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 a church member 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.
Some people have the same problem when Bible characters are depicted in ways they don’t expect. A prophet with muscles, a beardless disciple, Jesus with oiled 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.
Sharing that fact, I then like to turn the discussion away from the genetics of eye color and towards a more important understanding:
Geographic Fact: 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 started with Abraham in Mesopotamia, intertwined for generations in Egypt, intermarried with Canaanites, lived next door to Philistines (who were the “sea people” from the Greek islands), Solomon imported foreign wives(!), was mixed by the Assyrian conquest and Babylonian exile. Israel’s vaunted “House of David” ?? David’s great grandmother Ruth was a Moabite.
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”).
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.
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. In addition to Europe, blue eyes are 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 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.
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” genetic traits of Greeks and Romans swimming in Israel’s gene pool (let alone the North African Egyptians and Babylonian (Persians) where Jesus’ ancestors lived).
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.
Our Bible Hero Posters might have an “ethnicity problem” for those who want their Bible heroes to look like old men with big noses and beards.
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 near-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 “ethereal 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.