Monday, March 29, 2021

Anonymous Asks (138)

“Was Jesus black?”

Great. Thanks a lot. This is almost guaranteed to get controversial …

A little history: the traditional way of classifying the various nations that make up the human race, which was based primarily on biological commonalities (Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Australoid), has recently fallen out of favor, mostly for political reasons. It is politely referred to as outdated and impolitely referred to as racist.

Nevertheless, because the old system was biology-based rather than ideology-based, it remains in use among anthropologists and in learning disciplines where observing distinctions between people groups is a meaningful exercise. If you are going to try to answer the question “Was Jesus black?” at all, it remains the only sane way of framing the issue for discussion.

Differences You Can’t Miss

Regardless of how we choose to classify human beings, it must be remembered that intermarriage across types is a minor-but-regularly-recurring feature in most human societies, so that even under the old system any distinctions to be made between types were inevitably blurry rather than hard-edged. Nevertheless, despite the push for a globalist outlook today (“There is one race, the human race!”), and despite the occasional genetic outliers in any given type, there are still significant general appearance-related and biological differences between people groups and significant similarities within them.

It used to be that people didn’t feel obliged to pretend not to notice these things.

So then, the term “Negroid” was for generations used to refer to people originating in Sub‑Saharan Africa, while Semites, including Jews, were classified as a sub-type of the Caucasoid division. However one chooses to define the word “black” today (and that too is a subject of considerable controversy), there are solid biological reasons to distinguish blacks from Semites, just as we would distinguish other Causasoids from the Chinese.

Like it or not, there are some differences you have to be blind to miss.

‘Genetically Semitic’ in the First Century

The genealogies of our Lord’s human parents are recorded in Matthew and Luke. He was the product of a nation which had descended from a man who, about 4,000 years ago, left a city in what today is southern Iraq for a home in the land now known as Israel. The genealogy of Mary, mother of Jesus, includes the names of men we know had married foreigners, but these women were a Canaanite and a Moabite, both also Semitic peoples. (It is conceivable that after nearly 400 years during which Hebrews lived in Egypt, a few Egyptian genes also found their way into the line of Christ, but not much may be made of that. The latest DNA evidence strongly suggests ancient Egypt too was primarily Caucasoid, and that even Tutankhamen carried common Western European Y‑chromosomes.)

Despite the occasional intermarriage with people from other nations, nobody in our Lord’s genealogy is on record as having strayed outside their genetic sub-type in their choice of partner, let alone outside type. It may have happened, but it would have been an extremely rare event. There is no plausible case to be made that Jesus was anything but genetically Semitic at a very high percentage.

(You will understand that I write this not to share a personal opinion about the morality of racial intermarriage today, but in order to address the original question. Good? Good. On we go.)

The next question is what “genetically Semitic” looked like in the first century. Jews in 2021 may be roughly divided into four ethno-cultural groups: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi and Ethiopian. The Ashkenazi, by far the most prevalent, may easily be mistaken for European whites, while Ethiopian Jews often look just like other (black) Ethiopians. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (with some exceptions) fall between these two visually-distinct extremes. If this sort of genetic diversity could be demonstrated to have existed within Judaism in the first century, then we might well be able to make a case for a black Jesus.

Genetic Diversification and the Diaspora

In fact, this was not the case at all. The modern ethnic and racial diversity in Judaism is the result of 2,000 years of Diaspora. It did not exist until well after AD70, when Jews were scattered all over the Roman Empire and began to occasionally intermarry with Italians in Italy, with Ethiopians in Ethiopia, with Syrians in Syria, and so on. The products of these unions (still considered part of the Jewish community when they married others within those communities, as most did) began to pass on to their own children the various genetic traits of both Jewish and Gentile parents. Obviously the child of a Jewish mother and Ethiopian father would look quite different than the child of a Jewish father and his Italian wife, but these genetic combinations and many others served to diversify the worldwide Jewish gene pool over the centuries.

We must remember that for centuries prior to this sudden glut of genetic diversity within Judaism, Jews in Judea had been what we today would probably call racial bigots, disinclined to eat with or associate with Gentiles. In Ezra 10, we read about a post-exilic revival in Jerusalem during which Israelites who had married and fathered children with foreign women were identified, successfully shamed and persuaded to dissolve those unions and put away their foreign children from the community of Israel. The book of Nehemiah contains similar themes. In Nehemiah there are Gentile allies (King Artaxerxes) and Gentile enemies (Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, Geshem the Arab), but there is a marked distinction made between the interests of Jews and non-Jews. Never the twain shall meet so far as Nehemiah was concerned, and he believed he had the mind of God in that.

What Did Jesus Look Like?

So then, ethno-religious purity became a Judean distinctive for almost 500 years from the beginning of the post-exilic period until sometime after the late first century Diaspora. During that era the only socially-acceptable marriage was intermarriage with fellow Israelites. This attitude was still prevalent among the disciples in Jesus’s day, notwithstanding the fact that by that time Judea was merely one of two Israelite provinces in the ethnically-diverse Roman Empire. To first century Jews, a Messiah who looked like he came from Somalia would be inconceivable, and the writers of the gospels would surely have commented on it. He would have been perceived as a product of shameful compromise and law-breaking.

In summary, when Jesus was born in the early first century, after at least 400 years of a top-down imposed ethnic purity program, “genetically Semitic” was pretty much synonymous with “ethnically homogeneous”. Even if we allow for the occasional blurry line and traces of genetic admixture from the days before Ezra and Nehemiah, by far the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was an average-looking first century dusky- or olive-complected Causasoid Semite, somewhere between the pasty white of Ashkenazi-descended Jews and the darker-complected Ethiopian Jews of today.

Bad Arguments and Self-Serving Notions

However, if we dismiss the notion that the Lord was exceptionally dark, we should equally dispel the conceit that our Lord looked anything like an attractive European hippie, which is how he has often been depicted by Western Christians down through the centuries. Some people will find that a disappointment, but we should reject bad arguments, dishonest portrayals and self-serving sentimental notions regardless of where they come from.

However, the pasty-white Jesus stereotype is ridiculous and historically indefensible, and few bother defending it, whereas the more recent postulations of a black Jesus are sometimes treated a little more deferentially in these racially sensitive times.

In addition to the argument that since there are black Jews today, there must have been black Jews in the first century (which has already been dealt with), and the argument that the Semitic peoples of the first century should be considered a sub-classification of the Negroid rather than the Caucasoid category (which is accepted by almost nobody anywhere), there are two non-frivolous arguments for a black Jesus which we should probably deal with briefly.

1. Biblical Images in Byzantine Russia

Byzantine Russian art is full of scenes from the Bible depicting what we are told are black Jews. But these images were painted over 1,300 years after the Lord Jesus lived and died by people for whom painstaking historical realism was not a major agenda item, and whose opinions about what Jews looked like in the first century were considerably less informed than our own. Moreover, by the time the Byzantines in Russia were picking up their paintbrushes, black Jews probably did exist.

In any case, the vast majority of these images are not even identifiably black but rather dusky or olive, as we might expect. The noses, jaws and elongated faces are Caucasoid with a bit of extra color, and the hair and beards are most frequently wavy or straight. There are a few images with tight curls, but even these have narrow noses and most have medium complexions. They certainly look very little like most American blacks. If these images represent one of the better arguments for a black Jesus, the prospect for a credible case is not looking good.

2. The Portrait of Christ in Revelation 1

We will leave aside the obvious point that the Christ of Revelation 1 is the glorified Christ as opposed to the Jesus of the gospels, one whose physical aspect was so different after his resurrection that on several occasions his own disciples failed to instantly recognize him. What the Lord looks like in glory tells us nothing useful about his appearance during his life on earth or his racial characteristics. Moreover, the glorified Christ of Revelation 1 is being described in what is very obviously symbolic language. He does not have literal flames coming from his eyes or a literal sword between his teeth. The very idea is ridiculous.

But allowing for all that, it is argued that “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool” in Revelation 1 should be understood to mean that the Lord’s hair had the consistency of wool as well as the color. But this is not the case at all. John’s second comparison is “like snow”, a medium not notable for its tight curl. We may as reasonably reply that “His eyes were like a flame of fire” is telling us that Jesus had blazing orange pupils. That would certainly be a unique look. And does a face “like the sun shining in full strength” sound particularly black to you? It doesn’t to me.

Finally, the “feet like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace” are alleged to be blackened, suggesting a dark skin tone. But John does not speak of the whole body, but only the feet. We must remember this is symbolic language, as metaphorical as the sword, flames, stars and white hair. In scripture, the feet often symbolize the course of life, or the walk through the world, and John does not say merely “burnished bronze”, but “burnished bronze refined in a furnace”. The furnace speaks of refinement through suffering. We should hardly be surprised to find a little something in John’s description of the glorified Christ which serves to remind us of the fact that our Lord was tested repeatedly and proven absolutely impeccable during his time on earth.

Black or White

In summary then, Jesus was neither provably black nor provably white. We have no biblically-based idea what he looked like, and I am guessing the writers of scripture did not tell us for very good reason. If we allow ourselves to get emotionally invested in a Jesus whose physical appearance is comfortingly familiar to us and who “speaks into” our personal experiences for that reason, we will find we are caught up in a meaningless and trivial extra-scriptural controversy that will only serve to distract us from the real purpose of his coming, and will inevitably distance us from our fellow believers.

The real Jesus would never want that, no matter what he looked like.

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