Features Australia

Jesus of Palestine?

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

You are in a tizz. Christmas is just around the corner and you can’t think of the right present for a religiously devout friend or family member. Golriz Ghahraman, a parliamentarian in New Zealand, has a thought. What about buying a nice new keffiyeh?

Ms Ghahraman didn’t quite put it like that. What the Iranian-born Green Party MP controversially had in mind was that the central figure in the Christian story and his mother were ‘Palestinian refugees’.

Uh-oh. Some of the responses to this, especially from local Jewish representatives who felt the ‘infantile and embarrassing’ view was designed simply to make theological hay out of the Israeli situation, suggested her opinion wasn’t universally shared.

Far from being an Arab himself, some argued, Jesus probably never met one in all his 33 years. The closest he possibly got would have been the Egyptians whom he presumably encountered in his youth. Although Egyptians didn’t call themselves Arab at that point, and neither would have the three wise men, who rode through the Persian night over to the Levant bearing gifts and Zoroastrian blessings for the newborn.

Not forgetting the slightly inconvenient historical fact that the Romans only started calling the region Palestine in around 135AD, that’s a long time after the departure of Jesus, who after all was born in the Year of Our Lord Zero. And it’s not till quite a bit later still (the late 1960s, if memory serves) that we find the first mention of a specific group of Arabs distinctly identified as Palestinians.

That’s one view. On the other hand, I suppose, you could also say Ghahraman didn’t go far enough. After all, if Jesus really was a Palestinian, who’s to say he wasn’t a committed vegan, too? True, the loaves and fishes episode would seem to undermine that claim somewhat, but perhaps the original story is only meant metaphorically. Or maybe the famous Nazarene is better thought of as the first great social justice warrior. Did he not throw the moneychangers — taken to mean international currency speculators and opponents of Greta Thunberg — out of the temple?

I’m joking. Sort of. Speculations like these have been around forever. The recent Ghahraman kerfuffle, for example, was not at all indigenous to the New Zealand political scene. ‘Jesus was a Palestinian of Nazareth,’ the American activist Linda Sarsour also tweeted just this past July, ‘and is described in the Quran as being brown copper skinned with wooly hair.’ Various members of the Palestinian Authority circle, most notably the late Yasser Arafat’s adviser Hanan Ashrawi, have pressed the same line into service.

Then again, so does nearly everybody else. Lloyd George once said of Lord Derby that, like a cushion, he bore the imprint of whoever last sat on him — and something of the same order has always been pretty much true of the founder of the Christian religion. People don’t so much look to the heavens as look in the mirror.

Depending on the era, Jesus has been positively identified as a religious ecstatic or a teacher of rare wisdom, a social prophet, yet, or a Cynic in the grand Ancient tradition, a controversialist with a fetching turn of phrase, or, closer to our own one, a Broadway superstar or gnomic muse for the Velvet Underground.

The authors of the Gospels have to shoulder some of the blame for this. For them, burnishing their subject’s messianic bona fides was a much bigger editorial imperative than conventional biographical details. These were not profile writers for the weekend supplements of the Age or the New Zealand Herald. Not for them the telling descriptions about his style of speech or body language, or whether Jesus reached shakily for a glass of pomegranate juice while discussing the finer political points of the Roman occupation.

Instead the four New Testament evangelists simply harvest what they can of the final 36 months of his ministry in general, and the final few days of his life in particular, and essentially leave everything else as an empty canvas for others to throw their own paint at.

And how many canvases there are. In Nazareth a while ago, I beheld scores of them in what has to be one of the region’s more impressive religious galleries, which I visited after enjoying scalding tea and sweets at one of the many Arab eateries nearby. From there I strolled over to the old market, in the Christian district in the centre of town, to the western entrance that takes you into the Greek Catholic Church of the Annunciation.

This Byzantine-style edifice is really something. The lower level, which was built 1500 years ago, takes you through Mary’s Cave. According to Christian tradition, nicely fleshed out by the mosaic you pad across, it’s the place where religious history’s most famous 14-year-old girl (a statue of her vouchsafes the likely age) was visited by an angel who told that she was going to get pregnant and that the fruit of her womb would indeed be blessed.

Just as interesting for me, though, was taking the spiral staircase up from the grotto to where paintings of Christianity’s First Family hang on the wall around the front courtyard and inside the now-renovated part of the church, dozens and dozens of them, each donated by a specific country and all reflecting the national characteristics of their donor nations.

Thus, the Chinese Jesus and Mary on display appear… well, decidedly East Asian. Ditto the baby Jesus from Colombia — who looks like he might have been as happy playing with a canasta as a rattle — and the Mount Rushmore-type face from the United States and the tribal-looking ones from various African countries. And so on, mutatis mutandis, all of them celebrating the annunciation through decidedly local eyes.

Not surprisingly, visitors in search of a selfie opportunity usually make a beeline for their own local mosaic. In my case, though, I didn’t find what I was looking for until I emerged back out on to the sun-baked street.

And there they were, passing by, an alphabet of Israeli faces, mostly olive-skinned, youngish Jews, laughing and arguing and haggling with each other about the world to come, or perhaps — who knows? — something more prosaic like a weekend trip with a pregnant girlfriend down to Bethlehem.

Oh, Jesus. Whatever would Golriz Ghahraman say about that?

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