My search for the origin of the white Jesus
Jesus and his 12 disciples were all Jewish. Peter, one of the disciples Catholics describe as the first pope, was Jewish. The Apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, was Jewish. When it started, Christianity seemed like just another Jewish sect, similar to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.
There is a lot of ethnic diversity in Judaism, including Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews. But if you search online for images of Jesus, most of the results show a white man. If you want to see a Jesus who looks Jewish, Black, Asian or Hispanic, you need to include those specific terms in your search. The default is a white Jesus.
Given the Jewishness of early Christianity, how did we end up with such a white, non-Jewish Jesus? On my recent trip to the Holy Land, I wanted to learn more. I took a picture of every painting I saw of Jesus and the disciples. There were plenty, and in none of the earliest depictions was Jesus portrayed as white.
Throughout Israel, there are many old churches with paintings of Jesus on their walls. Here are just a few:
- Church of All Nations
- Church of the Nativity
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre (seven churches in one building)
- Basilica of the Annunciation
- Gabriel’s Church
- Peter’s Catholic Church
- Church of the Beatitudes
- Church of the Transfiguration
What struck me during my visit was that in all these church paintings, Jesus was brown or bronze. But the depictions of Jesus I’ve seen in European museums always show him as bright white — not antique, ivory, eggshell or off-white, but the color of white milk — although I know there is no way Jesus could have been that white. Using their artistic freedom, what message were the European artists trying to send? They were attempting to communicate the purity of Christ, so they showed him as bright white. God and the angles were white and the top of the hierarchy in terms of godliness. But this sent an additional message about those who were not white: The less white one is, the less pure. Color was being used to communicate good and evil, purity and sinfulness.
The Bible provides very little detail on Jesus’ appearance, but scholars have pretty good sense of how people in the Middle East looked during the first century — and they didn’t have light skin. The iconic images on the walls of ancient churches in Israel show not a Jesus who is Black like an African, nor one who looks like a white person with a tan, but one who is brown or bronze. To me, these paintings reflect the image of Jesus found in the Book of Revelation, which describes him as having “feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace.” The earliest Christian artists painted Jesus as brown or bronze. That’s the Jesus I saw when I visited Israel.
These artists could have painted Jesus as white. Why didn’t they? Richard Stockton writes that given the lack of description of what Jesus looked like, as Christianity spread to Europe, European artists painted Jesus as European in complexion, hair and eyes, using friends and family as models.
Some of the best-known examples are from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. In “The Creation of Adam,” God is portrayed as a white man with a beard. This image is so powerful, that when we are talking about God, we have to explicitly say, “God is not a white man.”
The image of a light-skinned European Christ began to influence other parts of the world through European trade and colonization. There are 16th- and 17th-century pictures of Jesus with Ethiopian and Indian features, but these depictions didn’t come from colonizing nations.
In his video, “10 Biggest Reasons Why Jesus Became White” Leroy Kenton says profitability also played a part. Artists who painted Jesus as white could sell their art to many churches and to Europeans to place in their homes. This further contributed to the popularity of the white Jesus. Kenton also points to documents describing Jesus’ appearance that were later determined to be forgeries. In other words, it was so important for white people to have a white Jesus, they forged documents purporting to be written during Christ’s time describing him as white. Another reason that Europeans depicted Jesus as white, says Kenton, is that European Christians were fighting Middle Eastern Muslims, so they didn’t want to depict Christ as looking more like their enemy than themselves.
In “Why Is The World Filled With Depictions Of A White Jesus When The History Says Otherwise?” Richard Stockton writes:
. . . white Christians were moving aggressively across the globe — colonizing and converting as they went — and they brought images of a white Jesus with them.
For colonizers, white Jesus had a dual purpose. Not only did he represent Christianity — which colonizers hoped to spread — but his fair skin put the colonizers themselves on the side of God. His race helped enforce caste systems in South America and the suppression of indigenous people in North America.
By the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s antisemitism was entrenched in European culture, including the arts. Since Jews were despised and described as heathens, pagans and worse, it was no longer possible to have a Jewish Jesus as the focal point of Christianity. Thus, artists tried to distance Jesus and his parents from their Jewishness.
In “The long history of how Jesus came to resemble a white European,” Anna Swartwood House says:
Scholar Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey argue that in the centuries after European colonization of the Americas, the image of a white Christ associated him with the logic of empire and could be used to justify the oppression of Native and African Americans.
The artists weren’t trying to create an accurate portrait, but to send a message. Some believed that the mark of Cain was that he was black. Or Africans, the descendants of Ham were cursed. White European Christians saw themselves as Christianizing the world, Latin Americans, Asians, Native Americans and especially Africans, who they saw as heathens, savages and primitive. Therefore, since Jesus was the opposite of that, he had to be white.
In colonial Latin America … images of a white Jesus reinforced a caste system where white, Christian Europeans occupied the top tier, while those with darker skin from perceived intermixing with native populations ranked considerably lower.
European Christians used the white Jesus to their advantage. Missions, or the spreading of the Gospel, aligned perfectly with the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny and, more recently, American Exceptionalism.
It’s impossible to ignore the history of antisemitism in Christian Europe and in the Christian church. Anna Swartwood House notes, “antisemitic forces in Europe including the Nazis would attempt to divorce Jesus totally from his Judaism in favor of an Aryan stereotype.”
Race acquired its modern meaning in the field of physical anthropology through scientific racism starting in the 19th century. Now, even science was supporting the superiority of the white race, and thus white Christians had to have a white Jesus, or their whole theory would fall apart.
Then the whiteness of Christ took on a symbolic meaning beyond good versus evil or purity, but who could miss the symbolism that the white man was the savior of the world?
White supremacy via western racism and antisemitism found its way into Christian art, which reinforced the white Jesus.
By 1940, the transition of Jesus was complete with Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” an Aryan-looking Jesus that whites could and did embrace. The “Head of Christ” image was popular in both Black and white churches and used by both Catholic and Protestant publishing companies.
“The Head of Christ came to be included on everything from prayer cards to stained glass, faux oil paintings, calendars, hymnals and night lights,” writes Anna Swartwood House.
In a Washington Post article, Emily McFarlan writes:
The image appeared on pencils, bookmarks, lamps and clocks and was hung in courtrooms, police stations, libraries and schools.
The painting, which has been reproduced a billion times, came to define what the central figure of Christianity looked like for generations of Christians in the United States — and beyond.
Sallman’s painting culminates a long tradition of white Europeans creating and disseminating pictures of Christ made in their own image, which they defended aggressively.
The creation of the white Jesus was antisemitic and racist at its core, as it expunged the role of Africans from the Bible and the Jewish origins of Jesus. As such, the white Jesus is the very foundation of white supremacy. It has clearly been used to drive a wedge between Christians and Jews, as well as between white and Black Christians. It’s no wonder that Sallman’s Jesus — often found in Black churches, Bibles and homes up until the 1960s — came to be so profoundly rejected as a symbol of bigotry. When I first heard of European churches being deeply antisemitic, I didn’t believe it. How could a church be antisemitic when its founder is Jewish, I wondered. Knowing that some German Christians even tried to argue that Jesus was Aryan is nothing short of Nazi propaganda. I am so disgusted by this that I will never look at a white Jesus the same again.