Growing up, like many folks worldwide, I had my Sunday routine: off to church with the family. While my parents sat through the regular sermon, I headed to Sunday school – the kid-friendly version of church. It was a world of picture books, movies, and stories about Jesus and the Bible. We even had a felt board with those felt-cutout Bible characters (a true nostalgia trip for those in the know). What struck me in all these tales was that Jesus was always depicted as a white man.
Back then, as a child, it didn't raise any eyebrows. I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, during a time when nearly every face you saw in magazines, movies, and on TV was white. The idea of Jesus being anything else simply never crossed my mind. But as I grew a bit older, the wheels of curiosity started turning.
As a young adolescent, I began to wonder: How could Jesus be a white man if he hailed from the Middle East? After all, everyone I knew with roots in that part of the world had skin tones far richer in pigment than mine. Turns out, I wasn't the only one pondering Jesus' complexion. There are scholars who've delved into history to unravel the origins of the white Jesus image, and here's what they discovered.
Why Jesus Is Depicted As White Despite Being From The Middle East?
Now, if you didn't have a churchgoing childhood like mine, here's a quick Jesus 101: He was Jewish, born in Nazareth, Galilee. His parents, Mary and Joseph, hailed from the same region. Today, folks from Galilee are definitely not white, so it's highly unlikely that Jesus was either.
The Bible itself doesn't offer much intel on Jesus' physical appearance. Some descriptions in certain texts portray him more as a divine figure than a mortal man. Others paint him simultaneously as both white and black. Adding to the mix, the Bible, with all its translations over the centuries, isn't the most foolproof source when it comes to nailing down his looks in precise detail.
Have you ever wondered about the true appearance of Jesus? In 2001, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave crafted a computer-generated image of a man from Galilee. This wasn't an attempt to represent Jesus himself but rather to offer a glimpse of what an average man from that region and era might have looked like. Neave's work was featured in a BBC documentary called "Son of God."
Racism And Religion
While I may no longer consider myself deeply religious, I hold firm to the belief in religious freedom and the right for everyone to embrace and practice their chosen faith. It's essential that people have the liberty to follow their own spiritual paths. Nevertheless, we can't ignore the fact that throughout history, religion has often been at the center of significant conflicts, wars, and bloodshed, with themes of racism intertwining with these clashes.
For instance, consider the centuries following Jesus' time, when being one of his followers was far from safe in the Roman Empire. The situation was so dire that Christians had to communicate using symbols instead of written texts to evade persecution. Many wars have erupted over matters of faith, like the Christian Crusades, which some might view as a battle against Muslims. What's intriguing is that in reality, Jesus likely bore more resemblance to the very Muslims the Christians were warring against than to themselves. Depicting the son of God, whom they fought for, as similar to the supposed enemy would have certainly dampened their spirits.
Christianity and the portrayal of a White Jesus were even used to rationalize the horrors of slavery and the brutal mistreatment of black Africans by white Europeans. This idea of white representing purity while black or brown signified evil has sadly surfaced repeatedly throughout history. White Jesus depictions were employed to convince people that being white equated to having morality, while having darker skin made one lesser. Even during the dark days of Nazism, efforts were made to detach Jesus from his Jewish roots and present him as part of the Aryan race. Essentially, white Christians adapted the image of Jesus over time to align with their racist and oppressive agendas. These images, despite their lack of factual basis, continue to influence many of us today.
What About Other Depictions Of Jesus?
Irrespective of one's religious beliefs, there's a general consensus among historians that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a historical figure—an actual, living, breathing human being. Whether one accepts him as the Son of God and believes in his miracles is a matter of personal faith. However, regardless of how many paintings or Sunday school felt board Bible stories have portrayed him as a white man, the likelihood of that being accurate is quite slim.
Now, when it comes to representing Jesus today, what's the right approach? Since the Bible doesn't provide a precise physical description, we can't rely on that source. All it tells us is that Jesus came "in the image of man." Some religious leaders suggest that perhaps Jesus should be depicted in a way that reflects the community celebrating him. After all, if Jesus were to visit Earth today, could he not assume the appearance of the community he's coming to connect with? It's an intriguing question without a definitive answer. What we do know for sure, though, is that from a historical standpoint, Jesus would not have been white.