Jesus: White, black or brown-skinned Semitic Jew?
Shopping for nativity scenes? At Macy’s you have two options to choose from: "The Vatican Edition" and "The Byzantine Edition." The first comes with a set of white figurines, including a red-headed Mary, a brown-haired Joseph and a blue-eyed baby Jesus. In the second, all three are black, as are the shepherd and three wise men. Both cost $10, and more than likely, both are historically inaccurate.
While we can never be exactly sure of what Jesus, Mary and Joseph actually looked like, we know they were not fair-skinned, flaxen-haired Europeans. And, though an emerging fringe of historians would argue otherwise, it’s fairly certain they weren’t black Africans. In all likelihood, what they were was something in between: olive-skinned, dark-featured Semitic Jews living in Israel.
As Christianity spread through Europe, the image of Jesus became more European:
Of course, it is a powerful human inclination to be drawn to people who look like ourselves. As Christianity spread out of the Holy Land, across the Mediterranean basin and west into Central and Northern Europe, the image of Jesus morphed to mirror each new culture—he became more white and less dark, more European and less Middle Eastern, more like an Irishman and less like an Israelite. “The whole ideology of Christian art is the remaking of Jesus in the mold of every subsequent generation of converts in order to meet their need for identification,” says Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.
Many scholars agree that the adaptability of Christian art was integral to the indoctrination of a largely illiterate, intransient population because it allowed them to relate to the religion on a local level. “We have to realize that in medieval Europe, travel, especially to somewhere as far off as the Holy Land, was incredibly difficult for the vast majority of the population,” says Holly Flora, curator of New York’s Museum of Biblical Art. “People’s worldview was very limited to their immediate surroundings, and so they projected those surroundings onto their imagery of Christ and the holy family.”
So what colour was Jesus?
'The Passion': Where's the black Jesus?