Editor’s note: This article was originally published Dec. 24, 2012. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 11: Who was the first black person to see the baby Jesus?
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."
But Germany is the birthplace of the tradition of depicting one of the Magi as a black African, just as it was the source of the transformation of St. Maurice, the Egyptian martyr and our first black saint. A black man began to appear in German heraldic depictions of the coats of arms of the Three Kings in 1370, but it was not until the year 1437 that Balthasar was clearly represented in a work of art as a black man: Hans Multscher's Wurzach altarpiece. In other words, Balthasar became definitively black between about 1370 and 1437.
By the 1400s, the identity of one of the Magi as a black African had become widely accepted throughout Christendom, in part because of the increasing contact between Europeans and Africans in the latter half of the 15th century, especially the growth of the slave trade. As Kaplan puts it in his book, "By 1500, the story of the Magi in art constituted the preeminent means of integrating the inhabitants of the non-European world into the Western Christian universe. Still associated with Prester John [legendary king of the Ethiopians and discoverer of the Fountain of Youth], the black King was too useful to be discarded. The black Magus/King was a predominantly positive character entwined in a web of attitudes which could damage as well as support the position of black people in European society."
Merry Christmas, everyone!
You can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.