What Was Jesus’s Ethnic Identity?

What Was Jesus’s Ethnic Identity? January 5, 2024

What Was Jesus’s Ethnic Identity?

News reports tell of a new controversy about Jesus. An article appeared in a popular Christian magazine arguing that it’s perfectly good and right for people of all ethnic identities to picture Jesus as one of them, having their typical facial features. A leading conservative evangelical spokesman complained bitterly about the article, even stating that his father, who founded the magazine, would object strenuously were he still alive.

Now, with that out of the way, let me say this is not a new controversy. How best to picture Jesus has long been controversial among Christians. American Protestant Christians, especially, were strongly influenced by a particular “portrait” of Jesus that hung in most American churches in the 1950s and beyond. “Sallman’s head of Christ” is what it is generally known as. This depicts Jesus as dark skinned (brown) but having European features.

During the so-called “Jesus Movement” a new picture of Jesus emerged clearly intending to make him look more like a hippie or at least a smiling, wild-haired young man, again, with Western features. I have seen both pictures in numerous churches.

As I went through my theological education I encountered the idea, promoted primarily by non-European theologians and Christians in general, that Jesus has been depicted wrongly in most European and American churches. He was, after all, neither European nor white or even dark-skinned North American.

In the 1970s famous singer James Taylor resurrected an old song from the 1950s called “Some Children See Him.” It was written in 1951 by an Episcopal woman who wrote many modern Christmas carols. The first line is “Some children see him lily white….” But the song goes on to talk about children of non-“lily white” ethnicities seeing Jesus as like them in terms of his appearance. The song clearly implies that this is a good thing. I heard the song numerous times on the radio, in churches, during Christmas “programs,” etc. in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t remember any controversy about the song.

Clearly, historically speaking, Jesus was West Asian in terms of modern classifications. And particularly Semite. Even more particularly Hebrew and Palestinian. What did he look like? Well, of course, nobody knows exactly.

I think this controversy is a tempest in a teapot so long as nobody actually argues that Jesus was NOT a particular human being (as well as God incarnate) in a particular place and time in history. I have read and heard a few people arguing that he was, in fact, African. Well, I doubt it. But I have no objection to Africans depicting Jesus as African. White people of European ethnicity and descent have been depicting Jesus as more or less like them for centuries. Certainly Jesus was not what we today would call “white.”

To the famous son of a famous evangelist who is disturbed by the article in the magazine his father founded, I say, let it go. As a theologian and historian, I say to all who depict Jesus as like themselves, be careful not to deny Jesus’s historical reality as a baby, boy and man born to a Hebrew family in what was long called Palestine (not referring to the contemporary State of Palestine). What’s at stake is the historical reality of the incarnation which is part of what theologians have called “the scandal of particularity.”

*Note: If you choose to comment, keep your comment relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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