Cecil B. DeMille still has me half-convinced that Moses was a strappingly handsome man of pronounced Anglo-Saxon appearance. Growing up, I watched “The Ten Commandments” every Passover, and the charismatic Charlton Heston has a way of imprinting himself permanently on a child’s mind. So I am half-sympathetic to Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor who earlier this week said, during an on-air debate about depictions of Santa Claus (because there’s nothing else going on in the world, apparently), that “Jesus was a white man.” She went on to say, “He’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”
Kelly is uncomfortable with change, which is fine. Discomfort with change is one of the themes of Fox News. It is possible to argue that Kelly wants to impose her own vision of Jesus on a multicultural U.S., and this is troubling. But it doesn’t seem to be too terrible a crime for a person to embrace a specific understanding of the physical appearance of Jesus.
Kelly’s Jesus, as Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” told the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, happens to be white. “The Christ can be whatever you want him to be,” Aslan said, noting that, in Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, which asked Christian communities around the world to paint their understandings of Jesus and Mary, the Jesus of Chinese Christians appears to be Chinese, the Jesus of Guatemalans appears to be Guatemalan, and so on. If Megyn Kelly were to paint a portrait of Jesus, I assume he would look like Tom Brady.
It is important, however, to understand how the historical Jesus -- who was a Jew of Israel, born in Judea, raised in the Galilee -- might have looked, and how he dressed and ate and thought and prayed, because Christians have labored for many centuries, in a not-benign way, to Europeanize, and de-Judaize, their savior’s image. This campaign was an indispensable component of the church’s age-old project to separate its savior from his faith, and to therefore turn Christianity against its mother religion.
The most recent manifestation of the desire to de-Judaize Jesus has come not from European Christian churches, but from anti-Israel activists in the Arab world, who have engaged in a campaign to assert that Jesus was, in fact, a Palestinian (in other words, a member of a people that did not come into being until roughly 100 years ago), and that the Jews are guilty of deicide and genocide, among other -cides.
The most famous proponent of this idea has been the Reverend Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Center in Jerusalem, which was established to argue against the historical and theological claims of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Ateek foments anti-Semitism by making terrible accusations such as this one: “Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. … The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.”
Aslan is a critic of Israel, and he gave a telling answer when Fisher asked him to describe what Jesus might have looked like. “Well, what we know about him is that he was a Galilean. As a Galilean, he would have been what is referred to as a Palestinian Jew. He would look the way that the average Palestinian would look today. So that would mean dark features, hairy, probably a longer nose, black hair.”
Aslan is not in the camp of those who deny, or minimize, Jesus’s connection to Judaism, but in this answer, he made an obvious attempt to associate Jesus with the Palestinians, rather than with the Israelis of today.
The genetic truth, as best we know, is more complicated and interesting than Aslan suggests. Jesus might have looked like a Palestinian; he might also have looked like a Bedouin, or a Druze or a mizrachi Israeli, those Israelis descended from the Jewish communities of the greater Middle East. He might have even had the physical characteristics of Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of the Jews who found their way to Europe from the land of Israel. The reason Jesus could have looked like a member of any of these groups is simple: Today, they all share an enormous number of overlapping genetic characteristics.
The medical geneticist Harry Ostrer, who teaches at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University and is the author of “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” told me that the three major Jewish populations of today -- Middle Eastern Jews from places such as Iran and Iraq; North African Jews from such countries as Morocco and Libya; and those Jews of European background -- all have more in common genetically with each other, as well as with Palestinians, the Druze and the Bedouin, than they do with the populations in which they settled.
This means, in essence, that Palestinians and Israelis are of very similar stock. Obviously, this genetic truth is discomfiting to those Palestinians who argue that Jews are a foreign implant in their land, and it is also discomfiting to those Israelis who would prefer not to think of Palestinians as their cousins. (I once interviewed a leader of Hamas in Gaza who looked exactly like my late uncle Julie, for instance. I noted to him this uncanny resemblance, and he wasn’t happy.)
I asked Ostrer just how possible it is, given the diversity of appearance among Jews, that Jesus might have been fair-haired. “We don’t have any way of knowing, but I would think it’s possible,” he said. “There was a lot of variation that existed during that time as well. Each of the main Jewish groups during classical antiquity was formed in part by proselytizing and gaining converts. And so there was a great deal of within-group variation. It is likely that Jesus had the swarthy coloring of a Middle Easterner, but there’s a chance that he was fair-skinned as well.”
This is good news for the Tom Brady camp, I suppose, but ultimately, I’d bet against this possibility. I’d like to help Kelly, in fact, expand her understanding of the historical Jesus by having her spend some time with my friend Hanna Rosin, the writer. Hanna, whose mother is from Aden, in southern Arabia, and whose father’s origins are in Syria and Turkey, is classically Semitic in appearance. So much so that one day, while in Colorado, working on an article about the evangelical leader James Dobson, she found herself being stared at by one of Dobson’s colleagues. They were in a Waffle House, but Hanna couldn’t eat, because the woman was staring at her so intently. Finally, Hanna had had enough, and met her eye, at which point the woman said, “You have the blood of our Savior coursing through your veins.”
This comment, as bizarre as it may seem, represents real progress: Dobson’s aide obviously does not need her Jesus to be blond, and she doesn’t need him to be de-Judaized, either. As a matter of faith, Christians should picture Jesus any way they want; as a matter of history, though, it’s important to recognize that Jesus was Jewish, in multifarious ways.