Was Jesus White?
What…just a simple one word answer isn’t good enough for you? The truth of it is that Jesus wasn’t exactly white, nor was He precisely black either. He was, most likely, in the middle, and that’s not just me hedging bets. Ultimately, the question of “whiteness” is a difficult and awkward question to ask and answer for anybody, much less a historical figure from a disputed part of the world, but it is possible to drill down and get a good answer to the question.
In the past, the United States largely considered Middle Easterners as non-white, but things changed, at least on an official level, as the result of a court case in 1909. Sadly, the case was ignited and surrounded by a substantial amount of racism, particularly on the part of the federal government.
Officer George Shishim was a Lebanese-American police officer in Los Angeles County in the early twentieth century. In 1909, he arrested the white son of a prominent L.A. attorney for disturbing the peace. That a ‘yellow-skinned’ foreigner had arrested his son didn’t sit well with this attorney, and he sued the county, claiming that, as officer Shishim was Lebanese, that meant he was not white, but Chinese-Mongolian, and thus ineligible for citizenship in America. How a white attorney at the time came to characterize a Lebanese man as “Chinese-Mongolian” has a little bit to do with the conquerings of Genghis Khan, and a whole lot to do with plain old ignorant racism. The case would appear before Los Angeles Country Judge Hutton, and the federal government argued against the potential citizenship of Shishim, declaring that as a Middle-Easterner, he was not white, and thus not eligible for citizenship.
Shishim’s defense, however, was an absolute stroke of genius. He argued to the court, who largely identified as Christian, that, “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.” This proved to be a persuasive argument to Judge Hutton, who announced his decision the following day:
This is an application by one George Shishim, a Syrian, to be admitted to citizenship. The federal government, acting through the department of justice, objects to his admission, basing its objection on the sole ground that he is not a member of the white race in contemplation of section 2169 of the revised statutes of the United States. (Source: http://www.arabamericanhistory.org/archives/dept-of-justice-affirms-arab-race-in-1909/ )
And thus it was that Middle-Easterners, including Israelis, came to be considered “white.” by the United States government, largely against its will. Interestingly, there is a movement underway to overturn this designation, and it is likely that by the next census, ‘MENA’ will be a new designation, standing for “Middle East or North Africa.”
Just last week I posted a mock up of the cover for this book on my Facebook page. I included a two word description of the picture that said “current project,” and nothing else. That post has become one of the most controversial posts I’ve ever made on Facebook. It generated lots of likes and nearly 150 comments, which is a fairly high number for one of my posts. The reason for that many comments is that within about 15 minutes of posting the picture, one of my Facebook ‘friends,’ I lady I’ve never met before and actually don’t even know in real life, posted an excerpt from the book of Deuteronomy in response to my picture.
I read the excerpt with some degree of curiosity trying to discern what her comment meant, it had no context other than the verse itself, Deuteronomy 7:3, which is a prohibition that was aimed at the Israelites commanding them to not marry foreign wives in the promised land. For years, racists and people who have utterly misunderstood the Bible, have used that passage (and others like it) to decry interracial marriage, interracial relationships and those sorts of things.
Reading Deuteronomy 7 as a current prohibition against Christians marrying somebody of a different nationality or skin color is a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture that completely disregards who the Old Testament was written to and the context of those commandments in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 7:3-6 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 because they will turn your sons away from Me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and He will swiftly destroy you. 5 Instead, this is what you are to do to them: tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn up their carved images. 6 For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.
The Jews were not allowed to intermarry with foreigners, not because of the color of their skin, but very clearly because of their religion. By this command, God sought to keep the hearts of the Israelites pure and their worship focused solely on Him, in keeping with the first commandment, “Do not have other gods besides Me.” It had nothing to do with keeping their blood pure.
Suspicious of the post, and wondering why she chose to post that particular Scripture, I went to check out my ‘friend’s’ Facebook page and discovered a trove of highly racist memes, racist comments and claims, and other highly offensive and inaccurate material including the picture you see below, which alleges that the Bible is only about white people , that Adam was a white person and that any attempt to describe the Bible as a book about mixed races is completely false.
I was incensed, disgusted and deeply troubled at the level of false teaching she was promulgating and therefore I challenged her comment on my Facebook page with some degree of firmness. This, as you might imagine, ignited one of those comment wars that are becoming more and more common on social media, as she apparently tagged in several of her white nationalist racist friends and, without any effort on my part, several of my friends joined in and for a while it was a free-for-all.
Her primary henchman, and I think that is an appropriate word for the situation, was a German Nazi white supremacist that claimed to love the Jews. (Yes, it was a very strange conversation.) In fact the first commenter herself claimed to be a Jewish person despite the fact that she was quite clearly a southern American. This was a new flavor of racism for me and upon a little bit of research I discovered that there was quite a few people who make the claim that the Israelites were white, Adam was white, Jesus was white, and that the only race that is eligible for salvation is the white race. According to these white supremacists’ abominable teachings, no other race is eligible for salvation. The Bible is about white people and was only written to white people. Thus, according to my ‘friend’s’ henchman, racism is actually a kindness and displays love, because it’s communicating the will of God.
What a disgusting and horrific idea! But it does at least raise an interesting question: what color was Jesus? Many people have in their mind a view of Jesus as a lithe white man with long hair. The trouble with this picture of Jesus is that it comes from the Italian Renaissance, where the Italian painters initially depicted Jesus as somebody very similar to them, with long hair (as was the fashion in that day), slightly tanned skin, and a white robe. The only part of that depiction that has some basis in reality is the robe. The fact is, we have no surviving pictures of Jesus from His time. The earliest surviving picture we have that depicts Jesus is copied below, dates from the 200s, and obviously doesn’t show details about the race of Jesus or much about His appearance or anything like that. One of the other earliest depictions of Jesus dates from the 300s AD, and is a picture with quite a bit more detail present in the facial area. Surprisingly, this second picture does appear to show Jesus as a dark-skinned man.
The pictures above are not definitive, however what we do know is that Jesus was in Israel and the Bible never describes Him in a way that would particularly distinguish Him from the rest of His people. For instance, Jesus is never described as being particularly tall, fat, balding, redheaded, etc., Therefore it is quite reasonable to conclude that Jesus probably looked much like the other Israelite men of His day.
So, what did the Israelites look like? Are Israelites white? The fact of the matter is that the Israelites are a Middle-Eastern people with a great amount of variety within their borders just like Americans, Asians and Africans have a great amount of variety among their peoples. If you were asked to describe a typical American, that might be somewhat difficult, given the wide variety of people in America. Nevertheless, it is possible to engage in some small amount of description of the average first-century Israelite, and therefore to give a pretty good facsimile representation of what Jesus probably looked like. In recent times, Scientists have actually done this through skeletal remains, and reconstructed a picture and description of what the average Israelite, and therefore Jesus, could have looked like. That reconstruction depicts Jesus as a man with olive/brown skin, black and short hair, and a heavy black beard. It isn’t exactly a picture of the historical Jesus, but it is a scientific representation of what the average Israelite person would look like.
Some might be surprised that Jesus didn’t have long hair, but the only Jewish men who had long hair in first century Israel were those who had taken a Nazirite vow. We know that Jesus probably didn’t have long hair because the apostle Paul wrote that it was shameful for men to have long hair, and, as Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus Road, it is highly unlikely that Jesus had the sort of long hair that is depicted of him in most pictures. Further, if the scientific reconstruction of first century Israelites is accurate, then Jesus would be neither black nor white, but somewhere in between.
What difference does it make? The problem with this discussion is that “whiteness” is a relative term and it’s not a very helpful one. People don’t genuinely have white skin – an actual white-skinned person would be awfully strange looking. People that are Caucasian generally have a peach/pinkish tone to their skin, and I’m not really sure how that came to be referred to as white, but as we’ve seen in earlier chapters, true white skin is considered diseased skin. The funny thing about “whiteness” is the fact that most people in the white community generally consider paleness to be a less than attractive feature. In fact, in the United States of America, many people pay good money to lie in coffin-like light booths, so that ultraviolet lamps might turn their skin a few shades darker, because in their mind, darker skin on a white person looks more attractive. What a strange set of circumstances!
If you would like to read more about this topic, please allow me to encourage you to read The Bible and Racism, available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Bible-Racism-What-REALLY-about-ebook/dp/B075846YB8/