The Apostle Paul appears in 15 of the 28 chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. He is also the author of 13 of the 21 epistles in the New Testament.
I find myself wondering what he looked like. Was he bearded? Tall or short, slight or heavy? Was his complexion clear, or pocked and wrinkled?
A document from the middle of the second century AD claims to know. It is The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which was not included by church fathers in the New Testament. Yet it was read widely in the early church.
According to this ancient writing, Titus’s description of Paul was given to Onesiphorus, who was to meet Paul as he approached the city of Iconium. He was to watch for a man who was “small in size, bald-headed, bow-legged, well built, with eyebrows that met, rather long-nosed and full of grace.”
The Thecla in the name of the writing lived in Iconium, a young woman who at that time was engaged to be married. She was so fascinated by Paul’s message that she abandoned her engagement and declared lifelong virginity. In the early years of the church, contrary to now, some thought that virginity was holier than marriage.
The description of Paul’s appearance may have been kept alive for a century through oral tradition before it was written down. This description is still alive in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
But, whether true or not, this ample description of the Apostle can be used to illustrate the larger truth that we don’t know much about the physical features of most Bible characters because physical features are not the critical issue. So details are sparse.
In Genesis we are only told that Rebekah was “very beautiful” and described as nimble of movement (Genesis 24:15-21). We know only that Jezebel, Ahab’s pagan queen, “painted her eyes and arranged her hair” (2 Kings 9:30). Absalom was handsome in appearance with a generous mop of hair (2 Samuel 14:25,26). And we’re told that Saul, who became King of Israel, was handsome and a head taller than his fellow Israelites (1 Samuel 9:2).
In the New Testament, we learn of Zacchaeus only that he was short in stature (Luke 19:3); Bartimaeus was blind (Mark 10:46); and we infer that the Apostle John was likely slight of build because he was a good runner (John 20:3,4).
Remarkably, we have no description of any of the 12 disciples. We are not even given details about the physical features of Jesus, our Lord, even though we have detailed reports of his activities covering three years of ministry.
Though “attractiveness” has been shown to be an advantage in human life, it seems that what matters most about the Bible characters we encounter is not their physical features but their hearts (character) and their motivations. In the Bible, the heart is the seat of physical, spiritual and mental life. It is that aspect of our beings known fully only to God.
According to Jesus, the human qualities that bring us the greater and deeper happiness stem from the state of the heart. He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). For Jesus, the heart counts first and foremost.
None of this is to say that our physical features don’t matter at all. We do the best we can with whatever God has given us through our DNA – we may arrange our hair or powder our faces or wear elevator shoes.
But by current standards the Apostle Paul wouldn’t stand a chance. Few would want to be described as Paul was. Except that what radiated out of him, giving symmetry to all else, according to the story, was this: he was “full of grace.”
“Full of grace!” That’s what we hope and pray can be said of us. Abundant grace of heart and character!