Like many people around the world, I grew up going to Church. Every single Sunday, I went to Church with my family. My parents went to the regular sermon and I went to Sunday school – aka church for kids. I grew up reading picture books, watching movies, and being told stories about Jesus and the Bible using a felt board with felt cut-out Bible characters (if you know, you know). In all of these scenarios, they always depicted Jesus as a white man.
Naturally, as a child, I didn’t think much of it. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in an era where nearly everyone you saw in magazines, movies, and on TV was white. The thought of Jesus being anything but never crossed my mind. That is until I got a bit older. As a young adolescent, I began questioning how Jesus could be a white man if he was from the Middle East. After all, everyone I knew whose family was from that area of the world had skin tones much darker than mine. Of course, I am not the only one who has questioned Jesus’ skin color. There are several scholars who have gone back in history to figure out where the depiction of Jesus being white began, and this is what they found.
Why Jesus is Depicted as White Despite Being from the Middle East?
If you didn’t grow up going to Church like I did, I’ll give you a little bit of intel on Jesus Christ: He was Jewish and born in the town of Nazareth in Galilee. His parents, Mary and Joseph, were also from that region. Modern-day people from Galilee are not white, so Jesus most likely would not have been, either. (1)
The Bible does not give us much information about Jesus’ actual physical appearance either. There are some descriptions in certain books that depict him as more of a god than as a human. There are others that simultaneously depict him as being white and black. On top of that, the Bible and all of its translations over the centuries cannot exactly be relied on as the perfect source of information in this instance. (2)
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Racism and Religion
Though I no longer identify as overly religious myself, I believe in religious freedom and the right to believe and practice whatever you want to. Regardless of what you believe, however, it can’t be denied that religion has been at the crux of an incredible amount of conflict, war, bloodshed, and more over the centuries. Racism has always been a trending theme in these conflicts. (1,3)
For example, for several hundreds of years after Jesus’ death, being one of his followers was not a good thing under the Roman Empire. So much so that Christians communicated via symbols rather than written text to avoid persecution. Many wars have been fought over religion – for example, the Christian Crusades, which could be interpreted as a war on Muslims. The reality is that Jesus actually probably looked more similar to the Muslims the Christians were at war against than themselves. Depicting the son of God who they were fighting in the name of as looking more like the enemy, of course, would not have been good for morale.
Christianity and White Jesus were also used as an excuse to justify slavery and the horrific treatment of black African people by white Europeans (1). In countless times throughout history, this image of white being pure and black or brown being bad or evil is a common thread(4). They use their white Jesus depictions to convince themselves and others that being white means you have morals and being darker skinned makes you lesser-than. Even in Nazism, they tried to separate Jesus from his Jewish roots and depict him as being part of the Aryan race (5). Essentially, white Christians over the years changed the way they depicted Jesus to be white to fit with their own racist and oppressive agendas(1). These images are still engrained in many of us today, despite their lack of actual validity. (5)
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What About Other Depictions of Jesus?
Regardless of religious beliefs, historians generally do agree that Jesus of Nazareth did exist and was a real, living, breathing human being. Whether or not he was the Son of God and performed miracles is up to you. Certainly, however, no matter how many paintings or felt board Bible stories you’ve seen with him as a white man, it’s very unlikely.
So regardless of what Jesus looked like in real life, how should he be depicted now? The Bible never gives a clear description, so we can’t go by that. All the Bible says is that Jesus came “in the image of man”. There are many religious leaders who then say that perhaps Jesus should be depicted as a representation of whatever community is celebrating him. After all, if Jesus was coming to visit Earth today, could he not take the likeness of whatever community he is coming to see? Who’s to say. All we know is that, technically, Jesus would not have been white.
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- “Why Is Jesus Depicted As Being White?” Ranker. Elle Tharp. April 15, 2022.
- “Jesus was not white. Here’s why we should stop pretending he was..” America Magazine. James Martin, S.J. June 26, 2020.
- “The long history of how Jesus came to resemble a white European.” SC. Anna Swartwood House. July 22, 2020.
- “Why do we think Christ was white?” BBC. March 27, 2001
- “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany” Princeton Univerity Press. October 3, 2010.
- “What did Jesus really look like?” BBC. Joan Taylor. December 24, 2015.