If you take a look at the Jewish population living in Israel today, you will probably be struck by the huge variety of physical traits. Millions of people all calling themselves “Jews” have gathered together after over 2000 years of being scattered throughout the world: Northern Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, North Africa, Ethiopia, Persia, the former Soviet Union, the Americas and the list goes on. All these Jews look rather different from each other. And yet, all claim to be descended from a single ancestor: “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). Is this really the case? Is it even possible to know what the ancient Israelites actually looked like?
No, unfortunately it is probably not possible to verify with any real certainty what Abraham looked like. Presumably, if he was born in Ur of the Chaldeans, located in modern-day southern Iraq, he would have had dark wavy hair, an olive complexion; an appearance characteristic of the populations that have lived in this region for millennia: Kurds, Turkmen, Jews, Armenians, etc. We can look to the Song of Songs for an description of what the Israelite ideal of beauty was (Song 5:10-16). However, beyond this very vague image, it is nearly impossible to know about the physical appearance of Abraham or of any of his Israelite descendants. If we cannot obtain concrete information about the genealogy of the ancient Israelites (nature), what about cultural features (nurture) of their appearance: clothing, hairstyle, facial hair, etc.?
In popular imagination, one of the most “obvious” features of an ancient Israelite man’s appearance is a full beard. Any modern illustration depicting the biblical period contains lots of dusty, turban-wearing Israelite men with unkempt beards. You will never see a clean shaven Israelite in a biblical film or drawing. Why is this? Is this just meant to make the actors look authentically “old-fashioned” or do we have evidence for the absence of shaved faces among Israelite men?
Contrary to the the ancient Egyptians (who were clean shaven) and Mesopotamians (who wore long groomed beards) who depicted themselves extensively in their art, the Israelites hardly left us images of themselves. The biblical prohibition against making graven images (Exodus 20:4) prevented the Israelites from producing art depicting themselves. So scholars mostly need to use textual descriptions found in the Bible to reconstruct the Israelites’ physical appearance.
The Hebrew Bible contains many passages which make it clear that beards are vital part of Israelite fashion. The Book of Psalms compares dwelling in peace with one’s brothers to “fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar to his robe” (Psalm 133:2). Listen to two different musical versions of these words here and here. This metaphor is difficult to understand. Why is a well-oiled beard similar to brotherly harmony? Is it because dwelling in peace creates a feeling of overflowing bounty similar to the oil on Aaron’s beard? Is it because in the ancient Near East guests were welcomed by being anointed with fine oil? Perhaps. The main point for our purposes is that the high priest, Aaron, had a very long beard.
But lest one conclude that beards were only worn by the priestly class, we can find many biblical passages that indicate otherwise. Every Israelite man is commanded “you shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27). This is the biblical basis for the sidelocks of hair (Hebrew: pe’ot) that Ultra-Orthodox men wear to this day, as seen in the image below. One might even go as far as to say that long sidelocks were the most distinctive feature of the Israelites’ appearance (circumcision was also very distinctive, but not outwardly visible). Jeremiah refers to the foreign nations that surround Israel collectively as “all those with shaven temples who live in the desert” (Jer. 9:25).
Among ancient Israelite men it was apparently considered humiliating to have one’s face shaven. When King Hanun of Ammon clips off half of the beards of David’s courtiers, he instructs them to “remain in Jericho until your beards grow back” (2 Samuel 10:5). Waiting several weeks for the hair to grow back in the ghost town of Jericho (abandoned since Joshua’s destruction of the city) was evidently preferable to the easier solution of simply shaving the other side off. A common form of greeting a fellow Israelite was to “grab his beard with the right hand to kiss him” (2 Samuel 20:9). Prior to visiting king David, it was imperative for Saul’s son Mephibosheth to prepare himself by doing the following: taking care of his feet, trimming his mustache, washing his clothes (2 Samuel 19:24). The mustache (Hebrew safam) was trimmed, but not the beard (zakan). Maybe the reason why shaving one’s beard was humiliating was that it was a pagan rite (Leviticus 21:5), a mourning practice (Job 1:20), or alternatively, a symbolic act performed by a holy man. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, is instructed as follows:
Now, son of man, take a sharp sword and use it as a barber’s razor to shave your head and your beard. Then take a set of scales and divide up the hair. (Ezekiel 5:1).
In fact, there are works of art from the period of the Bible that do depict Israelites. For example, this frieze found in the throne room of Sennacherib in Nineveh depicts the famous battle of Lachish. This was one of the most important battles fought by the Assyrians as they conquered most of the southern kingdom of Judah in 701 BC. In the image below we see Israelite prisoners being led off into captivity. Note the short curly beards on the faces of the men. These are closely cropped as opposed to the long beard of the Assyrian soldiers.
Here is a depiction of King Jehu of Israel bowing down to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. Note the beard.
Another rare artistic depiction which might be depicting Israelites is this tomb painting from Egypt. A detail from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, an aristocrat buried in the Beni Hasan cemetery in Middle Egypt. This painting depicts a family of nomadic traders entering Egypt from Canaan in the 19th cent. BCE. This is a very rare depiction of ancient Semites, dressed in colorful tunics, as opposed to the Egyptians wearing only white waistcloths. Perhaps they have come to buy grain. The man bending over the ibex is named “Abisha the Hyksos” according to the inscription. This is a very nice visual counterpart to the story of Jacob’s sons migrating to Egypt.
The Hebrew word for beard is zakan (זקן) and appears 19 times in the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly the Greek equivalent pogon (πώγων) does not appear even once in the New Testament. What should we make of this? Were Jews clean shaven during the Roman period? No. Certainly the majority of Jewish men still had beards, as they did during the period of the Hebrew Bible. There was a small population of highly Hellenized Jews that might have shaved their beards, as was the custom among Romans. But it would have been very odd to see a Jewish man in the Land of Israel without a beard until the 20th century. The Babylonian Talmud states that Rabbi Yohanan was very handsome but did not possess perfect beauty because he lacked a beard. Interestingly, the beard is referred to by the alias “the adornment of the face” (Baba Metzia 84b). Let’s conclude by quoting one of the rare examples of a description of an ancient Jew. The following description of the physical appearance of the apostle Paul is found in the the 2nd century apocryphal book, the Acts of Paul and Thecla:
He was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy; at one time he seemed like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel.
Not a very flattering description! Evidently, Paul’s beard was so obvious that the author did not even see the need to mention it.