The race of Jesus: Unknown, yet powerful

Debate over Christ's skin color is reminder of how difficult it is for anyone to transcend race
Associated Press
Dec 24, 2013

For two thousand years, he has been worshipped and adored. Multitudes look to him each day. And yet nobody really knows the face of Jesus.

That has not stopped humanity's imagination, or its yearning to draw Jesus as close as possible. So when this Christmas season brought a torrent of debate over whether Jesus was a white man, it struck a sacred nerve.

"That statement carries a whole lot of baggage," said Rockwell Dillaman, pastor of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church in Pittsburgh. "Political baggage, spiritual baggage, emotional baggage. Especially in a culture like ours where the relations of white people to other ethnicities has often been marked by injustice and distrust."

Why should we even care what Jesus looked like? If his message is God and love, isn't his race irrelevant? Some say God wanted it that way, since there are no references to Jesus' earthly appearance in the Bible.

But the debate was a reminder of just how difficult it is for anyone to transcend race — even a historical figure widely considered to be beyond human.

"I find it fascinating that that's what people really want to know — what race was Jesus. That says a lot about us, about Americans today," said Edward Blum, co-author of "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America."

"Jesus said lots of things about himself — I am divine, I am the son of man, I am the light of the world," Blum said. "What race is light? How do you racially categorize that?"

Jesus can be safely categorized as a Jew, born about 2,000 years ago in the Middle East in what is now Palestinian territory. Therefore, many scholars believe that Jesus must have looked "Arab," with brownish skin.

"Today, in our categories, we would probably think of him as a person of color," said Doug Jacobsen, a professor of church history and theology at Messiah College.

That view was contested by Fox News host Megyn Kelly while critiquing a Slate.com column titled "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore."

"Jesus was a white man, too," Kelly said, launching a national discussion about history, tradition and just how white Christmas should be.

Her statement drew responses from impassioned rebukes to scholarly rebuttals.

"It's just an incorrect statement," Jacobsen said. "It's an ignorant statement, not an intentionally false statement."

Wrote Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic: "If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening."

If this is so obvious, though, why does a Google image search for "Jesus" reveal countless pictures of a European man with straight hair, fair skin and, often, blue eyes? Why is that the prevalent image in America, from stained glass windows to movies to children's books?

The first pictures of Jesus appeared several hundred years after his death, Blum said. Some depicted him in animal form, as a lion or a lamb. Blum said that from about 700 to 1500 A.D., various Jesus images proliferated throughout Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa — including hosts of black Jesus pictures.

"People in every culture portray Jesus looking like people they knew," said Jacobsen. "They depict him as one of their own."

Dillaman, the pastor, has a book that offers Bible images from different world cultures — a last supper where everyone is Thai; images of Jesus as Chinese or African.

"All these ethnicities are trying to capture Jesus in their own skin, if you will," he said.

But in humanity's yearning to identify with the holy, another path gets overlooked.

"Our calling is to know God as he is and to love God with all of our being and be conformed to the image of Christ," Dillaman said, "rather than to make him look like us."

By the 1500s, Blum said, 90 percent of Christians were European. As Europe colonized the globe, they took white Jesus with them.

In America, white Jesus images started to become widespread in the early 1800s, according to Blum, coinciding with a dramatic rise in the number of slaves, a push to move Native Americans further west, and a growing manufacturing capability.

Today, a white Jesus image is ingrained in American culture. "When we live in a world with a billion images of white Jesus, we can say he wasn't white all we want, but the individual facts of our world say something different," Blum said.

"Jesus is white without words. It's at the assumption level," Blum said. "Lodged deep down inside is this assumption that Jesus was a white man. That's where I think (Kelly) is speaking from."

There also is a desire to fit Jesus into modern racial classifications. In America today, this logic goes, Jews are white. Jesus was a Jew, so Jesus must be white.

Yet Jews did not originate in Europe, and for centuries were considered to belong to a non-white race of their own. Only recently have they been moved into America's "white" column, along with Irish and Italians.

"The categories of white and black, coming out of the American experience, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to apply them to Jesus," said Joseph Curran, an associate professor of religion at Misericordia University.

"The best inference is what part of the world he was from — he looked like a Palestinian because he was from that part of the world," Curran said. "Does that mean he was black or white? I don't think those categories matter much."

For Carol Swain, a scholar of race at Vanderbilt University and a "Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ," the whole debate is totally irrelevant.

"Whether he's white, black, Hispanic, whatever you want to call him, what's important is that people find meaning in his life," Swain said.

"As Christians we believe that he died on the cross for the redemption of our sins," she said. "To me that's the only part of the story that matters — not what skin color he was."

 

Comments

freethinker1

Kingsin, what you see as proof, we atheists see as selective judgement. You're like an archery judge who looks only at those arrows that hit the bullseye, pointing out how good the shooter's aim is (look at the lives God improved). Yet, you ignore the bad shots (what about the lives who were going well, and suddenly took a turn for the worse...what about the baby with cancer...what about the elderly couple who died on the Ohio Turnpike last month in a fiery crash through no fault of their own).

If you are going to give God credit for the good things that happen, we must be honest and give God credit for the bad things that happen. After all, he IS all powerful/omniscient, right?

Countless good things have happened without God, without the church's involvement. I'm living proof that you can be good without God. I was raised as a Christian, taught to never question the teachings of the church, and spent 25+ years as music minister in my church.

As soon as you understand why you don't believe in the Roman/Norse/Greek gods, you'll understand why I don't believe in the Christian god. I contend that we all are atheists. I just believe in one less god than you.

Kingsin

Ignore the bad shots? I've lived them- which is why I am widowed and childless right now. True story. But instead of giving up on God and walking away- I saw the many good things He began to do for me- some so supernatural that many would not believe if I told them. It's a tough agonizing world full of painful loss- but I didn't blame God (not after awhile anyways, at first I was very angry to be truthful)- and I will still gladly bow the heart before Him.... so don't talk to me about loss, I've had it worse than most will ever know.

starryeyes83

Kingsin ,

I'm 48 god*damn years old. I listen to NO ONE. But me. Get OVER yourself. I cannot stand people like you who shove it down someone's throat.

You do not speak for me or think for me. I'd put my soul and salvation UP against yours' or anyone else's any day of the F**KING week.

I think you know in what orifice you can put your opinions. And your "wisdom" ( which isn't very wise ).

You sound like a deranged hypocrite who has drunk a little too much Kool-Aid.

Isn't that how Jim Jones got started?

I NO longer Believe .. I'm more of a Wiccan, Pagan, Heathen (as it were)...

Simple as that!

Show me PROOF !

Tangible proof.

Put up OR Shut up!

Kingsin

"I'm 48 G**D**.... and "I would put my soul and salvation up against anyone's.."

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for THE LORD WILL NOT HOLD HIM GUILTLESS (emphasis mine) that taketh his name in vain. Ex. 20:7

You're not getting that good of a start my little Wiccan friend

starryeyes83

First off.. I'm not your friend. Second. Just keep shoveling and spewing your Bible Bullsh!T cause it's getting deep in here. It's the Biggest work of Fiction ever wrote. Although, when Charlton Heston parts the Red Sea it is pretty cool.

The Church and Man kind made up the Bible to control the masses and scare the hell out of everybody. Guess what, that method just doesn't work anymore.

I'll take anybody's name in vain, whenever I wish. Matters not to me.

Kingsin

* I had a whole response- but deleted it. Not going to get mean with you... no purpose in it.

starryeyes83

You have heard of the Serenity Prayer haven't you? Maybe you should abide by it a little more. ..As for coffee--only if you choke. You're the one judging on here which doesn't make you a god of any kind only a sheep.

Seeing is Believing . Enjoy you own Bullshit, it stinks to high ,,um...whatever.

White Owl

Why the hostility starryeyes83? No one is trying to force their Christian beliefs upon you. Clearly, you are not at peace and not confident in your belief system.

starryeyes83

Clearly, White Owl you are wrong. I tend to get hostile when people try to ram their beliefs down my throat. Why do you people always think your way or the highway?

Why don't you read your friend's previous replies.

dorothy gale

Name just one historian from antiquity who mentioned "Jesus of Nazareth." I believe a fellow named Josephus wrote quite a bit about that time period and never once mentioned Jesus. And none of the examples you give are proof of the intervention of a supernatural entity. Try again, please.

KnuckleDragger

That's a pretty poor example since Josephus wasn't even born until 37 AD. However, that being said, you don't know what you are talking about. From Josephus himself:

"Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works; a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day" (Book IXVIII, Chap. iii, sec. 3).

Contango

Re: "a wise man,"

So not a god.

Thanks for the research.

Third person, unverifiable hearsay and potentially corrupted due to translation.

Repeated transcribing and possible unauthorized changes are other areas of contention.

The Hindus have thousands of incidences of god incarnate, i.e. avatars.

When the Portugese missionaries arrived in India to preach the Gospels, the Asians understood the concept quite well and simply placed "Jesus" among their pantheon of gods.

Kingsin

You seemed to have cut Josephus's statement off a little early; "if it be lawful to call him a man..." "He was the Christ..."

SamAdams

I knew somebody would end up quoting Josephus as "proof" sooner or later. Too bad that passage was long ago proved a forgery! Interestingly enough, the forgery dates from the time of the Nicean conclave where the early Catholic Church got together to decide what books would and would not be included in the Bible. That happened around 400 CE.

For the record, Rome (which kept VERY good records) did not conduct a Census, and other scholars who were more contemporaneous with the time didn't mention a "Jesus," a "King of the Jews," or a half man/half god at all. Odd, that, don't you think?

Kingsin

Cornelius Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Flavius Josephus, Pliny Secundus, Suetonius, Tertullian, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara-Bar-Serapion, Justin Martyr, the early Church Fathers; Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origen, etc... The twenty seven books of the New Testament, The Jewish Talmud... Some of these historical figures lived in the first century contemporaneously with the lifespan of the Apostles. As I said previously, If you wish to dismiss the historicity of Jesus out of hand- then you should be required to play by a fair set of academic rules concerning any other person of historical record- dismiss them all! No-one existed back then! Can't have it both ways folks, but I'm sure that you will demand it because it concerns Jesus. It's funny how people would never think to question the historicity of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Plato, Socrates, Nero... the list is truly endless, but when it comes to Jesus....
I believe it is because Jesus requires an answer from every person; "..and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?".... So, who do you say that He is?... the question of the ages...

Contango

Re: "dismiss them all!"

A straw man argument.

Another major problem: No historical writings of Jesus exist (if they ever did) as opposed to many of those individuals you listed.

IMO, ya can't have any greater fun than debating politics AND religion. :)

Kingsin

Contango, the arguments posed for and against the God of the Bible bring me to think of one individual- Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. As the drugs were being administered which would end his life, his final words to God and humanity were this: ""I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." Those words come from a poem called "Invictus" written by British poet William Ernest Henley, and is a declaration of the unrepentant heart towards an Omnipotent and Holy God. This was his choice, to enter an eternity with his fists held high and spite upon his lips toward the One who gave him life; "My head is bloody, but unbowed..." This is the position the majority will take- fists held high, cursing the God who made everything. Jesus spoke concerning this also; "...there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 8:13 The gnashing of teeth here does not refer to physical pain- it refers to those who will go down swinging- cursing God to His face as they are being sentenced. You want to pit yourself against a Holy Omnipotent God- you go right ahead... I've made my choice, I've said that I will gladly, and in love trusting- bow the head.

Kingsin

RE: "ya can't have any greater fun than debating politics AND religion. :) Hey! Something we can agree upon! LOL Merry CHRISTmas!

Contango

Re: "Timothy McVeigh,"

Another straw man argument.

To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall as a classical liberal (libertarian):

I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

"Just don't try to lay no boogie-woogie on the King of Rock n' Roll."

- Long John Baldry

Contango

Re: "You want to pit yourself against a Holy Omnipotent God- you go right ahead..."

Not ONLY "omnipotent," but ALSO omnipresent and omniscient.

If such a powerful being needs lil' ol' me to bow down and expects me to kiss His *ss for all eternity or face eternal damnation then that sounds like one sick, mentally deranged, co-dependent diety and He ain't God.

"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

- Paradise Lost

freethinker1

The main fallacy in your thinking, Kingsin, is that you continually attempt to use the Bible as proof that the information in the Bible is true. This is a class circular argument.

The real problem is that there are no firsthand - or even 2nd hand - accounts of the resurrection. Some people are alleged to have witnessed it, and those people repeated stories about the event to others, and the story continued to be passed down verbally for the next several decades. The most interesting thing about the Gospels is that the contradict each other on a number of events surrounding the resurrection.

Around 65 AD, the author of the book known as Mark wrote down an account of the event, as passed down to him. Around this time, Paul was also writing letters to early Christians in which he described events he had heard from an unknown number of sources removed from the actual event by an unknown number of steps. During the next several decades, another account was written, that was later attributed to John. During the 2nd century, the end of the Gospel of Mark, containing stories about the resurrection, was added by an unknown author.

These early documents and many others with very different stories freely circulated and multiplied over hundreds of years, during which an unknown number of people corrected, "harmonized", added, subtracted and altered their copies. After around 300 years, some Christians deliberately collected one set of stories/writings they chose to accept as official doctrine, and destroyed/ignored/rejected a host of other writing with different accounts of the early years.

Although the church would have us believe that we have first-hand accounts, the earliest accounts were written in 65 AD or later. Today, the earliest actual manuscripts that exist are fragmented copies of copies written in the AD 200s. So, if anything, the Bible actually weakens the case for any sort of validity as far as Jesus and the resurrection are concerned.

dannytanner

Ahh, the Mysteries of Faith. It is refreshing to see Jesus portrayed as black or Asian. Really a silly thing to debate. I want to see an Irish Jesus, with red flowing hair and beard. Maybe it wasn't the wedding at Canaan, but the wedding in Dublin, Jesus turned water into Jameson. Maybe Jesus wore a Roundhouse Bar bucket on his head! That's my Jesus! But that's all a pipe dream. Live the teachings, be good to and love one another! On this the birth of our Savior, I say to you all, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Unassumer

First of all, God did not write the bible. No one knows for sure the origins of it. Second, if Jesus were black, few white people would follow his teachings I guarantee it. The whole story of a baby being born by immaculate conception and then growing up to be Jesus is a bit far-fetched don't you think? And Noah building an ark and putting all those animals on it? Sure. Also, there is no concrete proof that Dec. 25th is Jesus' birthday. There's no proof that he rose from the dead. It's all conjecture. The bible translations are inaccurate and everyone blindly follows them. Some of the passages are controversial and spout violence against women. When you all get the chance, do some research.

Contango

Re: "The bible translations are inaccurate and everyone blindly follows them."

IMO, the Bible may not be 'true,' but there are many 'truths' contained therein.

starryeyes83

Yes, it is because the Egyptians had a very similar story of Horus (?) which pre-dates Jesus by about 10,000 years.

Kingsin

Unassumer, there's one thing I can pull from your post which I will agree is false- Jesus was not born on the 25'th of Dec. The rest I can offer sound argument for- but you wouldn't listen anyways.....

SamAdams

Some Biblical origins are actually pretty clear. Consider, for example, the story of a half man/half god, born in December, to a virgin, in a stable, fated to be the savior of mankind. Consider the story of that man who died as a result of crucifixion. Now congratulate yourself: You've just heard the story of Mithras!

Interestingly enough, St. Paul — frequently credited with actually DEVELOPING Christianity — was from (are you ready?) one of the last regions on earth that still held to the Mithras mythology! What a coinkydink!

A special note for those who believe in the Bible's literal truth: In Matthew, it specifically says that God deliberately created some men NOT to believe and to serve as an object lesson to those who might be saved. What kind of loving God deliberately creates a man only to be condemned to endure torture for eternity? Even if he DID exist, are you honestly suggesting that kind of a monster deserves your worship? Really?

Contango

Re: "St. Paul — frequently credited with actually DEVELOPING Christianity,"

It's been said: Christianity could exist without Jesus, but not without Paul.

Read "Galatians" (NRSV).

In Chpts. 1 & 2, the word "revelation" i.e. channeling is used.

Paul essentially "channeled" Jesus (voices) and never met him.

H*ll, for all we know Paul mighta been schizophrenic?

2kawaii4u

Technically if you look at where jesus was born at, you would see he was born in the middle east meaning he wasn't white. He was a person of color.

The Big Dog's back

The right wingnuts would go wild if Jesus was a Muslim.

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