What did Jesus really look like? For many people, that question is extremely controversial. Since Jesus is important to billions of people around the world, it makes sense that many people have a tendency to imagine he looked like them. Other people simply want to know so that they can create historically accurate depictions of Jesus. Based on the historical evidence, what do we really know about what Jesus looked like?
What ethnicity was Jesus?
The most obvious solution to this problem is to simply consider what ethnicity Jesus was. We know that he was a Jew who lived in the Roman provinces of Galilee and Judea in the first century CE. Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus probably looked similar to modern Jews, or Israelis.
Modern Jews generally have a similar skin tone to many other Mediterranean peoples, such as the Turks, Greeks, and Spanish. They usually have what is called olive skin.
However, some might argue that modern Jews are much lighter than they were in ancient times. For example, some people argue that the Jews intermixed considerably with the Arabs from the time of the Arab invasion onwards, resulting in Jews becoming lighter.
In reality, this is impossible since Arabs generally have somewhat darker skin than modern Jews do. The fact that Israelis are generally pretty light-colored and the Arabs obviously did intermix considerably with the Jews suggests that perhaps the Jews originally had even lighter skin. This is up for debate, however.
The Bible does not contain a description of what Jesus looked like. Yet, it does give some indications regarding the appearance of his people, the Jews. In Jeremiah 13:23, we find the following interesting passage in a judgement message against the wicked:
“Can a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard its spots? If so, then you can do good, you who are trained to do bad.”
The point of this passage is to say that the wicked to whom God was addressing this message would never change. To make this point, God compares them to a leopard being unable to change its spots or a Cushite being unable to change their skin. Evidently, these were notable characteristics to the readers of this message, the ancient Jews.
A Cushite was the ancient term for an Ethiopian. Therefore, this shows that to the ancient Jews, the skin of an Ethiopian was as notable as the spots on a leopard. If the Jews themselves were black, this comparison would not make any sense. Black skin would have been normal, not distinctive like the spots of a leopard. Therefore, the Jews evidently were not black.
Does the Bible actually describe what Jesus looked like?
One claim that is often seen circulating the internet is that the Bible describes Jesus as having bronze skin and wooly hair. This is often used to argue that he was black. In reality, this claim is incorrect.
The description in question comes from Revelation, the last book of the Bible. There, Jesus appears in a vision. Simply reading the description itself clears up the confusion:
“His head and his hair were white as white wool, as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame, and his feet were like fine copper when glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters.” – Revelation 1:14, 15
Rather than saying that his hair was the texture of wool, this is saying that his hair was the color of wool. This is not ambiguous. The text specifically refers to the whiteness of it, not the texture. It then immediately follows this by comparing it to snow, again obviously referring to the color. And it is not just his hair that is white like wool but his whole head.
The issue with the skin color is equally obvious. Rather than saying that his skin was the color of bronze, it says that his feet (and just his feet) were ‘like fine copper when glowing in a furnace.’ In other words, his feet were glowing. This has nothing to do with his actual skin color as a human.
How Roman evidence shows what Jesus looked like
The Romans produced plenty of realistic artwork around their empire. Some of this comes from the region in which Jesus lived. Archaeologists have discovered a synagogue in Syria called the Dura-Europos synagogue.
On the walls of this ancient building, dating from not too long after Jesus’ time, there are many impressive paintings. They depict several Biblical scenes, showing the ancient Israelites as the people of that time understood them. Fascinatingly, the ancient Israelites in those paintings look essentially identical to modern-day Israelis.
Therefore, the evidence we have definitely supports the idea that Jesus simply looked like a modern Jew, or Israeli. He evidently had olive skin, with dark hair (which would not have been long) and a beard.