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Article Info:
published: 10/8/13

Paul's Appearance

What did Paul look like?

There is no reliable description of the stature and looks of the Apostle Paul, although some ancient documents speculate about it. There is a description from a book that is not in the New Testament: The Acts of Paul and Thecla have a protraiture thus: "Baldheaded, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man and at times he had the face of an angel," and Ramsay (Church in the Roman Empire, 32) adds: "This plain and unflattering account of the apostle's personal appearance seems to embody a very early tradition," and in chapter xvi he argues that this story goes back to a document of the 1st century.

In some respects it harmonizes with what we gather from Paul's Epistles. Findlay (HDB) notes that this description is confirmed by "the lifelike and unconventional figure of the Roman ivory diptych, `supposed to date not later than the 4th century.' " (Lewin's Life and Epistles of Paul, Frontispiece, and II, 211). At Lystra the natives took Barnabas for Jupiter and Paul for Hermes, "because he was the chief speaker" (Ac 14:12), showing that Barnabas had the more impressive appearance, while Paul was his spokesman.

Hints in the New Testament

In Malta the natives changed their minds in the opposite direction, first thinking Paul a murderer and then a god because he did not die from the bite of the serpent (Ac 28:4-6). His enemies at Corinth sneered at the weakness of his bodily presence in contrast to the strength of his letters (2Co 10:9 f).

The attack was really on the courage of Paul, and he claimed equal boldness when present (2Co 10:11 f), but there was probably also a reflection on the insignificance of his physique. The terrible bodily sufferings which he underwent (2Co 11:23-26) left physical marks (stigmata, Ga 6:17) that may have disfigured him to some extent.

Once his illness made him a trial to the Galatians to whom he preached, but they did not scorn him (Ga 4:14). He felt the frailty of his body as an earthen vessel (2Co 4:7) and as a tabernacle in which he groaned (2Co 5:4). But the effect of all this weakness was to give him a fresh sense of dependence on Christ and a new influx of divine power (2Co 11:30; 12:9). But even if Paul was unprepossessing in appearance and weakened by illness, whether ophthalmia, which is so common in the East (Ga 4:15), or malaria, or recurrent headache, or epilepsy, he must have had a tough constitution to have endured such hardship to a good old age.

He had one infirmity in particular that came upon him at Tarsus (2Co 12:1-9) in connection with the visions and revelations of the Lord then granted him. The affliction seems to have been physical (skolops te sarki, "a stake in the flesh" or "for the flesh"), and it continued with him thereafter as a messenger of Satan to buffet Paul and to keep him humble. Some think that this messenger of Satan was a demon that haunted Paul in his nervous state.

Others hold it to be epilepsy or some form of hysteria superinduced by the visions and revelations which he had had. Compare Krenkel, Beitrage (pp. 47-125), who argues that the ancients looked with such dread on epilepsy that those who beheld such attacks would "spit out so as to escape the evil (compare modern knocking on wood"); compare qui sputatur morbus in Plautus (Captivi, iii.4, 17). Reference is made to Ga 4:14, oude exeptusate, "nor did ye spit out," as showing that this was the affliction of Paul in Galatia.

But epilepsy often affects the mind, and Paul shows no sign of mental weakness, though his enemies charged him with insanity (Ac 26:24; 2Co 5:13; 12:11). It is urged in reply that Julius Caesar, Alfred the Great, Peter the Great, and Napoleon all had epilepsy without loss of mental force. It is difficult to think headache or malaria could have excited the disgust indicated in Ga 4:14, where some trouble with the eyes seems to be indicated.

The ministers of Satan (2Co 11:15) do not meet the requirements of the case, nor mere spiritual sins (Luther), nor struggle with lust (Roman Catholic, stimulus carnis). Garvie (Studies of Paul and His Gospel, 65, 80) thinks it not unlikely that "it was the recurrence of an old violent temptation," rather than mere bodily disease. "Can there be any doubt that this form of temptation is more likely to assail the man of intense emotion and intense affection, as Paul was?" But enough of what can never be settled. "St. Paul's own scanty hints admonish to caution" (Deissmann, Paul, 63).

It is a blessing for us not to know, since we can all cherish a close bond with Paul. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveler, 37 ff) calls special attention to the look of Paul. He "fastened his eyes on" the man (Ac 13:9; 14:9). He argues that Paul had a penetrating, powerful gaze, and hence, no eye trouble. He calls attention also to gestures of Paul (Ac 20:24; 26:2). There were artists in marble and color at the court of Caesar, but no one of them cared to preserve a likeness of the poor itinerant preacher who turned out to be the chief man of the age (Deissmann, Paul, 58). "We are like the Christians of Colesage and Laodicea, who had not seen his face in the flesh" (Col 2:1).

The Apostle Paul: Index
His biography: Paul of Tarsus Paul at the Jerusalem Council
His appearance: What did Paul look like? (this page) Paul's Second Missionary Journey
His conversion: What happened to Paul? Paul's Third Missionary Journey
His theology: The New Perspective on Paul Paul's First Imprisonment
His writings: The Writings of Paul Paul's Second Imprisonment
Paul's First Missionary Journey Paul's Further Travels and Death

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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).