san moises el negro
Will the real Moses please stand your tablets up?

A new documentary is coming to Netflix which hopes to humanize an oft-mythologized figure. “Testament: The Story of Moses” will focus on the humanity of Moses, his great courage and his character – but also his flaws. As Executive Producer Emre Sahin puts it: “What’s the human side?”

The docudrama stars Avi Azulay as the titular Moses, and the actor’s portrayal is bound to reopen a discussion historians have been having for centuries: the mystery of Moses’ appearance. Was he a handsome man? How tall was he? What color was his skin?

Here's the trailer for the new film:

But what did Moses actually look like? And for that matter, was he a real person?

The Real Moses

san moises el negro
Rembrandt's Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law. 1659.

The answer is that we don’t know for sure.

Scholars disagree on whether he was a real historical figure, or more of a mythical character. According to historian William G. Dever, the Moses detailed in the Old Testament was largely mythical. "A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in the southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century B.C.," he says, but unfortunately we'll never know for sure, as "archeology can do nothing" to prove the matter either way. Bolstering his argument is the fact that no contemporary references to Moses or his story exist outside of the Bible in anything the Egyptians wrote down, and even those Biblical accounts were said to have been written several hundreds of years after his death. Even many Conservative Jewish authorities have acknowledged the lack of evidence for his historicity, but for their part argue that whether or not he existed is irrelevant to his status as a "national hero". 

However, other historians disagree, arguing that there is simply too much written about Moses in the subsequent centuries – and his impact too wide – for him to have been completely made up. 

So assuming he was a real person, let's explore what Moses would have looked like. 

No photographs exist of Moses (given that his life predates the invention of film by several thousand years), although there are plenty of artistic depictions of him.

We have a few other clues to go off of, too. By taking biblical accounts and combining them with studies of ethnogeography, as well as standard dress and styles of the time, it is possible to get an approximation of his appearance.

What Did Moses Look Like?

Here’s what we know: Moses’ physical appearance was striking. Exodus 2:2 tells us that Moses’ mother saw he was a “fine child” even from birth, suggesting he had a vigorous and perhaps striking beauty about him even as an infant.

In-between his birth and later years, little is written of Moses’ physical appearance. But the Bible surprisingly comments on his appearance again, just before his death. In Deuteronomy 34:7, it is written that “his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” even at the age of 120.

What Did Moses Wear?

How about his wardrobe? Moses was raised as a royal in Egypt, so he likely wore expensive and ornate silks or linens in his youth, before giving up such clothing for the more humble and drab linen tunic worn by common folk.

Moses also likely wore a beard (as he is commonly depicted) as that was common among Hebrew men of his time.

Was Moses Black?

As for his skin tone, given that he was an Egyptian Israelite who spent most of his life in Egypt and around the Sinai Peninsula, we can deduce that Moses likely had Arab ethnicity. But even this is up for debate. 

Certain historians and groups like the Black Israelites believe that Moses was actually a black man.

Their argument centers around the skin tone of Egyptian Pharaohs. They believe that the ancient Egyptians more closely resembled darker African ethnicities of today rather than the Elizabeth Taylor model established in popular culture.

Acts 7:23 explains how Moses spent 40 years in the House of Pharaoh, passing as Pharaoh Seti I's grandson. If the Pharaoh did indeed have black skin, this line of thinking goes, then Moses must certainly have been dark-skinned, too. 

Now, not to confuse things, but there is another "black" Moses who had a prominent role in religious history...

Moses the Black

Muddying the waters on Moses’ appearance is another historical figure, a man who is often confused with his biblical counterpart: Moses the Black.

A physically imposing fourth century Egyptian slave-turned-criminal-turned-monk, Moses the Black converted to Christianity after a botched robbery attempt foiled by a barking dog.

He sheltered with a group of monks, who baptized him and invited him into their Christian community. He gave up his life of violence for a life of peace and pacifism, and in later years became a spiritual leader in Egypt.

san moises el negro
San Moises el Negro. Via Fundacion la Buena Noticia.

In the year 405, his monastery came under attack by a group of Berbers, and Moses the Black instructed his flock to flee rather than fight back. However, he stayed behind unarmed to be slain, believing a violent death was a fitting end for a man who was a violent criminal in his younger years.

Moses the Black soon became Saint Moses the Black. Even in his day, Moses the Black’s story of redemption was admired, and today he is venerated as a saint in many Christian denominations, including the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church.

Unraveling Biblical Mysteries

The physical appearance of biblical figures is frequently the source of speculation of believers and historians alike.

Despite western portrayals showing Jesus as having a complexion so fair he’d get a sunburn walking outside to grab the mail on a cloudy day, historians say that the real Jesus Christ had skin much darker than most artistic depictions would have you believe.

Here are a couple examples of more realistic renderings: 

Wow! Using artificial intelligence, a Dutch photographer has just created a hyper-realistic rendering of what Jesus Christ actually would have looked like. What do you think?

Posted by Universal Life Church Ministries on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Regarding Moses, there are a some early artistic works showing him as a darker skinned person, such as this 3rd century AD painting showing Moses and the burning bush:

Moses and the Burning Bush, mural in Dura-Europos, Syria, ca. 239 AD.

But his physical appearance has also been a frequent point of discussion for so long that some internet users have even had a little bit of fun with their own artistic interpretations over the years. Here’s one of the more interesting ones:

On a more serious note, this new Netflix docuseries seems to be one of the more physically accurate depictions of Moses to grace the screen – it at least has Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” beaten when it comes to physical accuracy:

And yet, there’s a likely reason why white actors have played biblical figures since the advent of film, or European artists depicted biblical figures as white for centuries: people want to see something of themselves in their heroes. 

And, it's perhaps that latter sentiment that even today leads people to question (or pointedly not to question) what Biblical figures like Jesus and Moses might have looked like. In our posts on other topics similar to this one in the past, we've always been struck by how many commenters have taken it upon themselves to provide historical or Biblical evidence to support their often strongly-worded arguments one way or the other. 

Even when it comes to (almost entirely) fictional characters, like Santa Claus or the Little Mermaid, we've seen in recent years borderline obsession with how these figures appear and what that means, in particular, to children.

So... is it right, fair, or just to erase the color from the skin of figures like Jesus or Moses or Mary? Does that make them more or less relatable? More or less real? Do you feel personally invested in what these figures could have looked like because you think it somehow reflects on you? These are all important questions to ask... but they certainly aren't always comfortable.

In writing this post, we saw hundreds of people online wrestling with similar questions. One blogger, Bill Melone, thoughtfully argues "Biblical scholarship has been unhelpful at times by not highlighting the glory of God reaching all kinds of people groups, but it’s one thing to not know what an ancient people group like the Cushites looked like, and quite another to ignore the specifics of identity in biblical stories. It’s one thing to seek harmony, it’s another to use harmony as an excuse to avoid thinking about all the ways the Bible speaks to the issue of race."

His concern is that while some may be tempted to avoid rocking the boat by choosing to avoid discussions like this, we may risk missing the underlying message.

What is your reaction – is it important to view biblical figures as they truly were, or is some artistic interpretation okay when it comes to things like skin tone?

What do you think Moses looked like? 

42 comments

  1. Mountainsage's Avatar Mountainsage

    Does it really matter?

  1. He Who Breathes's Avatar He Who Breathes

    And if he was? - Ah, the lessons from the folly of Hitler and Germany, have still not been learnt.

    Why the obsession? Are we all not created equal in the eyes of God?

    This is just a distraction from us plebs keeping track of what is really going on...

  1. Laura McAllister's Avatar Laura McAllister

    I don’t think it matters. If he was black or white where Moses and Jesus was born on another country, where the skin might’ve been a little darker, so it really doesn’t matter if you believe you believe, let’s not start something that may not be stopped. That part of the country E job and all them cities and all around there remember they were in the sun all the time.

  1. Wilberta M. Berry's Avatar Wilberta M. Berry

    Everyone wants to claim Jesus by ethnicity. However very few people want to emulate Jesus by his actions. So what difference does ethnicity make when, the characters of the people obsessing on whether Jesus was black or white are abysmally appalling. Jesus would turn his back on all of these phony people regardless.

    1. ServantOfJudgement's Avatar ServantOfJudgement

      Wilberta,

      Absolutely correct and more. In order for the black Israelites to keep their cult intact, Moses has to be black. The English made him white. I sometimes wonder if his actual appearance is for each of us. People had a hard time recognizing him.

      Not only are people making Jesus look like them, they've made him think like them too.

      Like Rev Ned said, apparently Jesus is woke because Ned is woke. A liberal will make him liberal, a conservative will make him conservative, a socialist will make a socialist. How nice it must be to bundle the creator of the cosmos into one nice and neat political philosophy any given person happens to also have.

      Our political constructs are putrid to him, they metaphorically make Jesus puke.

      Jesus is his own political philosophy and political party.

      1. Rev. Dr. Father JJ's Avatar Rev. Dr. Father JJ

        lol and here you are attempting to describe him as if you were any more accurate than the other misguided 'believers'

        "Our political constructs are putrid to him, they metaphorically make Jesus puke." how could you possibly know this? "Jesus is his own political philosophy and political party." again, how could you possibly know this?

        yet another holy roller who thinks he has the inner track to the mind of their make-believe goD

        1. ServantOfJudgement's Avatar ServantOfJudgement

          Um, it's in black and white print JJ, I didn't attempt anything, I just repeated what I read.

          Inner track implies secret knowledge that gives one a leg up over the next guy. It's not an inner track when it's black letters on white paper in the most printed document in human history.

          How could I possibly know what these two very basic and simple aspects of Jesus? Um, I read it. Sorry to disappoint it wasn't a vision after 69 days of fasting. I just opened a book up and read it. It's not a secret, you just look where the letters are on the paper and begin reading. After you've read it you can think about what you've read.

          Jesus isn't woke, democratic, republican, socialist, Marxist, liberal, conservative, communist, or any other ist we've yet to invent. He is The King and everyone knows a king is his own political party.

      2. Wilberta M. Berry's Avatar Wilberta M. Berry

        Servant of Judgement

        Agreed. When it comes to Biblical people modern day society has basically Anthromorphized all of them including GOD. Seeing that there are zero actual pictures of the characters from the Pentateuch, man imagines their likeness to resemble what the majority of people look like today. It's ludacris to say the least.

    2. Rev. Donut's Avatar Rev. Donut

      We're talking about Moses here. Not Jesus.

      Moses was probably darker skinned given where he allegedly lived.

      However people still have the right to free speech and thought. So people will have opinions.

      Calling someone "abysmal" because they don't have your opinion or because people you don't know, don't have the right "character" traits (in your opinion) is exceptionally narrow minded.

      For "someone" to claim to be the judge of what Jesus would or would not do is laughable.

      But hey, you be you.

    3. Rev Ned's Avatar Rev Ned

      This is true! Jesus was the wokest person ever.

  1. Nicholas J Page's Avatar Nicholas J Page

    Does it matter if Moses was black? Where is the proof?

    1. Daniel Lee Weiss's Avatar Daniel Lee Weiss

      the Black Israelites are a group that focuses on the skin tone of historical figures, they are basically a cult, and they try to claim that anyone of any fame or value to society was black.

      to them, it matters more than life itself.

      to everyone else, it means nothing.

  1. Marilyn's Avatar Marilyn

    Who cares if he was black? I don't see this as a pressing matter.That needs all this attention.

  1. Stewart Newall's Avatar Stewart Newall

    Does it matter

  1. Colleen McAllister's Avatar Colleen McAllister

    Skin color or ethnicity does not matter but I admit to being curious about the actual appearance of Moses. As to Jesus I will see him one day so I can wait. (Besides, since I love Him I will find him quite attractive.)

  1. Kathryn Diane Taft's Avatar Kathryn Diane Taft

    Everyone was some kind of black back then and the strange thing about that particular story is that there's a similar story of a great flood and an encounter with a survivor of said flood from every civilization going back thousands of years.... interesting

  1. David Arthur Lewis's Avatar David Arthur Lewis

    Much ado about nothing.

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    Nobody knows what color his skin was and why should anyone care? But then again someone is always trying to stir up problems. Sort of like when Will Smiths wife tried to change the race of Cleopatra to black when she was of Greek descent meaning her skin was as white as the people from Europe. And look at the whole stink it caused. I mean Netflix was threatened with a major lawsuit unless they changed it back. And Jada Pinkett Smith is now no longer making anything for Nexflix.

  1. Ari Joseph Bertine's Avatar Ari Joseph Bertine

    I think it's important to portray Biblical characters as they should appear by ethnicity. Failing to do so also fails to teach people to value those of other ethnicities as they value those of their own. I guarantee that if we never had an image of a white Jesus, there would be no Christian white supremacists. Putting our own faces on religious figures enables racism. Note I'm not saying it causes it, but it absolutely enables it.

    1. Daniel Lee Weiss's Avatar Daniel Lee Weiss

      the concept of supremacy goes against the founding points of Christianity.

      1. Ari Joseph Bertine's Avatar Ari Joseph Bertine

        It does indeed, but here we are in 2024 and if you ask a white supremacist what their religion is, they're going to say they're Christian. There's no way to refute that without resorting to the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, unfortunately. They get to call themselves whatever they want and the vast majority of neo-Nazis identify as Christian. But then, the old ones did too.

  1. Steven Ferrell's Avatar Steven Ferrell

    Does it really matter what shade his skin was? What matters is he followed God and worked to bring the people of God out of Egypt.

  1. Daniel Lee Weiss's Avatar Daniel Lee Weiss

    Numbers 12:1

    And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.

    its not important to the faith, but Miriam and Aaron ( Moses' brother and sister) made a big deal out of his wife being Ethiopian ( black ), this would not have happened if Moses, and by any logical thought, his siblings, were themselves black.

  1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

    So, did Moses really exist then, or is he a figment of an author’s imagination?

    Just asking for a friend, who also thinks Jesus and Abraham were real.

    🦁❤️

  1. Rhonda Irey's Avatar Rhonda Irey

    It does not matter to me the color of the skin or hair or eyes.

    However, I too believe being Middle Eastern would allow their skin to be more olive toned or darker than those in other areas of the world. But that is my image, not suggested to be anyone elses.

    Even as a small child shown a picture of Jesus with blue eyes, light skin and light brown hair appeared to me as a painting depicted by the artist, not what I imagined. A broad shouldered, yet thin man, with strength and charisma.

    Moses, in my mind was always far darker skinned than Jesus with dark eyes and taller stature and a chiseled face. Not from photos shown to me just from descriptions of the life they each lived.

  1. Dr. Zerpersande, NSC's Avatar Dr. Zerpersande, NSC

    Looks like one of those reconstructions has Moses looking like Hulk Hogan. Personally I think he was more likely to look like Samual L. Jackson.

    Listen here, m——— f———, you gonna’ need to let me f———ing people go!

  1. Nathaniel Joseph Merritt's Avatar Nathaniel Joseph Merritt

    EVERYONE KNOWS THAT MOSES WAS MAUVE!

    1. Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush's Avatar Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush

      😝

      1. Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush's Avatar Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush

        I think some religious characters were at least based on a real person, or, at least a real situation. I watched the Netflix show, which was kinda fun, but what I saw was a clear set-up for the priest caste of an oligarchy being in power, which is the purpose of the story. The people of Israel need guidance and to obey those that talk to god. So, you get to see how powerful god is (whew! all those plagues!), how stupid people are who oppose god (please, the dumb-ass Pharoah still follows and gets himself and his whole army crushed and drowned by god?), how priests can intercede with god (Moses asked for and got leniency from god), and last but not least, how they need laws to live by or else they get punished, punished, punished (I'll free you, but make you wander in the desert for 40 years for making a golden calf before I even tell you my law that you can't do that).

  1. Matthew Mastrogiovanni's Avatar Matthew Mastrogiovanni

    "However, other historians disagree, arguing that there is simply too much written about Moses in the subsequent centuries – and his impact too wide – for him to have been completely made up."

    From that statement, that means that King Arthur, Romeo & Juliet, Medusa, and Santa Claus are real.

  1. Matthew Mastrogiovanni's Avatar Matthew Mastrogiovanni

    The thing is, it doesn't matter. Mythology is about faith, not fact. It's meant to feed your heart space, not your head space.

  1. Alun Lloyd Palmer's Avatar Alun Lloyd Palmer

    Atheist here, but I believe some Biblical figures were real people. It is most likely that most of them resembled the people who live in the Middle East today. That makes them darker than, say, Europeans, but it doesn't make them what we stereotypically call black.

    I think the Bible describes Jesus as blond in a couple of places, which could be right. There are some blond(e) Palestinians today, although they might be descendants of the Crusaders(?), who of course arrived much later. Or maybe not. Maybe there were some people like that back then? After all, there were some black people in the England of the Middle Ages, although they were referred to as blackamoors. Why do we assume one ethnic group was only in one place, just because it was long ago?

    Granted most of the Biblical figures probably ought to be painted a few shades darker.

  1. Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush's Avatar Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Roush

    I think some religious characters were at least based on a real person, or, at least a real situation. I watched the Netflix show, which was kinda fun, but what I saw was a clear set-up for the priest caste of an oligarchy being in power, which is the purpose of the story. The people of Israel need guidance and to obey those that talk to god. So, you get to see how powerful god is (whew! all those plagues!), how stupid people are who oppose god (please, the dumb-ass Pharoah still follows and gets himself and his whole army crushed and drowned by god?), how priests can intercede with god (Moses asked for and got leniency from god), and last but not least, how they need laws to live by or else they get punished, punished, punished (I'll free you, but make you wander in the desert for 40 years for making a golden calf before I even tell you my law that you can't do that).

  1. Joe Bennett's Avatar Joe Bennett

    I know, everybody is concerned about the ethnicity of Moses.
    If you believe the Biblical story of Moses, it says that he was brought up in the Pharoah's household and would have been well versed in the Egyptian lore and in all likelihood have known about the Book of the Dead and the Negative Confessions, Can anyone explain to me, what was the necessity for him to go into the mountains to receive the commandments from God when they, in many aspects, resemble the negative confessions in the Book of the Dead?

  1. Takaya Kovani Sweeney's Avatar Takaya Kovani Sweeney

    Exodus 4:6 tells us all he DEFINITELY wasn’t white and neither were the rest of the population at the time.

    Y’all twist yourselves into pretzels trying to make whites literally fg everything…except when someone says whites are devils.

    THEN, they’re certainly not that but they ARE everything else.🙄😂

    “6 Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous[a]—it had become as white as snow.

    7 “Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.”

    For his skin to “turn” white…it had to be RESTORED back to what?😂

    Good grief some of y’all are fg pathetic husks of sub par conscience. I pity you more than anything.😂

    1. ServantOfJudgement's Avatar ServantOfJudgement

      Takaya,

      I've never seen an actual white person. I've seen white paper, white curtains, white baseballs, white socks, white chickens, white cars, white teeth, white boards, white clouds, white goats and white flowers but never a white person.

      I've seen white psoriasis scales on a white guy. He took some expensive medicine from the doctor and the white psoriasis scales went away. Weird, his skin went back to its normal pinkish, yellowish, peachish, whitish, tanish color, aka white.

      You know what psoriasis scales are don't you? You should Google psoriasis scales on white guys. It'll crush your black Moses proof so you might not want to.

      Moses prolly wasn't white like some white folk want but could have been. Prolly wasn't black like some black folk want but could have been. One thing for sure, he was Moses and he led the Israelites to their current home, Israel.

    2. Russel A. Kester's Avatar Russel A. Kester

      Takaya, condescending and racist seem to describe the motivations I felt were behind this post. I do hope that in the future I will be able to read your posts and feel love from them and a sense that they offer valuable insights.

  1. Rev. Donut's Avatar Rev. Donut

    Did Exeter University use Hulk Hogan as their model?

  1. Keith Law's Avatar Keith Law

    All ridiculous! The Hulk Hogan image was hilarious!

    If we follow the Bible for our reference - for the sake of argument and even if not sound evidence - then Moses was adopted by the Pharoah and was not Egyptian. In the story he is of the Levi tribe and thus middle eastern. I mean, dah, right?

  1. George Hook's Avatar George Hook

    What is our obsession with what Jesus or Moses looked like and their skin color? What matters is how the story of their faith in God impacts your heart and your humanity in its concern for others. Wasting time arguing over an image and skin tone not only smacks of idolatry but racism as well.

  1. Man of God's Avatar Man of God

    These debates about the Bible Old or New Testement are senseless. Why? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob only spoke to a people who where from the middle east. Just, that region of the world as we know it. The time line of humanity makes it impossible for any pale skin person to be from that era. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not discrible anyone by a 'race'. That God, who is also the one who sent his son, Jesus to teach by example. So, Jesus did not have pale skin......That God who first told Moses to call him, 'I am, that I am.' That God has proven that he is the creator of all that we can see, touch, smell. That God makes total sense to this 3 dimensional universe. The only issue it that God gave man and all his decendants free will. Later, that God decided that he needed a people to represent him. That people failed by following their leaders and turning there back on God's son. Giving him up as an innocent to be put to death for the actions of a guilty man. All mankind has been dealing with the fall out of that ever since.

    1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

      “That God has proven that he is the creator of all that we can see, touch, smell”

      Perhaps you can explain how you know for sure that your God is not only real, but has also proven he is a creator, or are you in fact, only making this claim from a “belief” perspective without any real demonstrable evidence of the reality of your claim?

      🦁❤️

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