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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey



No One Knows What Jesus Looked Like

John’s gospel records this hyperbolic comment: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” After spending time in seminary libraries browsing through the thousands of books on Jesus, I had the eerie sense that John’s prophecy was coming true.

And yet, here is a strange thing: with this preponderance of scholarship, we still lack certain basic information about Jesus. The four Gospels skip over nine-tenths of his life, omitting much that would interest  modern readers. We have only one scene from his adolescence and know nothing about his schooling. Details of his family life are so scant that scholars still debate how many brothers and sisters he had. The facts of biography considered essential to modern readers simply did not concern the gospel writers.

We also know nothing about Jesus’ shape or stature or eye color, and thus, as a writer, I could not begin where I normally begin in reporting on a person—by describing what he looked like. The first semirealistic portraits of Jesus did not appear until the fifth century, and these were pure speculation; until then, the Greeks had portrayed him as a young, beardless figure resembling the god Apollo.

I once showed to a class several dozen art slides portraying Jesus in a variety of forms—African, Korean, Chinese—and then asked the class to describe that they thought Jesus looked like. Virtually everyone suggested he was tall (unlikely for a first century Jew), most said handsome, and no one said overweight. I showed a BBC film on the life of Christ that featured a fat actor in the title role, and some in the class found it offensive. We prefer a tall, handsome, and above all, slender Jesus.

One tradition dating back to the second century suggested Jesus was a hunchback, and in the Middle Ages, Christians widely believed that Jesus had suffered from leprosy. Most Christians today would find such notions repulsive and perhaps heretical. Was he not the perfect specimen of humanity? Yet in all the Bible I can find only one physical description of sorts, a prophecy written hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. Here is Isaiah’s portrayal, in the midst of a passage that the New Testament applies to the life of Jesus:

Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness. … He had no beauty or majesty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Evidently our glamorized representations of Jesus say more about us than about him.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website,

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