Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino
Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.
Question #37 – What Did Jesus Look Like Physically?
The Bible gives us no description of the physique of Jesus and there is no known contemporaneous description of Him.
Accordingly, we have no means of knowing His height, weight, complexion, color of His eyes, whether He wore a beard or was clean-shaven, His clothing size or anything else about His physical appearance.
Speaking of His childhood, Luke 2:52 says Jesus, “increased in wisdom and stature.”
In His youth He worked as a carpenter and His public ministry was spent largely in the open air. He fasted forty days in the wilderness, taught multitudes in the mountains and in the valley, sailed on the fishing boats of His followers, and made many long journeys on foot.“Every action of His that is recorded in the Gospels indicates that He was a man of strong physique, physical courage and outdoor activity.”
Every action of His that is recorded in the Gospels indicates that He was a man of strong physique, physical courage and outdoor activity.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to bear the cross of Jesus, but this is not conclusive evidence that Jesus was unable to carry the cross.
John 19:17 says He “bore His cross,” which probably means that He bore it part way to Calvary.
According to tradition, members of the house of David were light complexioned. Since Jesus was a descendant of that family and lineage, artists have generally portrayed Jesus as a blond.
But even the earliest extant pictures of Jesus appear to be conventional representations rather than realistic likenesses. A picture of Him in the Roman catacombs, said to date from the second century, represents Him with long, curled hair, short, neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and haven lips.
In his “Last Judgment” Michelangelo represented Jesus as beardless.
From time to time reports have been published of the finding of a new description or portrait of Jesus made by a contemporary writer or artist who probably was an eyewitness to the crucifixion, but none of these have proved genuine.“Even the earliest extant pictures of Jesus appear to be conventional representations rather than realistic likenesses.”
One of the most interesting of these is the Lentulus letter. This curious document purports to be a description of Jesus written in the form of a letter to the Roman senate by Publius Lentulus, governor of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
It has been quoted as genuine so frequently that it is worth repeating. It reads:
“There hath appeared in these days, a man of great virtue, named Jesus Christ, who is yet living among us, and of the Gentiles is accepted as a Prophet, but his disciples call him the Son of God. He raiseth the dead, and cures all manner of diseases; a man of stature somewhat tall and comely, with very reverent countenance, such as beholders both love and fear; his hair the color of chestnut, full ripe, plain to his shoulders. In the midst of his head is a seam or partition of his hair after the manner of the Nazarites; his forehead plain and very delicate; his face without a spot or wrinkle, beautiful with a most lovely red, his nose and mouth so formed that nothing can be reprehended; his beard thickish, in color like his hair, not very long but forked; his look, innocent and mature; his eyes, gray, clear and quick. In reproving he is terrible; in admonishing, courteous, and fair spoken; pleasant in conversation, mixed with gravity. It cannot be remarked that any one saw him laugh, but many have seen him weep. In proportion of body, most excellent; his hands and arms delicate to behold. In speaking, very temperate, modest, and wise. A man, for his singular beauty, surpassing the children of men.”
This so-called “letter” has been traced back to the eleventh century, a copy having been found in the manuscript writings of St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109.
The description of Jesus in this document bears a striking resemblance to one in the writings of Nicephorus, who lived early in the fourteenth century and who was the last of the Greek ecclesiastical historians.
It is now generally agreed that the Lentulus letter was written during the Middle Ages either as a deliberate forgery or as fiction.“Though we do not know exactly what Jesus looked like physically, those who believe in Him will get to see Him in heaven and for now we can see Him in faith.”
There is no probability that it is genuine. No such person as Publius Lentulus was governor or procurator of Judaea, and the style, spirit and other internal evidence all stamp it as apocryphal.
It is interesting only because it is the most ancient of the many purported descriptions of the personal appearance of Jesus.
Ultimately, though we do not know exactly what Jesus looked like physically, those who believe in Him will get to see Him in heaven and for now we can see Him in faith.
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Christ as Saviour by Giovanni Battista Caccini, c. 1598. The Rijksmuseum. BK-2000-8.