Recently, Facebook friends have been arguing over the conjectured physical appearance of Jesus. That’s just the latest disagreement over Jesus’ looks.
Around 2001, a group of researchers, using the most modern techniques, were lambasted after deriving an image of a short, stocky man with a broad nose and dark skin. In 2013, Megyn Kelly, then a FOX commentator, insisted Jesus (and Santa Claus) was white, igniting the discussion again. The fire she started continues to send out flames.
Some Facebook friends were adamant that Jesus was blonde or Western appearing. You would certainly think so, given the statues and paintings which depict a tall white Jesus with flowing hair. I don’t recall ever seeing a black Jesus in all the physical manifestations on Christmas cards, drawings and the like.
In movies, such as The Passion of The Christ (2004), Jesus is white, played by Jim Caviezel.
However, that’s not how early Christians described him. Like us, they had no sources. No one in Jesus’ lifetime left us a physical description. Religious leaders tried anyway.
Celsus, a Greek philosopher who opposed Christianity and lived in the 2nd century, described Jesus as “small and ugly.” Tertullian, an early Church Father who was later declared a heretic, agreed with Celsus. Jesus, Tertillian said, had an “ignoble” appearance. Irenaeus, another 2nd century Church founder who was the first to list all the books eventually in the New Testament, called Jesus “weak and inglorious.” Others said he was a hunch-back.
In the Acts of Peter, which is not in the Bible, Jesus was called “small and ignorant.” How small? Bishops in the second century and Ephrem Syrus, a fourth century bishop, suggested Jesus was closer to 4’6” tall.
Later writers, like St. Augustine insisted Jesus was beautiful.
If they had looked at the Bible for suggestions, they would have concluded Jesus was dark-skinned. After all, the first human in the sacred text, Adam, was formed from clay. In Hebrew, the word for “clay” or “dust” is defined as black or very dark brown in color.
Ethiopians, who are black, populate the stories. Moses’ wife Zipporah is an Ethiopian. So are additional wives of Abraham and Jacob. In movies and paintings, they are usually depicted as white.
The idea that Jesus was fair skinned arose in the Middle Ages as Christians began to battle with Arabs for control of the Middle East. Depicting Jesus as non-Semitic was a form of propaganda. It also separated Jesus from his Jewish origins as Jews were increasingly brutalized in Europe.
In the 19th century, Christian scholars continued to say Jesus was white during an era of intense anti-Semitism, leading to the Nazis and the Holocaust.
English-born German philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain initiated the process by describing Jesus as Amorite-German, apparently unaware that the Amorites were Semitic, like the Jews. New Yorker Madison Grant, known for his work with the pseudoscience of eugenics, insisted Jesus was Nordic.
That argument is based on the false premise that Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a non-Jewish region. In reality, the region was once called Samaria and contained mostly Jews and converts to Judaism.
In the late 20th century, scholarship swung back toward a swarthy Jesus, if not black. Researchers checking skeletal remains from the era found that residents of Judea, then part of the Roman Empire, shared DNA largely with today’s Iraqi Jews. Those folks mostly have olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes. The men average about 5’5”. If Jesus followed the practices of his male counterparts, he would have had short hair and a trimmed beard.
The bigger question is: Does it matter?
You’d better believe it. Although some Christians insist they have no problem with whatever Jesus really looked like since they believe in him regardless, most Facebook posts did not follow that reasoning. White Christians want Jesus to look like them, so he gets blue eyes, flowing hair and white skin.
Would they pray to in a black, short, Semitic-looking man? I doubt it. Such thinking would undermine the inherent racism embedded so deeply into Western culture. A black president outraged enough people; a black Jesus, openly replacing the white version, would likely cause even more anger.
Nevertheless, in time, maybe the truth will win out.
As author Mark Wayne suggested, “We would go back to … following a humble dark-skinned Jewish rabbi who just so happened to be the physical manifestation of God himself to bestow grace and mercy to the whole world. All colors included.”
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of novels and nonfiction books, such as The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers, including Bold Venture Press. His website is wlazarus.com.