What color is faith?

The Jesus-was-white controversy ignores history and demeans spirituality


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According to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, it is not “racist” to insist that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white. We are well aware that the iconic, modern-day figure of Santa Claus was invented in 19th-century America, but she made the claim that, being an “historical figure,” a white Jesus is “a verifiable fact.”

After setting off a firestorm, Ms. Kelly tried to back away from her remarks, saying they were made in jest. One would hope: Anyone with half a brain can realize that a 1st-century Galilean Jew did not look like Jeffrey Hunter in “King of Kings,” (blond, with contact lens-enhanced silver eyes).

Over the last 30 years, movies such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Life of Bryan” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” challenged stereotypical stories of Jesus. But while the content was controversial, Jesus remained “white.”

In 2006, Jean Claude La Marre produced and directed “Color of the Cross” with a black Jesus who was crucified by racist oppressors, followed by a sequel in 2008. Both films were box-office flops but also were historically inaccurate, as the concept of “race” as we understand it (and racism) did not exist in the ancient world.

For the ancients, the designation of different groups of people was expressed with the term “ethnic,” from the Greek “ethnos,” and described people “who are not like us.” When someone said “I am Greek” or “I am Roman,” it was understood as a reference to a cultural identity and not to physiological characteristics or even a geographic area.

Ethnic groups were social categories of people who shared a common ancestry, history, homeland, language, rituals and mythology. According to Herodotus (ca. 484-425 BCE), these were the things that made someone “Greek,” or not. Many Greeks and Romans attributed differences in skin color to climate, geography or class (if you were darker, you probably worked in the fields out in the sun). Cultural traits created the barriers between people, not physical characteristics.

Race is born

The modern concept of racial types was first proposed by a German philosopher, Christoph Meiners, in 1785, with only two divisions, Caucasians and Mongolians, based largely upon Meiners’ opinion of physical attractiveness. Ten years later, Johann Blumenbach, a German professor of medicine, used craniology to tie the classification of Caucasian to the “white race.” By the 19th century, Negroid had been added to Caucasian and Mongoloid to represent the craniology and skeletal morphology of central and southern Africans.

Skin color alone still does not represent the determining factor, as Caucasian, or the more modern term, Caucasoid, includes variation in skin color from pale, to olive, to darker shades of brown.

World populations are also classified according to language groups. Within the Caucasoid we have Aryan (Indo-European), Semitic (Semitic languages) and Hamitic (Berber-Cushitic-Egyptian). “Semitic” became the designation for both the language and culture of West Asia and the Middle East. This linguistic category includes the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Jews and Arabs. Therefore, Jesus could be placed within a traditional understanding of “white,” although modern physical anthropologists rely less on color descriptors because of the negative historical connotations associated with “white” and “black.”

The modern concept of “racism” on the other hand, involves the belief that race is the primary determinant of human behavior and capabilities, with genetically inherited factors that can influence superiority or inferiority in relation to other races.

Stereotypical discrimination is not new; there was ethnic prejudice in the ancient world as well. For the Greeks, most other people were “barbarians,” and Romans could greatly insult someone by calling them “un-Roman.” But both civilizations allowed for changes in ethnic status under the auspices of citizenship. Once you were granted citizenship, you were “one of us.” Or, at least this was the theory.

Then, as now, your enemies had long memories and could always drag up your roots when it was politically expedient. For many Romans, even if some Gauls (ancient Frenchmen) succeeded in obtaining a seat in the Roman Senate, they would never learn to appreciate wine or good food!

Genes get involved

Using genetic factors to differentiate ethnic groups began in the 15th century during the medieval world of the Spanish Inquisition. Seeking to rid Spain of all but true Catholics, Ferdinand and Isabella instituted pogroms against the “conversos” — Jews and Muslims from families who had converted to Christianity years before but who were suspected of secretly practicing their own religions. The idea was that, despite spiritual conversion, being a Jew or Muslim was inherently “in the blood” and could never be changed.

The rest of Europe was quick to wrench this idea into the new fields of racial biology and eugenics — the attempt to improve human breeding. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory later contributed to the rise of the social sciences after earlier ethnographies had categorized anything outside of Europe as primitive. Beliefs about the racial distinctions of Jews had come to be applied to cultures less familiar to Europeans, such as those in black Africa.

Before long, the belief in white racial superiority became the validation of the slave trade, which was extended to the Americas. White, Christian Europe became the pinnacle of civilization and the belief in a “white” Jesus was ingrained in the tradition.

As 19th-century America absorbed waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and beyond, including Jewish immigrants, the art of Christian America portrayed a Jesus as far removed from the Jews as possible.

The face of Jesus

Over the centuries, the face of Jesus has changed. In the early Christian catacombs in Rome, we have both a clean-shaven young man in the pose of a shepherd and an older, bearded philosopher. In one picture, as he raises Lazarus from the dead, Jesus holds the wand of a magician.

When the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity in the 4th century, in what appeared to be a great marketing device, the popular image of a long-haired bearded man with all-encompassing eyes was borrowed from the face of Phidias’s statue of Zeus at Olympus.

Because of the Biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:27 (“Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”), everyone assumes that Jesus (and other Jews) had long hair. But this prohibition, like many others in Leviticus, is related to Israel not adopting the customs of “the nations” (most of them clean-shaven) and says nothing about hair itself.

Rather than the bucolic backwater assumed from the gospel parables in the ministry of Jesus, the Galilee had been exposed to Greek culture centuries before the birth of Jesus. Long hair was reserved for gods and some philosophers. Long hair on anyone else was socially demeaning, as only actors had long hair — to play their roles as women in Greek theater. As Paul stated, long hair on men was “unnatural,” as it blurred the line between male and female (1 Corinthians 11:14).

Images of Jesus with long hair most likely arose because of his deification. But in terms of historical probability, “Popular Mechanics” published a portrait of a first-century Jewish male in 2002. Using a skull from one of the many tombs around Jerusalem, forensic anthropologists and computer experts created a man with dark, olive skin; short curly hair; a wide, prominent nose; a jutting forehead, and who would have stood at about 5-foot-1. This portrait would most likely not meet Meiners’ definition of “attractive.”

I spent my junior year of college in India, where the interplay between religion and culture is manifested in daily life. In addition to all the Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas and Muslim mosques, I visited a Roman Catholic church. I expected to find the traditional icons but instead was delighted to see a statue of the Virgin Mary as a dark-skinned woman with a bindi mark on her forehead and wrapped in a beautiful sari.

This makes perfect sense for Christian Indians. For thousands of years, believers of all faiths have constructed culturally relevant religious images, reflecting their shared human experiences of the sacred.

The color of faith, as beauty, should remain in the eye of the beholder because it ultimately represents an individual’s connection to personal transcendence. Inserting anachronistic claims of race and racism into the divine seeks to deny the marvelous diversity of God’s creation, with our capacity for intelligence and creativity.

Rebecca I. Denova is a lecturer in the early history of Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh (rid4@pitt.edu).


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