While this impression, of a dark-haired, brown-skinned and brown-eyed man whose face appears weathered from a career of physical labor outside, is probably not identical to the appearance of the historical Jesus, it is probably a closer approximation than many of those that frequently appear in popular culture.
The lead of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Ted Neely, is a good example of the typical Western Jesus: long, blondish hair; pale, wrinkle-free skin; and a placid expression. But what evidence do we have to support any reconstruction of what the historical Jesus actually looked like?
The question of what Jesus looked like is complicated by the absence of any description of his physical qualities in early Christian texts. This isn’t because appearance in general wasn’t important in antiquity; indeed, we have a description of the apostle Paul in a third-century narrative about his work.
Acts of Paul and Thecla (2.3), an apocryphal story of Paul’s influence on a virgin woman named Thecla, says that Paul was “a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel.”
When Jesus does appear in literature, people seem not to be able to recognize him, even in the New Testament. The Gospel of John includes two examples. First, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener when she goes looking for Jesus’s body after his crucifixion; it is only when she hears his voice that she realizes the man is Jesus.
Then, after his resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples as they are fishing. Again, they don’t recognize him when they see him. One of the characteristics of Jesus in later Christian literature is that he appears to his followers in many different forms, for example in Acts of Peter (3.21), one of the first apocryphal Acts of the Apostles.
The earliest pictures we have of Jesus come from frescoes painted on the walls of catacombs and carvings made to decorate stone coffins. These pictures generally come from the third century, about 200 years after Jesus’s death, so none of them could have been done by a witness to the living Jesus.
This fresco, painted on the wall of a third-century church in Dura Europus, Syria, shows the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. Although it is difficult to see facial details, this Jesus has short hair and is clean-shaven.
Jesus’s appearance reveals quite a lot about how portraits of him begin to function in early Christian communities. Jesus is wearing a garment typical of Roman men: a tunic with pallium. Jesus is usually depicted, regardless of his facial features, as conforming to Roman expectations about how virtuous men appear.
Jennifer Awes Freeman writes more about how imperial iconography might be at play in the earliest depictions of Jesus in her article “The Good Shepherd and the Enthroned Ruler: A Reconsideration of Imperial Iconography in the Early Church.”
As the Christian churches grew and expanded, people began creating icons, images of holy men and women. These icons were not just decorations but objects of veneration. The oldest surviving icon depicting Jesus comes from the sixth century CE (below). We can clearly see the emerging tradition of depicting Jesus as longer-haired, pale-skinned and bearded. Here he is also wearing the dark brown garment typically associated with monastic communities, illustrating the shifting values imbued in depictions of Jesus.
One of the main things we can take away from these early images of Jesus is that from the very earliest images, Jesus’s appearance is imagined as matching up with societal expectations of what people ought to look like.
It is no surprise that many contemporary depictions of Jesus show him as representing what is upheld by Western standards of “normative” (that is, culturally imposed and valued) male beauty. This goes equally for formal portraits displayed in places of worship and for the phenomenon of pareidolia, images of Christ (or other revered figures) that people claim “spontaneously appear” on everything from Marmite to tortillas and windows.
Our images of Jesus, then, say more about us as a society than about his historical appearance.
Finally, why do we keep asking the question, what did Jesus look like? As Michael Peppard notes in his article “Was the Presence of Christ in Statues? The Challenge of Divine Media for a Jewish Roman God,” the desire to know what Jesus looked like is far from uniquely a postmodern quest; in the 19th century, Flaubert’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” imagines Anthony himself yearning to be able to visualize his savior.
Today, our images of Jesus more often reflect the diversity that has always been a part of our world; in turn, the high value our culture gives to the careful process of scientific discovery is part of why this reconstructed image of a first-century Jew has caught our collective attention.