What did Jesus look like?
The apocryphal letters that purportedly gave a physical description of Jesus Christ have long since been recognized as inauthentic. Post-New Testament authors often let their imaginations roam on issues that were either not clear or totally absent from the New Testament itself, providing for their readers information that the New Testament authors did not provide. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John most likely never imagined that readers in the twenty-first century would be interested in Jesus’ height, the length of his hair, the color of his eyes, or the color of his beard-if he had one.
Often a subtle tension exists between the idea of Jesus as a model of mental and physical perfection and the idea expressed in Isaiah that “when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). This passage raises some intriguing questions. What does Isaiah mean when he says that the mortal Messiah would have “no beauty”? And should we consider that the mortal Jesus may have had an appearance that was different from the physically perfected, resurrected Lord?
Throughout time, deity has been portrayed as the direct manifestation of a given culture’s view of physical and mental perfection. Western artists’ views of Jesus Christ are, therefore, generally based on their own culture and their own society and not on the culture and society of the first century in Jewish Palestine. A fixed or standard image of Jesus was created by the Western culture in the late middle ages, and although all societies modify the image slightly, the basic representation has remained quite constant ever since. Of course, these images are based on depictions by artist who did not know from personal experience what Jesus Christ looked like, nor did they have access to an authentic description written by someone who did meet him.
People in antiquity were generally susceptible to disease, lacked proper dental care, and lacked daily hygiene opportunities that most modern Westerners experience and expect (shampoo, for example). Because of dietary restrictions, people were generally smaller than those living today. After all, Jesus Christs was a Jew who lived in the Middle East more than two thousand years ago. He spoke a different language and lived in a culture that in many ways was alien to our modern cultures. He had limited culinary experiences-a lack not only of variety in diet but also of quality and quantity (like fresh meat). He most likely would not have met our modern standard of a daily change of clean clothes. And his bathing habits, based on his own culture, would certainly not have been like our current obsession for cleanliness. His access to medical and dental care was limited, by our standards, and like most of his countrymen in Nazareth and Capernaum, he rarely experienced the Roman sanitation advances that could be found in Jerusalem or in other large cities of the empire. Most likely he was relatively short, compared to many men today, and had an olive complexion, angular features, prominent brows, brown eyes, black or brown hair, and a black or brown beard, although there might have been some recessive blue-eye, red-hair genes among ancient Jews.
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