Late last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, instituted a review of religious statuary in the Church of England to determine what should be done about the Church’s consistently false representation of Jesus as white only. Reflecting on Christian churches around the world, Welby said.
You see a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle-Eastern Jesus—which is of course the most accurate—you see a Fijian Jesus…
Welby’s remarks beg the question, “what race was Jesus?”
The answer is surprisingly complex.
. . .
When Christians think of Jesus, they tend to think of him through the lens of scripture. Theologian Paul Ricouer identifies “Three Worlds” that must be considered:
- the world BEHIND the text–or the people it was written by and for and the historical circumstances surrounding its creation;
- the world OF the text–or what the text literally says on the face of it; and
- the world IN FRONT OF the text–or the world the reader inhabits and (consciously or unconsciously) brings to the reading.
When Welby mentions, for example, Fijian Jesus, obviously he isn’t speaking of the world behind the text–there is no historical evidence that Jesus’ ancestors came from Fiji. Nor can he be talking about the world of the text. There are a few missing years in which, for all we know, Christ might have vacationed in Fiji, but he is certainly not from there, as he was born in Bethlehem, and his family were Galileans from Nazareth. What Welby is talking about is the world in front of the text, or the need for every Christian to symbolically connect to the universal Christ in a familiar form. And at least in terms of skin tone, Fijians are quite a bit closer to the historical Jesus than those of white European history.
. . .
But what of the other two worlds–the Jesus appearing in scripture, and the Jesus of actual history?
In the Christian Bible, we learn that Jesus comes from the House of David (Mt. 1:1). There are conflicting accounts of his actual lineage, but that he is of Jewish ancestry is undisputed. He was born in Bethlehem, Judea (Mt. 2:1), which is in the country currently known as Palestine, just a few miles south of Jerusalem. His immediate family was from Nazareth, Galilee (Lk. 1:26-27), now in northern Israel. It may or may not be worth noting that Jesus’ family was able to hide in Egypt for quite some time (Mt. 2:14-15). Among all the scriptural markers of geography, culture, genealogy and religion, however, there is very little about Jesus’ physical appearance. He needed someone to point him out in a crowd of middle eastern men (Mt. 26:47-56). God later revealed Jesus to John of Patmos with wooly hair, flaming eyes and burnished bronze feet (Rv. 1:14-15).
Historically, too, there’s not much to go on. Jesus was mentioned twice by the near contemporary secular historian Flavious Josephus, but not physically described. Jesus was Judean, and Judeans of the time look closest to Iraqi Jews of today. Forensic anthropologists have modeled one likely possibility with “a broad peasant’s face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose.” There is nothing to counter Welby’s assertion that a middle eastern Jesus is most accurate.
But–and this is the most frequently neglected piece of history–no matter how Jesus was described, or what color his actual skin, Jesus could not have been described as black, white or any other modern race.
The reason for this is simple. Race as we know it now did not then exist.
Biblical and historical literature is full of references to tribes, nations, sects, empires, etc–but the earliest references to black and white people came more than 1500 years after the time of Jesus. Race itself is a sociological construct with little foundation in biological reality. The way people today imagine blackness and whiteness has its roots not in human culture’s deep history, but in the much more recent invention of chattel slavery. The idea that humans could own, abuse and exploit other humans had to be justified somehow, and the “natural law” of race became that after-the-fact justification. Writing for the Atlantic in 2014, author and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates sums it up, “American notions of race are the product of racism, not the other way around.”
. . .
So what race was Jesus?
Jesus was not of any race, and neither are you or I, except as defined by the slavery-era constructs of “natural law” and white supremacy. In fact, given Jesus’ lifelong mission to break down oppressive power structures, lift up the oppressed, and liberate all humans to love one another, it is fairly safe to say that if he had been presented with the modern idea of race, he would have opposed it.
But if we’re going by physical appearance only, he almost certainly was not white.