What should Bible characters look like?
An uncomfortable think piece about the appearance of Bible characters, and Jesus
in our teaching media,
in our imaginations,
…and in various likely realities
from Neil MacQueen, www.sundaysoftware.com
I originally wrote this in reply to a complaint that some Bible characters in one of our software programs looked too “modern” and should look more “biblical.” It led to a discussion about “eye-color” in the Bible — which is another thing some folks have strong opinion’s about. Being ridiculously curious, I started with a Bible search about eye color, and this article was born. It’s not eloquent or perfect, but I do hope it is helpful.
We live in a time when the issues of racism and injustice are as important as ever. So let me begin by saying, “brown matters.” Blue eyes have often been associated with Europeans and a history of slave trade that still haunts our society today with inequality and prejudice.
I have no trouble imagining Jesus with brown skin and brown eyes (and indeed, have depicted him thus in one of our software programs. I also depicted him as a fish creature on an underwater planet, and a robot Lord on a sentient robot planet in our Jesus in Space software!
There is virtue in using color to teach color-blindness. In fact, that’s my goal in this brief article — to talk about “color” so that we can get past the color of Jesus’ eyes and what we “think” a Bible character should look like (much less, “smell” like). We cannot replace one false belief with another. We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but statistically speaking, his genes are likely to be a “mix” of genes from the armies and migrations that came and left the Promised Land for thousands of years. If you’ve taken the “23 and me” or Ancestry DNA test, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve got traces of Cypriot, Italian, North African, Norse, and Native American floating in my predominantly “European appearance” pool. Jesus’ DNA was likely no different with respect to its interesting mix. Which means, Jesus could have had GREEN eyes and curly black hair, or light brown curly hair and brown eyes, or dark straight hair and light eyes, or….yes, even blue eyes (they are not exclusive to Europeans). Equally as instructive, the Bible is surprisingly silent on describing the facial features and eyes of people in its pages — which seems like wisdom to me. Thing is, when you illustrate a story, you have to pick a color pallet, and there’s the rub.
We did give him blue eyes in our Jesus in Space program — and gills for the underwater planet “Vet” Jesus, and blue ice-hair on the ice moon. We weren’t tripping. We were trying to make a point.
Occasionally a church member will GUFFAW at a Bible character that has blue eyes in some Bible video we are using. Some people are convinced that blue-eyes are not “Middle Eastern.” While I personally don’t use “blue” as an eye color for the Biblical characters in my software, you can occasionally see an actor (or even Jesus) with blue eyes in some of the better Bible movies. Some people have the same problem when Bible characters are depicted in ways they don’t expect. This includes: a prophet with muscles, a beardless disciple, Jesus with oiled hair (or nice hair). Our preconceived notions can trip us up, …or open us up to learn something new.
Genetic Fact: Blue eyes are found among Middle Eastern, Arab, Egyptian, and Persian populations both today, -and in antiquity.
Geographic Fact: Jesus was born into a culturally and genetically DIVERSE region of the world.
When Bible scholar remind us that Israel is located at the “crossroads” of three great continents, that also means that Israel is located at a genetic, cultural, and theologically crossroads, as well.
Jesus’ gene pool started with Abraham in Mesopotamia, was intertwined for generations in Egypt, intermarried with Canaanites, lived next door to Philistines (who were the “sea people” from the Greek islands). The Bible tells us that David’s great grandmother Ruth was a Moabite, and that both David and Solomon had many foreign wives. We know that northern Israel was conquered and settled by the Assyrian army. And don’t forget that Jerusalem was conquered and its elite were taken into Babylonian exile.
By the time of Jesus, the Greek and Roman armies had been in Israel for 300+ years. And the gene pool of those armies was WIDE. 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”).
Now it must be said that blue eyes were by no means a dominant eye color in most parts of the world, even to this day, including in the Middle East, but they ARE found in various proportions in nearly every part of the world throughout history. Contrary to popular misconception, BLUE EYES ARE NOT an exclusively European or Nordic trait. 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. That means that the blue-eyed got to Palestine a lot sooner than it got to the north. In addition to Europe, blue eyes are not uncommonly found 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 then 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? Statistically speaking, probably not. Our best guess is that probably he looked similar to most in that region, i.e. brown eyes with brown hair.
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, then decide “what average”?) The anthropologist’s illustration also seems to ignore the “average” traits of Greeks and Romans swimming in Israel’s gene pool (as if there was one “Roman” look, and there is not) let alone the North African Egyptians and Babylonian (Persians) where Jesus’ Biblical ancestors once lived. (Some Old Testament scriptures encourage Jews not to assimilate with the culture they find themselves in, and this prohibition included interbreeding.)
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, and Alexander’s army spread east as far as India, soooo….)
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. When Israelite kings weren’t procuring wives from foreign lands, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and the Romans were leaving their genetic skin variations on Israel, in addition to the slaves they brought with them. We know from ancient sources that 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. Arabs are genetically considered “caucasians” (white), but frankly, do any of these artificial designations mean anything? 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.