We’ve all seen the depictions of Jesus in Western art & movies. Jesus is often portrayed as brown or blonde-haired, with blue eyes & light skin. He has an unmistakably European appearance – tall with long, flowing, straight hair and perhaps even a bit effeminate.
But this isn’t how He has always been portrayed.
Our earliest depictions of Jesus come from the third century AD. During this time, Jesus is often portrayed as a young, clean-shaven man in Greek clothing.
Since Greek culture had so influenced the eastern Mediterranean region, Joan Taylor of King’s College says that people probably likened Jesus to a Dionysus, or a young Serapis, Neptune or Jupiter. Some may have even thought of Him as a philosopher.
Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus gradually begins to be depicted as a divine king, like an older Zeus/Jupiter. In Greek culture, long hair & beards were reserved for the gods. Short hair & a clean-shaven face were the standard for mortal men.
This long-haired, bearded portrayal of Jesus continued to remain popular through Western history.
What Does the Bible Say About Jesus’ Appearance?
The Bible has very little to say about Jesus’ appearance.
The first passage that might come to some reader’s minds is Revelation 1:14-15 & Revelation 19:12-16. However, this description of a glorified Christ with “eyes like a flame of fire” and a sword coming out of His mouth shouldn’t be taken literally, especially from a book of the Bible with so much cryptic symbolism.
The best we can do is look at some subtle clues.
Luke 3:23 says He was about 30 when He started His ministry.
In Matthew 26:47-50, we see that the authorities hire Judas to identify Jesus. This strongly implies that Jesus was not easily picked out of a crowd. He probably looked & dressed a lot like His disciples (more on clothing later).
The Apostle Paul asks the Corinthians decades later “Does not even nature tell you that for a man to have long hair is dishonourable to him?” (1 Cor. 11:14) This would assume that Jesus did not have long hair (historical scholars agree – see below).
Also, given how much walking was done, it’s likely Jesus & His disciples were lean.
Some would even say that this commonality is attested in the Old Testament. Isaiah 53:2 is a verse in a well-known passage of messianic prophecy that describes Messiah as having “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”
However, some have countered with Psalm 45:2-3, which describes him as “fairer than the children of men.” Perhaps Isaiah 53 (as well as Isaiah 52) describe Jesus on the cross?
One notable verse, Isaiah 50:6, seems to say that Messiah would have a beard.
What Do Scholars Say About Jesus’ Appearance?
Archaeologists, historians & other researchers know a few things about the people of Galilee & Judea in the 1st century.
They would have had an average height of 5’5″ (166 cm).
In the 1st Century Graeco-Roman world, being clean-shaven and short-haired was considered absolutely essential.
However, it is possible that the coins minted to celebrate the conquest of Judea in 70 AD by the Romans offer evidence that beards were not too uncommon in the region.
First century Jews likely had olive skin & a dark complexion, with dark hair. They probably looked like their other Middle-Eastern neighbors.
Yossi Nagar, anthropologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, showed that the bones of ancient Jews most closely resemble those of modern Iraqi Jews.
In 2001, a study sponsored by the BBC, France 3 & discovery Channel sought to discover the face of Jesus. A first-century Jewish skull was brought to forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, who reconstructed a face unlike most depictions of Jesus.
Using information provided by scholars concerning skin tone & hair length, the team presented these results:
Bas Sterwijk’s Jesus
Bas Sterwijk is a photographer who uses AI to create photo-realistic composites of historical figures’ faces.
While we seriously doubt this reconstruction is based on anything concrete, it is certainly more accurate in style than what we’ve seen on TV, films and artwork.
What Did Jesus Wear?
Jesus has been depicted in many ways throughout history. First, we see Him in white Greco-Roman tunics. Then, we see Him in golden garments with purple embellishments.
Traditionally, Jesus is depicted wearing a white tunic, with a blue or red mantle worn across His body.
Many films have sought to portray Him in rough yet simple earth tones.
The truth is, we know very little about what He wore. But there are some clues.
Jesus likely wore sandals.
John the Baptist said of Jesus, “I am not worthy to unfasten His sandals.” (Matt 3:11)
Before He sent them out, Jesus told His disciples to bring the bear minimum with them: just a tunic, belt & sandals. And if they encountered a place that didn’t receive their message, shake the dust from their sandals. (Mark 6:8-11)
In Acts 12:8, Peter is freed from his cell and told by the angel, “…put on your sandals.”
The outer garment (or mantle or cloak) was an essential piece of clothing. In Exodus 22:26, 27 we see that it was so important, that no one should ever be without one after the sun sets.
In Matthew 9:20, we see a woman touching the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. The cloak, called in Greek himation, was likely a predecessor to the Jewish prayer shawl. It likely had tzitzit tassels hanging from the corners, according to Mosaic Law.
Years later, we see in the Talmud that the Jewish man’s outer garment is called a tallit.
We know from John 19:23 that Jesus wore a seamless tunic. This was a single sheet of fabric, perhaps with a neck hole cut out in the center.
The poor of ancient times could not afford to dye their clothing, so it was probably the color of undyed wool (wool was by far the most common textile). In addition, we read from the historian Josephus that he describes the Zealots as murderous transvestites wearing chlanidia, which were women’s dyed mantles. The implication here, is that undyed garments were normal for men at the time.
Jesus’ tunic was also likely about knee-length. This was standard in the Greco-Roman world, and we can also deduce this from Jesus’ condemnations of scribes & Pharisees in their long robes (Mark 12:38) and the fact that women would normally wear ankle-length tunics.
The remainder of Jesus’ garments are unclear, but we can speculate.
Again in John 19:23, we see that they made four parts of the garments which were not his tunic. These could have been 2 mantles made of 2 sheets of fabric each, or they could have been 4 separate pieces of clothing, such as a belt, a headscarf, a shawl and a a mantle.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, we see a number of garments listed by second-century Rabbi Yose: a cloak, arm cover, money belt, felt cap, kafia, linen tunic, a woolen shirt, felt stockings, garters, breeches, shoes, a hat, a hip belt, and arm shawls.
What is the Shroud of Turin?
Where is the Shroud of Turin?
Where was the Shroud of Turin found?
Is the Shroud of Turin legit?