A great discussion of how Jesus may have looked according to images and evidence from the First Century

Header Image: Jesus and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

Joan E. Taylor has written a neat little article on how Jesus may actually have looked, just in time for the Easter season, in the Friends of ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) March 2018 newsletter.  Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole essay in order to get a good idea of how First Century Jews dressed and adorned themselves and how images of Jesus changed from earliest Antiquity to the Byzantine and later periods:

The earliest extant images of Jesus in Roman catacomb paintings show him as a teacher/philosopher or magus (wonder-worker, with a wand), dressed in the common clothing of the time for a man: a knee length (essentially sleeveless) tunic (chitōn) and a long mantle (himation). He is also beardless and short-haired. We see this in the depiction of Jesus healing a woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34) in the late 3rd century Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus.

Jesus was recognizable in these portrayals not because of how he looked but by what he did. The Gospel stories were so familiar to the viewers that they recognized Jesus from what was being shown. Still, for people today, this image of Jesus seems strange. When a picture of Jesus was discovered last year on a 4th/5th century glass paten (Eucharist plate) found in southern Spain, one of the things the media was most interested in was that Jesus was beardless.

Did Jesus actually have a beard? As a kind of wandering sage, I think he would have had one, simply because he did not go to barbers. This was also the common appearance of a philosopher; the Stoic philosopher Epictetus considered it appropriately natural. He did not have a beard just because he was a Jew. A beard was not distinctive of Jews in antiquity. While by the time the Babylonian Talmud was written in the 5th-6th centuries beardedness might have been common for Jewish men (b.Shabbat 152a, ‘The glory of a face is its beard’), it was never identified as an indicator of Jews in the 1st century. In fact, one of the problems for oppressors of Jews in the Diaspora was identifying them when they looked like everyone else. However, the Jewish men on Judaea Capta coins (issued by Rome after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE) are bearded but with short hair; this is probably how Romans imagined Jewish men in Judaea, even if in the Diaspora a Jewish man may have looked like every other guy.

So what did Jesus really look like? Jesus wore normal clothing, unlike John the Baptist;  John’s clothing was sufficiently unusual and Elijah-like to be mentioned (Mark 1:6: “And John was wearing camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist.”)  So what was normal for men of 1st-century Judaea?

Important insights into dress and appearance are gained by studies of the Egyptian mummy portraits from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. These portraits depict a style of clothing and hair that was probably universal in the eastern Mediterranean, including in the region of Judaea. This is also clear from the archaeological discoveries of Masada and the Judaean Desert Caves. The clothing of rich people was mainly distinguished by expensive dyes and fineness of the cloth, but the actual styles were quite similar.

Most men wore a simple short tunic (chitōn), finishing around the knees, as Jesus is depicted wearing in catacomb art. Men were supposed to be ready for action – movement – so they did not usually have long robes; the high status longer garment sometimes worn by the elite advertized leisure. To be really active you would ‘gird your loins’ by tucking your chitōn up by pulling it through your legs and tying it.

chitōn invariably had two bands of color that ran from the shoulder to the hem, front and back. These are seen in many examples from excavations in sites close to the Dead Sea, where textiles have been well preserved, especially from Nahal Hever and Masada.

On top of the tunic a man would wear a himation or mantle, a large piece of woolen material color. A woman who wanted to be healed touched Jesus’s himation (Mark 5:27). There was also a type of fine linen mantle/wrap called a sindōn, but Jesus only wore one of these in death (Mark 15:46).


HT: http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2018/03/Jesus-Look-Like

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