Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7ccbd9845f-mpxzb Total loading time: 0.253 Render date: 2023-01-29T08:17:49.495Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

A Physical Description of Paul

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Abraham J. Malherbe
Yale Divinity School


When Paul is placed in his Greek context, it is generally his thought, vocabulary, and literary style that receive attention. This is to a degree at least also true when attention is given to the early church's interpretation of his letters. Greek influence can also be perceived in early Christian reflections on the physical appearance of Paul. Less well known to most students of early Christianity than the literary evidence are the artistic representations of Paul, but the curious literary portrait of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which in some respects agrees with early Christian paintings, is well known. There, Onesiphorus sees Paul as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1986

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 The material is conveniently gathered by von Dobschütz, E., Der Apostel Paulus: II. Seine Stellung in der Kunst (Halle: Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1928)Google Scholar; Ricciotti, Giuseppe, Paul the Apostle (trans. Alba I. Zizzamia; Milwaukee: Bruce, 1953) 151–59.Google Scholar

2 Acta Pauli et Theclae 3 (AAA; reprinted Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1959) 1.Google Scholar 237 lines 6–9. The translation is that printed in NTApoc, 2. 354.

3 See Fürst, J., “Untersuchungen zur Ephemeris des Diktys von Kreta,” Philologus 61 (1902) 407–12Google Scholar; von Dobschütz, Der Apostel, 45–46.

4 Ramsay, W. M., The Church in the Roman Empire Before A. D. 170 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1890) 32Google Scholar; Vouaux, L., Les Actes de Paul et ses lettres apocryphes (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1913) 122.Google Scholar

5 Dassmann, E., Der Stachel im Fleisch: Paulus in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Irenäus (Münster: Aschendorff, 1979) 279.Google Scholar

6 Zahn, T., “Paulus der Apostel,” RE 15 (1904) 70.Google Scholar

7 Geffcken, J., Christliche Apokryphen (Tübingen: Mohr, 1908) 27.Google Scholar

8 Betz, H. D., Der Apostel Paulus und die sokratische Tradition (BHT 45; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1972) 54.Google Scholar

9 Michaelis, W., Die Apokryphen Schriften zum Neuen Testament (2d ed.; Bremen: Schünemann, 1958) 313.Google Scholar

10 Luther, Martin, Werke: Tischreden (Weimar: Herrmann Böhlaus, 1913) 2 no. 1245.Google Scholar

11 Von Dobschütz, Der Apostel, 1.

12 Ramsay, Church in the Roman Empire, 381ff.

13 E.g., Harnack, A., Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1897) 2.1, 505Google Scholar; Findlay, A. F., Byways in Early Christian Literature: Studies in the Uncanonical Gospels and Acts (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1923) 335Google Scholar n. 226; NTApoc, 2. 332–33.

14 NT Apoc, 2.348–49; Schneemelcher, W., “Die Apostelgeschichte des Lukas und die Acta Pauli,” in Eltester, W. and Kettler, F. H., eds., Apophoreta: Festschrift für Ernst Haenchen (BZNW 30; Berlin: Töpelmann, 1964) 236–50.Google Scholar

15 See, e.g., Plummer, A., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915) 283Google Scholar; Deissmann, A., Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History (trans. Wilson, W. E.; reprinted New York: Harper, 1957) 55.Google Scholar On the question of Paul's health, see Ricciotti, Paul the Apostle, 160–67.

16 See Wilpert, G., Le pitture delle catacombe romane (Rome, 1903) 106Google Scholar; Ricciotti, Paul the Apostle, 159.

17 See Evans, Elizabeth C., “Physiognomics in the Ancient World,” TAPA n.s. 59 (1969) 5158Google Scholar; Cox, Patricia, Biography in Late Antiquity: A Quest for the Holy Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) 1415Google Scholar; Reitzenstein, R., Hellenistische Wündererzählungen (reprinted Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963) 39Google Scholar; Bieler, L., ΘΕΟΣ ANHP (reprinted Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967) 1. 49–50.Google Scholar

18 See Evans, , “Physiognomies”; Fredouille, J.-C., Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique (Paris: ÉtAug, 1972) 6062.Google Scholar

19 Cf. Bieler, ΘΕΟΣ ANHP, 50 n. 1; Grant, R. M., “The Description of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla,” VC 36 (1982) 1.Google Scholar

20 Translation by J. M. Edmonds, Elegy and Iambus (LCL 2. 127; Grant, “Description of Paul,” 1–4. The major testimonies are Galen in Hippocr. De artic. 3 (18,1.537 and 604 Kühn); Dio Chrysostom Orat 33.17; Schol. Hippocr. ex Erotian 13.32 Klein (Frg. 43 p. 112, 13–15 Nachmannson); Schol. vet. Theocr. 4.49a (p. 148, 19–21 Wendel). See Tarditi, Giovanni, Archiloco (Rome: Ateneo, 1968) 116.Google Scholar

21 See Malherbe, A. J., “Antisthenes and Odysseus, and Paul at War,” HTR 76 (1983) 143–73.Google Scholar

22 See Cox, Biography in Late Antiquity, 13–15; Evans, “Physiognomies,” 53–54.

23 Cf. Philostratus Heroicus 33.39 (46,16–17 de Lannou), and on the handbooks see Fürst, “Untersuchungen,” 386–88.

24 Cf. Plato Rep. 5.474D; Pollux Onom. 2.73 ( = Foerster, R., ed., Scriptores Physiognomici graeci et latini [Leipzig: Teubner, 1893] 2.Google Scholar 281,26–27).

25 Cf. Ps.-Aristotle Physiog. 811a36–38; Anon. De physiog. 51 ( = André, Jacques, ed., Anonyme Latin, Traité de physiognomie [Budé; Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981] 91).Google Scholar

26 Cf. Ps.-Aristotle Physiog. 813b.

27 See Evans, “Physiognomies,” 10, 53.

28 Translation by G. W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (LCL 63. See Misener, Geneva, “Iconistic Portraits,” CP 19 (1924) 108.Google Scholar

29 E.g., Pindar Isthm 3.53; cf. Fürst, “Untersuchungen,” 409 n. 82; Evans, “Physiognomics,” 44–45, 51.

30 E.g., Plutarch Antonius 4.1: “A shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Heracles.”

31 E.g., Philostratus Im. 2.15.5.

32 See Kindstrand, J. F., “Sostratus-Hercules-Agathion—The Rise of a Legend” Kungl. Humanistika Vetenskaps-Samfundet i Uppsala. Annales Societatis Litterarum Humaniorum Regiae Upsaliensis (Årsbok, 19791980) 5079.Google Scholar

33 See A. J. Malherbe, “Herakles,” RAC (forthcoming).

34 See also Ps.-Lucian Philopatris 12, which describes Paul as having receding hair; cf. Fürst, “Untersuchungen,” 381, 407ff.

35 Cf. Conybeare, F. C., The Apology and Acts of Apollonius and Other Monuments of Early Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1894) 62.Google Scholar

36 Cf. Wright, W., Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (London: Williams & Norgate, 1871) 2. 117.Google Scholar

37 See the textual variants in Vouaux, Les Actes, 150 n. 6.

38 Ps.-Aristotle Physiog. 805a; cf. Cicero De fato 10; Evans, “Physiognomics,” 5–6; Cox, Biography in Late Antiquity, 13–14.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

A Physical Description of Paul
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

A Physical Description of Paul
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

A Physical Description of Paul
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *