Answer by Peter Geyer and Diane Eager.
Many people assume that Jesus had long hair. He’s the most painted person in Western art, and all the paintings depict Jesus with long hair. Hollywood has done the same. Often he’s portrayed as blonde with piercing blue eyes. But is that accurate?
Unknown to most people is the fact that there are no such paintings of Christ from the early Church and the reason is fascinating. The early church banned images in churches in case anyone was tempted to worship them. Remember that the church age began in the pagan Roman Empire, which was awash with images of pagan gods, so both Jews and early Christians took seriously the commandment to not make graven images.
It wasn’t until around the 5th century that images of Jesus began to appear and soon took the now familiar long haired romantic iconic form. But these were based solely on artists’ imaginations of him, not historic data, so the fact is that no one knows from art records what Jesus really looked like!
But there is another way to tackle this question since we know that Jesus was not a western European white man, but he was a Jew, and we do know what a typical Jewish man of that time might have looked like from two sources. There are plenty of Jews represented in Egyptian or Roman archaeological finds such as the frieze on Rome’s Arch of Titus depicting Jewish captives being led away from a defeated Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jewish men it seemed all had short hair. Such images are very consistent with the second source of information about Jewish clothing and fashion from the Old Testament Scriptures. Regarding length of hair, we know that Jewish males did not have long hair, unless like the Nazarite Samson, they had taken a religious vow (see Judges 13:5, 16:17). Such uncut hair was to show their vow had separated that person from normal practice, which also therefore indicates that Jewish men normally did cut their hair. Since Jesus took no such ‘Nazarite’ vow, he would have looked like any normal male of his day, with both short-cropped hair and a beard. Maybe not the very “short back and sides” of the 20th century, but cut to a length above the shoulders.
There is a New Testament description that is relevant as well. At the start of the Christian era, the converted Jewish Rabbi Paul, wrote that men and women should dress and look like men and women when he penned, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is to his shame?” (1 Corinthians 11:14) Paul is not just making up some arbitrary rule. In the Law of Moses God had instructed the people of Israel to not dress like the opposite sex, (Deuteronomy 22:5) and the way you wear your hair is part of your dress. Neither is Paul inappropriately imposing Jewish laws on Gentiles. The distinctiveness of men and women goes back to beginning, when God created human beings male and female, and declared that (and the rest of creation) to be very good. (Genesis 1:26-31)
Likewise, the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah also indicated he would be a normal looking man. Isaiah gave us a description of Jesus some 800 years before he was born. The prophet wrote, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
Jesus’ ordinary appearance is indirectly affirmed in the gospels, when you ask why Judas needed to kiss Jesus to let the soldiers know he was the man they were after. The simplest reason is because Jesus looked just like any other Jewish man, including the eleven disciples with him. Having such an ordinary appearance was also one reason as to why he could so easily slip away into the crowd when people were trying to kill him. (Luke 4:30, John 8:59)
So then, what do we make of the Shroud of Turin, which is supposedly the burial cloth of Jesus? Clearly the image on the cloth is of a man with long hair. There’s been much debate over the authenticity of cloth, so perhaps the fact that Jesus had short hair, and the image on the man on the Shroud clearly had long hair, is one more nail in the coffin of the cloth!
What does all this mean? Does it mean condemnation of all of those lovely paintings of Jesus that some people have hanging on the walls of their homes? Maybe, but it reminds us that Jesus wasn’t some tender, effeminate man of angelic appearance as depicted in many paintings.
Jesus was a skilled tradesman who worked with his hands. The people of Nazareth, who lived with him and his earthly family, thought of him as just the local carpenter. When he taught with special wisdom and authority in their synagogue, they said: “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3)
As a manual worker capable of a day’s hard work he was probably a hefty bloke. He spent a lot of time outdoors. He hung out with fishermen and common labourers. He was no weakling. He was an ordinary person like you and me, except that he was also God, and therefore without sin. As the writer to the Hebrews states “He had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” (Hebrews 2:17) He had to be just like us in every way to identify with our sin in order to provide atonement for our sin.
His disciples had their doubts at times, but in the end they followed him and were faithful to death to promote the message that, “…there is salvation in no one else.” (Acts 4:12) He is no artistic fabrication of man’s imagination. He was and is real, and he still is the only name by which we must be saved.
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