history Why Is Jesus Depicted As Being White?

Elle Tharp
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Whatever your religious affiliation, it's widely accepted by historians that Jesus, the man, did exist. What hasn't been agreed upon, however, is what Jesus looked like. Since Jesus was a Galilean man who was born and raised in the Middle East, you would think that the common first guess as to what Jesus looked like would be a Middle Eastern man. But nah. Somewhere along the way, Jesus became a white man, and many Western Christians now dogmatically protect this appearance. Considering the long-documented history of racism in Western civilization, it isn't exactly shocking that Jesus is so commonly thought of and depicted as a white man. But how exactly did this phenotypic transformation happen? Like Jesus' "Lost Years," the unknown has created a vacuum for people to fill however they like. Read on to find out more about the specific moments at which Jesus became white.

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The Few Descriptions Of Jesus In The Bible Contradict Each Other

In general, the New Testament gives little description of the appearance of Jesus or anyone else for that matter. The few descriptors that do exist are hardly foolproof evidence, as they describe Jesus in some crazy, not-of-this-world terms.

In John's vision of Jesus in the Book of Revelation: "The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire... His feet were like burnished bronze... His face was like the sun shining at its brightest" (1:14-16). Obviously, this depiction speaks to Jesus less as a human being and more as God, and it doesn't really state his racial make-up other than as a bronzed-footed, white-haired shiny man with fire eyes.

Old Testament descriptions speak of the coming Messiah (which Christians believe to be Jesus) and describe him as "fairer than the children of men" (Psalms 45:2). And a verse in Lamentations believed to refer to Jesus states, "Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more swarthy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: Their visage is blacker than coal" (4:7-8). So, while purer than snow, the Nazarites' visages (AKA their faces) were black; does this give you a clearer picture?

This imagery is most likely meant in a figurative sense, but it gives cause for misinterpretation of the literal image of Jesus. And these descriptions even change depending on the version of the Bible you read.

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Whiteness Is Associated With Purity, And Jesus Was Pure So...

The color white is frequently symbolic of purity in the Bible. Jesus is frequently referred to as "the lamb of god," and the holy spirit is often depicted as a white dove. This long-lasting association between the color white and goodness/purity could be part of the reason Jesus was depicted as white.

Or, alternatively, it could explain a larger misunderstanding of interpreting figurative whiteness from the Bible as a literal light skin tone. Anyone can have a conscience so pure that it's white like snow, and it doesn't necessarily mean their racial appearance is white. The connection between the color white and purity has long been misused to justify racism and slavery.

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Early On, Christians Were Too Persecuted To Create Jesus Representations

After Jesus' death, being his known homie wasn't exactly cool. Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire for several centuries after his death, and followers therefore relied on symbols to represent their religious beliefs and secretly connect with one another. These symbols included the ichthyos, (the Jesus fish still prevalent today), and the Chi-Ro, a monogram of the letters chi (X) and ro (P), the first two letters in the Greek word "Christos," meaning Christ.

Unfortunately for historians, this means that there are virtually zero depictions of Jesus from the time when people actually might have accurately remembered what he looked like. Womp womp.

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The Romans Didn't Exactly Want To Glorify An Oppressed Minority

In the sixth century, Byzantine artists began portraying a white-skinned, middle-hair-parted, bearded Jesus. Why did they do this when the earliest depictions of Jesus show him with a darker complexion? According to Biblical scholar Christena Cleveland, in reality, Jesus would have been an ethnic minority even during his own lifetime. And, even then, "Jews were marginalized by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jewish groups in many imperial cities."

And Jesus wasn't a silent minority either. In the Bible, he's quite the rabble rouser, literally organizing grassroots efforts to aid the poor and needy against the rich and powerful. Probably not the image of God the Roman Empire really wanted to shout from the rooftops. Less radical and less brown made for a better deity in the Roman imagination and directly contributed to the White Jesus so prevalent today.

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Roman Artistic Depictions Became Mainstream

By the 5th century, with Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity, Jesus was all the rage, and artistic depictions began to flourish in the Roman Empire. The classic representation of Jesus today - as a white man with longish brown hair, a beard, and a halo - became prolific under Constantine. As the artwork was mostly being created in Rome, it's likely that they painted their Messiah as appearing similar to themselves, with European features and lighter skin, to deepen their own connection to him.

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Documents Of Questionable Origin Began Describing His Appearance In The Middle Ages

As Christianity became acceptable, and then even popular, people realized they didn't have any true physical renderings of their savior, Jesus Christ. So they did what people do best and started making stuff up.

A forged letter from one Publius Lentulus (circa 14-37 CE) to the Roman senate claims to give a physical description of Jesus, saying he is tall, wavy-haired, rosey-cheeked, and blue-eyed. The only problem is that there's pretty much no way this letter was written at the time it claimed to be, as there was no such Lentulus during this time period, and it includes many phrases and references that place its creation sometime around the 13th century.

Several other supposed ancient descriptions of Jesus arose during this time, but, like the Lentulus letter, they have been dated to the Middle Ages, when artistic depictions of Jesus would have already become commonplace and influential. 

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People Claimed To Have Visions Of Jesus That Made Him White

In addition to the documents claiming to be first-hand accounts of what Jesus looked like, many famous 'miracle images' and visions of Christ popped up around the Middle Ages. The Image of Edessa, for example, supposedly bears the image of Jesus from a towel Christ wiped his face on during his lifetime. But people - being like they are - are phonies, and this towel image, as well as many other famous artifacts claiming to have captured the face of Jesus, are widely dated by historians to the Middle Ages rather than Jesus' lifetime.

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Romans Associated Non-Whites With Non-Believers

By the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire had been replaced with papal authority, and the time period was marked by Crusades (AKA Holy Wars) against Muslim forces in and around the the Holy Land (AKA Jerusalem). The continual religious fighting during this time was between European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims. Therefore, from the perspective of the Christian forces, the non-believers and the enemy were non-white. Despite the fact that Jesus probably looked more like these people than Europeans, his image as a white man was crucial to the Crusades and their mission. They certainly wouldn't have painted him to look like the enemy.