Was he bearded? Tall or short, slight or heavy? Was his complexion light or swarthy, wrinkled or smooth? We are left to wonder.
But a document that appeared around the middle of the second century AD claims to know. It is The Acts of Paul and Thecla which never made it into the New Testament but was read widely in the developing early church.
Thecla, according to the story, was a virgin engaged to be married at a time when Paul was to come to Iconium. And, according to the story, Paul is approaching the city and Titus has given Onesiphorus a description of his appearance. 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.”
Thecla, it turns out, heard and was fascinated with Paul’s message to the point that she abandoned her engagement and declared lifelong virginity. It was a notion held by some and circulated in the early years of the church that virginity was more holy than marriage.
The description of Paul’s appearance may be accurate and may have been kept alive for a century through oral tradition. Some church fathers believed so, and the story is still alive in the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
But, whether true or not, this ample description of the Apostle can be set over against the larger fact that we don’t know much about the physical features of 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 (Gen. 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 an inordinately large mop of hair (2 Sam. 14:25,26). And we’re told that Saul who became King of Israel was a head taller than his fellow Israelites (1 Sam. 9:2).
In the New Testament, we learn of Zachaeus only that he was short in stature (Lk. 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).
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 extensive reports of his activities covering three years of ministry.
Apparently what matters most about the Bible characters we encounter is not their physical features but their hearts 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.
What prayer goes deeper in the Scriptures than the penitential prayer of King David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51:10).
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” (Matt. 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 curl our hair or powder our faces or wear elevator shoes.
But by current beauty standards the Apostle Paul wouldn’t stand a chance. According to The Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul’s features gave him less than a model’s physique. 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, we dare to believe, will enhance even our less-than-perfect physical features.