In much of Western art, Jesus is portrayed as having white skin and light hair. Is that what Jesus really looked like? If not, why is He so often portrayed that way?
First, it is important to remember that the Bible nowhere gives a physical description of Jesus. The Bible does not say anything about Jesus’ height, weight, skin color, hair color, or eye color. Such things are not important to understanding who Jesus is. The closest the Bible comes to describing what Jesus looked like is a non-detailed sketch of what Jesus was not like in Isaiah 53:2: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (ESV). Essentially, Isaiah 53:2 is saying that Jesus was ordinary-looking. The description of the glorified Jesus having white hair and bronze skin in Revelation 1:14–15 should not be understood literally unless you also believe Jesus has seven stars in his right hand, a sword in His mouth, and a face as bright as the sun (Revelation 1:16).
According to the Bible, Jesus was a Jew, a.k.a., a Hebrew or Israelite. Jesus lived in the Middle East and was of Semitic descent. As a result, He very likely would have had light- to medium-brown skin, brown eyes, and dark-brown to black hair. While Middle Easterners occasionally have light skin, comparable to that of Europeans, such skin tones are rare in that part of the world. Was Jesus white? The answer is that He was very likely not white.
So, if Jesus likely was not white, why is He so often portrayed that way? If you examine artists’ portrayals of Jesus from around the world, you find that they often portray Jesus in a way similar to what people look like in that particular culture. Europeans portray Jesus as a European. Africans paint Jesus as an African. Asians illustrate Jesus in a way that makes Him look Asian. People prefer to picture Jesus as looking somewhat like them, or at least like people they are familiar with.
Is it wrong to do this? Not necessarily. As long as we do not allow our preferred image of Jesus to become an idol, there is nothing in the Bible that speaks against imagining Jesus looking a certain way. Jesus is the Savior for “all nations” (Matthew 28:19; Galatians 3:8). No matter a person’s skin color, race, ethnicity, or nationality, he or she can experience forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God through the crucified and risen Christ. The love of Jesus transcends skin color. Having no physical description of Jesus, people naturally imagine the Son of Man to be like themselves.
So, we should not be dogmatic in our preferred image of Jesus. The fact that the Bible nowhere gives a physical description should serve as a caution against arrogance and presumption on this subject. What Jesus looked like does not really matter. His physical appearance has absolutely nothing to do with His being the Savior of the world (John 3:16).
Please also read our article on “Was Jesus black?”