The germ of this article started years ago when a teacher complained about a video depicting a “white-looking Jesus with blue eyes“. What is Jesus “supposed” to look like?
A few years ago, an anthropologist came up with this “likely depiction” seen here on the right. But it’s misleading. Israel in the time of Jesus was as diverse a cultural/genetic-crossroads as America is today. He was likely not any more “average” Middle Eastern-looking than YOU probably look like the “average American” com-posited by Time magazine a few years ago.
Blue eyes in the Bible?
The Bible is largely silent on the subject of eye color and skin color. But based on history, ancient art, and genetic studies, we can safely say, YES, some biblical persons likely had blue eyes and green eyes, as well as brown and hazel and grey. And people in the Bible had light skin and dark skin, red hair, black, brown, and yes, even a few were blond.
The genes were all there.
(I recognize that this is an uncomfortable idea for those of us raised to be racially sensitive. But being racially sensitive also requires us to be informed about race and genetics, and to deal with our misconceptions.)
Fact is, by the time of Jesus, Israel had truly been the “crossroads of the world”. Trade, migration, and invading armies had left their genetic imprint all over the region. According to genetic researchers, the gene mutation for blue-eyes appeared in the human genome sometimes between 4000 and 8000 B.C in the region of the Black Sea. Turkey borders the Black Sea, –also known as the Hittite Empire in the Bible. The Babylonian Empire bordered the Black Sea. The Greeks, the Romans, you name it, made their way through the land of Jesus. Indeed, you can trace the history of Greeks and Roman eastward expansion by “blue eyes” and light skin genes found as far east as Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Since the time of Christ, Viking incursions south and east spread the blue-eyed gene from its northern concentrations, -though there are concentrations of blue-eyed genes elsewhere in the world which have nothing to do with the Vikings. The concentration of blue-eyes among Nordic populations, and in other small populations scattered across the continents is due to the recessive nature of the gene, and isolation of the local gene pool in during certain historical periods.)
Would I make Jesus blue-eyed and white skinned? No, but we have no evidence he was dark skinned, dark haired and brown eyed either. We might say he looked “Middle Eastern” but as pointed out here, what we see today in the Middle East is a huge variety of appearances created by thousands of years of cultural mixing.
Asking or teaching that Jesus “looked Middle Eastern” is un-informed. There is as much variation in appearance ACROSS the region of the Middle East as there is between west and east. Turks look different than Saudi Arabians. Iraqis look different than Egyptians. And actually, there are all sorts of different “looks” among the Turks and Egyptians….and they can tell you those differences. What we see today doesn’t even reflect Israel 2000 years ago. Today is the product of 2000 years of genetic mixing since the time of Jesus. Genetic ‘mixing’ can produce amazingly diverse looks in a very short time.
To show you how quickly the genetic landscape can change, in the U.S.A. the prevalence of blue-eyes is on the wane. In the early 1900s half of Americans had blue eyes. 100 years later that has dropped to 1 in 6. This is because the gene for blue-eyes is recessive, and the odds of you have a child with a fellow blue-eyed recessive go down dramatically as populations intermarry. (NYT) What we define as “Middle Eastern-looking” or American-looking has to be qualified with “today”.
Even most artwork from the biblical period can’t be trusted to adequately depict what people looked like. It was highly idealized and influenced by conceptions from the day. About the only conclusion we can be certain of is that populations in that region tend to share some similar appearance traits, such as “tend to have tan skin and brown eyes”, but within that population, the full pallet of human traits can be found in varying degrees.
The point: do not replace one UN-informed opinion with another.
And what we see now is not the way it has always been.
Light Skin or Dark Skin?
Skin color varies widely in the Middle East. Darker skin is the more ‘ancient’ tone for humans, but it lightened as humans spread out of Africa. Modern “Arab” skin color expresses the full range from light to dark. ART from the biblical periods expresses a wide range of color and appearance. What we now think of now as “Middle Eastern” is the result of thousand of years of invading and occupying armies leaving their genetic imprint, and of trade. We know for example, that PHILISTINES and Phonecians came from the north to conquer what we call Israel, and intermarry. In ancient Egyptian art, we know that some ancient Egyptians looked “more African” than they many do today, the result of invasions from the southern Nile. But by the time of Jesus, the Romans had settled parts of Egypt and Northern Africa. (And remember that the Israelites spent GENERATIONS in the Land of Goshen, most likely sharing genes with the Egyptians. Indeed Joseph’s wife was Egyptian and Moses’ wife was a Cushite, which is to say, probably black). The Egyptian gene pool also reflects the infusion of genetic traits from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and northern Muslim armies (Suleiman, Turks) which swept across N. Africa.
So yeah….it’s all mixed up.
The Bible is not moot on the subject of “inter-marrying”…just frequently parochial. Jesus directly addresses that false thinking when he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. His listeners understood that the Samaritans were of “mixed heritage” …having been overrun and settled by Assyrian army in the 9th C B.C. …yet Jesus makes the “half breed” Samaritan the righteous one.
So what is Jesus supposed to look like?
Black Jesus with lamb?
Jesus may have had green eyes for all we know. Or he might have had reddish hair (like Esau), or dark skin, or an Aquiline nose, or…. you get the idea. What he probably didn’t have was “white” skin because he spent a lot of time in the sun. He probably also didn’t walk around picking up lambs in a white robe or dress like a Roman senator. Jesus “likely” had brown eyes and brown hair, and a nice outdoor tan. But does it matter? I think it only matters if you use mono-cultural images in your teaching visuals. Use many depictions and talk what each says about Jesus (for better or worse). Teach students to be perceptive about what they see. One thing is for sure: I know for a fact he didn’t speak English, and isn’t it funny that no one ever complains about the ENGLISH speaking Jesus in video?
When I teach with Bible visuals, I often make a comment about their appearance and use it as a teaching tool.
AGE MIS-PERCEPTIONS also permeate our thinking…
For example, Naomi was probably not as old as we depict.
Naomi was certainly not this old!
Baselines: 15 was the typical age of marriage in ancient times. While that’s certainly young by our standards, in ancient times it was essential to the survival of the species that girls marry young and begin having babies. 18 was the age at which ancient Jewish tradition believed a man should marry. Ruth was childless by Mahlon, but had a child with Boaz (Obed, David’s grandfather), which likely puts Ruth in her 20’s.
Naomi was probably about 20-25 years older than Ruth, and here’s how we calculate that. If Naomi had married at 15 according to custom, and then had two sons according to the scriptures, -meaning she probably had Elimelech in her late teen’s (say 18), -and if according to common practice Elimelech was 18-20 when he married Ruth, that means Naomi may have been as young as 36 (18 + 18) when the 15-year-old Ruth married into her household.
Ruth was childless by Elimelech, and then he died. But she had a child with Boaz, so it is logical to assume Ruth was in her 20’s when she married Boaz because re-marriage was a cultural imperative for younger women. If Ruth was 22-25 when she remarried, that puts Naomi’s age around 44-48. Certainly not an “OLD WOMAN” by our standards.
Life Expectancy in Ancient Times:
A person who survived childhood diseases, war and disasters would have an average life expectancy of about 52 years in the Roman period. (Encyclopedia Britannica) This means they could live into their 60’s, though given healthcare and other stressors, and the archaeological evidence, most certainly did not live that long.
And by the way: Ruth was not an Israelite. She was a Moabite –a tribe EAST of Israel and located on a major north-south trade route (read: genetic crossroads). This lends further weight to the cross-cultural nature of the Israelite population in antiquity. We’re talking about David’s great-grandmother here!
How old was PETER when he met Jesus?
We typically think of him or depict him as being OLD. But the Bible is silent on his age. What we know is that he was a fisherman and married. That puts him anywhere from his 20’s to ? We know he met Paul some 10-15 years after the Resurrection and was crucified in Rome around 60 A.D. Based on this, I would say he was about the same age as Jesus, =30 in the Gospels. Young, vibrant, strong. Yet a lot of New Testament art depicts him as an old man.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and that it opens up discussion. As you can see below, this discussion is FRESH ON MY MIND …especially since we starting picking up the Heroes of the Bible Poster Collection. These posters are done in a modern “hero-art” style familiar to moviegoers and video gamers (which is the point). Peter is portrayed young! They are visually arresting and evocative, —which is what good art is supposed to do. No blue-eyed Jesus’, however 🙂 Click the image to see the posters at www.sundaysoftware.com/bibleposters
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister, Christian software designer and resource provider. He also happens to have an undergrad degree in archaeology and likes to read articles about brain research and Biblical archaeology. www.sundaysoftware.com
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