If you were to be asked to conjure up a mental image of Jesus, you’d probably picture a man with long hair, a beard and white robes. After all, famous works of art have long depicted the Christian figure in the very same way. Yet Joan Taylor, a professor at King’s College London, believes that these images are actually all completely wrong. And the expert even claims that she has compelling evidence to back up her interpretation of the religious leader.
Interestingly, you see, our modern visions of Jesus stem from artwork that was created as far back as the fourth century. The artists at that time actually had centuries of godly artwork from which to draw their inspiration for a more modern religious figure. So it seems that they painted and drew Jesus with the same flowing locks and long beard as the ancient deities had.
Artists also took liberties with the accessories that Jesus wore in the paintings. For instance, Christ would sometimes have a halo over his head or a Bible in his hands. At other times, he sat on a throne – just like a mythological god. But, according to Taylor, these and other details couldn’t have been true. Rather, Taylor’s research reveals a much simpler – and very different – look for the prophet of the Christian faith.
Surprisingly, though, the Bible itself provides few descriptors to tell us how Jesus looked. Yet small tidbits seem to reveal that the prophet didn’t look much different than everyone else alive during the first century. In the Gospel According to Matthew, for instance, Jesus blends in so much that Judas Iscariot has to point him out among the rest of the disciples. This highlights how similar they must have all looked.
But none of the scriptures painted a picture of how Jesus appeared during his lifetime. So instead, artwork featuring his form came to crystallize how many people see him today. The earliest images featuring Jesus didn’t focus on him directly, however. Rather, artists in the third century tried painting symbolic renditions of their religious leader.
So, for instance, paintings and sculptures portray Jesus not as a prophet, but as a shepherd – the “Good Shepherd,” more specifically. In one such depiction, a young man holds a lamb – and the gentle farmer is supposed to be the leader of the Christian faith. Such imagery actually emerged from Roman catacombs, which is far from where Jesus’ most ardent followers actually lived.
In any case, it would take another century before artists settled on a seemingly universal way to represent Jesus in their works. And that’s why not many people today envision the Christian leader as a gentle shepherd without a beard. The public likely instead picture Jesus as artists drew and painted him during the Byzantine era.
As we’ve discovered, though, artists working between the fourth and sixth centuries seemingly couldn’t rely on the Bible for a description. And perhaps because the Bible provided few clues as to what the religious leader looked like, the painters apparently took their inspirations from elsewhere. Specifically, the craftsmen appeared to look to past artwork and motifs in order to illustrate new versions of Jesus.
In fact, the artists seemingly looked way back to draw inspiration from pieces that had been created eight centuries before their era. And because Jesus was not supposed to have lived that early, the artwork used as inspiration depicted another group of gods. Namely, Byzantine artists let Greek and Roman deities inspire their renditions of Jesus.
For instance, the artists mimicked Phidias’ larger-than-life statue of Olympian Zeus – located within the deity’s namesake temple in Greece. The sculpture, created in the fourth century BC, presented Zeus with long, flowing hair and a beard. And, as we know, Byzantine-era artists used the same styling when they subsequently depicted Jesus.
It made sense that Byzantine artists would use such iconic features as an outline for drawing their god, too. After all, others in the field had previously drawn their inspiration from the Olympian Zeus as well. Roman Emperor Augustus had even employed a sculptor to chisel a version of the statue with his face in place of the Grecian god’s.
Yet the Augustus statue forewent Zeus’ long hair and beard – because the Roman Emperor didn’t possess those features. But Byzantine era artists didn’t have a model from which to draw, so when they started depicting Jesus in Zeus’ form, they seemingly included all of the deity’s looks. Then they apparently added more and more elements to make the Christian prophet seem as omnipotent as the mythological figure.
For instance, Byzantine artists started to render Jesus as if he were a king sat on a throne. And in a 2019 paper for the American Schools of Oriental Research, King’s College London professor Joan Taylor wrote about the significance of this imagery. She said that featuring Jesus in such a seat represented “his authority over the Earth and his coming role as judge.”
Taylor, who specializes in Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism, also described how artists tweaked the Olympian Zeus to fit their mold. She wrote that Zeus’ hands were “replaced with gestures of blessing, with the Bible held in Jesus’ hand instead of a spear.” And some artists began to add a halo over Christ’s head as well.
And as more and more artists followed suit, Jesus’ ethereal look – long-sleeved robe, halo, flowing hair – was cemented in the fourth century. Yet each detail had a very specific meaning, according to Taylor. The professor explained, “The point is not to show Jesus as a man of first-century Judaea, but to make theological points about Jesus as Christ [or] King and divine Son.”
Plus, according to Thomas Matthews in his 1993 book, The Clash of Gods, painting Jesus with long hair helped him stand out. And the ancient artworks gave Byzantine creators the metaphorical tools they needed to make long locks into such a powerful statement. Matthews explained, “In Greek and Roman art, loose long hair was a mark of divinity…”
Matthews continued, “In letting his hair down, Christ took on an aura of divinity that set him apart from the disciples and onlookers who are represented with him.” This plan obviously worked, too, as long-haired Jesus has become the model for portraying the Christian prophet – thanks to Byzantine art.
Elsewhere, though, a number of potential relics have seemingly confirmed Jesus’ looks to his followers. One of the most commonly touted pieces of evidence is the Shroud of Turin. The linen made its way into the public eye in 1354, and – according to some – it has an imprint that looks strangely familiar.
So the story goes that, after Jesus’ crucifixion, officials wrapped him in the Shroud of Turin. And that’s why the piece of fabric has a near stamp of the prophet’s face, very visible to his most ardent followers. However, the Vatican considers the Shroud to be an “icon,” rather than a relic.
In 2019 University of Iowa religious studies professor Richard Cargill gave his own explanation of the Shroud to History.com. He said, “The Shroud of Turin has been debunked on a couple of occasions as a medieval forgery. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that has been around since Jesus himself… for the purposes of either legitimizing his existence and the claims made about him or, in some cases, harnessing his miraculous powers.”
But experts have more than just Byzantine art and medieval relics with which to put a face to Jesus’ name. Taylor, for one, wrote a book on the subject in 2018 called What Did Jesus Look Like? And it seems that the professor relied on artifacts such as ancient remains, historical documents and Egyptian funerary art to paint her own picture of the leader of the Christian faith.
Taylor later told the American Schools of Oriental Research that Jesus’ wardrobe would have varied greatly from artistic renderings that have him in long-sleeved robes and mantles. She said, “Jesus wore normal clothing, unlike John the Baptist; John’s clothing was sufficiently unusual and Elijah-like to be mentioned…”
So Taylor contends that Jesus wore what everyone else in the first century BC would have had on. To understand fashion at that time, then, Taylor perused artwork featuring ancient Egyptian mummies. The professor figured that what the mummies donned in their portraits would have been representative of the entire region – including Jesus’ native Judaea.
Then Taylor realized that the mummies dressed much differently than how Jesus appears in the most popular images. In fact, the professor found that men in the prophet’s era would have worn simple, knee-length tunics. It seems that the shorter style allowed them to move quickly whenever necessary – while a long garment would have restricted them.
Of course, though, some people in Jesus’ era did wear robes similar to the ones in the popular artworks of him. But those people came from the era’s elite classes – a group to which Jesus didn’t belong. So, by that estimation, Jesus would have had on a tunic most days. Taylor thinks the tunic would also have had a few bands of color that stretched from the shoulder to the garment’s hem.
The main tunic fabric was probably not white, either, Taylor reckons. During Jesus’ time, it’s argued, someone would have had to bleach the material to make it the same shade as the robes seen in those famous paintings. Instead, Taylor claims, he would probably have worn undyed wool – and, in one way, the Bible confirms this. The book actually says that Jesus’ garb transforms to a glittering white color as he becomes an angel.
Yet one thing that artists are likely to have accurately portrayed, according to Taylor, is that Jesus probably did wear a mantle on top of his tunic. Not only that, but the mantle probably had a bit of color, too. But although art mostly features Christ in a blue-hued swathe of fabric, Taylor thinks that it could have also been red, green or even purple.
The Bible’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion does seemingly confirm many of Taylor’s assertions, too. Namely, the verses tell of him as having worn a tunic and suggest that he likely had on two separate mantles. One of the mantles would almost certainly have been a cream-hued prayer shawl – a necessary accessory to wear leading up to his execution.
Taylor told the American Schools of Oriental Research, “There seems no reason to doubt that Jesus wore [a mantle]. Indications that [he] wore a regular mantle as well as [a prayer shawl mantle] are found not only at the crucifixion scene but also on another occasion: [In the Gospel of John], Jesus takes off his mantles… when he washes the feet of his disciples.”
Next, Taylor analyzed Jesus’ footwear. Archaeologists have, of course, found remnants of shoes made during the same era in which Jesus lived. In the first century, then, it seems that shoemakers would sew together pieces of leather to create sandals with straps. So the professor deduced that Jesus probably would have worn these type of open-toed shoes, too.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Taylor researched how Jesus looked physically. Once again, the expert pored over the portraits of mummies from the same era. The people featured there were of Greek and Egyptian descent. But Egypt had a sizeable Jewish population at the time – so ethnicities had mixed and begun to blur.
So Taylor contended in her article on the American Schools of Oriental Research website that the “realistic” portraits of mummies provide “the closest we have to photographs of the people of Jesus’ own time and place.” To envision the face of the Judaean prophet, then, we should actually be imagining someone who looks similar to these pictures. Taylor even found a later piece of artwork that she described as the “closest fit” to what Jesus would have looked like.
The piece that Taylor found resides within Dura Europos – a synagogue eponymous with the ancient city to which it once belonged. Inscriptions date the structure to 244 AD, and this makes it one of the oldest and most well-preserved of the world’s ancient synagogues. Taylor added that inside there’s a piece of art that could help us paint a clearer picture of Jesus’ face.
Interestingly, this artwork from the third century isn’t supposed to be Jesus. In fact, it’s a portrait of Moses that bedecks Dura Europos. Yet Taylor explained, “The depiction of Moses on the walls of the synagogue… is probably the closest fit.” She added that it all has to do with the roles that both Moses and Jesus filled during their lifetimes.
Taylor wrote that the Moses artwork in the synagogue could hint at how Jesus looked “since it shows how a Jewish sage was imagined in the Greco-Roman world.” In the image, then, Moses has on an undyed tunic – which is precisely what Taylor said Jesus would have worn. Plus, Moses has on a prayer shawl – exactly what Jesus is said to have worn prior to the crucifixion.
It’s interesting to note that Moses doesn’t have the same flowing locks as Jesus does in Byzantine art, either. That’s because, according to Taylor, the Christian prophet probably hadn’t had hair that long. The expert explained that men alive during his time “rarely had long hair; it was considered either godly or girly.”
According to Taylor and the third century painting of Moses, though, Byzantine artists did get one detail right. Yes, the professor contended that Jesus probably did have a beard. She wrote on the American Schools of Oriental Research’s website, “As a kind of wandering sage, I think he would have had one, simply because he did not go to barbers.”
The beard had nothing to do with Jesus’ Jewish heritage, though. Taylor explained, “This was also the common appearance of a philosopher… He did not have a beard just because he was a Jew. A beard was not distinctive of Jews in antiquity.” Yet by the fifth or sixth century, beards became a known feature for Jewish men. And perhaps that’s where the association with Jesus, beards and Judaism came from, she said.
All of this information makes sense of why Taylor saw the Moses painting from Dura Europos as the most accurate interpretation of the Son of God. And in her 2018 book, What Did Jesus Look Like?, she got even more specific – describing the prophet as having olive skin, brown eyes and dark-brown hair.
Taylor also said in her book that Jesus likely measured in at about five feet, five inches tall, which was roughly the average height for a man in his era. Computer modeling by medical artist Richard Neave corroborated her statements, too. Indeed, he found that men in Jesus’ era usually had short stature, curly hair, brown eyes and olive skin. So the image that we have of Jesus is certainly artistically influenced – but there’s a good chance that he looked very different to what we’ve been conditioned to see.