not a EuropeaN.n white guy as we were taught to believe.

  28. Ed says

    It does not matter whether He was white’ black or Oriental-what matters is that He paid the price for our sins-and what matters most is we whether accept Him as our Savior-be saved today and get off the rabbit trails as to what He looked like.

  29. jerry says

    Revelation 1:14 says his hair and his head were white like wool. Revelation 1:15 states his feet like unto fine brass, as if they were burned in a furnace. Lest anyone tries to misinterpret verse 14 by saying he was white, verse 15 gives a clear understanding as far as his skin tone is concerned. Anything that is burned will have a dark hue. So if Jesus had a dark hue and hair like wool, what would he look like? I guess I am answering a question with a question. Everyone in the world knows it does matter what he looked like. That is why we are bombarded with the photos of him looking like a white man. The image that is promoted in photos is to perpetuate a lie. If Jesus looks the way he does and he was a Hebrew, it gives clear understanding what the other Hebrews look like.

  30. isafakir says

    there are very good very intelligent very reasonable facts behind the early church’s selectin the four gospels which are the best attested documents in history with a papyrus fragment of John dating within decades of its being written. We have no other historical documents so well dated other than Homer’s poetry which comes in a very distant second. No figure in human history other than Mohammed is so well documented as a person. the four gospels are not fiction but rather like advertisements, selective and agenda directed, but in no way intended to beuntruthful, just selective.

  31. Adrienne says

    I think Jesus looked like former chicago Bulls basketball player Scottie Pipin. I saw this in a dream and it is true.

  32. XrisM says

    The Bible is made the way it is so that God can decipher the goats from His Sheep. Some stories are literal, some are metaphoric. God tests the faith of His children and the scorn of anti-theists alike by making something seem so far fetched that we would have to either have faith that the creator of the universe could have it manifest or we fall ashamed of its implausibility. Do we negate His Word because science deems some of it inconceivable? God makes it completely certain of the importance in believing something we cannot see. At the same time science needs to have faith in theories they cannot physically prove. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem sums that up. Everything in scripture relies on the individual that BELIEVES. From confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior and believing it in our hearts to Jesus telling us that we are healed because of our faith. It all comes down to believing without seeing. If we believe God created all, why couldn’t “all” be possible? “Believing” is collective, “faith” is personal. Its one thing to believe in God, its another to have faith that He is Who He says He is and He can do what He says He can do. So yes, have faith that His Word is true. We need to stop trying to be convinced. God doesn’t have to convince anyone. We need to be still and know that He is God and have faith in that.

  33. the says

    This is a joke. They know what he looked like is exactly why they lie.

  34. stephania says

    Anyone who does not believe in Gods inspired words should not have a career concerning Biblical things. The Bible contain many many prophecies that has came true. Also in human history thess prophecies are proven as well. Now, we know Jesus was a Jew. We know he was a carpenter and perfect. From this I think his hair and eyes were dark. His skin color from the area he was in probably was dark as well. Since he was a carpenter I guess his build was muscular. Not necessarily big muscles but very tone. He was physically strong because of his work. Perfect human. He had no flaws beautiful in appearance.

  35. chuck says

    The nazerite vow forbade the cutting of hair(i.e. Samson). Jesus following the nazerite vow would have long hair and facial hair. To use corinthians, you need to have it in context. They were known to have alot of sexual “freedom and lusts”.

  36. Muzyqman says

    Given Jesus’ Semitic ethnic background and the part of the world where he was born, it seems a no-brainer that he was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and probably of a swarthier complexion. It is pretty much guaranteed that all the European church depictions of Jesus with fair skin, fair hair and light eyes are more wishful thinking than history.

  37. Son says

    Hello children of the one true living God, please thank our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for his blessings and compassion.

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