African Americans have long been fascinated by the presence of black people in the Bible. This concern, for my generation, became quite intense about the time that Rev. Albert Cleage founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit in 1967, and many black Christians sought to reconcile their faith with a growing involvement in black cultural nationalist politics. The claims of the blackness of biblical characters can be a bit extreme — my cousin, Little Jim, for example, to his dying day insisted that Jesus had to have been a black man because some biblical passage I could never find apparently described him as having “woolly” hair or hair “like a lamb.” For the record,Revelation 1:14-15 says, “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.” Regardless of how you interpret that, there is no question that the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, is full of brothers and sisters.
An article by Cain Hope Felder of Howard University’s Divinity School, excerpted on the website of the American Bible Society, is a good place to start if you want to pursue this matter based on reliable scholarship. Among some of persons thought to be of African descent in the Old Testament are Moses’ second wife, Zipporah (Numbers 12:1 and Exodus 2:21); the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13), whom the Ethiopians claim; and Taharqa, a Kushite (Nubian) king who reigned as pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt between 690 and 664 B.C. (2 Kings 19:9 and Isaiah 37:19).
The New Testament refers to a number of black people as well, including Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32), and the Ethiopian eunuch, the emissary of Queen Kandake (or Candace), who is thought to be one of the first non-Jewish people baptized (Acts 8:26-40) after Jesus’ crucifixion. (Ethiopia is referred to about 40 times in the Bible, by the way.)
But the first black person thought to have seen Jesus didn’t become “black” in pictorial representations until late in the Middle Ages.
Most of us raised in the black church know that the first black man to see the baby Jesus is thought to have been one the wise men, the brother splendidly bedecked in his gilded robe, gold crown or turban, solemnly adoring the newborn savior as he offers his gift of myrrh (an embalming oil). We see him standing in many of the crèches or three-dimensional nativity scenes on the lawns of homes and on the altars of churches throughout the month of December. And this black man’s name, according to legend, was Balthasar (or, according to an alternative tradition, Caspar).
Since the Bible makes no reference to the color or race of the wise men, how, when and why did Balthasar come to be represented as a black man? Like the story of the transformation of the Egyptian soldier and martyr St. Maurice from white to black, the story of Balthasar’s changing racial representation, traced in great detail by the art historian Paul Kaplan in his marvelous book, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art, is quite fascinating.
The Bible tells us that soon after Jesus was born, wise men from the East — “Magi” — came to his birthplace to pay homage with great and wondrous gifts: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ ” (Matthew 2:1) Directed by the diabolical King Herod to Bethlehem, upon the advice of his “chief priests and teachers of the law,” “they went on their way,” we are told in the Book of Matthew, chapter 2, verse 9, “and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Upon entering the house, “they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Warned in a dream that Herod’s motives were not noble, “they returned to their country by another route.”
Kaplan tells us that by the eighth century the Three Kings had become associated with the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, whose peoples were thought to be descended from the three sons of Noah. By the late 10th or early 11th century, Balthasar was clearly described as a black man, according to Kaplan: “Third, named Patirara [Balthasar], dark black, fully bearded, having a red tunic and a short white cloak, and dressed in green slippers.”