A Christian origins professor claimed to have good evidence that the most common picture of Jesus Christ — a thin white man with a long beard, flowing locks, and a long robe — is historically inaccurate, and based on paintings of the pagan gods Zeus and Apollo.
From the beginning to the end, each of the four gospels focus on Jesus’s history, His deeds, His words, His Crucifixion, and most importantly His Resurrection. They stay virtually silent about how Jesus looked: his hair, his eye color, his beard, or his skin color.
As with the date of Christmas, the common view of Jesus — as a European man with long hair and beard — actually came from pagans. “That image can probably be traced back to the Byzantine period when artists had to make choices on how to represent the ‘son of God,'” Joan Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, wrote in her new book What Did Jesus Look Like?. “And they were probably inspired by existing godly figures like Zeus and Apollo.”
Iconography of Christ likely borrowed from these pagan gods, the professor noted. This would explain why Jesus has Zeus’s long hair and beard, along with Apollo’s thin body and face. Taylor traced this image back to the Byzantine era, when the Son of God was also first depicted with a royal robe, as opposed to a simple tunic.
Byzantine artists did not intend to produce a faithful representation of Jesus of Nazareth, but rather to present Jesus as Christ — the divine “ruler of all” (pantocrator) or “ruler of the universe” (cosmocrator). An entire branch of Eastern Orthodox iconography focuses on presenting Jesus in these roles to inspire worship.
Many of the presentations of Christ trace back to classical and imperial Byzantine iconography, Taylor argued. Her analysis focused on an apse mosaic from Santa Pudenziana, the oldest surviving Catholic church in Rome, build in 398 A.D. In this mosaic, Jesus sits on a throne wearing a lavish blue and gold robe, echoing classical imagery from Zeus/Jupiter who is depicted sitting on a throne in golden clothing.
Taylor argued that Christ’s posture hearkens back to imperial icons — images of the Emperor Augustus holding out his right arm as a gesture of legal authority. As for the long baggy sleeves of Jesus’s robe, they trace back to the dalmatica, a long embroidered tunic worn by the upper classes in the Byzantine era.
This Byzantine image of Jesus became the universally accepted way to depict Christ in Western art, Taylor wrote. “We see some differences in color palette, with Spanish and Portuguese artists giving him a more Mediterranean look compared with Italian, French or British painters. But overall, that Zeus-looking image of Christ wearing a robe is the one that becomes the standard template in Europe and which is later taken around the world with colonialism.”
So how did Christ actually look? The gospel writers seemed to consider this irrelevant. The historical details of His life — the virgin birth, Jesus’s words, actions, and miracles, and finally His death and resurrection — outweighed trivial details like the Son of God’s hair color and eye color. Taylor tried to discover Christ’s looks by examining holy artifacts like the Shroud of Turin but came up empty.
The professor turned to archaeological evidence — not for Jesus specifically, but for the general characteristics of Jews in the first century A.D.
“Her findings suggest that Jesus Christ was probably about 5 ft 5 in tall and had brown eyes, black hair and olive-brown skin—the most common features of men from his time according to archaeological remains, historical texts and pictorial depictions of people from first-century Judaea,” Aleteia‘s Vittoria Traverso reported. “Contrary to the long-haired icon we all know, the ‘King of Kings’ most likely had short hair and a trimmed beard—a popular grooming tactic that could prevent lice.”
Taylor also suggested Jesus would have had a wiry build — as a carpenter who dd an extensive amount of walking, he would have been strong but thin. “In fact everyone had a physical active life at the time you can see from skeletal remains that people were fairly muscular,” the professor wrote. “So I would say he was quite wiry.”
As for clothing, the Nazarene likely wore a simple one-piece tunic rather than an elaborate robe, the professor concluded. Wealthy Jews would wear two tunics and more elaborate clothes, while common people often had a one-piece tunic. When Jesus commissioned His disciples, He told them not to take two tunics (Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9).
“That’s quite specific advice and it says a lot about how he wanted his ambassadors to be perceived. He didn’t want them to enter Galilee’s villages as well-dressed visitors but as simple men that looked like the have-nots of society,” Taylor wrote.
The professor argued that clothing is an important detail, since it ties in with Jesus’s humanity. Indeed, such garb would also fit Jesus’s humility (Philippians 2).
However, iconography like Jesus glorified on the throne also makes sense from a Bible perspective. The very verses that emphasize the Christ’s humility also preach His deity and glorification.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
Many Christians know that Jesus wasn’t white or European, but He wouldn’t have been black, either — He would have been olive-skinned and Mediterranean-looking. It is in keeping with both Christian tradition and the Bible to minimize cultural barriers and preach the gospel that transcends race.
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the lay (though not being myself under the law) that might win those under the law,” St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:19-20.
Portraying Jesus in terms of pagan iconography arguably favored the cause of the gospel. The real Jesus almost certainly did not look like the most common pictures of Him, but these pantings inspired reverence for the man Christians believe was also God.
It arguably does no harm for people to imagine Jesus as a member of their ethnic group, so long as they do not mistake that image for reality. Ultimately, Jesus’s ethnicity, His build, His eye color, and the length of His hair all matter far less than whether or not He was born of a virgin, whether or not He said what He said, and whether or not He died on the cross and rose three days later.
If Jesus is the Son of God, that matters so much more than what He looked like — or will look like when He comes again.