For centuries, the most common image of Jesus Christ, at least in Western cultures, has been that of a bearded, fair-skinned man with long, wavy, light brown or blond hair and (often) blue eyes. But the Bible doesn’t describe Jesus physically, and all the evidence we do have indicates he probably looked very different from how he has long been portrayed.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible offers few clues about Christ’s physical appearance. Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jewish man born in Bethlehem and raised in the town of Nazareth, in Galilee (formerly Palestine, now northern Israel) during the first century A.D.
We know Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), but the Bible tells us virtually nothing about what he looked like―except that he didn’t stand out in any particular way. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion (Matthew 26:47-56) Judas Iscariot had to point Jesus out to his soldiers among the disciples―presumably because they all appeared similar to one another.
For many scholars, Revelation 1:14-15 offers a clue that Jesus's skin was a darker hue and that his hair was woolly in texture. The hairs of his head, it says, "were white as white wool, white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace.”
“We don't know what [Jesus] looked like, but if all of the things that we do know about him are true, he was a Palestinian Jewish man living in Galilee in the first century,” says Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. “So he would have looked like a Palestinian Jewish man of the first century. He would have looked like a Jewish Galilean.”
READ MORE: Who Wrote the Bible?
How Have Depictions of Jesus Changed Over the Centuries?
Some of the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus date to the mid-third century A.D., more than two centuries after his death. These are the paintings in the ancient catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome, first discovered some 400 years ago. Reflecting one of the most common images of Jesus at the time, the paintings depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a young, short-haired, beardless man with a lamb around his shoulders.
Another rare early portrait of Jesus was discovered in 2018 on the walls of a ruined church in southern Israel. Painted in the sixth century A.D., it is the earliest known image of Christ found in Israel, and portrays him with shorter, curly hair, a depiction that was common to the eastern region of the Byzantine empire―especially in Egypt and the Syria-Palestine region―but disappeared from later Byzantine art.
The long-haired, bearded image of Jesus that emerged beginning in the fourth century A.D. was influenced heavily by representations of Greek and Roman gods, particularly the all-powerful Greek god Zeus. At that point, Jesus started to appear in a long robe, seated on a throne (such as in the fifth-century mosaic on the altar of the Santa Pudenziana church in Rome), sometimes with a halo surrounding his head.
“The point of these images was never to show Jesus as a man, but to make theological points about who Jesus was as Christ (King, Judge) and divine Son,” Joan Taylor, professor of Christian origins and second temple Judaism at King's College London, wrote in The Irish Times. “They have evolved over time to the standard ‘Jesus’ we recognize.”
Of course, not all images of Jesus conform to the dominant image of him portrayed in Western art. In fact, many different cultures around the world have depicted him, visually at least, as one of their own. “Cultures tend to portray prominent religious figures to look like the dominant racial identity,” Cargill explains.
What About the Shroud of Turin?
Of the many possible relics related to Jesus that have surfaced over the centuries, one of the most well-known is the Shroud of Turin, which surfaced in 1354. Believers argued that Jesus was wrapped in the piece of linen after he was crucified, and that the shroud bears the clear image of his face. But many experts have dismissed the shroud as a fake, and the Vatican itself refers to it as an “icon” rather than a relic.
“The Shroud of Turin has been debunked on a couple of occasions as a medieval forgery,” says Cargill. “It’s part of a larger phenomenon that has been around since Jesus himself, of attempting to acquire and, if they can't be acquired, to produce, objects that are part of Jesus’ body, life and ministry—for the purposes of either legitimizing his existence and the claims made about him, or in some cases, harnessing his miraculous powers.”
What Research and Science Can Tell Us
In 2001, the retired medical artist Richard Neave led a team of Israeli and British forensic anthropologists and computer programmers in creating a new image of Jesus, based on an Israeli skull dating to the first century A.D., computer modeling and their knowledge of what Jewish people looked like at the time. Though no one claims it’s an exact reconstruction of what Jesus himself actually looked like, scholars consider this image—around five feet tall, with darker skin, dark eyes, and shorter, curlier hair—to be more accurate than many artistic depictions of the son of God.
In her 2018 book What Did Jesus Look Like?, Taylor used archaeological remains, historical texts and ancient Egyptian funerary art to conclude that, like most people in Judea and Egypt around the time, Jesus most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin. He may have stood about 5-ft.-5-in. (166 cm) tall, the average man’s height at the time.
While Cargill agrees that these more recent images of Jesus—including darker, perhaps curlier hair, darker skin and dark eyes—probably come closer to the truth, he stresses that we can never really know exactly what Jesus looked like.
“What did Jewish Galileans look like 2,000 years ago?” he asks. “That's the question. They probably didn't have blue eyes and blond hair.”