Let me start with the fact that neither the casting nor the makeup achieves an ethnically accurate looking cast. The exceptions to this appear to be the men under Pilate’s command (but not Pilate himself). They would have looked like many of the people living in Mediterranean Europe today – dark hair and eyes (brown), but light skin. But what about the Jews? Let’s use Jesus as a case study for what they should look like.
Now, there are - despite rumors to the contrary - no Biblical passages or reliable historical documents that describe what Jesus looked like, and that's ok, because we don't really need any to get an idea. All we need to know is His age (He was around 33 at the time of His Death, Burial, Resurrection and Ascension) and that He was a Jew living in First Century Israel.
Although Jews of today are not ethnically homogeneous (largely due to intermarriage by those population groups that migrated to Europe with the native inhabitants, but due to other causes as well, however you can still be “ethnically Jewish” and not “religiously Jewish” – it’s a complicated, tricky issue), the Jews living in Israel before the Diaspora were ethnically homogeneous. In other words, during the time period that we are concerned with for the sake of this discussion, and in the geographical area that we are concerned with for the sake of this discussion, the Jews of First Century Israel were ethnically homogeneous. They were essentially a large, extended family (the descendants of Jacob) who had hardly ever intermarried with outsiders. Thus, consistently similar - almost identical - features and coloring.
Well, who do we compare them to ethnically? Arguments for them being what modern Americans would consider “white” or “black” can be quickly and easily dismissed. But what about comparisons to Arabs? Neither most modern Arabs nor most modern Jews (notice I said most, not all) would care for that comparison. You try telling most Arabs OR Jews that the most famous Jew of all time looked like an Arab! It just doesn't make sense! Jews and Arabs are two distinctly different groups of people who have lived in the same region for a very long time, but because of their animosity towards each other, have rarely, if ever, intermarried.
So, the question comes up again...who do we compare them to ethnically? Quite simply, the Jews of First Century Israel would have been most comparable ethnically to the modern day Mizrachim - Jews of Near and Middle Eastern stock. This is opposed to the other modern “types” of Jews - most notably Asheknazim and Sephardim. The Ashkenazim and Sephardim are both the descendants of population groups from different areas of Europe, although the Sephardim began to “return” to Israel en masse long before the Ashkenazim did and some Sephardic population groups have over the course of history settled in various places throughout the Near and Middle East. However, both groups are the results of extensive intermarriage with and conversion of native population groups in Europe shortly after the Diaspora. These two groups are the ancestors of the Jews most non-Jewish North Americans and Europeans are used to seeing, both living in their own areas and in the media in the form of entertainers and world leaders, including those of modern-day Israel. Jewish population groups from Africa and Asia are often lumped in under the designation of Mizrachim, although some groups cannot be put into any of these three classifications.
A quick reminder, many of the terms that people seem to sometimes use interchangeably in such discussions – such as “Jewish” and “Middle Eastern” - cannot accurately be used interchangeably. Besides, do you know how many different ethnic groups have lived in the Middle East at one time or another? Also, as stated earlier, Jews of today are not ethnically homogeneous, so when people say things like “look Jewish” or something to that effect, there really is no such thing in the modern sense. Do you mean like Sammy Davis Jr. or like Woody Allen or like Gene Wilder or like Jerry Seinfeld or like Jerry Springer or like Jerry Stiller or...? You get the point, and I digress...
As stated before, the Mizrachim are ethnically identical to the Jews of the time of Christ. From this we can determine that they (and therefore Jesus) tended to have extremely dark skin (not like a black sub-Saharan African, though), thick, dark body hair, a long, prominent, distinguished, pointed nose that curved outwards, dark brown eyes, and thick, curly black hair (until they went bald and/or it turned gray or white). So, yes, they did have more in common as far as their physical features and coloring with their Semitic cousins such as the Arabs than with what modern Americans would consider “white” or “black”. In fact, if you gave Jesus a shave and a haircut, dressed Him in modern Western clothes, and plopped Him down in any city in America, most modern (ignorant) Americans would probably mistake Him for Arab or Latino/Hispanic or think that He was from somewhere on the Indian Sub-Continent. I do realize that to most modern readers, making such generalizations when describing a group of people may seem to be in poor taste, but scientists that work in fields that deal with such things do it. But back to describing what Jesus may have looked like. The realities of the time and place, as well as his diet and lifestyle and occupation, would indicate that he would have been slim, thin, and lean, yet tough, resilient, hardy, strong, and rugged. About 40 pounds less than regular people and being 1.57 meters tall, a dwarf smaller than Tom Cruise while Romans were 10 cm taller. Have you ever seen someone buff and built or husky/chubby living in a Third-World Country? Moving on, despite what the Discovery Channel and Popular Mechanics says (I saw their “reconstruction” and am not the only person that finds it EXTREMELY laughable), the realities of His religion and culture and the time and place and His socioeconomic status would indicate to us that His beard (which would be just as thick, curly, and black as the hair on His head) and His hair would both be grown very long and shaggy and - just like every other male of His religion and culture - He would have had peoth (side locks/curls). When I think of the hair, I think of images from the 60’s and 70’s like those of the hippies at Woodstock, with their huge, thick, curly massses of long unkept tangled, matted hair. When I think of the mustaches, I think of pictures from the 19th century of men with their big, thick, bushy mustaches. When I think of the beards, I think of those hippies again, and of Rasputin and of Santa Claus and of ZZ Topp and of Grizzly Adams and of homeless guys and even of Charles Manson and Ted Kazinsky. Anyways, that mass of hair on their head would be partly covered by a large felt skullcap (made in a very similar manner and of the same material as the more recent fez and tarboosh, only round and fit snugly and tightly on the head) that the Jews had adopted from the Greeks when the Greeks came with the conquests of Alexander the Great, replacing the turbans that the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews had worn for nearly 1,000 years prior. All adult male Jews (those that had had their Bar Mitzvah) would wear this at all times as it was - again - part of their religion and culture.
This brings up the point that the color schemes and designs of the costumes of everyone (including any armor seen) are not historically accurate. You would be surprised by what would have actually been worn in light of what has been seen on the screen and in art. In art the traditional depiction of the attire of “Biblical people” has its basis in Byzantine art in which the people were depicted in Byzantine dress. On the screen we have a tradition apparently based on costume designers’ stylized interpretations of traditional Arab dress. Sometimes, though, it all just seems to spring from the individual’s imagination. To us, what the Jews of First Century Israel wore would have looked more or less like a uniform. Of course there was the skullcap mentioned earlier. Almost everything was made from wool, and very rarely flax. There was a sort of “underwear” which was a long strip of fabric wrapped under and around, and which was the only thing men in certain occupations would be wearing when doing their work. Then there was the tunic, the same basic thing, with slight variations for men, women, and children and based on occupation (and therefore income) and where you lived, as well as what time of year it was and the skill of the woman making the garment. That garment never went too far bellow the knees (except for women) and the sleeves never went too far below the elbow, and occasionally (again for men in certain occupations when doing their work during certain times of year) there were no sleeves. Due to the fact that they were made for the individual and for practical reasons as well (conservation of material and to make it easier to work in the clothes) the garments were very snug and fitted. To us, the fabric would look rough and the stitching crude and primitive. A small sash wrapped around the waist served as a belt, and sometimes things were tucked into the folds, serving as a sort of pocket. Hardly anyone could afford to dye or even bleach any of their clothing, so it was usually the natural color of the material. Pharisees forbade th euse of white which was used only to mourn like in Asia.
Women wore a type of combination shawl/veil. The one item that every man had to splurge and put a little color in (a particular shade of blue) was the large shawl that he always carried that had fringes along the edges and tassels on the corners. It served an endless variety of purposes. He usually carried it draped over one shoulder to provide padding for the goat-skin satchel he might be carrying. If it was hot and dusty and the sun was particularly bright, he might would drape and wrap it over his head and shoulders, covering his mouth and nose, to keep the sun off of his head and out of his eyes, and the dust out of his mouth and nose. It could be (and often was) used as a blanket. In the Synagogue and Temple and at any time that he was praying, he would put it over his head.
This was the beginnings of the Tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. The Roman soldiers wore chain mail armor and a bronze helmet, the exact designs of which are known to us, although it is up for speculation how much of their arms and armor they’d be equipped with while carrying out routine crucifixions just outside the city wall. The Temple Guards would be wearing typical Levite dress, which was a bleached white linen garment that went down to the ankles and had fringes and tassels at the bottom, and which had tightly fitted sleeves that extended to the wrists, and they wore a sash-belt at the waist. They wore a small, rectangular, bronze chest plate held on by leather straps attached at the four corners that went over the shoulders and under the arms and connected in the back. A leather belt with square bronze plates attached to the outside was worn over the sash for carrying a sword or dagger. A very plain, simple bronze helmet (most likely conical) was worn. Most likely a spear and small shield were carried, although they would not be of the caliber of those carried by the Romans or even those of the Herodian soldiers. In addition to the designs and colors of the costumes, in some scenes, certain characters (such as Caiaphas and Pilate, for example) appear to be wearing things that they most likely would not have worn in those situations (or sometimes aren’t wearing things that they most likely would have). Pilate, being the Roman Prefect, would have hardly ever worn armor, and in such situations as those in which he appears in the Gospels would be wearing his tunic and toga. Caiaphas, as High Priest, would only wear his Vestments when officiating in the Temple during specific times of the year, and so we shouldn’t see him in them at all. He should be wearing typical priestly garb, which would be much like that of the Levites (but without the armor and weapon elements mentioned for the Temple Guards). Also, as indicated earlier, the hairstyles of the Jewish characters (both for their heads and their faces – including Jesus and the Apostles) and possibly some of the other characters are not accurate.
Pharisees wore at least 18 pieces in their robes and enlarge the boxes with the Scripture pieces they tied up on their foreheads. In a would-be filmed I would like to see that emphasized to gigantic scale like Pasolini's use of conic huge hats in his Gospel According to Matthew. Maybe using purple color or transparent plastic worn by FAT Pharisees revealing the inner parts! Hahaha!
The locations chosen for filming are geographically and geologically different from the locations they are meant to represent in Israel. It is a different climate and environment. They also have different flora and fauna.
The sets are architecturally inaccurate. The materials and construction methods and styles and designs and colors, etc., that are apparently meant to be represented differ from what would have really been, which archaeology can tell us a great deal about. Plenty of information is available online and in many books detailing the reconstructions of the buildings of Jerusalem during this period, just as it is for everything else that I mention.
Many of the props used are inaccurate in that they are anachronistic, whether it be chronologically, geographically, socially, situationally...whatever.
Jesus and the Apostles are sitting at the table while they eat, whereas they should be reclining.