Was Jesus White?

To some, ‘was Jesus white?’ is a stupid question, up there with ‘do birds fly?’ and ‘is grass green?’ But to others, it is vitally important. In fact, at no other point in history are more books being written on what Jesus looked like.[1] Was he white? Was he black? Who was he? Who is he?


On one level, we should not be surprised that Jesus’ old question of “who do people say that I am?”[2] has taken such a superficial turn. The colour of a person’s skin is just that – superficial. However, we are living in superficial times when a person can be reduced to their Facebook profile and twitter comments.


That said, there are deeper issues. One being the recent and serious events of colour discrimination. For example, the slavery of Africans on the basis of colour and the later 1960s struggle for black people to have equal rights in the US has prompted some to ask, who does Jesus represent? Does a white Jesus only represent white people? Does Jesus understand suffering? Is Jesus for me? Colour has become more than mere colour – identity is now attached.


This is relatively new. The historian Bernard Lewis, noticed that in Islamic writings immediately after the death of Muhammad, descriptions of people became narrowed and fixed to mainly “black”, “red” and “white”. [3] Jesus, in those writings, is largely described as “white” and “red”.[4] Muhammad is described as a “white man[5] and there is a warning that “anyone who says that the Prophet was black should be killed.”[6]


This is so different from Bible descriptions, which generally relate to a person’s nation and tribe. For Jesus, we know he was a Jewish man, born and raised in the Middle East. His colour is not mentioned at all!


Isaiah, a man whose God-inspired writings about Jesus, stated:


He had no dignity or beauty to make us take notice of him. There was nothing attractive about him... he willingly gave his life and shared the fate of evil men. He took the place of many sinners and prayed that they might be forgiven.”[7]


The focus of the Bible is never the colour of Jesus’ skin, but who he is and what he came to do.


We can see this very clearly in early Christian art. In Ethiopian art, Jesus resembles an Ethiopian. In Syriac art, Jesus looks like a Syrian. In Indian art, Jesus seems to be Indian. In Chinese art, Jesus looks Chinese. And in European art, Jesus resembles the majority of the population – white European. It follows that if you grow up in a place where European culture plays a significant role, you are likely to see pictures of a white Jesus. But as my Ethiopian friend told me, he grew up thinking Jesus was black! God really doesn’t care either way.


What God does care about is that we understand something of his profound love for us and our profound need for him. That’s the heart of the Christian message and it applies to us all, whatever our colour.


This is an adaptation of an article first appearing on Premier Youthwork Magazine, May 2018 ed., titled “What Does Yellow Taste Like?


[1] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=White+Jesus%2C+Black+Jesus&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CWhite%20Jesus%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2CBlack%20Jesus%3B%2Cc0

[2] Mark 8:27

[3] Race and Slavery in the Middle East – An Historical Enquiry”, p. 26

[4] Muslim, Book 1, No. 317, 326; Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 54, No. 462

[5] Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 55, No. 649-650

[6]Muhammad Messenger of Allah, Ash-Shifa of Qadi ‘Iyad, Qadi ‘Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley, Madinah Press Inverness, Scotland, 2004, p. 375

[7] Isaiah 53:2, 12 (GNT)

Beautifully carved double sided CopticIcon from Ethiopia.
154 x 120 x 25 mm

Cropped feature image of Ethiopian icon by Ann Porteus

Photo of Jesus sculpture by Scott Rodgerson on UnsplashPainted Jesus







1 thought on “Was Jesus White?

  1. Refreshing stand on colour, it is ethnically based. However there are immense negativity re. particular colours.

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