Most Christians think of Jesus as being a bearded man. This is not surprising given all the paintings, movies, and other forms of Christian iconography that present him in this manner. Therefore, it often comes as a surprise for people to learn Early Christians had a different image of their saviour, one of a clean shaven youth. To appreciate how Jesus aged and grew a beard, it’s helpful to go back to the basics.
Early Christianity, c.30-313 CE
According to biblical accounts, Christianity began with a person known as Jesus of Nazareth wandering around Galilee talking to crowds. He spoke in metaphors then later explained the symbolic meaning of the parables to twelve devoted followers (Matthew 13:34). Jesus also established some traditions (like blessing bread and wine) and passed on doctrines relating to life on earth and in the afterlife.
After dying on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples were blessed with the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). The disciples then became apostles (Greek for messengers) and wandered the Roman Empire and beyond spreading what was called the Good News.
In some instances, the apostles spoke to crowds, however, this was dangerous because the messages they conveyed were considered to be a threat by some authorities. Further, while some level of religious tolerance existed, failure to honour Roman deities was unlawful. The Jewish community had an exemption from this law and some Early Christians attempted to argue that because Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism they should have the same privilege. However, many were unsuccessful and died as martyrs for refusing to hail Jove, Zeus, Aphrodite, etc.
As an alternative to preaching and practicing the religion in open spaces, Early Christians gathered in private houses. Exactly what took place in these gatherings is unclear. It is generally assumed there was some sort of shared meal (or Eucharist), alongside sharing Jesus’ parables, having theological discussions, and communal prayer sessions.
Churches founded by the apostles and/or affiliates of the apostles were based in Athens, Antioch, Ethiopia, Constantine, Armenia, Milan, and other locations around Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor. Particularly influential Churches were established in Corinth (by Paul), Alexandria (by Mark), and Rome (by Peter). Each Church had an overseer, which in Ancient Greek was called a bishop. The apostles were the first bishops, and they passed on the responsibility of overseeing Churches to others.
One of the original roles of Church overseers was to ensure each developing Christian community maintained a level of unity with others. There was no formal Bible in these humble beginnings, information was mostly passed on through word of mouth, with, of course, supplementary letters that later became part of the New Testament (i.e., the epistles or written communications from overseers to emerging Christian communities, many of which are credited to the apostle, Paul).
The Christian Bible does not contain any detailed account of Jesus’ physical appearance, therefore when Christians started painting his image, they did so in accordance with verbal information or out of their imagination. Potentially the oldest example is in a house Church in Dura-Europos, c.232, modern day Syria.
A fresco painted on the wall of this dwelling depicts the Biblical scene of Jesus healing a paralysed man. The screenshot below taken from a short documentary video shows Jesus as a beardless man.
Fresco of Jesus Healing a Paralysed Man, Dura Europos, screenshot 6:08
Other examples of Jesus depicted in this manner are rare but not entirely uncommon. The beardless Jesus was also often portrayed with a wand that he waved around to conduct miracles (Also see: Biblical Archaeology Society: Jesus Holding a Magic Wand?)
Early Christains sometimes faced persecution, although this wasn’t necessarily as rampant as some accounts like to give. I imagine the situation was a bit like the number of QAnon believers who get arrested isn’t as high as the actual number of people who follow QAnon theories; similarly, the Early Christians who got persecuted didn’t necessarily experience this because of their beliefs per se, but because they were causing civil unrest. (Please note, I’m not using this example to try to imply any truth or falsity about QAnon or Christianity, it’s just a way of conceptualizing it was rebellious behaviours and stirring up troubles on the streets which led to people like Emperor Nero giving orders for Christian executions.)
On a theological level, some philosophers disagreed with Christianity, like Porphyry of Tyre (c.234–305 CE), wrote treatises Against the Christians. Therefore, considering Early Christians did get a bit of a bad rap, it’s not surprising many tried to stay under the radar.
Emperor Constantine (Reign: 306-37)
Everything changed In 313 CE when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. His personal conversion was recorded as being due to having a vision of a cross in the sky and being told “In this sign conquer”. Subsequently, the Roman army’s standard incorporated the Christian Chi Rho, ⳩. (The Chi Rho comprises of the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, superimposed upon one another. X + P = ⳩.)
Constantine’s labarum, with a wreathed Chi Rho from an antique silver medal
(Source: Wikimedia Commons).
With Christianity’s rise to prominence, house Churches gave way to buildings that were funded by the Roman government. Hence, a relationship between Church and State developed.
Constantine ordering a council meeting (the Council of Nicea) to clarify doctrines and unify Christianity. The religion had become fractured with different groups having opposing opinions regarding issues like celibacy (and self castration), the Virgin birth (not everyone believed this was real), and the nature of the trinity (some believed God created Jesus, others believed Jesus always co-existed with God). Once matters were decided, opinions became canonised law. (The underlying assumption was along the lines of, when groups of wise men debated topics their final conclusions are the result of God speaking through them, therefore, must be honoured.) Once Christian canons were formed, anyone who disagreed could be labeled a heretic and sent into exile.
Under Emperor Constantine’s influence, leadership roles within Christianity became more formalised and a ranking system, like that of Roman military, began to develop. Apostle Peter’s leadership, as the overseer of the Church in Rome, was especially honoured. The Bible verse in which Jesus says “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) justified the successive line of bishops in Rome being distinguished above others. Peter’s lineage was the overseers of overseers, bishops of bishops, in other words, Papal rulership.
The first reference to Roman bishop-hood was Bishop/Pope Siricius (c.334-399), although the title and power wasn’t fully inaugurated till a few centuries later.
Emperor Constantine was the ruler of Rome, and his endorsement of Christianity Romanised beliefs and customs.
Constantine’s cousin and successor, Emperor Julian, tried to revert Rome back to the traditional Gods and Goddesses, for example, by putting funds into restoring pagan temples. However, his efforts were unsuccessful, partly due to having a short reign (361-63). He died due to a spear wound obtained in the interlude of a battle with Persians. It is rumoured the fatal blow was not the enemies (Persians), but a Christian, moreover, a Roman Christian.
Julian was succeeded by Emperor Jovian (363-4), a Christian who detested paganism, thus funds went back into Christian Churches and away from pagan temples.
Emperor Valentinian I (364-75) was the next in line and he too supported Christianity. Valentinian reinstated many Christians into positions of power, like Constantine had done before him. Valentinian also handed the Eastern half of Rome over to his brother, Valens, to rule as co-Emperor while he focused on the West.
Moving on a bit, Eastern Rome became known as the Byzantine Empire and it maintained Imperial authority until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took control of the capital city, Constantinople. In the West, Rome went through a series of challenges before completely falling in 476. However, this may be viewed as only a political collapse; the role of Bishop in Rome had increased in power by this point, albeit, Papal rulership was not recognised throughout all of Christendom. Many viewed the Byzantine Emperor as head of the Church, and they had a significant say (to say the least) about who sat on Peter’s throne in Rome. Thus, at this point in history it is painstakingly clear that the grass roots of Christianity had subsided and Church leadership positions were held by affiliates of families who were powerful, wealthy, and of nobel status.
Now back to Jesus’ and his beard …
One of the first appearances of Jesus with a beard comes from a Roman catacomb, late fourth century (after Constantine had Christianised Rome). He is depicted with the iconic halo and the Alpha and Omega letters which symbolise his eternal nature from the beginning to end.
Bust of Christ. c. Late 300s. Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Another example of an early bearded Jesus, also from Rome, is the Apsis Mosaic, c.410-17CE. Not only is Jesus a mature man, his grand status is emphasised by gold paint and his stature is larger than those around him. This is a far cry from Early Christian depictions of a modestly cloaked young Jesus who blended in with his peers (see images below for comparison).
Apsis Mosaic, c.410-17CE, Santa Pudenziana, Rome
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Christ Teacher, c.300s, Catacombe di Domitilla, Rome
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s speculated that the grand new Jesus look was part of a broader propaganda campaign run by Roman leadership to sway pagans towards Christianity. Like todays internet memes, the craze needed time to build some traction before it really took off. The young looking Jesus still featured in some pieces like Baptism of Christ, all the way up to the late 400s/early 500s.
Baptism of Christ. c.late 400s/early 500s, Mosaic in Arian Baptistry. Ravenna, Italy,
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In the Italian mosaic above, Jesus is the young man in the center of the image with a halo around his head; he is submerged in water (the River Jordan), while John the Baptist, on the right, gives him blessings. The dove above represents the Holy Spirit coming down. The figure on the left is usually interpreted as being the personification of the river – in the ancient world it was normal to view bodies of water as gods.
I wonder if the inclusion of a Roman God in a Christian scene was a means of appeasing old laws in the event the government decided to revert back to paganism and insisted Roman Gods were honoured? Alternatively, it’s plausible Christians continued to believe bodies of water had spiritual properties that warranted recognition; the fusion of pagan beliefs with Christianity has many nuances.
As an alternative theory to Early Christians depictions of Jesus being based upon eyewitness accounts, his youthfulness as the main icon of the religion, can be interpreted as symbolic of Christianity being a young religion.
Those in the camp who believe Jesus was always a symbolic character can also note his early appearance was similar to the Greco-Roman God, Apollo:
Apollo of the Belvedere, c. 120–140 CE, Vatican Muesum, Vatican City. (Apollo was associated with healing, medicine, light, truth, music, and much more. Apollo was the son of the Sun God, Helios.)
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)
By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was not so young. It had become a major religion, and the leadership of Rome who were promoting the faith were trying to convert citizens on a grand scale. You could say, the youthful Jesus did not pass marketing promotion standards. Jesus needed to be seen as all powerful, a true rival to his opponents, like Jupiter or Neptune (Zeus and Poseidon in Greek).
Below is an example of one of Jesus’ competitor deities, Neptune. Neptune is the central figure, his divine status emphasized by a halo around his head (halos were standard symbol to differentiate the divine from the earthly). Neptune’s left hand holds a trident pointing upwards to the heavens, while his right holds a fish pointing to the sea. He is riding a water chariot with four houses, to the left is a centaur and to the right a goddess. Surrounding the central image are references to the four seasons, as symbolized by women in various states of dress, and in between are farming duties being carried out by male figures.
Triumph of Neptune, c.200s, Roman mosaic Bardo Museum Tunis
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The grand status of Neptune being promoted by sporting a beard may be missed on contemporary audiences, but not so to people of the past. To Greco-Roman citizens, a beard indicated superiority and intellect, hence, Zeus, the supreme God of Olympus, also had a beard. (Zeus was known as Jupiter or Jove to Romans.)
Laurel-wreathed head of Zeus on a gold stater, Lampsacus, c. 360–340 BC
(Source: Public Domain)
Zeus was ether, earth, sky, and everything, so if he had a beard then surely there was truth in the beauty of a beard? Greek philosophers certainly thought so. This line of thinking prevailed all the way up to the 1700s when universities funded studies to ascertain empirical proof of facial hair being a physical indicator of superiority and intellect. Their hypothesis was not supported, but the fact that it was an academic discussion goes to show how far the impression went.
When Christian artists began portraying Jesus with a beard, it can be presumed they were doing so with the knowledge that the facial hair would be associated with superiority, as opposed to showing a beardless Jesus.
Jesus’ beard raised his image from that of a vibrant young person who mingled with commoners to that of an authoritative, wise man.
Christ Pantocrator, c.500s. Jesus as a saviour with a beard, Saint Catherine’s Monastery,Sinai.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In the above example of an early Christ Pantocrator (i.e., pantocrator means “Almighty” or “all-powerful”) it is interesting to note Jesus is holding a book rather than holding a weapon, like Neptune’s trident or Zeus’ thunder bolt. Conversely, the Book could be viewed as a tool which Jesus metaphorically defeats his enemies (i.e., pagans? Jewish? Muslims?)
Arguably, no Early Christian associated Jesus with an authoritative text because none existed. Jesus was the living Word (John 1:1,14). The Christian Bible was a Roman invention.
The Roman Bible, the Vulgate …
In the later part of the fourth century, Pope Damasus hired a leading scholar of the era, Jerome, to get the job done. Jerome worked tirelessly for years translating Hebrew and Greek writings to produce the first full Old and New Testament in Latin. The Bible was completed in about 400 CE and became known as the Vulgate. It was the only legal version of the Bible for several hundred years.
Jerome’s work involved sorting through a multitude of documents and different versions of the Jesus narrative. Some accounts were completely thrown out and labeled heresy, while what remained became canonized. Jerome’s job description included placing the writings in an appropriate order, however, chapters didn’t have names like today’s Christians are familiar with, that came much later.
Much could be said about Jerome’s work, and he’s certainly received a lot of criticisms over the years. To put it briefly, given the Romanisation of Christianity changed the traditional appearance of Jesus from a young, freshly shaved youth with a wand, to an old man with a beard and book, I don’t hold much faith in the authenticity or authority of said book (although the Vulgate’s description of Moses with horns is pretty cool!)
I am by no means the first person to find it oddly ironic that Jesus nominated Peter, the bishop of Rome, to be the head of the Church. This was more than convenient to Constantine (and his predecessors) who wanted make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, despite a multitude of issues, Jerome’s work is still the backbone of contemporary Christianity.
By the end of the sixth century, depictions of Jesus with a beard were commonplace throughout Eastern and Western Churches. Specifically, the iconography of Jesus holding the Bible in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right was particularly enduring.
Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame. c. 1100, Byzantine Empire
(Source: The Met Museum)
The transformation of the Early Christian Jesus into the Roman version was more than skin deep. The first believers focused on the Good News of imminent peace on earth. Consequently, they favoured a representation of the Christ as a Good Shepherd who looked after his flock.
The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome
The Good Shepherd, c.425, Ravenna, Italy
The further one moves into Romanised Christianity, the images become more about suffering than prosperity, as notable in depictions of the crucifixion. No Early Christians depicted the crucifixion, this type of imagery did not come into vogue until appropriately 1000 CE.
A crowded Gothic narrative treatment, workshop of Giotto, c. 1330
(source: Wikimedia Commons)
As a final twist in the beardless versus bearded Jesus saga, in Christ’s lifetime Jewish tradition required men to have beards, however, the Roman fashion was to be beardless. Therefore, as a Jew, you’d expect Jesus had a beard, and it may have been this assumption that lead to facial hair being depicted (or it was a way to appeal to Jews?). But if that is the case, why did Early Christians depict a shaved face? Is this yet another example of Jesus transgressing against Jewish laws?
Symbolic representations have a way of adhering to the cultural values of their creators, and conversely they shape the values of developing cultures. The young beardless version of Jesus says something about the Early Christians that is not present in the Romanised version of a middle-aged, bearded man. It is as though the Romans killed Jesus twice, firstly in the flesh, and secondly in symbolic iconography.
Jeremy Norman’s History of Information. (n.d.). The Earliest Christian House Church, With the Most Ancient Christian Paintings : History of Information. Www.historyofinformation.com. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=3499
Rattini, K. B. (n.d.). Constantine—facts and information. Www.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://api.nationalgeographic.com/distribution/public/amp/culture/article/constantine
Stewart, A. C. (2011). The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries. By VALERIY A. ALIKIN. The Journal of Theological Studies, 62(2), 732–734. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/flr062