Was Jesus Christ white?
In English people have been called “white” only since the early 1600s. Race is a way of looking at people to excuse slavery and genocide, an idea from Western imperialism. No one back in the time of Jesus thought that way. Furthermore, Jesus’s part of the world is at the wrong end of Western imperialism. In this sense Jesus was not white at all - wrong time, wrong place.
The paradox is that most white Westerners are Christians. To square the circle they picture him as white, as something like this:
- skin: white
- hair: long, flowing, brown
- eyes: sometimes blue (as in Joseph Smith’s vision)
- robes: white
- body: tall and thin
- nose: narrow and pointed
That picture of Jesus is dangerous and wrong.
Dangerous because of the part White Jesus has played in dehumanizing people of colour, through internalized and externalized racism.
Wrong because as best we can tell he probably looked something like this:
- skin: light brown
- hair: short and black, maybe curly. St Paul condemned long hair, so it is unlikely Jesus himself wore his hair long.
- eyes: brown
- robes: not white. The New Testament points out when people are dressed in white, so it was pretty rare.
- body: short by current Western standards, as anyone knows who has visited Pompeii, destroyed some 35 years after Jesus died on the cross.
- nose: somewhat broad
That is what Jewish men from Jesus’s time and place generally looked like. One had his appearance forensically reconstructed for the BBC in 2001 (pictured above).
The key is that Judas had to betray Jesus with a kiss. That meant Jesus looked pretty much like everyone else of that time and place. A White Jesus would stick out like a sore thumb. No kiss necessary.
The same goes for a Jesus who looked like St John’s vision (Revelations 1:14-15):
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
In the earliest pictures we have of Jews, from the 200s, they were brown-skinned. They were markedly darker than most Jewish Americans, whose ancestors had lived in Europe for nearly 2,000 years before coming to America.
In short, Jesus was Awkwardly Brown. Awkward, that is, for white racists.
The U.S. Census would currently count him as white, as it does all Jews and all people from the Middle East. But the New York police and American airport security would currently racially profile him as a possible threat to white people.
Theologically, a white Jesus is a perversion. James Cone:
Whiteness, as revealed in the history of America, is the expression of what is wrong with man. It is a symbol of man’s depravity. God cannot be white, even though white churches have portrayed him as white.
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