I had a very different article planned for today. I decided to postpone that one in favor of one I received as a comment on last week’s piece about what a Tabernacle is within the Catholic Church.
What question did I receive? One that seems to perplex more than a few people:
“Is Jesus white, black, olive-skinned? Why do most pictures show Jesus as white?”
Reader Chahid asks a pair of excellent questions. In providing my answer, I am wading onto thin ice.
I’ve also discovered, in speaking with some of my friends, that the general feeling is that the color of His skin or even His ethnicity is a moot point, set in stone, and not worth further consideration.
“It’s not worth our consideration,” says Pastor Sam. “We, as Christians, have debated this precise question for centuries. The answer remains the same; it doesn’t matter.”
“Color is established,” said the Rev. Lambert, “Jesus Christ is white. Every major and minor grouping of peoples holds to a mythology story that includes a Great White Spirit or Great White Savor.”
These are two pastors I have consulted with in the past, for background on religious stories, and both have rather large churches. Both firmly believe that Jesus Christ is white.
“What difference does it make, what His skin color is,” says Ken Peters. “It’s not hard to figure out. He was of Jewish descent; His mom was a Jew. He had all the markings of a Jew. The thing to focus on is that He was God come down to Earth in a flesh body to express His love for us and complete the plan of salvation. His skin color is a moot point.”
The debate of Jesus Christ’s skin color has been going on for centuries. It’s further complicated by the majority of Christian sects holding to the belief of Jesus being white and the devil being black – white symbolizing purity and righteousness and black the symbol of evil.
Let’s start with the early Church.
During the time of Jesus, and just after his crucifixion, there wouldn’t have been any depictions of Christ made by early believers. “Thou shalt not make any graven image,” (Exodus 20:4) was strictly adhered to by both the Jewish converts to Christianity and those gentiles who accepted Jesus Christ and were “grafted into the Body of Christ.”
The other contributing factor as to why there are no early depictions of Jesus Christ comes from the status Christianity held in early Roman society. To be Christian, to be openly Christian, could have led to you being executed.
Therefore, during the first two centuries or so, underlying symbolism was used for depictions of Christ.
The most common symbol of Christ and the one we see today as we drove down our nation’s roads is the ichthyos, or the “Jesus Fish,” as I’ve heard it called.
The oldest depiction of Jesus is a second-century satirical piece depicting Jesus Christ on the Cross with a donkey’s head. The inscription that accompanies this piece reads, “Alexamenos worshiping God.”
Jesus is portrayed as having a head of a donkey reflects the Roman belief that the Jews worshiped God in that form.
The next oldest image of Jesus comes from the St. Callisto catacomb in Rome and the tomb of what may have been a wealthy family.
What the image does show is Jesus Christ having olive colored skin.
Not too long after this, in the third century, Christianity began to find favor within the Roman Empire, with several emperors enacting laws to place the faith on an equal footing with those found within the Empire.
Emperor Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he made it equal with other faiths and ended confiscation of property belonging to Christians.
Diocletian was the Emperor who saw Christianity become the official religion of the Empire.
It was during this time, the third century, that we begin to see more images of Christ, and His metamorphosis to what we see today.
The New Testament is vague about providing any description of Jesus. There are two notable passages of Jesus and what He looked like in the Bible. The first one came from the Book of Acts when Jesus appeared to Paul (Saul).
In that passage, Jesus appeared as a bright shining light.
“It is within this context that we can clearly proclaim that Jesus Christ was, in the flesh, a man of white skin,” says Rev. Lambert.
In the Book of Revelation, Chapter 1, verses 14 and 15, we find the following:
“His head and his hair were white with the whiteness of wool, like snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze when it has been refined in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of the ocean.”
From Revelation, we have Jesus having white hair of wool, eyes like flames, feet like bronze and a deep voice. Going back to one of the prophecies of Jesus, in the Book of Daniel, we find the following in chapter 10, verse 5 and 6:
“Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with find gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightening, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and His arms and feet like in color to polished brass, and the voice of His words like the voice of a multitude.”
Both Denial and John provide the same description of Jesus. Where, then, does the image of Jesus as a white man come from?
The Roman Empire was a tricky beast to navigate. Everyone trying to curry favor, gain citizenship within the Empire, or working to achieve status would follow what was in favor within the Empires Court.
As Christianity was earning a high rank, the masses began to follow. One group of people, one who could find fame and wealth among the Court was artists.
For a long time, artists made a living creating frescos and statues of the Roman gods. These gods were no fading away in favor of God. Many artists may have had works in progress that would be re-purposed towards a Christian view, but what would they do?
Would a fresco showing Jesus as an olive-skinned man work? Would a statue showing Jesus as a Black man stand in the home of a wealthy believer? Probably now. What would they do?
An image of Jesus Christ was needed.
“That image can probably be traced back to the Byzantine period when artists had to make choices on how to represent the ‘son of God,'” Joan Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, wrote in her book What Did Jesus Look Like? ”
And they were probably inspired by existing godly figures like Zeus and Apollo.”
The earliest images of Christ, the ones that began to appear in the third century most likely borrowed heavily from the already existing art of the gods. These were images that people were acquainted with, were comfortable with.
This can be seen in the images found within Santa Pudenziana, the oldest surviving Catholic Church in Rome, built-in 398 A.D.
Within Santa Pudenziana, above the altar, is a large fresco of Jesus sitting on a throne in wrapped in a gold and blue robe.
This imagery, according to Taylor, is based on Zeus/Jupiter, who is depicted sitting on a throne in golden clothing.
I began my explanation by focusing on the early Church. Let’s take a moment to look at the Church today.
In the end, what we have today, are recycled images of Greek/Roman gods repurposed to the “image” of Jesus Christ. There are also political ramifications to consider, both modern and historical, that perpetuate a “white” Jesus, but I will leave those for another time.
What color is Jesus Christ? He is not white. (In fact, His name is not even “Jesus”)
While working on this piece, I was asked what color I thought Jesus is, and if it matters. The short answer is yes.
Coming from an Orthodox Jewish background, it matters.
In Israel, during the time of Jesus, the color of peoples skin ranged from olive to black. When you did see people with white skin, or as close as one could get, they were part of the Roman Empire, not the people of Israel.
Just like any colonizing force, you destroy history and heritage; you replace language and ways of thinking.
For a religious example of this, look at your Bible, at the names found within the New Testament.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, these are not Jewish names. Jewish history, as it pertains to the New Testament, has been anglicized just as the look of Jesus Christ in art has been Romanized.
Yes, it’s essential to know who Yeshua was. By ignoring the fact of who He was, we are ignoring who the Jewish peoples of his time were: olive-skinned and black-skinned.
It is my opinion, and mine alone, that if we continue to use images of Jesus Christ as a white man, we continue with a colonial mindset that harks back to the Roman Empire. That mindset has made society far too comfortable with creating imaginary lines between “us” and “them.”
It’s allowed people to laugh when they learn that there are Black Jews in Ethiopia and Igboland (of the Igbo peoples of Nigeria).
This wholesale neglect of the color of Jesus’ skin has led to Christianity becoming more of a political statement than a religion of love and acceptance.
Chahid, I may have gone off on a bit of a tangent, and I’m sure I’ll be eviscerated in the comments, but you asked me if Jesus Christ is white, olive or black-skinned. I’m sure if we were to ask one-hundred people, the overwhelming answer would be white.
For me, in my opinion, and based on my research and education, I believe Yeshua to have been black.
What do you think? Do you think it’s important that we know who He was? What color was he?
Let me know in the comments below.