Questions From Readers
● When Jesus Christ was a man on earth, did he wear a beard?—K.A., U.S.A.
Biblical evidence is the most reliable testimony to be found on this question, and a recent careful review of what it says indicates that Jesus did indeed have a beard.
Jesus, born a Jew, “came to be under law” and he fulfilled the Law. (Gal. 4:4; Matt. 5:17) This was in order that he might pave the way for the abolishing of the Law and for release of the Jews from the curse of the Law, the condemnation of death that it brought against them. (Eph. 2:15; Gal. 3:13) Like all other Jews, Jesus was under obligation to keep the whole law. One of the commandments of the Law was: “You must not cut your side locks short around, and you must not destroy the extremity of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) God doubtless gave Israel this law because among some pagans it was the practice to cut the beard in a certain fashion in worship of their gods. (Jer. 9:26; 25:23) Nevertheless, that law did not mean that a beard was not to be well kept, for in the Near East a well-groomed beard was considered a symbol of dignity and respectability.—2 Sam. 19:24.
During extreme grief, shame or humiliation, one might pluck hairs from his beard or leave the beard or the mustache untended. (Ezra 9:3) In several prophetic statements, the shaving off of the beard was used figuratively to illustrate great mourning because of calamity. (Isa. 7:20; 15:2; Jer. 48:37; Ezek. 5:1) Significantly, a prophecy concerning Jesus’ suffering states: “My back I gave to the strikers, and my cheeks to those plucking off the hair.” (Isa. 50:6) Hanun the king of Ammon grossly insulted the ambassadors kindly sent by David by cutting off half of their beards. Because of their great humiliation, David told these men to dwell in Jericho until their beards grew abundantly. This act of Hanun was, of course, aimed at David as an insult, and provoked war.—2 Sam. 10:1-8; 1 Chron. 19:1-7.
Also, it was generally customary for men to wear beards, even before the law covenant was made. While the Hebrews did not make monuments with figures of themselves, many monuments and inscriptions have been found in Egypt and Mesopotamia and other Near-Eastern lands in which Assyrians, Babylonians and Canaanites are pictured with beards, and some representations dated as far back as the third millennium B.C.E. show beards of varying styles. Among the above-named peoples eunuchs were the only ones depicted as beardless. Often boys were made eunuchs so that later they could be used to care for the king’s harem. (Matt. 19:12) This making eunuchs of men was not a practice in Israel, however, because the Law excluded eunuchs from the congregation of Israel. (Deut. 23:1) At the time Jesus was on earth, the Roman custom was beardlessness. Therefore, if Jesus had been beardless he might have been challenged as either a eunuch or a Roman.
Men of ancient Semitic groups, as we have seen in our consideration of ancient monuments, wore beards, even prior to the time of the Mosaic law. Since a beard grows naturally on most men, it is reasonable to conclude that their forefathers also wore beards. Consequently, it seems evident that Noah, Enoch, Seth and Seth’s father Adam were likewise bearded men.
It is appropriate, however, to give consideration to arguments advanced to the effect that Jesus was beardless. This idea has been largely based on theories built up by certain archaeologists with regard to the so-called “Chalice of Antioch.” This is a large silver beaker or cup within a silver framework shell of vines and figures of men. On one side of the cup is a boy, with five men facing him, and on the other side a young but more mature man, beardless, with five others facing him. All appear to be seated. The cup, supposedly found by some natives in Antioch of Syria, was acclaimed as being of the second half of the first century C.E., and therefore the earliest pictorial representation of Christ.
However, an analysis of the facts now makes it evident that the figures on the cup have been identified according to the imagination of the individuals interpreting them. The boy is considered to be Jesus at the age of twelve and the other central figure is said to be Jesus, possibly after his resurrection, or, again, it may be John the Baptist. The other ten figures have been interpreted variously to be ten of the apostles; or the apostles and evangelists; or, on one side the four evangelists with James the son of Zebedee, and on the other side Peter, Saul, James, Jude and Andrew.
There are serious objections made by many archaeologists to these identifications. Really it has been guesswork, and it is impossible to say what is represented by the figures. Some even doubt the authenticity of the cup, believing that it may be a forgery. Most, however, acknowledge it as an authentic discovery but give it a much later date, from the fourth to the sixth century. So it is very doubtful that the cup is an early representation of Christ, if, indeed, it was intended to portray Christ at all.—See The Biblical Archaeologist, December 1941 and February 1942.
Bearing directly on the question is the fact that the early Christian writers, Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and others, clearly indicate that no satisfactory record of the physical likeness of Jesus and the apostles existed in their time. Augustine, writing about 400 C.E. (De Trinitate, VIII, 4), said that each man had his own idea of Christ’s appearance, and the concepts were infinite.
Evidence from the Roman catacombs has been adduced to bear on the subject. In catacombs thought by some to date from the second century C.E., but by others as no earlier than the third century, pictures have been found. The unusually extensive catacomb called the Catacomb of Priscilla contains wall pictures, one of which is thought to portray the resurrection of Lazarus. It is almost obliterated and is very difficult to make out, but in the center there is a figure that has been taken to be Christ, depicted as a young beardless man. But in the catacombs apocryphal and false religious ideas are also plentifully represented. For example, in the Catacomb of Priscilla, and of about the same date, is a scene of the apocryphal Story of Susanna. A ceiling painting dated a little later contains a Madonna with child, with a star above her head. In the Crypts of Lucina a ceiling painting dated as the middle of the second century includes a little winged person, known as Erotes or Amoretti, which, on pagan tombs, represented departed souls. Therefore, it has become evident to us that the catacomb representations of Jesus are seriously questionable as to authenticity.
It is true that, beginning with the fourth century, the majority of pictures show Christ and his apostles with beards, having emaciated, sad, weak and effeminate “monastic” countenances, usually with a pagan nimbus or halo. These are surely no true representations of the man Jesus Christ, of whom Pontius Pilate said: “Look! The man!” or of him who overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, and drove their cattle out, neither of the apostles, who vigorously preached God’s Word until it spread over all the Roman Empire. (John 19:1, 5; 2:14-17) No, these were strong, active and happy men, servants of the happy God Jehovah. (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:14, 15; Acts 20:35) The dreary religious pictures are products of the apostasy, which by the fourth century was in full bloom, pagan Emperor Constantine making a fusion of apostate Christianity with pagan religion the State religion.
Nevertheless, as already shown, it is apparent that Jesus did wear a beard, and so artistic representations of him in future Watch Tower publications will harmonize with the Scriptural evidence to that effect.
Doubtless the early Christians followed the custom of the time and locality in which they lived, with regard to the wearing of a beard. The Roman custom was beardlessness. Romans converted to Christianity would very likely continue in the Roman custom, while converts from the Jewish community would continue in the Jewish custom of wearing a beard.
Today Christian ministers, like the early Christians, are concerned with neatness and cleanness, but they strive to dress inconspicuously, so that their appearance does not in any way detract from the dignity or the effectiveness of the message they bear. (2 Cor. 6:3, 4) In recent years in many lands a beard or long hair on a man attracts immediate notice and may, in the minds of the majority, classify such a person undesirably with extremists or as rebels against society. God’s ministers want to avoid making any impression that would take attention away from their ministry or hinder anyone from listening to the truth. They know that people are watching true Christians very critically and that to a great extent they judge the entire congregation and the good news by the minister’s appearance as a representative of the congregation.
In paradise restored on earth it would not be out of order if men returned to wearing beards, in perfect fashion, like Adam in Eden.