What did Jesus look like? That’s a question that no book in the New Testament seems interested in answering. Growing up around illustrated Bibles and Sunday school flannelgraphs that depicted the Saviour as a tall, handsome, bearded Caucasian figure with wavy, chestnut locks, it never occurred to me that the Gospels were devoid of any physical description.
Let’s consider some texts about other characters from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here is how the appearance of Aesop is described in Life of Aesop:
He was truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped – in short, an absolute miscreant.
Though the actual existence of Aesop is dubious, character descriptions are an important part of a biographical text¹, and the appearance of Aesop helps convey his character as a “mad wise man”.
Diogenes Laertius describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as follows in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:
Zeno…had a wry neck, says Timotheus of Athens in his book On Lives. Moreover, Apollonius of Tyre says he was lean, fairly tall, and swarthy—hence some one called him an Egyptian vine-branch, according to Chrysippus in the first book of his Proverbs. He had thick legs; he was flabby and delicate. Hence Persaeus in his Convivial Reminiscences relates that he declined most invitations to dinner. They say he was fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.
Alexander the Great is described thusly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:
The statues that gave the best representation of Alexander’s person were those of Lysippus…, those peculiarities which many of his successors afterwards and his friends used to affect to imitate, the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness. But Apelles, who drew him with thunderbolts in his hand, made his complexion browner and darker than it was naturally; for he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast.
Perhaps the closest thing we get to a character description in the Gospels is Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist:
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt. 3:4)
However, there are certain Gospel passages related to Jesus’ appearance that fostered an interesting belief among early Christians: Jesus was a shapeshifter.
Let’s establish some terminology. It was common in ancient literature for both gods and humans to undergo metamorphosis, changing form from one to another. Baukis and Philemon becoming trees in Ovid’s Metamorphosis is one example. Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt would be a biblical example.
Polymorphism is a special category of metamorphosis. In Greco-Roman literature, it was the ability of divine beings to change their own form. (Not all scholars use this definition, but it seems the most suitable one for this article. See Lee, p. 177.) A polymorphic god can change forms sequentially, or even appear in different forms to different people at the same time.
So how does this apply to Jesus? There’s a clear example of metamorphosis in the Gospels that should immediately come to mind: the Transfiguration.
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he metamorphosed [Greek: metemorphothe] before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2-3)
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he metamorphosed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matt. 17:1-2)
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9:29)
Mark explicitly tells of Jesus undergoing a metamorphosis for his three closest disciples, though he mentions only the changing of Jesus’ clothes as far as details go. Matthew and Luke both add that the appearance of Jesus’ face also changed. (John does not mention the Transfiguration.) This story seems to be based in part on Moses’ encounter on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24 and 34, and its many parallels include the six-day waiting period and the shining face. However, Moses himself is not said to metamorphose in Exodus.
Polymorphism in Resurrection Appearances
In Luke 24, we have a curious story about a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Shortly after a group of women find Jesus’ tomb empty, Jesus himself appears to two of his own followers (Cleopas and an unnamed companion) while they are walking to Emmaus. Jesus joins them and engages in conversation about the interpretation of the scriptures while they walk, and yet they fail to recognize him until they reach their destination, at which point Jesus vanishes. Whether metamorphosis is involved is ambiguous, since v. 16 simply says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus’ vanishing act, however, implies that his body was not that of a normal human.
Furthermore, the long ending of Mark — which was not original, but still dates most likely to the second century — explicitly describes the encounter as polymorphism:
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. (Mark 16:12)
John implies a similar change in Jesus’ appearance. During his first appearance to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, she mistakes him for the gardener (20:14). John’s Jesus also seemingly has the ability to change his body’s physical properties², for he twice appears to the disciples while they are in a locked room (John 20:19-29) — a miraculous act that is also briefly recounted in the aforementioned long ending of Mark. Then, in ch. 21, he shows up in Galilee while several disciples are fishing, and only “the disciple whom Jesus loved” recognizes him — probably an editorial addition, since this disciple is not mentioned in v. 2 (Bultmann, p. 702). The statement that the disciples “did not dare” to ask Jesus who he was (v. 12) implies something strange or unrecognizable about him.
Other Hints of Polymorphism in the Gospels and Acts
There are other Gospels passages that can be explained by polymorphism even if this is not explicitly intended — and some early commentators did interpret them that way, as we shall see further on.
In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus’ speech in the synagogue at Nazara so angers all his listeners, that they attempt to throw him off a nearby cliff. Jesus makes a miraculous escape, the nature of which is left vague.
They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:29-30)
John 8 narrates a similar incident which takes place at the temple. After Jesus’ words enrage the Jews, they attempt to stone him, but he somehow hides and escapes.
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:59)
Interestingly, numerous manuscripts of John append Luke 4:30 (“he passed through the midst of them”) to John 8:59 to describe how Jesus got away (Foster, p. 75). The two incidents were clearly understood to be related. In both cases, Jesus becoming unrecognizable would be one way of explaining the escape.
Christ’s appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts is also a resurrection appearance, albeit one that takes place after the ascension (and I would argue that the resurrection and ascension were the same event in pre-Gospel theology). Here, Jesus appears to Paul in the form of a bright light (9:3), while his travelling companions see nothing at all.
Lastly, there is the matter of Judas’ kiss. In Mark, Jesus has been regularly preaching in the temple, and he has become so popular that the priests can’t arrest him in public. (“Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me,” observes Jesus in Mark 14:49.) And yet, when the priests and other temple functionaries arrive at Gethsemane, Judas has to kiss Jesus so they know which man to arrest — as if he isn’t known to them by sight. (Luke and John omit the kiss and have Jesus identify himself directly to the soldiers and priests, which gives Jesus a more direct role in the arrest but does not eliminate the recognition problem.)³
The Theriomorphic Christ of John’s Revelation
Once source I read (I forget which) while researching this article stated that unlike the Greco-Roman gods, Jesus never took on animal form. That is not true, strictly speaking. Throughout the book of Revelation (starting with 5:6), Jesus appears in the form of a lamb; and in fact, that is the only form in which he is worshipped (Moore, p. 242.).
Another Early Account of Polymorphism
The Ascension of Isaiah is a fascinating proto-Gospel of sorts. The latter portion, which tells of Jesus’ original descent from Heaven in order to take the form of a man, was probably written in the late first century (Knight, p. 154), and thus is roughly contemporary with the canonical Gospels.
In this text, Isaiah sees in a vision how Christ Jesus, who resides in the seventh heaven with God the Father, will descend to the first heaven (our own world, which extends from earth to the firmament) in order to defeat the Satanic principalities and powers — a way of describing Christ’s mission that is also fairly common in the epistles. However, in order to do so, Jesus is required to travel incognito, changing his form as he passes through the five lower heavens in order to resemble the angels that inhabit them.
Go and descend through all the heavens; descend to the firmament and to that world, even to the angel in Sheol; but to Hell thou shalt not go. And thou shalt become like to the form of all who are in the five heavens; and with carefulness thou shalt resemble the form of the angels of the firmament and the angels also who are in Sheol. And none of the angels of this world will know that thou, along with me, art the Lord of the seven heavens and of their angels…[so] that thou mayest judge and destroy the prince and his angels and the gods of this world and the world which is ruled by them…. (Ascension of Isaiah 10.8-12)
Second-Century Christianity and Beyond
The Acts of John and the Acts of Peter
Jesus’ ability to take on different forms is developed further in the mid-second century. In the Acts of John, the Zebedee brothers are perplexed when they discover that Jesus appears differently to each of them, and that his appearance keeps changing.
For when [Jesus] had chosen Peter and Andrew, who were brothers, he came to me and my brother James, saying “I need you; come to me!” And my brother … said: “John, what does he want, this child on the shore who called us? And I said, “Which child?” And he answered me, “The one who is beckoning to us.” And I replied: “Because of the long watch we have kept at sea, you are not seeing well, brother James. Do you not see the man standing there who is handsome, fair and cheerful-looking?” … And when we had brought the boat to land, we saw how he also helped us to beach the boat. And as we left the place, wishing to follow him, he appeared to me again as rather bald-headed but with a thick flowing beard, but to James as a young man whose beard was just beginning. (Acts of John 87-89)
According to the narrator (purportedly the apostle John), Jesus was unusual in other ways. His was solid at times but incorporeal at others, and he left no footprints when he walked (§93). During the crucifixion, Jesus appeared to John as a cross of light (§98).
In the Acts of Peter, Peter teaches a group of Christians that Jesus had taken on human form as part of his salvific mission, and that his appearance varied according to the beholder: “For each one of us saw [Christ] as he was able, as he had power to see” (§20). In the next section, Christ reveals himself to some blind widows, appearing as an old man to some and a youth or child to others. Peter concludes that the Lord’s “variety of forms” demonstrates how little people are able to comprehend of God.
In both Acts of John and Acts of Peter, the Transfiguration is described as a preview of Christ’s true appearance. In the former, Jesus becomes a glowing giant whose head reaches the sky (much like the risen Jesus in the Gospel of Peter); in the latter, Jesus is transformed into a blinding, ineffable radiance.
Clement of Alexandria
Church father Clement of Alexandria wrote the following around the year 200, in which he claimed that Jesus’ body was unlike that of an ordinary person:
…in the case of the Saviour, it were ludicrous [to suppose] that the body, as a body, demanded the necessary aids in order to its duration. For He ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with Him to entertain a different opinion of Him; in like manner as certainly some afterwards supposed that He appeared in a phantasmal shape. But He was entirely impassible; inaccessible to any movement of feeling—either pleasure or pain. (Stromata 6.9)
The idea that Jesus did not need to eat may come from John 4:31-35 (see footnote 2). Clement portrays Jesus here as a model of perfect impassibility that Christians are to strive for. At the same time, he tried to distance his own view from that of the Docetists; more on that below.
It’s not entirely clear to me whether Clement thought the earthly Jesus was polymorphic (Ehrman believes so; see Lost Christianities, p. 178). It is clear, however, that Clement understood Jesus to be the incarnation, through birth, of an angel (the Logos) who had in the past appeared to Israel in another form. (Paid. 1.7; see also Gieschen, p. 194.)
Church father Origen concurred with the polymorphic traits of Jesus described in the apocryphal Acts above. In Contra Celsum (248 CE), he wrote:
Although Jesus was one, he had several aspects; and to those who saw him he did not appear alike to all. … Moreover, that his appearance was not just the same to those who saw him, but varied according to their individual capacity, will be clear to people who carefully consider why, when about to be transfigured on the high mountain, he did not take all his disciples, but only Peter, James, and John. For they alone had the capacity to see his glory at that time, and were able also to perceive Moses and Elias when they appeared in glory, and to hear them conversing together, and the voice from heaven out of the cloud. (Cels. 2.64. Translation by Henry Chadwick, 1965.)⁴
In the same passage, Origen marshals the arrest story as further evidence of Jesus’ changing appearance:
And it is clear that he did not always appear the same from the remark of Judas when about to betray him. For he said to the crowd that came with him, as though they did not know him, ‘Whomsoever I kiss, it is he’.
A little further on in the same passage, Origen uses Christ’s polymorphic character to defend the fact that Jesus in the Gospels has no public appearances after his resurrection. Jesus’ post-resurrection body was apparently invisible to most people: “All those who formerly saw him could not look upon him, as he no longer had anything about him that could be seen by the multitude.” For Origen, only the apostles had the capacity to see Jesus in his resurrected body, and even then only intermittently.
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius, the influential figure known for his writings about church history, took much the same view as Origen. When Constantia Augusta, the half-sister of Emperor Constantine, requested a picture of Jesus, Eusebius wrote a reply stating that Jesus appeared in different forms during his earthly ministry, and took on a “glorified form” after Easter that surpassed the abilities of the senses to behold, and could not be depicted by “lifeless colours and shades”. Also like Origen, he understood the transfiguration to be an early manifestation of that form. (Louth, p. 262)
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
I’ve given just a small example of texts describing the polymorphism of Jesus in various ways, spanning the first several centuries of Christianity. Other Christian documents with polymorphic christology include the Shepherd of Hermas, the Physiologus, the Apocalypse of Elijah, the Apocryphon of John, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Philip, the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the Revelation of the Magi, the Armenian Infancy Gospel, and Pseudo-Cyril’s On the Life and the Passion of Christ. These writings encompass a wide range of dates (from possibly the first century to the ninth century), locations, and Christian sects. We read of a Jesus who could alter not only his facial appearance, but his stature, his age, and his corporeality — and could do differently for different observers at the same time.
Jesus in Early Christian Art
Christian art showed similar diversity. Jesus was even depicted with female features at times! Thomas F. Matthews (p. 98) writes (emphasis mine):
The alarming truth is that, travelling from Rome to Constantinople…the Christian pilgrim would have encountered a dizzying diversity of Christ types. From church to church the Lord would undergo the most radical metamorphoses. Now calmly conversing with a circle of disciples, now climbing rosy clouds into the empyrean, now sitting on rainbows and waving to the viewer from a great bubble of light above the landscape, Christ’s face was alternately old and grave, youthful and vigorous, masculine and feminine. Staring at the glittering apse must have been like experiencing a series of volatile hallucinations. The early Christian Christ was truly polymorphous.
And regarding feminine depictions of Christ:
Appearing in Gaul, Rome, Ravenna, and Thessalonica over a stretch of time from the mid-fourth century to the beginning of the sixth, [the feminine Christ] cannot be written off as a regional or transitory development. At the same time, the variety of contexts in which the feminine Christ appears suggests that there may not be any single explanation. (p. 135)
Polymorphism vs. Docetism
Polymorphism is sometimes equated with docetism, a theological viewpoint denying certain aspects of Jesus’ humanity that arose during the second century and was ultimately condemned as heresy. However, the essence of docetism that made it heretical seems to have been its denial of Christ’s suffering during the crucifixion, and the specifics took many forms; some said it was because Jesus was replaced with Simon of Cyrene or another substitute on the cross; others that Jesus’ incorporeal body could not suffer, or that the spirit of Christ left Jesus before his death. In short, it is the denial of the crucifixion and not claims about Jesus’ incorporeal nature that define the docetic heresy. Thus the Ascension of Isaiah is not a docetic text despite what some claim (Knight, p. 151).
Edinburgh University professor Paul Foster describes polymorphic christology as a feature of both docetic and proto-orthodox texts:
A close study of a range of polymorphic depictions of Christ shows how by drawing upon the embryonic understandings of polymorphism in the New Testament, both docetic and proto-orthodox Christologies were able to use the ability to appear in multiple forms to advance their own perspectives on the nature of the person of Christ. (Foster, p. 99.)
Similarly, addressing claims that Christ’s polymorphy implies Gnosticism, Pieter J. Lalleman writes, “We cannot say that polymorphy is a sign of Gnosticism, although Gnostics used it.” (p. 117)
Satan the Shapeshifter?
Some early Christians may also have believed that Satan could change his form. This view is attested already in 2 Cor 11:14: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The Acts of John (§70) and Acts of Thomas (§44) also refers to Satan as being “polymorphous”, though how this ability is manifested is unclear. The Apocalypse of Elijah, a third-century Jewish work that was probably reworked by Christians, describes the “Lawless One” as being difficult to recognize because of his ability to change his appearance, looking either young or old.
Beliefs about the polymorphic nature of Satan could be rooted in an angelomorphic understanding of his essence, much as Jesus was often regarded as an angelic figure. Early beliefs about Satan were unclear and difficult to categorize, however; see my earlier article on that.
Our earliest extant writings about Jesus provide no physical description. However, he was often understood to have been an angelic or divine being who could take on any physical appearance, or even several at once to different people. This applied to his corporeal body on earth — whose physical characteristics he could alter — as well as the spiritual body which he possessed in heaven before the incarnation and after the resurrection. The seeds of this belief are found in the New Testament and other early Christian texts, such as The Ascension of Isaiah. This belief was developed more fully by second- and third-century writers and is particularly prominent in the various apocryphal Acts as well as in early Christian art. It was eventually adopted by Docetists and Gnostics but is not an exclusively Docetic or Gnostic doctrine.
- However, it was apparently extremely rare for Greek novels to describe the physical characteristics of their characters. (Koen de Temmerman, Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel, 2014, p. 39.)
- There is at least one other passage that hints at Jesus’ non-physical nature: John 4:31-35, in which Jesus appears to have no need of earthly food, telling his disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” On the other hand, Luke 24:42 has the post-resurrection Jesus eat precisely in order to demonstrate his corporeal nature.
- Albert Schweitzer theorized that it must not have been Jesus’ identity which Judas betrayed, but his secret claim of being the Messiah, in order to inflame onlookers. Wells (1992, p. 152) gives several reasons why this explanation does not fit Mark’s narrative.
- Similarly, in his Commentary on Matthew (12.36), Origen writes: “…the Word has different forms, as He appears to each as is expedient for the beholder, and is manifested to no one beyond the capacity of the beholder.” In context, Origen is describing the ability of believers to re-experience the Transfiguration in person, much like what we read in the Acts of Peter.
Simon S. Lee, “The Transfiguration Remembered, Reinterpreted, and Re-enacted in Acts of Peter 20–21”, Jewish and Christian Scriptures: The Function of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-canonical’ Religious Texts, 2010.
Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary.
Paul Foster, “Polymorphic Christology: Its Origins and Development in Early Christianity”, JTS 58 (2007).
Stephen D. Moore, Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation: Sex and Gender, Empire and Ecology.
Jonathan Knight, “The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic?”, The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland.
Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence, 1998.
Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities:The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, 2003.
Andrew Louth, “From Doctrine of Christ to Icon of Christ: St. Maximus the Confessor on the Transfiguration of Christ”, In the Shadow of the Incarnation.
Thomas F. Matthews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, Revised Edition, 1993.
Pieter J. Lalleman, “Polymorphy of Christ”, The Apocryphal Acts of John.