Does anybody smile in the New Testament? Does Jesus? Does God? Do angels? Did Paul or any of the apostles? Did Abraham, Moses, David or the prophets back in the Old Testament? In fact does anybody anywhere in the bible smile in any way, shape or form? The answer is no – at least if Strong’s New Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is anything to go by. In two thousand pages of entries there are no references to Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic equivalents of our English word for ‘smile’. What are we to make of this? People obviously smiled in biblical times, so why are no instances of it to be found anywhere in the Scriptures?

We might begin to answer this question by defining what it is to ‘smile’. Physiologically smiling is a result of the activation of the zygomaticus major and/or the orbicularis oculi muscles. These are situated around the mouth and the eyes respectively. When activated they encode a ‘message’. The problem is the nature of this message will vary depending on the socio-cultural milieu in which you happen to be. In Japan smiling may signal confusion or anger. In Russia it can suggest you are frivolous or insincere. In some Asian cultures it could register embarrassment or even sadness. A Korean proverb contends that ‘he who smiles often is not a real man’. In the West we are not only used to smiling at friends and loved ones but also people we don’t know or even care about. Smiling isn’t simply a gesture of warmth or affection. It can also be cynical or dismissive. In certain contexts a smile may be lewd or sadistic. In others it may be intended to belittle or humiliate.

This is one reason perhaps why smiling might be in such short supply in the bible, and particularly why we do not read of God or Jesus ‘smiling’: A smile is ambiguous. It leaves too much room for the possibility of deceit or dissimulation. It only intimates, hints at feelings or intentions which somebody might have. As it may not always be obvious why somebody is smiling it may foster doubt or uncertainty, making communication with another individual difficult if not impossible. Smiling therefore might have been too culturally risqué for biblical writers to play around with.

But there is a much more obvious reason why biblical characters including Jesus are never depicted as smiling. Biblical characters are usually defined ‘morally,’ that is by what they do and say rather than by what they look like. The contrast with ‘physiognomic’ texts from the ancient world which predict a person’s character solely based on physical features could not be greater. Links between an individual’s ‘looks’ and ‘inner disposition’ were postulated by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and his disciples and can be traced through the middle ages and renaissance to its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In scripture however few people are physically described and when they are we get the barest details: Jacob limps. Aaron has a beard. Esau is hairy. Zacchaeus is small. Not much to go on – and little about their facial features. Occasionally we read that somebody or other is beautiful (Sarah) or handsome (Joseph), but usually in stylised terms which tell us nothing about an individual’s actual looks. An erotic piece like the Song of Solomon might seem a more promising place to find descriptions of ‘facial features,’ but it is not immediately apparent in what sense a lover’s hair could be said to resemble ‘a flock of goats’ or their eyes be like ‘the fish pools in Heshbon’. A surplus of metaphors or similes in this instance kills off any possibilities of glimpsing a ‘real’ face.

Most biblical characters in fact are not physically described. Adam and Eve are simply male and female. All we know about Enoch is that he walked with God or of Noah that he was righteous. In the Book of Kings rulers are typically described in terms of whether they did good or evil in the sight of the Lord or the wider population in terms of whether they are wise or stupid in a Book like Proverbs. For all we know The Virgin Mary might have had acne or Moses cleft palate. We are not told. Biblical characters are typically ‘faceless’ individuals.

But strangely this hasn’t prevented us from identifying with them or feeling that we know them intimately. This is because the terse, minimalist way in which characters are portrayed in the bible is focused on their inner life: it is what motivates a person rather than what they look like which matters. In 1 Sam 16:7 we are told that ‘man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.’ In Greek thought ‘outward appearances,’ in particular the sensuousness of the human form, were equated with the divine. In Scripture a person’s physical stature does not reflect spiritual standing or provide a sure guide to character or personality.

In the gospels Jesus’ character is made known to us in word and deed because it is through what we do and say that we most fully reveal our innermost selves to others – including our intentions and feelings. To this extent it is significant that the gospel writers say nothing about Jesus having kind eyes or a bright smile. Doubtless he smiled – and laughed. But he is not remembered for this in the New Testament. He is remembered rather for bringing concrete expressions of God’s love into the world through acts of mercy and forgiveness.

When Jesus said to his disciples ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9) he wasn’t referring to physical resemblances. What mattered to the New Testament writers is that God was afoot in the world and could be discerned in the type of things that Jesus of Nazareth got up to.When the Jews, for instance, doubted Christ’s divinity Jesus stated that his identity could only be comprehended through his deeds (John 10:37-38).

Even in the Book of Revelation where we get something resembling a description of the risen Christ his features have a moral rather than physical aspect so that his white hair and flaming eyes portray holiness and purity rather than a conventional facial profile (Rev 1:13-15). Similarly in Isaiah’s prophesy about the Suffering Servant there is patchy information about what the Messiah would like like, though enough perhaps to suggest that he would not have won a modelling contract with Georgi Armani: ‘he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’ (Isa 53:2).

That the scriptures pay scant regard to physical appearance is unsurprising. It was Jesus who said ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement’ (John 7:24). As Christians we are enjoined to reject the cult of the body beautiful (1 Pet 3:1) and instead bear spiritual fruit (Gal 5:22-23). Through the inner qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, etc., we both root and affirm our identity in Christ who reflects God’s image in which we ourselves were made (Col 1:15; 3:10).

It is not therefore our winsomeness which wins the world over but ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6) – that is his bruised and battered face (Isa 52:14).

Our physical looks then are gloriously irrelevant, as were Christ’s. Paul says we once knew Christ from a ‘physical’ or ‘human perspective’, but no longer (2 Cor 5:16). The emphasis has shifted. Paul suggests that while ‘our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day’ (2 Cor 4:16). Thus our physical ‘constitution’ or ‘looks’ are transient and do not define us but rather the Spirit of Christ working through us on God’s behalf (Rom 8:1-39). We are merely servants therefore – vessels, clay pots –through which God expresses his purposes for the world (2 Cor 4:7).

The contemporary obsession with ‘image’ stands under God’s judgement. The bible calls it idolatry. That it should be alive and well in the Church should be a cause for alarm and shame. Slick technology is rapidly turning servants of Christ into ‘celebrities’ or at very least people with massive egos.

But what did Jesus look like?

We cannot answer this question not just because the details happen to be lost in the mists of time – but because the question was deemed irrelevant by his followers.

When asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if he were the Christ Jesus replied:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them (Matt 11:4-5).

This is what Jesus looked like – what a beautiful portrait.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.


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