Current News
Gunther Simmermacher - Southern Cross - 
John baptises Jesus in a detail of a 1970s artwork from the “Jesus Mafa” project in Cameroon. - 

Was Jesus black? What did Jesus even look like? And does it matter?  

These questions, and others, come up repeatedly in conversation and on social media over the Advent and Christmas seasons. How Jesus and the Holy Family is represented in art and in Nativity scenes shouldn’t matter, yet it does — a lot.

The idea that Jesus looked like a central European is self-evidently wrong. He was a Semite from what we now call the Middle East. His skin was more or less swarthy, his hair dark, his eyes brown. Donald Trump would have denied Jesus entry into the United States.

But the idea that “Jesus was black” is equally false, if by black we mean that he had African features. His skin might have been darker than that of the Roman occupiers, but Semites are classified (that awful terminology) as Caucasian.

Does it matter what digits Jesus would have had in his “Book of Life” under apartheid? Essentially, it doesn’t.

Jesus is the Incarnation; God made Flesh. God has no colour, no race, no ethnicity, no caste, no gender. We all are made in his image, which means God has no image. And if God has no image, then it is immaterial what colour, race or ethnicity one might ascribe to Jesus.

But that is only one side of the story. When people say “Jesus was black”, they are saying at least two valid things.

Firstly, Jesus was black in as far as he knew oppression. He lived in a time of Rome’s brutal occupation of Palestine. It was a Roman colonialist governor who had him executed, at the behest of the colonialists’ puppet authorities. It was Rome’s stooge, King Herod, who wanted the new-born Jesus dead.

Jesus knew about social oppression as a member of a struggling underclass. Jesus’ life has more in common with the experiences of the world’s people of colour with their indigenous roots in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas than it has with contemporary whites who, generally, inherit much greater social, political and economic privileges.

This does not, in itself, invalidate the faith of white Christians, of course. You can be privileged and also be a genuine follower of Christ. But it does serve as a call to those in positions of social, political and economic privilege to consider Jesus as somebody who did not have these privileges — as a member of the oppressed — and be in solidarity with those stand against inequality.

Prejudice predicated on race, ethnicity or economic class is prejudice against the historical Jesus (and, obviously, it’s sinful and therefore an offence against God).

Those pious white Christians in the US with their red caps who want to keep out people from the Middle East are agitating against Jesus himself, in very real terms. And they can do so only if they believe that Jesus was white. Saying “Jesus was black” declares that Jesus does not “belong” only to white Christians.

Secondly, “Jesus is black” is also a reaction to the predominant representation of him as a white, European man.

That image is the result of what we now call inculturation, the process by which we adapt the symbols and certain practices of our faith to make it relevant to various cultural contexts. In Europe, therefore, Jesus would have been presented in art to look like everybody else in Europe.

So it was a big deal when in the 1600s the Dutch painter Rembrandt used a young Sephardic Jew to model for Jesus’ face in a painting.

Generally, however, Jesus was inculturated as a white man because to the localised audiences in Europe—those who were catechised by publicly displayed artworks—that made sense.

But as the art of the European master painters spread throughout the world, the pale-faced Jesus and rosy-cheeked Mary became the normative image, even in cultures where people are not particularly pale-faced and rosy-cheeked.

It was the same with the image of God as an old Caucasian with a white beard: the European standard image for wisdom and authority. That’s why it was so subversive when the black actor Morgan Freeman was cast to play God in the 2003 comedy film Bruce Almighty.

Of course, there are powerful examples of the inculturation of images outside Europe. For example, the Mexican peasant Juan Diego described his apparition of Our Lady in Guadalupe in 1531 as being Aztec in appearance.

In my office is an artwork of the Ascension from the “Jesus Mafa” art project in Cameroon from 1973, in which Jesus and the disciples are depicted as Africans, and the Gospel stories are presented in an African context. The intent of the project, which produced an abundance of beautiful artworks, was to help the Mafa people of northern Cameroon teach the Gospel in a way that the community could connect with. Why shouldn’t Jesus be black, or any colour, when the Incarnation transcends all biological and social markers?

“Jesus was black” is not so much a historical observation — it would be an incorrect one — as an attempt to make him more universal than the general narrative claims. It is a legitimate pursuit.

So, what did Jesus look like? The gospels don’t tell us because it isn’t important. I looked at what history can reveal about that question in an article published in The Southern Cross a couple of years ago Looking for the face of Jesus. With some imagination we can cast Jesus, the Holy Family, the disciples and all the other people in the Gospel by looking at the Palestinian people, and especially the Christian Palestinians who are the descendants of the original followers of Christ.

It will matter what Jesus looked like until we get to a point where we can simply see Jesus in one another.