New Testament scriptures do not describe Jesus’s appearance. It is therefore natural that the question of what Jesus looked like was a topic of debate in antiquity.
What does the New Testament say about Jesus’s appearance?
Although the New Testament never describes Jesus’s physical appearance, certain incidents imply that it was changeable. For example, at the transfiguration (Matt 17:1–8 and parallels) Jesus’s face suddenly becomes vividly white. When Jesus appears to his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, they only recognize him once he breaks bread with them (Luke 24:13–51). This suggests that his appearance has changed. Similarly, John’s Gospel reports that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener (John 20:15–16), and, later, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus until he prompts them to haul in a miraculously full net of fish (John 21:4–7). Mark’s longer ending depicts this transformation literally. The gospel states that the resurrected Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene and then “in another form” to two of his disciples (Mark 16:12). New Testament writers apparently thought Jesus could change forms.
What do other early Christian texts say?
A number of noncanonical gospels also portray Jesus as able to change his external appearance. In the apocryphal Acts of Peter, for instance, Peter remarks that the brightness of the transfigured Jesus caused him to shield his eyes. When he reopened them, Jesus had a form that he could not comprehend: simultaneously large and small, beautiful and ugly, young and old. In the next chapter, some widows report seeing an old man with an indescribable appearance, while others claim to have seen a boy. Peter praises the Lord and explains to the assembly that God may appear in different forms because God is far greater than their imaginations (Acts Pet. 21).
The Acts of John and the Apocryphon of John similarly portray Jesus as having both an elusive and an inconsistent appearance. In the Acts of John, Jesus first appears as a child to James and as a handsome and amiable man to John. Later Jesus’s appearance changes again; he suddenly is balding and thickly bearded. According to John, the more he tries to see Jesus as he is, the more he keeps changing, first to a small and unattractive man and then into one tall enough to reach heaven (Acts John 87–89). The Apocryphon of John relates a parallel story. First, Jesus looks like a child, then an elderly person, then a youth, and finally a figure with three distinct forms emerging from one. This multiform figure reveals that the Savior is simultaneously Father, Mother, and Son (Ap. John 2.4–8). According to these texts, Jesus evidently can and did appear in many forms.
According to Origen of Alexandria (ca. 248 CE), the pagan Celsus thought that Jesus was short of stature and unsightly. This idea seems to have been derived, not from first-hand accounts, but from Isa 53:2, which stated that the messiah would have “no form nor comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Origen, however, countered that Jesus was “the fairest of the sons of men,” a statement drawn from the messianic statements in Ps 45:2. Either way, Origen states, Jesus’s divine nature allowed his physical appearance to be capable of transformation (Cels. 6.75–77). Elsewhere Origen writes that although Jesus was one person, those who looked at him did not all see him in the same way (Cels. 4.16). For Origen, such variability reinforces Christ’s divinity and offers a new way to understand Jesus’s humanity. Jesus, as the Logos, is polymorphous both prior to and after the incarnation.
How was Jesus been portrayed in early Christian art?
Contrasting these literary tales, the earliest surviving art depicts Jesus quite consistently. Third and early fourth century artworks typically show Jesus as youthful and beardless, with long curly hair and dressed in the respectable garb of an upper-class Roman man—a tunic and pallium. The surrounding male figures in the scenes are the same stature as Christ and similarly dressed, but their trimmed beards and closely cropped hair set Jesus apart and make him instantly recognizable.
Showing Jesus with long curly hair seems at odds with Paul’s admonition that long hair on men is degrading (1 Cor 11:14). Jesus’s beardlessness also challenges Clement of Alexandria’s insistence that the beard is the mark of a male and it is “womanly” for men to shave or have long, curly hair (Paed. 3.1). Yet, given the consistency of these images, showing Jesus in this way must have been acceptable to viewers. It may be that the portrayal gave Jesus a recognizable likeness to certain Greco-Roman savior gods or youthful heroes like Hermes, Orpheus, or Dionysus, who, according to myth, guided the dead through the underworld or who suffered violent death and rose again. Perhaps Christian iconography simply adapted the visual vocabulary of its surrounding culture in order to express certain aspects of Jesus’s character and power.
By the late fourth century, Jesus was more often presented as a mature male figure with a full beard. These new presentations may also have been modeled after pagan gods, in this case, those of senior deities such as Jupiter, Neptune, Asclepius, or Serapis. Presenting Jesus as the Christian counterpart (and competitor) to these gods emphasized Jesus’s royal nature. Thus, in the mosaic of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, Jesus is clearly envisioned as the reigning king of the cosmos, the God of gods.
Through the fourth and into the mid-sixth century, Jesus is depicted as both bearded and beardless. Both types were sometimes juxtaposed or even combined in one composition. For example, the Mausoleum of Constantine’s daughter contains two mosaic apses. The first shows Jesus as a beardless youth, wearing a golden tunic and pallium and standing on the rock of paradise. The other presents him with a dark beard, garbed in a purple robe, and enthroned on a cosmic orb. He is both savior and king.
Such divergences in the ways that artists represented Christ, sometimes in the same physical context, may be due less to the fact that they really had no idea what Jesus looked like and more to their belief that, as often true of other deities, Jesus had the power to assume varying physiques. The many variations of Jesus’s appearance in early Christian art may be, in the end, a recognition that in his divine nature, Christ cannot be represented fully and ultimately transcends all efforts to portray his appearance.
- Jensen, Robin M. Face to Face: The Portrait of the Divine in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
- Jensen, Robin M. “Jesus in Christian Art.” Pages 477–503 in The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Edited by Delbert Burkett. Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011.
- Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
- Taylor, Joan E. What Did Jesus Look Like? London: Bloomsbury, 2018.