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What did Jesus look like?

By Richard Gunther


There are many so-called portraits of Jesus. They range from the serene mystic to the rugged, earthy man of the land. Some artists, like Salvador Dali, have portrayed Jesus as so spiritual he no longer relates in a practical way with the world - floating above the Sea of Galilee, still attached to His cross. Other artists have portrayed Jesus as so 'otherworldly' that he is more like E.T. or some benevolent alien, than a real human being. Some versions of Jesus are pathetic, portraying him as a man with faults and failings, and hopelessly out of control. Every artist, through every century since Jesus ascended, has portrayed his face in a different way, usually reflecting the contemporary views, religious beliefs, or cultural 'flavours'.

But where did the original portraits come from? There is a belief that Jesus' brother James was used as a model for the first drawings. If this is true, then there is a strong possibility that James did look very much like his older brother Jesus, because he would have inherited similar genetic material from his mother.

"Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?" Matthew 13:55

"But other of the apostles saw I none, except James the Lord's brother". Galatians 1:19

If this is so, then the earliest portraits may be very similar to the actual appearance of the Lord Jesus.

One thing we do know for certain, however, is that Jesus had a beard - whether long or short we don't know - at the time of his crucifixion :

"I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting". Isaiah 50:6 (Fulfilled in Matt.26:67)

But despite what the hippy culture likes to think, Jesus did not have long, flowing hair :

"Does not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame to him?" 1 Corinthians 11:14

God has withheld a specific description of his Son's outward appearance, possibly because of Man's habit of turning objects into things of worship.

"Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more". 2 Corinthians 5:16

In other words, "We have known Jesus for several years as a man of flesh and blood. He humbled himself and became a man for a while, but he is no longer on that level. Now he is glorified, so we must set out hearts on Jesus as the glorified Son of God, from now on."

This instruction would have been especially relevant to Jesus' close friends and family, who knew him as 'the son of Mary', or 'the son of Joseph the carpenter' or the 'brother of . . .'.

In the movie versions of Jesus, he has been portrayed usually as a warm, loving, compassionate, strong-willed, determined, wise man. Most versions, I think, have done a good job of what is essentially an almost impossible task. Who could ever capture the fulness of Jesus? He was a perfect man. He was perfectly balanced in every aspect of humanity, and also perfectly controlled by God. Who could ever convey the utter wretchedness of Jesus on the cross as he carried the whole weight of Man's sin? But approximations are useful, and many people have felt the power and sincerity behind the acting.

In one version, however, Jesus is portrayed as a poor, desperate man, confused and doubting, on his knees in the dirt. "Is it me? Is it me?" he gasps, as he wrestles with the problem as to whether he is the Messiah or not. This absurd idea provoked much controversy, of course, but it actually emphasised, for those who read the Bible, how absolutely sure of himself Jesus really was. He had no difficulty, even as a boy, in telling his mother that : "I must be about my Father's business?" Luke 2:49

But there are many indirect inferences we can make about the body, or appearance, of Jesus. These can be drawn from the Law of God, since we know that Jesus kept the Law to the finest degree.

1. Jesus was circumcised. "And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you". Genesis 17:11

2. Jesus was never sick. As Jehovah Ropheka = Jehovah that heals you, Jesus could not be anything but healthy. Ex.15:26

3. Jesus was as perfect a physical specimen as it was possible to be under the circumstances. (This is contradicted by one movie version in which he has what looks like a mole or blemish on his forehead). Although he inherited Mary's genes, and therefore inherited defective DNA, he was, within those limitations, without blemish. This means he had no obvious deformities, skin rashes or congenital abnormalities. This was essential, since he had come as the "Lamb of God", and as such, he had to compare with the Old Testament "lamb" - "Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb . . . a lamb for an house (family):

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: you shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats" Exodus 12:3 -5

4. Jesus was not overly handsome. Despite some of the portraits, we know from the Bible that Jesus had no outwardly attractive - or 'model-like' - appearance. He was not physically attractive, mainly because God wants people to use the eyes of their faith when they decide to follow Jesus. We ought to remember also that he was not ugly either, since that would have inferred some sort of defect (see 3).

"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" Isaiah 53:2

All the words used in this passage speak about the same thing. "tender plant", "root", "no beauty". The "we" refers primarily to the Jewish nation.

Also, as a result of his ministry, Jesus may not have been, in appearance, a very happy man. There must have been times when deep joy (Ps.126:15, Heb.12:2) was expressed, but on the whole, it seems that Jesus was a serious, sometimes angry, sober man, with a face bearing the lines of sorrow and sadness, as he worked within the hostile Jewish nation, overcoming trials of physical weakness, Satanic opposition, and constant disappointment. There are no references in the New Testament of Jesus laughing, but there are several clear references to Jesus bursting into tears, groaning, and suffering.


Sadness, compassion.

"When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled" John 11:33

"And when he was come near, he beheld the city (Jerusalem), and wept over it" Luke 19:41

"Jesus wept". John 11:35 (The tomb of Lazarus)

Anger, sternness.

"And Jesus rebuked the devil . . ." Matthew 17:18

"But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter" Mark 8:33

"When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit" Mark 9:25

"And Jesus rebuked him . . ." Luke 4:35

"And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever . . ." Luke 4:39

"And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water . . ." Luke 8:24

"And as he was yet coming, the devil threw him down, and tore him. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit . . .". Luke 9:42

"But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. Luke 9:55

Frustration, despair.

"Then he said to them (some of his disciples), O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" Luke 24:25

"He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted". Isaiah 53:3,4

5. Jesus was of a royal blood line which took him directly back to David, and then to Noah and so back to Adam. Adam and Eve were originally glorious beings, with bodies of light, but when sin entered, they lost these glorious bodies and shared in Nature's degradation. Because fair skin is caused by less melanin being expressed in the skin, and because brown shin is produced by a dominant gene, Adam and Eve's 'fallen' bodies must have been brown or olive in colour. (Just as brown eyes are expressed by a dominant gene are blue are not).

Therefore, Jesus must have had brown or olive-coloured skin.

His genealogies are given clearly in Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives the royal line, from king David, through Solomon etc, down to Joseph. Luke gives the other royal line from king David through Nathan etc, to Mary. (Matt.1:1-16, Luke 3:23-38) Joseph, of course, was only the legal father, not the natural, or biological father, of Jesus.

There are some depictions of Jews (helped a little by 'Shylock' in Shakespeare), and by 'Fagan' in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, as being a race of dark-skinned, swarthy people, with crooked noses. It is true that there were and are some Jews who look like this, but there are also Jews of almost every other branch of the human race - black-skinned Jews, fair-skinned Jews, Mongolian, Chinese, etc. This was due to two factors - intermarriage, and proselytising. Intermarriage was already happening in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, about 400 years before Jesus was born, and tens of thousands of people have adopted the Jewish religion over the last 2000 years.

See, for instance, the wide range of nationalities represented in Acts 2:5 : "And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven".

The image of the Jew with the crooked nose is probably a result of intermarriage with some other non-Jewish nation.

"In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab" Nehemiah 13:23

6. Jesus was the fulfilment of the "rock". There are some traditions that the rock which Moses struck to give water to Israel, was cut out of the parent rock and then carried with Israel. This is not supported clearly by Scripture.

"And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ". 1 Corinthians 10:4

The word "them" is not in the Greek text. What this verse means is that the miracle of the water followed the miracle of the manna. The "rock" miracle is very significant. Rock itself is usually unattractive, being grey, brown or some other sombre colour. Yet, from this rather dull material came springs of fresh, clean, life-giving water. In this way, the rock which Moses struck, was a type of the Lord Jesus, who, having been struck (i.e. crucified) gives to all who would, life everlasting.

(In a similar way, Jesus is likened to a black, ugly ark, plain, white flour on the ground, and a brass serpent on a pole)

This final aspect of the appearance of Jesus brings us to the day on which he died. First of all he "set his face as a flint" to go to Jerusalem, endured the rejection, then he spent many hours agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane, preparing himself the coming ordeal. He was buffeted by soldiers, crowned with thorns, slapped, abused and made to go hungry, and whipped mercilessly, then he was forced to carry a heavy beam of wood through the city. Finally he was crucified.

" . . . many were astonied (astonished, amazed,) at (him) ; his visage (face) was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" Isaiah 52:14

This verse has occasionally been taken literally, but the context does not warrant this. What it means is that as Israel's sin-bearer, Jesus took the full punishment of Israel's sin, and this is conveyed in Isaiah in symbolic terms. (In the same way, the word "healed" in the next verse means "national restoration" more than a literal physical healing.)

7. Jesus ascended to heaven fifty days after the resurrection, and assumed all his royal powers once more. The only difference was that now, in heaven, there is a perfect human, incorporated into the Godhead, because Jesus took his resurrected, glorified, everlasting human body with him.

There are glimpses of this body in the Bible :

"And after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up into an high mountain apart,

And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light". Matthew 17:1,2

"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter, and James, and John, and led them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.

And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them". Mark 9:2,3

The last pictures we have of Jesus in the Bible are symbolic. In the first, He is dressed as the Great High Priest of Israel, and he appears to John on the Island of Patmos :

"And (I saw) in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like to the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps (chest) with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance (face) was as the sun shines in his strength.

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead". Revelation 1:13 - 17.

In the day of Christ's return, the mask will be taken away and the full glory of God will burst out. The whole Godhead will be seen by the resurrected saints, and the vast, effulgent glory of God will explode through the universe. Then we will see him "as he is"

"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is". 1 John 3:2 

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