Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Swarthy Jesus

A confession:

When I came to Israel many years ago, having been raised on literary misconceptions of Jews, I searched among my fellow compatriots for swarthy types. They were mostly to be found among Yemenite Jews and Jews from northern Africa. To my dismay, I was to learn that Yemenites were most likely converted in the fifth century, and swarthiness among Jews from North Africa usually meant intermarriage with the local Arab population. So where were the swarthy Jews of literary complexion?

Swarthy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when placed against the pallid yet rosy-cheeked Englishman whose skin challenges tomatoes when exposed too long to the Mediterranean sun, even I might seem swarthy. But I doubt most others would think as I passed by, “there goes a swarthy Jew.” They might think, “Nerd.” They might think, “Old,” but swarthy, hardly.

So I looked around some more and decided to concentrate on Ladinos, that is, the Jews who trace their ancestry to the expulsion from Spain, as the oldest, “purest” example I might find. Being of a phenomenological bent of mind, after taking a representative sample of about five, I concluded that the Ladino type had black, curly hair, black eyebrows, and ivory-colored skin with pink tinted cheeks. Not to my eyes swarthy, but perhaps northern Europeans, scandalized by the ebony of the hair, apostrophized these strangers as swarthy, for if the hair was so resolutely black what darker pigments might taint those bodies? Or perhaps this was merely another way of designating these people as strange and of vague Mediterranean origin?

I write this because an African-American friend commented in Facebook about the probability of a swarthy Jesus. Another friend replied that this was an old argument, and from his response it seemed that the die had been cast, at least among African-Americans, that Jesus had, indeed, been swarthy. Obviously, Jesus the Christ figure can be and often is any color one wishes, and I can understand the need for a copper-skinned Jesus among blacks when Jesus in the states is so often represented as the last of the Vikings, but as someone who trusts in history and who has suspected ever since discovering how white my swarthy Jews really were that part of the determination of Jews to persist was racial, I have to express my doubts.

So what shade of white or pink or copper was Jesus? The original Hebrews claimed their origin in Mesopotamia, in the area of present-day Iraq. To this day, although often hairy in relation to northern Europeans, the skin color of Iraqis is hardly any browner, despite the roughness of their beards. The Hebrews wandered west to the land of Canaan, and, afterward, some of them (but not, modern scholars agree, all) ventured farther west to Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Egypt was the meeting place of black Africans and white natives of North Africa, and, as often happens among the lower strata in society, it is quite likely that a number of the Hebrew slaves married black Africans. It is clear that Moses’ wife was not a Hebrew, and it is quite possible as well that Moses was an Egyptian, as his name is derived from Egyptian and not from Hebrew. The Hebrew slaves escaped and joined their compatriots in Canaan, and the miracle of their escape became the myth establishing a national and not a tribal identity rooted in a specific geographic area.

But our understanding of any physical type ends here. The Assyrian kingdom of Babylon conquered the 10 tribes of Israel. The kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon and the residents went into exile. In the Babylonian tablets, the Hebrews appear with distinctively curly hair and beards, but this may well have been an artistic convention

Modern rabbinical Judaism begins with the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian. What did these people look like? We have no idea. What would they have looked like three centuries later? No one knows. The best clue, however, can be found in portraits on the Egyptian graves of early Christians. It is safe to assume that many of the followers of Jesus were originally Jews. Swarthy? Not in the least. But all have black hair, black eyebrows, and brown nearly black eyes. They are definitely not European, at least not northern European. So perhaps to northern European eyes, that was swarthy enough, for “swarthy” certainly defined what the Europeans were not.

But for a modern African American searching for the trace of a common tint, the search is most likely in vain.