Was Jesus White? Are You Sure?
I decided against posting something about the end of the world. It really hasn’t been on my radar. (For the reason read Mark 13: 32) I still bought Christmas presents and paid my mortgage.
I’ve been cognating Jesus’ birth. The cattle are lowing—it’s in the air! The word “incarnation” means enfleshed. As in God-enfleshed-in-Jesus. Since I’ve been encouraging people to talk about the nativity story (the historical circumstances of said enfleshment) while having coffee or at the rink, how about a discussion starter:
Was Jesus white?
Hopefully the inquiry will come full circle to why it matters at Christmas.
The handsome European?
When I was growing up, he was certainly white in all the pictures I saw. He also looked well-manicured with long hair and wore bed sheets.
I also noticed that Jesus is usually depicted in the ethnicity of the artist. For a general example of this phenomena take a look at Michelangelo’s fresco of God creating Adam in the Sistine chapel. I’ve discovered pictures of Jesus from Africa where he is very dark. I’ve seen pictures where he looks like he’s from Japan or Iran. Or that he’s one of North America’s Indigenous peoples. In his famous book about trying to discover the “historical Jesus,” medical missionary, God-thinker and musician-extraordinaire Albert Schweitzer penned that looking for the authentic Jesus is like looking down a deep well: You think you discover something when you realize it’s your own reflection looking back up at you.
Doesn’t the Bible tell us?
But as I grew and read I noticed something: There’s not a single description of what Jesus looks like in the New Testament. And no Galilee photo directory.
Perhaps the one exception to the “Bible doesn’t say” rule is Isaiah 53: 2. It speaks of a suffering servant, a figure who will hurt on the people’s behalf. A burden-taker. Scholars argue about whether this is the collective people of Israel spoken of in the singular, or one actual person. If we apply it to the Messiah Jesus—as I do along with many other Christians (including some writers in the New Testament)—it says that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
So all those handsome pictures of Jesus are inaccurate. No Brad Pitt here. Based on Isaiah, his looks would be, shall we say… nothing special. At least, nothing special in how our world might understand “special.”
In Oklahoma an artist painted a picture of Jesus that was homely with a misshapen face. It was based on Isaiah 53. People were scandalized. The painting was somehow lost. Hmmm.
But we gotta know something!
If we consult cultural sociologists and archaeologists we would find that as a first century Jew living in that neck of the woods, his skin would have been much darker than we’d expect–at least for those of us who grew up in North American Sunday Schools. (Click here to see an article in PopularMechanics.com for one of the latest depictions.)
Jesus (or more properly “Yeshua,” the ‘e’ sounds like the Canadian “eh” and the emphasis is on the first syllable) would have spoken Galilean Aramaic, been shorter than us (because of diet and other factors) and his hair not as long and flowing as we’re used to. And certainly not blonde. He worked with his hands for the first part of his life—Mark 6: 3 calls him a “carpenter” (the Greek word for carpenter, “tekton,” might more broadly mean ‘builder’ implying skill with wood and stone too). Imagine legs darkened with dust, and hands with callouses. A maker. And a Maker.
I think this is all healthy to acknowledge that there is an ‘otherness’ to Jesus. Yes it’s critical that our relationship with him be personal. But we can’t own him. His face is always partially turned the other way. He’s not our waiter. He’s the beloved stranger who is intimately within us and without of us.
But with respect to his looks, I think it’s on purpose that there isn’t a specific description of what he looks like.
Part of the significance of him being born in a smelly barn in a manger (a barn-yard trough where the animals would eat—talk about ‘unclean’!) to humble, God-fearing parents in an occupied country is that God comes after us wherever we are in need, and that Jesus is for everyone. There is no ‘out of bounds’ for God—it’s all in play; it’s all his creation; it’s all his sacred stomping ground. And he wants all. Don’t limit him. Speak about his looks with concrete certainty and all of a sudden we’d start playing ethnic favourites—again. There seems to be a divine intention at play here: He is the most documented figure in history but you wouldn’t recognize him if you passed him on the street. At least not his skin colour. You’ve got to be looking for something else. Something deeper.
No denomination can own him. No ethnicity can own him. He is not “made” in the usual birds and bees sense of the term. As it says in “O come, all ye faithful,” aluding to an ancient faith statement called the Nicene Creed, he’s “begotten not created.” Begotten by Lord Almighty himself in partnership with a young Jewish woman named Mary.
Jesus is a case of curious DNA: Fully human, fully God. He is for the saints and for the sinners. And when we truly believe, we’re all a bit of both. He is not just for the influential; but for the stepped on. For those who ‘have it together’ and those who ‘are a mess.’ (Who can really tell?) He is within reach—in fact, he is outreaching—to every kind of person or people on earth. Why? Because he is a part of them and they are a part of him.
The “Son of Man”
Jesus refers to himself mostly as the “son of man.” It’s his favourite self-identifier. We call ourselves ‘parent’ or ‘friend.’ Jesus calls himself “son of man.” In the Bible this is sometimes an apocalyptic figure (see Daniel 7), but there is also the suggestion that his humanity is universal. He is the “End” of humanity. And also it’s Start. As such, he could look like your neighbour.
The Perfect Mix
So, was Jesus white? He was a first century Jew from Nazareth–so no. But he’s also Ugandan, Korean, Singhalese and more. All with a 100% blend of God. Add in that he’s a tapestry of all God’s children and we discover that all faces freckle his own. And when you take the path of the wise men and start to seek him–his face starts to turn up in yours too.