Christians believe that Jesus Christ, the son of God, was born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem on 25 December. On Christmas, right-wing, racist white Christians throughout the US are celebrating the birth of this guy:
A December 2002 Popular Mechanics article, “The Real Face of Jesus,” reads (emphasis mine):
From the first time Christian children settle into Sunday school classrooms, an image of Jesus Christ is etched into their minds. In North America he is most often depicted as being taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed. A person with these features and physical bearing would have looked very different from everyone else in the region where Jesus lived and ministered.
Surely the authors of the Bible would have mentioned so stark a contrast. On the contrary, according to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to indicate to the soldiers whom [sic] Jesus was because they could not tell him apart from his disciples. Further clouding the question of what Jesus looked like is the simple fact that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described, nor have any drawings of him ever been uncovered. There is the additional problem of having neither a skeleton nor other bodily remains to probe for DNA.
In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists’ cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. “While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic.” And so the fundamental question remains: What did Jesus look like?
An answer has emerged from an exciting new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history.
Forensic anthropology, a sub-discipline in physical anthropology, draws from archeology, physical and biological sciences, genetics, auxology (the study of human growth and development), primatology, paleoanthropology (the study of primate and human evolution), human osteology (the study of the skeleton), nutrition, dentistry, and climate science in order to understand what human beings would have looked like long ago.
With the understanding that, according to the incident in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus looked like his Galilean Semite peers, scientists analyzed three well-preserved skulls that had been found near Jerusalem. Renowned forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, who specializes in recreating scientifically accurate portraits of famous historical figures (he has a book about it, Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence), led a team of scientists that, with the assistance of computerized tomography, re-created the muscles and skin that would have been on top of these skulls.
To supplement their research, Neave and his team also looked at drawings from first-century archeological sites, which prove that Jesus would have had dark-colored eyes. In terms of facial hair, as a Jew, Jesus would have been bearded; biblical scholars furthermore indicate that his hair would have been short with tight curls. (In 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul also says “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,” suggesting that Jesus did not have long hair).
The average Semite male in Jesus’ time was 5 ft 1 in (1.55 m) in height and approximately 110 lb (50 kg). As a carpenter Jesus would probably have been more muscular, but not much bigger.
In comical meme form: The greatest miracle Jesus performed was being a white man in the Middle East in the first century.
All of this of course presumes that Jesus actually existed. Most scholars do agree that there was an historical Jesus, although his life diverged greatly from that depicted in the Bible. In regards to these present concerns, nevertheless, whether or not the religious conception of Jesus is based on a real person, or upon multiple real people, or perhaps upon no real people at all, is ultimately irrelevant. This is a scientific attempt at understanding what Jesus would have looked like, if he had indeed existed in Bethlehem, Palestine at this time, as Christians believe.
The Whitening of Jesus
The Director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology, Charles D. Hackett, explains
The fact that [Jesus] probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality. And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.
The image of white Jesus many Westerners conceive of today is the result of a deliberate attempt to whiten Jesus, to make him look more like a Western European.
If one looks through a chronological history of the presentations of Jesus in Western art, one will see that Jesus gets increasingly whiter and whiter. One can simply walk through the rooms of an art museum organized by consecutive historical periods (as many are) and see how Jesus’ portrayal changes.
This 14th-century Macedonian painting is more accurate than most Western presentations of Jesus, but, as one can see from the aforementioned forensic anthropologists’ sketch, still inaccurate.
Jesus the Political Radical
Contemporary representation of historical Jesus’ physical appearance is not the only thing that is inaccurate; popular portrayal of his politics is often very misguided too.
Jesus was a political dissident and radical. Jesus was murdered for being an enemy of the state. He was not just punished for preaching “blasphemy”; most empires could frankly care less about the religious beliefs of their subjects. Jesus was so dangerous to the Roman empire because he challenged its legitimacy.
Crucifixion was the Roman empire’s primary method of punishing dissidents. Death by crucifixion was the worst punishment the empire meted out; Rome reserved it for dissentious slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. Slaves who partook in the famous uprising led by Spartacus, the 73-71 BCE Third Servile War (there were three major slave rebellions in the Roman empire, the three “Servile Wars,” in just the 50 years from 135 BCE to 71 BCE alone), were murdered in mass crucifixions for the worst crime of all: challenging tyranny. Jesus was similarly considered guilty of treason, for preaching obedience to God over obedience to the Roman authorities. He was a political prisoner, and was killed for political, not religious, reasons.
The fact of the matter is, by today’s standards, Jesus would be considered a communist.
Many Latin American Christians, among countless other Christians around the world, have recognized the radical egalitarian, anti-capitalist nature of Christ’s teachings, and have been advocating liberation theology for decades (movements that the US and other imperialist Christian nations violently crushed in horrific crimes against humanity).
The reactionary whitewashing of Jesus’ politics and history corresponds directly to the racist literal whitewashing of his body.
As a popular meme puts it:
Jesus was a radical nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks; wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, and even anti-public prayer (Matthew 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long haired, brown-skinned, homeless community-organizing, anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.
Jesus the Palestinian Jew
Jesus was also a Palestinian. Yes, he was Jewish, but he was also Palestinian. He was both.
Before the creation of Israel in 1948, this was not an oxymoron; there were thousands of Palestinian Jews. The modern land of Israel has been called Palestine for thousands of years, and Jews have lived there for this time.
In fact, in the mid-19th century, under the Ottoman empire, scholars estimate 5-7% of the approximately 600,000 people who lived in historic Palestine were Jewish.
This is not surprising when one considers the fact that Jews and Palestinian Arabs share the same heritage and same common ancestors. As a New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine scientific study reveals, “Jews are the genetic brothers of Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese, and they all share a common genetic lineage that stretches back thousands of years.”
Like Palestinian Jews, Palestinian Christians are among the oldest adherents to their respective religion in the entire world. And Palestinian Christians have been Christians for many centuries longer than the white westerners who bankroll what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé calls Israel’s “incremental genocide” of the indigenous Arab population.
Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti reflected on this fact, insisting “We always remember that Jesus was the first Palestinian who was tortured in this land.”
In other words, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who challenged empire, preached non-violent civil disobedience, and opposed the greed and individualism that are at the heart of capitalism.
If Jesus were alive in the US today he would likely be classified as a “terrorist” by the government, racially profiled by police, and oppressed by the Christian Right. If Christian conservatives saw Jesus walking down the street today in their gated, all-white communities, they would call the cops—or pull out their shotguns and shoot him in “self-defense.”
Jesus Referred to God as ‘Aalah’
But wait, there’s more! The cherry on top is linguistic in nature.
Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic. The Old Testament is written in both ancient Hebrew and Aramaic (most of the text is in Hebrew, but approximately 250 verses are in Aramaic). The word for “God” in Aramaic, Jesus’ language, is “Aalah.” The Old Testament uses the word Aalah in the Aramaic passages. Jesus referred to God as Aalah.
Still today, Christians who speak Aramaic and Arabic also refer to God as “Allah.” Jews who speak Arabic refer to God as Allah as well. Allah simply refers to the Abrahamic God. Contrary to the absurd insistence of ignorant, Islamophobic Christians, Muslims do not worship a “different God.”
This is the Lord’s Prayer, in the language in which Jesus would have recited it to his disciples:
So let’s get this straight: Right-wing, nationalist, racist white Christians who “want to keep America white,” wish their military would “just nuke the Middle East,” and enthusiastically support the militarization of the border in order to prevent immigrants of color from entering also happen to simultaneously worship an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jew who referred to God as “Aalah” and was crucified for being a radical political dissident.
Ah, life offers such grand ironies.