What Did Jesus Really Look Like?

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

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 the Biblical Archaeology Review article “Painting a Portrait of Jesus” (republished below), D. Moody Smith examined 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 pointed 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.

In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?

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.

Visit the historical Jesus study page in Bible History Daily to read more free articles on Jesus.

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.


Based on “Painting a Portrait of Jesus” by D. Moody Smith from the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in December 2011.

In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?

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  • CJ says

    When has wool been straight hair?

  • CJ says

    When was the color of bronze white. Get it right now. You are lying your butt off and changing what scripture tells us. Revelations 1: 12-15 12And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle. 14And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire; 15and His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. Would you not worship Jesus if he were a man of color? I could care less what race my savior is but with the mentality of those that insist he had to be white, he would be rejected in your homes if he came back a man of color. Think about it.

    • Drovk says

      Read your words carefully, ( head and hair were white) ( like white wool , description of color not wool itself, and ( like snow, when is snow curly? You make us all chuckle) feet were like burnished ( a high polished) bronze ( as this from someone being in the sun too long gets this image). When searching the Bible Jesus is Jewish not Hebrew in descent, but very dark complexion, so is his head white (as though covered from the sun) and his body very dark ( from sun exposure) plus his feet ( from direct exposure) ? I’d say yes

  • Steven says

    Jesus said he was from heaven and is the son of God. Therefore by species and race he is an alien from outer space and would not look like a Hebrew or a jew at all. He would look like his heavenly father. Joseph and Mary were just surrogate parents…..
    Read the gospel of John to learn more.

    • CJ says

      Nope, Jesus could not have looked like an alien because he was accepted to be a man and looked like a man. He had hair like white lambs wool which is not straight hair. His feet were like bronze which is not white so your denial only puts you in a position that if he came back as he came before you may deny him. Get it right now.

    • John says

      Do not understand that Jesus had an earthly, human mother, Mary of Nazareth, from whom his flesh and blood human body came?
      Do you not realize how absurd and sophomoric is your claim that Jesus was “an alien from outer space”?
      Do you not understand that Jesus was entirely human and entirely God?
      Joseph was his human adoptive father and Mary was fully and entirely his earthly mother.
      Neither was a “surrogate parent” and Jesus was a 1st century Jew, a descendent of King David.
      How silly your comment is.

  • rodd says

    Jesus was an Israelite and lived in Galilee and is therefore NOT a Jew !
    (A Jew in Jesus day was anyone resident in Judaea.. (Check your Bible !!! Jews did NOT exist before JUDAEA but came into existence in 586BC !!! All other so called explanation is myth and conspiracy to deceive ! I can explain all !)
    (Judaea was an Edomite kingdom. (the Herods !!!) .occupied by Edomites in the main and NOT what churches like to present :- ie a land full of Israelites !!!)
    But who are the ” lost sheep of the house of Israel” ? They are those who left Assyria and crossed the Caucasian mountains and eventually occupied northern parts..and Isles… of Europe..having left a trail of evidence along the way eg names of places and artefacts etc. eg Isaiah ch [ Until about 1975 AD !!! we were known as the’ Caucasians’ and that is how we were officially – on governmental documents – described…ie. “colour ” white .
    As has already been pointed out, DAVID was of fair and ruddy complexion (1 Sam ch 17 v 42..(Goliath noticed !!!) and……as , I understand, the Hebrew word of “adam” reflects. This all indicates that the Israelites were fair, indeed, ‘white’ folk….. once the Saxons???? Isaac’s sons??? Zac’s sons????. ( and stretching even as far north as the ‘Hebrew – des’ Isles of Scotland (??? ) !!. Isaiah ch 24 vs 14/ 15; Jer. ch 3 v.18 Jer.ch 31 vs 8-11; Ezekiel, …even Numbers ch 24 v 7. And, by the way, they fulfilled the covenant God made with Abraham (???) Gen ch 12 v 3 – by introduction of government, education, trade, invention, order, skills and knowledge to all the world throughout those days they ruled the world..even until now??? ( Ummm ??? I am not sure about today !!) Anyhow, this all leads to the certain conclusion that JESUS was of fair and ruddy complexion…indeed with the “Caucasian” features.
    And all this supports the no doubt ‘controversial’ comments I have made near the beginning of this note. ( Of course, so does the total absence of any mention of Jews in the Bible..until…… 586BC !!!!! ) We are victims of a massive conspiracy !
    And . sadly, the churches are totally ignorant and mislead the good folk. Jer. ch 23 vs 1 and 11 ) Sincerely, rodd

    • LearnedFoot says

      Oh my, you are highly ignorant of history. Saxons were the predecessors of David? Zach’s sons? It would be laughable if it weren’t so scary. Sir, please go and read real history books…which put language and origins of peoples into context…and not wacky conspiracy websites — of which you are obviously adherent.

    • Steven says

      Wishful thinking Rodd. It is Okay to be a White European Goyim Rodd. God through Jesus Christ will understand. You don’t need to be dishonest and pretend to be an Israeli or a Jew to feel important.

    • Jon says

      JOHN 19. 19 Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

    • Rian says

      Good History. Being a “Jew”, “Israelite” as we know it now was a life style and a religion at that time as much as it was a people. Jesus was 100% immersed within that culture. He was God in the flesh. To expect him to do any less would be fool hearty. I believe it is more important to believe what Jesus Christ taught us and try everyday to follow that example in his two most important commands; Love God with all of you heart, soul and mind and Love your neighbor as yourself. Be Blessed.

  • Asha says

    Madame you are wrong
    james was cousin in the days of Jesus they call cousins as brother
    In Isreal the son should take care of parents
    Why did Jesus ask john to take care of Mary if he had siblings
    they will take care take care . James was a cousin
    I was born a Hndu i converted to christianity live in roanoke
    Protestants dont have people to teach them bible like catholics do
    but they love pope francis .
    They didnot live during biblical times man created the protestant church for us it is ST peter
    In catholic church we have to follow word of Jesus he lp the poor our actions mean a lot grace is through the scriptures and works

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