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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

The problem with white Jesus
 
Published Wednesday, January 2, 2013 3:30 pm
by Wesley Muhammad, Ph.D.

What color was Jesus? Most American Christians—Black and White—would dismiss this question as both irrelevant and unanswerable as

clientuploads/v38n13photos/WB White jesus 4.jpg
Jesus is often depicted as a white man wiht long hair, but scholars argue that he was short and black.

the Gospels fail to give us a physical description.

The irony is that most of these same Americans in their heart of hearts are pretty confident any way that they know what color Jesus was. They attend churches with images of a tall, long-haired, full bearded White man depicted in stained glass windows or painted on walls, and they return home to the same depictions.

It also seems that America actually has an obsession with the (presumed) color of Christ. Her White Americanized Savior has been exhorted around the world, as recently documented by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey in their book, “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America” (2012).

Tthe world’s most popular and recognizable image of Christ is a distinctly 19th-20th century American creation. Although versions of the “White Christ” appear in European art as early as the 4th century of the Christian era, these images coexisted with other, nonwhite representations.

The popularity of the cult of the Black Madonna and Black Christ throughout Europe is evidence that the European ‘White Christs’ never acquired the authority and authenticity that the White Christ now has globally. This Christ is an American phenomena. Early America rejected the imaging of Christ that characterized European Catholicism.

By the mid-19th century, however, in response to American expansion, splintering during the Civil War and subsequent reconstructing, “Whiteness” took on a new significance and a newly- empowered “White Jesus” rose to prominence. As Blum and Harvey observe:

“Whiteness gave itself a holy face … With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming … The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.”

As America rose to superpower status in the 20th century she became the world’s leading producer and global exporter of White Jesus imagery.

What, then, did Jesus actually look like? Despite the absence of a detailed description of Jesus’ physical appearance in the Gospels, there are non-biblical evidences that allow us to visualize the Son of God.

The first century Jewish writer Josephus (37-100 AD) penned the earliest non-biblical testimony of Jesus.  In his work Halosis or the “Capture (of Jerusalem),” written around 72 A.D., Josephus discussed “the human form of Jesus and his wonderful works.” Biblical scholar Robert Eisler in a classic 1931 study of Josephus’ Testimony was able to reconstruct the unaltered testimony based on a newly-discovered Old Russian translation that preserved the original Greek text. According to Eisler’s reconstruction, the oldest non-Biblical description of Jesus read as follows:

“At that time also there appeared a certain man of magic power … if it be meet to call him a man, [whose name is Jesus], whom [certain] Greeks call a son of [a] God, but his disciples [call] the true prophet … he was a man of simple appearance, mature age, black-skinned (melagchrous), short growth, three cubits tall, hunchbacked, prognathous (lit. ‘with a long face’ [macroprosopos]), a long nose, eyebrows meeting above the nose … with scanty [curly] hair, but having a line in the middle of the head after the fashion of the Nazaraeans, with an undeveloped beard.”

This short, black-skinned, mature, hunchbacked Jesus with a unibrow, short curly hair and undeveloped beard bears no resemblance to the Jesus Christ taken for granted today by most of the Christian world.

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