Answer by Diane Eager and John Mackay
Have you noticed that the Old Testament has one major difference from the New Testament when it comes to people? In the Old Testament, there is a lot of description; hair length, size, colour, ethnicity, etc, but in the New Testament it is almost entirely absent. There is not a single word about Paul’s height or shape, nor Jesus’ hair length or skin colour. But we do know the ethnic group he was born into, i.e. the Jews. So what do we know about their colour some 2,000 years ago?
Today Jews vary a lot in skin colour, but this a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD followed by two thousand years of dispersion throughout many parts of the world. The consequent mixing with other ethnic groups has produced Jewish affinity groups covering the whole spectrum of skin colour from jet black to snow white. But in first century Israel there would not have been such mixing. Jews tended to marry within their own ethnic group. Therefore the 1500 years of Western style “Madonna and Child” paintings showing Mary and Jesus as white Caucasians are certainly wrong. Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have looked distinctly Middle Eastern, but what did that look like? We have two sources of information at our disposal: Biblical Chronologies and ancient Egyptian art.
The Bible informs us that Jesus was born into the tribe of Judah, as a descendent of King David. The chronologies of the New and Old Testament show Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, a grandson of Abraham, who was descended from Shem, one of the sons of Noah.
The names of Noah’s three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth, as recorded in Hebrew, contain clues about skin colouration. Ham means dark, and we know from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 that he gave rise to the very dark peoples who migrated to Africa after the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. Japheth means fair, and his descendants moved north and west from Babel and gave rise to various light skinned European groups.
The name Shem does not have any colour meaning associated with it, so we can assume he was of “normal” colour in the eyes of his father Noah who named him, but what would that have been? Noah was the 10th generation from Adam and eight generations of his ancestors were still alive for Noah to view their ‘normal’ skin colour just prior to the flood. Shem obviously didn’t stand out, so he was probably close to the original colour for human beings.
Adam’s name is always associated with the red earth, so even though we are not specifically told what colour Adam and Eve were, we are told that in the beginning everything was very good, so what colour would very good skin have been? Certainly neither white nor black! White does not qualify as ‘very good’ because the skin lacks enough melanin pigment in the surface layers to protect the skin from sunburn and skin cancer. Black skin is also not ‘very good’, as the extra melanin at the surface prevents the skin from making vitamin D in response unless it is a very hot high sunlight climate. A mid-brown colour would have been best, and it is interesting to note that the majority of people in the world are still varying shades of brown, rather than white or black, and that’s true from Eskimos to Arabs.
The extremes of skin colour are the result of genetic mutations in the production and distribution of melanin, and would not have existed in the first few generations. Note they are not the result of the old AaBb type dominant/recessive genetics diagram in 1950s textbooks. Adam and Eve’s children, and most of the pre-Flood generations, would have been mid-brown. It was not until the time of Noah that mutations were starting to affect skin colour sufficiently for Noah and his wife to note colour differences in their offspring compared to the eight previous generations that they could compare them with.
Now back to Jesus. He was a descended from the medium brown coloured Shem, via descendants who stayed in the Middle East and eventually gave rise to the Israelites, and thus the tribe of Judah. Israelites in those days tended to marry within their own ethnic group, and so the mid-brown colouring, neither too dark nor too light, would have been maintained throughout the generations until Jesus’ time.
There is also some evidence from outside the Bible in ancient Egyptian paintings that would support this. Unlike many carvings and statues, these Egyptian paintings do show skin colour, and many of them portray people of different racial backgrounds who were part of Egyptian history. The Israelites spent some centuries in Egypt, initially as protected immigrants in Jacob’s tribe who kept flocks, and later as slaves. Wall paintings depicting slaves at work, which many historians agree are ‘Semites’, i.e. related to Shem, show them as middle brown people. For examples of such paintings see “Were Hebrews Ever Slaves in Ancient Egypt? Yes” from https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.713849
Why does the Bible not comment on Jesus colour? The answer is fairly simple – He came first to the Jews, and His message was hard enough for them without His looking too different from them. But as God, He already knew that most Jews would reject his message, which would include his final instruction to any Jewish converts, that they must go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and nation. The gospel was therefore not any one ethnic group. It was “multi racial”. It was cross-ethnic, and the issue of Jesus skin colour has nothing to do with the content of the message concerning eternal life needed by people of all skin colours.
Make sure you remember this when you’re sharing the gospel with those around you in a multicultural world. Don’t baulk, just because they are a different skin tone than yourself. Those skin variations are but one result of the degeneration which began following Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, which is what Jesus really came to deal with. Share the full truth of the gospel of Christ from the good news of creation in Genesis, to the bad news of mans sin in chapter 3, to the judgement of God in Noah’s flood, to the first dispersion from Babel which is why all tribes and nations need the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ whose life death and resurrection are central to sharing the Good News of the New Testament.
NOAH: What Race was Noah? What colour was he? Where in the Bible can I find out? Answer here.
HUMAN RACES: If all races originated from Noah’s sons, why are there such big differences between the races? Answer here.
NOAH’S THREE SONS: Were they triplets? Answer here.
EGYPTIAN PRINCE? Is there evidence Moses was raised in Egypt? Or is this just a Jewish myth? Answer here.
GOSPEL: How can God love the Australian aborigines, if they didn’t hear the gospel until Europeans arrived? Answer here.
Were you helped by this answer? If so, consider making a donation so we can keep adding more answers. Donate here.