Most early Christian images of Jesus, whether painted on the walls of catacombs, carved in relief on sarcophagi or set in mosaic tiles, can be divided into two general types of portraits: the beautiful, youthful, long-haired Jesus and the older, bearded Jesus.  There is on physical account of Christ in any of the Gospels or New Testament letters.  What did He look like and why did the eyewitness Gospel writers like Matthew and John fail to record His physical appearance?

Second century church fathers Justin Martyr and Origen point to Isaiah 53 as evidence that Jesus was unattractive:  "He has no form nor glory, nor beauty when we beheld him, but his appearance was without honor and inferior to that of the sons of men." At the same time, Origen and others cite the portrayal of God in Psalm 45 as testimony that Jesus was the "most handsome of men" (Psalm 45:2). (see Origin, Against Celsus, 6.75-77; trans. Adapted from Anti-Nicene Fathers, vol 4, p.607 also see John Chrysosstom, Homilies on the Psalms 44.3

St. Augustine suggested that everyone has a different image of Jesus.  He wrote: "The physical face of the Lord is pictured with infinite variety by countless imaginations, though whatever it was like He certainly had only one.  Nor as regards the faith we have in the Lord Jesus Christ it is in the least relevant to salvation what our imaginations picture Him like...What does matter is that we think of Him as man."  (Augustine, On the Trinity 8.7; E. Hill trans., The Trinity, in The Works of St. Augustine, part 1 vol. 5; Brooklyn, N.Y. City Press, 1991, pp. 246-247).

The fourth-century bishop Cyril of Jerusalem added:  "The Savior comes in various forms to each person according to need.  To those who lack joy, He becomes a vine, to those who wish to enter in, He is a door; for those who must offer prayers, He is a mediating high priest.  To those in sin, He becomes a sheep, to be sacrificed on their behalf.  He becomes "all things to all people" remaining in His own nature what He is.  For so remaining, and possessing the true and unchanging dignity of Sonship, as the best of physicians and caring teachers, he adapts himself to our infirmities."    Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 10.5 (Andrew A. Stephenson, trans., The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 1(Washington, DC:  Catholic University of America Press, 1969, p. 198)

It is interesting that most of the earliest depictions of Jesus are of a youthful, Apollo-like deity.  But after Christianity is placed under the protection of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the images of Christ change dramatically and almost exclusively to the bearded Christ.  Is this change related to the fact that it was suddenly safe enough to reveal such precious relics as the Mandylion (many scholars believe this relic is known today as the Shroud of Turin) and Veronica's veil which carried miraculous images of the Savior unmade by human hands (in Greek = archeiropoitos, "without hands")?

The only physical description of Jesus that does exist is from a copy of a letter from the Roman consul Lentulus to the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  This document was discovered in a Monastery with copies of other ancient documents.  According to the copy of the letter, the original was dated to the 12 year of the reign of Tiberius.  We have historical verification that a certain Roman consul named Lentulus was in Judea at the time of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. His influential family is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in his book Antiquities of the Jews.   Scholars are divided, however, as to the authenticity of the letter.  Lentulus' letter was an official report to the Emperor Tiberius.  In his letter Lentulus describes Jesus as having: "a noble and lively face, with fair and slightly wavy hair; black and strongly curving eyebrows, intense penetrating blue eyes and an expression of wondrous grace.  His nose is rather long.  His beard is almost blonde, although not very long.  His hair is quite long, and has never seen a pair of scissors.....His neck is slightly inclined, so that he never appears to be bitter or arrogant.  His tanned face is the color of ripe corn and well proportioned.  It gives the impression of gravity and wisdom, sweetness and good, and is completely lacking in any sign of anger." (Holy Land Magazine, Franciscan Holy Land Press, Spring 1998).

We can take the information from Lentulus' letter and add it to the information gathered from the figure of the Shroud of Turin to complete the physical description of Christ.  Professor Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, a Shroud of Turin scholar, took the information collected from the Shroud and interpreted the information using his experience as a doctor and university professor of forensic medicine.  He wrote:  "The man who was wrapped in the Shroud was a man of great beauty and uncommon statue. He was about one meter and 80 centimeters (six feet) tall, with a perfectly proportioned physique, lithe and harmonious.  He was a 'standard type' in the most literal sense of the phrase.  Although the cloth has suffered much damage, we can see that his face was a very soft and gentle one, rather long and with a broad, straight forehead.  The nose is straight and turned slightly downwards; the cheeks are large and slightly protruding.  From all the anthropometric calculations so far made, it seems that Christ was physically in far better shape than the average man.  Through a complicated process of elaborating his facial data, I can conclude that his cranial capacity was of 1575cc, which would place him in the megalocephalic (large headed) category, with a cranial-capacity coefficient of 95 which would indicate that the weight of his brain was 1492 grams.  This is far greater than average, suggesting a person of extraordinary genius."  (Professor Judica-Cordiglia, Holy Land Magazine, Franciscan Holy Land Press, Spring 1998)

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 1999 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.