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The race and appearance of Jesus have been discussed on a number of grounds since Early Christianity, although the New Testament includes no description of the physical appearance of Jesus before his death and its narrative is generally indifferent to racial appearances.
Other than the New Testament and related religious writings, there are no historical writings referencing a biblical Jesus. However, various theories about the race of Jesus have been advanced and debated. By the Middle Ages a number of documents, generally of unknown or questionable origin, had been composed and were circulating with details of the appearance of Jesus. Now these documents are mostly considered forgeries. While many people have a fixed mental image of Jesus, drawn from his artistic depictions, these images often conform to stereotypes which are not grounded in any serious research on the historical Jesus, but are based on second or third hand interpretations of spurious sources.
By the 19th century theories that Jesus was non-Semitic, and in particular Aryan, were developed. However, as in other cases of the assignment of race to Biblical individuals, these claims have been mostly subjective, based on cultural stereotypes and societal trends rather than on scientific analysis. For two millennia a wide range of artistic depictions of Jesus have appeared, often influenced by cultural settings, political circumstances and theological contexts. There is no major disagreement that he was ethnically Middle Eastern-Jewish, though some question what exactly that looked like at that time although there is a scholarly consensus that first century Jews from Judea were Levantine Middle Easterners.
The New Testament includes no description of Jesus' everyday appearance before his death (he is only described in the Resurrection appearances of Jesus). and the Gospel narratives are generally indifferent to people's racial appearance or features.
The Book of Revelation includes John's vision of the Son of Man, which describes "...and his feet were like unto burnt brass, the hair of his head like the lambs wool" [other translations: "burnished bronze"], as if they burned in a furnace..." in a vision (1:13-16), but this vision is usually considered to refer to Jesus in heavenly form, not necessarily his appearance during his earthly life.
Old Testament references about a coming Messiah (whom Christians believe to be Jesus) have been projected forward to form conjectures about the appearance of Jesus on theological, rather than historical, grounds; e.g. Isaiah 53:2 which refers to the scourged Messiah with "no beauty that we should desire him" and Psalm 45:2-3 which describes him as "fairer than the children of men", often interpreted as his physical description. Clarks' commentary accepts Lamentations 4:7 "Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more swarthy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: Their visage is blacker than coal;" as referring to skin color. 1 Samuel 16:12 describes David, the ancestor of Jesus, as having "beautiful eyes" or "fair countenance."
Despite the lack of direct biblical or historical references, from the second century onward various theories about the appearance of Jesus were advanced, but early on these focused more on his physical appearance than on race or ancestry. Larger arguments of this kind have been debated for centuries.
Justin Martyr argued for the genealogy of Jesus in the biological Davidic line from Mary, as well as from his non-biological father Joseph. But this only implies a general Jewish ancestry, acknowledged generally by authors.
The focus of many early sources was on the relative physical beauty of Jesus. The second century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus wrote that Jesus was "ugly and small". Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Ambrose actually considered lack of physical attractiveness in Jesus as fulfilling the Messianic prophecy "Suffering Servant" narrative of Isaiah 53.
But, the more mainstream view, as expressed by Church Fathers Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo, argued from a theological perspective 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". These theological arguments were further extended in the 13th century by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae based on his analysis of the Perfection of Christ, reasoning that Christ must have embodied every possible human perfection.
By the Middle Ages a number of documents, generally of unknown or questionable origin, had been composed and were circulating with details of the appearance of Jesus, as described below.
Around the 9th century, Epiphanius Monachus referred to a tall angelic figure, which has at times been interpreted as Christ, but scholars consider it an unlikely reference to Jesus. Other spurious references include the Archko Volume and the letter of Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar, the descriptions in which were most likely composed in the Middle Ages.
A forged letter by Publius Lentulus, the Governor of Judea, to the Roman Senate dates to around the year 1300 and, according to most scholars, was composed to compensate for the lack of any physical description of Jesus in the Bible. Also in the 14th century Nicephorus Callistus quoted an unnamed antique source that described Jesus as tall and beautiful with fair, wavy hair, but his account was most likely without basis and was inspired by the prevailing artistic images of Jesus.
The Islamic Hadith, collections of 8-9th century AD sayings with no scriptural ascertainment or specific authorship, describe Jesus as "red," in a section narrated by Ibn Abbas (Red as a skin color can mean brown with reddish tones like the date fruit, as the date is called 'The Red one.' Red can also be a euphemism for fair-skinned people in order not to call their color white and allow it to be associated with vitiligo.) Jesus is also described as blackish brown in other hadeeh (آدَمُ)
In explaining the development of racial theories in the context of scripture, Colin Kidd, in his book The forging of races, argues that the assignment of race to biblical individuals has been a mostly subjective practice based on cultural stereotypes and societal trends rather than on scientific methods. Kidd reviews a number of theories about the race of Jesus, ranging from a white Aryan Jesus to a black African Jesus, illustrating that there is no general agreement among scholars on the race of Jesus.
In his book Racializing Jesus, Shawn Kelley states that the assignment of a specific race to Jesus has been a cultural phenomenon emanating from the higher levels of intellectual circles within societies, and he draws parallels between the seemingly different approaches within different settings. Cain Hope Felder has argued that New Testament passages such as Galatians 3:28 express a universalism that goes beyond race, ethnicity or even religion.
By the 19th century theories that Jesus was of the "Aryan" race, and in particular of Nordic appearance, were developed and later appealed to advocates of the new racial antisemitism, who wanted nothing Jewish about Jesus. Houston Stewart Chamberlain posited Jesus was of Amorite-Germanic extraction. Madison Grant claimed Jesus for the Nordic race. This found its most extreme form in the Nazi theology of Positive Christianity. Scholars supporting the radical Aryan view also argued that being a Jew by religion was distinguishable from being a Jew by "race" or ethnicity. These theories usually also include the reasoning that Jesus was Aryan because Galilee was a supposedly a non-Jewish region speaking an unknown Indo-European language, but this has not gained scholarly acceptance (in fact, Galilee had a significant non-Jewish minority, but these spoke various local Semitic languages).
The English writer Godfrey Higgins suggested in his book Anacalypsis (1836) that Jesus was a dark brown skinned Indo-Aryan from North India. In 1906 a German writer named Theodor Plange wrote a book titled Christ-an Indian? in which he argued that Jesus was an Indian and that the Christian gospel had originated in India.
By the 20th century, theories had also been proposed that Jesus was black, but not necessarily of descendent of any specific black African ethnicity, e.g. based on the argument that the ancient Israelites, as a group, were in whole or part originally a black people. Martin Luther King was a proponent of the "Black Christ" movement and identified the struggle of Jesus against the authorities of the time with the struggle of African Americans in the southern parts of the United States, as he questioned why the white church leaders did not voice concern for racial equality. For some, this blackness was due to Jesus's identification with black people, not the color of his skin, while others such as Albert Cleage argued that Jesus was ethnically black.
A study on the 2001 BBC series Son of God attempted to determine what Jesus's race and appearance may have been. Assuming Jesus to be a Galilean Semite, the study concluded in conjunction with Mark Goodacre that his skin would have been "olive-coloured" and "swarthy"—these results were criticised by some media outlets for being "dismissive" and "dumbed down". However, this type of analysis suggests, that even though broadly Caucasian, Jesus may not have fit into modern definitions of whiteness in the Western world.
In academic studies, beyond generally agreeing that "Jesus was Jewish" modern scholarship has not successfully dealt with the question of the ethnicity of Jesus.
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. In 2001, a new attempt was made to discover what the true race and face of Jesus might have been. The study, sponsored by the BBC, France 3 and Discovery Channel, used one of three first-century Jewish skulls from a leading department of forensic science in Israel. A face was constructed using forensic anthropology by Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the Unit of Art in Medicine at the University of Manchester. The face that Neave constructed suggested that Jesus would have had a broad face and large nose, and differed significantly from the traditional depictions of Jesus in renaissance art.
Additional information about Jesus's skin color and hair was provided by Mark Goodacre, a senior lecturer at the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. Using third-century images from a synagogue—the earliest pictures of Jewish people—Goodacre proposed that Jesus's skin color would have been darker and swarthier than his traditional Western image. He also suggested that he would have had short, curly hair and a short cropped beard. This is also confirmed in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, where Paul the Apostle states that it is "disgraceful" for a man to have long hair. As Paul allegedly knew many of the disciples and members of Jesus's family, it is unlikely that he would have written such a thing had Jesus had long hair.
Although not literally the face of Jesus, the result of the study determined that Jesus's skin would have been more olive-colored than white, and that he would have looked like a typical Galilean Semite. Among the points made was that the Bible records that Jesus's disciple Judas had to point him out to those arresting him. The implied argument is that if Jesus's physical appearance had differed markedly from his disciples, then he would have been relatively easy to identify.
During the Middle Ages, a number of legendary images of Jesus began to appear, at times perhaps constructed to validate the styles of depiction of that period, e.g. the image of Edessa. The Veil of Veronica was accompanied by a narrative about the Passion of Jesus.
A number of descriptions of Jesus have been reported by saints and mystics who claim they have seen Jesus in a vision. Reports of such visions are more common among Roman Catholics than other Christian denominations.
By the 20th century, some reports of miraculous images of Jesus began to receive significant attention, e.g. Secondo Pia's photograph of the Shroud of Turin, one of the most controversial artifacts in history. During its May 2010 exposition the shroud and its photograph of what some authors consider the face of Jesus were visited by over 2 million people.
Another 20th century depiction of Jesus, namely the Divine Mercy image is based on Faustina Kowalska's reported vision, which she described in her diary as a pattern that was then painted by artists. The depiction is now widely used among Catholics, and has over 100 million followers worldwide.
Despite the lack of biblical references or historical records, for two millennia a wide range of depictions of Jesus have appeared, often influenced by cultural settings, political circumstances and theological contexts. As in other Christian art, the earliest depictions date to the late second or early third century, and are primarily found in Rome. In these early depictions, Jesus is usually shown as a youthful figure without a beard and with curly hair, sometimes with different features from the other men in the scenes, e.g. his disciples or the Romans. However bearded depictions also appear from very early on, perhaps drawing on an existing stereotype from the Greek world of the appearance of the many itinerant charismatic philosophers.
Although some images exist at the synagogue at Dura-Europos, and such images may have been common, Judaism in theory forbade images, and its influence on the depictions of Jesus remains unknown. Christian depictions of the 3rd and 4th centuries typically focused on New Testament scenes of healings and other miracles. Following the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century, Christian art found many wealthy donors and flourished. In this period Jesus began to have more mature features, and was shown with a beard. A new development at this time was the depiction of Jesus without a narrative context, but just as a figure by himself.
By the 5th century depictions of the Passion began to appear, perhaps reflecting a change in the theological focus of the early Church. The 6th century Rabbula Gospels include some of the earliest images of the crucifixion and resurrection. By the 6th century the bearded depiction of Jesus had become standard, both in the East and the West. These depictions with reddish brown hair parted in the middle and with almond shaped eyes showed consistency for several centuries. At this time various legends were developed to attempt to validate the styles of depiction, e.g. the image of Edessa and later the Veil of Veronica.
The Byzantine Iconoclasm acted as a barrier to developments in the East, but by the 9th century art was again permitted. The Transfiguration of Jesus was a major theme in the East and every Eastern Orthodox monk who took up iconography had to start his craft by producing the icon of the Transfiguration. Whereas Western depictions aim for proportion, the abolition of perspective and alterations in the size and proportion of an image in Eastern icons aim to reach beyond man's earthly dwellings.
The 13th century witnessed a turning point in the portrayal of the powerful Kyrios image of Jesus as a wonder worker in the West, as the Franciscans began to emphasize the humility of Jesus both at his birth and his death via the Nativity scene as well as the crucifixion. The Franciscans approached both ends of this spectrum of emotions and as the joys of the Nativity were added to the agony of crucifixion a whole new range of emotions were ushered in, with wide ranging cultural impact on the image of Jesus for centuries thereafter.
The Renaissance brought forth a number of artistic masters who focused on the depictions of Jesus and after Giotto, Fra Angelico and others systematically developed uncluttered images that focused on the depiction of Jesus with an ideal human beauty. Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper which is considered the first work of High Renaissance art due to its high level of harmony became well known for depicting Jesus surrounded by varying emotions of the individual apostles at the announcement of the betrayal.
Objections to depictions of Jesus have appeared, e.g. 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". The first cinematic portrayal of Jesus was in the 1897 film La Passion du Christ produced in Paris, which lasted five minutes. Thereafter cinematic portrayals have continued to show Jesus with a beard in the standard western depiction that resembles Renaissance images.
More recent artistic and cinematic portrayals have also made an effort to characterize Jesus as an ancient Middle Eastern resident. In the 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, Jesus was portrayed by Jim Caviezel who wore a prosthetic nose during filming and had his blue eyes digitally changed to brown to give him a more 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."