By Steven Bancarz| It is sometimes suggested that the book of Revelation describes a black-skinned Jesus. This argument is usually put forth by the Black Hebrew Israelites as an apologetic for black people being the real Jews, and the verses used to support this idea are in Revelation 1:14-15 where it says:
“The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.”
We are left with depictions of Jesus that look more like Kimbo Slice than a first century Palestinian Jew. Before we look at this verse in detail, it’s important to note that as a first century middle eastern man, Jesus would have most likely had an olive coloured tan. A medium to dark tan, but not totally black as black skin is simply not the complexion of middle eastern men, anthropologically and historically speaking.
But anthropology aside, let’s take a look at this verse and see if the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is justified in claiming that the Messiah is actually a black man from this passage in Revelation.
Hair like wool?
The verse says his hair was white like wool, not that it was textured like wool, or that it appeared as wool. If I said that someone’s hair was red like an apple, does that mean we should envision them with a bunch of apples on their head? Or if someone’s hair is brown like chocolate, that we should imagine their head has a bunch of chocolate on it?
Jesus is not said to have hair like wool, but to have hair the colour of wool. It actually says in verse 14 that it was white like snow as well, and obviously Jesus doesn’t have hair that was shaped or textured like snowflakes. White like wool, not textured like wool or in the likeness of wool.
Why was it white like wool? This may be because Jesus was in a glorified/heavenly state, and just as we see from verse 16 that his face was shining like the sun, the hair of Jesus was also radiating and illuminating the glory and holiness of God Himself. The fullness of the glory of Christ was seen by some of the disciples in Matthew 17 during the transfiguration on the mount, where it says:
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. – Matthew 17:2
The clothes he was wearing became white as a result of the glorification, implying that they weren’t originally white. “Became” implies a process of change. They used to be a colour other than white, and then they became white from the glory. It is most probable that the hair of Jesus was white in the same context that his clothes were white, being totally and completely lit up from the glory of God emanating from him.
Feet like burnished bronze?
His feet were like “burnished bronze” as it says in the ESV, or “refined brass” as it says in the KJV. If we are going to look at the English translation only and assume this is a reference to skin colour, we could at most say this is a dark tan, and may have been closer to a gold/light-brown if we are going to go with the KJV says (which Black Hebrew Israelites will often use as their primary translation).
Polished brass and fine brass are not black or dark brown. It is golden/tanned. However, burnished bronze is closer to a dark brown. Doesn’t this mean Jesus had the skin colour of a black man? Not necessarily, for two primary reasons.
1. The Greek word used for “bronze” and “brass” is ambiguous.
Difficulties arise when we look at the original word that is used here. The word used here in Greek is χαλκολίβανον or “chalkolibanon” which can mean bronze, refined brass, golden ore, or even white/shining copper:
However, we cannot be certain of which alloy his feet are said to be like as this word in Greek is used not anywhere else in Scripture prior to this verse, or anywhere else in ancient Greek literature:
“The feet are likened to chalkolibanon. This word is not found anywhere before this book, and neither here nor in its other occurrence (2:18) does the context make clear what it means. Bronze glowing in a furnace may be right but we have no way of knowing. The chalko-points to an alloy of copper (chalkos = copper), but the evidence does not permit us to say with any certainty which alloy. The reference to the furnace strengthens the conviction that something metallic is in mind.” – Morris, L. (1987). Revelation: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 20, p. 58). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
“Fine brass. This may stand as a translation of χαλκολίβανος, a word which occurs here and in ch. 2:18 only, and the second half of which has never been satisfactorily explained. It may have been a local technical term in use among the metalworkers of Ephesus” – Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Revelation (p. 7). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
“The difficult compound word χαλκολιβάνῳ, “bronze,” is found just twice in Revelation (here and 2:18) and nowhere else in ancient Greek literature.” – Aune, D. E. (1998). Revelation 1–5 (Vol. 52A, p. 96). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
2. Feet like burnished bronze may be a symbolic simile for attributes of Christ, not a reference to skin colour.
Furthermore, the reference to the bronze coloured feet may be a simile for divinity and divine judgement:
“Among the lampstands John saw Someone “like a Son of Man,” an expression used in Daniel 7:13 to refer to Christ. The description was that of a priest dressed in a long robe … with a golden sash around his chest. The whiteness of His hair corresponded to that of the Ancient of Days (cf. Dan. 7:9), a reference to God the Father. God the Son has the same purity and eternity as God the Father, as signified by the whiteness of His head and hair. The eyes like blazing fire described His piercing judgment of sin (cf. Rev. 2:18). This concept is further enhanced by His feet which were like bronze glowing in a furnace (cf. 2:18). The bronze altar in the temple was related to sacrifice for sin and divine judgment on it.” – Walvoord, J. F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 930–931). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
“Christ’s feet are described as “like bronze as having been fired in a furnace,” which suggests his moral purity and will become the basis for his demand that those among whom he walks must reflect this purity in the midst of moral torpitude (cf. 3:18, where “fired” is used in this manner).” Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 209–210). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
Figures in the early church understood his bronze feet could mean a variety of things including a metaphor for the apostles themselves, for the two natures of Christ, for the human nature of Christ, and for the church itself.
It says in verse 14 that his eyes were like a flame of fire the end of verse 15 that his voice is like a roar of many waters. Does this mean Jesus had orange eyes? Did Jesus’ voice actually sound like water, or is this a simile for power and authority of speech? In 16 it says that he was holding stars and that a sword was coming out of his mouth. Was Jesus actually holding literal stars and was a literal sword coming out of his mouth, or is this metaphorical imagery for the attributes and functions of Jesus?
A very strong argument can be made that the literary genre this book is written in (Apocalypse) permits us to adopt the view that this is metaphorical, poetic imagery attempting to portray some aspect of the person of Jesus, just as the surrounding verses in 14 and 16 do.
Jesus did not have hair like wool. His hair was white like wool and like snow, but the hair itself is not said to be like wool. Just like saying someone has hair that is orange like carrots does not mean that their hair looks like a bunch of carrots.
But what about his feet? To call Jesus black based on this text is not only going above and beyond the certainty of the original Greek word used here (chalkolibanon) which can also refer to brass, gold, copper, and any kind of alloy, it is to ignore the metaphorical imagery that contextualizes and surrounds these specific verses. It is far too ambiguous and can just as equally mean fine brass (which is golden).
Furthermore, it says in verse 16 that Jesus’s face was like the sun shining in full strength, which means his face isn’t described as being bronze like his feet are. We all know this is a reference to Jesus being the light of the world and being lit up in glory, which is the whole point. We know Jesus here doesn’t actually have yellow-white skin on his face but simply a face that shines in glory like the sun. Likewise, we need not assume Jesus had bronze-coloured feet (with a yellow-white face) but feet that were sanctified, purified, purified with fire, and divine.