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What Did Jesus Look Like? (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.

My grandmother on my mom’s side was the first real Christian I knew. In her home, she had these two paintings of Jesus. In both, he was handsome. In both, the painter communicated a sense of grace and warmth. In both, Jesus had shoulder-length hair and a neat beard. And, in both, he was white. Caucasian. European. His complexion was no different than my family’s.

My family on my mother’s side is primarily of German descent, but my father’s side is Italian. They’re from central Italy, and no one in my family has darker skin. My father’s wavy hair is the only clue that he’s a descendant of anyone from anywhere near the Mediterranean. My Italian grandmother didn’t have any paintings of Jesus in her home, only paintings of Venice—lots of them. But she was a loyal Roman Catholic, and she really, really loved Pope John Paul II. It was because of my father’s side of the family that I ended up in some Catholic churches for my cousins’ first communions. Yup, Jesus was a white guy there too.

Though they may have never thought about it, I’m sure if I would’ve explained to my grandmothers that Jesus wasn’t a white guy, they would’ve gotten it. So, my point is this: we may have to rethink how we think about Jesus.

In 2001, a forensic anthropologist named Richard Neave created a model of what Jesus may have looked like using computer technology and an actual first century skull found in the region of Galilee, the region where Jesus lived. One thought that struck me about my grandmother’s paintings of Jesus was, “This is certainly a handsome dude.” One thought that struck me about Neave’s model was, “This is certainly not a handsome dude.” Neave was clear he wasn’t claiming his model was what Jesus actually looked like, but it gave us a good idea of what people from that region of the world looked like at the time of Jesus. If there’s anything we can learn from Neave’s model it’s that no one looking like a first-century Galilean is going to become a twenty-first century social media model.

The vast majority of what we know about Jesus of Nazareth comes from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Whether someone believes the New Testament is the written word of God or not doesn’t change this. In fact, one’s religious beliefs (or lack of) has no effect on this fact either.

Interestingly, I once had a young Muslim man bring up depictions of “white Jesus” like the ones that hung in my grandmother’s home. He tried to tell me that such paintings showed Christianity was inaccurate. I agreed with him that such paintings were inaccurate, but I also pointed out that the New Testament—the basis of the Christian religion—doesn’t describe Jesus as a white man.

Okay, let me be clear. We have no idea what Jesus looked like, including the complexion of his skin. Nothing in the New Testament describes him as tall, dark, and handsome or fair-skinned, pale, or pasty. But we know for sure he wasn’t European.

Some have tried to use the New Testament to argue that Jesus was of African descent—“black”—because of a passage in the mysterious Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament [1]. They point to Jesus’ hair being described as “wool” and his feet as “burnished bronze” (Rev 1:14–15). The problem is that those making this argument commit the most frequently committed crime against the Bible by both Christians and non-Christians alike: cherry-picking. They pluck out words and phrases from the Bible and ignore the other words surrounding them. To echo my days of teaching high school English: context is the key. The key to understanding any writing—whether in the Bible or out—is context, context, context.

The Book of Revelation is notorious for its difficult to interpret symbolic imagery. The passage (in context) tells us Jesus’ hair was “white, white like wool, like snow,” so the author is using wool to describe the color of Jesus’ hair, not its texture. The author also describes Jesus in this heavenly vision as having eyes “like a flame of fire,” a voice “like the roar of many waters,” and feet “like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace” [2]. So, not only are those who use Revelation to argue that Jesus is black forgetting their literature lessons on context, they’re also forgetting their literature lessons on similes!

Many Western Christians may be surprised to learn that Muslims have traditions about what Jesus looked like. Sahih al-Bukhari is considered by Sunni Muslims to be the most authoritative Muslim writings outside of the Qur’an. It tells us that when Mohammed was lifted up into heaven one miraculous night, Muhammad saw Jesus. Mohammed describes Jesus as medium height with a moderate complexion “inclined to the red and white colors” and lanky hair [3]. Elsewhere in the same work, Mohammed describes Jesus’ hair as curly [4] and with a red face “as if he had just come out of a bathroom” [5]. I think I prefer the similes in the Book of Revelation!

So, let’s just get this right out into the open: Jesus was a Jew from Israel, the region east of the Mediterranean Sea, a relatively thin strip of land between the sea and the Jordan River. Since people who come from that part of the world tend to have darker skin and hair, we can be fairly certain those paintings we grew up seeing of Jesus looking like some fair-skinned, light-haired, first-century heart-throb are inaccurate.

Try this: visualize Jesus without a beard. Weird, right? It’s near impossible! Yet, nowhere does the New Testament describe Jesus with a beard. Is it safe to assume he had one? Did all first-century Jewish men have glorious, manly beards? Roman men certainly didn’t. During that time, Romans kept their hair short and their faces clean-shaven. A first century Jewish man was more likely to have short hair as well. According to Professor Joan Taylor, author of What Did Jesus Look Like?, Jesus likely had short hair. She also points out that Jewish men didn’t all necessarily have beards. For the record, she believes Jesus had a “slight beard” [6].

The earliest surviving artistic portrayal of Jesus (other than in ancient vandalism… more on that soon enough) comes from the first half of the third century. In other words, about 200 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It was found in the ruins of a church along the Euphrates [7]. In it, Jesus is short-haired and beardless. Like my grandmother’s paintings, a lot of art portrays Jesus with the complexion, hair, clothes, and facial features of whatever region of the world produced the artwork, whether Europe, Asia, India, or Africa.

Interestingly, a depiction of Jesus exists that dates right around the same time—perhaps even a bit earlier—that wasn’t found in any church and wasn’t even made by Christians. It’s a piece of Roman graffiti scratched into a plaster wall. It portrays a man standing by a cross, looking up to the naked victim hanging on it. Instead of a human head, the man on the cross has the head of a donkey. This crude piece of vandalism from roughly 1,800 years ago reads “Alexamenos worships God.” (From the original Greek, it could also be translated, “Alexamenos worships a god” or “his god.”) Apparently, this ancient graffiti artist didn’t think much of Alexamenos nor the focus of his reverence.

We know where Jesus was from and when he lived; we know he was Jewish; we know he was “about thirty years of age” when he started his ministry ( Luke 3:23). At that time, the average height for people in that part of the world was a few inches above five feet. Jesus likely had curly or wavy, dark hair and dark eyes and olive skin. If you get as confused as I do about the term “olive,” picture Jesus much more brown than Martian green. But other than that, we can’t say much else about what Jesus looked like—certainly not with any certainty.

In fact, the only other clue that gives us any idea about Jesus’ appearance comes from a book in the Old Testament written 700 years before Jesus’ birth. The prophet Isaiah wrote about someone often called the “Suffering Servant,” who has been interpreted by both Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews as the Messiah, the Jewish king who would one day lead Israel to victory [8]. Isaiah wrote,

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)

Isaiah 53 goes on to describe how the Suffering Servant will be undeservedly afflicted and killed for the wrongs done by others, yet he will “make many to be accounted righteous” (53:11). Anyone who knows the Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (i.e. Christ) and died for the sins of the world can easily see why so many have understood this prophecy to be about Jesus.

If this passage is, in fact, a prophecy about Jesus, it’s interesting to note that Isaiah describes him as having “no form or majesty” and “no beauty that we should desire him.” Is this referring only to Jesus’ humble life, that there was nothing ornate, lavish, or kingly about him? Or do these verses tell us that nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance was overly impressive or attractive?

I lean towards thinking that both understandings are correct. Jesus didn’t live a life of majesty as a king, and I also think he just looked like a regular guy.

Nothing we find in the four gospels suggests that Jesus was impressive in his physical appearance. He moved about his fellow inhabitants of ancient Israel unnoticed. (Well, until he opened his mouth or did something astonishing.) When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayer, Judas, had to point him out to the soldiers (Mark 14:43–45). Like most people back then, he worked with his hands (before his ministry started) and walked a lot. We also know he was fit enough to flip over some tables (Matt 21:12). He never sat for hours in front of a computer or ate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or Popeyes fried chicken, so he must’ve been in decent shape. But nothing in the New Testament suggests he was physically impressive. He was no broad-chested Captain America or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

I believe Jesus looked like a typical guy for the time period and region of the world he lived in. He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t handsome. He was the sort of guy whose looks wouldn’t catch your attention in a crowd.

Could I be wrong? Certainly. But I can, at least, tell you this with confidence: Jesus ain’t a white guy. Or an African guy. Or an Asian guy.

[1] Those who make this argument are called the Hebrew Israelites, sometimes referred to as the Black Hebrew Israelites.

[2] All emphasis mine.

[3] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 54, Hadith 462.

[4] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 55, Hadith 608.

[5] Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 55, Hadith 607.

[6] Joan Taylor, “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?,” BBC, Dec. 24, 2015,

[7] Laura Gilbert, “Earliest Known Images of Christ on Display at NYU,” Observer, Sept. 20, 2011,

[8] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol. 3: Messianic Prophecy Objections, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 49.


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