What was the Outward Appearance of the Messiah?

Posted by on May 20, 2017

What was the outward appearance of the Messiah, when He walked on the earth, because we are given no account on how Yeshua looked like outwardly in the Apostolic writings? The prophecy of YHVH concerning His Messiah pictured Him as unattractive in His outward appearance. However, the modern perception of Him is as having quite an ideal appearance. The Bible movies portrait Him as a blond, long haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon Caucasian. Can we rethink this?

Unattractive in appearance He no doubt was in the days of His flesh, but He is internally beautiful in His glorification at the resurrection. The body in which He was born was of no royal form because the suffering of death was the destine of the Lamb of YHVH, even from His mother’s womb. But the glorified One, the Servant of YHVH, whose inhuman sufferings were beyond human comprehension, is infinitely exalted above all outward appearance. But what was the outward appearance of the Messiah, and can we know it? How did the Messiah look like when He walked on the earth?

Isaiah on the outward appearance of the Messiah

Most of the commentators agree that the words “Behold, my servant” in Isa 52:13 commence a new section, like “Behold my servant” in Isa 42:1. We read,

Behold, My Servant whom I uphold, My Chosen One My soul has delighted in! I have put My Spirit upon Him*; He brings forth right-ruling to the nations. He does not cry out, nor lifts up His voice, nor causes His voice to be heard in the street. A crushed reed He does not break, and smoking flax He does not quench. He brings forth right-ruling in accordance with truth. He does not become weak or crushed, until He has established right-ruling in the earth. And the coastlands wait for His Torah. Thus said the God, Yehovah, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk on it: “I, Yehovah, have called You in righteousness, and I strengthen Your hand and guard You, and give You for a covenant to a people, for a light to the nations,” (Isa 42:1-6) *See Isa 11:1-2.

Even apart from Isaiah 42, this very first verse contains a condensed explanation of the entire theme in Isa 53. The exaltation of the Servant of Yehovah is the theme of the prophecy which follows in Isaiah 53.

Now, let us read Isa 52:13-15 and Isa 53 together in their context:

Isa 52:13 Behold, My Servant shall work wisely, He shall be exalted and lifted up and very high. 

Isa 52:14 As many were astonished at You – so the disfigurement beyond any man’s and His form beyond the sons of men.

Isa 52:15 He shall likewise startle many nations. Kings shut their mouths at Him, for what had not been recounted to them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall understand.

Isa 53:1 Who has believed our report? And to whom was the arm of Yehovah revealed? 

Moreover, Targum Jonathan paraphrases Isa 52:13 in the Aramaic with “Behold, My servant the Messiah…”

Now, we read this prophecy in the entire context of Isaiah 52 and 53 and in the context of Isa 42, as it was meant to be:

For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him. He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa 53:2-3 JPS)

A few things must be said here. We will read from the present author’s literal, word for word, translation, as he sees it: 

(Isa 53:2) ויעל And he shall grow up כיונק like a tender plant לפניו to the Presence

וכשׁרשׁ and like a root מארץ from a ground ציה dry לא no תאר form לו for him

ולא and no הדר beauty ונראהו and we shall see him ולא and no מראה appearance

ונחמדהו׃ we shall desire him

(Isa 53:3) נבזה He is despised וחדל and rejected אישׁים of men

אישׁ a man מכאבות of afflictions וידוע and known חלי (with) sickness

וכמסתר and like hiding פנים of the faces ממנו from him נבזה he was despised

ולא and not חשׁבנהו׃ we counted him

The majority of the commentators have departed from the literal language and adopted the rendering, “he had no form and no beauty, that we should look at Him” which is commonly interpreted to mean that “because he was not attractive, we should not love to look at him.”

If such were the case, then we should have expected to find the phrase בּוֹ וְנִרְאֶה “we shall not look into (at) him.” But what we find in the Hebrew text is וְנִרְאֵהוּ “and we shall see him” and the whole phrase, as the present author has rendered it, acquires quite different meaning, as we read: “he had no form and no beauty, that we shall see (i.e., notice) Him.”

The meaning therefore of Isa 53:2 should be, “We saw him, and there was nothing in the outward appearance  of the Messiah to make us feel attracted by him; there was nothing to attract our eyes to notice him.”

Some commentators even have brought forth the impression, as they see it, produced by His appearance that He was rather repulsive and contemptible. This notion, the present author sees it wrong. This vague concept that “because the Messiah was not attractive of his outward repulsive appearance, we should not love to look at him” comes from the mechanical connection the translators have made when rendering these two verses.

They have first failed to see that actually verse 3 is separated from verse 2 by a time gap of what appears to be the lifetime of the Messiah in the prophecy of Isaiah 53.

Verse 2 is telling us that a child (a tender plant) will grow up before the Presence (lit. panim faces of YHVH). The Hebrew word Panim is often used in the Tanak to depict the Omnipotent, as it is found in Exo 20:3, “You shall have no other gods in My face(s).”

And like a root from the earth (offshoot) the child will come out unnoticeable for us. Here we should remember that nothing we know about Yeshua from His birth until He appears again in the Gospel of Luke 2:42 at the age of twelve: to fulfil what was written that as an offshoot can come out of the ground a distant from the main tree, so would the Messiah.

Then a time gap is following, because we see that the Messiah, who has taken the afflictions upon himself, is already despised and rejected, and reckoned for nothing. Since this can hardly be told concerning a child, therefore it must have been told concerning a grown up person, the person of Yeshua the Messiah.

The confusion that Yeshua was repulsive in appearance (but only as it is commented by some scholars) comes from the rendition of the Hebrew word חָמַד chamad, to desire, as it is rendered in the phrase in verse 2 as “we shall not desire him.”

This is not necessarily a wrong translation of this word, but we should notice that this is the same word used in Gen 3:6 when the woman was attracted by the appearance of the forbidden fruit, that is, she desired it. The confusion also comes from directly connecting chamad, which is the last word in the verse, with the first word in verse 3, בָּזָה bazah, to despise, hence without considering the time gap in the prophecy we should read, “we shall not desire the one who is despised.”

In verse 3, the phrase “a man of afflictions and known with sickness” does not mean that Yeshua had a physical illness, but that the wrath of Elohim instigated by sin was on His Servant, as His Father was pleased (Isa 53:10); He was burned like in a fever in His soul and body, so that even if He had not died a violent death, He would have burned as in consequence of sin of men, and of His own self-consuming conflict with them.

Therefore, regarding how Yeshua the Messiah looked like, we may conclude that Yeshua was unnoticeable in His outward appearance, that is, He was an ordinary man as far as His outward appearance is concerned.

Unfortunately, the Apostolic Writings give no description on the outward appearance of the Messiah and there is a reason for that; His glory at the resurrection was His beauty and the chief moment of the Messiah’s mission, not how the Messiah looked like.

It is remarkable to notice, though, that the outward appearance of the Messiah Yeshua was changed after the resurrection in some degree.

For instance, we can say that by plainly reading the account of the scene of the tomb, Miryam could not recognize Him at first.

Then, we should recall the strange conversation between Yeshua and the two disciples on the road when they while conversing with Him for awhile, could not recognize Him either.

All this comes to tell us that after the resurrection the outward appearance of the Messiah was changed somehow and rightly so, since He as a First fruit of the resurrection, and all who were resurrected with Him, received incorruptible [new] bodies.

Now, since the study point is about the outward appearance of the Messiah Yeshua, and since we know nothing regarding it from the Apostolic Writings, is there any source of information outside of the Bible that can give a more or less accurate description of the outward appearance of the Messiah?

Procula: “He is a strange man, gaunt and rugged”

As a matter of fact, there is. And this comes from the least expected source: from a gentile, the wife of an notorious anti-Semite. We read from the gospel,

And as he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have none at all to do with that righteous Man, for I have suffered much today in a dream because of Him.” (Mat 27:19)

Yes, that was the wife of the Roman governor in Judea: Pilate Pontius.

Little is known of Letters of Pontius Pilate to his friend Lucius Annaeus Seneca the younger, who was later to become the tutor of the young Emperor Nero.

In one of his letters to Seneca, Pilate quoted his wife Procula’s letter to him, concerning her encounter with a Jew named Yeshua. In it she gave a short but accurate description of His appearance, and also of His character, as we read below with some contractions. The reader can recognize the background of her letter to Pilate.

Procula has seen and heard the Galilean Iesus. She writes to me that as soon as they had crossed into Galilee and started on the road which runs along the west side of the lake they began to hear of little else. Alexander, the ferret, was nosing here and there, collecting information. It seems that all Galilee is agog about Iesus;  Alexander had arranged, as it happened, for Procula to make a halt at a farm-house towards the northern end of the lake, and as she went along – but you shall have the story in her own words as she has sent it me:

‘We came suddenly on a crowd of people who were hurrying along the road in front of us and over the slopes leading down to the sea and even along the beach. Others were joining them from the paths that came in from the hills. No one took any notice of us. They were Iews of all kinds – mostly hale and hearty people, but there were sick and cripples too, who were dragging themselves along or being carried by their friends. The crowd was excited, gesticulating, pointing to a boat that was following the coast line, and shouting to those on board. I thought at first that they were angry but Alexander said that they were calling to Iesus, who was on board, to come to shore and speak to them. They kept on shouting the same words over and over again. I could not make it out because it was all in Aramaic and when I asked Alexander he only shook his head and muttered something about it being a bad business. He would not tell me what they meant, though he told me later. When we stopped at the farm-house the crowd rushed on and presently I could see them leaving the high road and hurrying down to the shore. Alexander asked permission to go after them and I said he could provided that he took me with him. So we went, with an escort – you need not be afraid – and after half an hour we found them all in a great mass, down near the sea, with Iesus standing on a knoll in the field, addressing them. There were thousands upon thousands of them, and at the back, quite close to us, some groups of better-dressed Iews, who were standing aloof, watching and listening. Alexander took a look at them and muttered again. “Spies from Ierusalem,” he said and went off to talk to them.

I saw the preacher clearly. He is a strange man, gaunt and rugged, as though he were burnt up by the fire of his passion. When you see his face and hear him speak, he is full of self-confidence, imperious, often fierce. The crowd were noisy at first because those at the back could not hear and there were interruptions. He put them down with a few words. He was like a general among the legions and they obeyed like common soldiers. He spoke always as though he thought no one could contradict him. He began quietly but then raised his voice and it became harsh and vehement. The Iews from Ierusalem were fidgetting and muttering to each other. Alexander said he was denouncing them and their friends. I have never heard anything that sounded so passionate and bitter. Then he became quieter again and went off in a rapt way as though he did not know the people were there. There was a murmuring and stirring all through the crowd then but not angrily, and they pressed forward to him. Alexander could not take his eyes off him. He would pay no attention to my questions. He kept on saying to himself “A better time coming!” and laughed in a queer, anxious sort of way. I thought he was quoting something that the preacher had been saying. He kept looking at the party from Ierusalem and said he must get a report to you at once.

‘Then a curious thing happened. Iesus suddenly raised his arm and cried out something sternly. They stopped pushing towards him and sat down on the grass in a great circle round him – except the Iews from Ierusalem, who made no movement but went on watching. I am sure I have seen some of them going to the Sanhedrim. Then Iesus called some men who were standing close to him and they brought him bread. He broke this into little pieces – so small that from where I stood you could scarcely see them at all. He gave these to the men and they went along the ranks distributing them to the crowd, who ate them while the preacher went on talking. I wish I could have understood. All I could get out of Alexander was that the preacher was enrolling them as his followers but that it was not a military business at all but purely religious; the eating of the bread was a symbol that they enrolled themselves under him, to live as he lived and to do all the things that he had been telling them to do. Alexander added that it was dangerous, it might be misunderstood.

‘The strangest thing was to follow. When the ceremony was finished everything was still for a few seconds and then the crowd began to stir and talk. Gradually they became more and more excited. Iesus said something to the men about him, and running down to the sea, they began to pull the boat close in so that he could embark again. When the crowd saw that he was going to leave them they broke all bounds. They ran forward, crying and shouting, and surrounded him. Some of them were brandishing sticks and clubs and knives. They were not threatening him; it was quite different. Others of them were weeping. Many of them fell down at his feet. All the time I could make out that they were shouting the same words that I had heard them using on the high-road when they were looking out to sea. I asked Alexander what they were saying. I had to shake him by the shoulder before I could get an answer out of him. He was impatient with me. “King!” he said, “that’s what they are saying. King of Israel! King of the Iews! And Messiah!” I am not sure what the last means, but you will know.

‘I could see that Iesus was repelling them. He would not listen to them. He almost drove them back with words and gestures. I am sure he was telling them that they had made a great mistake. He was almost beside himself. He made those who were kneeling rise and those who were brandishing weapons put them down. He was more stern and determined than he had been all the afternoon. At the same time he began to move down to the sea hurriedly as though he must escape. The crowd followed slowly in a dejected way. They seemed to be disappointed and bewildered. “He is angry with them for calling him King of the Iews,” I said to Alexander. “He has cause to be,” said Alexander. “He is a dead man from today.”

‘There was another incident. Before Jesus could get on the boat, the Iews from Ierusalem, who had been watching every movement of the crowd, walked rapidly down the hill and spoke to him. They met each other as enemies; I could see that though I could not hear the words. The talk only lasted a few moments. They said something to him and he looked at them with a face of stone. Then he answered curtly and turned his back on them. Some of his followers helped him into the boat. I thought they were puzzled too, and perhaps afraid. He was not afraid himself. He spoke and acted as though he was ready to fight the whole world.

‘Whatever it was that was said to the Iews from Ierusalem they were pleased about it. They came away whispering and smiling and, when I left, they were going about among the crowd, as busy as bees. I knew they were denouncing Jesus, because they kept on looking out to sea and pointing to the boat. Alexander is now engaged in writing you a report upon the whole affair.’

‘King of the Jews!’ my dear friend – you mark the words! Yes, I know, it is only in Galilee and, likely enough, I shall not myself be worried. Trust Antipas to look to it! Would you like to hear the report of the sage Alexander?

“He is a strange man, gaunt and rugged, as though he were burnt up by the fire of his passion.” This is our Messiah, the Anointed of Yehovah.

May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.