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What Did Jesus Look Like?

The answer might surprise you!

by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe

A Ai rendering imagining what Jesus may have looked like.
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.

As a man who honoured the God of Israel, Jesus’s cloak would have had a hem decorated with distinctive edges, the fringes or tzitzit that marked the corners of a Jewish man’s outer garment, or tallit. A fourth-century CE wall painting from the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter in Rome depicts a scene common to the three Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke: an anonymous woman comes to Jesus to be healed from a debilitating flow of blood. She is healed when she reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’s cloak, which is depicted in this painting in clear detail.

We do not have evidence for the colours of Jesus’s tunic and cloak, though tunics were often decorated with two vertical bands of colour, one on either side of the torso. Clothing dyes could be expensive, and bleaching clothing so that it was white or bright-looking could be an expensive process as well. Jesus’s tallit, his fringed cloak, was likely made of coarse, undyed wool. The scene of Jesus’s transfiguration, also described in Mark, Matthew and Luke, marks a dramatic change in Jesus’s appearance as Jesus’s clothing becomes dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.

What is surprising about Jesus’s clothing?

Jesus lived in a time and place where visual communication was very important. What you could see of someone else largely determined who you understood them to be. Jesus uses clothing to communicate his understanding of how the world ought to be under the Empire of the God of Israel. Clothing was not a symbol of life under this new Empire, but it helped to actually structure this life. For example, when Jesus instructs his students to give up their cloak if someone should sue them for just their tunic (Matthew 5:40), that is a bold demand. Your cloak was often the most expensive item owned within a household, and it served multiple functions, including as a covering at night. Your cloak also placed you within a social location; a tallit, for instance, identified the Jewish man. Jesus is teaching a radical kind of generosity here.

Similarly, in Gospel of Thomas 37, Jesus’s students ask when they will truly see or know him. Jesus replies that he will be known only when the students can strip naked without shame, place their clothing under their feet, and tread on them. Nakedness was a state of shame in Jesus’s world, removing you from the social world and aligning you with death. Knowing Jesus required a profound reordering of the social values people relied on to make sense of the world and find their place within it.

Jesus frequently uses clothing to demonstrate that the Empire of the God of Israel involves turning the usual social codes and ideals of the world upside down. His own clothing would have associated him with the poor and would have made him appear barely socially acceptable. This appearance was a big part of his message.

We often think about clothing as either practical (something to cover our bodies) or as a superficial pursuit. Taking a look at Jesus’s clothing, therefore, reveals something truly surprising about Jesus: his appearance embodied his message. The Jesus we need to see is brown-skinned, Jewish, and dressed in a simple tunic and coarse, fringed cloak. This Jesus uses dress and the body to communicate his core commitment: a commitment to the Empire of the God of Israel. This Empire calls for a radical re-imagining of some of the most basic social and economic structures of Greco-Roman society and, most importantly, to many of our own.

This post is part of our May – July 2023 focus on the “Surprising Things about Jesus.”  Click here to see more content from the series.