Canonical Gospels do not illustrate what Jesus looked like. And, in a time long before photography was invented, the art of depiction was a more costly one.
Despite scant references to Jesus’ appearances, discussion and controversy has rolled on for centuries about what he looked like.
The appearance of Jesus is a complicated question in more ways than one. Throughout the last two millennia, some have asked that if Jesus is God, can he can be depicted in art — and, if so, how realistically he should be depicted? Others have asked whether or not Jesus was white.
In the last few years, The Washington Post, Forbes and BBC have all published articles trying to answer these questions, and people are still discussing and researching this topic. Using Google Trends, an online tool that tracks Google search queries, it’s clear that interest in these questions still exists.
Here’s an overview of the earliest images of Jesus of Nazareth and what scholars have to say about this question and its complexities.
Brief history of Jesus iconography
Since Jesus has been depicted for centuries, it would be impossible to document a comprehensive history of what he looked like. But here are a few key moments.
The earliest known depiction of Jesus is generally considered to be the Alexamenos graffito from the first century (or second century — it’s unclear). Found on a wall in Rome, this simple drawing was intended to be offensive rather than an accurate depiction, according to Aleteia. The image shows a crucified man with a donkey head as people worship him. The Greek on the image reads, “Alexamenos worships God.”
Another popular early depiction of Jesus is called the Good Shepherd. Art historian Catherine Taylor wrote for the BYU Maxwell Institute that shepherd imagery was one of the earlier motifs incorporated in Christian art. Taylor pointed back to a connection with Classical art: “the kriophoros or ‘ram-bearer’ was common in ancient Greek art. It represented Zeus’s messenger Hermes, the protector and patron of the flock.”
Taylor added, “Good Shepherd imagery was used to adorn the walls of Christian catacombs and mausolea as it identified the deceased with this new, unified flock and resonated hope in the power of God unto resurrection.”
Other early depictions of Jesus include what is considered the first image of a miracle involving Jesus. This image of Jesus is called “Christ Healing the Paralytic” and is dated to the year 232, according to the Yale Art Gallery. Found in the Dura-Europos church in Syria, this picture comes from the story found in Luke 5.
The Yale Art Gallery wrote, “The scene signified to viewers the healing quality of baptism in the nearby font, where initiates received forgiveness for sins and began new lives as Christians.”
Anna Swartwood House from the University of South Carolina explained, “The earliest images of Jesus Christ emerged in the first through third centuries A.D., amid concerns about idolatry. They were less about capturing the actual appearance of Christ than about clarifying his role as a ruler or as a savior.”
But as time went on, the reasons why Jesus was depicted changed. In a BBC article, Joan Taylor noted that it was around the fourth century that the imagery around Jesus was “all about meaning, not historical accuracy.”
Not only were these images about meaning, they were about a particular meaning. According to history.com, fourth-century images of Jesus reflected the Greek and Roman gods to create meaning. PBS reported that Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. The acceptance of Christianity in Roman society changed the purpose of the imagery around Jesus.
One image that reflects the connection of Christianity and imperialism is the famous Christ Pantokrator. According to Michigan State University, “This painting is considered one of the oldest Byzantine religious icons and is the earliest known work of the pantocrator style.” Merriam Webster clarifies that Pantokrator/Pantocrator is the title used to describe Jesus as a universal ruler.
Soon after the creation of Christ Pantokrator, the Iconoclastic Controversy ensued. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, this controversy occurred in the eighth and ninth century and centered around whether or not it was OK to make images of religious persons. Images of Christ came under scrutiny during this time period.
According to the Met Museum, during this time, some religious images were quite literally destroyed because they were seen as idols. Although questions around idolatry and religious imagery had always percolated Christianity, during this time period, they were more pronounced.
During this controversy, as the Met Museum noted, Jesus’ descent into hell (called his “Anastasis”) became the subject of depictions. Found in Hosios Loukas, a Greek monastery, an 11th-century depiction of Jesus’ Anastasis is found on the walls.
During the 11th century, the Byzantine empire fell and by this time, the Roman empire was a distant memory after its fall in 476 C.E. Europe was in the middle of the Middle Ages. The medieval period featured numerous depictions of Jesus coinciding with the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante — author behind “The Divine Comedy,” which is still one of the most notable works of Christian literature.
The medieval period, which ran until the 15th century, had depictions of Jesus that correlated with the dominant events of the time period such as the Black Plague. According to Ellen Ross in “The Grief of God,” images of Jesus suffering and on the cross became popular forms of depiction.
The Ramsey Psalter is a good example of this form of depiction. This late 10th-century drawing has manuscript characters visible through it, but prominently features Jesus crucified while Mary weeps and John is next to him. The Latin on John’s scroll reads, “This is the disciple who bears testimony,” while the placard above Jesus’ head is an iteration of the various phrases that convey the idea of Jesus as the king of the Jews.
After the medieval period, the Renaissance period began where artists thought deeply about incorporating classical antiquity into their artwork. According to the Met Museum, the Passion narratives were commonly depicted in Renaissance artwork — especially the Eucharist and its accompanying themes of communion present in the Last Supper.
Leonardo DaVinci, one of the most visible artists during the Renaissance period, portrayed Jesus in his famous painting “The Last Supper.” This painting, later the subject of the movie “The DaVinci Code,” features Jesus with his disciples and a figure who is popularly identified as Mary Magdalene.
According to Thought Co., DaVinci did not identify this figure as Mary and historical context makes it more likely that this figure is the apostle John.
After the Renaissance period, there have been several art movements leading up to the post-modern period, which we are still in today. A lot of prior developments from the Renaissance and medieval period still exist in more modern art such as depicting scenes from Jesus’ Passion and portraying Jesus as a European — often Italian — man.
Frans Schwartz’ “Agony in the Garden” is one of the most recognizable paintings and incorporates earlier elements like Jesus’ Passion and winged angels.
Leading up to the postmodern period, new religions that profess Jesus as the Christ arose, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This established a new crop of artists who drew on prior elements of the artistic tradition to create new imagery around Jesus.
The expansion of religious texts involving Jesus from Latter-day Saints led to new depictions of Jesus, as well. One of the most common of these new scenes is Joseph Smith’s First Vision, where Smith recorded that he saw God the Father and Jesus the Son in a grove of trees.
Latter-day Saint artists have depicted the First Vision many times, but one of the most famous versions is by Del Parson. Here, Joseph Smith looks up and sees God the Father and Jesus in a vision while they have light around them.
Throughout the last two millennia of history, depictions of Jesus have changed over time and fulfilled different purposes. Artists sometimes tried to depict Jesus as they believed he looked like, but other times, tried to convey meaning with their art. Art, especially later art, is not exclusively what scholars have used to determine what Jesus looked like. Who he was and where he lived have been valuable tools for reconstruction.
What do scholars believe Jesus looked like?
Joan Taylor from King’s College in London wrote an article for BBC describing Jesus as a first-century Galilean Jewish man who may have had a beard, likely did not have long hair and wrote, “I think the closest correspondence to what Jesus really looked like is found in the depiction of Moses on the walls of the 3rd Century synagogue of Dura-Europos, since it shows how a Jewish sage was imagined in the Graeco-Roman world.”
Taylor did not comment on Jesus’ skin color, but stated that Jesus had Jewish features.
A couple decades ago, facial reconstruction expert and artist Richard Neave reconstructed the face of what an average first-century Judean man would have looked like.
Neave’s project was intended to represent what Jewish men in that area likely would have looked like and was not intended to represent Jesus — but it’s still considered a good approximation. The Washington Post reported, “While this impression, of a dark-haired, brown-skinned and brown-eyed man whose face appears weathered from a career of physical labor outside, is probably not identical to the appearance of the historical Jesus, it is probably a closer approximation than many of those that frequently appear in popular culture.”
Even though Neave’s depiction is decades old, it is still cited frequently.
Jesus, reconstructed by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave for the 2001 BBC Son of God 3-parter, based on the skull of a Galilean man of the period.— Pádraig Belton (@PadraigBelton) July 2, 2020
But this sidesteps a fair textual tradition - among early Christians, and anti-Christians like Celsus - about his appearance. pic.twitter.com/5B8Cg9biZg
Hans Zatzka, Bible studies lecturer at Trinity College, described Jesus as a Middle-Eastern man. For The Conversation, Zatzka reflected on the prevalence of images where Jesus is depicted as a white man and said, “But while there is no physical description of him in the Bible, there is also no doubt that the historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century CE, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.”
Zatzka said that the view of Jesus as a Middle Eastern Jew is the academic consensus.
Well-known Jesuit priest Father James Martin, who has a Master of Divinity, wrote about this subject for America Magazine. Father Martin explained that Jesus came from a small town in Galilee and was not white.
In his own tweet, which he referenced in the article, Father Martin added that not only did Jesus have a darker complexion, but he likely had teeth issues and other physical issues common to the time.
So I think that today Jesus should be portrayed more like he (probably) looked, which is why I use images for my Daily Gospel tweets from innovative sites like "Lumo," which depict Jesus closer to what he (again, probably) looked like... pic.twitter.com/Xyk8QC9DK5— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 25, 2020
According to history.com, Robert Cargill, now an associate professor of classics and religious studies at University of Iowa, said, “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. So he would have looked like a Palestinian Jewish man of the first century. He would have looked like a Jewish Galilean.”
While the consensus is that Jesus looked like a Middle Eastern Jewish man, we will likely never know exactly what he looked like. That does not make the question of his appearance unimportant.
Writing for America Magazine, Father Martin argued for more culturally accurate images of Jesus and wrote about how it’s essential to see Jesus for who he was as a Middle Eastern Jewish man.
He also concluded, “But even more important than the pictorial images of Jesus we use (which are important to be sure) is seeing Christ alive in every person. Especially those who are on the margins, those who are persecuted or those who are victimized in any way. Christ lives in them.”