by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe
Jesus Christ, movie star?
A quick internet search for the name “Jesus” results in an endless stream of images, almost all of which are completely inaccurate. The white-skinned, blue-eyed, long-haired and billowy-robed Jesuses from popular media and movies have nothing in common with the historical Jesus. Jesus did not look like a twenty-first century Hollywood movie star.
Jesus was a brown-skinned, dark-eyed Jewish man from Galilee. He wore shabby, minimal clothing, not long robes and ample cloaks, and he likely appeared tough, coarse, and reasonably dirty.
Looking past popular depictions of Jesus to get a sense of how he would have appeared to others is hugely important because his appearance tells us a lot about who he was and what he really taught. The clothes he wore, specifically, communicated a lot about his teaching. Here is the real surprise of what Jesus looked like: his clothing revealed his message.
What did Jesus look like?
We do not have much written evidence for what Jesus physically looked like. None of the writings that make up the collection now known as the New Testament describe Jesus’s facial or bodily features. This lack of detail is not surprising given what we know of how people in the first centuries of the ancient Mediterranean described themselves. When required to identify themselves on official documents like contracts, people referred to visible scars as a means of differentiating themselves from others, rather than a physical feature like eye color, height, or hair (“Demetrios son of Apollinarus, with a scar on his left cheek,” for instance, rather than “Demetrios with the thick eyebrows” or “Demetrios with the dark brown eyes”).
People were most commonly described in terms of their relationships to other people and places, not as individuals. The relationship of a son to his father, for instance, was much more significant than what that son might have looked like. The same is true about the place the son was from. “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Jesus of Nazareth” are therefore common descriptors for Jesus.
Despite the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus, we can make several essential, foundational statements about his physical appearance. Most importantly, Jesus had brown skin. Jesus was a Jewish man from the region of Galilee in the first century CE. As a Jewish man from first-century Galilee, he would have had dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, and, likely, a shortish beard.
Jesus’s brown skin should not come as a surprise. It should be a commonly recognized fact. The white Jesus looking calmly, through blue eyes, towards the viewer, arms outstretched in blessing, has and continues to cause untold human damage. That Jesus has serious racist and anti-Semitic consequences.
Writings about Jesus continue to be called upon as sources of authority in the most important and controversial debates of our time. Many people understand Jesus in relationship to God. If humanity is made in God’s image, what does it mean that Jesus is continually imaged – completely incorrectly – as white? What does it mean that power and authority are continually imaged – completely incorrectly – as white? Jesus’s teachings about oppression, about the rights of the marginalized, about love and justice, can never be realized, or understood at all, when Jesus is white. White Jesus needs to exit, stage right.
Understanding what Jesus looked like enables us to see that representations of Jesus – representations dating as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries CE – are not concerned with historical accuracy. These representations create and communicate ideas about Jesus that have more to do with their own time and place, not Jesus’s. They say much more about the people who made them and their reasons for making them.
What about his clothing?
The first-century CE Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, likely had a spare wardrobe: a tunic reaching down to about his knees or just below, a large rectangular cloak worn over the tunic, wrapped loosely around the body, a belt, and leather sandals. Jesus’s students would have dressed similarly, as Jesus instructs them to spread his teaching with minimal provisions: “He charged them to take nothing for the road except a staff only; no bread, no leather pouch, no money in their belts, but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (Mark 6:8-9). While the cloak is not mentioned here, it should be assumed. To be without a cloak was essentially to be naked, and as it usually doubled as a blanket, it would also mean you would be very cold at night.