Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Did Jesus Look Like?

"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2)

       The most important man in human history lived centuries before the invention of the camera. No contemporary portraits of His face exist. Those who wrote about Him gave their readers His lineage, His deeds, and His message, but none gave us any description of His physical likeness. Yet despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, when you say the name of Jesus, it instantly conjures up a picture in your mind. Everyone sees a tall, strong man with long wavy hair, a beard, and fair skin. Whether in art or parody, this is the image we associate with Christ.

       It's crazy that although no one knows what Jesus looked like, everyone seems to think they know. This is especially true in the Church. Because we believe the apostles and presidents of the Church receive revelation on Church doctrine, many assume the same goes for Church art. Rumors surround this or that portrait of Christ and stories are told about how such-and-such apostle said this was the best likeness of Christ he'd ever seen. One especially popular yarn claims Harold B. Lee hung a certain portrait of Christ in his office because it was the closest likeness to the Jesus he saw in vision.1 This story is false, but stories like this still get passed on all the time by people who assume the Church wouldn't allow a painting of Christ to be hung in their chapel unless it was guaranteed to be a close resemblance to how Christ actually looked in mortality.

       This is not the case, of course. Even Del Parson, the artist behind the most widely-used portrait of Christ in the Church, said that when he set out to paint it he was going for "a feel of what I think the Savior would be like. Not a look, but a feel."2 This kind of image is so prevalent among Mormons that when we encounter a Jesus that's slightly off from what we're used to, it can be unsettling. Any portrait that shows a man without the square jaw and blue eyes we're accustomed to just doesn't feel like our Savior. 

       There's nothing inherently wrong about this. We've grown up with an image that we associate with the comfort and warmth of the Savior. We cherish the Jesus we grew up with. But many assume if this Jesus is not based on revelation, it's surely based on history. They believe what we know for sure about Jesus is that He lived in a culture where men had long hair and beards, which is why artists have always represented Him that way. But it's not so simple. 

       The early Christians believed images of God were forms of idolatry and therefore refused to depict Christ's physical person.3 Certain visual symbols were used to represent Him, but the first portraits of Christ didn't come along until the 4th century.4 (To put that in perspective, imagine not having any images of the prophet Joseph Smith until the year 2150.) Once portraits of Christ did emerge, there were drastic differences in the pictures. This image of Christ, one of the earliest ever made, shows him as the young, beardless Good Shepherd, with short, curly hair. 

       This image, another really early portrait, found in the Roman catacombs, depicts an older Christ, complete with long dark locks and a full beard.5 Both images are based on the artist's conjecture, but the latter is the one that stuck. This was the image passed down through the ages and which people came to associate with Christ. 

       Some outside our faith have claimed to have miraculous proof that the traditional Christ image is accurate. Some believe the Shroud of Turin, (which bears a faint image of a recently crucified man) was the actual burial cloth of Jesus and has His picture embedded in it. Others believe in the existence of the Veronica, a cloth used to wipe the face of Christ on the road to Calvary, and which He then miraculously imprinted with a picture of His face. But the Shroud has been carbon-dated to the fourteenth century and the Veronica was lost long ago.Then there was the "Letter of Lentulus," a letter purported to be from the time of Christ which describes Jesus having long hair parted down the center, a forked beard, etc. But the letter has been declared inauthentic, once again refuting the idea that the traditional picture of Christ is the real one.7

       While we should let those who treasure the traditional image of Jesus continue to cherish it, if we want to know what He really looked like, we have to let go of that image. If we could step into a time machine and go back to Galilee circa 30 A.D., we probably wouldn't see a man who looked like He had stepped out of a Simon Dewey painting. But how do we figure out how He actually looked? Well we can't, really. Even if we figure out exactly what people of ancient Palestine looked like, as Latter-day Saints we know Jesus was genetically different from his neighbors. We'll never know how much his unique parentage influenced His appearance. But we know He didn't stand out too much in a crowd (John 8:59), and most people believed He was the son of Joseph the carpenter, and that His brothers and sisters were His blood relatives (Matthew 13:55). With that in mind, we have a few helpful hints which can give us insight into the true face of Christ. 

       Let's start with the scriptures. In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded not to shave the corners of their beards (Leviticus 19:27; 21:5). We also learn it was shameful for Israelite men to shave their faces (2 Samuel 10:4-5; Jeremiah 48:37-38). So in all likelihood, Jesus would in fact have worn a beard. To find out how long His hair was, we turn to Paul. The Apostle Paul lived in the time of Jesus and saw the Lord in vision. He then joined the followers of Christ, many of whom had been acquainted with Jesus personally. In one of his epistles, Paul said "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" (1 Corinthians 11:14). If Jesus had long hair, why would Paul make this statement? Many scholars believe it's because Jesus and his contemporaries didn't actually wear their hair long. They may not have sported missionary haircuts, but the long, wavy locks we see on Jesus today are probably not a reflection of reality.

       After the scriptures, the next best place we can turn to for clues is forensic science. Forensic scientists wanted to know what Jesus' face may have looked like, and they decided the best way to find out would be to reconstruct the face of a typical Jewish man who lived during the time of Christ. Taking the skulls of several average-looking men from early Palestine, they were able to create a face with computer technology. This is the result.8

       This model is fascinating, but it has some flaws. The hair and skin coloration are complete guesswork, and no one could tell for sure what you or I looked like by averaging the faces of our neighbors. Luckily, this is not the only thing forensics has to offer us. In first-century Egypt, many people were mummified and buried along with paintings of themselves.These Egyptians not only lived near Jesus' homeland, but they were genetically related to the Jews, as well.10 Scientists have done reconstructions of  the mummies' faces and compared them to their portraits, finding most mummies bore a remarkable resemblance to their pictures.11 So what did these people look like? Their portraits offer us a glimpse, revealing men with softer, narrower features with a very Semitic look. These are the real faces of males from the ancient Middle East.

       When depicting Christ in a full body painting, artists have traditionally chosen to make Him a superior specimen, having him stand a little taller than His apostles and appearing to measure about six feet in height. But such a man would have been extremely rare in Jesus' time. Archaeologists analyzed the skeletal remains of people from the time of Christ and have "firmly established that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 ft. 1 in., with an average weight of about 110 pounds. Since Jesus worked outdoors as a carpenter until he was about 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume he was more muscular and physically fit than westernized portraits suggest. His face was probably weather-beaten, which would have made him appear older, as well."12

       Perhaps the most difficult issue regarding Jesus is the question of His skin color. Jesus is usually made to look very Anglo-Saxon in Western art, while people in different parts of the world claim Jesus as their own by depicting Him as African, Asian, Native American, etc., etc. So what color was Jesus, really? As shown earlier, we have portraits of men typical of the day who all have darker, more olive complexions. Their hair is always dark brown or black with eyes to match. But we also know Jesus lived in Galilee, which as Gerald N. Lund points out was left largely to the Gentiles, who were usually lighter in skin tone.13 But we have extensive genealogy provided for Jesus in the Gospels and we know His line was Jewish, not Gentile (Matthew 1; Luke 3). Dr. Reza Aslan, who wrote a best-selling book about the life of Christ and who hails from the Middle East himself, said, "As a Galilean, he would have been what is referred to as a Palestinian Jew. He would look the way that the average Palestinian would look today. So that would mean dark features, hairy, probably a longer nose, black hair."14 While there's no way to be absolutely positive, the evidence suggests Jesus was a few shades darker than He is usually portrayed in modern portraits. 

       What can we learn from all this? One of the biggest benefits from studying Jesus in this way is that we are brought closer to Jesus as He was, a real flesh-and-blood person; a man whom people called friend, neighbor, and teacher. When we see only Jesus the icon we easily forget Jesus the man, who ate, slept, and had daily conversations. We forget He had real emotions and that to those around Him, He seemed completely ordinary at first glance. By making Jesus in our own image we distort the truth, and we think it must have been perfectly obvious to those around Him that He was the Savior. (Anyone that tall, fair, and imposing certainly would have seemed godly to people of the day.) In mortality, Jesus was a man - a perfect one, but a man nonetheless. If we get too caught up in the idealized and the divine, it can take us away from the humble carpenter He was to those who knew Him. If we took that time machine back and met the real Jesus as He lived on earth, would we be startled? Doubtful? Disappointed? Hopefully not. Hopefully we can couple the Christ of faith with that of history and remember that while He was glorious in spirit, He came to earth with the same ordinary features we all have, and that through His humanity He learned how to succor His people (Alma 7:12).

       But there is one good reason we don't know about the physical appearance of Jesus. President Harold B. Lee said, 
"It has always been significant to me that, despite the greatness of the master teacher, Jesus the Christ (recognized now by even those who would not believe in his mission as the literal Son of God), there have been left to us no sculptured models or accurate descriptions of the Savior... It has seemed clearly evident to me that it was so because it was not desired that Jesus be worshiped as an idol in stone or brass, but that the profound teachings that he has left us be the center and core of that which should convince anyone of the divinity of his mission."15
       No matter what He looked like, Jesus Christ's true identity has always been known to us: He is the Savior of the world; our master and our God. All who come to know Him must do so through His words, not His image, and His words will always be with us, though His face has long been hidden. Though we may idealize his earthly form in pictures, no image can ever come close to the majesty and glory of the Lord, whose beauty can be found far more readily in what He did than in what He looked like.

1. Hunter, J. Michael. "Portraits of Christ." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 84-85. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.
 2. Hunter, J. Michael. "Portraits of Christ." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 83. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.
3. Jensen, Robin Margaret. "Visual Art, Portraits, and Idolatry." In Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, 9-19. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005.
4. Ibid.
5. Jensen, Robin Margaret. "Visual Art, Portraits, and Idolatry." In Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity, 30-33. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005.
6. Finaldi, Gabriele, and Susanna Quash. "The True Likeness." In The Image of Christ, 74-77. London: National Gallery, 2000.
7. Hunter, J. Michael. "The Letter of Lentulus." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 39-44. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.
 8. Fillon, Mike. "The Real Face of Jesus - Advances in Forensic Science Reveal the Most Famous Face in History." Popular Mechanics, January 23, 2015.
9. "ANCIENT FACES: MUMMY PORTRAITS FROM ROMAN EGYPT." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. Accessed June 12, 2015.
10. Evans, Craig A. "Appendix 2: What Did Jesus Look Like?" In Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, 148. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
11. Wong, Dr. Julielynn. "Modern Science Unravels Ancient Mummy Mysteries." ABC News. October 27, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2015.
12. Fillon, Mike. "The Real Face of Jesus - Advances in Forensic Science Reveal the Most Famous Face in History." Popular Mechanics, January 23, 2015.
13. Lund, Gerald N. Fishers of Men. Salt Lake City, Utah: Shadow Mountain, 2000. 70.
14. Fisher, Max. "Reza Aslan on Jesus’s Skin Color: ‘Megyn Kelly Is Right. Her Christ Is White’." Washington Post. December 12, 2013. Accessed June 12, 2015.
15. Lee, Harold B. "Plain and Precious Things." Ensign, August 1972.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
1. Light of the World by Brent Borup. Retrieved from
2. Jesus the Christ by Del Parson. Retrieved from
3. Good Shepherd fresco from the catacombs of Calixtus. Public Domain.
4. Bust of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla. Public Domain.
5. Replica of the Christus statue in Salt Lake City. Retrieved from
6. 3-D model of first century Jewish man from BBC's documentary Son of God.
7. Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
8. Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
9. Fayum mummy portrait. Public Domain.
10. Still from BBC film The Gospel of John.


  1. Thanks so much for this post. It was well-written, and you obviously did a lot of research. I especially loved the quote at the end by President Lee. This gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Thanks! You just saved me a bit of research, as I am hoping to paint a 'portrait' of the Christ, and have been unsure which features to go on.