Was Jesus UGLY?

A high school theology teacher writes:

I had a student ask me quite blunty “was Jesus ugly?” He cited some early Fathers quoting Isaiah 53:2, and gave me several other sources that expanded on this topic as well. From what I understand and have read, the verse from Isaiah seems to (me anyways) point towards Jesus at his Passion and Death - the Suffering Servant. Am I on the right track or have you heard anything on this?

Let’s start by looking at the text in question. It is part of the fourth “Servant Song” in Isaiah, which runs from 52:13-53:12. Here’s the verse in context:

Isaiah 52:13–53:12

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 14 As many were astonished at him— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men— 15 so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

1 Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; 11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

There are several things that can be said here.

One is that we have to be a bit careful when looking at Messianic passages in the Old Testament and applying them directly to Jesus. It is clear that there are multiple passages in the Old Testament that point forward to Christ, but they do not all do so in a way that allows us to take every detail of the original text and apply it directly to Jesus.

For example, the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 most definitely points to Jesus. The New Testament authors make that quite clear. But it doesn’t point to him in a way that allows us to take everything that is said in Isaiah 7 and apply it directly to Jesus. If it did then it would imply that Jesus was born hundreds of years earlier than he was and that there was a time before Jesus knew to refuse evil. It appears, based on a variety of considerations, that the Immanuel prophecy refers first to a child born in the days of the prophet Isaiah and then, in a greater, grander sense, to Christ. The New Testament authors pick up on the latter meaning, without understanding Jesus to fulfill everything that was said about the child of Isaiah’s day. (See HERE and HERE for more information on that.)

Knowing that to be the case, we should at least ask whether the same might be the case here.

We know that Isaiah 53 prophesies the coming of Jesus—and in quite striking ways! Perhaps, though, there is another, earlier fulfillment of the text, and so not every detail may be meant to be applied directly to Jesus. It is commonly suggested that the Servant Songs may apply in some measure to Isaiah himself or to Israel as a whole, depicted as it often is as a single, corporate person. If that is the case (and I’m not arguing that it is; I’m merely noting the existence of the possibility) then Jesus may fulfill Isaiah 53 in the way he fulfills Isaiah 7:14 (which seems to point first to an individual child in Isaiah’s day) or the way he fulfills “Out of Egypt I called my son,” which in Hosea 11:1 refers to the nation of Israel as a whole but which Matthew 2:15 reveals applies to Jesus in a personal way.

If so then the statements about the servant of Isaiah 53 lacking stature or comeliness may apply more directly to the earlier fulfillment than to the greater—and later—Messianic fulfillment in Jesus.

Suppose, however, that none of that is the case. Suppose that the passage is meant to apply exclusively to Jesus. Would that mean he was ugly?

He certainly would have looked horrible during the Passion. After all of the physical abuse he suffered—the scourging, the spitting, the crowning with thorns, the falling under the weight of the cross, the Crucifixion itself—he would have looked shocking. And I have known individuals who have done at the teacher suggests and take the statement in this light.

While that is possible—the physical abuse of the Servant is repeatedly referred to in this passage (and see especially 52:14)—a word of caution is in order, because the statement that “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” is immediately preceded by “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” That suggests a time before the Passion of the Servant—the time when he was growing up, “like a young plant.” It is also followed by the statement that “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” which also suggests a time before the final Passion of the Servant.

Situated as it is, the statement about the Servant lacking form (meaning an impressive physical stature) and comeliness/beauty may be meant to apply to the time before the Servant’s acute sufferings.

If it does apply directly to Christ’s Passion then that would certainly explain the lack of physical attractiveness referred to, but suppose that isn’t the case. Again: Would it mean that Jesus was ugly?

In a word, no.

There are at least two reasons for this.

First, saying that someone does not have “comeliness that we should look at him” or “beauty that we should desire him” does not mean that he is ugly. It just means that he isn’t so good-looking that his good looks were the basis of what attracted people to him. He might look fine; he just might not be so physically good-looking that this was what drew people to him. And, indeed, the evidence we have from the gospels is that it was Jesus’ teachings, holiness, and supernatural power that drew people to him—not his looks.

The fact that “no comeliness that we should look at him” does not mean “ugly” is picked up on by the early Christian author Origen, who writes:

There are, indeed, admitted to be recorded some statements respecting the body of Jesus having been “ill-favored”; not, however, “ignoble,” as has been stated, nor is there any certain evidence that he was “little.” (AGAINST CELSUS 6.75)

Here by “ignoble” Origin means “ugly,” and by “little” he means the opposite of having the impressive physical stature. In other words, Jesus may have looked fine and been of average height so far as Isaiah 53 is concerned. He just wasn’t super-handsome or super-tall.

Second, Hebrew speech commonly uses the idiom of hyperbole—that is, exaggeration to make a point. Often they said things in dramatic fashion to impress them on the mind of the hearer, without intending them to be taken literalistically.

Our own culture is much more fond of literal statements, and to the ancient Hebrews we would have come across like Mr. Spock or Mr. Data—insisting that statements be taken with an absurd degree of literalism that misses the important point being made by them.

In this case the point is that the Servant did not draw everybody to him by an outward attractiveness. Indeed, many people were not drawn to him, for “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”—not just during the Crucifixion, but more broadly than that, because “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11) and because those who were drawn to him were not drawn by his looks but by his divine teaching, holiness, and authority.

None of that means he was ugly, just that his looks weren’t so great as to awe everyone and make them all his followers.

Trying to get the verdict of “ugly” out of that would be like Mr. Spock worrying whether “I’ll see you soon” means that you will be seen in precisely three seconds or if it could be stretched farther than that. It’s missing the point in favor of an arbitrary, unintended interpretation.

There are also other ways that this passage can be treated. For example, St. John Chrysostom, in Homilies on Matthew 27:2, lists as a possibility that when Isaiah said, “He had no form nor comeliness,” he might have been comparing the embodied Son “with the glory of his godhead, which surpasses all utterance and description.”

But what we have said thus far shows that you can’t reasonably get a verdict of ugliness from Isaiah 53:2. That’s just not what the text is trying to tell us.