Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.
– Acts 17: 29
The closest physical description of Jesus Christ given in the Bible is found in Isaiah 53:2: “… For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him…”
Not surprisingly (for He was a Palestinian Jew), we do know that the Lord had a beard. We read in an earlier chapter of Isaiah that “… I gave My back to those who strike Me, and My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting…”
Artists and other creative types, including a cult or two, have not been content with the Bible’s description.
The appearance of Jesus has always been a matter of speculation, and a long (but unreliable) tradition may be traced from the art of the catacombs to the bogus letter of Publius Lentulus. This document first appeared around the fourteenth century. It is asserted to be a report from a Roman officer in Judea at the time of Christ. It is without authority, and the picture it presents is derived from representations in later Roman-Christian art became widespread.
His countenance is severe and expressive, so as to inspire beholders at once with love and with fear … In reproving, he is awe-inspiring, in exhorting and teaching, his speech is gentle and caressing. His expression is of wonderful sweetness and gravity. No one ever saw him laugh, but he has often been seen to weep. His hair … falling in graceful curls to the shoulders … a forehead smooth and large, cheeks of lovely red, a nose and mouth of exquisite symmetry, a beard, thick and of a pale color . . . parted in the middle like a fork.
Observe the arrival of Aryan features.
In the art of the catacombs, Jesus is shown as the Good Shepherd, opening the eyes of the blind, healing the hemorrhaging woman, and blessing a child. He is habitually shown as youthful and beardless – like any good Roman would appear. His expression is always gentle and thoughtful – like the Emperor Claudius.
Some of the Church Fathers created a tradition of dishonorable appearance, unsightliness, and ugliness. Unfortunately, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement, Origen and Basil supported this tradition with no trace of authority except the vague portrait given in Isaiah 53. Jerome, on the other hand, with another patristic group following rather the Song of Songs and some prophetic Psalms, argued for a quite contrary tradition of good looks. Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine tracked this belief.
No authentic portrait of Christ was recognized by the early church, though Eusebius claimed that he had seen pictures of Jesus, Peter and Paul. He accepts a tradition about a statue at Caesarea Philippi that supposedly bore the likeness of Jesus. If the statue existed, what is more likely is that it was instead Vespasian or Hadrian with the suppliant province in the form of a woman bowed before him.
The oldest surviving likeness is one in imitation mosaic removed to the Vatican museum from the catacomb of Saint Callixtus. It probably dates from the fourth century. The mosaic portrays a smooth-browed adult with long brown hair, large thoughtful eyes, a long narrow nose, and peaceful expression. The phony Lentulus epistle may have derived elements from it.
Not wanting to break the Second Commandment, the early Christians had a deep inhibition against all such portraiture. The fact that the emperor Alexander Severus had images of Christ along with those of Abraham and Orpheus on his household altar is indication enough that their fear of idolatry was justified.
Representation of Christ in portrait and mosaic became commonplace with the coming of the church buildings and basilicas, but the likenesses have no historical value. There is even a mosaic picture of Christ dating back to the fourth or fifth century that was excavated on a villa site at Hinton Saint Mary in Dorset. At least, it shows a male portrait associated in the design with the chi-rho sign.
We must conclude that we know nothing from art, archaeology or description of the appearance of Christ. Ancient historians did not offer detailed physical descriptions. The evangelists saw no need to describe the Lord.
It is unwise to speculate beyond what we are told in Scripture.