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Jesus in culture

The race of Jesus has been a subject of debate since at least the 19th century. The physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth was debated by theologians from early on in the history of Christianity, though with no explicit emphasis on race.

Different societies have depicted Jesus and most other biblical figures as their own ethnicity in their art; for example he is primarily white in the West, and black in Sub Saharan Africa. The current dominant opinion among historians and scientists is that he most likely a Galilean Jew and thus would have features which resemble modern-day persons of Middle Eastern or Semitic descent. Others, however, have suggested other possible racial backgrounds. For some Christians the question is complicated by the belief that his birth was a unique miracle, an "incarnation in flesh of divine substance."

Theories about the race of the historical Jesus

Jesus in the Bible

Contemporary textual evidence on Jesus' life is scarce, and specific descriptions of his appearance even more so. There are no direct references to his appearance during his physical lifetime, though Revelation 1:13–16 describes his features as he appears in his heavenly form, as seen in a vision by John the Divine. These have sometimes been used in modern arguments concerning Jesus' race,

1:13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks [one] like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
1:14 His head and [his] hairs [were] white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes [were] as a flame of fire;
1:15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
1:16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance [was] as the sun shineth in his strength.(KJV translation)

The whole of the book of Revelation is generally taken as highly symbolic, and this passage is no exception, especially since the remainder of the description clearly cannot be interpreted as being a natural description. Nonetheless this passage has been used to argue that Jesus was black, based on the description of his hair as being "like wool", which is interpreted to refer to hair that is tightly coiled, as many people of African descent have.[1] However, the full phrase is "white like wool", and it is also compared to snow, complicating this interpretation. In fact, the phrase "white like wool" is reproduced from the Book of Daniel.[2] It is also comparable to language used in the Apocalypse of Abraham, which describes the angel Yahoel as having a body "like sapphire" a face "like chrysolite" and "the hair of his head like snow".[3]

The "feet of fine brass" line has also been used to argue for a dark-skinned race, but many often leave out burnished and glowing. Additionally, the references to having a white "head" and a countenance that is "as the sun shineth" has been used to argue for Jesus being racially white.[4]

However, all of these descriptions are full of vague poetic imagery, seeming more like attempts to glorify the heavenly body of Jesus than to accurately describe his appearance when on earth. There is also debate whether John the Divine, the author of Revelation, was actually John the Apostle, who knew the earthly Jesus, or even if he was John the Evangelist (see authorship of the Johannine works). The relatively late date ascribed to Revelation by modern scholarship leads many scholars to argue that it seems unlikely that someone who had personally seen Jesus in life wrote the description.

There are also many other later descriptions of Jesus from saints and others who claim they have seen him in a vision.

Early theological debates

Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla. One of the first bearded images of Jesus, late 4th century

Most early theological debate about Jesus' appearance arose from interpretations of Messianic prophecies and on the assumption that his physical form was the result of a miraculous virgin birth and so was determined rather more by divine will than ordinary biology. However, there were complex Christological debates about mechanisms of the divine incarnation into human flesh and about how Jesus may have inherited his mother's characteristics and the lineage of King David (since prophecies stated that the Messiah should be David's descendent). This debate originated a dispute about the nature of Jesus' physical connection to the Jewish people, an issue that was later expressed in more racialized form.

Following Isaiah 53:2, most early theologians, such as Justin Martyr, insisted that Jesus was physically unprepossessing, with "no beauty that we should desire him." The anti-Christian author Celsus states that he was "short and ugly", an assertion that his Christian opponent Origen does not dispute. Whether these early debates reflect a purely scriptural view or a continuing oral tradition about his actual physique and physiognomy is not known.

In later centuries this early view was reversed. The Church Fathers Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body. For Augustine he was "beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven."

Descriptions of David & Solomon, Jesus' Ancestors

1 Samuel 16:12 "And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he." - Holy Bible; English Standard Version.

1 Samuel 17:41-43 "And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods." - Holy Bible; English Standard Version.

Song of Solomon 5:10-11 "My beloved is radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand." - Holy Bible; English Standard Version.

The word given as "ruddy" in the above version of the verses from 1 Samuel is translated as "red-haired" in the Bible in Basic English,[5] but as "healthy complexion" in the God's Word translation.[6] Other translations do not specify whether the word describes David's hair or skin, or is a general description of his appearance.[7][8] Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have traditions claiming King David was a red-head.

Supposed descriptions of Jesus

By the Early Middle Ages the positive view of Jesus' looks was bolstered by a number of descriptions of him purporting to date from his lifetime. Nicephorus quotes a description of him as tall and beautiful with fair wavy hair and dark eyebrows that met in the middle. He had an olive-tinted complexion, "the color of wheat." One Publius Lentulus is supposed to have described him as perfectly beautiful in features, with "hazel-coloured" hair that flowed to his shoulders, and a forked beard. His eyes continually "change their color." Epiphanius Monachus provides a similar description, in which Jesus is six feet tall, golden haired, with black eyebrows, light brown eyes and swarthy skin "like David's."[9]

Almost all modern authors[who?] dismiss these descriptions as medieval fabrications. They were, however, copied in many Western artistic portrayals

Emergence of racial theories

While the early descriptions of hair, skin and eye color clearly have implications for defining Jesus' "race", they are not explicit in their desire to ascribe a racial identity to him in the modern sense. By the 19th century, however, theological arguments were increasingly replaced by more secular biological ones, as attempts were made to envisage Jesus in the context of the people and culture of the Middle East. While some writers stressed his Jewishness, the growth of anti-Semitic racial theory led others, such as Emile Burnouf and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, to argue that he was racially an "Aryan." This led to portrayals of Jesus as a blond Nordic individual, a concept that was taken up by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg and by Hitler. Hitler argued that Jesus was of Celtic ancestry, on the grounds that "Galilee was a colony where the Romans had probably installed Gallic legionaries, and it's certain that Jesus was not a Jew."[10]


A hypothetical reconstruction of someone from the same time and place of Jesus, created by forensic artist Richard Neave.

In more recent times the fact that the Middle East was a meeting point of cultures and races has led to suggestions that Jesus may have been African or Arabian. The ancient Near East was the primary means of access for traders and travelers seeking to access Africa via the adjoining Levant. Hence, the bordering Roman province Judea (Jesus' home region) witnessed multiple waves of immigrants passing through those primarily Semitic lands. As such, it is conceivable that Jesus' lineage could have borne traces of Arab, Aramean, Berber, Roman, Greek, Black African, Persian or Indian ancestry. The aggressive policy of territorial expansion and forced conversion to Judaism practiced by John Hyrcanus a century before Jesus' birth may also have affected the ethnic make-up of the local Jewish populations.

It is most commonly argued that Jesus was probably of Middle Eastern descent because of the geographic location of the events described in the Gospels, and, among some modern Christian scholars, the genealogy ascribed to him. For this reason, he has been portrayed as an olive-skinned individual typical of the Levant region. A team of forensic scientists recently attempted to recreate what Jesus may have looked like based on human remains from the area where and time period when Jesus is believed to have existed. However, this image does not reveal any specific details about what Jesus looked like; it is intended only to give a view of the typical person living in Jesus' time and place.[11] In the December 2002 edition of Popular Mechanics, Jesus was shown as looking like a typical Galilean Semite. Among the points made was that the Bible records that Jesus' disciple Judas had to point him out to those arresting him. The implied argument being that if Jesus' physical appearance differed that markedly from his disciples, then he would have been relatively easy to identify.[12]

More recently the claim that Jesus was black has gained some currency, chiefly among African American religious movements, either as a historical hypothesis often rooted in Afrocentric doctrine or as a symbolic statement of Black Pride. Groups such as Black Hebrew Israelites claim that black people are descended from Israelites and that therefore Jesus was black.[13]

Artistic portrayals

Not all depictions of Jesus are intended to literally represent how he is thought to have looked; many such representations are largely symbolic, spiritual, and personal, and the race chosen may be intended only to reflect, or more recently to contradict, local expectations. This may be true of both pictorial and cinematic portrayals.

Additionally, whether intended to be realistic or not, images of Jesus throughout history have almost always characterized him as being of the race of the artist or target audience, further complicating the task of determining Jesus' race and sometimes leading to racial tensions. Categories of racial difference have also changed over time. While the German artist Albrecht Dürer often depicted Jesus as blond and the Spanish artist Velázquez depicted him as Mediterranean, there is no evidence that either of them would have interpreted these differences in terms of separate racial identities as they might be in modern America, in which "WASP" and Hispanic peoples are sometimes characterized as racially distinct.[14]

Middle Eastern

Middle Eastern Jesus, by William Holman Hunt.

Many images portraying Jesus and Mary traditionally used by Melkite churches display bronzed individuals with large brown eyes, characteristic of Middle Eastern peoples. In 19th century Europe a number of artists sought to produce realistic images of Jesus based on the assumption that he was of Middle Eastern appearance. In 1850 John Everett Millais was attacked for his painting Christ in the House of his Parents because it was "painful" to see "the youthful Saviour" depicted as "a red-headed Jew boy"[15]. The most assiduous of such artists was William Holman Hunt, who traveled several times to the Holy Land in order to portray Jesus using local people as models for his works The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple and The Shadow of Death, though he retained many conventions derived from medieval descriptions. Other painters such as James Tissot and Vassili Vereshchagin used what they believed to be more specifically Judaic features, causing some controversy. By the late 19th century several artists sought such ethnographic accuracy. The African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner painted many episodes from the life of Jesus based on his studies of the population of Palestine.

More recent artistic and cinematic portrayals have also made an effort to characterize Jesus as Middle Eastern. In the 2004 movie, The Passion Of The Christ, Jesus was portrayed by James Caviezel who wore a prosthetic nose during filming and had his blue eyes digitally changed to brown to give him a Middle Eastern appearance. According to designer Miles Teves, who created the prosthesis, "Mel [Gibson] wanted to make the actor playing Jesus, James Caviezel, look more ethnically Middle Eastern, and it was decided that we could do it best by changing the shape of his nose."[16][17]

In the 2007 Iranian movie Mesih (Messiah), which depicts an Islamic version of Jesus' life, Jesus is played by the actor Ahmad Soleimani Nia whose appearance is akin to that of the Iranic ethnic grouping.


The oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel, ca 6th century (Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai). From about this time this type became the conventional appearance of Christ in Byzantine art, and later the art of the Western Church.

In the majority of Western art, narrative and cinema depicting Jesus, he is portrayed with brown hair and brown eyes, having a short beard and white skin. However, some artists, including notably Dürer, have also depicted him as blond and/or blue-eyed. This is also the case in several films, including Jesus of Nazareth (1977) in which he has dark brown hair but pale blue eyes. Nonetheless, because Western or European ethnicities are composed of many subgroups (whether biological or perceived), such as Mediterrean, Slavic, Northern European (Nordic), the issue is more complex than monolithic. In addition, it is possible many European portrayals of Jesus may be based on the appearance of European (Ashkenazi) Jews, who often have "white" skin tones or facial features, and sometimes blond hair and blue eyes. There is wide variation in appearance within the modern Jewish population upon whose appearance artists may base their depictions.

Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico and Michelangelo all depicted Jesus as white. Nonetheless, it must be noted that most figures of the Bible, including the Israelites and Egyptians described in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), were also portrayed as identical in appearance to European whites. In this sense the portrayal may be largely unselfconscious, as might also be the case even in periods with more prominent awareness of race, such as the 20th and 21st centuries.

Because of the commonness of this depiction, it is often confused with historical fact. It has dispersed so widely that many cultures have at least to some extent assimilated the image of a white Jesus. Western Christians spread images of a European Jesus through their encounters with peoples of Africa, the Americas, Australia and parts of Asia (often through colonization), from the 16th to the 20th century. Many nonwhite regions and ethnicities have depicted Jesus in this way, sometimes routinely, though sometimes with partial adaptations to the local setting, including dress. Moreover, in addition to images, the fact that Christianity was predominantly introduced to them by white individuals makes the racial connection even more complex. Nonetheless, portrayal of Jesus with local features is also common, especially in areas where Christianity has been prominent for a longer period of history.

Additionally, in some cultures nonwhite depictions of Jesus are actually criticized or dismissed outright, with a few considering it blasphemous to portray of Jesus as being of another ethnicity. Ever since the Nazi claim that Jesus was Nordic, Christian white supremacists have commonly equated Christian identity with white racial separatism, sometimes using exegesis of Biblical passages to argue their position.[18]


An 18th century Ethiopian image of Jesus

Depictions of a Jesus with predominantly African features have existed for several centuries, such as those maintained by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Yet the widespread portrayal of a Black Jesus is relatively recent in Christian imagery. The late-20th and early-21st Centuries saw several examples of artists casting Jesus as black, including Vincent Barzoni's image of Jesus in the tradition of the "Man of Sorrows", and Janet Mackenzie's Jesus of the People.

Within the American pop culture milieu, the idea of a black Jesus has also been explored in both cinema and television. In 1992, the African American actor and director Blair Underwood starred as Jesus in The Second Coming, in which Christ returns to earth in the form of a black man. The Kevin Smith film Dogma also satirically treats the idea of Jesus as black. Chris Rock's character, "Rufus", is a "13th Apostle" who was alive at the time of Christ; he is working to change the Bible to include the fact that Jesus was black and place himself back into the Gospels. The 1996 TV movie America's Dream includes a segment "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black", based on a short story by John Henrik Clarke, about a school principal (Wesley Snipes) in 1940s Georgia torn between supporting the student who painted a black Jesus for entry into an art contest or appeasing the white state school supervisor (Timothy Carhart) who is offended by such a portrayal.[19][20] The cartoon series The Boondocks also regularly refers to competing concepts of a "black Jesus" and "white Jesus".

Debate on the color of Jesus' skin has often resulted from interpretations of various darkly-colored, aged depictions of Jesus' mother Mary, referred to as the Black Madonna. Another catalyst for such debate can be found in the Philippines, where, in the nation's capital, Manila, an image of the Black Nazarene carrying the cross is revered by thousands of devotees. Yet, it is traditionally posited that the statue was burnt in the ship carrying it to the Philippines, hence the image's dark hue.

Other races

A Chinese painting of Jesus and his disciples, illustrating the story of the rich man (Mark 10)

Throughout Latin America many Saints have been depicted with local features, adapting from Spanish traditions. The Mexican muralists of the early 20th century depicted Jesus in a variety of dramatic ways, as a revolutionary figure often with local features. The mother of Jesus is depicted as a native Mexican in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In India, where the St. Thomas Christians have been established for nearly two thousand years, there is a long-standing tradition of depicting the Holy Family with local features and costume. During the colonial period many European prints or icons were later copied and adapted to be given more Indian features.

Worshippers in Japan, where Francis Xavier preached, often depict him with Asian features, as do Chinese artists.


See also

  • Images of Jesus
  • Controversy over racial characteristics of ancient Egyptians


  1. Malachi Z York on race in the Book of Revelation
  2. God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and the Near East, Zondervan, 1995, p. 322; 345.
  3. Peter R. Carrell, Jesus and the Angels: Angelology and the Christology of the Apocalypse of John, 1997, Cambridge University Press.
  4. Glasgow, James, The Apocalypse, Translated and Expounded argues that the hair represents "the beauteous flaxen locks of childhood, thus representing the man Jesus in per­petual youth", T.T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1872, p. 126.
  5. 1 Samuel 17:42 (Bible in Basic English Translation)
  6. 1 Samuel 17:42 (God's Word Translation)
  7. 1 Samuel 16:12 (Parallel Translations)
  8. 1 Samuel 17:42 (Parallel Translations)
  9. Frederic W. Farrar in Christ in Art (1894) collects all these descriptions. pp. 67-85. PDF of Farrar's book. The descriptions are also collected in other sources: The Nazarene Way: Likeness of our saviour.
  10. Hitler's Table Talk
  11. "From science and computers, a new face of Jesus", By Jeordan Legon, CNN
  12. Mike Fillon, "Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history.", Popular Mechanics, 2002
  13. The Holy Conception Unit website (illustrated with a "black Madonna")
  14. Clara E. Rodriguez, Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States, 2000, NYU press, p.172
  15. "The Royal Academy Exhibition." Builder 1 Jun. 1850, 255-256.
  16. Miles Teves: Character Design, from Designing Movie Creatures and Characters: Discover the Creation Process from the Best in the Business, by Richard Rickitt
  17. James Caviezel was given a prosthetic nose and a raised hairline. His blue eyes were digitally changed to brown on film.
  18. Christian Separatist page arguing that Jesus was white
  19. IMDb America's Dream
  20. Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Jasmine Guy star in HBO-TV short stories 'America's Dream

External links