Spanish archaeologists have found a depiction of Jesus dating to the fourth century, one of the earliest ever discovered. They unearthed a green glass paten, a plate used to hold bread for the Lord’s Supper. It is inscribed with an image of Jesus with two men, thought to be Peter and Paul. Surprisingly, none of the three are wearing beards.
When you think of Jesus, what image comes to mind? If you’re like me, you envision flowing brown hair and a full beard. Why?
The most popular image of Jesus in our time is Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ. Sallman had been commissioned to “make Him a real man. Make Him rugged, not effeminate. Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in His face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.”
At 2 A.M. on a January morning in 1924, Sallman was praying when he received what he called a miraculous vision of the face he should paint. His portrait has been reproduced over half a billion times worldwide. It shows a man with long brown hair and a full beard, depicting the face most of us still envision when we think of our Lord.
However, Sallman’s version is by no means consistent with historic portraits of Jesus. The oldest known portrait of Christ was found in Syria and dates to around A.D. 235. It shows him as a beardless young man, with short hair and wearing a tunic. A third-century depiction of Jesus in a Roman catacomb shows him as a clean-shaven shepherd. Fourth-century renderings usually show him as beardless.
Portraits of a bearded Christ began in the late third and early fourth centuries; interpreters suggest that Jesus was being compared to Zeus or classical philosophers. By the sixth century, a bearded, long-haired figure became the standard representation of Jesus, though clean-shaven images were common until the twelfth century. By the late Middle Ages, a bearded Christ was nearly universal. When Michelangelo depicted Jesus without a beard in his Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel, he was severely criticized.
So, did Jesus have a beard or not?
The earliest images of Jewish people come from a third-century synagogue, where men are depicted with short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. Since Judas had to point out Jesus among his disciples (Matthew 26:48-49), it is likely that he would have looked like his fellow first-century Jews. The Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial shroud of Jesus, shows a man with long hair and a long beard.
Isaiah 50 offers a depiction many consider to be fulfilled in the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (v. 6). However, the New Testament nowhere states that Jesus’ persecutors pulled out his beard.
Early Christian writers describe Jesus’ trial and beatings, but none mention a beard. Paul shaved his head as the result of a religious vow (Acts 21:24), but the text does not refer to a beard. The apostle warned against long hair for men (1 Corinthians 11:14), which makes it unlikely that Jesus wore his hair long.
Since we have no reliable depictions of Jesus or his fellow Jews from the first century, we cannot be sure whether he and they wore beards or not. Here’s what we do know: the Son of God entered fully into the condition of fallen humanity. He ate, drank, and slept. He got tired and had to rest. He grieved and was angered. There was only one exception to his humanity: he never sinned.
As a result, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Irenaeus, the early second-century scholar, noted: Jesus became one of us that we might be one with him.
Why do you need his compassion today?