White Jesus is controversial in some circles.
Regularly, I see complaints to articles which picture ‘White Jesus’ that ‘JESUS ISN’T WHITE!’; sometimes those articles are mine. I like to illustrate articles about Jesus or Jesus stories with images of Jesus in the context of the story being discussed.
I would love to use illustrations with a brown or Middle Eastern Jesus, but they are virtually nonexistent (so far as I can discover)–especially within contexts of biblical stories. On the other hand, the old European masters produced a wealth of art of Jesus in nearly every imaginable biblical context; but they feature a white, European Jesus.
Why did they do that? Because they were white Europeans and identified with Jesus as one of them. And I don’t blame them.
Middle Eastern Jesus
In an historical sense, Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew. Many of us have known this forever, but this realization became even more extensive after medical artist Richard Neave’s work was published.
Wishing to discover what a typical Jewish male looked like in Jesus’ time, Neave and his team began with three skulls from that period. They X-rayed them and then used special computer programs to determine the thickness of soft tissue associated with the skulls. Thus they were able to recreate the muscles and skin for the skulls to produce a digital 3D reconstruction of the face.
Finally, they created a cast of the skull and used the detail from the computer reconstruction to complete the face. To determine hair length and color, they used drawings from the first century found at local archeological sites. From analysis of other remains, they determined that the typical height of Jewish men of that time was 5:1, and they weighed an average of about 110 pounds.
The BBC released photos in 2001, but Neave was not totally happy with them as the eyes were too light in color and the expression was odd; some thought the expression made the images look perplexed.
However, the BBC photos were a big hit with the public when news magazines reported on them. The photos circulated widely, sometimes claiming to be the face of Jesus; but they don’t actually represent the face of Jesus but of a typical Jewish man of that time and place—short with dark eyes and complexion and with short curlish hair.
Here are two of the photos:
Here are other images that might be used to illustrate a Middle Eastern Jesus:
Notice that none of them resemble the familiar Warner Sallman image of Jesus we all grew up with in the United States.
If any of you know any good sources, please share them in comments below.
Identifying with Jesus as One of Us
In an historical sense, Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, but in another sense Jesus is not bound by race and culture–he speaks to all of us. In the Gospels, he identifies with a wide range of people.
It should come as no surprise that Europeans depict Jesus as one of us; that is the way we identify with him. And Jesus identifies with us! He identifies with everybody!
This tendency is found in all cultures whether White, Middle Eastern, Black, Asian, or any other culture. Everyone relates to Jesus as being one of them. And they should.
There is no theological reason why we must only think of Jesus as a short, brown, Middle Eastern Jew, because his message is not tied to his own culture–it is a universal message, though his stories reflect the context of his culture and time.
The Outrage of Black Jesus
Some white believers today complain that ‘Jesus is not white!’
Do you remember the 1960s and 70s? I lived them, and one interesting development was the appearance of many depictions of Black Jesus. Along with that development came an outcry from many white people that ‘Jesus is not Black!’ This protest was humorous to me, a white college student, because I knew Jesus wasn’t Black; but I also knew he wasn’t white either, and they were not protesting White Jesus–White Jesus was fine.
I got quite a chuckle from it. And I was very sympathetic to Black Jesus because I felt Black people should be able to identify with Black Jesus, just as white people should be able to identify with White Jesus, because Jesus is not limited to the Middle East.
Black Jesus art continues to flourish. Here are some very old depictions of Black Jesus. The first is from a church in Rome and dates from 530 A.D. The second is said to be the earliest known painting of Jesus and the Apostles, now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
Click an image for a larger view.
Here are some of my favorites. Notice the similarity of the first three to Warner Sallman’s White Jesus above. Click any image below to open the click-through gallery for larger images:
And here are some depictions of Jesus from other cultures. Click any image to open the click-through galleries.
Native American Jesus:
People of various cultures don’t celebrate Jesus as one of our own because we are racist or because we don’t realize he was a brown Middle Eastern Jew but because we feel, appropriately, that he IS one of our own.
I hope you have enjoyed these images, and remember: if you know where I can find more images of Middle Eastern Jesus, please let me know in comments below!