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Jesus was not “peach” colored

This is the opening illustration on my 1873 Harding Bible. I’m interested in considering it in light of the Roth reading, and what she refers to as an “invisible norm of racial whiteness”.

Visual representations of Jesus, both as a man and as a baby, have varied widely in the Western world. Perhaps the strangest example of that is the Medieval and Renaissance-era convention of depicting the baby Jesus as a homunculus, an infant with adult features, presumably to symbolize his innate wisdom even at the time of his birth. Fairly consistent, though, has been the portrayal of Jesus as being essentially white in complexion, despite the agreed upon reality of his life and death in a region of the world where people generally have brown skin. The Bible itself makes little to no direct reference to Jesus’ physical appearance, and the earliest drawings of him postdate his death by at least two centuries. Still, even without any particular historical or exegetic basis the Western Christian tradition seems to largely agree that Jesus was white.

The image here is especially interesting to me because of the contrast between the infant Jesus and the Magi Balthazar, the king from Arabia. Balthazar is usually shown as dark brown or black in complexion, next to a pure white Jesus. But the people of the Arabian peninsula share roughly the same skin tone as the people of Bethlehem, where Christ was born. Curiously, the other kings, Melchior and Caspar, are usually shown as white men with European features, despite traveling from Persia and India, respectively.

In this illustration, every figure except Balthazar is white, Jesus blindingly so. What’s particularly fascinating is that there rarely seems to be any explicit racial connotation attached to these drawings; it is simply taken, as a matter of common sense, that Jesus resembled Europeans rather than Northern Africans or Arabs. The idea has been insinuated so thoroughly that many American Christians find it difficult, even upsetting, to question that assumption, as if a change in Jesus’ appearance would somehow undermine his theology. This, clearly, is a reflection of that “invisible norm of racial whiteness”, which is accepted so instinctively that when it is questioned it can cause a lot of outraged and discordant reactions.

There are probably a lot of obfuscating factors here. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and lived most of his life in Galilee, both regions today comprised by Israel. In the modern American conception Israelis are commonly seen as white, because a large part of the population is made up of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated from Europe following World War II. Other Jewish groups – particularly the Mizrahi and Yemenite Jews who had lived in the region since before the time of Christ – have a skin tone like that of ethnic Arabs. Certainly most of Israel’s recent leadership has consisted of Ashkenazi Jews (Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon) and members of other Jewish groups of European extraction, particularly Belarus (Shimon Peres, Moshe Katsav). As a result, it’s easier to imagine that Jesus, being from what is today Israel, must have looked like these people.

Of course, the “White Jesus” imagery predates the formation of Israel by hundreds of years, so while it may provide some modern context, it certainly isn’t an explanation. A tremendous amount has been written about this theme, both with respect to its origin and its social implications. Malcolm X in particular was interested in how Christianity exalts whiteness, and how Western Christianity had improperly extrapolated that out to include skin color. Indeed, the scriptural dictionary in my Bible remarks that white is the symbol of Jesus; black, the symbol of evil.

Honestly, I’m not sure how profound the effect of this has been; I’m neither black nor Christian. Neither do I know, to be honest, why I write these things so long; if more than one person actually reads all of this, I’ll be fairly astounded. Perhaps it’s because I lack concision. Perhaps it’s because I’ve enabled verbose logging. The only thing, I suppose, I can say for sure is that nobody got that last joke.

Nikolas

Comments

Andi
Reply

Very interesting post! I have definitely noticed that Jesus is always portrayed as a Caucasian man when really, he was most likely brown-skinned. There are also many black churches that will portray Jesus as being a black man, so I suppose people prefer the portrayal that resembles the closest to them.

Truth..
Reply

When you read something like that in the footnote, it’s time to get a new Bible. I would suggest the Oxford Annotated Bible for something legit and definitely doesn’t contain “white people are good and black people are bad” footnotes – however – it is common in western culture for white to represent purity and black to represent sickness or otherwise. It’s pretty easy to see why this arose if you take a white sheet and rub it in the mud – I honestly believe these conceptualizations of colors representing purity/sin or good/bad are from the fact that when white clothes get dirty they get darker – and wasn’t related to race.

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