IMAGE OF JESUS
What image comes to mind when you think of Jesus? Does the popular image of Jesus as a thin, long-haired, pale-complexioned man accurately reflect the real Jesus of Nazareth? Or did the popular image of Jesus originate from sources totally outside of the Bible? Though it sometimes appears with different shades of skin, the general characteristics are consistent: long hair, a beard, and a slender and somber face. It is the face immediately recognized as Jesus Christ. This face is portrayed through paintings, sculptures, crucifixes and movies. Does the Bible give us any clues about Jesus’ physical appearance? No, nobody knows exactly what Jesus looked like. Many imagine Jesus as artists have drawn Him, but is such an image supported or contradicted by the Bible?
The Bible tells us almost nothing specific about Jesus’ physical characteristics. The emphasis of the Gospel accounts is on what He said and what He did. Again, this should force us to consider—is there a reason these details are left blank? The Bible reveals very little about what Jesus looked like. And what it does reveal contradicts the popular image you may have in your mind—an image that has been planted there by artists and filmmakers. Common differences between the depiction of Jesus and what He would have actually looked like include:
- Instead of having long hair, Jesus would have had short hair.
- Instead of having pale skin, He would have had a tanned complexion.
- Instead of being thin and fragile, He would have been masculine and strong.
But if this common depiction was not derived from Scripture, where did the popular image of Jesus come from? Why do artists, sculptors and film producers consistently portray Jesus with these features? What is the origin of the common picture of Jesus?
2.0 BIBLE GIVES A MAJOR CLUE ABOUT JESUS’ APPEARANCE
Jesus looked like an average Jewish man of His time. Yes, that’s basically it. Isaiah 53 is a messianic prophecy about Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. It begins with a prophecy about His appearance: “He has no form or comeliness [or splendor]; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2). In other words, people wouldn’t be drawn to Jesus because He was strikingly handsome, unusually tall or had a distinctive appearance. We are told that He was to come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10; Micah 5:2; Matthew 1:1-16)—which made Him a Jewish man.
The Gospel accounts confirm the Isaiah 53 prophecy. Luke 4 gives an account of Jesus speaking in a Nazareth synagogue early in His ministry. After Jesus openly told those present that He was fulfilling messianic prophecies (Luke 4 :17-21), a mob formed to try to kill Him right there! Luke added an interesting detail in His Gospel about how Jesus escaped: “Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way” (Luke 4:30). Jesus could easily slip out of this mob because He looked just like everyone else there. Jesus’ average-looking appearance helped Him escape many dangerous situations throughout His ministry (John 8:59; 10:39). In John 7 we read about Jesus’ last Feast of Tabernacles and His decision to travel to Jerusalem secretly because His life was in danger (John 7:10). Jesus was able to go incognito for the first part of the Feast by just blending into the crowd—only becoming publicly known when He stood up to teach (John 7:14).
In fact, throughout the Gospel accounts, the only times we see Jesus drawing attention is when He was speaking or performing miracles. In casual situations, He simply looked like everyone else. This is part of the reason Judas, when He betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities, had to use a sign to identify the correct man to arrest (Matthew 26:48; Mark 14:44). He looked just like everyone else!
3.0 COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF FIRST CENTURY JEWS
In 2002 Popular Mechanics reported on a group of forensic anthropologists who teamed up with Israeli archaeologists to investigate what an ordinary first-century Jewish man would have looked like. The team researched first-century Semitic skulls from the Galilean region and drawings of people found in Israeli archaeological sites. The image of the common first-century Jew they devised shares almost no characteristics with the traditional image of Jesus portrayed in religious art. Their research found the following common characteristics of first-century Jews:
- Dark eyes.
- Bearded (Isaiah 50:6 indicates the Messiah would wear a beard).
- Around 5 feet, 1 inch tall.
- Average weight of 110 pounds.
Contradicting how Jesus is often portrayed, they concluded that Jesus would have had short, dark hair with “tight curls.” Paintings and busts of men from the first century show that men commonly wore short hair.
This is consistent with the biblical evidence. The strongest evidence in the Bible comes from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. Right after telling the Corinthians to “imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), Paul wrote about the issue of head coverings and hair lengths. Paul said, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him?” (1 Corinthians 11: 14). The sense of Paul’s statement is that the natural order teaches that men and women should be distinguished by their hair lengths—men with shorter hair and women with longer hair.
If Jesus wore long hair, would it make sense for the apostle Paul to so strongly criticize long hair on men? Is it correct for us to portray or think of Him in a way that would dishonour Him, according to Paul’s words? It is obvious that the historical Jesus wore short hair, in line with the standards of the time and the teachings of God’s Word. The scientists also concluded that “since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until he was about 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume he was more muscular and physically fit than today’s portraits suggest. Jesus was not the slender, pale and slightly effeminate image we see in art or the movies. Jesus would have been a strong, short-haired, tanned Jewish male. But other than those broad generalities, we don’t know any other specifics about His appearance, because God chose not to preserve those details in His Word.
4.0 JESUS AND THE NAZIRITE VOW
The Old Testament describes a special vow called the Nazirite vow. Those who took that vow had to do things that separated them from the Israelite community (Numbers 6:1-21). For instance, those under the vow couldn’t drink wine or eat anything derived from grapes (Numbers 6:3-4). They also could not touch a dead body (Numbers 6:6) or cut their hair throughout the duration of the vow (Numbers 6:5). But when the vow was over, they had to cut the long hair off (Numbers 6:18). Samson, the judge, was the most famous biblical character who was under this vow (Judges 16:17).
Some have mistakenly believed that Jesus was under this vow, confusing the term Nazirite with Nazarene. Jesus was a Nazarene because He was from the town of Nazareth (Matthew 2:23). But there is no evidence He ever took a Nazirite vow. In fact, we know He wasn’t under a Nazirite vow during His ministry because He drank wine and could touch a dead body (Luke 7:33-34; Mark 5:41). The Nazirite vow does teach us that it was uncommon for Israelite men to wear long hair. Since the Nazirite vow was all about living in a way that separated those taking the vow from the community, the fact that it included growing long hair shows us that the common man wore short hair.
History gives context to Paul’s statement about “nature”: “Similar moral judgments against wearing long hair can be found in Epictetus, Philo, Euphrates, and Plutarch. For the male it was not an acceptable mode of grooming” (Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods, 1993, p. 126). Roman men, as can be easily seen in sculpted busts from the time, commonly wore short hair. In fact, the male gods of the Roman pantheon were often portrayed with long hair—to distinguish them from mortal men.
5.0 WHY EARLY CHRISTIAN DIDN’T MAKE AN ARTISTIC IMAGE OF JESUS?
Why are there no paintings or drawings of Jesus that date back to His era? The people closest to Jesus left no artistic descriptions of His appearance. This wasn’t just an oversight because they were busy. The New Testament is very deliberate in recording the most vital details about Jesus’ life—but notably there are few about His appearance. Nowhere do we find an artistic image of Him drawn by one of His contemporaries. Simply put, the early Christians understood that while Jesus was ordinary in appearance (Isaiah 53:2), He wasn’t an ordinary man—He was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14; 20:28). Since they faithfully obeyed the 10 Commandments, they applied the Second Commandment to Jesus. Jesus Christ was God and should not be represented through images.
The apostle Paul expounded on this when he said, “We ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (Acts 17:29). In other words, God is so great that reducing Him to an image is like putting Him in a box. Paul relegated attempts to portray God through images to “times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30). Paul was trying to combat idolatry—a major element of the Greco-Roman world he lived in. Historian Jesse Lyman Hurlbut wrote of the first century: “Idol worship was interwoven with life in every department. Images stood in every house to receive adoration; libations were poured out to the gods at every festival; with every civic or provincial ceremony the images were worshiped. In such forms the [early] Christians would take no part” (The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 41). Secular history records, “The early Church had always been strict in forbidding the adoration of images and therefore did not want Christ’s face to be memorable” (Claudine Chavannes-Mazel, “Popular Belief and the Image of the Beardless Christ,” Visual Resources, Vol. 19, No. 1, p. 29).
It is clear from scriptural and historical evidence that the early Church had no images of Christ. So how did images and icons make their way into mainstream Christianity? A consistent biblical theme is God’s abhorrence of pagan idolatry. God strictly commanded His people not to make images of Him (or any made-up god) or to use those images in worship. God was angry with Israel because of their attempt to worship Him through an image of a golden calf (Exodus 32; 1 Corinthians 10:7). Ancient Israel went into captivity because they embraced idolatry (2 Kings 17:15-18; Hosea 8:4). The New Testament is filled with admonitions to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14) and to “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The apostle Paul made many enemies in Ephesus for preaching against images “made with hands” (Acts 19:26).
Would a God who inspired these statements want to be worshipped and imagined through images inspired by pagan idolatry? Would a God who allowed no images of Himself want to be worshipped through made-up images? Did the God who declares Himself “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) suddenly change His mind about images in the fourth century? Some will counter with the argument that the modern use of imagery in Christian worship is not idolatry, but is instead imagery to help the human mind focus on and imagine the true spiritual God behind that imagery. The problem with this argument is that it is the same belief that the majority of pagans have had down through history. Most pagans believed there were real spiritual deities behind those images. The Greeks who worshipped images of Zeus didn’t believe statues of Zeus were literally Zeus—they believed Zeus was a literal deity who lived on Mount Olympus. The statue was merely an aid, or a representation of Zeus.
6.0 HOW IMAGES OF JESUS CREPT INTO CHRISTIANITY?
Many changes occurred to Christianity after the end of the New Testament era. After the death of the original apostles, a small group of faithful Christians continued, but much of Christianity gradually began to evolve into a religion that bore little resemblance to the Church described in the book of Acts. The earliest images that have been uncovered supposedly portraying Jesus have been dated to around A.D. 240-256. Obviously, these artists, who lived 200 years after Christ’s ascension to heaven, had never seen Him or known any of His contemporaries.
Instead of trying to directly portray Him, these early images represented Christ symbolically. The most common was Christ portrayed as the “Good Shepherd,” holding a lamb. In these images, He is portrayed as young, physically fit and beardless. Most of these images were found in catacombs in Rome—not in Judea or Asia Minor, where the majority of early Christians lived. The problem historians have in positively identifying these images as Christ is that they parallel Greco-Roman pagan art that used a shepherd image as a symbol of philanthropy (André Grabar, Origins of Christian Iconography, pp. 218-219). We will see that borrowing from pagan art is a common theme of many of the familiar icons of Christianity.
It wasn’t until after Constantine (272-337) that detailed artistic representations of Jesus began to be found in churches. Historian Paul Johnson wrote that “after the conversion of Constantine all the barriers [to the use of images] were broken down” (A History of Christianity, pp. 102-103). In other words, before this time there was resistance to artistic portrayals of Jesus—but after Constantine accepted Christianity and started remaking it in the Roman image, the Greco-Roman customs of worshipping deities through statues and images became syncretized into Christianity. “Towards the end of the fourth century, the use of images in the churches became general. People began to prostrate themselves before them, and many of the more ignorant to worship them. The defenders of this practice said that they were merely showing their reverence for the precious symbols of an absent Lord and his saints” (George Fisher, History of the Christian Church, 1915, p. 117). Though there continued to be resistance, the use of icons and images won out and became entrenched in the Christianity that emanated from Rome and Byzantium. But the artwork of this emerging form of Christianity did not come out of nowhere. These images emerged from previous pagan imagery and traditions.
7.0 HOW THE IMAGE OF JESUS WAS PORTRAYED?
After A.D. 400, images of Jesus began to be found all over churches, catacombs and even on the vestments of priests. Since the artists had no knowledge of Jesus’ real appearance, they developed their own images of Jesus with features that continue to influence art to this day. Artists took the most notable characteristics of divinity from the Greco-Roman world and combined them into an image of a roughly 30-year-old man—devising the image recognizable as Jesus today: the slender, pale, bearded, long-haired Jesus. The early images of Jesus portrayed Him slightly differently from how He is usually depicted today. Instead of being slender with a beard, early art depicts Him as a youthful, physically fit, clean-shaven, though somewhat effeminate, long-haired man.
Choosing to depict Jesus with long hair was not a random decision on the part of these early artists. They choose to portray Christ this way because the male gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon almost always were depicted with long hair. “In Greek and Roman art loose, long hair was a mark of divinity … in letting his hair down Christ took on an aura of divinity that set him apart from the disciples and onlookers who are represented with him” (Thomas Mathews, The Clash of Gods, 1993, pp. 126-127).
In 2 Corinthians 11:4 Paul warned about the preaching of “another Jesus.” Sadly, that other Jesus did arise and subverted the true Jesus of the Bible. This other Jesus not only teaches doctrines that contradict the true Jesus, but also has an appearance that contradicts the likely appearance of the historical Jesus. Though we have clues about Jesus’ appearance, the Bible is intentionally vague for a reason. Images portraying God are forbidden in God’s law (Exodus 20:4-6). History documents that, in accordance with the Second Commandment, early Christians did not draw pictures of Jesus. Images portraying Jesus did not become popular until the fifth century—about 300 years after the close of the New Testament era. Because of the lack of details in the Gospel accounts, “painters, sculptors, and mosaic workers invented without inhibition. The narratives of the Gospel they rewrote with freedom to forge images of memorable impact” (Mathews, p. 180).
Instead of allowing the ideas of man to determine our image of Jesus, God wants us to understand Jesus through His Word by focusing on what Jesus did and taught—not how He looked. When we try to portray God through a physical image, we lose sight of the full extent of His power and grandeur, which can never be captured in stone or on canvas. Instead of viewing Him with the lens He gives us in His Word, we view Him through the lens of the human imagination. In a sense, we remake Him in our image. Not only do the depictions of Jesus mischaracterize what He looked like, but they are images based on false gods of ancient paganism.
The best way to replace these images with the truth about Jesus is to diligently study your Bible and fill your mind with the knowledge of His teachings—while avoiding man-made images of Him. Jesus Christ made a powerful statement recorded in John 4:23-24: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Worship of Jesus Christ should be fully based on truth, not false artistic renderings of His appearance.