In early March, Pope Francis visited Iraq – the first Catholic pontiff to do so, sparking intrigue and curiosity on the visit for many Christian onlookers. What seemed to captivate audiences the most, especially in the United States, was the presence of Christians in the country and how they were “the primary focus for the Pope” during his historic visit.
Most striking was that these weren’t just any group of Christians, but they were Assyrians. The group is one of the oldest of the faith and Assyrians are considered the first converts to Christianity in the early days of the church.
With so much emphasis on the Middle East being a region dominated by Islam, giving the impression of little connection to “the Christian West,” many tend to forget that the origins of Christianity are actually within this part of the world. Moreover, it is surprising how many Christians, again, particularly in the United States, fail to remember that Jesus Christ was indeed a Middle Eastern man – a Palestinian Jew to be more specific.
With the majority of historical and contemporary depictions of Jesus as white, Jesus’ cultural origins and the world he came from can be truly distant from the Western images of him.
With the majority of historical and contemporary depictions of Jesus as white, Jesus’ cultural origins and the world he came from can be truly distant from the Western images of him. One needs not search far to find indicators of such misconception within the United States. The famous rant from Fox News’ presenter Megyn Kelly on how Jesus, in addition to Santa Claus, were white, is a perfect example.
As a practicing Catholic, having worked in the Middle East for almost a decade, I find it puzzling how many Christians flock to the multiple shrines throughout Europe in order to “find” or “understand” Jesus. When instead, by venturing into the Middle East and exploring the nations that form the region, one can not only potentially walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but also be engulfed in the cultures and surrounded by the people that formed the very man. For those seeking to understand the life of Jesus, exploring the region gives a distinct glimpse into the world he grew up in – a mixture of rich cultures, which Arabs, Persians, and Jews are immersed in daily.
In the Beginning
Let’s take the story of Jesus’ birth for example, as presented in the Gospel of Mathew. The story goes that at Jesus’ birth, “wisemen from the East” (or Magi, as they were called by their Persian name) visited both Mary and Joseph (Jesus’ parents) to pay homage to what they believed foretold of a great birth. The gifts presented to them were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many Westerners reading that facet of the story may have been bewildered on what type of gifts these could possibly be for the new parents, baffled by the strangeness it presents. Yet, when you visit the Middle East, you can quickly realize the value of these precious items.
Upon visiting most Arab homes, whether in Dubai or in Muscat, one will likely be greeted by the lingering smell of frankincense burning from the traditional incense burner, or al bakhour, in a corner or perfuming their clothes. Its intention is to purify the space and set people at ease, and it is this Arab and Eastern tradition that was adopted by the Christian churches, many of which wave incense burners and frankincense before the altar during holy rites.
While the understanding of gold being a precious commodity is obvious for many, the value it holds in the region cannot be underestimated. It takes only a few seconds upon arrival in any of the Gulf country airports, whether Doha or Dubai, to see the gold souks (markets) within them and notice the countless gold jewelry donned by both the well-heeled in Beirut and Cairo.
With a bottle of oud, costing roughly US$500, it’s easy to understand that in combination with gold and frankincense, these gifts presented by the wisemen were truly fit for a king.
However, the most precious out of the gifts presented to Joseph and Mary would have been the myrrh, also known as oud in Arabic – a highly precious perfumed oil that is still the top choice of fragrance for many in the region. Indeed, its myrrh or oud that is the most valuable, being more expensive than gold today. With a bottle of oud, costing roughly US$500, it’s easy to understand that in combination with gold and frankincense, these gifts presented by the wisemen were truly fit for a king.
Traveling through the Middle East presents so many unique peeks into the world of Jesus, allowing visitors to imagine just how much a part of this region he was. Whether in the markets of Tripoli in Lebanon or walking through the streets of Jerusalem, one can pick up multiple facets of everyday life and link them back to the historical Jesus. The flatbread (al hobz in Arabic, or commonly known as al aish in Egyptian Arabic) would most likely have been the contender for the original bread used during the last super, the moment in which Jesus foreshadowed his impending death to his followers. Given the fact that bread is a staple for the region to this day and Jesus’ reference to himself as “the bread of life,” it underlines the cultural references he made, which his predominately Eastern audience would have rapidly understood.
The dance of dabke, with its ancient origin throughout the Levant (what is now Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), is traditional at weddings. This dance was most likely preformed during the wedding of Joseph and Mary before Jesus’ birth and during the famed Wedding Feast of Cana (in modern day Lebanon), where Jesus executed his first miracle. In the epic 1970’s series “Jesus of Nazareth,” Italian Director Franco Zeffirelli made sure to incorporate dabke in the filmed scene of this marriage, starring Argentine-British actress Olivia Hussey as Mary and Greek actor Yorgos Voyagis as Joseph.
If not the food or the musical sounds of the Middle East to give an idea of the life of Jesus, then just listening to the Arabic language, from Ramallah to Cairo, can be revealing as to how Jesus spoke. It is a common misconception that Jesus spoke Hebrew on a daily basis, one that even led to a spat between Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over which language he spoke.
But in actual fact, Hebrew was only spoken in the temple and for religious purposes. Jesus’ native language, Aramaic, actually has closer ties to Arabic than Hebrew and can be still found spoken in Syria to this day. Just listening to the Our Father prayer (the prayer instructed by Jesus) in Aramaic and comparing it to Arabic can showcase the similarities and provide insight into how Jesus spoke to his disciples and followers.
Even the common image associated with Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, is deeply rooted in the East, depicting her as a woman of the region.
Even the common image associated with Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, is deeply rooted in the East, depicting her as a woman of the region. The image is simple: a woman in conservative clothing with a long flowing veil covering her hair. What many do not realize is that this wouldn’t have just been an indicator of Mary’s modesty but common dress for any Jewish woman both of the time and even for some today. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem, one will find many conservative Jewish women of the Haredi sect (NeShot haShalim) covering their hair in a bun or scarves, similar to the hijab.
Images of Mary with long flowing hair found in Western art would hardly be accurate to portray Jesus’ mother. Instead, just catching a glimpse of a Muslim woman in her hijab or a conservative Jewish woman with her scarf in Jerusalem would bring one closer to a more authentic image of women in the world Mary and Jesus came from.
In the end, Jesus Christ was a man of the Middle East and it doesn’t take much but a simple reading of the Gospels to verify this. And just as Pope Francis recently traveled to Iraq to support the Iraqi Christians and visit the birthplace of Abraham (who was born in the ancient Iraqi city of Ur), so can others travel to the region to discover more on the historical facets of Christianity. In doing so, it is possible to gain understanding on who Jesus Christ really was, by simply mingling and immersing oneself in the culture of his own people.