There has always been research, commentary, etc. on what Jesus looked like. From the inheritance of Christian art in the West, we often see/imagine a man with long hair parted in the middle and a long beard – often with fair skin, light brown hair and blue eyes. It is historically far more likely that he looked like a typical Galilean of his time. But that is another topic. How about what did Jesus wear? Were we subject to the same “branding and imagery” on long robes and the like? One link to another which led me to a website with which I was not familiar: The Conversation. It is described as a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories on the Internet that are written by academics and researchers. Its funded comes from its university members, government and other grant awarding bodies, corporate partners, and reader donations. I can’t tell you a lot more than that, but I did run across and interesting article: What Did Jesus Wear? I found it interesting, so enjoy.
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, coloured 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. 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.
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 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, “What did Jesus Wear?”, The Conversation, online Feb 8, 2018
Joan Taylor is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London. Article appears in this blog under a Creative Commons license.