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What Color Was Jesus?

In the midst of all the recent outcries to remove any statue of any figure that had anything to do with racism in America, like Confederate leaders or slaveowners, I’ve also heard of at least one commentator who has called for the removal of any depiction of Jesus as a white man.  According to this commentator, the depiction of Jesus as a lily-white man is not only historically inaccurate—He wasn’t white—it also perpetuates racial oppression.

I don’t know whether or not depictions of Jesus as a white man perpetuate racism—I’ll leave it to others to debate that question.  But the historical question about what color Jesus was is a fairly simple and straightforward one to answer. 

So, what color was Jesus?  Was He white or was He black?

Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew.  We know that ninety-nine plus percent of Jews at the time had a typically dark, Semitic skin tone.  There’s a less than one-percent chance He did have lily-white skin with fiery red hair.  But the vast majority of first-century Palestinian Jews had this dark complexion, somewhat similar to a person of Hispanic decent in our culture.  So, Jesus was neither white nor black!

How else did Jesus look?  The great poet, writer, and historian Thomas Carlyle once remarked that even though he was a man of modest means—at least according to him—he would give a third of his wealth to have a physical description of Jesus.  Then, he would commission someone to make a statue of it and he would have the most precious heirloom of all the ages.

We would love to have a picture of Jesus.  We would love to know what He looked like.  But the Gospels are completely silent about his appearance.  We can guess that Jesus probably had long hair and a beard—that’s how men typically wore their hair.  And, we can guess that He was probably fit, since He was an itinerant preacher walking all over Galilee and Judea.  And, we can guess that He was probably quite thin, even slightly emaciated looking, since the diet back then was quite limited and not substantial at all. 

But beyond this, we have no idea what He looked like.  There isn’t even one verse, one part of a verse, in the Gospels that describes anything about his appearance.  And I think that’s by design.  I think this is intentional, because what matters most about Jesus isn’t His appearance.  What matters most is His character, who He is.  And the Gospels do tell us a lot about who Jesus is.   

He had a personality that was absolutely magnetic.  He seems to be one of those people who, when He looked in your eyes, could stare into your soul.  He had a great sense of humor.  We usually don’t get it because we’re not first-century Palestinian Jews and don’t speak in an Aramaic idiom.  But a lot of what He says in the Gospels is really funny, and, in some cases, absolutely hysterical.   We know that Jesus not only taught about but embodied a breathtaking love, a love which arguably no other human being has ever risen to.  And, even though some of what He did offended people deeply, especially the religious leaders, most of what He did captivated people with His breathtaking love, with crossing boundaries, with being so radically inclusive.

So, we know a lot about Jesus’ character.  The Gospels are chock full with stories, with a narrative, that fleshes out who He was.  And the reason they focus on this, and not His appearance, is because it tells us who God is.  Jesus’ character is the very character of (the transcendent) God

When I was in college, a friend invited me to Sunday Mass at his African American Catholic church.  When I walked into his church I was struck by the Crucifix.  It was stunning, a beautiful depiction of an African American Jesus.  As we celebrated Mass, it dawned on me that for an African American faith community like this, having that crucifix of an African American Jesus enabled them to connect more deeply, more intimately, with Him, which meant that they were enabled to connect more deeply with God.

And then it also dawned on me that in my faith community, which was primarily Irish Catholic, the depictions that I saw around me all the time—pictures of the Sacred Heart, where Jesus was depicted as very light skinned and with light brown hair—were doing the same thing.  My faith community depicted Jesus that way for the same reason—to feel a deeper, more intimate connection with Him, and therefore, with God.    

And that’s not all a bad thing.  Despite some of the excesses—the way it can, at times, lead to feelings of racial superiority—if we recognize that people depict Jesus in many different ways according to their own color as a way of feeling a deeper connection with Him; if we recognize that type of diversity, it reminds us that He’s a transcendent being—He transcends all human distinctions. 

It reminds us that He’s the Creator, of all of us—He created us in all of our wonderous diversity. 

It reminds us that He wants us to love each other the way He loves each and every one of us regardless of our color, or anything else. 

And most of all, it enables us to have that deeper connection with Him so that He can draw us into His perfect, breathtaking love, a love which not only fills us to overflowing and is the best thing ever, better than life itself, but a love which also enables us to love each and every person, to cherish and celebrate all the differences in each other that we see, and find a unity with one another in Him—a unity which is perfect and complete.

So, what do you think Jesus looked like?  Do you think it matters how people depict Him today?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  However you imagine Jesus looked, I pray that you will be drawn into that deeper, more intimate connection with Him so that you will know His perfect, breathtaking love.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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