Christians: You Know Jesus Wasn’t White, Right?

Christians: You Know Jesus Wasn’t White, Right?
Image: Hans Zatzka

I grew up in a Christian home, where a photo of Jesus hung on my bedroom wall. I still have it. It is schmaltzy and rather tacky in that 1970s kind of way, but as a little girl I loved it. In this picture, Jesus looks kind and gentle, he gazes down at me lovingly. He is also light-haired, blue-eyed, and very white.

The problem is, Jesus was not white. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’ve ever entered a Western church or visited an art gallery. But while there is no physical description of him in the Bible, there is also no doubt that the historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century CE, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

This is not controversial from a scholarly point of view, but somehow it is a forgotten detail for many of the millions of Christians who will gather to celebrate Easter this week.

On Good Friday, Christians attend churches to worship Jesus and, in particular, remember his death on a cross. In most of these churches, Jesus will be depicted as a white man, a guy that looks like Anglo-Australians, a guy easy for other Anglo-Australians to identify with.

Think for a moment of the rather dashing Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. He is an Irish-American actor. Or call to mind some of the most famous artworks of Jesus’ crucifixion – Ruben, Grunewald, Giotto – and again we see the European bias in depicting a white-skinned Jesus.

Does any of this matter? Yes, it really does. As a society, we are well aware of the power of representation and the importance of diverse role models.

After winning the 2013 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o shot to fame. In interviews since then, Nyong’o has repeatedly articulated her feelings of inferiority as a young woman because all the images of beauty she saw around her were of lighter-skinned women. It was only when she saw the fashion world embracing Sudanese model Alek Wek that she realised black could be beautiful too.

If we can recognise the importance of ethnically and physically diverse role models in our media, why can’t we do the same for faith? Why do we continue to allow images of a whitened Jesus to dominate?

Image: Icon Productions

Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

Many churches and cultures do depict Jesus as a brown or black man. Orthodox Christians usually have a very different iconography to that of European art – if you enter a church in Africa, you’ll likely see an African Jesus on display.

But these are rarely the images we see in Australian Protestant and Catholic churches, and it is our loss. It allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different.

I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.

Historically, the whitewashing of Jesus contributed to Christians being some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism and it continues to manifest in the “othering” of non-Anglo Saxon Australians.

This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would our church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured, and publicly executed by an oppressive regime.

How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?

Perhaps most radical of all, I can’t help but wonder what might change if we were more mindful that the person Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and saviour of the entire world was not a white man, but a Middle Eastern Jew.

Robyn J. Whitaker, Bromby Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity College, University of Divinity

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • Also, most of the depictions shows him as a thin, almost frail looking guy. But scholars think he was pretty big and buff. Jesus was a carpenter from a young age until he was 30 (?). Carpenters back in his day involved a lot of heavy lifting and hard work i.e. no power tools. Think of what you would normally consider as a medieval blacksmith and that would be what Jesus’ physique would have been. Jesus would have made and maintained his own tools, walked out to the nearest forest and chopped down trees for timber and then dragged them back to his home/workshop and then worked on them. Growing up in a poor family, he wouldn’t have had animals to help him carry timber.

    Also, people knew straight away that he was a carpenter when he went preaching in different towns, because of his physique.

        • Djbear you have such weird, unsubstantiated claims that have little to do with what we do know of how the Bible came to be. You do know that there are partial copies of Old Testament books surviving from at least the 7th Century BC… aka 100’s of years before Jesus came onto the scene…
          Unless your committee lived for a very, very, very long time?
          There is always some debate of authourship amongst scholars particularly with some books of the Bible where the author is not mentioned, but I can tell you that I have not yet come across any scholar who takes seriously a teenagers Reditt idea that everything was written by a committee of priests.

          Mate, feel free to dislike Christianity because of content etc, but in the very least get the basics of how we have the Bible correct.

          • The fragments referring to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he theoretically lived/died. The bits you are referring to were written hundreds or thousands of years after the events they also speak of. There is not a single document that exists that was recorded within a century of the event they speak of. Get YOUR basics right too.

          • As I replied below:
            Full copies of Old Testament books 100’s of years before Jesus. Oldest fragment copy of the New Testament is AD125… a fragment of John’s gospel (within 100yrs of Jesus who died around AD30-33 from memory).
            It is harder to have blind faith in him not having been a real person than in jusy believing the simple wildly-attested-to fact that he did…

          • Why is it so easy for you to believe every other religion is wrong but yours? I only believe in one less religion than you.

          • No juststu82, all I have merely presented is a smattering of the evidence which is very strong for the existence of a real Jesus, which you seem (I might be wrong) to be ignorant of and then prejudiced about – why?
            So what that you “*believe in* one less religion”? You still are taking a *faith-based* position that you cannot positively “prove” just as there is nothing I can say or do to “prove” my own beliefs (merely appeal to evidences that it rationally explains reality & history, explains human experience etc).
            But I do wish that you would genuinely examine these evidences and the arguments for rather than prejudicely dismiss (that is not proper scientific enquiry). If you can voice your opponents own arguments in a way that they agree with, then begin to show how they are wrong… that I respect (and am still striving to do myself to be honest, it’s easy + lazy to caricature…).
            – thanks for the chat m8, u can have the last word if u like 🙂
            Cheers m8, have a good rest of ur week!

          • I was a youth pastor in a church for several years. I’m pretty sure I know my background. I’m also an archaeology graduate so Roman history is a pretty big part of my background. Why should I believe you can offer more than an in depth historical and philosophical study that I did over several years for a job.

    • I have a co-worker from Morocco here at my plant. He is whiter than I am, and I am Swiss.
      There is a guy from Iraq at the same plant. he has a bit of a tan, but he too, looks “white”. Many Turks and Syrians are just as white as any person from around the Mediterranean would be.
      Like – Italians or Greeks.
      People from Northwest Europe indeed are whiter than most Europeans. But nobody expects Jesus to look like an Irishman.

    • When did you learn to use such fine intellectual tools such as loaded questions? You seem to like a little bit of confirmation bias as well. A true scholar of history.

        • If you really are the pinacle of historical scholarship then you may wish to look in more detail at that supposed Mithras copying rather than believe everything you hear (which actually is blind/unwarranted faith FYI). Otherwise most *other* historical scholars who didn’t do history on Reditt or the latest Christian-bashing book merely think of you as being prejudiced to believe “lies, myth and false hope”.

        • Nero blamed followers of the crucified Christ for burning down Rome… but he was stupid because (according to 21thC atheists)…there was no Jesus Christ.
          Full copies of Old Testament books 100’s of years before Jesus. Oldest fragment copy of the New Testament is AD125… a fragment of John’s gospel (within 100yrs of Jesus who died around AD30-33 from memory).
          In face there is such a glut of historical evidence for Jesus that it actually puts evidence for other historical figures of ancient times to shame! I am glad that we don’t have the original documents otherwise they would be worshipped superstutiously by some!

  • Its ironic that jesus is the original Middle Eastern Asylum seekers. Makes all these supposed “Christians” who are against ME Immigration look stupid.

    • Different topic dude (and I am in general for ME immigration). But yes, sure, some Christians are still yet racist or hard-hearted against asylum seekers if that is what you are also implying.

    • …but you are right re the irony of Jesus parents fleeing to seek asylum in Egypt to escape Herod. Sometimes Christians (yes inc. me) are driven by fear of the outsider rather than compassion.

          • Yes, but as far as I have seen historians don’t give this document as much weight/historical credence as this was written by one man 500yrs after Jesus (who claimed a revelation that something else happened to Jesus) – much later than other claimed eye-witness accounts or historical references/mentions.

          • yeah. figured as much. still interesting that Muslims would refer to him in their holy book though.

          • Oh, good. The quran is the wrong, the bible is right but I’m arrogant for believing on one less god than you. By the way, you ran away from our conversation where I was challenging you. If you cant deal with a challenge then your faith is shakier than you pretend it is. I know, up until I became an atheist I was a youth pastor and co-pastor to my church leader. So I know a little about blind faith and a lot about being challenged.

          • Hey @juststu82, lets both keep this civil, I don’t hate you man 🙂 I’m studying part-time to God-willing one day be a pastor 🙂
            I haven’t intentionally run away from the other conversation, I have had other commitments but I actually thought I had answered the things you raised? Ie by pointing out merely a few of the many early extra-biblical sources we have for the existance of Jesus Christ as a real person (you replied to @skinja saying “No” – implying that there were no other sources). We can argue about reliability of each and every one but it’s not correct to say that there is none. Maybe I did not answer your Mithras comment well enough? Let me know if that’s it or other… I will be pretty hectic at homefor a few days but I will endeavour to answer on a lunch break!

          • You need to be willing to discuss hard topics if you want to be a pastor. I know because I supported my pastor and was a youth pastor (the adult leading the youth group in study, etc). I was a senior member for years and people only ask harder questions the higher you go. At no point have I been uncivil so reflect on whether you are capable of having the courage to have a frank conversation and a philosophical debate which is all this is. If you cant handle this right now then a senior in a church is not a job for you. With data showing more people having no religion, the job of a pastor is getting harder. Good luck champ and learn to deal with the hard questions now.

  • @juststu82 – mind if i ask what happened to go from Pastor to Athiest? Get burnt out, sick of double standards, never really had faith to begin with? not trying to pigeonhole, just genuinely interested to hear others experiences on leaving the church.

    • I investigated answers to questions I asked and read widely outside of the “prescribed” texts of the church. I know it is common to label atheist as angry former Christians but it is far from the truth. I simply researched and found the answers were lacking. Eventually and scientifically I came to the conclusion that God never existed and the more I continue to follow historical and philosophical research, the idea of a central controlling mechanism to manage large societies is validated. There is no evidence, actual real evidence of a God in any religion and operating as a scientist, I cannot simply accept something without evidence. To be honest, I mourned my loss of faith, I enjoyed having it. I was angry that I was lied to and it cost me a lot of time and I never stood up to some bad actions because I accepted them as, how “we act” as Christians. I did not enjoy what it does to some people and how it causes us to act towards people when the reality our time is finite but I can’t force a change to church culture. I’m not the only one. Of the other people I served as youth pastor alongside, none are still Christian and all for the same reason ie we read widely and came to the conclusion that logically, no God exists.

      • fair enough. thanks for responding. i feel as though im on a similar path. I was never a pastor. was in leadership for a few years. some rough stuff happened in my own life. couldnt fathom going to church anymore due to some social issues and mental health issues. leaning more towards not believing than i am towards believing. im not a scientist, but i like science and like to know the why behind the what in all things. and as you have said evidence, or lack of evidence would suggest no God. but there are a only 2 or 3 things in my whole time as a Christian that i havnt been able to explain scientifically. and yes, you could easily say that it’s just due to a lack of knowledge, or its construct of my own mind. im not sure yet. still searching, still deciding. each day i feel less stressed about, less guilty, less worried and im thankful for that. but i also havnt spent a lot of focused time working it out either. i suppose that’s what makes life’s journey what it is though.

        • It’s not a quick journey. Two things to prepare for, 1) your friends of faith may abandon you when/if you decide path is not with the church, mind did, I tried yo stay connected but they decided that my lack of faith was enough to end friendships. 2) you will mourn the loss of faith, especially if it was a big part of your life. You may be angry and you may be a bit stressed about the realities ie death, the way you may have acted and treated people. That being said, the atheist community is genuinely, ethically good and supportive. I fight for equality, freedom (including religious freedom) and other good causes because I want to do the best I can with my one life.

          • Yeah, i have already experienced a lot of this. its been a few years since i last set foot in a church for the sake of church. my wife is still friends with a few people from church, ive burnt a lot of the bridges during my time of going through bad social anxiety. there are but a few people i genuinely miss and wish i saw more of. i’ve been angry, i’ve been bitter, i’ve been hurt, i’ve been sad only in the last few months have i decided to stop living by guilt and man is it freeing. my next step is to stop living selfishly which i have done for a lot of years as i can see how its messing with me and more importantly the impact it has on my wife and kids. my wifes parents are devout Christians, her brothers are also Christians but i wonder how much of it is just habit, my wife is reall struggling with the concept that i may not possibly believe anymore as she has always been a Christian since she was little, where as i was from the age of 15 to about 29ish (im now 33). it has been a long and often painful journey, mainly due to other factors though. but, one foot in front of the other is all i need to worry about for now.
            thanks for the input again.

          • The other side is fucking beautiful, man. Honestly, grab yourself a good book on evolution or the universe and read it without the idea of a god. I’m in love with science reading now and knowing there are questions, big questions to be answered is exciting. Oh, and once you get over the death/no heaven idea, realise that every atom you are was once stardust and will be again. That is pretty damn cool.

          • The reality is, science is much bigger than a small, two thousand year old patch of Syria. Once I started reading about earth history, evolution, etc I realised that the concept of God kept my thinking so small and confined. Honestly, be excited for your future.

          • By the way, I have anxiety care of a hostile workplace/breakdown. I challenge myself to be scared abd have achieved far more after this period than before. Embrace the adrenaline, take a big breath and live brother.

          • yeah, as i mentioned, im always intrigued by ideas of hows and whys and have done a lot of casual reading of articles and things like that over the years and feel as though i’m fairly open minded as i am interested in truth. im definitely in the throws of conflict of mind as i cant ignore what i’ve experienced. and to be truthful, im scared of the what ifs? and the fallouts on my marriage also. it will be a slow process i think.

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