White Jesus statues

Do we often wonder how exactly Jesus looked  like? Was he black? Brown? White? Red? Yellow? We know that he was a first-century, Galilean Jew. Nevertheless, besides that, no reliable description of his appearance has been revealed to us.

There is a statement documented in the Mishnah, the earliest code of Jewish law (compiled roughly 220 A.D.) attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, who lived from 90-135 AD. He stated, “The children of Israel . . . are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade” (m. Negaim 2:1).

Like Boxwood

Therefore, according to a rabbi who resided within one century of Jesus, the Israelites are “like boxwood,” neither black nor white but somewhere in between. This would be in conformity with other Middle Eastern peoples of the past and present.

As for the conception that Jesus was black, based on Revelation 1:14-15, that is a complete misreading of the text. Describing John’s vision of a glorious Jesus, the text states that,

“The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” (Revelation 1:14)

But the text does not say that Jesus had wooly hair. Rather, it depicts His hair as “white like wool, white as snow.”

Color and not texture

This is not speaking of the texture of his hair (any more than the texture of hair is being compared to snow). Rather, it is talking about the color of his hair. Moreover, this is a glorious vision not meant to be taken literally. This is unless of course, if you believe that a sharp, double-edged sword came out of his mouth and that his face shone like the sun.

White Jesus

That being said, Jesus was definitely not white. (For the record, many translations of the Bible, including the King James Version, render Revelation 1:14 with, “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow.” From this you could argue that Jesus was lily white, since it says his head was white. That, too, is an outrageous misunderstanding.)

How, then, did we end up with a white Jesus in Europe and America?

There are two answers to this question: one quite blameless and the other not nearly as blameless. (You might be in for a bombshell. Keep reading!)

The innocent answer is that it is typical for other people groups to imagine Jesus to be just like them. Just do a search for “images of Chinese Jesus” or “images of Eskimo Jesus.” You will see a Jesus who looks Chinese or a Jesus who looks Eskimo.

This is no surprise. Essentially, according to the gospel, the Son of God took on human flesh and became one of us. It’s only natural that we imagine him to look like us.

Black Jesus

Way back in the 70s, I attended a black megachurch in Brooklyn with a friend I had met in college, who also is an African American.

The first thing that caught my attention was the mural on the wall, portraying Jesus and his disciples as black.

When I asked my friend about it, he said to me, “When you look at a class picture, what’s the first thing you look for? It’s your own face in the crowd. It’s the same with people coming here. They’re looking for a Jesus they can identify with.”

That’s also why many pictures and statues of Jesus depict him as white. The white artists conceived of a Jesus who was just like them. That’s also why some of the medieval depictions of Jesus portrayed him and his followers as putting on medieval garb. That was the attire that they knew.

Mental export

The problem is when that image is now exported to other cultures, and so the Jesus we preach in India or Africa is a white Jesus. That can lead to spiritual and cultural confusion, especially if the white race is also affiliated with conquest and colonization.

Now the issue becomes more complicated. (To help you relate to some of the challenges, if you’re a white Christian, ask yourself how you would identify with a black Jesus. Or an Indian Jesus.)

Historic contrast of races

However, here’s the big surprise with regards to white images of Jesus. The historic contrast was not between a white Jesus and blacks. It was between a white, Gentile Jesus and Jews.

This was graphically explained by Prof. Bernard Starr in his book Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.

Starr pointed to famous medieval and renaissance paintings of Jesus, where he was depicted as a handsome, fair-skinned, Gentile European He was also surrounded by devilishly-ugly, hook-nosed Jewish teachers. Those evil Jews!

If you think this is an exaggeration, just look at the painting, Christ Among the Doctors, by Albrecht Dürer. (By “doctors” Dürer meant “doctors of the law,” as in rabbis and Jewish teachers.)

Most fascinating is the fact that, Starr also pointed to artists in Africa and other dark-skinned cultures who depicted a dark-skinned but also non-Jewish Jesus. How captivating!

Jesus’ Jewish roots

Therefore, a major reason why white artists depicted Jesus as white was because they forgot about his Jewish (and Middle Eastern) roots. In addition, since the Jews were viewed as demonic and evil, Jesus had to be different from them. Hence a white, non-Jewish Jesus (Or, in other cultures, a black, non-Jewish Jesus.) was deemed appropriate

BLM activist Shaun King, who absurdly asked for the removal of statues depicting a white Jesus, tweeted, “Experts have long since said this is likely the most accurate depiction of Jesus.

“White Americans who bought, sold, traded, raped, and worked Africans to death, for hundreds of years in this country, simply could not have THIS man at the center of their faith.”

King included an image to his tweet. The image was created in 2001 by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave. As the BBC reported, Neave “created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, working on the basis of an actual skull found in the region. He did not claim it was Jesus’s face. It was simply meant to prompt people to consider Jesus as being a man of his time and place, since we are never told he looked distinctive.”

So, as opposed to King’s claim, this is not what, “Experts have long since said . . . is likely the most accurate depiction of Jesus.”

This is just a 2001 image created by one expert, and it was not of an African man but of a Galilean Jew.

Which Jesus do you follow?

As the BBC also noted, “And what about Jesus’s facial features? They were Jewish. That Jesus was a Jew (or Judaean) is certain in that it is found reiterated in different literature.”

Consequently, the real question for the cultural iconoclasts of our time, including the likes of Shaun King, is this: Would you be at home with a Jewish Jesus? With Yeshua, the son of Miriam, called rabbi rather than reverend? Would you be at home with him?

This is also a critical question for Christians worldwide. Do you follow the Jesus-Yeshua of the Scriptures or a Jesus whom you have formed in your own image?

Source: Dr. Michael Brown