What Nationality Was Jesus? | Holy Land Travel HQ (2022)

What Nationality Was Jesus? | Holy Land Travel HQ (1)

For millennia, nationality is how people groups have identified themselves. With the discovery of the New World and the formation of the United States, the melting pot was born. Despite the rising Western focus on race, though, nationality is still a thing, especially in the Holy Land.

So, what nationality was Jesus? He was Hebrew, and that meant he was also racially Semitic and had first century Jewish heritage. What does being Hebrew mean after two thousand years, though? And what is nationality, race, and heritage?

Nationality v. race v. heritage

Merriam-Webster defines nationality as “a legal relationship involving allegiance on the part of an individual and usually protection on the part of the state” (Website). To call yourself an American, or British or Russian is nationality. The basis of identity is determined by the physical and political boundary, or nation, where you were born.

In the first century, the concept of nationality alsoapplied to cities and towns. Jesus was Hebrew, but he was also a Nazarite.

Race is defined as “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock.” Merriam-Webster also defines race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” (Website). In modern society, race is almost exclusively related to the color of your skin. Very little is mentioned in the bible about race though.

Merriam-Webster states that a synonym of race is ethnicity. Other sources in my search differed slightly in that they likened heritage with ethnicity. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define ethnicity as the cross-section of race and heritage.

Heritage relates to things being passed on. Merriam-Webster defines heritage as “property that descends to an heir.” A good example is inheritance. Heritage is also defined as “something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.” Terms that Merriam-Webster applies here are legacy and birthright.

The idea with heritage is that something is passed down through the generations. It often unites the group through a tradition or unique cultural identity. Merriam-Webster uses the example of Chinese Heritage. Examples of heritage are clothing styles, food, rituals, family values, conflict resolution techniques, demeanor and much more.

A Nazarite male in the first century made a vow to refrain from cutting his hair. This applied to Nazarites, but not all Hebrews. It was an aspect of Nazarite heritage.

What did it mean to be Hebrew?

Encyclopedia Britannica states that a Hebrew is, “any member of an ancient northern Semitic people that were ancestors of the Jews.” It also notes that biblical scholars use the term to refer to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

For their part, biblical scholars do refer to the Israelites as Hebrews. The term Hebrew was also how foreigners referred to the Israelites. And how Israelites identified themselves with foreigners. Because of this, biblical scholars often use the term Hebrew and Israelite interchangeably.

So, Hebrew was a nationality. But it was also an ethnicity.

To be Hebrew also meant that one’s “stock,” heritage, and social identification were aligned. A Hebrew was Semitic, Jewish, and a member of the group which escaped slavery in Egypt and crossed the Jordan River into the Palestine region.

Despite a Babylonian exile, the Hebrew people remained intact at least into and through the first century of the common era (C.E.). With Roman expansion into the Palestine region and Hebrew migration into the diaspora, Hebrew nationality began its decline.

(note: Diaspora means anything outside Israel. Hebrews living outside of Israel are called Diasporic Jews.)

In the centuries following Jesus’s death and resurrection, the tradition of documenting Hebrew history declined as well. This was mainly the result of migration and the formation of pockets of Diasporic Jews throughout the ancient world. These groups eventually turned into their own people groups.

What was the importance of nationality, heritage and race in the first century?

The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, is immersed in nationality, heritage and social identification. But ethnicity, not so much.

Matthew’s gospel was written to a Hebrew audience steeped in Jewish heritage. As a result, the book has many references to the Old Testament. This is why the book opens with a genealogy.

Mark was written to a gentile, or non-Hebrew, audience. His readers were Roman , so they saw the world through Roman nationality. But a fledgling Christian heritage.

Mark’s readers were straight forward thinkers, which is why the book opens with a declaration of who Jesus is. Mark then introduces the prophecy of the Messiah coming from the book of Isaiah as well as the story of John the Baptist.

Luke was written to an intellectual and Greek audience. His account is full of details and joyfulness, which were highly revered writing tools among intellectuals of the time. In the very first paragraph, Luke states his purpose in writing the book and that he conducted careful research. Something his readers would expect.

Luke wrote Acts to an intellectual and Greek audience.

The book of Hebrews was for a Hebrew and Jewish audience.

One of the main themes in the story of Jesus is the tenserelationship between the Hebrews and the Romans.

Rome was an illegitimate governing body in the minds of the Hebrews. There were distinct lines between Hebrew and Roman nationality, as well as Jewish heritage and Roman secularism.

Ethnicity and race were not much of a factor in the Roman-Hebrew conflict. The Bible does not identify a distinct line between skin tones in the first century. What mattered was nationality, heritage, and social identification.

What did Jesus have to say about Nationality.

One of the most iconic stories in the New Testament is that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Hebrews and Samaritans hated each other. Both groups claimed to be God’s people. Even today, the term “Good Samaritan” is used by Christians, Jews and non-Christians alike.

When the Babylonians invaded new lands, they often movedpeople groups around. They would exile a nation to a distant land and move inanother conquered nation to replace the first group. Shuffling the deck was howthe Babylonians kept insurgencies and revolts at bay.

National identities were often tied to a location. As aresult of the separation, these former nations would fall apart. And the peoplegroup’s heritage would crumble with it. But God wasn’t tied to a location, norwere His people.

The Hebrews were exiled to Babylon and another people group moved in. Some historians have proposed that not all Hebrews were rounded up for exile. These Hebrews intermingled with the group that became the Samaritans.

(Note: a good reading of the Old Testament presents an argument for the Samaritans being God’s chosen people.)

Throughout the exile, the Samaritans settled in. As was the custom in the ancient world, one became familiar with the god which occupied that land. As a result, the Samaritans took on the Jewish heritage as their own and soon came to believe they were God’s chosen people.

Essentially, when the exiles returned home, someone had eaten the Israelites porridge and was sleeping in their bed. This created conflict.

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to make a point to His Hebrew audience. Nationality was not a barrier that concerned God. Jesus was born into Hebrew nationality and Jewish Heritage to bring God’s people out of a national identity and into new one.

White Jesus, Black Jesus, and Korean Jesus.

In the 2012 film 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill hide out in a Korean Church located at 21 Jump Street. Several jokes throughout the film center on the fact that the cross at the altar bears a Korean looking Jesus. The jokes are often crass, but they make an underlying point.

Many ethnic groups throughout history have made Jesus look like themselves. They combined Christian heritage with their racial background. And modern secular westerners don’t like that.

The History Channel wrote an article (website) in 2019 on what Jesus possibly looked like. Live Science wrote an article in 2018 (website). And the BBC (website) in 2015. All of them figuratively looked down their nose at the collective Christian church.

Even within the church, there are complaints about inaccurate depictions of Jesus in art over the centuries. On the first page of my Google search on the topic, there was a mix of secular and religious organizations nay-saying the genre.

The Gospel Coalition has their article (website), and so does bibleinfo.com (website). There’s even a book on the topic aptly titled, What Did Jesus Look Like? (amazon link).

My goal here is not to argue about who is right and who is wrong. It’s simply to point out that today our post-Christian society finds inaccurate ethnic depictions of Jesus to be problematic.

All the articles mentioned above were not concerned with the Christian heritage side of the depictions though. They wanted to know what what Jesus looked like.

So, what did Jesus look like?

Some believe that the Shroud of Turin, thought to be the blood-stained garment Jesus’s body was wrapped in, to be an accurate depiction of Him. Unfortunately, the artifact is mired in arguments about its legitimacy. Most believe it to be a fake. So, we’ll stay away from it.

Joan E. Taylor, author of the book, What Did Jesus Look Like?, thinks that Jesus was about 5 feet 5 inches tall. “He most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin” (History channel article).

Across the board, most agree that Jesus had a beard, butdisagree on its length.

So, he had brown skin, dark hair, brown eyes, and a beard.This much we already suspected.

The Gospel Coalition refers to a 2002 Popular Mechanics article (link to site) that provided a digitally rendered picture based on the analysis of ancient Hebrew skeletal remains. In this depiction, Jesus looks like a typical Middle Eastern male.

Dark hair, brown skin, brown eyes, and a short beard. What Popular Mechanics expounded upon were wide, muscular cheekbones and a thick nose.

There are many more sources who have thrown in their two cents into the discussion. Most of the conclusions are the same. Jesus was Semetic by race.

So, we started with the question of nationality, but came to the question of race. Why?

Because there are forces out there who have motives and plans for Jesus’s nationality and race.

Was Jesus Palestinian?

The History Channel quotes Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa. “We don’t know what [Jesus] looked like, but if all of the things that we do know about him are true,” states Cargill. “He was a Palestinian Jewish man living in Galilee in the first century.” (website)

It may seem odd that the History Channel even mentions this quote because it doesn’t answer the question, which was what did Jesus looked like? The quote does answer the underlying desire of many in our post-Christian secular world, though. Was Jesus Palestinian?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a topic I’d like to avoid. It’s worth pointing out, though, that almost everything in western society these days has a political bent to it. The question of how Jesus looks is no different.

The problem here is that the label ‘Palestine’ has a much different rendering today then what it did over the last several millennia. Up until the early Twentieth Century, ‘Palestine’ was used to refer to the region.

Today, the term Palestinian refers to an ethnicity. It is someone who is racially Semitic and religiously Muslim. They identify socially as a people group with a unique Arabic heritage. And they live in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank in Israel.

In the first century, calling Jesus Palestinian would be akin to calling someone from Georgia a southerner. The South is not a nation (though they tried), a race, or a people group. Being Southern is more of a heritage than anything.

So, you could say Jesus was Palestinian, but that’s not saying much.

Jesus was Hebrew, both in nationality and ethnicity. Neither of these exist today in the way they existed in the first century.

Did Mary and Joseph’s descendants become Palestinians?

Mary and Joseph had other children. And their children had children. Is it possible to trace Jesus’s people group throughout history to see where they landed?

The Hebrew people moved around a lot. The Old Testament captures the travels of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the Israelites. The New Testament captures the travels of Mary and Joseph from Galilee to Bethlehem to Egypt and back to Galilee.

In the first century, as a result of the Babylonian exile, many Hebrews lived in the Diaspora. This is where we start to see Jewish heritage split from Hebrew nationality. But we want to know what happened to the race portion of the Hebrew people.

The website Live Science, in a 2012 article, discusses a research project which studied the genetic map of the Jewish Diaspora through the ages (website).

The researchers followed the genealogy by looking at peoplegroups with Tay-Sachs. Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder that predominatelyaffects Jewish people as a race.

What the researchers discovered were remnants of Hebrew genealogy throughout North Africa and Europe. And the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, and South Africa. So, pretty much everywhere.

Generally speaking, the descendants of Mary and Joseph likely landed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that doesn’t make Jesus Palestinian by today’s standards. It doesn’t make him Israeli either. Though, His ethnicity (heritage + race) leans more that way.

At the end of the day, Jesus walked the Earth as a first century Hebrew.

The most important thing.

Jesus’s nationality was Hebrew. More specifically he was a Nazarite Hebrew. We know this because of the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew. More importantly, Jesus’s heritage was Jewish. We know this from the Jewish customs mentioned in the Gospels.

For example, before His death, Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples. This is expressly Jewish.

No amount of debate or consternation can change Jesus’s Hebrew nationality. Even if there was definitive evidence that today the descendants of Mary and Joseph are not Israeli, in the first century they were definitively Hebrew.

Heritage is a key aspect of the Hebrew identity. Today that heritage still exists because it was shepherded through history by God. Even if we thumb our nose at white Jesus, black Jesus, American Jesus or Korean Jesus, they all reflect the heritage of God. Modern Palestinians could very well be racial Hebrews, but they don’t celebrate the Jewish heritage derived from the first century.

Here’s the most important thing to take away. Jesus’s nationality had to be Hebrew because they were God’s people. Only the line of Abraham and David could move God’s people to the next chapter in His story and into a nationality derived solely from God.

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