An article in the New York Times in April 2019 made the entirely valid point that Jesus was unlikely to have been blonde and blue-eyed. It’s not impossible, but the balance of probability suggests not.
The author was stating something I’ve heard many times from black friends who grew up in Christian households that while their families were deeply religious, there was always a picture of the son of God on the hallway wall looking way too Aryan!
The article suggested that as a “Palestinian” he was unlikely to resemble a German or Swede – as he often does in popular depictions. Jesus would have been darker skinned, brown eyed with brown or black hair. In other words, he would have looked Middle Eastern.
But this passing reference to the Messiah being Palestinian caused a furore on Twitter with demands for the New York Times to remove that word – which I believe they subsequently did for the digital article.
The argument ran that Jesus was from Judaea, not Palestine – and that he was Jewish and not an Arab. I should say that the person who led the Twitter storm agreed with the point about Jesus being way too blonde and blue eyed but just found the reference to Palestinian inappropriate.
This was Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston who remarked that the term “Palestine” was something the Romans imposed on Judaea and that Jesus would have resented this reference being a Jewish man suffering under the yoke of Caesar.
I wouldn’t dispute that Jesus was Jewish and that Christians in the centuries after his death tried to remove his Jewish identity as his worship spread among gentiles. We can see how Jesus transforms from the earliest gospel of Mark – where he is more human and respectful of the law of Moses – to John, where he becomes a more other-worldly and non-Jewish entity.
It’s also fascinating to see how a character like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate develops from a disinterested bureaucrat who executes Jesus without a second thought in Mark – to a merciful figure in later gospels who tries to get Jesus freed. Pilate’s rehabilitation was very much linked to Christianity’s outreach to upper crust pagan Romans!
FIND OUT MORE: The alleged bloodline of Jesus!
The Judaism of Jesus is of course complicated by his claim to be the son of God. This was unacceptable to most of his community. And the man who shaped his legacy the most after his crucifixion – Saint Paul – was a Romanised Jew who poured scorn on the idea of observing the Jewish laws (like circumcision and dietary requirements).
This argument risks projecting current political battles and identities back on to ancient history. We have no idea what Jesus – assuming he ever existed – called himself. One anti-Christian treatise from the Emperor Julian in the 4th century CE refers to him as a “Galilean”. That’s a very localised identity and in a hyper-local world, I think that’s how Jesus would have seen himself – the boy from Galilee who didn’t much like the Romans or those snooty priests in Jerusalem.
In the Middle East today, on all sides, inventing history seems to be a compulsive pastime. Figures like Jesus have become pawns in modern geopolitical rows and as a result the real history is twisted into something completely anachronistic.