What Did Jesus Look Like?
THE testimony of secular history regarding what Jesus looked like is strongly influenced by several factors. These account for major differences in the way he has been depicted in art.
Two factors are the culture of the country and the time period in which the art was done. In addition, the religious beliefs of the artists and those who commissioned them affected how Jesus was portrayed.
Over the centuries, famous artists, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Rubens, lavished considerable attention on Christ’s physical appearance. Often embellished with symbolism and mysticism, their works have greatly influenced the general perception of what Jesus looked like. But on what were their interpretations based?
What Secular History Says
Works of art predating Roman Emperor Constantine, who lived from about 280 to 337 C.E., often depicted Jesus as a youthful “Good Shepherd” with either short hair or long, curly hair. But of this the book Art Through the Ages says: “As a theme, the Good Shepherd can be traced back through [pagan] Greek Archaic to Egyptian art, but here it becomes the symbol for the loyal protector of the Christian flock.”
In time, this pagan influence became still more pronounced. “Jesus,” the book adds, “could be easily identified with the familiar deities of the Mediterranean world, especially Helios (Apollo), the sun god [whose halo was later given to Jesus and then to the “saints”], or his romanized eastern aspect, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun).” In a mausoleum discovered beneath St. Peter’s in Rome, Jesus is actually portrayed as Apollo “driving the horses of the sun-chariot through the heavens.”
This more youthful form, however, did not last very long. Adolphe Didron, in his book Christian Iconography, states what happened: “The figure of Christ, which had at first been youthful, becomes older from century to century . . . as the age of Christianity itself progresses.”
A 13th-century text pretending to be a letter by a certain Publius Lentulus to the Roman Senate gives a description of the physical appearance of Jesus, saying that he had “hair of the hue of an unripe hazel-nut [light brown] and smooth almost down to his ears, but from the ears in curling locks somewhat darker and more shining, waving over (from) his shoulders; having a parting at the middle of the head . . . , a full beard of the colour of his hair, not long, but a little forked at the chin; . . . the eyes grey . . . and clear.” This unauthentic portrait subsequently influenced many artists. “Each period,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “created the type of Christ it desired.”
What was true of each period was also true of races and religions. Religious art from the missionary fields of Africa, the Americas, and Asia portrays the long-haired Christ of the West; but at times “native features” have been added to his appearance, the encyclopedia notes.
The Protestants have also had their artists, and these interpreted Christ’s appearance in their own way. F. M. Godfrey, in his book Christ and the Apostles—The Changing Forms of Religious Imagery, states: “Rembrandt’s tragic Christ is an emanation of the Protestant spirit, sorrowful, ghostly, severe, . . . an image of the inward-looking, self-denying Protestant soul.” This is reflected, he says, in “the paucity of His body, the abnegation [self-denial] of the flesh, the ‘lowliness, pathos and solemnity’ with which [Rembrandt] conceived the Christian epic.”
However, as we shall now see, the frail, halo-encircled, effeminate, melancholy, long-haired Christ, which often appears in Christendom’s art, is not accurate. In reality, it is a far cry from the Jesus of the Bible.
The Bible and Jesus’ Appearance
As “the Lamb of God,” Jesus was without defect, so no doubt he was a fine-looking man. (John 1:29; Hebrews 7:26) And he certainly would not have worn the permanent look of melancholy given to him in popular art. True, he experienced many distressing events in his life, but in his general disposition, he perfectly mirrored his Father, “the happy God.”—1 Timothy 1:11; Luke 10:21; Hebrews 1:3.
Was the hair of Jesus long? Only Nazirites were not to cut their hair or drink wine, and Jesus was not a Nazirite. So he no doubt had his hair neatly clipped like any other Jewish male. (Numbers 6:2-7) He also enjoyed wine in moderation when in the company of others, and this reinforces the thought that he was not a cheerless person. (Luke 7:34) Indeed, he made wine by performing a miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. (John 2:1-11) And he evidently wore a beard, which is attested to in a prophecy concerning his suffering.—Isaiah 50:6.
What about Jesus’ complexion and features? They were likely Semitic. He would have inherited these features from his mother, Mary, who was Jewish. Her ancestors were Jewish, in the line of the Hebrews. So Jesus would probably have had a complexion and features common to Jews.
Even among his apostles, Jesus apparently did not stand out as being very different physically, for Judas had to betray him to his enemies with an identifying kiss. Thus, Jesus could readily blend in with the crowd. And he did, for on at least one occasion, he traveled unrecognized from Galilee to Jerusalem.—Mark 14:44; John 7:10, 11.
Some conclude, though, that Jesus must have been frail. Why do they say this? For one thing, he needed help to carry his torture stake. Also, he was the first to die of the three men who were impaled.—Luke 23:26; John 19:17, 32, 33.
Jesus Not Frail
Contrary to tradition, the Bible does not describe Jesus as being frail or effeminate. Rather, it says that even as a youth, he “went on progressing in wisdom and in physical growth and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) For the better part of 30 years, he was a carpenter. That does not seem to be an occupation for one of slight or weak build, especially in that era, when there were no modern laborsaving machines. (Mark 6:3) Also, Jesus drove the cattle, the sheep, and the money changers out of the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers. (John 2:14, 15) This too suggests a manly, physically vigorous person.
During the last three and a half years of his life on earth, Jesus walked hundreds of miles on his preaching tours. Yet, the disciples never suggested that he “rest up a bit.” Rather, Jesus said to them, some of whom were tough fishermen: “Come, you yourselves, privately into a lonely place and rest up a bit.”—Mark 6:31.
Indeed, “the whole evangelical narrative,” says M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, “indicates [Jesus had] sound and vigorous bodily health.” Then why did he need help to carry his torture stake, and why did he die before the others who were impaled with him?
One key factor is extreme distress. As the time of Jesus’ execution neared, he said: “Indeed, I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am being distressed until it is finished!” (Luke 12:50) This distress grew to “agony” on his final night: “Getting into an agony he continued praying more earnestly; and his sweat became as drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Jesus knew that mankind’s prospects for eternal life depended upon his integrity to the death. What a weight to carry! (Matthew 20:18, 19, 28) He also knew that he would be executed as an “accursed” criminal by God’s own people. Thus, he was concerned that this could bring reproach upon his Father.—Galatians 3:13; Psalm 40:6, 7; Acts 8:32.
Following his betrayal, he suffered cruelty upon cruelty. In a mock trial conducted well after midnight, the most senior officials in the land ridiculed him, spat on him, and hit him with their fists. To lend a facade of legitimacy to the night trial, another trial was held early the next morning. There Jesus was interrogated by Pilate; then by Herod, who, along with his troops, made fun of him; and then by Pilate again. Finally, Pilate had him scourged. And this was no ordinary whipping. Said The Journal of the American Medical Association about the Roman practice of scourging:
“The usual instrument was a short whip . . . with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals. . . . As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.”
Clearly, Jesus’ vitality would have been ebbing well before he buckled under the weight of the stake he carried. In fact, The Journal of the American Medical Association stated: “The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.”
Is His Appearance Important?
From Lentulus’ spurious written portrait to the works of famous master artists to modern stained-glass windows, Christendom seems enamored with that which captures the eye. “The exceptional evocative power of the image of Jesus Christ should be preserved,” said the archbishop of Turin, custodian of the controversial Shroud of Turin.
Yet, God’s Word deliberately omits such “evocative” details of Jesus’ appearance. Why? They would likely distract from that which means everlasting life—Bible knowledge. (John 17:3) Jesus himself—our very model—‘does not look upon,’ or regard as important, “men’s outward appearance.” (Matthew 22:16; compare Galatians 2:6.) To stress Jesus’ physical appearance in the absence of any mention of such in the inspired Gospels is to oppose their very spirit. In fact, Jesus, as we shall see in the next article, no longer even resembles the human form.*
In Bible study, there is, of course, no harm in using pictures that include Jesus. These often appear in the Watch Tower Society’s publications. No attempt, however, is made to invoke the mystical, awe the viewer, or promote unscriptural concepts, symbols, or veneration.
[Pictures on page 7]
The frail, pallid Christ depicted by artists in Christendom in contrast with a portrayal of Jesus based on Bible accounts
Jesus Preaching at the Sea of Galilee by Gustave Doré