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What did Jesus really look like?

29 March 2018

Investigating the evidence for Jesus’s appearance tells us something about him, and about us, argues Joan Taylor


A portrait on a mummy of a bearded man (161-180) from Fayyum, Egypt, encaustic on wood. “Identifying the look of Jesus in the second and early third century is complicated by the fact that most men had beards, and sometimes could even have hair to the nape of their necks” SEE GALLERY FOR MORE

A portrait on a mummy of a bearded man (161-180) from Fayyum, Egypt, encaustic on wood. “Identifying the look of Jesus in the second and early t...

SINCE the publication of my book What Did Jesus Look Like?, several people have asked me how I got interested in this topic. I was probably thinking about it ever since I was first asked to draw Jesus at Sunday school. In my children’s Bible, there were illustrations of Jesus with light-brown hair and blue eyes, but I also had a King James Bible (given by an uncle at my christening) with illustrations by E. S. Hardy.

Evelyn Stuart Hardy — like other artists of the later 19th and early 20th centuries — depicted Jesus and his disciples as a European in Palestinian clothing. In this case, Jesus wears a striped keffiyeh (scarf), unfolded, on his head, with an agal (rope); and, on his body, he wears a thobe (long-sleeved long shirt), jibbeh (thin-striped coat), and an abaya (cloak). Clearly, Hardy was trying to do her best to create a more authentic, Middle Eastern Jesus. It is completely anachronistic, however: in the past 2000 years, dress has changed a great deal in the Middle East, as everywhere else.

I loved art, and continued to draw pictures of Jesus through my teens. I remember using Hardy’s illustrations as the basis for one of them, and a portrait of an Afghan man for another. My Jesus was the standard long-haired, bearded Jesus in long robes, with light brown hair, although somewhat Eastern-styled. This is, of course, the way in which Jesus is shown in films, although he is increasingly rough-looking.

In my twenties, I travelled to Israel-Palestine, and became fascinated by archaeological discoveries of ancient pieces of cloth. Such remnants show a different kind of dress for the people of Judaea, in the first century, from the style that I had imagined. They match with clothing that you see on the walls of Pompeii, or in portraits on Egyptian mummies, because, culturally, Judaea was very much part of the Graeco-Roman world, and people wore “Western”-style dress. There were probably some regional variants — for example, Judaean women tended to wear veils when they didn’t so much in Roman contexts — but, overall, there was the same dress code.

I was also keenly aware that Jesus would have looked like the people I met in this part of the world: he would have looked like a Palestinian or Sephardi Jew, with brown skin and black hair.

ALAMYAn apse mosaic in the fourth-century basilica of Santa Pudenziana, Rome, restored in the 16th century. “Here Christ is the ‘ruler of all’ . . . a scene of cosmic judgement, at the end of the present world”

A little later, I wrote a book on John the Baptist — The Immerser: John the Baptist in Second Temple Judaism (Eerdmans, 1997) — and noted how John’s appearance was key: he looked like people imagined Elijah, dressed in camel hair (sackcloth), with a skin tied around his waist (Mark 1.6 and parallels). A description of what John wore was important in guiding people to an awareness of his meaning.

It struck me then that there was no such corresponding picture of Jesus in the Gospels. In St Mark’s Gospel, having focused on what John looked like, Jesus is simply said to “come from Nazareth of Galilee”, without any physical description of him at all. Later on in the Gospels, people fail to recognise Jesus at his resurrection, but we are not told how he appeared different from what he was before.

We do not notice this because we “know” what Jesus looked like from art. At an early age, a template of what Jesus looked like has been stamped on our minds, and we visualise him accordingly. But, without this, the absence of a description is troubling, because, as people of faith, we want to visualise Jesus’s story accurately and picture him. We respond to that picture emotionally.

In my book, I journey through time, from the Veronica cloth to the Turin Shroud, examining whether, in these holy artefacts, there is anything that shows a real memory of Jesus’s appearance. But, ultimately, this investigation drew a blank. I did find out some fascinating things along the way, however: for example, that the legend of Veronica is much older than I had thought, and that the original Veronica (in Greek, Berenice) was understood to be the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5.25-34 and parallels).

I then looked to the earliest artistic depictions of Jesus in the Byzantine era (fourth century onwards), and early Christian art in the third century, and found Jesus portrayed in the style of various Graeco-Roman gods: either long-haired and bearded, as with Zeus/Serapis, or else with short curly hair and beardless, as with Dionysus. The message: Jesus was divine. Yet we are left with the Zeus-type of Jesus as our standard model, adapted over the centuries. He has royal robes (befitting a king) — long, richly coloured, and with baggy sleeves.

Moving back further, there were catacomb pictures of Jesus as a type of Moses, with Moses’s miracle-making staff, showing him as a kind of philosopher. Here, he has shorter, rougher hair and a light beard, and he is reasonably nice-looking (Moses was considered handsome), although one school of thought in the Early Church believed that he was ugly and short, probably solely on the basis of reading Isaiah 53 (see Origen, Contra Celsum 6.75).

Another school of thought believed that Jesus continually changed his appearance, on the basis of the viewer’s faith. Nevertheless, it is the Moses-type images that seem to me to be the most helpful: Jesus looked like a kind of sage.

People have also asked me why I think this study is important. On social media, this can be framed quite antagonistically: “What’s the point?” It assumes that I am asking a trivial question, and ignoring what is truly meaningful about Jesus. Actually, as I try to show in the book, once we look for clues and find the evidence for Jesus’s real appearance, this tells us something about him.

Appearance is not just about our bodies. It is not just about our ethnicity, or our skin, hair, or eye colour. Our appearance is also about what we do with our bodies. We all dress our bodies in certain ways, and shape our hair. Our total appearance is a mix of what we are physically, and what we do to present ourselves to the world.

Jesus would have dressed in the standard way of his time, in a woollen tunic and a mantle (a large rectangular cloth), probably undyed. The tunic usually had coloured stripes running from shoulder to hem, and, for men, it was short, finishing around the knees, while for women it was long, finishing at the ankles. For élite men, their tunics could also be long, and made of rich materials, advertising wealth, status, and leisure. But Jesus did not wear long robes, because he directly criticises men who wore them as different from himself (Mark 12.38).

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED JOAN TAYLORChrist in profile and the story of the emerald vernicle (c.1500), an English example of depictions of Christ with a European appearance, influenced by the Letter of Lentulus, a fabricated account of Jesus’s trial which appeared in the late 14th century

Jesus’s mantle had “edges” that people tried to touch (Matthew 9.20, 14.26). While we might just think of a hem, the Greek word kraspedon, translated as “edge”, is found as a technical term, translating the Hebrew tsitsith, a tassel with blue thread, that all Israelite men were to wear on the four corners of their mantles (Numbers 15.38-9). Jesus criticises the Pharisees for having long tassels (“edges”), advertising their piety. Clearly, he used other men’s clothing as an indicator of error. He then wore a short tunic and a mantle with short tassels.

But there is more. I tested out what was said of Jesus in the second century, as recorded by the anti-Christian philosopher Celsus, and there were curious memories of the way he looked. Jesus “wandered about most shamefully in the sight of all” (Origen, Contra Celsum 6.10; translated by Henry Chadwick). He was “a vagabond . . . an outcast who roamed about with his body disgracefully unkempt” (2.38). A shameful-looking Jesus actually ties in well with what we know from John 19.23-24, that Jesus’s tunic was made of one piece. In later centuries, especially in Egypt, there were one-piece tunics that were well-made, and woven to shape, but, at this time, a one-piece was invariably an under-tunic. Proper outer tunics were made of two pieces, joined at the shoulder and sides.

Jesus’s appearance, then, coheres with his teaching. He advocated that his disciples give away their possessions to the poor (Matthew 19.20-22). He would have followed the teaching of John the Baptist: “Whoever has two tunics, let them give one to the person who has none” (Luke 3.11). In Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats, he states of those who are destined for the Kingdom: “I was unclad and you threw something round me” (Matthew 25.36). He sent out his apostles, ordering them not to wear two tunics (Mark 6.9).

Jesus was more than simply compassionate towards the poor — he dressed like one of them. Wandering around Galilee, he called people to a band of disciples divested of personal wealth, where no one was completely destitute, without clothing, or without food: among those seeking the Kingdom and his righteousness, enough clothing would be provided (Matthew 6.25-34).


Joan E. Taylor is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London. What Did Jesus Look Like? (Books, 23 March) is published by Bloomsbury at £17.99 (CT Bookshop £16.20).

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