Jesus Didn’t Look the Way You Thought He Did

by David Mills

North Texas Catholic


Jesus by Vladimir Borovikosky (18th - 19th century)

You know how you picture Jesus? Like most of the pictures at church, right? You’re probably wrong.

Let me say right away that doesn’t matter. As long as Christians have made pictures of Jesus, everyone’s made Him look like them. St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth that He became all things to all men, so that He could save some. In the same way, the Church lets people picture Jesus as looking like themselves. He became one of us, so we can see Him as one of us.

Still, it’s fun to find out what He might have looked like. An English scholar has just written a book called What Did Jesus Look Like. Joan Taylor teaches early Christianity and Judaism at King’s College in London. She writes about this on a website called The Conversation.

I bring this up because it’s kind of cool, but also because it might help you with Lent. During Lent, we make a special effort to know God better. A big part of that is finding out that God isn’t exactly who we think He is.

Atheists like to say that man made up God to get what he wanted. For example, they claim our ancient ancestors got scared of everyone doing what they wanted to do. No one wants to live in a world like that. They invented a Big Man Upstairs who’d make the rules and punish those who broke them.

Here’s the thing. They’re right, sort of. We do tend to think of God as being a lot like us. Stern people who like rules tend to think of God as a stern ruler. People who don’t like rules tend to think of God as really relaxed about them. I was very much the first as a young man. Only now that I’m much older can I see how much the God I worshipped was me looking in the mirror.

Both types of Christians need to learn better. The former needs to see that God does make the rules, but that He can be awfully lax about enforcing them. He leaps to forgive. The latter needs to see that God does love showing mercy, but that He also expects people to obey the rules, because He made the rules for their own good. It’s not easy to learn this. It takes time and usually a good bit of suffering.

So what does Taylor say about Jesus’ looks? She says He would have been olive-skinned with short dark hair and beard. Other than that, we don’t know. He could have been tall or short, heavy or thin, or perfectly average.

We do know something about how He dressed. Scripture tells us some things and other histories tell us more. Jesus wore sandals, as everyone did then. We actually have sandals of the kind He would have worn, that survived the centuries in very dry caves near the Dead Sea.

He wore a mantle or big shawl. It had tassels on it. The gospels call these “edges.” His shawl was the ancient version of the prayer shawl called a tallit that observant Jews wear when praying.

Jesus’s basic garment was a tunic, like a very long t-shirt that ended about the knees. Here’s the most interesting thing Taylor says: As we remember from the crucifixion story, it was made of one piece of cloth, not the usual two. Taylor explains: “One-piece tunics in first-century Judaea were normally thin undergarments or children’s wear. We shouldn’t think of contemporary underwear, but wearing a one-piece on its own was probably not good form. It was extremely basic.”

He looked “scruffy,” she says. “Wearing a basic tunic that other people wore as an undergarment would fit with Jesus’ detachment regarding material things and concern for the poor.” Taylor draws this lesson: “Jesus aligned himself with the poor and this would have been obvious from how He looked.”

It’s something to reflect on this Lent, especially for those of us really attached to our material things. It’s also a helpful reminder that we don’t yet see Our Lord very clearly. Lent helps us see Him better. The disciplines, the extra prayer and Bible reading, giving alms — they’re all like getting new glasses.

You know how you picture Jesus? Like most of the pictures at church, right? You’re probably wrong.