It hung on the wall of the small Methodist Sunday school room where his father preached for most of his childhood. A similar portrait hung over the family dining room. Billings used to peek at it through his fingers when the family prayed before dinner. His teacher pointed to it when she read Bible stories to the class.
“It always made me feel loved,” Billings said, “like Jesus was watching over me. It’s also why I always thought of Jesus as being white.”
Though he doesn’t know the name of the portrait, it was a familiar theme and image — a bearded, long-haired, fair-skinned Jesus walking among a flock of sheep carrying a lamb in one hand and a long walking staff in the other. Billing’s father, Cornelius, was a bivocational pastor who worked numerous small towns across Alabama, including stops in Andalusia, Enterprise and Ohatchee, and at almost every stop — as far as Billing’s can remember — that portrait of Jesus followed, usually ending up in the children’s Sunday school room.
“I never thought much about it until years later,” said the now 45-year-old Billings, who recently moved to Mobile from Oxford. “The color of Jesus’ skin wasn’t the point. But the older I got, the more it bothered me, both as a Christian and as an African-American, that the image of Jesus we grew up with — and not just in that one picture — wasn’t true. Jesus wasn’t white, not even close.”
With his long, flowing light brown hair, well-trimmed beard, fair skin, toned, thin frame and light-colored eyes, the familiar image of Jesus Christ stares out from everything from paintings and T-shirts to coffee mugs and the dust jacket of bestselling books. This is largely a Western-born phenomenon. In other parts of the world, Jesus is generally depicted as being black, Arab or Hispanic.
But to us, Jesus has movie-star good looks and appears rather Caucasian — the Americanized version of Christ, the American Jesus, a cultural icon.
“Americans love Jesus, but of course one that has been modified to fit their perceived needs,” said Vic Minish, who teaches Old and New Testament as well as courses on theology and philosophy at Faith Christian School and is also a professor of apologetics at Birmingham Theological Seminary. “It is a sad struggle for all of us really, inside and outside of the church that the Jesus we see seems to be so much like the person we already are.”
The Bible provides little insight because Jesus isn’t described in the New Testament. All that can be surmised is that he looked much like other Jewish men of the time. According to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before being crucified, Judas had to point him out to the soldiers who couldn’t tell him apart from his disciples.
Despite the lack of direct biblical or historical references, various theories about the race of Jesus have been advanced and debated throughout the centuries. While many people have a fixed mental image of Jesus, drawn from artistic depictions, these images often conform to stereotypes that aren’t grounded in any serious research on the historical Jesus, but are based on cultural stereotypes and societal trends, says Eugene Leonard, an African-American pastor with The Life Center Church in Hobson City.
“For two millennia a wide range of artistic depictions of Jesus have appeared, often influenced by cultural settings, political circumstances and theological contexts,” he said. “Beyond being Jewish, there is no general scholarly agreement on the ethnicity of Jesus.”
For Leonard, what Jesus looked like doesn’t really matter.
“As the son of a pastor, I was always taught that when it came to the depiction of Christ that he was neither black nor white,” he said. “As I would see images that portrayed Jesus as a Caucasian man, it didn’t make me feel any kind of way because of the way I was reared in the Word of God.”
Continuing to accept and put faith in these false depictions of Christ is to be led astray, says Carlton Weathers, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Anniston.
“It is never safe to create an image that is fictional because Jesus was and is a historical figure,” he said. “He will also be in his resurrected physical body for all of eternity. He will not look like me or you. We must teach people to think in reality, not fiction.”
The ‘real’ Jesus
If Jesus was of Semitic birth, it would stand to reason that his skin, according to most scholars, would have been more of an olive tone with dark colored hair that was thick — often curly or wiry — and being a Jew, he would likely have had a beard as was the custom among Jews of the time. From the analysis of skeletal remains excavated during the time of Jesus, archeologists firmly believe he would have been of average build — roughly 5 feet 1 inch tall and averaging roughly 110 pounds. Because he worked outside as a carpenter into his 30s, Jesus would likely have been more muscular and physically fit than in most Western portraits, and his face was likely weather-beaten, making him appear even older. And he probably didn’t have long hair but instead short with tight curls, keeping in mind that it was the Apostle Paul who said, “if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.”
Will Willimon, a professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School of Duke University who recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, is familiar with the image of the American Jesus, but warns that to debate what Jesus looked like can cloud the conversation of his ministry.
“Jesus was a Jew, a Near Eastern male, someone who spoke a language quite different from our own,” Willimon said. “It’s important to maintain that difference. He was, we believe, God incarnate — the full revelation of God in a full human being. But Jesus’ humanity, including the faith he was born into, as well as the culture, is not incidental to his significance.”
As an African-American pastor leading an ethnically diverse congregation at Living by Faith Ministry in Oxford, Bob McClain can’t help but laugh when asked about the white Jesus versus what Christ really looked like.
“Ancient Hebrews were forbidden to have images and the more I study and learn about the way they did it … I want to get away from images of Christ all together,” he said. “I know he was a real man but for me, when I think of Jesus, I think of him in a spiritual sense. It doesn’t matter what he looked like. Jesus died for all our sins, no matter our skin color. In the spirit there is no black or white.”
But how did these images and ideas of Jesus being white — or at least fair-skinned — become so entrenched in our cultural psyche? The answer lies in the painting, and the myriad like it, that hung in Marcus Billings’ Sunday school class.
It’s a misconception presented in youth that’s perpetuated into adulthood, explains Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, authors of “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”
“In part, assumption about Jesus were unavoidable because the images were presented to children at very young ages,” Blum and Harvey write. “Whether through tracts, Sunday school cards or church art or on television and in movies, visual depictions of Christ lodged the idea of his whiteness deep within our cultural conventions.”
And it wasn’t necessarily a malicious attempt to disguise Christ’s true ethnicity, but its effect was negative and long lasting.
“The goal of the pictures was to teach Christianity, but an unintended consequence was to create an often unspoken belief that Jesus was white,” Blum and Harvey write. “This made Christ’s whiteness a psychological certainty.”
For Billing’s, who was essentially raised beneath the watchful gaze of this American Jesus that was almost as white at the lamb he cradled, if anything it strengthened his faith.
“I had to learn for myself, what the real Jesus would have been like,” he said. “He was a man of love and compassion … things that have nothing to do with skin color.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Jesus: An evolution from Catholic Europeans to Kanye West
While Catholic Europeans brought Jesus across the ocean, English Puritans destroyed visual depictions of him. In the Colonial America that became the United States, Jesus had no true physical presence.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that Jesus first rose to prominence.
During an era that saw the expansion of slavery and encroachment across Native American lands, a band of Protestants tried to influence the young nation by mass producing and mass distributing images of Jesus.
Before the Civil War, Southern whites tried to sanctify slavery and turn slaves to Christianity by presenting Jesus as a servant. The plan backfired, as African-Americans found in this savior someone who had suffered as they did and heard him whispering freedom in their ears.
Southern whites rose from the ashes of the Civil War with a new savior, one who shared their sufferings during Reconstruction. Now they, not enslaved blacks, felt persecuted under an imperial regime, just as Jesus had been.
It was also a bewildering and contradictory time for many Native Americans. At boarding schools, white school teachers taught them to become “civilized” by cutting their hair short, but also by putting their faith in a long-haired Jesus seen in paintings on school walls.
In the Harlem of the 1920s and ’30s, an ensemble of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights rejected the white Jesus images around them.
They blackened him for the first time with paintings that portrayed him as a lynch victim.
It was an advertising executive who helped transform Jesus into the most famous face in history. A born-again Christian, Warner Sallman had a religious experience and dedicated his life to creating sacred art. He was first inspired to attempt a portrait of Jesus in 1914 by a teacher at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, who reportedly told him to paint a “virile, manly Christ.” In 1924, Sallman had a dream of such a man while he was struggling to paint a portrait of Christ commissioned for a monthly church newsletter.
“All I did,” Sallman later said, “was to reproduce as faithfully as I could what I saw in my dream.”
That vision later became the basis for Sallman’s celebrated oil painting, “Head of Christ.” Sallman’s 1941 painting has since been reproduced more than 500 million times, making it the most common religious image in the world.
In 1957 Martin Luther King Jr. tackled the American Jesus in his short-lived advice column for Ebony magazine when he received a letter asking, “Why did God make Jesus white?”
“The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” King responded. “He was the son of God, not because of His external biological makeup, but because of His internal spiritual commitment.”
Such debates over the American Jesus illustrated the Civil Rights era and captured the spirit of the ’60s.
Whether it was civil rights activists, Native Americans, new liberation theologians or college students who saw Jesus as a rebellious hippie, Americans tinkered relentlessly with the body of Jesus. By the 21st century, all one had to do was Google “black Jesus,” “Chinese Jesus” or “Asian Jesus” to be bombarded with thousands of ethnic depictions of Christ. Today, the idea that Jesus may have been black or any other non-white ethnicity will draw media attention but not enough to stir lasting controversy.
In 2004, hip-hop icon Kanye West had a hit single with “Jesus Walks” and was photographed on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns, but it did little more than grab headlines for a brief news cycle.
— From “The Color of Christ”