What ethnic background did Jesus come from?

Jesus was not a white man

I grew up in Australia in a Christian home. There was a picture of Jesus on the wall in my bedroom, I still have it. It's maudlin and pretty cheesy, just like it was common in the 1970s. But as a little girl I loved it. In this picture Jesus looks kind and gentle, he looks down at me lovingly. He is also blond, blue-eyed, and very fair-skinned.

The problem with this is that Jesus wasn't white. Even so, anyone who has ever walked into a western church or visited an art gallery will likely have this picture of them. While there is no real description of Jesus' appearance in the Bible, there can be no doubt that the historical Jesus - the man the Roman state executed in the first century AD - was a dark-skinned Jew from the Middle East .

From a scientific point of view, this is undisputed. But many millions of Christians gathering for Easter this week seem to be ignoring this fact.

On Good Friday, Christians go to churches to pray to Jesus and to remember his death on the cross. In most of these churches, Jesus is portrayed as a man who looks like a European or Anglo-Australian - a white man with whom other Europeans and Anglo-Australians can easily identify.

What happens when the role models are always only white

Who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ? Jim Caviezel, an American actor whose mother is from Ireland. We can also see the European influence in the depiction of a white-skinned Jesus in some of the most famous works of art of the crucifixion of Jesus - by Peter Paul Rubens, Matthias Grünewald, Giotto di Bondone. Does it matter what skin color Jesus is depicted with? Naturally! Because we know that role models influence our society and the people in it.

Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o rose to fame when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2013 for her role in 12 Years a Slave. Since then, Nyong'o has repeatedly spoken in interviews about her feeling of inferiority as a young woman, because all ideals of beauty around her were fair-skinned women. It wasn't until she saw the fashion world court the Sudanese model Alek Wek that she realized that black can also be beautiful.

But if we realize that it is important to portray ethnic and physical diversity in the media - why do we continue to let the images of a pale Jesus dominate in churches and art?

The problem with the image of God

There are many churches and cultures that portray Jesus as a brown or black man. Orthodox Christians usually have a very different visual language than European art. When you enter a church in Africa, you are likely to spot a black Jesus on the wall.

However, we rarely see such representations in the Protestant and Catholic churches of the West. And that's our bad luck. Because so the mainstream of the Christian community can pretend that its devotion to Jesus and compassionate respect for people who look different have nothing to do with one another.

I would even say that we draw a line in our heads: You can have deep affection for Jesus at the same time, but have little compassion for people from the Middle East. The idea of ​​Jesus as a white man also has an impact on the theological claim that man was created in the image of God. If God is always depicted as white, then the standard human is white, and such thinking underpins racism.

According to the Luther Bible, Genesis 1:27 says: “And God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; and created them a man and a woman. ”What this is all about, the Bible Project explains in this five-minute video:


In the past, Jesus washed white helped make Christians among the worst advocates of anti-Semitism. Today I see a similar effect in my native Australia in the fact that Australians of British descent still think they are better than the native Aborigines.

Easter as an opportunity for a change of mind

This Easter I wonder what our church and society would be like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown. If we were to face the reality that the body hanging on the cross was a brown body: a broken, tortured and publicly executed person by a repressive regime.

How could it change our attitude when we could see that what happened to the historical Jesus, his unjust imprisonment, abuse and execution, has something in common with the experience of indigenous people or asylum seekers - and little in common with the lives of those in power have in the church and should represent Christ?

Perhaps this is the most radical idea of ​​them all: what would change if we were reminded more often that the man whom Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and savior of the whole world was not a white but a Jew from the Middle East?

Robyn J. Whitaker is a New Testament Lecturer at the University of Divinity, Melbourne. She is a Bible scholar and historian with a particular interest in the contemporary use (and abuse) of the Bible in debates about sexuality, gender, and ethics.

This article was published in English by The Conversation. You can read the original article here. Translation and production: Vera Fröhlich; Editor: Theresa Bäuerlein; Photo editor: Martin Gommel.