Why has the portrayal of Jesus in art drifted far from the likelihood he was a brown-skinned Semitic Jew?

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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. Yet depictions of them as such are exceedingly rare compared to the countless number of images that have proliferated through the millennia portraying them as Caucasians.

Until now. With New Line Cinema’s new movie, “The Nativity Story,” we finally get what many historians agree is a more accurate representation of the Holy Family. Cast with a group of dark-haired, dark-complexioned actors whose nationalities range from Guatemalan to Australian and Irish to Israeli—those who aren’t Middle Eastern certainly look like they could be—the movie strives for physical accuracy, and in doing so may challenge some Christians’ notions of what the story’s central characters looked like: the Angel Gabriel, for one, is played by Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig, who you might have caught this time last year playing the part of an Iranian prince in “Syriana.” (Ethnically ambiguous baby Jesus gets only about a minute of screentime at the end.)

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Martin Eugene Heldt - 12/16/2006

>>>"Why has the portrayal of Jesus in art drifted far from the likelihood he was a brown-skinned Semitic Jew?"

Bigotry and anti-semitism spring quickly to mind. But the Christian art may simply reflect the culture that created it.

It would be intersting to examine (I haven't seen any) art from either the Ethiopian Coptic Christians or the Lebanese Maronites.