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

SamAdams

Anytime an answer isn't known, it's typical of some to slap a "goddidit" label on it. Unfortunately for them, science isn't satisfied with that, and the REAL answers just keep being discovered. Simply because there are still plenty of questions out there DOESN'T mean that the "goddidit" label is necessarily any more appropriate or final!

The truth is that the natural world is wondrous enough without adding some supernatural suppositions to it. And the reality of the natural world is that supernatural explanations are unneeded. If you're a happy and decent human being, I don't care WHAT you "believe." Just don't present those belief as being synonymous with facts, and we'll all get along just fine.

SamAdams

RE: "How do geographical methods disprove the creation of life and man by God?"

They don't. They do, however, prove evolution.

P.S. A "theory" and an "hypothesis" are two entirely different things.

Stop It

Religion, especially if organized, makes a bad argument turn worse. What really sux is when it enters into politics as it often does. Combining those two creates war and havoc. Look at the mid and far east and even here in the USA.

It is said that when Constantine declared Christianity as a faith and all their churches and properties belonging to them, that he actually stopped the the underground movement of Christianity that was sweeping all the East, West, North and South. He actually halted the real reason.

I personally have my own idea of a higher power that one will never find in any organization of any type. That to me, is freedom of religion and I could care less how anyone feels about it. I don't preach my beliefs....I just hold them.

thinkagain

Bunk!

Freedom of religion doesn’t mean you have a belief and have to keep it to yourself.

We, as American citizens, have a Constitutional right of freedom of speech as well as freedom of practicing our religion.

mikesee

No matter what the naysayers spout I do believe in Jesus Christ. I believe that my life has been a good life fueled by my faith. My opinion like it or not.

freethinker1

One of Dan Barker's books has an entire chapter outlining an amazingly lengthy list of obvious contradictions between the 4 gospels. I was shocked and embarrassed to say that I didn't notice any of the contradictions back when I was a Christian.

Barker's situation intrigued me, as he was a lay minister and well-known Christian composer/music minister, and I was a church musician. In 2009, I read his book "Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist", after reading an article in Psychology Today magazine about priests who no longer believed in God. In less than 2 weeks, I realized that I didn't believe in God or gods, but continued to read (A LOT) on both sides of the argument. Once you come around to Reason, it's hard to deceive yourself into believing in anything supernatural. The interesting thing is that I know a lot MORE about the Bible and religion now, than I did when I was a regular churchgoer.

I do agree that it's interesting to discuss religion and politics. I don't have a problem with anyone who wishes to believe in God. They are entitled to that, and I never bring up my beliefs until someone religious first broaches the subject. Where it becomes a problem is when people in power bring God into state or federal policy discussions.

I had a great Christmas and hope that you did, as well.

mikesee

It is interesting that you, as a non believer, had a great Christmas which is based on the birth of Jesus Christ.

SamAdams

Sorry, but Christmas as it has existed now for hundreds of years is actually based on an even EARLIER mythology: The pagan winter solstice.

White Owl

Partially correct. Early Roman Catholic leaders adopted the Winter solstice as the day of the birth of Christ or Christ Mass.

Pagans worshiped the sun and miscalculated the Winter Solstice as December 25. (We know it to be December 21. In the dark days of winter, light begins to return after the Winter solstice.

Church leaders inspired by the Holy Spirit adopted the Winter Solstice as the Christ Mass or Christmas to celebrate the light of the world Jesus Christ as a means to help convert pagans to Christianity. It was inspired marketing.

Ironically, today, the forces of darkness (pagans)have corrupted the meaning of Christmas and reclaimed it for their own pagan marketing strategy. (materialism and egotism/selfishness).

Contango

"Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through December 23." (Wiki)

Paganism & Christianity: The substitution of one mythology for another.

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful"

- Seneca

White Owl

As stated above paganism is ego driven worship of self and the things of this world while a Christian's ultimate desire is to become Christ like i.e. to love God first and to love neighbor as self or ultimately death of self.

The people you quote are dead, while Christ was at the beginning of time, is here with us now, and will ever exist.

Contango

Re: "Christ was at the beginning of time, is here with us now, and will ever exist."

Other than repeat rhetoric you've proven nothing.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

I will kindly call you out on your perception of pagans, though if that is your opinion of them you are welcome to it. I'd just suggest not declaring such things with certainty and in a manner condemning a swathe of the population.

White Owl

In what way am I condemning a swathe of the population? Do not pagans worship the things of this world or supernatural beings that promise them power in this world? Isn't it really about what is in it for them here and now?

Furthermore, you and others are not "condemning" Christians the largest religious belief system in the world by mocking and ridiculing Jesus Christ?

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

From my understanding as a non-pagan (but someone who is open-minded, has researched it, and interact with practicing heathens per the definition regularly), the "things" that are worshiped are the understanding and celebration of nature and creation. Just as I presume you don't worship the cross for its shape, material composition, or whether or not it has a figure of Jesus on it, so too they don't worship the sun for its cosmetic appeal. Maybe cosmic, but that's just a pun.

Druids, pagans, etc. seek an understanding of/with each other and the world in which they inhabit (as most animist religions do such as Shintoism or the tribal beliefs of Native Americans). So there I would argue against them being ego-maniacs. Because of that seeking and celebration I have noticed a greater acceptance of others' ideas. This, I would argue, is why the Germanic and Nordic "barbarians" were (compared to other such cultures) converted rather easily - concessions and overlays of the church aside.

That's where my comment of condemnation originated and as for swathe, well, not everyone is Christain. There are many populations who don't practice any particular sect of that religion however you may define it. On a personal note I would ask you to produce a direct quote of ME ridiculing Jesus else not say such things. I can't account for others here who have openly made statements against Jesus but as I have not please don't include me in that broad brush.

I may be many things, but someone who openly ridicules another's religious faith isn't one of them.

White Owl2

Hey sorry about lumping you together with some of the posters on here who attack Christians. I noted it and meant to change it after responding to your other post but you beat me to it. Very appropriately I might add.

In any event, as you probably know, Christians believe Christ is the only way to salvation. It's not that we hate non believers personally but are taught to shun their ways and pray for them.

And to everyone who thinks that means I believe every non believer is going to Helsinki, I happen to believe only those souls who openly reject Christ and lead an evil life are doomed to have their souls destroyed. Everybody else gets a chance to see the light through that quaint place known as purgatory.

Contango

Re: "I happen to believe only those souls who openly reject Christ and lead an evil life are doomed to have their souls destroyed."

And you believe this WHY and based on WHAT?

Babo

Do you believe in the myth of gravity? It has not been scientifically proven and is just a theory after all. Probably you do believe in the myth of gravity because you experience the affects of the force of gravity.

Who are any of us to question the affect of a force on the life of another? And why if someone experienced something wonderful are they bad or stupid for trying to share it?

SamAdams

Partially correct. Church leaders didn't adopt the date for Christmas symbolically for reasons of "light" and "darkness" any more than they adopted the date for easter for reasons of the "resurrection" of flowers in springtime.

The Winter Solstice and the springtime honoring of the goddess Astare (note the similarity to the word "easter") were very much ingrained into the life of the lower classes who, in the extreme hardness of such a life, quite literally NEEDED the respite offered by such celebrations. If converting to Christianity meant losing those, it wasn't going to happen. The early Church co-opted holidays the peasants were used to so that they could continue to enjoy them and still be converted. Cheap and a little tawdry? Yep. But it worked!

thinkagain

You were never a Christian, you simply deceived yourself for a while and now you finally see that you have never known Christ. You were just one of the millions who call themselves “Christian”.

True Christianity is not being a member of a particular religion, it is a new birth and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Kingsin

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." 1 John 2:19

Mr. D

Heavenly Father, they are all Your children. You known them, more than anyone, You know them, who they are, what they are and why they are; and what can be.
None of us are above you. Father, lead us, guide us, direct us, protect us. . . Touch us with your unending love, mercy, forgiveness and guidance. This I ask in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. . . Amen

whattheBucks

This is very simple as to why Jesus was not black.
First of all his mothers name was Mary, not Shaniquia, Ryrinia,Tarinakwa, or Shanaynay.
Secondly she was a 15 yr old virgin.. Black...15...virgin... Not very good odds.
Let's move on to the next issue.. Does Santa really only cumes once a year ??? No wonder he never had children

mikesee

Bahahahahhaha

starryeyes83

LOL.

SamAdams

Oh. My. GOD. LOL!

Kingsin

And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince (convict) all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him... Jude 1:14-16

Truth or Dare

Let's at least be fairly realistic here, because geographically speaking, my guess would be that Jesus, the Christ, sported a fairly good tan. His eyes brown and his hair black. It is said he couldn't be picked out of a crowd. You know, just another average Joe. It worked well for Him, as it was made more difficult for the religious and political authorities of His time that worked closely together to locate and arrest such a young upstart/heretic. They were looking for a more princely type man, and eventually resorted to bribery. He was Hebrew and a direct descendent of the Tribe of Judah, one of the 12 Tribes of Israel, thus a Jew.

It's a personal relationship and Faith is what makes us Sons and Daughters and Brothers and Sisters, no matter our color, lack thereof, our station in life. As for Santa, I do believe the blue eyes and white hair would be typical of Germanic attributes, which would be the origins of what/who we've come to know within our country as Santa Claus.

Nemesis

Actually, Saint Nicholas was the bishop of what is now Istanbul, Turkey.
Jews and Arabs are caucasians, hence white. It matters because portraying Jesus' race as mutable based on the audience denies that He was an actual person.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

You reminded me of the song (or at least the cover by They Might Be Giants) called "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)".

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