As is too often the case in modern times, the run up to Christmas has prompted an attack on the Christian gospels from those determined to tarnish the relevance and value of its message. The usual questions have again been raised. Even the entertainment industry has seen fit to get in on the anti-Christian act, with comedy shows and movies of questionable taste.
In amongst the melee have been a swathe of articles currently disputing the stereotypical view of its figurehead Jesus. Was he in truth the long haired, pale skinned beauty of tradition, or did he look like a mundane and somehow more acceptably typical Jew? The Christian figurehead it seems is not majestic or splendid enough for modern politically correct sensibilities. A new graven image has to be created, cast from the decaying bones of Israel’s soil. An image more realistic, less impressive and even, it might be added, positively frightening in its aspect.
In this, however, it does not seem to matter that Christ’s philosophical message becomes eclipsed by more mundane concerns focused on the largely irrelevant hue of Jesus’ skin. The modern, somewhat sceptical mind, must be a veritable Doubting Thomas and seek only the historical reality. It should be satisfied only with empirical proof based on the “forensic” archaeological evidence. We can leave the message of Christ, his sublime Beatitudes and profound parables aside, therefore, and meditate only on the less compelling and less fantastic truth of his earthly physical aspect. Indeed, we are encouraged to focus only on the fact of his dark and suggestively sinister visage, irrespective of whether this makes him less appealing, or even positively repellent. Any that find this objectionable are suspect, and any criticism might even call into question their own racially biased prejudices in turn.
This, then, is the departure point from which Richard Neave has taken his work, accepting with good faith the evidence presented to him by Israeli archaeologists. Scientists that seek to dispel the “myth” that the traditionally portrayed image is no more than a misconception, or worse an artistic fraud and a hoax, which must forever by dispelled, at least if we are to be clear about the truth of Jesus’ “real” appearance and his darker more Judeo-semitic origins.
This concern for the truth, however, is neither impartial nor objective, but appears based on some comments to be driven itself by a degree of unwanted and rather unwelcomed prejudice.
Here is a statement by one of the original researchers that Neave’s work was based on, that explains the justification for the project.
“In reconstructing this head, we are not claiming that this is exactly Jesus’ face, but we are trying to counteract all of those bad images of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesuses running around in Hollywood productions.”
Joe Zias, Israeli archaeologist.
Since when was someone with such features “bad”? Why should any man with blond hair and blue eyes be considered any worse than one with dark eyes and a swarthy complexion? The justification is that it is not empirically accurate. But besides the fact the Hellenised Good Shepherd should hardly be an object less worthy of veneration, even if historically he had the aspect of a darker haired, heavy set brute, why is it necessary to discount out of turn the very real possibility that Jesus himself might indeed have resembled his more typically Hellenised portraits? After all, the Jesus in movies, artistic images and iconography is a traditional image passed down in an unbroken stream of artistic representation that spans two millennia. Why should this simply be discounted as bad, or inaccurate, when it might indeed contain some semblance of the truth? A truth perhaps even passed down through the generations by word of mouth initially. It provides in any case an archetypal imago dei in its Christ figure, replete with aesthetic persuasion, and fit for religious contemplation. Whereas the historical, so called racially accurate representation, does not provide or sustain any image of beauty that might facilitate or awaken the spark of religious faith, or awaken veneration in any potential wandering lambs that might first behold his face. Indeed, it provokes quite the opposite reaction.
Neave’s reconstruction of the “Judean Jesus” presupposes Semitic origins and omits the possibility of mixed racial parentage.
What then can we ascertain based on reason and not simply from the so called “authentic” archaeological evidence of the three skulls used for this reconstruction? Semitic skulls chosen in an area that just so happened to be in the general vicinity of Jesus’ circumstantial place of birth?
First, the value of this evidence used in the reconstruction, provides only a very general profiling based on the various racial demographics in the region of Judea, a southern province of Palestine. Furthermore, it fails to consider Jesus’ possibly unorthodox parentage and the effect this might have had on his looks in turn; something in truth that can never been known, without the actual skeletal remains.
Certainly we do not know more specifically which race exactly these sample skulls belonged to. The Roman protectorate of Judea, which incorporated Galilee in 44 BC, was a multicultural and multi racial kingdom, and one inhabited by a not insubstantial number of different races and tribes including Romans, Judahites, Edomites, Cuthians, Sephervaim, Arabs and Nabateans. In this, the impression given by Neave and others, is that these skulls were of “Semitic” origin, although newspaper reports do not categorically state this, and speak only of the geographic region. This then appears to be a claim that they were “Judean” in a more general Semitic sense, but even that claim does not necessarily mean they were specifically of Jewish origin, let alone Judean in the tribal sense, just because the skulls were located in the geographic region of Judea. This more general claim, then, simply widens the scope of racial profiling to make the enterprise rather worthless. In any case, even if we are here dealing with specifically Judaeo-Semitic Jewish evidence based on Semitic DNA profiling, something that is never made clear, for the profiling of typicality to be more persuasive, one feels a larger number of skulls would have been needed, and certainly more than three.
An alternative racial profiling can be assembled however, based on a number of historical texts and sheer deduction, as opposed to “authentic” archaeological evidence that cannot really be specific. Although again, none of this provides a definitive picture of the actual physical appearance of Jesus himself. What then are the details?
According to the Christian testimony at least, Jesus was considered a Jew. Divine impregnation might well have had some undetermined influence on his physical aspect, but it would not really affect his Jewishness per se, as this was passed from his mother Mary’s side. Of his tribal lineage, however, more is specifically said: as he was considered to have been born of the House of David, and therefore of the tribe of Judah. But tribal affiliation in this respect is supposed to have been traced from the father’s side. For this to hold then, Joseph or some other man of the tribe of Judah, would have had to have been Jesus’ father to fulfil the scriptures and purely Jewish lineage. We can place to one side the Christian perspective that suggests here that God as the prime cause is the originator of all Judaic lineage.
Concerning Joseph as the father, the gospels of Matthew and Luke both contain a genealogy of Jesus showing ancestry from King David via Joseph, but through different sons. Matthew follows the major royal line from Solomon, while Luke traces another line back to Nathan, another son of David and Bathsheba. Consequently, all the names between David and Joseph are different in the two accounts, but both are of the same House. According to Matthew 1:16, “Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary”, while according to Luke 3:23, Joseph is said to be “[the son] of Heli”.
Considering Mary, we can be certain she had some influence on the physical characteristics of Jesus. We certainly know she was Jewish. Her family lineage, however, offers two possibilities as to her tribe being either of Levite or Judah. We know Mary’s mother was a Levite, the sister of Elizabeth’s father, her cousin, was also a Levite. But whatever the tribal relationship between the mothers of Mary and Elizabeth, that would not necessarily make Mary a Levite, if tribal affiliation was indeed traced through the male line. Since Mary’s father was of the tribe of Judah, however, Mary was also considered of this tribe.
The Levite distinction in respect to Jesus is pertinent only in respect to the claim that the physical characteristics of each tribe may well have been sufficiently preserved at that time to have distinguished his mother’s looks, dependent on which side of the family she favoured. The details, extent and specifics of this however cannot be known.
Generally, based on these details, we can assume little more than what Neave, Zias, et al. apparently have: namely that racially Jesus was “Semitic” or more specifically Judaeo-Semitic. If we accept Joseph was his father we can make the further claim that his lineage was of the tribe of Judah. This tribal lineage being further strengthened not just in respect to his “father’s” side, but in respect to his mother’s blood line also.
This tribal profile, however, proves little in respect to Jesus’ actual physical characteristics, other than that it can be more strongly assumed Jesus was Judaeo-Semitic. Little more can be learned from his tribal lineage either, without knowing the variety of physical distinctions and facial characteristics of the various tribes now diffuse. Furthermore, any influence on Jesus would have to accept that his adopted father was an actual parent, or some other father of the tribe of Judah was, but this evidence too is by no means clear cut.
These vagaries aside, the region of the selection for the skulls is fraught with weakness. For Jesus wasn’t simply conceived in Judea, he was more precisely conceived in Galilee. Neither was he just the offspring of Mary and Joseph. This broad claim can be made based on all the writings, circumstantial evidence and faith based beliefs, irrespective of their differing claims as to his true father. But it also leaves open the possibility that Jesus may have been sired, if not by the Holy Spirit, then at least by one of any possible number of “outside” races that inhabited the region of Galilee.
Even Galilean Jews were thought of as “outsiders” during Jesus’ time, in a distinct northern geographic region that yet came under Roman jurisdiction.** The demographic population of Galilee (like the southern province of Judea) was again composed of distinct and diverse elements: Aramaean, Iturean, Phoenician, Samaritan, Greek and of course Roman. Galilean Jews, furthermore, did not adhere to the stricter orthodoxy characteristic of the southern Jewish “Judeans”. Their differences were accentuated too in respect to their speech. A trait which distinguished them from their typically more sophisticated Jerusalem centred Judean brethren in the South, who regarded Galilee and the Galilean Jews generally with a certain aloof contempt.
What we can deduce is that this Galilean was not claimed to be conceived according to his Mother, or by his disciples and apostles, in wedlock, or out of wedlock, to Joseph of Nazareth, the Galileean Jew of the Tribe of Judah. Indeed, gIven the racial diversity of Galilee, of which Nazareth was a part, any one of a number of different ethnicities could have fathered Jesus. Logically then, one need not necessarily presume that Jesus was a typical Judean Jew. Indeed, putting divine impregnation aside, considering the mixed races in the region, Jesus might even have favoured the features of a Roman, Greek, Phoenician, etc, or some other non Jewish racial mix, characteristic of his real biological father that inhabited the region of Galilee at that time. Whilst Mary’s Jewish Judean or Levite lineage, dependent on which tribe she too favoured (either on her father’s or mother’s side) also provided an influence.
The Talmud provides an alternative, albeit contrary account to the Gospels, of Jesus’ possible parentage. The text is divided into two parts, the Mishna and the Gemara. The first discusses such subjects as festivals and sacred things. The Gemara provides a commentary on these subjects. When the Talmud was written is not known precisely. Some authorities suggest a date of 150-160, around the same time the Christian Gospels began to emerge, while others say 450 AD.
Whilst references to Jesus might not be historical, but written in an attempt to disparage the growing cult of Christianity, Jesus’ name is still referred to twenty times. So too, it quite specifically documents that he was born an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier called Pantera, nicknamed the “Panther”. The existence of Pantera, or at least the use of the name, was confirmed by the discovery of a mysterious tombstone at Bingerbrück in Germany. The engraving etched in the headstone read:
“Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera from Sidon, aged 62 years served 40 years, former standard bearer of the first cohort of archers lies here.”
Pantera’s tombstone tells us that he was from Sidonia, now called Sidon, which is slightly north of Judea, which makes it feasible for him to have had sex with Mary or Miriam as she might have been known. His tombstone further tells us that he was a member of the First Cohort of Archers, which were originally based in Palestine at the necessary time in question. In 6 CE they moved to Dalmatia, and then to the Rhine in 9 CE. Since Jesus’ conception occurred roughly around 6 BCE, Pantera was in the right region at the right time. The likelihood of it being this specific Pantera , however, is lessened by it being a commonly used name amongst Romans of a certain class. However, the likelihood of Roman parentage by another Pantera, and therefore non Judeo-Semitic parent, is not really lessened due to this.
Clearly, based on the Talmudic account, Jesus was not even Judean in the tribal sense, but an illegitimate child born in sin out of wedlock. His physical characteristics therefore may have been Roman, if he had favoured his father, or Judean or Levite if he had favoured his mother, or some aspect incorporating both.***
Whilst the Talmudic claims may be false and designed to slur and repress a growing unorthodox and seemingly blasphemous cult, it provides a rich source and loosely matches the time period of the Gospels. Can any information in the New Testament dispel these charges?
Certainly the Gospels’ concern is to emphasise Jesus’ Judean lineage as belonging to the House of David, tracing the lineage to Joseph, whilst contrarily they do not dispel the story of divine impregnation. This is a well known claim. So too, Jesus’ physical appearance is not specifically stated to support any notion of a divine characteristic affecting his physical appearance generally in a way that would mark him out as miraculous, divine or celestial in origin, let alone quintessentially Judean as befitting his tribe. However, neither can it be discounted, and a number of apocryphal, but nevertheless interesting historical sources, give some descriptions that do suggest he may not have been entirely of purely Judean or more broadly Jewish (let alone Semitic) origin. At the least his appearance in these sources is conveyed as not being typically Judaeo-Semitic.
The strength of such testimony provides a surprisingly consistent picture of Jesus’ appearance. It also provides evidence that the portrayal of Jesus’ as a tall, pale eyed, fair skinned, long haired, noble figure need not necessarily be taken as the prejudices of European ethnocentricism. Graven images and accounts of Jesus in Egypt, Jordan and the Indian sub continent have also portrayed many of these physical features throughout the centuries. The Hassan Saida book perhaps representing the earliest image of Jesus.
Publius Lentullus, Governor of Judea a Roman Consul during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), supposedly wrote the following epistle to the Senate concerning the Nazarene called Jesus; although stylistic discrepancies mark it out as apocryphal and not of the kind required to be written by Roman officials under the jurisdiction of either Tiberius or Augustus during Jesus’ time.
“There appeared in these our days a man, of the Jewish Nation, of great virtue, named Yeshua [Jesus], who is yet living among us, and of the Gentiles is accepted for a Prophet of truth, but His own disciples call Him the Son of God- He raiseth the dead and cureth all manner of diseases. A man of stature somewhat tall, and comely, with very reverent countenance, such as the beholders may both love and fear, his hair of (the colour of) the chestnut, full ripe, plain to His ears, whence downwards it is more orient and curling and wavering about His shoulders. In the midst of His head is a seam or partition in His hair, after the manner of the Nazarenes. His forehead plain and very delicate; His face without spot or wrinkle, beautified with a lovely red; His nose and mouth so formed as nothing can be reprehended; His beard thickish, in colour like His hair, not very long, but forked; His look innocent and mature; His eyes grey, clear, and quick- In reproving hypocrisy He is terrible; in admonishing, courteous and fair spoken; pleasant in conversation, mixed with gravity. It cannot be remembered that any have seen Him laugh, but many have seen Him weep. In proportion of body, most excellent; His hands and arms delicate to behold. In speaking, very temperate, modest, and wise. A man, for His singular beauty, surpassing the children of men.”
Another letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar, describing his physical appearance, also gives information. Copies are in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.
“TO TIBERIUS CAESAR:
A young man appeared in Galilee preaching with humble unction, a new law in the Name of the God that had sent Him. At first I was apprehensive that His design was to stir up the people against the Romans, but my fears were soon dispelled. Jesus of Nazareth spoke rather as a friend of the Romans than of the Jews. One day I observed in the midst of a group of people a young man who was leaning against a tree, calmly addressing the multitude. I was told it was Jesus. This I could easily have suspected so great was the difference between Him and those who were listening to Him. His golden colored hair and beard gave to his appearance a celestial aspect. He appeared to be about 30 years of age. Never have I seen a sweeter or more serene countenance. What a contrast between Him and His bearers with their black beards and tawny complexions! Unwilling to interrupt Him by my presence, I continued my walk but signified to my secretary to join the group and listen. Later, my secretary reported that never had he seen in the works of all the philosophers anything that compared to the teachings of Jesus. He told me that Jesus was neither seditious nor rebellious, so we extended to Him our protection. He was at liberty to act, to speak, to assemble and to address the people. This unlimited freedom provoked the Jews — not the poor but the rich and powerful.
Later, I wrote to Jesus requesting an interview with Him at the Praetorium. He came. When the Nazarene made His appearance I was having my morning walk and as I faced Him my feet seemed fastened with an iron hand to the marble pavement and I trembled in every limb as a guilty culprit, though he was calm. For some time I stood admiring this extraordinary Man. There was nothing in Him that was repelling, nor in His character, yet I felt awed in His presence…”
Old Testament references about a coming Messiah (whom Christians believe to be Jesus) have been projected forward to form conjectures about the appearance of Jesus on theological, rather than historical or archaeo-forensic grounds. In Isaiah 53:2 for example the scourged Messiah appears to be a man with “no beauty that we should desire him”, whilst Psalm 45:2-3 describes him as “fairer than the children of men”. Lamentation 4:7 speaks of a contrary mix of physical attributes hardly less conclusive:
“Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more swarthy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: Their visage is blacker than coal;” as referring to facial skin color. Whilst 1 Samuel 16:12 describes David, the ancestor of Jesus, as having “beautiful eyes” or “fair countenance.”
None of these prophecies of the future Messiah however relate to Jesus as far as Orthodox Jews are concerned. Neither do they provide proof or evidence of Jesus’ physical attributes as they were in actuality. However, he might have needed, or have been expected to have fulfilled the requirements of at least some of these contrary attributes nevertheless, should the claim of Messiah have been taken seriously. The descriptions, however, are so broad or vague in their requirements that any one of any number of Individuals could have successfully staked a claim to have been the Messiah based on appearance and probably did.
Quranic and Hadith traditions such as Sahih Bukhari, as well as Tafsir, have given an oral depiction of what Jesus looked like, although some small details in the accounts don’t match. Such as the claim that Jesus had both curly and straight-hair. The Hadith refer to Muhammad’s account of the Night Journey, when he was supposedly taken up to heaven by the angel Gabriel and witnessed Jesus as a Prophet who “…had curly hair and a reddish complexion”. Others say his face was flushed “a reddish man with many freckles on his face as if he had just come from a bath”.
It should be noted here that the Greeks called the Edomites the “Idumea” or “red” people. Esau of Edom was described as having a red skin tone in Genesis 25:25. He was also described as hairy. Esau was the name of at least two Edomite rulers. In this genealogy Isaac’s sons were not Jews, but Horites like their father and grandfather Abraham. That is why Esau the Elder married into the line associated with Seir the Horite (Gen. 36) and why Jacob married into the Horite line of Na-Hor. Edomites were at least one race which inhabited Judea during Jesus’ time.
In another account (from Bukhari) Jesus is seen in a dream near the Kaaba, as “a man of a wheatish complexion with straight hair. I asked who it was. They said: This is the Messiah, son of Mary”. However, other narrations give variations in the color. Salim ibn Abd-Allah reported that the prophet “did not say that Jesus was of red complexion”, rather he was “a man of brown complexion and lank hair”. In contrast Abd Allah ibn Abbas asserted that Jesus was of “moderate complexion inclined to the red and white colors and of lank hair.”
Such disparities have been explained in various ways to emphasise the different assertions about his race. For example, Ana Echevarría notes that medieval Spanish writer Jimenez de Rada in his Historia Arabum chose a particular version to highlight a belief that Jesus was whiter than Muhammad, quoting the Ibn Abbas version: “I saw Jesus, a man of medium height and moderate complexion inclined to the red and white colours and of lank hair”. Echevarría comments that “Moses and Jesus are portrayed as specimens of a completely different ‘ethnic type’, fair and blond; ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial’ differences between them and Muhammad are thus highlighted.”
Whatever the prejudices and various emphases on his physical appearance to score points, or create a more persuasive and appealing figure for new converts complementary to their own races, what is clear is the consistency of a description where the dark, swarthy, short haired, rotund figure that Zias, Neave, et al. suppose is not one that need be necessarily presumed. Even by their own admission the facial characteristics can never be known, and their reconstruction only attempts to provide a picture in characteristically general Judaeo-Semitic terms; something Jesus might not have even been, at least on his father’s side. So too, for this to be taken seriously, any number of skulls would have had to be reconstructed to gain a more accurate picture of characteristic typicality. However, enough evidence can be provided to dispute even the basis of the premises on which such archaeological evidence was selectively justified, based on reasoning and historical testimony. This is not to discount the excellent work of artistic reconstruction that Neave did. It simply need not necessarily be considered indicative of the racial characteristics of a man, who at least by some accounts, might not necessarily have even been typically Judaeo-Semitic or even Semitic, let alone from Judea.
Painted on a Catacomb wall, Jesus with short hair, depicted as the Good Shepherd (3rd Century AD). The Graeco-Roman dress style is notable.
Next, a number of arguments need to be considered concerning the claim Jesus’ might have had long hair. In our traditional view of Jesus, he is invariable portrayed as having long hair and a beard.****
Many have claimed Jesus had long hair because he was a “Nazarite.” The argument rests on a number of passages appealing to the Nazarene Vow such as:
“Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord: (3) He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. (4) All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk. (5) All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.”