Rawlings School of Divinity


Master of Arts in Biblical Languages (MA)


Myron Kauk


physiognomy, Books of Samuel, Acts of the Apostles, Maimonides, metoposcopy, Isaac Luria, Zohar


Arts and Humanities


Physiognomy, the ancient practice of "reading" an individual's outward appearance to determine their personality or psychological makeup, was extremely popular in the ancient near east. Such scholars as Callie Callon, Mikeal Carl Parsons, and Mladen Popović have explored the use of physiognomy in the Old Testament and New Testament, but there has not been a study comparing Old Testament physiognomy and Old Testament physiognomy. Physical description pervades the Book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible in the descriptions of Saul, David, and Goliath. The book's focus on Saul, the first monarch of Israel, and his successor, David, interrogates the nature of rule and the theme of suitability to rule, concluding that Saul was not fit to rule, and David was. The physicality in the descriptions of Saul and David are particularly physiognomic. In the Acts of the Apostles, physical description also pervades the narrative. As the Acts of the Apostles develops, the reader encounters physical descriptions of various characters, most notably the proto-martyr, Stephen, who had the "face of an angel." This phrase appears in a non-canonical physical description of the Apostle Paul, the only such description from the ancient world. Reading Saul's fall and the Apostle's rise in the context of physical description and physiognomy reveals how the New Testament repurposed the Old Testament as a challenge to the Law of Moses that Paul would rail against in his epistles. The Old Testament Saul becomes the New Testament Saul of Tarsus, who becomes Paul the Apostle, and all three appear in the context of decidedly strategic and physiognomic programs of characterizing an individual's psychological makeup from their outer appearance. This project will involve numerous word studies in addition to engagement with the recent scholarly conversation about physiognomy in the New Testament. This thesis demonstrates that the New Testament repurposes Old Testament physiognomy in the same manner as it repurposes other aspects of the Old Testament. As Maud Gleason has demonstrated, physiognomy was a necessary skill in the ancient world because of the cosmopolitan nature of a society in which new interpersonal encounters were the norm. This means that although it is a pseudo-science, physiognomy can shed light on cultural and intellectual trends in the ancient world. As a theoretical foundation for this project, this thesis examines the phenomenological hermeneutic tradition begun by Edmund Husserl and developed by Paul Ricœur. This thesis also incorporates the Talmudic writings of French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas, whose "face-to-face" construct will figure prominently in my discussion of the nature of physiognomy and the ethical implications of "reading a person by their cover." This project will demonstrate that physiognomy prefigured phenomenology and the conceptual framework for hermeneutics that would eventually guide interpretation of the Bible.