Jesus was not white
Jesus was not white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s proof!
Does any of this matter? Yes, it really does. As a society, we are well aware of the power of representation and the importance of diverse role models.
After winning the 2013 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o shot to fame. In interviews since then, Nyong’o has repeatedly articulated her feelings of inferiority as a young woman because all the images of beauty she saw around her were of lighter-skinned women.
The Bible offers few clues about Christ’s physical appearance. Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jewish man born in Bethlehem and raised in the town of Nazareth, in Galilee (formerly Palestine, now northern Israel) during the first century A.D.
We know Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23), but the Bible tells us virtually nothing about what he looked like―except that he didn’t stand out in any particular way. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the Crucifixion (Matthew 26:47-56) Judas Iscariot had to point Jesus out to his soldiers among the disciples―presumably because they all appeared similar to one another.
If we can recognise the importance of ethnically and physically diverse role models in our media, why can’t we do the same for faith? Why do we continue to allow images of a whitened Jesus to dominate?Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. IMDB
Many Churches and cultures do depict Jesus as a brown or black man. Orthodox Christians usually have a very different iconography to that of European art – if you enter a church in Africa, you’ll likely see an African Jesus on display.
But these are rarely the images we see in Australian Protestant and Catholic churches, and it is our loss. It allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different.
For many scholars, Revelation 1:14-15 offers a clue that Jesus’s skin was a darker hue and that his hair was woolly in texture. The hairs of his head, it says, “were white as white wool, white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace.”
I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.
Historically, the whitewashing of Jesus contributed to Christians being some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism and it continues to manifest in the “othering” of non-Anglo Saxon Australians.
This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would our church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured, and publicly executed by an oppressive regime.
How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?
Perhaps most radical of all, I can’t help but wonder what might change if we were more mindful that the person Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and saviour of the entire world was not a white man, but a Middle Eastern Jew.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)”
This may be a metaphor for the followers of Christ but there is no doubt that Jesus Christ himself was a Jew. A Palestinian Jew which sounds so incongruous today in light of current politics. To a remarkable degree Jews have always seemed to marry and breed among themselves. For religious Jews, one of their own marrying outside their religion is as as though that person had died. Therefore, despite what is politically correct today meaning multiculturalism and all that implies, the evidence is fairly conclusive that Jesus Christ was Caucasian but did not have blond hair or blue eyes.
Another rare early portrait of Jesus was discovered in 2018 on the walls of a ruined church in southern Israel. Painted in the sixth century A.D., it is the earliest known image of Christ found in Israel, and portrays him with shorter, curly hair, a depiction that was common to the eastern region of the Byzantine empire―especially in Egypt and the Syria-Palestine region―but disappeared from later Byzantine art