Centuries of artistic depiction have made the image of Jesus recognizable worldwide: flowing hair, long robes, regal posture. But how likely is it that a Levantine Semite from 2,000 years ago actually looked like the fair-haired-and-skinned man represented in so much Christian religious art?
Biblical scholar Joan E. Taylor paints quite a different portrait in a challenging new book, “What Did Jesus Look Like?”
Taylor, a professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, argues that this image of Jesus misrepresents history and bears a closer resemblance to Greco-Roman gods, or to Hebrew figures like Moses.
The real-life Jesus, she says, likely had the short hair, trim beard and humble attire of Jewish philosophers of his time and place — the first century C.E. in the Roman province of Judea.
She describes Jesus as physically unassuming, with average looks and height, and features that — as a first-century Jew in Judea — would have been most similar to his ethnic group’s closest 21st-century parallel: contemporary Iraqi Jews. She even brings in archaeological evidence — skeletons and clothing from the period.
“In a sense, I was a little bit of a detective,” she said.
The greatest detective story ever told?
“I always thought at some point I was going to write about this issue of how Jesus dressed, what his hair was like,” Taylor told The Times of Israel via Skype from her native New Zealand. “He was the iconic Jew of the first century that everyone knew about.
“The image of Jesus that’s actually come down through the centuries has become one that fitted the late Byzantine way of thinking about Jesus, the medieval way of thinking about Jesus, the European way of thinking about Jesus. It’s essential — if we go into thinking about the historical figure of Jesus — to get his physical appearance right,” she said.
Taylor recalls mulling the subject when she was younger, living on a kibbutz in Israel. While there, she visited Masada, the Israel Museum and caves near En Gedi. Artifacts from Jesus’s time, such as clothing fragments in the Israel Museum, sparked what she calls a lightbulb moment.
“The idea he had long, flowing robes and long hair could not be right,” Taylor said. “It was what everyone else in the Greco-Roman world looked like.”
But it took time to transcend her concern that Jesus’s physical appearance might be considered a lightweight topic. A talk at King’s College drew media attention, resulting in a 2015 Christmastime blog post for BBC magazine that attracted a million hits in 24 hours. Other contemporaneous developments, such as documentary projects, signified wider interest. A colleague suggested she write a book.
“It all kicked off at that point,” Taylor said. “I realized I was on a quest for the real image of Jesus. I would travel through time, be open-minded, [and] unravel at the endpoint why they presented Jesus in the way they did.”
As Taylor notes in the book, “The Christian Bible does not record any description of what Jesus looked like physically.”
But she studied representations said to have been made by witnesses — such as the Vernicle, an imprint of his face reportedly made when the supplicant Veronica wiped him with a cloth; the Mandylion, a hallmark of Byzantine culture; and the Shroud of Turin, which Taylor says has long fascinated her.
“I wanted to see if there was anything to the Vernicle story, how far back did it go, how far back did the Mandylion story go,” Taylor said. “I was amazed at how early the first vestiges of the Mandylion or Vernicle story were.”
She discovered that “the early Vernicle story has nothing about the Passion of Christ at all in Jerusalem” — it concerns a “woman with an issue of blood [whom] Jesus heals in Galilee — Banias, Caesarea Philippi, a place in Roman Palestine.”
“What we have are early Christian legends that reflect oral tellings,” Taylor said. “I found it fascinating to see how things morph over time. It’s a story about how traditions do change, people blend them with something else.”
These portrayals blended with Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Hebrew imagery. When Christianity began rising in popularity, its chief competitor was “really the cult of the Egyptian gods at the end of the third century,” Taylor said. “Serapis, seated on a throne, with long, curly hair down to the shoulders and a beautiful beard, was the image of a deity for people.
“Then think about how to portray Jesus as God, Jesus as Son of God, Jesus as God the Son,” Taylor said. “What do we do? Borrow images from the Greco-Roman world, particularly Zeus, Dionysus, and Serapis, in the terms of the familiar body of a god for people of the time.”
“The meaning was more important to people than what Jesus actually looked like in the first century,” Taylor explained. “The historical Jesus did not concern them [in terms of] the meaning, theologically, in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh centuries. There was a transfer of this meaning of the gods to Jesus.”
Two well-known divine portrayals could be transferred to Jesus, Taylor said: “Often it was the hair and beard of Serapis or Zeus. If not, then it was the short, curly hair of Dionysus. Either way, it was an image, for people of the time, of God as a divine being.”
Uncovering Jewish connections
The curly-haired image also evoked Moses. Mosaics from Ravenna, Italy, show Moses as “a beautiful youth,” Taylor said, “his nose a little like a Dionysus figure, a beautiful young man with curly hair, very good-looking — an image used for Jesus.”
Taylor noted that this was a far cry from Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.”
Another depiction of Moses, from early third-century synagogue artwork in Dura Europos, Syria, helped Taylor toward a revised image of Jesus. Standing before the burning bush, Moses is presented not as a handsome youth but “as a sage, like a Greco-Roman philosopher.”
This paralleled some of the earliest representations of Jesus. In the second century, one group, the Carpocratians, honored him in a bust as chief of all philosophers, outpacing Plato and Socrates; Taylor said similar busts exist.
“The early type of Jesus is a philosopher,” Taylor said, calling this “probably the best we can do — also in terms of what Jesus had actually looked like.”
In another of the earliest representations of Jesus, from the third century, he is “clearly a philosopher,” Taylor said, “dressed in the simple, white, completely undyed woolen clothing people expected philosophers to wear, with the short but rough hair and beard of a philosopher.”
“The question is, do we have, in fact, some unidentified philosopher kicking around somewhere in a museum considered to be the image of Jesus?” Taylor asked. “How much did that influence pictorial images that do survive from the third century?”
Taylor notes that scholars such as John Dominic Crossan have described Jesus as resembling a Greek Cynic philosopher. She finds parallels with Jewish philosophers, too.
“We do have to remember Jesus is a Jew,” Taylor said. Looking at how he has been clothed artistically, she describes him as wearing a Jewish mantle, or tallit, with the fringes — tzitzit — mandated in the Torah.
“He looked like a wandering Jewish sage,” she said.
Taylor also sought more basic information, and turned to archaeological evidence from the era.
She credited scientists such as Israeli biohistorian Yossi Nagar with researching “not only skeletal remains, but all aspects of the human body — that kind of scholarship they’re doing in Israel, trying to understand people’s average heights, ethnic profiles, from composite skeletons in Judea and other skeletons of neighboring people in the same time period.
“According to Yossi Nagar, Jews of Second Temple times had a lot in common with Jews from the area of Iraq today,” Taylor said. She said Iraqi Jews are the closest in skeletal type to what is found in first-century burials than other communities in the Jewish Diaspora.
“There’s kind of an ethnography for Jesus, looking at Eastern Jews, that’s really helpful. It’s all really good in terms of coloration, palate for Jesus’s skin, hair, eye color,” she said.
Putting the pieces together
Taylor — who also examined clothing from the period — assembled a composite portrait, depicting it in a drawing.
Jesus stood about five feet, five inches tall, “with olive-brown skin, brown-black hair and brown eyes,” she writes. She adds it is quite likely that his hair was “shortish” and that he had “some kind of beard (though not a long one).” He plausibly wore two mantles — an outer one for warmth, and an inner tallit with tzitzit — and walked in sandals. She theorizes he was physically average in appearance, based on the Gospels’ lack of specific descriptions.
“If he was particularly tall, the Gospel writers would have said, ‘Oh, he was fantastically tall and good-looking, very much like David or Moses,’” Taylor said. “They would have used that, they wanted to say he was like Moses or David … The Gospel of Matthew has a particular emphasis on Jesus like Moses, but they can’t say Jesus was good-looking like Moses.
“That’s not to say Jesus was bad-looking. If Jesus was bad-looking, I think it would have been used in regard to the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 53, early Christian ideas explaining why he was crucified in a horrible death — the ‘suffering servant’ made flesh, really. Either way, he was not super good-looking, not bad-looking, average … not super-tall [or] short, average height … The conclusion is that we need to look at averages.”
Completing a journey that has been anything but average, Taylor hopes others notice.
“Artists, filmmakers need to read my book,” she said. “It really presents a Jesus authentic to the first century. All the people in film need to be taking account what people actually wore in first-century Judea, not what we have from passion plays in the 16th, 17th century or medieval art.
“If we’re able to do that, then the public at large will get educated, have a different way of seeing and imagining Jesus,” said Taylor.