So what colour was Jesus?
By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine
Jesus, ancient and modern
A traditional Jesus, left, and the BBC's image of what he might have looked like
Jesus has been named the top black icon by the New Nation newspaper. Their assertion that Jesus was black has raised eyebrows in some quarters - so what colour was he?
Just as no one will ever produce proof for the existence of God, the question of Jesus's colour may always be a matter for personal belief.
Was he white, white-ish, olive-skinned, swarthy, dark-skinned or black? There are people who believe he was any one of those shades, but there seem to be only two things about the debate that can be said with any degree of certainty.
First - if the past 2,000 years of Western art were the judge, Jesus would be white, handsome, probably with long hair and an ethereal glow.
Second - it can almost certainly be said that Jesus would not have been white. His hair was also probably cut short.
I think the safest thing is to talk about Jesus as 'a man of colour'
Dr Mark Goodacre
Yet the notion that Jesus was black - highlighted this week in a survey of black icons by the New Nation newspaper which ranked him at number one - is genuinely held by some. One school of thought has it that Jesus was part of a tribe which had migrated from Nigeria.
And Jesus probably did have some African links - after all the conventional theory is that he lived as a child in Egypt where, presumably, his appearance did not make him stand out.
Blue-eyed and brown-eyed Jesus
Blue-eyed Robert Powell, left, and brown-eyed Jim Caviezel
The New Nation takes it further: "Ethiopian Christianity, which pre-dates European Christianity, always depicts Christ as an African and it generally agreed that people of the region where Jesus came from looked nothing like Boris Johnson," the paper says. As light-hearted evidence that Jesus was black, it adds that he "called everybody 'brother', liked Gospel, and couldn't get a fair trial".
But the truth, says New Testament scholar Dr Mark Goodacre, of the University of Birmingham, is probably somewhere in between.
"There is absolutely no evidence as to what Jesus looked like," he says. "The artistic depictions down the ages have total and complete variation, which indicates that nobody did a portrait of Jesus or wrote down a description, it's all been forgotten."
Dr Goodacre was involved in the reconstruction of a Middle Eastern first century skull for the BBC's Son of God programme in 2001, which resulted in a suggestion of what a man like Jesus might have looked like. He advised on hair and skin colour.
People - even mullet-wearers - project their ideal on to Jesus
"The hair was the easiest - there's a reference in Paul which says it's disgraceful for a man to wear long hair, so it looks pretty sure that people of that period had to have reasonably short hair. The traditional depictions of Jesus with long flowing golden hair are probably inaccurate."
Deciding on skin colour was more difficult, though. But the earliest depictions of Jews, which date from the 3rd Century, are - as far as can be determined - dark-skinned.
"We do seem to have a relatively dark skinned Jesus. In contemporary parlance I think the safest thing is to talk about Jesus as 'a man of colour'." This probably means olive-coloured, he says.
Professor Vincent Wimbush, of California's Claremont Graduate University, who is an expert on ethnic interpretations of the Bible, says the matter of the historical colour of Jesus seems to him a "flat, dead-end issue".
"He's of Mediterranean stock, and it's quite clear what that means. We see people like that in the world today, and that should end the matter." The fact that the debate rages on regardless is fascinating, he says, because of what it says about people's other issues.
The artistic representations of Jesus which are so familiar are not necessarily a negative thing, Dr Goodacre says. There is "theologically something quite profound" in the fact that throughout history people have tried to depict Jesus in their own image.
"This is not a rough image of themselves people have been depicting. It's an ideal image of themselves, painting Jesus as something they are aspiring to.
"Things have changed a bit in recent culture because people are conscious of the need to be challenged by him and shocked. I think that's why in more contemporary representations, even those coming from a white, western background, people will think very carefully about the representation."
Even the world of film is catching up, albeit slowly. Robert Powell had famously piercing blue eyes in Jesus of Nazareth in 1977. And although Jim Caviezel, who played the lead in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, also has piercing blue eyes, by the time the film was shown they had miraculously become brown.