What Ethnicity Was Jesus … And Why Does It Matter?

What Ethnicity Was Jesus … And Why Does It Matter?

What ethnicity was Jesus?
The word 'Jesus' carved in black and white.

According to a YouGov poll, it’s getting less socially acceptable for people to portray Jesus’ ethnicity as white. Whilst 66-67% of those aged 50 and above in the UK think a white Saviour is okay, only 51% of 18–24-year-olds agree.

Why are young people uncomfortable with showing Jesus as white?

And why is Jesus’ ethnicity even important?

Let’s explore just that.

What Ethnicity was Jesus? Was He White?

If you go into your average church in the UK, you will likely be greeted by an image of our Lord which is far from historically accurate. White, sometimes even blue-eyed; painters throughout Western history (in a rather ironic twist) have made Jesus in their own image instead of the Middle Eastern Jew He was.

Not only that, but they’ve often then given Him the historical equivalent of a flattering snapchat filter to boot.

Take a look at this BBC article which compares a CGI ‘realistic’ representation of what Jesus might have looked like based on His Jewish ethnicity and the historical context of His time, with Western portrayals of Him. The CGI image they came up with, unlike for example da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (which some say was based on a male lover) is hardly an archetype of Western standards of male beauty.

Nor should it be remotely surprising if Jesus were unattractive – by whatever standards of physical beauty you choose to measure Him by.

God has never cared much about physical appearance, but physical appearance has always been a human idol.

Why is ‘Photoshopping’ Jesus a Problem?

Is it wrong that the attributes celebrated by a particular culture end up being projected onto God?

Perhaps it is an attempt for people within that culture to honour God?

This may be so.

No doubt they thought they were doing Jesus a favour by giving Him what they thought was a bit of an Airbrush.

The effects however are ultimately damaging. Jesus came in a lowly form by worldly terms. He was a peasant and a carpenter’s son. He was poor and ordinary-looking (according to the prophet Isaiah) and born in a stable. All of these things were the case for a reason. He was meant to be approachable, to everyone who had some humility about them. It seems very plausible to me that He didn’t come down with the chiseled jawline of a Greek god because the whole point of what He came to say was that the Kingdom of God was for the humble, for the meek and not necessarily for the great in worldly terms.

In an interview Muhammed Ali had with Michael Parkinson we can see how this distortion has caused real damage. Muhammed Ali described how he turned from Christianity because it seemed to him to be a ‘white’ religion. In the pictures of Jesus he saw in church as a child, Jesus was white. Given the racial tensions he experienced this meant that Jesus was not an approachable figure to him.

Correcting Western Portrayals of Jesus’ Ethnicity

The problems being grappled with here over the representations of God are nothing new. In fact, in medieval times theologians had the same concerns. How can we think about God, represent God, make God intelligible to ourselves without mistaking metaphor for the real thing?

Some even suggested a process of via negativa – talking about God through what He wasn’t instead of what He was so that we wouldn’t fall into that trap. Others argued that we should represent God’s attributes to our minds by comparing Him to things that were decidedly unappealing – the logic being that we were hardly likely to mistake God for His representation, if we compared Him to something disgusting like a slithery, slimy worm, for example (which is hard to argue with … I myself don’t find the idea of being a worm-worshiper remotely attractive).

Nowadays, you can see Christian writers, artists and filmmakers trying to resolve the issue in other ways.

William P. Young’s The Shack

William P. Young, who wrote the book which was recently turned into a film The Shack tries to resolve the problem by portraying Jesus as Middle Eastern – which historically He was – and God the Father as a black woman.

Of course, for many people this was seen as borderline blasphemous.

I disagree and instead think that the book was rather carefully crafted in order to avoid being so.

God the Father is only portrayed as a black woman for the first part of the book – whilst the main character (Mack) is still dealing with the wounds he has from his bad relationship with his earthly father. The idea is that as long as the conception of a father in his mind is so bad as to impact his image of his Heavenly Father, God the Father presents Himself as a woman. Once some of these issues have been healed – He’s presented as a black man. In doing so, we’re challenged to remind ourselves that any means we might use to represent God to our human perceptions will be flawed.

In part, this is because no metaphor can fully encapsulate who God is. The Bible, after all, uses a whole range of beautifully contradictory metaphors to try to help us grasp Him. Sometimes He’s a fire, sometimes a potter, sometimes a shepherd and other times something as surprising as a mother hen – but He’s also none of these things.

Aside from this however, no means of representing God will ever be perfect because we as humans so often bring trauma or other negative associations rooted in the extremely broken world we inhabit to our perceptions of these representations. For some people who have had terrible relationships with fathers, picturing God as a father results in them thinking of Him as all kinds of horrible things. For others, like Muhammed Ali, picturing God as white is similarly damaging given all the terrible things he witnessed white people doing.

Prompts for Thought

And so I now hope to challenge you.

How do you picture God?

How might this picture be flawed?

Are you giving God attributes that are nowhere to be found in the Bible?

Are you putting Him through a filter based on the things you yourself value but God Himself might not?

What secret idols might your image of God reveal to you?

Would thinking of God as a worm for a while be a useful thought experiment to help counteract the wrong associations you have of Him?

I’d love to know what you think in the comments!

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