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.


The Kesh Temple Hymn (or more precisely, Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman) is in the long dead Sumerian language and written in cuneiform that was scratched with a stylus into fresh clay tablets and dried in the sun, as were all writings in Mesopotamia at the time. That was about 2600 B.C., or four thousand six hundred years ago. At some point a century or two afterward the tablets were baked hard as rock in a fire when the city was burned by some conqueror or another and the city archives were buried in the ruins. Over the years they were covered by sand and protected from all the history that happened on top of them. Mesopotamia is a vast scattered library of such tablets now, a half a million or more in museums already, and who knows how many more still in the ground. Archaeologists uncovered the Kesh Temple Hymn in the first decades of the 20th century, and one of the world’s few living readers of cuneiform–it is incredibly difficult to read for those of us raised on alphabets–translated the seventy three lines of text by 1920. Its significance was recognized immediately. This anonymous temple prayer, a Liturgy to Nintud on the Creation of Man and Woman, is humanity’s first known literature. A century later and we’ve still found nothing earlier. It’s not the first writing–that had been around a couple centuries already–but the first literature. We consider it literature because the words are so pretty. There’s a cadence, a lilt. There’s art. It is something very special written by an unknown scribe with a talent for written expression, and that was a brand new thing in the world:

The princely one, the princely one came forth from the house. Enlil, the princely one, came forth from the house. The princely one came forth royally from the house. Enlil lifted his glance over all the lands, and the lands raised themselves to Enlil. The four corners of heaven became green for Enlil like a garden. Kesh was positioned there for him with head uplifted, and as Kesh lifted its head among all the lands, Enlil spoke the praises of Kesh. Nisaba was its decision-maker; with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands: House, platform of the Land, important fierce bull!

You’d have to be a Sumerologist to know what all that is about exactly. You get the general idea, though. And dig that repetition, like chanting. The princely one, four times. In my head I see a line of priests, repeating it. The ways of writing still reflected the manners of speech then.

But something extra special in the text immediately stuck out for me. This:

 ….with its words she wove it intricately like a net. Written on tablets it was held in her hands….

Because that is actually a description of writing itself. Perhaps the very first description we know of, though I rather doubt it. The Sumerians had been writing documents–lists, letters and the like–for a couple centuries by 2600 BC. Indeed, schools for scribes opened not long after this was written. Doubtless writing is described earlier, but prosaically. A Sumerian skill set. But these two lines (verb phrases, actually, each only half a sentence) might have been the first time anyone ever described the act of writing so poetically, weaving the words intricately like a net. And it’s that metaphor which amazes me, the use of weaving to describe story telling in written words. Though perhaps the author was not talking about story telling per se, but of writing down the words in cuneiform itself…


…which, in seventy three closely spaced lines, might well look like a intricately woven net. I’m more inclined to think that is what was meant, now that I’ve visualized it. In the five thousand years since writing was invented by the Sumerians, written metaphors have become very rich and very subtle, very abstract and quite opaque. But when writing was new metaphors were typically visual, things you could see. And line after line of cuneiform etched into a clay tablet could look, with a little imagination, like a seine net stretched across a stream. Today it’s the sentences we weave into a story, and few writers now–John McPhee, maybe–would ever think of a seine net at all. Or even know what one is. Besides, our alphabet doesn’t look like netlike, not in the least. I’m not sure what it looks like, besides letters. Those letters used to look like something–they began, most of them, as Egyptian hieroglyphs, which began as pictographs, which began as things–but now they’re as neutral and metaphor free as a writing system can be.

But still, I’m struck by the thought that the weaving metaphor is still used 4500 years later. We still weave stories, like a net in fact. Certainly more like a net than a sweater or a pair of socks or a bird cage cover. A net makes sense that way. Lateral, linear, spaced. Maybe there’s a direct metaphorical connection between Sumerian scribes weaving prayers into nets of cuneiform and the weavers of tales today tapping things into the ether. Or maybe not. It’s just astonishing to think that writing, though five thousand years old, is such a new thing that Bronze Age metaphors still apply.

A lady in a chiffon dress reading Thucydides

(c. 2007)

I’m sitting adjacent to an immense stack of books I’ve gotten cheap from the History Book Club and Scientific American Book Club. I take each along to work as I read them. I am literally — now there’s a pun — the only one carrying a book. Over the past year, out of the  hundreds and hundreds of fellow employees I’ve seen, I saw less than ten with a book in their hand. Ten. People don’t really read books anymore. They read things online — webzines, news sites, blogs, TMZ. Facebook. A little of this, a little of that. A million opening paragraphs, a little less beyond. A rare piece it is that finds readers in the last paragraph. Must be a big story, something juicy, or maybe one helluva writer. But books, no. Too much time, too much depth, too many words. We live in a different time. Hence those ten employees with a book in their hand. Ten out of a thousand. One per cent.

But there was one I remember. A gorgeous thing, a stunning little Mediterranean number. Raven hair, olive complexion, black eyes. All that wrapped in chiffon, a billowing white chiffon dress that spilled over the arm rests of the chair she sat in, a big stuffed chair in the lobby of the floor I worked on. She was one of the loveliest women I had ever seen, and she was deep into a hardback volume of Thucydides. Seriously. It was not a spectre, not an epileptic’s vision. It was a genuine pretty lady reading one of my favorite books ever. Oh to be twenty or thirty years younger at that moment. Oh to be young and brave enough to sit along side her and have the nerve to bring up Pericles or Cleon or the Revolt of Mytilene. The Plague of Athens and the Siege of Syracuse. The meaning of it all.

But no. You reading the History of the Peloponnesian War? I asked, lamely. She looked up, surprised. Such big black eyes, a tinge of worry. Yes, she said, I am. That’s one of my favorite books, I said. Oh, she said. She didn’t believe me. Thought I was trying to pick her up. Never trust a man old enough to be your father who’s read Thucydides, her mother had warned, they’re the worst kind. I wasn’t trying to pick her up, not at all. I was just surprised — astonished, really — to find a beautiful young girl lost in ancient history. I’d first read that book at about her age myself. The Penguin edition, paperback. I still have it. I immersed myself into it in the autumn of 1977. I was twenty. I remember coming to a scene late in the book where the Athenians, fresh on the beach, set out patrols to reconnoiter, see what was out there. It was all so modern, the way they thought. I realized, suddenly, that they were so much like us. These men weren’t myths, legends, or simple. They weren’t ridiculous Italian muscle men or philosophers with perfect Oxford accents. They were Greeks doing things the way we would do them now as described by a contemporary historian who was one of them. The technology didn’t matter. Though twenty-five centuries old, they came to life, those Athenians on that beach. Later they were all killed, or drowned, or died of pestilence. The survivors were sold into slavery. I felt sorry for them, for each of them. I lived on the Santa Barbara coastal plain then, a perfect Mediterranean climate on a perfectly Mediterranean lay of land. The sea shone the same blue under the same sun, and vineyards stitched along up the hills between groves of carefully tended fruit trees. It took very little imagination to picture the Athenians and Spartans around me, distant columns coming, fleets of triremes sailing off. I’d sit outside on the balcony and read of ancient campaigns in the same sort of light that fell on men back then. It was magical.

I wanted to tell this girl that. Tell her how that book changed my life, let me see people then as people now, or the other way around. I wanted to, but she was far too beautiful and far too young, that lady in the chiffon dress reading Thucydides. I had an elevator to catch. Enjoy the book, I said, and kept walking. I will, she said, looking relieved I wasn’t stopping. She settled back into the chair, crossed her beautiful legs, and slipped back into her book. The elevator doors shut before me, and she was gone.