Jesus, Physiognomy, and First-Century Rome (Series Part 1)

Background

Thanks to European imperialism manifested through colonization and slavery, one of these images is unmistakable. Indeed, the European Jesus is such a well-developed form that one could endlessly change the face of the image without affecting its recognizability. The White Jesus typically has long, straight hair with a long face as opposed to a rounded one. He is, of course, always white and often has blue eyes. The White Jesus never wears shorts or anything but a robe and a mantle. As Joan Taylor observes, the image or form of the White Jesus is so distinct that “he can be recognized as miraculously appearing in clouds, on pancakes, or pieces of toast” (1). The rather interesting irony is that the juxtaposed, brown-skinned image above is closer to what the historical Jesus looked like than the universally marketed White Jesus. In first-century Palestine, Jesus would have most likely kept shorter hair as it was customary. If he had long hair, it would be due to neglect and would look nothing like White Jesus’ coiffure. 

A deliberate omission?

Scholars have noticed a peculiar thing about the New Testament and other early non-canonical Christian writings which bear on our subject. These documents are conspicuously and shockingly lacking in any personal detail that an artist may use to depict the historical Jesus. This is a very shocking and probably deliberate omission. Jesus lived in a corner of the world where people paid great attention to the personal and anatomical attributes of influential leaders and gods. Considering that the New Testament portrays Jesus as an influential leader and God, it is quite alarming that we have nothing said about what he looked like.    

Physiognomy was a pervading science that sought to correlate people’s external attributes with personalities. To use a common modern phrase, physiognomy was a science that posited that one could judge a book by its covers. Though it predates the Greco-Roman world, Roman philosophers accepted physiognomy as legitimate science and defended it. Here is an often-quoted comment by the Roman statesman and scholar, Cicero:   

Surely Fannius’ very head and eyebrows, so closely shaven, seem to stink of evil and proclaim his shrewd nature. Surely this man (if physical appearance does in fact allow one to make inferences even though it cannot speak), from the tips of his toenails to the very top of his head, is entirely made up of fraud, deceit, and lies.—Cicero, Pro Quinto Roscio comoedo 20   

What this quote exemplifies is the widely accepted assumption in that world that a person’s physical features correlate with his moral attributes or personalities.    

In a famous treatise on physiognomy which was falsely attributed to Aristotle, we have the following quote (cited by Parsons, 302):   

Those who have strong and well-jointed ankles are brave in character; witness the male sex. Those that have fleshy and ill-jointed ankles are weak in character; witness the female sex. (Physiogn. 810a.25-29)  

So, physiognomy also provided a basis for discrimination against women in that ancient society.   

Physiognomy in the Hebrew Bible

The Greco-Roman world may have particularly elevated physiognomy, but the idea did not start in Greece nor was it unique to Rome. The Old Testament often portrays the physiognomic awareness of Israelites and their neighbors. Consider an account in 1 Samuel 16, for example. Yahweh instructed Samuel to go anoint a new king from Jesse’s house. When the sons of Jesse appeared, Samuel noticed Eliab’s physical features and concluded, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” The text does not explicitly say what Samuel saw, but it quickly adds this famous verse, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:6-7.)   

We can reasonably assume then that Samuel considered Eliab’s height and other physical features as befitting of a king. Also, notice how the divine commentary says that “people look at the outward appearance.” 1 Samuel 9 also displays a physiognomic awareness in a passage describing Saul before he became king:  

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. (1 Samuel 9:1-2.)   

Hence, we see that in that society, being tall and handsome were kingly attributes. This idea is further supported by the textual witness regarding David when he appeared before Samuel: “And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” (1 Samuel 16:12, ESV)   

Apparently, being ruddy was a standard of beauty. It is worth noting that though Samuel was chastised for hurriedly concluding based on physical features alone that Eliab was a kingly material, God’s eventual choice was still “ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” Certain anatomical features were considered necessary for certain roles in those societies. A leader was to be handsome.    

The Old Testament is full of several other textual witnesses to the existence of a physiognomic consciousness among the descendants of Jacob. The author of Exodus claims that Moses’ mother saved him, in direct disobedience to a royal edict, because he was a fine baby (Exodus 2:2). Joseph was “well-built and handsome.” (Genesis 39:6). And Absalom? The dude was so attractive that the author of 2 Samuel recorded how much his hair weighs whenever he made his yearly trip to the salon (2 Samuel 25-26):   

In all Israel, there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot, there was no blemish in him. Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard.   

So, Absalom was not only handsome, but his hair was also so lush that he could shed off about 2.3 kilograms yearly. He would be a beloved in the wig industry today. With these examples and some other ones, we can gain a rough idea of what the ancient Israelites and their neighbors thought about physical attributes. They thought leaders ought to be good-looking.    

I think it is instructive to mention at this point that I am not saying that the Bible teaches that handsomeness is a reliable attribute of a leader or that even an otherwise ugly individual cannot make an outstanding leader. I am simply pointing out a pervading assumption in these ancient cultures that the writers of the bible also took for granted. However, I am convinced that being armed with this knowledge will enrich one’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry. Mikeal Parsons, for instance, writes about Luke’s deliberate undermining of physiognomy as it pertains to membership in the community of Christ:   

While there are aspects of physiognomy that Luke finds useful, he has grave reservations about using physiognomic methods as an entrance requirement into the community . . . . Not only does Luke show reluctance to use physiognomy as a community “entrance test,” he subtly but forcefully opposes the conventions of physiognomy being applied in this way. (298) 

Besides, even modern humans are not as immune to this physiognomic consciousness as we might think. Americans, for instance, still consider—though largely subtly—the physical attributes of their presidential candidates. Indeed, I think it is safe to say every culture today yet harbors its own physiognomic biases.   

By Jesus’s time in Rome-occupied Palestine, people paid great attention to the physical attributes of major influencers and gods. In arts, there were sophisticated physiognomic techniques used to portray emperors, gods, or philosophers. Physical attributes that were appropriate for a king, for instance, were not appropriate for a philosopher. Indeed, the people believed that a genuine philosopher ought not to be handsome. Also, as Taylor points out, quoting R.R.R Smith, “a fine, handsome, well-proportioned body and features meant an honest, noble, brave character” (10). Taylor also observes that “being short was a sign of quickness” in the Greco-Roman world (11). Of course, gods and angels were always portrayed with stunning beauty (Taylor, 12). Even beard length was a key physiognomic indicator and was used to distinguish among ordinary men, kings, and philosophers. Once again, seeing that the authors of the New Testament portray Jesus as a philosopher, king, and God in the Gospels, it is a very remarkable thing that the entire New Testament canon is lacking in any useful detail pertaining to Jesus’ physical attributes (see Part 2).  So, where did Europeans get the traits ascribed to White Jesus?

Works Cited 

Parsons, Mikeal C. “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3-4.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 124, no. 2, 2005, pp. 295–312. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30041014. Accessed 2 June 2021. 

Taylor, Joan E. What Did Jesus Look Like? Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018.  

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5 Comments

  1. Hey, thanks for reading this piece. Please, consider leaving a comment – what you like, what you do not like, what you want clarification on or all the above. Look out for the next piece!

    Thank you.

  2. Very insightful piece. Also thought provoking.
    I have one or two pieces on this, however.

    While I agree on the fact that there is an European potrayal of an idealized Jesus. I am not very inclined to agree that it was ENTIRELY due imperialism. They may have just decided to potray Jesus with their own image because most people can not picture outside their imagination. It may have been difficult for an average caucasian a few hundred years ago to think about potraying a figure in the actual form that it was. We can study their arts to see how they pictured other prominent historical figures. If they potrayed them as retaining their supposed physiognomic features while robbing Jesus of his, we may be able to surmise that there is malice intended.

    1. You are on point, Doc. As I shall show in a later installment, the whole thing actually had a benign origin. Yes, Europeans, early on, simply appropriated Jesus in their own images. So, there was Italian, German, etc Jesuses. But over time, the idea of white Jesus became idealized and transcendental. By the time if European imperialism, that idealized white Jesus was weaponized as the religious side of that imperialist conquest.

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