What do Jim Caviezel, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Diogo Morgado, and Henry Ian Cusick all have in common? If you said, “they are all handsome, you’d be right, but that’s not the only aspect of commonality that they share. Maybe this will give you a clue. Read these verses from Isaiah 53, written about the Jewish Messiah.
“He has no beautiful body and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He was hated and men would have nothing to do with Him, a man of sorrows and suffering, knowing sadness well. We hid, as it were, our faces from Him. He was hated, and we did not think well of Him.” (Isaiah 53:2-3 NLV)
Does this sound like a description of Jim Caviezel, Diogo Morgado, Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, or Henry Ian Cusick? I wouldn’t say so. Why did I list those actors? Because they have all played Jesus in recent films. I got that list of Jesus-casted actors from an article entitled, “15 fine actors who played Jesus.” Almost every actor that has played Jesus on film is really handsome; like top 1% handsome.
As Derrick Zoolander once said, “It’s not your fault that you are really really ridiculously good looking.” This is true of these actors. I’m not bashing them for being smoking hot. It’s not their fault. It’s the casting director’s fault, or possibly the director’s, or maybe even the viewing audience’s fault. The problem is that these good looking actors defy what Isaiah says. In fact, the prophet explains that Jesus was anything but good looking.
Imagine that the next Jesus film that comes out casts a dark leathery skinned, mostly bald, ugly faced, 4 foot 9-inch actor from Egypt. That would be much more true to Isaiah 53’s description of the Messiah than the casting choices of the last 25 Jesus films. However, you probably wouldn’t see that film.
We have a pretty good idea about some average traits of those who lived in Roman Era Palestine. If you find the following description offensive, then good. I’ll leave it up to you to wrestle with the implications. Let’s take a look at what Jesus might have looked like.
Jesus was probably about 4’ 11” tall, that’s a little under one and a half meters. If you are an average modern man, Jesus would have probably been a head shorter than you and half a head shorter if you’re a woman. His frame would not be the well fed, broad shouldered athletic type that we’ve seen in the Jesus films, but more likely the compact body of those in poor and developing countries.
He most likely had fleas. You could probably catch sight of Jesus scratching at his skin, and especially scalp occasionally. He drank water that was dirty and, no doubt, had intestinal parasites that made him feel ill. Occasional diarrhea and vomiting would have been a natural outcome of these stomach worms. If you could take a look into his intestines, you’d find roundworms, tapeworms, flatworms, and many others.
His smell would be odious to us today. Even the Pharisees griped at him and his disciples for not washing. Most of the places that he stayed had packed dirt floors, and he traveled by foot on dusty roads. His feet were usually caked with mud, and his clothes filthy from travel. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, work hard, and not bathe at the end of a day.
His lungs were likely blackened from the smoke of open fires that burned constantly. The daily inhalation of smoke meant that he could have had heart disease, COPD, emphysema, or lung cancer. This put him at a high chance of stroke and pneumonia, and a host of other respiratory disorders.
His skin was dark. Probably darker than you are thinking. Even now, think a few shades darker. He was in the sun most of the day. Even by thirty years old, his skin probably would make him look older than he was to our eyes. 20 would have been considered ‘middle-age’ since the Roman era life expectancy was much lower. So Jesus was certainly ‘over the hill’ even at 30, and he probably looked it.
His teeth. This one hits close to home for me. It’s hard to think of someone as intelligent if they are missing a bicuspid or two. Jesus almost certainly was missing a few and the ones he had probably didn’t look so good. The reason that molars grow in so late is because, for most of history, by the time someone was twenty, they needed another set of choppers. Modern dental hygiene is unprecedented in the ancient world. So there were at least a few gaps in his mouth.
Jews were not immune to male pattern baldness. On the contrary, even modern internet discussion about the pervasiveness of baldness among Jewish men is a lively topic. It’s unclear whether this is only a modern problem or an ancient one. However, some have said that 60% of Jewish men show signs of balding by the time they are in their early 20s. What hair Jesus did have would have been black and possibly curly. By his age, if baldness was going to set in, it would have already happened. His eyes would have matched his hair color with a dark shade of brown, not blue as most of the films have lead us to believe.
Most could read at least a little in Jesus’ day. We know that Jesus was literate because we have a story of him reading in a synagogue. We also see him discussing scripture at the temple when he was 12. Although literate, reading material was much less available in the first century. He would probably have a wax tablet that he could take notes on for his carpentry work. However, longer pieces of literature were expensive. He probably had access to the local Torah with permission of the Rabbi. In small towns, a synagogue would pool the collected resources of the attendees to purchase a Torah. For an individual to own one would be very rare.
For this reason, it was much more common to memorize large portions of scripture. Jesus, like many of his contemporaries, probably had big chunks of the Hebrew bible in his head. The religious leadership would usually have a majority if not all of the Torah memorized. It’s possible that Jesus did as well. He was certainly disciplined enough to, and when the Jewish debaters would try to corner him, he seemed to have immediate access to the scripture. There was nothing really supernatural about this, it was a way of life. It’s historically reasonable to think that Jesus knew every verse in the Torah by heart.There is also evidence that he was familiar with Jewish Midrash, and rabbinical traditional teachings.
Although we usually call Jesus a carpenter, the word could also mean a stone mason. We are not actually sure which it is, possibly both. It may be more accurate to say that Jesus was a construction worker. In fact, the buildings of the first century would be built based on the materials that were closely available. It was expensive to move building materials very far. So one location may require woodworking, while another may require stones and mud. I suspect that a construction worker of the first century was employed on a range of projects with different requirements. Maybe we should just say, he was a blue collar worker who was good with his hands.
Speaking of his hands, they would have been rough and calloused. He touched people a lot, and his leathery fingertips and palms would have been expected from the working class. The religious elite, on the other hand, rarely touched anyone but if they did their hands were probably about like mine. That is to say, soft as a pillow.
Many of the times that Jesus touched people he was breaking the law. Notice here, he wasn’t breaking God’s law from the Torah he had memorized, but instead, he was breaking the man-made add-on laws of the religious elite. Jewish men were expected to never touch a woman other than wife or daughter. He wasn’t really even supposed to greet a woman in public. Beyond this, they were not supposed to touch people from the ‘sinner’ class. The sick and diseased were supposed to be untouchable as well. That apparently didn’t matter to Jesus. He touched people constantly despite the fact that it was against the rules.
Jesus was really poor. For most of his ministry, he was homeless. We know this because the New Testament says so. At one point in the gospel of John, it tells us, “everyone went to his own house, but Jesus went to the mount of olives.” He spent the night on the mountain. Another place Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” In another place, it tells us that Jesus’ ministry was actually supported by a group of women. In the first century, being supported by a woman would make a man the lowest of low. Apparently, Jesus didn’t mind.
Jesus was prone to go into public displays of defiance. These sometimes violent protests were fairly rare but frightening. There were a few things that really got under his skin, and he’d let you know about it. More than once he violently cleared the temple courts because people were selling things. He would pick verbal fights with the judges, lawyers, and cops. The crazy thing is that he could make the authorities back off with his words. The establishment was afraid of him. With incredible audacity, he would break the law right under the nose of the judges. He was such a counter-establishment character that it eventually got him killed. At first, his defiance just looked random, but after a while a pattern emerged.
He was always fighting for the little guy. It could seem like he was just losing it, but when he explained why he flipped the tables or picked those fights, it was clear that he was not out of control, but instead calculating and strategic. It would have been captivating to watch. His anger always seemed to stem from someone getting taken advantage of by those with power. Bullying really made him mad, and he wouldn’t stand by for it. He was stubborn as steel and willing to take a punch for the underdog. He was systematically chipping away at the foundation upon which the authorities had built their regime of religious tyranny.
I forgot to mention that he went to parties where there were booze and whores. He drank alcohol enough that his opponents called him a ‘drunkard.’ He was accused of being a glutton and demon possessed, by the most qualified judges of his day. His own family members thought he had lost his mind. He had, not only friends but disciples who were terrorists, whose goal was to assassinate government officials. He went to parties with very crooked businessmen, mobsters who would be tried for embezzlement, organized crime, and money laundering in today’s society. He regularly got into arguments with the authorities, when they claimed his guilt by association.
Jesus looked more like the cantankerous homeless guy on the corner than he did the A-list actors who have been hired to play him. The actors who have played Jesus likely were paid more money for that one movie than Jesus made as a carpenter in his entire life. I don’t mean to say that he acted like any homeless guy I’ve ever met, but by appearance, he might not seem all that different. Jesus probably looked pretty rough. He was, at most, a fringe candidate. You wouldn’t let your daughter date someone that fit this description, much less follow him to your death.
If this is a Jesus you wouldn’t follow then you’re following Jesus for the wrong reasons. Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus promised you everlasting life. You receive that eternal life the moment you believe in him. You don’t have to have a perfect picture of what he looks like in mind when you believe. However, as you begin to grow as a disciple, it’s important to challenge that old picture, of perfect hair, blue eyes, clean robes, and sterilized behavior. Jesus was wild and dirty, and even scary. He befuddled those who were convinced he was the messiah, by not being messiah-like. He frustrated those who refused to believe he was the messiah even more.
Despite all of this, the people that saw Jesus for what he was were overwhelmed by his presence, his power of speech, and his incredible authority. Despite what he looked like, he won the people over who spent time with him. His appearance was not so great, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, but he had a winning personality. His actions would be considered too brash, too maniac, too dangerous, for most of us. Just about anybody would, at some points, be pretty uncomfortable with something Jesus did. If we were following him around, there would certainly be times when we would have to wonder, ‘are you sure about this, Jesus?’
That’s what was so amazing about Jesus, though. Yes, he was sure about it. He was so incredibly confident about all of it. The whore party attendance, the drinking, the touching women, the table turning, and the whip-wielding. He was so utterly convinced that what he was doing was right. People were drawn to his ‘authority’ as they called it in his time. They wanted what Jesus had. What Jesus had was righteousness, and as it turns out, righteousness didn’t look much like what they, or we would expect.