The hair of Jesus

(Originally comments on Facebook inspired by the hair of Jesus, really.)

I think Jesus would actually look much more like a modern Lebanese, actually, except probably fairer as the population along the Mediterranean then was often much lighter complected and with lighter hair color than today. Even blue eyed. Think of how so many Kurds have red hair and blue eyes, and red hair is as common among some North African peoples (mostly Berbers) as it is in Scotland and Ireland. Over time, blonde and red and light brown hair and lighter skin tone tend to darken as the gene pool washes about. The homogenizing Persian, Greek and Roman empires began a trend to the “typical” middle eastern and Mediterranean look today, but if you read, say, Xenophon’s Anabasis, he is finding all kinds of various looking peoples as wanders home through the Persian empire. And in the Koran and in Islamic texts, the prophet Jesus usually has light brown or red hair and light skin, even freckled. So who knows.

But red hair was not uncommon in the ancient middle east, and in places where some ethnic groups have maintained much of their distinctive genetic identity over the millenia, red hair is not uncommon at all. It’s important to remember that the genetic composition of the middle east now is not what it was two thousand years ago. Not at all. Peoples have come, peoples have gone, and they have left their genes hornily all over the place. If any of those people had two copies of a recessive allele on chromosome 16, chances are good they were redheaded. There used to be a lot more people around the Mediterranean with those double recessive alleles on chromosone 16. But with time, things change, including hair color.

But did Jesus have red hair? I have no idea. The thought never even occurred to me until recently. It never came up in Mass, and wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Look around you in a Catholic Church and its a ployglot of hair colors and hair textures and hair genetics, none of which has any significance whatsoever on the mysteries of the sacrament. There is something distinctly protestant, and especially Baptist, about getting hung up over the color of the Messiah’s hair, or whether it was straight or curled or frizzy or peppercorn or He was just having a bad hair day. You have to be rather obsessed with the literal meaning of the words in the Bible to give a damn about the Messiah’s hair color. But people do care, and they especially care on social media, where they take sides and hurl invective at each other, like some especially pissy hair stylists. But having been raised Catholic, I have no idea how the Bible describes Jesus’ hair. I know what the Koran says, but not the Bible.  I do not even know if His hair was limp or full bodied.

Prayers and saints I know. In fact, I should be lighting a candle for you now, just for reading this. But one of the things about being Catholic was that we just assumed none of the stuff in the Bible could be taken literally as it had been rewritten so many times, and was in so many languages, and that the orthodox churches all had their own versions, etc etc. Somehow we knew that a Spanish Bible and a Standard American Bible and a Russian Bible and a Cantonese Bible and a Ge’ez Bible and a Bible written in English no one has used since the early 1600’s, as well as our Catholic Bible, could ever mean exactly the same thing. Different words, different sentences, different meanings. And I just did the usual Catholic thing of assuming that the version of the Bible that Protestants read was wrong (we didn’t use King James), because Protestants were always wrong, and so I have no idea how the King James version described Jesus, except that I figured he looked like an Italian or Greek or Spaniard, as that is how he always looked in the pictures in the Catholic Bible. But a guy raised Baptist assures me that the Bible said Jesus had a jewfro. I’d never heard a Baptist say jewfro before, but he did, and did so with that with good Baptist authority. No arguing. I didn’t, but I did google it. Apparently Jesus is curly headed in some passages of the Bible, in others not. I wouldn’t know for sure, however, as I never read the damn thing. 

But I do remember as a kid in Maine that on the one time my mother let my Dad take us to his church, the Protestant nativity scenes were full of way white people. And Jesus looked way white, and so did God. A lotta white people in Protestant Heaven. Nobody looked Italian at all. Or even tanned. And the protestant services were all scary, with too much singing and a sermon that never quit. There were not enough candles and no magic at all. The reformation must have been a thrill a minute. But I digress.

I’ve always thought that this portrait of Pompeiian Terentius Neo and his wife was a pretty good view of ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean. They are both Samnites, one of the nations that bordered Latium (Rome) in Italy but were by this time deep within the center of the Roman Empire. (Pontius Pilate, who knew the color of Jesus’ hair, is probably the most famous Samnite.) Today, Terentius Neo and his wife would be considered if not exactly separate races, then ethnically quite diverse. He is a person of color, in the current parlance, she not. But this was at the very beginning of the population explosion brought by the Roman Empire, and dramatically different looking people lived in pockets all mixed together but not yet so genetically blended. Our whole concept of race probably would not have made a helluva lot of sense to them. Class, though, class mattered. Mattered much more to them than to us. They also had their one per cent. These two, though, were not members of the one per cent of Roman society. They were just good Roman middle class people in a thriving, beautiful city with a spectacular view of Mount Vesuvius.

It is also an absolutely gorgeous portrait, soft, lamp lit, and there are those extraordinary ancient eyes, eyes that seem to come all the way from early Mesopotamia and continued deep into feudal times. We all looked into eyes like that at one time, like deep pools, full of mystery. Though maybe they now seem mysterious to us only because we no longer look into eyes like that. The Flemish painters changed all that, with eyes like photographs, real eyes, perfect eyes. No one looks at us with eyes like deep pools anymore.

Though what this has to do with Jesus’ hair I have no fucking idea. It must be the coffee.

Pompeii-couple Terentius Neo and wife, of Pompeii.

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