The White Jesus Dilemma

Is my Jesus too White?

While this conversation has been going on for some time, I’ve recently seen it more frequently and with harmful assumptions.  Working in a Catholic organization where people regularly start meetings with reflections and Christian artwork is not discouraged, these types of discussions come up quite often.  It usually begins with an immediate reaction by an individual when they see a popular depiction of Jesus that appears “white” or of European descent.  It typically starts with a condescending, “You know Jesus wasn’t white, right?”  Now if someone like me (a white guy) is showing the picture, there is no right response to the question.  If I say yes, then I must be a bit racist for having a white Jesus.  If I say no, then I need to be educated on the historical person of Jesus as a Mediterranean Jew.  Of course, I believe that there is a much deeper conversation that could be had around this topic.

We need to start with a sometimes-uncomfortable distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith.  I say uncomfortable because for Christians, this is the same person.  However, while not everyone believes in the resurrection, there is plenty of historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and therefore we can begin with some common ground.  This gets to the point of what this figure looked like when he walked the earth.  In other words, what did Jews living in Judea around 2000 years ago look like?  Probably not much different than those living in the Middle East today.  He was most likely dark skinned, with hair that was more short and curly than long and wavy, and he may or may not have had a beard.  He traveled a lot on foot between towns, so it is doubtful that he was clean shaven.  Chances are he was of average height and build, and not someone who would stand out in a crowd by his appearance only.  If he did, this would most likely be referenced in the New Testament, but instead Christians use passages such as Isaiah 53:2, “He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him.”  The Gospels also make it clear that Jesus was a common man, even poor.  He was born away from home in a stable, made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (not a horse); and he didn’t even own the donkey!  If this was the case about Jesus, then why are most of the depictions of him so different?

I think there are many reasons for this; historical, religious, cultural, and artistic.  To begin with, there are no existing pictures or paintings of Jesus until the third century, and even then there are very few.  This can be due to a couple of reasons.  They may simply not have survived because Christians were persecuted during this era; any image would not be publicly displayed or created to last any significant amount of time.  Also, and more importantly, the first Christians were Jews and it was forbidden to have images of God, which would include the man they proclaimed to be the incarnate God.  And while some of the laws were gradually relaxed such as those having to do with the cleanliness of certain foods, the law against idolatry is one of the 10 commandments and not so easily dismissed.  When they did begin to create images of Jesus for public consumption, he was portrayed more in the Greek style of a great philosopher or the art was influenced by the Greek and Roman depictions of their gods.  Jesus was larger than life, and therefore was portrayed as such.  This is where we begin to get into the Jesus of faith, which becomes more important than what he actually looked like. 

But even these images were not widely distributed.  It was when Christianity spread throughout Europe and the great cathedrals and palaces were built, that Christian paintings began to be all the rage.  Jesus was still often portrayed as a wise philosopher, teacher, or king, but for a different audience.  And to make Jesus relatable to both the artists and their patrons, Jesus and his apostles were made to look like them.  Even the backgrounds of biblical stories in these paintings resembled more the Italian countryside than that of Palestine. In addition, because of the holiness of Jesus, he was usually made even more white symbolically to represent Light and Godliness, as well as tall to show his importance.  And while such biases today would be ridiculed, these works of art that were made to last for centuries eventually became the standard for images of Jesus.  This depiction of Jesus then continued to be perpetuated when European missionaries began to bring Christianity to other countries.  They brought this image of Christ and because of the perceived sacredness of the images, it took centuries for the native populations to begin to produce (and for the world to recognize) their own artwork of Jesus. 

So are all these white depictions of Jesus a racist thing?  Historically, I would say no and then yes.  Artwork is very often made in the image of the artist.  The Renaissance paintings of Jesus were what made the most sense for their time and place.  Artists were not trying to be historical.  Jesus was seen as the perfect man and so the most attractive models in that culture were used.  Jesus Christ was God and Man, and any representation of him should reflect that kind of mythic figure.  This was the bias that fueled this type of art.  However, that same bias continued when the Europeans met people that looked different than them.  They still controlled the appearance of Jesus, a Jesus they made in their own image.  This is where the racism becomes apparent.  It was also contrary to the Gospel.   “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14.) God became man, not just any man, but every man – every person.  Dwelling among us meant that he came to be one of us and therefore should be accessible to everyone in every race.  This is the Christ of Faith.  His is not the face of the colonists or missionaries (or even a first century Palestinian Jew); but rather the face of the common person.  Yes, the Europeans can be justified for creating images of Jesus in their image but that should not have been the image that was brought to other countries.  Those who were evangelized should have been encouraged from the start to see a Jesus that they could relate to, one who came to dwell with them, not one with the face of their conquerors. 

Going back to the consideration of using what many might call a traditional white image of Jesus for a presentation, social media post, or prayer service; is it appropriate in this day and age?  It depends on your audience, and possibly even your intention.  Consider who are the recipients – might you want multiple images of Jesus that have been produced by various cultures?  Perhaps you would want to find one that looks more like the historical Jesus.  Or maybe you simply ask those participating how they see their Lord.  Oftentimes the question that I began this article with is asked in an accusatory way, indicating that there is no longer any place for a white Jesus.  However, for many communities and one’s personal spirituality, there is certainly nothing wrong with a white Jesus if that reflects your culture just as there is nothing wrong with praying to a black or Korean Jesus. 

As a Catholic, I find the greatest example of this concept in the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout the world.  Again, historically she was a first century Palestinian woman.  Yet in every country that she is claimed to have appeared, the images left behind have been that of a woman with the face and attire of a person of that race and culture.  Guadalupe, Knock, Fatima, Kibeho, Lourdes, Akita, all depict Mary as a woman that looks and sounds like those she appears to.  Therefore, the Jesus that she gave birth to and the Jesus that is the Savior also is One with every culture.  Why is this important?  Maybe if we see Jesus in a variety of depictions from various races, it might be a bit easier to see everyone as Jesus and treat them accordingly.  “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Image is from the forensic anthropologist Richard Neave who created this model for a BBC documentary, Son of God.

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