What do you imagine when you picture Jesus? Do you picture a fair-skinned man with flowing light brown hair in a white caftan? Do you try to be more historically accurate and imagine him as a Middle Eastern man with tanned or dark skin, dark hair, brown eyes, and perhaps a beard? Or do you envision a balding man with a monobrow, hunchback, and patchy beard who stood about four and a half feet tall? If you picked the last option then, congratulations, your perspective aligns with that of the early church. While most artists and modern filmmakers portray Jesus as dreamy, ancient Christians seem to have thought that he was pretty ordinary-looking if not, in their estimation, downright ugly.
Though scholar Joan Taylor has written an excellent book on the subject, we do not know what Jesus actually looked like. The Bible tells us absolutely nothing about Jesus’s facial features. The only real interaction with or discussion of his body comes after he is resurrected from the dead when the Apostle Thomas says that he wants to put his hand on the marks of the crucifixion. And that’s it. We don’t know how tall he was, if his nose was crooked, what his hair was like, or if he had smooth skin. We know a little bit about his fashion sense—he advises against wearing flowing robes in Mark 12—and his face shone brighter than the sun during the transfiguration. But there’s nothing that would lead you to swipe left or right on his profile.
What’s strange about this is that the ancient Greeks and Romans were somewhat looks-obsessed: they provide us with wildly racist handbooks that use bodily characteristics to determine and dissect a person’s character. According to these and broader consensus, you could tell the kind of person you were dealing with from their appearance. The Roman Emperor Augustus is described by his biographer Suetonius as “unusually handsome” even though “he cared nothing for personal adornment” and his eyes were so clear and bright it was almost as if they had a certain divine power. The Emperor Otho, who ruled for a mere handful of months, was less fortunate. Suetonius pictures him as unmanly and effeminate: he was “splay-footed and bandy-legged,” wore wigs to conceal his receding hairline, and spent a lot of his time depilating his body and admiring himself in a mirror.
Descriptions of a person’s physical appearance could go far beyond just the color of their hair, eyes, and skin. Everything from the tenor of a person’s voice to the way that they carried themselves was up for debate. Plutarch tells us about how Alexander the Great smelled: he had a “very pleasant odour [that] exhaled from his skin” and filled his garments. In a world without deodorant this is quite an advantage. A description of a self-emancipated third century slave refers to both his honey-colored skin and the fact that he walks around like a bigshot “yapping in a shrill voice.” Dr. Robyn Faith Walsh, assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of Miami, told The Daily Beast that “it was normal and quite expected across a variety of literary genres to describe the physical appearance of central figures” so it is “very strange” that no one tells us what Jesus looked like.
Walsh told me that there are a variety of explanations for this. Perhaps the evangelists didn’t depict Jesus because in Judaism you don’t describe the appearance of a God; or perhaps they didn’t know what he looked like. The problem with these explanations, she said, is that there are exceptions: “We have examples of art in which the Jewish God is depicted [and] many ancient authors were happy to describe their subjects absent ‘eyewitness’ knowledge. And, since the gospel writers were still bound by the conventions of imperial writing, you might think that they would offer this kind of detail even if that detail were fanciful on their part.”
The earliest Christian artwork from third and fourth century Syria and Rome shows Jesus as youthful, clean-shaven, and holding a staff. In many of these he just looks like a traditional Roman male. All of these images are stylized depictions of what certain kinds of men (e.g. philosophers) looked like so they don’t tell us much about Jesus himself. An apocryphal story tells us that Pontius Pilate painted a portrait of Jesus but this almost certainly didn’t happen and we don’t have the portrait even if it did.
Writing in the third century, the church father Origen seems to have thought that Jesus was ugly. He writes that Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would arrive “not in comeliness of form, nor in any surpassing beauty.” Origen, like the second century authors Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, were using Isaiah 53:2-3 which predicted that the Messiah would be unattractive so that people not “desire him.” In other words, he was a bit funny-looking because an attractive Messiah might be distracting to his followers. Other Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria gave, Walsh said, “the ancient equivalent of ‘he’s got a great personality’” argument. At best, outgoing President Trump might say, he’s a 4.
A Christian addition to the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus provides a much fuller description. The fragmentary insertion reads that Jesus “was a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, short growth, three cubits tall (four and a half feet), hunchbacked, with a long face, a long nose, eyebrows meeting above the nose, so that the spectators could take fright, with scanty hair… and an underdeveloped beard.”
In both ancient and modern contexts some of these physical features are widely held to be undesirable. Even though these traits are fundamentally neutral—there’s nothing good or bad about eyebrows that meet—they are interpreted as signs of ugliness, goodness, or even moral superiority depending on the context. Ancient people discriminated just as we do but the question is, why would ancient authors choose to describe Jesus as culturally undesirable?
It’s worth noting that Jesus isn’t the only famous ancient teacher who is described in this way. Aesop, the enslaved man responsible for the fables we still read to our children, and Socrates, the famous philosopher, were both described as unattractive. Aesop receives particularly harsh treatment he had “loathsome aspect… [was] potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity.” The Apostle Paul was, similarly, described as balding, sporting a unibrow, and bandy-legged but despite all of this was still quite a hit with the ladies.
Despite their ableism and racism, descriptions like this work by showcasing the personal charisma and brilliance of the speaker: Aesop, Socrates, Paul, and Jesus have left remarkable legacies behind them and we can be sure that their success was unrelated to their appearance. In the case of religious figures like Jesus and Paul their unattractiveness helped protect their followers from the dangers of sexual attraction. As Jennifer Eyl has written about Paul’s relationship with his female disciple Thecla, Paul and Thecla never look at each other because of the risk that they might fall in love.
Over time, however, people grew dissatisfied with the idea of an ugly Jesus. A 15th century version of an apocryphal text called the Letter of Lentulus, which was attributed to a member of the Roman senate, changes the description of Jesus quite radically. Jesus is described as having “ripe hazel-nut” hair that falls into something like a curly bob, he has clear skin “without wrinkle or spot,” and “abundant” facial hair with a perfectly shaped nose and mouth, bright eyes, and beautiful hands and arms.
Now-beautiful Jesus got ripped during the 19th and 20th century when the frail and emaciated Jesus of the crucifixion began to fall from favor. Walsh links this shift to the rise of Muscular Christianity and the idea that industrialization was making life too easy on people. Muscular Christianity introduced sports and physical fitness into churches and society at large through the YMCA. This lays the groundwork for modern cinematic depictions of Jesus in which Jesus is pretty attractive. To be sure, movies have a tendency to make everyone a lot better looking, but when Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado played the Galilean preacher in 2014 #HotJesus started trending on twitter.
Though none of these depictions of Jesus are actually historical, they do speak to different sets of interests in the body of Jesus; is he a cultural ideal or does his unusual appearance highlight the significance of his message and the absurdity of our own preoccupations with physical appearance? If nothing else at least, an ugly Jesus runs less of a risk of leading us into temptation.