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Believe It or Not:  A Physical Description of Paul


    Paintings of Jesus are common.  Of course, we do not know what Jesus looked like; therefore we have representations of Jesus from many different cultural perspectives.  I grew up with paintings of a tall Caucasian Jesus, but I have seen Jesus portrayed as black and as Asian (I recognize that there are different types of Asian facial features).  But the fact remains that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew.  And, as for what Jesus looked like, that is all we have to go on.  But we might have an idea of what one of His Apostles, Paul looked like. 

    First some information about the book which contains the description.  The book is entitled “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” It is divided into eleven chapters and the description of Paul is found in chapter one, verses four through seven.  The book has been dated to around the year 150.  It was translated from the original Greek into Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Slavonic, and Arabic, which is a witness to its popularity.

    The book was not included in the New Testament because it failed a major test for a book to be included:  it needed for the author to be an Apostle or have a link with an Apostle, such as Luke being the companion of Paul. 

     Yet New Testament scholars accept that some books which were not included in the New Testament do include some nuggets of true material.  Such could be the case with “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.”  Some of the material is most likely a figment of someone’s imagination, but parts could be true, as in the description of Paul.  You can read this document by going here:

    The book begins with Onesiphorus going out to meet Paul.  He was given a description by Titus, and so he uses that to pick out Paul.  Paul had just left Antioch, which is actually mentioned in Acts 13:51, and arrived in Iconium, mentioned in Acts 14:1.  Onesiphorus finds Paul, and Paul stays at his house in Iconium.  (Remember that most of the story is probably made up.)  While at his house, Paul preaches to those willing to hear, and a woman named Thecla decides to become a Christian and follow Paul.  She also decides to leave her fiancé, and her fiancé in turn decides to charge Paul with breaking up the arrangement.  This begins a long story of imprisonment for Paul and several incidents of death sentences for Thecla.  In the end, they both escape and Thecla remained a virgin her entire life, worshipping God.

    And now for the description, from The Acts of Paul and Thecla 1:4-7:

    “And a certain man, by name Onesiphorus, hearing that Paul had come to Iconium, went out to meet him with his children Silas and Zeno, and his wife Lectra, in order that he might entertain him:  for Titus had informed him what Paul was like in appearance:  for he had not seen him in the flesh, but only in the spirit.  And he went along the road to Lystra, and stood waiting for him, and he kept looking at the passers-by according to the description of Titus.  And he saw Paul coming, a man small in size, balk-headed, crooked thighs [note: bow-legged], well-built, with eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace.  For sometimes he seemed like a man, and sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.”

    This description of Paul was frequently used when artists painted Paul.  I was not able to locate any paintings of Paul with “eyebrows meeting,” but this could be because in those days (so I have heard) this was a description of someone who was wise; therefore artists left this descriptive part of Paul out.  But many paintings from the middle ages do show Paul with a long nose. 


©Mark Nickens 2009


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