Opinion

What did Jesus wear?

(The Conversation) — Over the past few decades, the question of what Jesus looked like has cropped up again and again. Much has been made of a digital reconstruction of a Judaean man created for a BBC documentary, “Son of God,” in 2001. This was based on an ancient skull and, using the latest technology (as it was), shows the head of a stocky fellow with a somewhat worried expression.

Rightly, the skin tone is olive, and the hair and beard black and shortish, but the nose, lips, neck, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, fat cover and expression are all totally conjectural. Putting flesh on ancient skulls is not an exact science, because the soft tissue and cartilage are unknown.

Nevertheless, for me as a historian, trying to visualize Jesus accurately is a way to understand Jesus more accurately, too.

The Jesus we’ve inherited from centuries of Christian art is not accurate, but it is a powerful brand. A man with long hair parted in the middle and a long beard – often with fair skin, light brown hair and blue eyes – has become the widely accepted likeness. We imagine Jesus in long robes with baggy sleeves, as he is most often depicted in artworks over the centuries. In contemporary films, from Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977) onwards, this styling prevails, even when Jesus’ clothing is considered poorly made.

There were many reasons why Jesus was portrayed in what has become the worldwide standard, and none of them were to do with preserving historical accuracy. I explore these in my new book “What did Jesus look like?,” but ultimately I look to clues in early texts and archaeology for the real Jesus.

Some depictions of Jesus over the ages.
Wikimedia Commons

For me, Jesus’ appearance is not all about flesh and bones. After all, our bodies are not just bodies. As the sociologist Chris Shilling argues, they are “both personal resources and social symbols that ‘give off’ messages about identity”. We can be old, young, tall, short, weighty, thin, dark-skinned, light-skinned, frizzy-haired, straight-haired and so on, but our appearance does not begin and end with our physical bodies. In a crowd, we may look for a friend’s scarf rather than their hair or nose. What we do with our bodies creates an appearance.

And so Jesus’ appearance would have had much to do with what he was wearing. Once we’ve got the palette for his coloring right, given he was a Jewish man of the Middle East, how do we dress him? How did he seem to people of the time?

Dressed in basics

There is no neat physical description of Jesus in the Gospels or in ancient Christian literature. But there are incidental details. From the Bible (for example, Mark 6:56) you can discover that he wore a mantle – a large shawl (“himation” in Greek) – which had tassels, described as “edges”; a distinctively Jewish tallith in a form it was in antiquity. Usually made of wool, a mantle could be large or small, thick or fine, colored or natural, but for men there was a preference for undyed types.

He walked in sandals, as implied in multiple Biblical passages (see Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7, 6:9; John 1:27), and we now know what ancient Judaean sandals were like as they have been preserved in dry caves by the Dead Sea.

Jesus’ garb would have been a far cry from the depiction in da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Wikimedia Commons

He wore a tunic (chitōn), which for men normally finished slightly below the knees, not at the ankles. Among men, only the very rich wore long tunics. Indeed, Jesus specifically identifies men who dress in long tunics (“stolai”, Mark 12:38) as wrongly receiving honor from people who are impressed by their fine attire, when in fact they unjustly devour widows’ houses.

Jesus’s tunic was also made of one piece of cloth only (John 19:23-24). That’s strange, because mostly tunics were made of two pieces sewn at the shoulders and sides. One-piece tunics in first-century Judaea were normally thin undergarments or children’s wear. We shouldn’t think of contemporary underwear, but wearing a one-piece on its own was probably not good form. It was extremely basic.

‘Shamefully’ shabby?

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Jesus was remembered as looking shabby by a scholar named Celsus, writing in the mid second century, in a treatise against the Christians. Celsus did his homework. He interviewed people, and he – like us – was quite interested in what Jesus looked like. From Jews and others he questioned, he heard that Jesus “wandered about most shamefully in the sight of all.” He “obtained his means of livelihood in a disgraceful and importunate way” – by begging or receiving donations.

How Jesus may have dressed.
© Joan Taylor, Author provided

From the perspective of respectable people, we can surmise then that Jesus looked relatively rough. When the Christian writer Origen argued against Celsus, he rejected many of his assertions, but he did not dispute this.

And so while Jesus wore similar clothes to other Jewish men in many respects, his “look” was scruffy. I doubt his hair was particularly long as depicted in most artwork, given male norms of the time, but it was surely not well-tended. Wearing a basic tunic that other people wore as an undergarment would fit with Jesus’ detachment regarding material things (Matthew 6:19-21, 28–29; Luke 6:34-35, 12:22-28) and concern for the poor (Luke 6:20-23).

This, to me, is the beginning of a different way of seeing Jesus, and one very relevant for our times of massive inequality between rich and poor, as in the Roman Empire. Jesus aligned himself with the poor and this would have been obvious from how he looked.

The ConversationThe appearance of Jesus matters because it cuts to the heart of his message. However he is depicted in film and art today, he needs to be shown as one of the have-nots; his teaching can only be truly understood from this perspective.

(Joan Taylor is professor of Christian origins and second temple Judaism at King’s College London. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

About the author

Joan Taylor

21 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • “Rightly, the skin tone is olive, and the hair and beard black and shortish, but the nose, lips, neck, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, fat cover and expression are all totally conjectural. Putting flesh on ancient skulls is not an exact science, because the soft tissue and cartilage are unknown.”

    Do you not see the contradiction here?

    Jesus may have had darker skin. In orthodox icons, he is often portrayed that way. But in fact, the area has been overrun s many, many times by so many different people that we cannot extrapolate back 2000 years from present day middle easterners Jesus.

  • Wanna know what Jesus really looked like?

    Like His Dad, of course; you know, God. Jesus said so Himself:

    “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. … He who has seen Me has seen the Father … [But he has] both seen and hated Me and My Father as well” (John 14:7, 9 and 15:24).

  • Not me.

    Nor all those who remain the fired-up & die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles & revelation.

    “We got His message [crystal clear]”!

  • from Professor Gerd Ludemann, in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 416,

    “Anyone looking for the historical Jesus will not find him in the Gospel of John. ”

    Ditto from many other contemporary NT exegetes.

  • John, the gospel writer did not know Jesus.

    Your brainwashing in
    orthodox, “Bible only” Christianity continues to exude from your
    bible thumping neurons.

    With respect to John’s Gospel and John’ epistles, from Professor/Father Raymond Brown in his book, An Introduction to the New Testament, (The book has both a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur from the
    Catholic Church),

    John’s Gospel, Date- 80-110 CE,
    Traditional Attribution, (2nd Century), St. John, one of the Twelve,

    Author Detectable from the Contents, One who regards himself in the tradition of the disciple.

    First Epistle of John, Authenticity-
    Certainly by a writer in the Johannine tradition, probably NOT by the one
    responsible for most of the Gospel.

    From Professor Bruce Chilton in his book, Rabbi Jesus,

    “Conventionally, scholarship has accorded priority to the first three
    gospels in historical work on Jesus, putting progressively less credence in works of late date. John’s Gospel for example is routinely dismissed as a source……

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John#Authorship

    “Since “the higher criticism” of the 19th century, some historians have largely rejected the gospel of John as a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.[3][4]
    “[M]ost commentators regard the work as anonymous,”[5] and date it to 90-100.”

    “The authorship has been disputed
    since at least the second century, with mainstream Christianity believing that the author is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. Modern experts usually consider
    the author to be an unknown non-eyewitness, though many apologetic Christian scholars still hold to the conservative Johannine view that ascribes authorship
    to John the Apostle.”

  • Given we know so little about whomever the gospels were based on…it’s not even a real question. Assuming he was a wandering Jewish sage..probably something simple but rugged.

  • Yawn. Erroneous presuppositions inevitably lead to erroneous conclusions.

    But it is rather touching how you cling to the authority of your “modern experts” and “some historians”, just as dogmatically as “KJV ONLY” Bible thumpers cling to their KJVs, even though it’s full of errors.

    P.S., Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur mean nothing to folks who are not Catholic. Do you believe they make a book more authoritative?

  • “… if you would like to critique”.

    I pointed out to you one example of the flimsiness of the conclusions on the post-70 dating of Mark quite a while ago. Many of the other conclusions of the liberal modernist school rest on equally tenuous assumptions which do not bear the weight put upon them.

  • “Historical Jesus” and THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles & revelation aren’t one & the same, don’t kid yourself.

    Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul & the Hebrews mystery writer weren’t “looking for THE … Jesus”; God & Jesus found them.

    God & Jesus have given up on you, though. They’re not looking for you any more.

  • “God & Jesus have given up on you, though. They’re not looking for you any more.”– Well that is great news since this is what I have found:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an
    unproven, human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st
    century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by many semi-fiction writers. A descent
    into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references
    used are available upon request)

  • you know what they say about deathbed conversion?

    all not true

    recently though breakpoint-dot-org mentioned the famous new atheism guy who died few years back

    that he asked the writer to pray for him

    also all not true

    oh interesting to pass on: heard that charles darwin didn’t become atheist on account of the scientific evidences he had gathered

    no what turned him nonchristian & atheist was the sincerity of every religionist on earth

    that plus philosophies of the skeptics

    but not science

    dwell on that my son

ADVERTISEMENTs