Was Jesus white?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
But in these racially anxious times for America, there’s more to be said.
In a biblical dream-vision, presumably not meant to be taken literally in racial terms (Revelation 1:15), the feet of the triumphal Jesus Christ are bronze in color. In terms of actual 1st Century history, it makes the most sense to think that Jesus was neither north European white nor African black. As a man of the Mideast, he’d presumably have had a light brown or olive complexion like today’s Arabs or Sephardic Jews, with a good tan from all those outdoor travels.
Megyn Kelly assured Fox News viewers in 2013 of the “verifiable fact” that “Jesus was a white man.” In recent days, similar racial uproar was generated by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King. After tweeting that memorials to “despicable” slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson must come down, he added obliteration of statues of “the white European they claim is Jesus,” seen as “a form of white supremacy.” A further tweet extended the ban to such “racist propaganda” in murals and stained glass of Jesus.
King did not specify that paintings should likewise be removed from display or destroyed, though that seems an obvious implication. Such iconoclasm would denude the world’s museums of countless masterpieces. In one example, so treasured is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Savior of the World” portrait of a Caucasian-looking Jesus that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia paid $450 million for it in 2017.
Moving to popular art, should we still watch those movies and TV productions where Jesus looks Caucasian, and more Gentile than Jewish? On that score, Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) gave Jesus a modest prosthetic nose and colorized the actor’s eyes to darken them.
The four Gospels, of course, tell us nothing about skin color. Nor do they say whether Jesus was tall or short, thin or portly, handsome or plain. The Word of God is only interested in his sayings, deeds, death and resurrection. We can assume he did have one physical attribute, a strong speaking voice for teaching large outdoor gatherings.
Then again, is God the Father white? Protestants (like Jews and Muslims) never allow images of God, in whatever color. But at Catholic world headquarters, God is imagined as white in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, extending a finger to create Adam.
Scripture in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches the unique belief that literally “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man.” According to Alexander Neibaur, founding Prophet Joseph Smith said in his First Vision this embodied male God had a “light complexion” and “blue eyes” when he appeared alongside Jesus, just as shown in a popular church painting.
A June 24 Religion News Service feature told of the “Head of Christ,” painted by Chicago commercial artist Warner Sallman with notably white skin and light brown hair. This massively reproduced and beloved portrait, posted in many Black homes and churches, is said to be the best-known art work of the 20th Century, though hardly the most prized. Sallman’s 1940 color painting, based on his 1924 drawing in charcoal, was commissioned by students at North Park Theological Seminary.
Sallman was a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, founded by Swedish-Americans. The Rev. Paul Robinson, an African-American who heads the group’s justice ministry, took to RNS to explain that today the denomination is fully “multi-ethnic” and spurns the sins of “systemic inequality” and of “racism in all its forms.”
in the 1960s, the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. evolved out of the United Church of Christ to lead a nationalist religion that opposed racial integration and believed Jesus and his mother Mary were literally black. The politics of gender was added to race in 1999 with National Catholic Reporter‘s contest for art presenting Jesus for contemporary times, to be judged by PBS personality Sister Wendy. The winner, Janet McKenzie, used a model who was not only Black but female for her work titled “Jesus of the People.”
It is very common for artists in non-white countries to portray Jesus in varied racial images familiar to their peoples. U.S. Jesuit journalist James Martin does not favor King-like destruction of existing art that depicts Jesus and instead advocates a proliferation of new images so as to reflect “every culture.” From this standpoint, there’s wisdom in the Eastern Orthodox icons from ancient times, which may show light skin but are so stylized that they proclaim a Jesus who transcends any one race.
In that spirit, an earlier King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that “the color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence. . . . He was the Son of God, not because of His external biological makeup but because of His internal spiritual commitment.” In the current hubbub, world Anglican leader Archbishop Justin Welby says artistic representations of Jesus are not what Christians worship but function as a “reminder of the universality of the God who became fully human.”