What color was Jesus?

For his new African Heritage Series of Bible figures, market researcher-turned-toymaker Andre G. Kalich tints the skin of the big names in biblical history. Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Moses, Solomon, Job, Mary, Jesus and an all-purpose angel are black. A set of the toys, with elbows and knees that bend, also comes with scenic cardboard backdrops depicting sites where the characters' stories occurred.

"The main reason I made the series was to give African American kids something they can identify with," said Kalich, who introduced a Caucasian Heritage Series in 1997.

The passion of his own children, who were avid collectors of "Star Wars" and "Masters of the Universe" figures and Barbies, combined with his own evangelical Christian views to give Kalich, 52, the idea of producing toys with a religious intent.

His Charleroi, Pa.-based company, Train Up a Child, takes its name from a proverb: "Train up a child in a way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."

"My strong belief is that if I design action toys from Bible figures, it will lead children to play and ask questions," Kalich said. "Expose them to anything at an early age and it stays with them forever."

Kalich, who is white, wasn't trying to wade into a controversy.

Bible scholars say African roots for Bible characters are difficult to prove. "There are problems with the assumptions about the historic and the ethnic identities of the characters represented by the toys," said Vincent Wimbush, a New Testament scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York who directs a research project on how blacks relate to the Bible.

"There is a long tradition among African Americans of putting the emphasis on Bible characters' strengths, their capacity to outrun difficulties and overcome pain to get to a different place," Wimbush said.

He is cautious about the idea of an African Jesus (Kalich's best-selling figure) or any other figure from the Bible. "To assign ethnic identities to them has to do with our own conflicts and issues," he said.

That's how we got the Europeanized, all-white characters most Christians have lived with for centuries, Wimbush said. An all-black Bible, he said, seems like an overreaction to that.

William Emanuel, a minister who interprets the Bible from a black perspective, has a different view. Emanuel founded the People of Color Training Center in Summertown, Tenn., nine years ago and has turned it into an industry with books, tapes and workshops for Bible teachers.

Adam, Moses and just about everybody else in the Bible were African or had African roots, according to Emanuel. "We've had mixed reactions," he said of his teachings. "Some believe it's true and needs to be explored. Others say the Bible has no color."

Kalich introduced his African series after customers asked for it, he said. Even the experts who argue against the historical accuracy of his toys give him credit for calling attention to one thing: Ethnic diversity is a fact of life in the Good Book.

"It's helpful if we think of Bible figures as other than European stereotypes," said Steven Beck Reid, a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and Old Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. "The historical value of the toys goes about that far, not much farther. None of the figures in the [African Heritage Series] are known to be African," he said.

Two characters in the Bible are indisputably African, Reid said. In the Old Testament, the second book of Samuel mentions a man from Cush, an ancient country near Egypt, who tells King David that his son, Absalom, is dead. In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles recounts that an Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by Philip the evangelist.

As for others, Reid is not claiming they were pale-skinned. "As historians, we can assume that Hebrews looked similar to Egyptians in ancient time," he said. "I think we would see folks with an out-in-the-sun look. . . . The question is, what are the roots of the Middle Eastern culture?"

The Heritage Series of either race (with 10 figures and backgrounds) sells for $59.50; single figures cost $6.95. They can be ordered from the Web site (www.trainupachild.com) or by calling 877-463-7543. Chances are that Kalich himself will answer the phone.

CAPTION: Train Up a Child offers biblical figures in both black and white.