- The first English settlers in the Americas carried with them no sense of what Jesus looked like. The Bible was central to their beliefs, but it offered no physical description of Jesus's face, hair, eyes, or body. Roman Catholics were already placing images of Christ in their churches, but many Protestant settlers were anti-Catholic and were more likely to report their visions of Satan than to worship icons of Christ.
That all began to change in the 18th century, during the Great Awakenings. Up and down the East Coast, whites, blacks, and American Indians began reporting visions of Jesus as emotional revivals pushed Americans toward personal relationships with Christ. In some cases, their images focused on the blood that poured from Jesus' hands and side. It was a broken and battered Christ that seemed to speak to their difficult lives. But mostly Jesus was seen in a blinding light. Light, not white.
- As the 19th century progressed, Americans did begin publishing and mass-producing images of Jesus. New roads and canals, coupled with improvements in paper production, made it possible for evangelical organizations such as the American Tract Society to flood the nation with millions of illustrated pamphlets, newspapers, and Bibles. The religious material spread so fast and in such numbers that Mark Twain joked about using it on the Mississippi River to sink pesky skiff boats.
The rise in the images of Christ took place at the same time slavery was expanding and American Indians, such as the Cherokee, were being pushed further into the interior. Most states were also in the process of eliminating state-sponsored denominations; a wave of Irish-Catholic immigrants after 1830 were further challenging American Protestant identity. A new image of Christ would emerge: the bringer of civilized Christian values. Light was becoming white.
- According to Taylor's research, rather than towering over others in Judea, Jesus was about 5 foot 5 inches (1.7 meters) tall, or the average height seen in skeletal remains from males there at the time. People in Judea and Egypt tended to have brown eyes, black hair and olive-brown skin, based on surviving archaeological remains, historical texts and depictions of people seen in mummy portraits from Egypt, Taylor said in her book.
There was interaction between Judea and people from Europe (who could have lighter skin) as well as Sudan and Ethiopia (who could have darker skin). But because Jews in Judea and Egypt tended to marry among themselves at the time, Jesus' skin, eyes and hair probably looked like those of the majority of the people in Judea and Egypt, Taylor found. Surviving texts say that Jews in Egypt couldn't be physically distinguished from the rest of Egypt's population around Jesus' time. Historical records also showed that people in Judea tended to keep their hair (and beards) reasonably short and well-combed, probably to keep out lice, a big problem at the time, Taylor said. Jesus likely did the same.
- Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as a carpenter who did a lot of walking but at times didn't have much to eat. This active lifestyle, but lack of regular food, meant that he was probably thin, but somewhat muscular, Taylor said. "Jesus was a man who was physical in terms of the labor that he came from," Taylor said. "He shouldn't be presented as [in] any way someone who was living a soft life, and sometimes that's the kind of image we get."
- If Jesus were handsome, Taylor said, the gospel writers, or other early Christian writers, would have said so, as they did for Moses and David.
- When the man who is deemed the central figure of a religion and indeed the savior of the entire world is consistently portrayed to look like a Scandinavian sailor when he more likely resembled a Syrian refugee, it's being done to advance an Anglo-Saxon, white supremacist agenda.” Joseph reiterated King’s point in an interview with artnet, asserting, "This is the only art we see…It's whites-only art."
- Children in our culture imagine God as an old white man, an image that reigns unchecked unless it is countered with other God images. Similarly, the vast majority of the renderings of Jesus show him as white: our paintings, our movies, our stained glass.
- While shades of brown are debated, it is clear that Jesus was not white. The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with a brown complexion. But by the sixth century, some Byzantine artists started picturing Jesus with white skin, a beard and hair parted down the middle. This image became the standard.
- How would Nafisa experience Christians if those Christians saw a manger scene on every corner with dark-skinned refugees, surrounded by sexual scandal? If, as we sang "Silent Night" we remember that Jesus and his parents fled from the Middle East to Africa in order to escape persecution for Jesus' gender, could we really say hate-filled words about trans people - could people advance cruel and unfair treatment for trans people in the name of Christ? Could they do it, if they thought of Jesus as one who knows what it is to be persecuted for his gender, to flee for his life because of it?
Those who decry the Black Lives Matter movement, could they miss the point so completely by shouting back all lives matter if they truly saw Jesus? Could they hate people for no reason beyond their skin tone, if they knew we follow a black Christ?
- In fact this familiar image of Jesus actually comes from the Byzantine era, from the 4th Century onwards, and Byzantine representations of Jesus were symbolic - they were all about meaning, not historical accuracy.
- If he had had even slightly long hair, we would expect some reaction. Jewish men who had unkempt beards and were slightly long-haired were immediately identifiable as men who had taken a Nazirite vow. This meant they would dedicate themselves to God for a period of time, not drink wine or cut their hair - and at the end of this period they would shave their heads in a special ceremony in the temple in Jerusalem (as described in Acts chapter 21, verse 24).
But Jesus did not keep a Nazirite vow, because he is often found drinking wine - his critics accuse him of drinking far, far too much of it (Matthew chapter 11, verse 19). If he had had long hair, and looked like a Nazirite, we would expect some comment on the discrepancy between how he appeared and what he was doing - the problem would be that he was drinking wine at all.
- The historian Josephus describes the Zealots (a Jewish group who wanted to push the Romans out of Judaea) as a bunch of murderous transvestites who donned "dyed mantles" - chlanidia - indicating that they were women's wear. This suggests that real men, unless they were of the highest status, should wear undyed clothing.
Jesus did not wear white, however. This was distinctive, requiring bleaching or chalking, and in Judaea it was associated with a group called the Essenes - who followed a strict interpretation of Jewish law. The difference between Jesus's clothing and bright, white clothing, is described in Mark chapter 9, when three apostles accompany Jesus to a mountain to pray and he begins to radiate light. Mark recounts that Jesus's himatia (in the plural the word may mean "clothing" or "clothes" rather than specifically "mantles") began "glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them". Before his transfiguration, therefore, Jesus is presented by Mark as an ordinary man, wearing ordinary clothes, in this case undyed wool, the material you would send to a fuller. <We are told more about Jesus's clothing during his execution, when the Roman soldiers divide his himatia (in this case the word probably refers to two mantles) into four shares (see John chapter 19, verse 23). One of these was probably a tallith, or Jewish prayer shawl. This mantle with tassels (tzitzith) is specifically referred to by Jesus in Matthew chapter 23, verse 5. This was a lightweight himation, traditionally made of undyed creamy-coloured woollen material, and it probably had some kind of an indigo stripe or threading.
- The honorable Elijah Muhammed teaches us that Jesus did not have blond hair and blue eyes. The honorable Elijah Muhammed teaches us that the images of Jesus that are on prison walls and churches throughout the world are not historically correct because history teaches us that Jesus was born in a region where the people had color.
- "Malcolm X", played by Denzel Washington, in Malcolm X (film) (1992) screenplay by James Baldwin, Arnold Perl and Spike Lee