Top Five ways Jesus was not White

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Given the alarming rise of white nationalism in the United States and the ways in which it is often entangled with Christian nationalism, it is worthwhile remembering whose birth, exactly, is being commemorated today.

The association of Christianity with whiteness is relatively new in history, as is the whole idea of a “white” race identified with Europe. I’ve pointed out that Benjamin Franklin saw whiteness in his own day as being an attribute solely of the British, so that Germans, e.g., were not white– in part because he thought them “swarthy” and in part because they lived under despotism. And, no, Santa Claus was not ‘white,‘ either.

Likely the rise and consolidation of the Dutch and British Empires in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries contributed to the meme of “whiteness” and “Christianity,” both seen by some in the 19th century as markers of civilizational superiority. (The actual reasons for which the British were able to loot India, Malaya and Kenya, and the Dutch to loot what is now Indonesia, had nothing to do with either ‘whiteness’ or Christianity. There are, as it turns out, no meaningful biological races, since homo sapiens sapiens is such a young species, roughly 150,000 years old).

So here are some reasons for which Jesus was not white.

1. “Whiteness” does not actually depend on skin color but on status. Hence, Ben Franklin’s conviction that Germans were not white. But the racist conception of whiteness obviously does have something to do with fair skin color (it is produced by living in a region with low ultra violet rays, so that embryos have trouble getting enough to make needed vitamin D; nature selects very light mother’s skin in, say, Scandinavia). Jesus was born and lived in what is now Palestine, Egypt and Israel, where ultra violet rays are fairly intense, and so olive skin is selected for to keep them from damaging the embryo). This is what artists of the sixth century in the province of Roman Arabia (today’s Jordan) thought people who lived in Mediterranean lands looked like:

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I don’t think they could have gotten served at a Woolworth’s deli counter in the American South in circa 1960. I also don’t think North Carolina’s GOP legislators would let them vote very easily nowadays.

2. Whiteness is in part about belonging to the imperial power, which dominates and dictates to other peoples. Neo-Nazi mass murderer Dylann Roof, for instance, particularly minded the end of white colonial domination of Zimbabwe, which they had called Rhodesia. The first-century equivalent of the black Shona, the largest ethnic group in Rhodesia, in Roman Palestine were the Jews. Jesus was from the colonized and oppressed people, not from the dominant imperial elite– that would have been Pontius Pilate, who ordered him crucified as a trouble-maker. Pontius Pilate was the equivalent of “white” in the Roman empire.

3. Jesus as a toddler was a Syrian refugee with Mary and Joseph in Egypt. He lacked the privilege and stability that mark whiteness in today’s world. It is the Somalis and Syrians and Afghans who are the refugees.

hsmaryjesus1

4. Whiteness is about property-owning, especially landed property, even just a domicile. Jesus, and before him Joseph, was a builder or carpenter, working with his hands as an artisan, and there is no reason to think that his family had much property. Some 40 years after Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans, they put down a Jewish revolt and in the aftermath confiscated all Jewish property and forbade Jews to own land in Palestine. Jesus just wasn’t from the privileged stratum.

5. Whiteness is about respectability. Jesus had no use for conventional status. Mark 2:15-17 says,

“15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

It is the sinners to whom Jesus ministered, not the self-righteous. If he did come back, he would not recognize many in the US Religious Right or the billionaire ideologues as his followers, since they are puffed up like the Pharisees. It would be the non-church going, the humble, with whom Jesus would prefer to hang.

Luke 18:9-14 says

“9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Whiteness has a mean streak, putting down the poor, the racial Other, the immigrant, the refugee. It is insecure. Even when it isn’t organizing attacks on them, it is hardhearted toward the injustices visited upon other groups. In contrast, Jesus (Matthew 25) is known above all for compassion and humility:

““31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ”

21 Responses

  1. Excellent piece. Race is a social construct. Also, that last Bible quote is similar to a Hadith of the same. Islam shares the same ideals of social justice.

  2. I shall never forget the lecture which the son of Richard Leakey gave at my university in which he masterfully ridiculed the classifications of white and black. On this issue he is the expert. No person is white and no person is black.

  3. setthem_free

    @IngridMattson I appreciate the research and the facts! I hope it’s meant to enlighten people and not to scoff at their beliefs.


  4. “Whiteness has a mean streak, putting down the poor, the racial Other, the immigrant, the refugee.”

    If there were races, this would seem racist.

    Inasmuch as everyone except a logic-slicing ideological fringe thinks that there is such a thing as race (though not sharp lines, morally significant distinctions, etc.) this statement will seem racist to almost everyone, and the rest of the essay will seem out of contact with experienced reality.

    What purpose does this serve? Who is the audience?

    • The “White” race is a legal construct that did not exist anywhere in colonial law before the late 1600s. Before that, you were English or Irish or African or whatever.
      And as usual, the laws bent to the needs of economics.

  5. Wasn’t Palestine/Israel located
    in NE Africa before 1869?
    If so, wouldn’t that make
    Jesus an Afro-Semite?

    Regards,
    John L Hansen
    (half ex-Nordic god &
    half ex-Polish peasant)

  6. Throughout history and around the world the ruling classes have used racism and religion to control the masses and even get them to support the systems that oppress them.
    And, it always seems to work.

  7. The 2001 BBC series, “The Son of God,” analyzed 6th century human skulls and through forensic reconstruction, produced an image of Jesus that does not conform to the 19th century Nordic-Aryan model which remains the predominant image in Western Christianity.

    Generally, it is only among the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala in Southern India and some of the Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity where Jesus depicted as Middle Eastern-North African. link to theguardian.com

    If one actually examines accounts of Jesus written in the Tankh, koine Greek, Aramaic and Syriac (Western Aramaic), Jesus was poor and might have even had a spinal deformity. But especially in Ethiopian Christianity, which predates European Christianity, Jesus is dark-skinned, a man who was definitely “swarthy” in a way Ben Franklin would have disapproved.

    It is unlikely that a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus would be smuggled into and survived incognito in ancient Egypt if His features would have drawn attention to him, his mother Mary and non-biological father, Joseph.

    Whiteness as a social category and biological conceit, only assumed prominence with the rise of 19th century social Darwinism. And it remains difficult to reconcile the humble birth of Jesus (among farm animals, born to single mother whose spiritual ethos was devoted to those whom society had rejected: the poor, the oppressed and social outcasts (e.g. lepers, epileptics, disabled) .

    The Jesus of the Gospels was a dissident and not a populist demagogue.

    Palm Sunday in fact, should be viewed as remembrance of one of the greatest examples of a poor people’s movement in world history. For it is the masses of the poor who marched through the narrow streets of Jerusalem in a celebratory manner that was more reminiscent of a royal parade, at least as recorded in the Gospel of John (12:12-19).

    Jesus challenged the bigotry and the brutal domination of of the masses by an oligopoly whose power deflated the inherent dignity of people no matter their tribe.

    The Jesus movement, then, was multicultural and encouraged people to forego narrow sectarian beliefs for universal aspirations.

    And this is precisely the kind of movement that creates the possibility for trust and social solidarity rather than fear-based cowardly attacks against civilians and the most vulnerable.

    There is no room for ethnic chauvinism or the restoration of some mythical master race by people claiming Jesus as their example and American and European culture as singularly Christian.

    Jesus, in His “Sermon on the Mount,” endorses compassion and justice while blessing the meek and everyone who suffers from social indignities. This is the beautiful world that Jesus invites us to create.

  8. Thank you, Professor Cole. I abhor being called ‘white’ because my relative recent ancestors were mostly Scandinavian. It’s not some odd kind of self-loathing – it’s just that I’ve never been able to identify any aspect of myself that would properly, objectively be described as white (is there an internal organ somewhere that’s actually white? Doubt it – and as for the most important organ in every living human without a tumorous growth, it’s the same proportion of gray and almost-white in everyone.) In the same sense, I’ve never seen a ‘black’ person. Well, maybe once or twice while growing up on a farm that would have been an appropriate description for someone who was in the wrong spot when a tractor’s oil was being changed or who had just finished extracting a stuck tractor from a very muddy point in a field. But only very temporarily…

    Being somehow ‘color-coded’ has never made the least bit of sense to me. Such a system of distinction isn’t a natural one. It’s purely social, using hyperbolic interpretations of skin pigmentation as reference points to justify otherwise arbitrary social stratification.

    I fully agree with your assessments and wish a species that could invent something so remarkable as the Internet, the means by which this sort of communication is possible, possessed similar competency concerning evaluating the nature of its members’ actual differences and similarities.

  9. Zimbabwe attained independence before Dylann Roof was born. He couldn’t find it on a globe if you gave him forty minutes and a jeweller’s loupe. His “knowledge” of its history and pre-history is undoubtedly very spotty, entirely devoid of context, and probably outright wrong.

    Now, THAT is some whiteness, right there.

  10. Thanks for this excellent article.
    For #3 …”It is the Somalis and Syrians and Afghans who are the refugees.”

    And Palestinians.

  11. “Jesus was a radical nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks; wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, and even anti-public prayer (Matthew 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long haired, brown-skinned, homeless community-organizing, anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.” @JohnFugelsang

    link to bennorton.com

    • I appreciate Ben Norton’s writing: though the part in the post to which you link, where he suggests that Jesus would be considered communist by today’s standard’s is a bit wanting. It’s stated without any logical or historical support. Also, who is making this claim: Ben Norton, historians, or is it a generally acknowledged argument? I don’t doubt that some of Jesus’s teaching could be used to favor income redistribution or other socialist ideals, but how this makes Jesus a “communist” is still a logical step away.

      The last paragraph in the post you link to is actually important: the word Jesus would use for God is the Aramaic word “Alaha,” which is also the word native Arab speakers would use for God too: “Allah.” So, when neoconservatives or speakers with animus against muslims use the word “Allah” in a negative or derogatory fashion, they are twisting a word Jesus himself used to supplicate. Jesus would most definitely not recognize our world as following his teachings: in word or in spirit. Hopefully, we will get there eventually.

  12. Muslims conquered Iberian Peninsula in the year 711. Some of them were from Syria & Iraq and others from North Africa. From neither place, people are dark color or have Negroid features.

    But, the historians like to call them Moors or Saracens. Moors from present day Moroccans or North Africans with black color & try to avoid that they were Muslims. Most of the historians agree that they were blacks.

    On the other hand, Jesus, who was born in the same area of the Middle East as the Moors, same historians bent over backwards to prove that he was white with blond hair.

  13. The Romans were not racist, in fact their lengthy imperial dominance was made possible by their willing absorption of the peoples and cultures of all races and nations willing to be subjects. Although there are references to where individuals were born I am unaware of any that mention skin colour. Once Papal authority came to dominate the Christian world the extensive use of white marble in the embellishment of Rome and other Italian cities may well have influenced the mental images of the faithful. There was also the pagan association white with purity, still with us in the white bridal gown. The Age of Enlightenment provoked human thinking to abandon the metaphysical but many, particularly religious, images and concepts remained untouched only later to become subject to dismissive levels of practical scrutiny, or in this case misuse.

  14. I appreciate this Christmas day message, and I think Jesus would have appreciated it too. An aspect of this that is eluded to in your post, is that if Jesus were “swarthy” or “olive-skinned” does this make him less worthy of Christian worship?

    Even more importantly, I think, Jesus would profoundly disapprove our treatment of today’s refugees, homeless, orphans, or generally hapless individuals. He’d almost certainly see himself more akin with a Syrian refugee than any American Congressperson that wishes to extend a no-fly zone over Syria or fund more wars worldwide that create even more refugees.

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