ROBYN J WHITAKER. Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters

I grew up in a Christian home, where a photo of Jesus hung on my bedroom wall. I still have it. It is schmaltzy and rather tacky in that 1970s kind of way, but as a little girl I loved it. In this picture, Jesus looks kind and gentle, he gazes down at me lovingly. He is also light-haired, blue-eyed, and very white.

The problem is, Jesus was not white. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’ve ever entered a Western church or visited an art gallery. But while there is no physical description of him in the Bible, there is also no doubt that the historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century CE, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

This is not controversial from a scholarly point of view, but somehow it is a forgotten detail for many of the millions of Christians who will gather to celebrate Easter this week.

On Good Friday, Christians attend churches to worship Jesus and, in particular, remember his death on a cross. In most of these churches, Jesus will be depicted as a white man, a guy that looks like Anglo-Australians, a guy easy for other Anglo-Australians to identify with.

Think for a moment of the rather dashing Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. He is an Irish-American actor. Or call to mind some of the most famous artworks of Jesus’ crucifixion – Ruben, Grunewald, Giotto – and again we see the European bias in depicting a white-skinned Jesus.

Read more: Friday essay: who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute

Does any of this matter? Yes, it really does. As a society, we are well aware of the power of representation and the importance of diverse role models.

After winning the 2013 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o shot to fame. In interviews since then, Nyong’o has repeatedly articulated her feelings of inferiority as a young woman because all the images of beauty she saw around her were of lighter-skinned women. It was only when she saw the fashion world embracing Sudanese model Alek Wek that she realised black could be beautiful too.

If we can recognise the importance of ethnically and physically diverse role models in our media, why can’t we do the same for faith? Why do we continue to allow images of a whitened Jesus to dominate?

Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. IMDB

Many churches and cultures do depict Jesus as a brown or black man. Orthodox Christians usually have a very different iconography to that of European art – if you enter a church in Africa, you’ll likely see an African Jesus on display.

But these are rarely the images we see in Australian Protestant and Catholic churches, and it is our loss. It allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different.

I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.

Historically, the whitewashing of Jesus contributed to Christians being some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism and it continues to manifest in the “othering” of non-Anglo Saxon Australians.

Read more: What history really tells us about the birth of Jesus

This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would our church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured, and publicly executed by an oppressive regime.

How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?

Perhaps most radical of all, I can’t help but wonder what might change if we were more mindful that the person Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and saviour of the entire world was not a white man, but a Middle Eastern Jew.

Robyn J Whitaker is Bromby Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity College, University of Divinity

This article first appeared in The Conversation. on March 29 2018

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3 Responses to ROBYN J WHITAKER. Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    “How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?” YES INDEED – NOT LEAST ABOUT THE ASSYLUM SEEKERS, IMPRISONED OPEN ENDEDLY, WHOSE ONLY “CRIME” WAS TRYING TO ESCAPE FOR THEIR LIFE

  2. Joan Seymour says:

    The old-school European images of Jesus (and Mary) very often resembled north western European people. Even olive skinned Italian or Spanish artists did it. Maybe fair skin and hair were meant to convey purity (though why….!) However, in my own Catholic schools back in the fifties and sixties, it was taken for granted that Jesus and his mother were both Jews, and that people in different countries portrayed them differently so that they would feel at home with them. We collected holy pictures of Mary as a Korean, a black African, a Chinese or Aboriginal woman. It’s a very long time, I think, since people were truly unaware of Jesus’ ethnicity and probable colouring. And look at that wonderful tinted wooden image of Mary in St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral in Brisbane – a pregnant Jewess for sure. (And it was the obvious pregnancy, rather than the Jewishness, that caused a few people to dislike it when it was first installed. Go figure….)

  3. paul frijters says:

    yes, I think this kind of history re-telling is useful. It doesn’t belittle anyone but opens up the narrative of who we are.

    A similar new insight is that, apparently the earliest hunter-gatherers who made it to the UK and left a significant DNA-footprint in the current population were most probably black too. The story is that they became white when they changed to farming and had more restricted diets so that they needed to absorb more sunlight to make vitamin D.

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