What did Jesus look like? The New Testament gospels appear to be silent on this question, and if asked, the good Christian answer would be: that we don’t know. Any effort to imagine him would be to sell paintings or stained glass windows . . . or maybe just for fun.
And it doesn’t matter, they’d say . . . but if you had to speculate, then Jesus was probably ugly.
There was that prophesy? Isaiah 53:2: “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”
To read prophesy for Jesus’ physicality might one as an odd thing to do. But if you do it, then Christians have clearly done it wrong.
The Hebrew word ‘beauty’ in Isaiah 53:2 doesn’t refer to physical appearance.
“This use of hadar is rooted in the ancient concept of a king or of a royal city,” notes Vine’s Expository Dictionary. The reference is to ‘splendor’ or ‘glory’ in reference to office, rank.
The Jewish messiah will not be seen as a political authority, is the idea. As a commoner, Jesus fulfills that.
There are other Old Testament messianic passages, however, that do speak of the messiah’s physicality. There’s Isaiah 33:17 (“Your eyes will see the King in His beauty”), but more to the point, since the surrounding passage is identified as messianic in Hebrews 1:9, there’s Psalm 45:2:
Youthful in beauty you are, beyond the sons of men; grace was poured on your lips; therefore God blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your thigh, O powerful one, in your bloom and beauty . . .
“The king is celebrated as the most beautiful person among human beings,” notes the scholar Hans-Joachim Kraus. “The reference is to his beaming appearance, the extraordinary majestic bearing (Ps. 50:2).”
This may still be an effusion of kingship, a beauty that Zion itself emanates, as in Psalm 50:2. But yaphah is definitely used of human appearance, as in the Song of Songs 7:6, “How beautiful you are” — speaking of the girl.
Or Ezekiel 16:13, “You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.”
This beauty seems to have feminine reference.
If a Christian is looking to Old Testament prophesy for a physical portrait of Jesus, then that portrait is of a very beautiful, somewhat feminine man.
If you’ve not heard that before, it owes only to an ideological blinder. The text of scripture is very clear.
There are historical suggestions of Jesus’ appearance, but none that, in the end, must clearly trace to people seeing him and describing him.
In the 2nd century, the anti-Christian Celsus says, “Jesus’ body was no different than any other, but, as they say, was little and ugly and undistinguished.”
That was dismissed by Origen, the early Christian writer, as a malicious reading of Isaiah 53:1–3. For him, Psalm 45:2 was the guide. Jesus’ body, he says, “was not only distinguished among human bodies, but was also superior to all others.”
That enemies of Christianity saw Jesus as ugly, and believers saw him as beautiful, is the historical reality we seem to have.
It’s curious that later Christianity tended toward the former?
Physical beauty is theologically important. Throughout the Old Testament, as Athalya Brenner notes in The Intercourse of Knowledge, “physical appearance and physical beauty matter. And so does the lack of beauty.” (p.43)
It does seem strange, then, that New Testament bodies go largely undescribed. Except, we know that in a Christian reading, the Old Testament is understood to suggest the narrative of the gospels.
Clearly in the gospels, Jesus is part Joseph, Moses, David, etc. He might then, as well, a Christian would say, look like them?
And that, too, would Jesus beautiful.
Observe the beauty of Joseph. A description of it, in Genesis 39:6, is nearly word-for-word the same as the beauty of his mother, in 29:17. The translations have her “beautiful” as he’s “handsome.” But the text clearly intends to mirrors them. Joseph is feminine, which must further separate him from his brothers.
Moses was “beautiful before God” since a baby (Exodus 2:2 LXX; Heb. 11:23; Acts 7:20). The beauty of Saul, as well, is noted (1 Sam 9:2), and David is really a sex symbol (1 Sam 17:42; 1 Sam 16:12).
David’s beauty is, importantly, at odds with typical masculine profiles. As he says in Psalm 151, “My brothers were handsome and tall, / but the Lord was not pleased with them.”
That God’s people would be led by a beautiful, somewhat feminine man seems to be the godly ideal. When David’s son Absolom ends up being extremely beautiful (cf. 2 Sam 14:25) this seems to be understood as a sign of his spiritual importance.
Note as well the man in the Song of Songs (1:15, 4:7). The ‘Bridegroom’ figure in the Jewish worldview is a man who is physically beautiful.
The prophet Daniel and his friends are ‘good-looking’ (Daniel 1:4, 10), which seems to provide the basis of their status in the pagan court. As again with Esther (2:7), the physical beauty of God’s chosen figures is a powerful force that changes the world around them.
The Jewish hero is sexy.
That Jewish heroes are never masculine might seem a controversial point. Didn’t Moses look and act like the brawny actors we’ve seen in movies?
Not at all. Moses may be the most feminine, and strange, of them all. As Rhiannon Graybill notes: “From birth onward, Moses’ body is perceived by onlookers as different, special, frightening, other.”
The great prophet asks, in Exodus 3:11, if he’s fit to “bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt.” This is the language of birthing.
He says in Numbers 11:12: “Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them . . .” Moses is, really, the mother of his people.
If God is manifesting as a male in the form of Jesus, then we’d expect him to be, likewise, a feminine male? This seems indicated as well in Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
If humans are male and female, and made in God’s image, then God’s is . . . male and female.
And isn’t that how the Christian culture, despite itself, likes to think of him?—despite itself.
Recall the Head of Christ by Warner Sallman, which for the latter 20th century was the classic depiction of the savior, for Protestants at least.
The painting’s official story, as recounted in Jack R. Lundbom’s Master Painter: Warner E. Sallman, begins in 1914 when the ‘master’ is a young man being challenged to paint a portrait of Christ who is “forceful and masculine, rather than weak and effeminate, as was often the case.”
The image Sallman did, decades later, was of a vaguely Italian guy with rather amazing hair, posing and lit like a Hollywood star.
As wasn’t overlooked at the time.
“In Sallman’s Head of Christ we have a pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo Shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died and rose again!” seethes a contemporary critic.
“The most famous picture of Jesus makes him look weak and effeminate,” fumes another. “You present this famous picture of Jesus on some of our mission fields and the people say, ‘Your God looks weak.’”
But Sallman’s Jesus became the clear inspiration for the male “hippie” look the Baby Boomers favored, which dramatically blurred gender barriers. The male now seemed seemed increasingly colorful, slightly feminine, but dangerous, and free.
The eroticism of Jesus is certainly an important concern. The idea in the scriptures is that he is a husband, and the believing community is a woman who marries him. ‘She’ is the ‘Bride’.
To find one’s husband attractive wouldn’t seem to be out of place?
Images from 3rd century Roman catacombs might be the earliest surviving effort to imagine Jesus’ usual appearance. They didn’t know either? But he was, for them, not exactly ugly.
In fact they seem to think of him as either nice looking, and at times, a bit girlish.
Which, in the Bible, is very beautiful.
Also check out: Who says the Bible is against pornography?