Given the title, take into consideration that I’m a Christian black man living in the USA. I’m married to but one wife, with whom I have three beautiful children, and we belong to a diverse church home. And I am active in my community as a somewhat successful junior executive in corporate America, mentoring others in that role and in the church. Yet, even I have some racist tendencies, believe it or not. To be perfectly honest, before my conversion to Christ I viewed the white race in very negative ways. Some twenty plus years back when I was a teenager, one of my good friends (also African American) asked me this question:
“Was Jesus Black?”
This question hurled us down a shallow rabbit hole as we began to swiftly blame “the white man” for all the propaganda of a white Jesus. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m honestly humbled to consider my current situation. Beset with recent social injustice, pandemic woes, and political strife, I’ve wrestled to keep my faith in Christ as the center of my life. As much as I strive to love my neighbor, I still fight off that bitter root when it comes to many aspects of Western culture. Perhaps some of you can relate, or you at least may be able to understand a bit of my struggle described in this article.
When I was 18 years old, I began to study the Holy Bible. This led to me deciding to get much more serious about this whole Christian thing, and soon after I found myself repenting and getting baptized into Christ. At once I became overwhelmed with this unquenchable thirst for knowledge, wanting to know more about God’s Word, the history of Israel, and even what the deal was with Islam and Judaism. The more I studied, the more I learned. And one day a memory struck me, a memory from that pro-black Jesus dialogue was stirred as I viewed a DreamWorks movie called The Prince of Egypt.
What a fantastic movie! And I could not help thinking to myself, “Wow. These people are actually brown!” For the first time perhaps, I had a strong yet uneasy feeling in my gut telling me that something was wrong. Something was wrong with me! First off, whenever I had pictured mentally characters like Moses, or Jethro, or even the Egyptian Pharaoh, from childhood had always imagined these Biblical characters as being white. Certainly not brown – I mean they are Hebrews and Egyptians, right? Why were they brown? All the images I had ever seen of Biblical characters in every book, painting, play and movie up to that point were, well, white.
Then an opposite thought hit me soon afterwards. Thank God for geography and good ol’ ancient world history that pointed me to a map. I realized again (even though I had learned this in high school), that Egypt and Israel, along with many other countries listed in the Old Testament were located (and still are) in the Middle East and North-Eastern Africa. Another shocker hit me: Jesus and the Hebrew people were probably not black either! I asked myself a strange question: was Jesus (and all those other Biblical heroes) Middle Eastern? What???
Now at this time in college, I had a handful of Arab and Israeli friends. Most were Muslim or Jewish (by religion), and to be honest, I respected their spiritual discipline. Most of them prayed and fasted way more than I did or any of my Christian friends did. Most of them also served the poor right in their own communities more than I did as well. In a way, I admired their spiritual fervor, although I held fast to my Lord Jesus Christ and my faith in Him being the Son of God – sent to the world so that the manifold grace of God could be given freely to mankind. The means to salvation was our key difference, yet I could not help but love and appreciate my Arab and Israeli friends.
This led me to grow more and more curious about Hebrew heritage – racially speaking. My brown skinned Arab friends would not exactly call themselves black, nor would a handful of my olive-colored Israeli friends (not Jews from America) call themselves white. So, I dove into more Bible study, including both the ancestry and geography of Abraham and the Patriarchs. This connected me to most of the major OT characters right up to the birth of Jesus and his genealogy in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It was truly an eye-opening study that led me to a firmer conclusion that Jesus (and the Hebrew race) of the Bible were indeed closely related to my Arab and Israeli friends, shared their ethnic roots, and were no doubt of Semitic heritage.
Over time, I came to realize just how much Western culture had affected my image of Christ, and my image of the Bible. At one time as a teen, my black friends and I thought Christianity was the “white man’s religion” since all the players in the Bible were white. As a Christian, it disturbs me deeply to think about people of color being turned off to Jesus by the portrayal of Christianity’s roots as being grounded in people with white skin. This is not simply an academic discussion, as I hope you can see.
What a Deceptive and Divisive Concept!
We would have been more accurate in saying Christianity is a “Middle Eastern religion” that spread to Europe, and then to America later! Now much study and analysis of this Hebrew heritage topic has been done and done again. Most objective history, geographic data, and forensic study point to Semitic origins being shared among peoples of Arab and Hebrew descent. The nations of the Middle East are indeed closely related. I had to wonder why then in America and Europe especially, are these Hebrew people most always depicted as Caucasian?
This pointed me to some famous works from the Renaissance period. C’mon, I’m talking about the likes of Da Vinci (The Last Supper) and Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel ceiling) and many others. It’s a paradox to me: the blessing of artistic genius combined with the curse of racial distortion. How bittersweet – yet when I consider the sociopolitical issues dating back to the Middle Ages when Europe and the Middle East were at war off and on for roughly 400 years (the Crusades), I had to ask a nationalistic question:
Would I want my spiritual heroes portrayed as the people of my nation or like those of my enemy’s nation?
The tension aroused by this question seems to be alive and well today. The majority of people will naturally toss aside history, geography, ancestry, and the like for comfort. Comfort is more important than Biblical accuracy even in American Christianity. I, a black guy, have even been conditioned by this comfort. My goal in stating this is not to offend my white brothers and sisters in Christ, but it is to call uncomfortable attention to the issue at hand (still). Most churches continue to don pictures of a Caucasian Jesus, and European-featured Hebrews: Moses, David, Abraham and Noah all shown as fair-skinned, straight brown-haired characters, some aged with long white beards.
I wonder how many souls inside and outside of America could be brought to Christ if he were viewed as a medium brown skinned male with coarse black hair and Middle Eastern features?
Arguably (even objectively) this image of Jesus is more Biblically accurate. Western culture should not define the racial heritage of the Hebrew people of the Bible – the Bible should.
So, to answer the title question: No, Jesus was not black. Nor was He white.
He and his ancestors were indeed Middle Eastern, much closer to an Arabian person than we in the West care to admit. Isaiah still rings in my ears, “He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isaiah 53:3).
I hope some who read this long for Unity and I hope many long for Diversity.
But I really hope that we, even us Americans, can learn to embrace the Bible and learn to love this truer image of Christianity. It matters, in more ways than one.
A forensic science CGI-produced image of Jesus Christ (in contrast to Renaissance art)