Did Jesus Look Like The Pictures We Often See?
B. Hodge, Biblical Authority Ministries, August 20, 2020
In our culture and cultures around the world, images of Jesus abound. What did Jesus look like—in other words, are the images we often see remotely close to what Jesus may have looked like when He became a man?
As one who rarely, if ever, uses images of Christ in my writing and speaking, I can’t write this without utilizing images of Jesus both present and past. The reason is simply that I have little choice but to show images when discussing this very delicate topic of “images of Christ”. Please don’t worship these images, but worship God in heaven in spirit and in truth. But I ask for a little grace on this since I am trying to educate readers on this subject.
Jesus from the Old Testament to the Cross
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Jesus, the “Anointed One” or Messiah/Mashiach (e.g., Daniel 9:26; “Christ” in Greek), is prophetically described. In His humanity, He was apparently not given to any attractive or beautiful form that we should look to Him. He had no noble rank or majesty by which would we would desire Him.
For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (Isaiah 53:2-3, NASB)
This should automatically be a red flag to the many movies and images of Jesus that have him have a great looking gent! He was likely an ordinary looking man with ordinary form and average, yet modest, clothes for ancient Israel.
Naturally, Christ was marred and disfigured beyond human recognition at the Cross (Isaiah 52:14). After staying up all night praying, sweating blood in anguish, being tried by the Romans and Jews back and forth all night and then finally undergoing a beating by Roman soldiers, much of His fleshly form was destroyed.
The Jews would administer no more than 40 lashes minus 1 in keeping with the Law. However, Roman did not honor the Law of Moses and beat Jesus until they felt like stopping. Jesus likely endured far more than the Old Testament limitations. After lashes and striking, with skin torn, blood, and mangled muscle and flesh, the ordinary body of Jesus was clearly broken for us—though no bones were broken (e.g., Psalm 34:20, John 19:36).
Images of Jesus Influenced by Locale
When I look at images of Jesus in Ethiopia, Jesus looks like an Ethiopian—very dark skin for example. When I look at Jesus in England, He looks like an Englishman—fair skin for example. [Editor: I encourage internet searches to see these types of variations]. Interestingly though, I usually see certain commonalities though—with exceptions of course.
The point I’m making is that most people want to picture Jesus like what they see in their local culture. In the past, cultures were usually rather isolated from cultures in other distant parts of the world. Naturally, there were exceptions here too.
For instance, nations that that bordered or were near in proximity to one another were often familiar with each other’s ways, styles, looks, food, and so on. But disconnected cultures were less so. In other words, in the AD 900s, Ethiopians were largely unfamiliar with the cultural goings-on in England and the English were largely disconnected with the cultural goings-on in Ethiopia.
In the late AD 1800s and early 1900s, as news and magazines began allowing cultures to peer into each other’s societies around the world, things began to change. With the advent of the internet, information about cultures the world over began to be instant. In the grand scheme of history, information at our fingertips is a relatively recent luxury we have.
But centuries and millennia ago this wasn’t the situation. Artists who pictured Jesus were limited to the people around them as well as previous images of Jesus that they had seen and had passed down to them. This is why many images of Jesus in various parts of the world resemble peoples in their local regions. So I don’t fault the artists attempted renderings of Christ even though they are tainted with the local flavor. It was really most of what they had to go on.
In fact, I believe there are certain things we can learn from these images from around the world that may be more surprising than you might think.
Was Jesus hair shaggy and “short”? First, in accordance with the Law, the hair was to be kept kempt—orderly and in nice form. Jesus’ hair was not to be hanging loose since He was anointed—only lepers were to have their hair hanging out or unkempt as a sign to avoid them (e.g., Leviticus 10:6, 13:45, 21:10).
When someone ministered inside the gate of the Temple (inner court) they were to wear turbans when men were ministering generally; they were forbidden to have their head shaved nor could they have long hair (by a female standard) but in the middle (per Ezekiel 44:20). Leviticus 19:27 indicates that men were not to cut the hair on the sides of their head and nor clip the edges of the beard. So Jesus, who fulfilled the law perfected abided by this.
Though today we have a different standard of long hair and short hair since the Civil War and WWI began redefining long and short hair on men due to very short hair-cutting due to trench and military warfare. Typically long hair, for example on a woman, was extended down her middle back and longer as a covering, where a short hair would include shoulder length or even a little longer.
Men with shoulder-length+ hair was not good in war trenches or other undesirable conditions due to disease, rats, lice, and fleas—unclean conditions. So they started cutting it even shorter and that has become the norm over the past 150 years. But we need to be careful of applying our modern cultural norms to what long and short hair were in Christ’s day. In years past, a man with short hair could have hair that was shoulder length.
A Nazarite, who took a vow to God, was to grow their hair very long and this distinguished those men in vow (Numbers 6:18). But it was to be cut at the end of the vow as an offering—Paul once did this (Acts 18:18).
The point is that Jesus’ hair should have been kempt instead of wild looking—most Jesus images have Jesus’ hair well-groomed and combed/brushed. I’ll credit them on this. Other images of Jesus fall short of this. Although I am forgiving on this issue, I would rather see the hair of Christ more kempt than this:
The hair above is more of a leper’s hair. Interestingly, this style of hair is actually considered a “cool” hair style in the late 1990’s through the 2020’s. This image was also done in the United States by an artist of European descent. Notice how this particular image also looks like a person of European descent. So you can see how local and contemporary hairstyles and physical features still dominate how artists view Christ—even in our modern culture. Sadly as a taste, artists are making Christ in our image instead of following biblical guidelines.
Early Images of Jesus
If we jump to early images of Jesus and James, perhaps there is a ring of truth to certain aspects of images of Christ.
Ignatius was a disciple of John, the apostle of Jesus. He was much like Luke or Timothy was to Paul. A number of letters and documents from early church fathers have been kept and handed down through the church. Some of these items are correspondence between Ignatius to John and Mary (the mother of Christ) who was in John’s care. Mary even responds. The correspondence is repeated below:
In A SECOND EPISTLE OF IGNATIUS
TO ST. JOHN, he writes to John to whom Mary is in his care (John
His friend Ignatius to John the holy presbyter.
If thou wilt give me leave, I desire to go up to Jerusalem, and see the
faithful saints who are there, especially Mary the mother, whom they
report to be an object of admiration and of affection to all. For who would
not rejoice to behold and to address her who bore the true God from her
own womb, provided he is a friend of our faith and religion? And in like
manner [I desire to see] the venerable James, who is surnamed Just, whom
they relate to be very like Christ Jesus in appearance, in life, and in
method of conduct, as if he were a twin-brother of the same womb. They
say that, if I see him, I see also Jesus Himself, as to all the features and
aspect of His body. Moreover, [I desire to see] the other saints, both male
and female. Alas! why do I delay? Why am I kept back? Kind teacher, bid
me hasten [to fulfill my wish], and fare thou well. Amen.
Her friend(1) Ignatius
to the Christ-bearing Mary.
Thou oughtest to have comforted and consoled me who am a neophyte, and a disciple of thy [beloved] John. For I have heard things wonderful to tell respecting thy [son] Jesus, and I am astonished by such a report. But I desire with my whole heart to obtain information concerning the things which I have heard from thee, who wast always intimate and allied with Him, and who wast acquainted with [all] His secrets. I have also written to thee at another time, and have asked thee concerning the same things. Fare thou well; and let the neophytes who are with me be comforted of thee, and by thee, and in thee. Amen.
Probably to his surprise, Ignatius receives a response back from Mary called, REPLY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN TO THIS LETTER, and it says,
The lowly handmaid of
Christ Jesus to Ignatius, her beloved fellow-disciple.
THE things which thou hast heard and learned from John concerning Jesus are true. Believe them, cling to them, and hold fast the profession of that Christianity which thou hast embraced, and conform thy habits and life to thy profession. Now I will come in company with John to visit thee, and those that are with thee. Stand fast in the faith, and show thyself a man; nor let the fierceness of persecution move thee, but let thy spirit be strong and rejoice in God thy Savior. Amen.
By the way, Catholics despise this letter by Mary and say it is a forgery because they believe Mary was perpetually a virgin contrary to Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. Regardless of Catholicism’s errant views on Mary, these letters teach us something significant about the way Jesus looked. James was also known as James the Just (not to be confused with James the apostle). He was Christ’s brother and later became a famous leader in the church. He looked very much like Jesus. An early image of James, the brother of Jesus is:
Another later image of James with gray hair is:
Many images of Jesus actually have similarities to this image of James. What can this tell us about the preservation of artwork of many images of Jesus? They might retain a few more elements of Jesus’ actual form than we realize.
But there is more. The early images of Jesus in the Catacombs of Rome and other early Christian sites and objects in the early centuries look similar to James. Is it possible artists were using images of James as a baseline? Or did illustrators use paintings or drawings from earlier images that were passed down (now lost to history or decay) that they used as their baseline for their illustrations of Christ? A sampling of early images of Jesus is given below.
In the AD 200s, there is a the moskophrus otherwise known as the bearer of the calf on the walls of St. Callisto catacomb in Rome:
Also in the AD 200s is the Epiphany of the magi with baby Jesus on a sarcophagus now in the Vatican Museum in Rome:
Then there is the healing of the Paralytic in the AD 200s from a baptistery in an abandoned church in Syria:
The AD 300 brought us a painting in the Catacombs of Rome, specifically of St. Marcellinus and St. Peter on the Via Labicana. It depicts six martyrs pointing to Christ—the Apostle Peter, Apostle Paul, and later martyrs Marcellinus, Gorgonius, another Peter, and Tiburtius. These last four martyrs were buried in that catacomb:
Also in the fourth century in Rome we have:
By the 6th century a Jesus image looked like many today:
These images give us some clues to what early artists thought Christ looked like. Some have glaring similarities in look to James, who was “a spitting image” of Jesus and younger brother of Jesus through Mary.
Are these early images an accurate portrayal of Jesus? Great question. I’m not sure I could answer that question on this side of heaven with much precision. Although something interesting happened regarding the images of Jesus that many may not notice—churches all over from Orthodox, to Roman, to Oriental, to Protestant have images of Jesus that do share a lot of similarities—even with certain local flair thrown in. Why?
The two reasons I’ve given before are:
- Possibly using known early images of James as a baseline
- Using paintings or drawings from earlier images that were passed down (now lost to history or decay) that they used as their baseline
I’m not the only one to spot this. Consider another researcher (who only one week prior to my article going live), was writing on the same subject parallel to me. He just posted this in his article:
“Even if that were true, how could
Christians so quickly have united on one image? I mean, take a hundred artists
scattered about without internet, and ask them to draw a picture of someone
whom they have never seen, only heard of. What would we get? A hundred
different fanciful images. But the Church emerged into freedom, with Christian
iconographers quickly writing essentially the same icons of the Lord. Why
didn’t one “Jesus” become the norm in Spain, and another in Egypt? Why the
For these artists and iconographers
were scattered very far apart, through many regions from Ethiopia to Spain, in
thousands of parishes. There was no central Church authority to decree that only
this one image of Jesus must be used. And even if they had, there was no way to
enforce that image on Christian artists. So what could possibly have produced
this conformity? Why was it quickly produced all over the Church.
I can imagine only one answer: They must all have been working off one already commonly accepted prototype of the Lord, passed down in the Church from the beginning.”
I concur that this may well be the answer. Although, it is “not a hill to die on”. Nevertheless, we should remember that Jesus’ physical body was resurrected and He ascended to the Throne of God where He sits at the right hand of the Father. So one day, Christians will get a chance to see Jesus and see what He looks like—at least in His glorified, resurrected body.
At any rate, I hope this helps you think more deeply about what Jesus really looked like and how that relates to images of Jesus around the world.
 Bill Olnhausen, Do we know what Jesus looked like?, August 14, 2020, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/frbill/211-do-we-know-what-jesus-looked-like/.