By Dale Chamberlain, Crosswalk.com
I grew up going to Sunday School in a suburban church, and in the classroom hung an image that has become a quintessential depiction of Jesus for me. And this image has become a standard for many other people with experiences similar to my own.
In this image, Jesus is seated on a rock beneath a tree, with children and sheep gathered around him. He’s wearing a white robe with a red sash. He has light brown hair that’s about shoulder length, blue eyes, and a well-groomed beard.
This is an image that has brought comfort to many people across generations, as it depicts the meekness of Jesus and his love for the vulnerable.
But here’s the thing.
It’s very likely that the historical Jesus looked nothing like he did in that picture.
The image accurately portrays Jesus’ personality, but we can hardly say that it is historically accurate with regard to his physical appearance.
Nevertheless, this and similar images may have been very formative in your understanding of what Jesus looks like. And if this isn’t what he really looked like, then we’re left with some questions. What did Jesus actually look like? And why is this the image that’s most common in our collective consciousness?
While we don’t have any photographs of Jesus, there is enough evidence that will give us an idea of what might be a more accurate depiction of his appearance.
How Is Jesus’ Appearance Described in the Bible?
The bible doesn’t have much to say about Jesus’ appearance in the gospel accounts of his life. And while that doesn’t seem very helpful, it actually tells us a lot. The fact that none of the biblical authors comment on Jesus’ physical appearance seems to indicate that there wasn’t much to report.
Jesus was an ordinary-looking man. There was nothing noteworthy about his appearance. He came as “one of us.” In fact, when Isaiah prophesied about Israel’s coming Messiah, this is how he described him:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)
So if we’re curious about getting a historically accurate understanding of what Jesus looked like, then we can learn a lot by researching what other men during his time and culture looked like.
Jesus Looked like the Common Man of His Culture
Based on the common traits of men in Jesus’ time and culture, what can we say about Jesus’ physical appearance?
Being a native of the Mediterranean and having Jewish ancestry, Jesus likely had olive skin and hair that was either black or brown. He also likely had brown eyes and a beard. Beards are a common feature of Jewish culture and were also very commonly seen as a mark of dignity throughout ancient times.
On the other hand, Jesus probably had short hair, based on the cultural conventions of his time. The apostle Paul once said that for men to have long hair was a disgrace (1 Corinthians 11:14). His hair was also likely curly rather than straight.
As far as wardrobe goes, Jesus didn’t dress in fancy attire. He came from a working-class family, with his presumed father being a carpenter. Furthermore, based on his teachings about wealth (for example, Matthew 19:16-30), Jesus likely did not spend a high proportion of his earnings on what he wore. He likely wore things like tunics, a cloak, and sandals—though perhaps not Birkenstocks (Matthew 5:40).
What’s more, is that Jesus probably didn’t wear bright colors or a brilliantly white robe. Bright colors were expensive to make, and bleached white clothing was a mark of politicians. Common people usually wore earth tones, reflective of the natural color of the sheep’s wool used to create the garments.
Was Jesus a Long-Haired White Man?
Why is Jesus always depicted as a white man with long hair in artistic representations?
How did we arrive at the commonly held understanding of Jesus’ appearance, when it isn’t even close to historically accurate? Our visual conception of Jesus actually comes more from Medieval European standards of attractiveness than Ancient Near Eastern conventions.
When we look at our depictions of Jesus, he actually bears a striking resemblance to the kings of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. This may have been a subtle (or not so subtle) attempt to portray the kings of England as looking very similar to Jesus, to strengthen the idea that the king has divinely appointed authority.
In other words, these depictions of Jesus were aimed more at magnifying the British king than magnifying the historical Jesus.
The bible tells us that God created humanity in his own image. But the fact that Jesus was frequently painted as fair-skinned with long flowing hair and blue eyes is likely an attempt of humanity to make God in his own image.
And since the artists of the time created such beautiful works of art around this particular depiction of Jesus, it has become the image that has endured throughout the centuries in the Western Church.
Why Does it Matter What Jesus Looked Like?
In one sense, this question about what Jesus physically looked like doesn’t really matter at all.
Regardless of what he wore, how he styled his hair, and what color his skin was, Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Messiah and Savior. He died for our sins and rose again, and he will return to judge the living and the dead and usher in an eternal Kingdom where goodness and justice will reign forever.
But in another sense, this is actually an incredibly important conversation to have.
And the reason is this: the common assumption that Jesus is white highlights an underlying assumption of white supremacy that has been an unfortunate aspect of the Western Church for generations.
The fact that we lift up images of a white Savior when Jesus clearly wasn’t white actually says a lot about what manner of Savior we deem worth worshiping. Our common acceptance of this representation tells us that many may ‘prefer’ a Jesus that is white.
This isn’t to say that you’re a racist for cherishing an artistic rendering of Jesus that happens to be white. However, we do need to be aware of the white privilege that exists within western Evangelicalism. And more than be aware of it, we need to work against it and champion the beauty of all our brothers and sisters, as we are all of many different colors.
How You Can Look like Jesus Today
Even more important than knowing about Jesus’ bone structure and attire choices is understanding what it looks like to live a life like his. Here are three ways you can look like Jesus today:
1. Live your life dependent on God.
Throughout Jesus’ time here on earth, he was always dependent on his Father. When tempted to sin, he quoted Deuteronomy:
It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4).
When Jesus spoke of his mission, he said this:
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
Whenever Jesus performed a miracle, he did so under the guidance of the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
His life looked like a life of dependence. So should yours. If God incarnate needed to depend on the Heavenly Father for literally everything in his life, how much more do you and I need to depend on him?
2. Give your life for the good of others.
Jesus never did anything for himself. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Though he was God, he did not consider equality with God something that he should cling to. Rather, he made himself a servant and was obedient to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-10).
At every turn, Jesus used every bit of the power he had to serve people and to turn their attention to his heavenly Kingdom. We should do no less.
We have been privileged with a measure of influence, resources, passions, and skills that are meant to be used for the benefit of others—to turn their hearts to God who saves. May we cling to nothing for ourselves, but pour ourselves out for others.
3. Develop a heart for the marginalized.
It can be said that Jesus came as a nobody for the nobodies. And that’s because they weren’t nobodies to him. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God belongs to children (Luke 18:16). He dignified women as spiritual equals (Luke 10:38-42). He spent a great deal of time with tax collectors and lepers. The thing all these people had in common is that they were marginalized.
Jesus didn’t spend time with those who were rich and respected. He spent his time with the people that nobody wanted to be around.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
This conversation about how we have historically misunderstood how Jesus looked really provides an opportunity to write a better story than the one that is often passed onto us. A story that is more inclusive. A story that’s about reaching out to the other.
A story that looks like Jesus.
Photo Credit: ©Pexels/Rodolfoclix
Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) and his wife, Tamara, are authors and speakers who are passionate about exploring what it means to live life to the full in Jesus. You can connect with Dale and Tamara at herandhymn.com.