Today, we have a guest post from frequent W&T commenter The Pirate Priest:

I was Inspired by Dave B.’s series on the chronology of the New Testament and thought it would be fun to focus some time on what the historical Jesus may have looked like. This has been a source of scholarly speculation and research for centuries. We have innumerable works of art depicting Jesus and his life dating back almost two millennia. Even so, it can be surprisingly difficult to pin down.

Even knowing what Joseph Smith looked like historically has been a challenge, and he is yesterday’s news compared to Jesus. Just last year there were reports of a newly discovered photo of Joseph Smith with some evidence it may be real…it also looks much different than the painting of Smith we’ve used as a reference for the last ~ 180 years.

Sometimes it can feel jarring or disappointing to find that history doesn’t quite line up with the image in our heads. When it comes to Jesus, however, things are a little different; it’s totally fine if we get some things wrong (more on this later).

How we imagine and depict Jesus

In all the visual portrayals of Jesus in art, there is a thread of expected common elements that run through nearly every depiction.

Here’s a little challenge: go to the image search on your favorite search engine and type, “Jesus in a crowd.” Scroll through the images and take note of how effortlessly you can pick out which person is Jesus at just a glance. What attributes and expectations make him so easily identifiable?

Vikings offer a similar example: horned helmets weren’t really a thing, but if you want people to instantly recognize Vikings in a movie, just give them helmets with horns.

To start, let’s take a look at some depictions of Jesus that are famous worldwide and also a common sight in Mormonism:

Example 1

painting of Jesus Christ the Savior by Del Parson

This famous portrait by Del Parson is complete with a Mona Lisa smile and several myths about it being the definitive Jesus. (Most of these myths are about little girls from atheist families who saw the painting and recognized him as the man who had mysteriously appeared to protect them from danger – the danger varies, but is commonly a car accident or an abusive murderous father.) Myths aside, it’s a very warm, approachable depiction of Jesus that millions of people love and relate to.

Example 2

painting of Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount, by Bloch

Bloch was a devout Lutheran whose masterworks are loved by Christians of all denominations. He has become a mainstay in Mormon iconography. Bloch portrays Christ with a regal, God-like magnetism that effortlessly commands reverence and awe. Bloch is a favorite of mine, as he (rightly) is with so many people.

Example 3

painting of Jesus preaching by the water, by Harry Anderson

Harry Anderson is a devout Seventh-day Adventist artist who became Mormon famous when the LDS Church commissioned him to create nearly two dozen works. We see his art everywhere in Mormondom – in massive murals at Temple Square, adorning meetinghouse foyers, and to those little cardboard posters in Sunday School.

Looking at the images above (and any others you like), we can start to piece together a set of common elements and attributes that help make Jesus easily recognizable. Here are a few common ones:

  • Anglo-European facial features.
  • A tall, physical presence (commonly made taller by being positioned high in a painting…or by being a gigantic marble statue).
  • Light(ish) skin (those giant Carrara marble statues help contribute to this one too).
  • Long, silky brown hair.
  • A nicely trimmed full beard.
  • Flowing ankle-length robes, usually white or red.
  • Leather sandals.
  • Blue eyes (sometimes).
  • Smells like a fabric softener commercial…Obviously, I made this up, but that’s sometimes the sort of aesthetic we get.

Small signals like these are what help Jesus stand out in any image and any crowd.

The truth is that these traits have their roots in Byzantine iconography from 1600-1700 years ago in the fourth century. Their influence has lasted centuries and continues to frame our depictions today. The thing about Byzantine religious art is that it was never meant to be historical. Rather, the artists intentionally imbued every element with symbolism and meaning.

Most of the worshipping masses were illiterate, so art was used to convey the essence of Christ and his teachings to worshipers. Another thousand years would pass before Johann Gutenberg and William Tyndale would help make the actual text of the Bible available to the masses, and by that time the Byzantine imagery of Jesus had taken firm root in the collective mind of Christianity.

Byzantine artists began by modeling Christ as a younger Zeus to portray him as a heavenly ruler. Over time this evolved and eventually culminated into our imagery of Christ today.

So what did Jesus really look like?

We do know a few things:

Nothing very notable was mentioned about his physical appearance in the New Testament – either he wasn’t remarkable looking, and/or the Gospel authors were trying to uphold Isaiah’s prophecy that he wouldn’t be remarkable looking. It’s also pretty certain that Jesus wasn’t a flashy dresser. We also know a fair amount about what things were like when & where he was born, grew up, and lived.

All of these clues give us a good place to start, but here I’ll yield to someone much more qualified.

Joan E. Taylor is a professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. A link to an article she wrote for BBC Magazine is listed below along with her book What Did Jesus Look Like? I’ll summarize her words about what historical Jesus may have looked like:

Hair and beard

The earliest surviving paintings of Christ show him as short-haired and beardless. lt’s also very unlikely he had long hair. However, a beard is possible – a scruffy beard was often thought to differentiate a philosopher from the general population (since they spent their time thinking rather than worrying about their looks).

According to Taylor, “A great mane of luxuriant hair and a beard was a godly feature, not replicated in male fashion. Even a philosopher kept his hair fairly short.” His hair was most likely black or dark brown, and may have been wavy or curly.

Clothing & footwear

Given his words in Mark 12 about how scribes were dressing, long robes are likely out of the question. Robes like this were worn by the wealthy and social elite as a status symbol and for special events.

He probably dressed like this:

  • A knee-length undyed woolen tunic (ankle-length ones were generally only worn by women), possibly with a stripe of color running from the shoulder to the hem.
  • A mantle called a himation that functioned as a long wrap and was worn many different ways – often it would hang down past the knees, covering the tunic. When it was cold, he probably wore two of them.
  • A Jewish prayer shawl called a tallith. These were usually made from creamcolored undyed woolen fabric with an indigo stripe or threading.  
  • Sandals, like everyone else.


Joan Taylor again, “And what about Jesus’s facial features? They were Jewish. That Jesus was a Jew (or Judaean) is certain in that it is found repeated in diverse literature, including in the letters of Paul…So how do we imagine a Jew at this time, a man ‘about 30 years of age when he began, according to Luke chapter 3?” Something like this:

computer-generated model of a Galilean man

This is a computer-generated model of a Galilean man created in 2001 by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave based on an actual skull found in the region. To be clear, Neave didn’t claim that this was the face of Jesus – it was just a prompt to help people consider Jesus as a person of his time and place.

Additionally, the average man’s height at the time of Jesus was about 5-feet 5-inches. It’s also highly unlikely that Jesus had blue eyes; they were probably brown.

The best approximation we have about Jesus’ appearance

The digital reconstructions are fascinating, but Taylor suggests that the best approximation of what Jesus probably looked like comes from a depiction of Moses found in a 3rd-century synagogue:

painting depicting Moses in a 3rd-century synagogue

Moses probably didn’t actually look or dress like this – just like Jesus didn’t look like an English nobleman dressed like a statue of Zeus.

The artists were trying to do the same thing with Moses that we do with our portrayals of Jesus. This image shows just how the people of the day imagined a Jewish sage & would look, dress, and be relatable within the context of their culture and time…which is exactly what Jesus was – a Jewish sage in the Greco-Roman world.

Why none of this really matters, spiritually speaking

It’s fascinating to learn what historic Jesus may have looked like. Even so, there is nothing wrong with loving any of the endless variety of ways that Jesus is depicted and imagined. The purpose of art is to evoke feelings and emotions; not to be a perfect historical record of the world.

I’ve seen everything from priceless paintings of Christ in museums, to tattoos of Jesus as a black man, to a papier-mâché statue on a float in a parade – the important thing is that they all make Jesus alive and relatable to people of many diverse backgrounds. An image that may not speak to you or me, may be inspirational to someone of different tastes, culture, and social context.

There is a long tradition of depicting Jesus in whatever context is most relatable to the audience of the art. What matters is how they make us feel and inspire us to live a better life and be a source of good in the world.

What about you?

l’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.

  • Do you find it helpful to read about what Jesus might have looked like historically?
  • What depictions of Jesus and his ministry inspire you the most and why? This could be art in any form or medium.
  • Which (if any) don’t speak to you? (While being understanding that they may still inspire others, no judgment here)