What should Bible characters look like?
A think piece about the appearance of Bible characters
in our teaching media,
in our imaginations,
…and in reality
Written for Sunday Software’s Bible posters webpage
by Rev. Neil MacQueen, www.sundaysoftware.com
Occasionally someone will GUFFAW at a Bible character who has blue eyes in some Bible video we are using. They are convinced that blue-eyes are not “Middle Eastern.” While I personally don’t use “blue” as an eye color in our software, you can occasionally see an actor (or even Jesus) with blue eyes in some of the movies I recommend. I like to turn that “guffaw” into a teaching moment, -a moment to share some info about genetics and Middle Easterners, and a teachable moment about how “should” a Bible character be portrayed.
Fact: Blue eyes are found among Middle Eastern, Arab, Egyptian, and Persian populations both today, -and in antiquity.
Sharing that fact, I then like to turn the discussion away from the genetics of eye color and towards a more important understanding:
Jesus was born into a culturally and genetically DIVERSE region of the world.
Israel is located at a genetic, geographic, cultural, and theologically DIVERSE crossroads.
Jesus’ gene pool was the product of generations spent in Egypt, exile in Babylon, intermarrying with Canaanites, living next door to Philistines (who were the “sea people” from the Greek islands), Solomon’s imported foreign wives(!), and migrations from across Mesopotamia, –north, south, east and west. “House of David” ?? ….Ruth herself was not Canaanite.
By the time of Jesus, the Greek and Roman armies had been in Israel for 300+ years. Prior to that, the Assyrian Army had been settled in Samaria (which is why the Jews didn’t like the Samaritans who were accused of being “impure”).
Blue eyes are by no means a dominant eye color in most parts of the world, including the Middle East, but they are found in various proportions in nearly every part of the world throughout history.
According to geneticists researching the human genome, the blue eye gene arose in the region of Turkey and the Baltic about 10,000 years ago and spread from there. Thus, contrary to popular misconception, BLUE EYES ARE NOT an exclusively European or Nordic trait. They were found in Greece and in Persia, and in populations as far away as the Pacific Rim. The genes that control eye, skin, hair and facial features MIXED throughout the world as populations migrated and armies marched.
Given its history and location, it should come as no surprise that Israel was a genetic melting pot. So while the predominant eye, skin and hair color around the world is brown, VARIATIONS are found in every population, and MORE SO in populations that saw such great influxes of genetic traits.
So yes, there were probably some rather rare blue-eyed, blondes in ancient Israel. That’s science. But was Jesus one of them? Could he have been blue-eyed? Probably not. Best guess is that probably he looked similar to most in that region, i.e. brown eyes.
But that raises the question: What did “most” look like? We know the gene pool was a mix of cultures and physical traits from a vast region of populations which had traversed the Holy Land at some point.
Years ago an anthropologist published an illustration of what Jesus “may” have looked like (pictured right) –IF his genetic traits were “average” for his region. Unfortunately, we have no idea if Jesus’ genetic lineage was “average”. (Look at the diversity of people in your neighborhood and church. Really….What is “average”?) The anthropologist’s illustration also seems to ignore the “average” genetic traits of Greeks and Romans swimming in Israel’s gene pool (let alone the North African Egyptians, where Jesus’ ancestors lives for over a hundred of years).
FACT: The occupying armies living (and thus, interbreeding) in Israel were drawn from the conquered territories of Galacia (Spain), Gaul (Celts from France and Belgium), North Africa, and even the Germanic tribes, as well as Italy. And remember, these occupying and trading populations were in Israel long before Jesus was. Galilee was apparently more culturally diverse than Jerusalem. (Indeed, in the time of Jesus, the region of Galilee had several rather cosmopolitan cities populated by people from around the Empire. Today it looks rural, but in Jesus’ time, it was humming with Greek and Roman influences.)
For all we know, Jesus looked more southern Mediterranean. Pictured right is a “typical portrait of a Greek man” based on ancient art. (But if you remember your history, Greece was at the land bridge between Europe and the Middle East, soooo….)
What he looked like doesn’t really matter, (does it?) But let’s at least be honest about the history of that region.
What about skin color?
Here’s another interesting fact…
The Bible is unusually silent on issues of color, skin tone, and facial appearance.
Some believe this is due to the Israelite injunction against images. Others suggest that the silence reflects an attitude of irrelevance about such things. But the fact of Israel’s long history at the genetic crossroads of humanity should not be ignored.
Because we know the history of Israel as a cultural crossroads, we can also say with great confidence that the skin tones of people in the time of Jesus were likely quite varied. It was most likely quite varied. Because the Greeks and the Romans brought slaves with them when they conquered Israel, we know there were Africans AND European-looking slaves with them, and quite likely slaves from as far east as India (where Alexander the Great’s armies had also conquered). On average, Middle Eastern skin tone is slightly more ruddy than that of northern Europeans, but Arabs are generally thought of as “caucasians” (white). I personally look forward to the day when we no longer use the word “race” as it has no scientific meaning whatsoever, and as is usually the case, is only used to divide, not include.
I like to tell my students that:
Throughout its history, Israel has struggled with its sense of “identity.” It did so even to the point of shunning other tribes, and denigrating entire populations, such as, the Samaritans, …and we know what Jesus had to say about that.
Eye and Skin Color in the Classroom and Bible Media
As a teacher and media producer, I occasionally run into the question of “ethnic appearance”, –the skin and eye color of the actors portraying Bible characters. It usually starts when some well-intention member knee-jerks about at a light-skinned Ruth, or dark brown disciple. They see a disciple with green eyes, and Jesus with a nice tan and quip something about “inauthentic”. They have their pre-conceived notions which don’t match the genetic truth of the region.
….so we have “the discussion” about what people in Bible times looked like. And that is: Greek and African, brown and blue, black and white, and lots of tan.
Our WONDERFUL Bible Hero Posters don’t have “ethnicity” problem. But their heroic style can be challenging to some pre-conceived Sunday School notions of what Bible characters should look like.
In the posters:
- Paul has muscles and grey hair!
- Mary has pores! And her stare seems to go right through you.
- Peter looks young, and doesn’t have a big beard!
- Jonah doesn’t look like a wimp. He looks….heroically humbled.
- Joseph looks like a boy, not a young adult. His robe caught in an invisible wind.
I like art that makes me and my students think. And that’s why I like these posters. They are done in the style of “digital hero art” …the kind you see in movie posters, children’s video games, and books, — a style widely known to our young people. The large caption on each poster makes that obvious: “Who is Your Hero?”
The point is obvious: These Bible people WERE heroic, and thus, they are presented in heroic poses. Powerful poses. Poses that tell you they have deep thoughts.
The MARY poster is the only one that seems “out there”.
When I first saw the Bible Hero posters, I sent screenshots to several church friends and showed them to my pastor (who is female). I had never seen Bible characters portrayed in this style of art, and wanted to see how others reacted to them. I also wanted to check for any sensitivities I was missing.
The unanimous response was “they are awesome”. But everyone also commented specifically on Mary. Her bluish-violet eyes pierce you when you see them in person. Her skin looks porcelain but has tone and even pores. She is almost transfigured and looking into the future. One Christian educator friends wrote, “this is the Mary of the Magnificat”. This is “art” Mary, not realistic-looking like the other posters go for. If and when I ever meet her in person, THIS is how I would expect her to look at me: Confident, serene, and with a gaze that saw into the future.