is Jesus black?
BRENDA L. WEBBER, APRIL 1995
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
—Revelation 1:14–15 (King James Version)
In African-American churches across the United States, traditional depictions of a White, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus are being replaced with images of a savior with dark skin, brown eyes and kinky locks. From the pulpit to the pews, Black worshipers are looking for a reflection of themselves in the Jesus they serve.
But apart from the works of artists and the popular grassroots movements to have all European images of biblical personalities removed from African-American churches, there is a growing movement among Black biblical scholars to set the record straight and to declare, through critical scholarship, that there is valid reason to believe that Jesus Christ, if not Black, was most certainly “a person of color.”
The idea of a Black Jesus is not new, says James Cone, the Briggs Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and one of the scholars who espoused a theology of Black liberation in the 1960s. In the 19th century, Black nationalist Robert Young made that assertion; Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church often stated, “God Is a Negro,” and Marcus Garvey later argued the same theme.
The difference today, says Cone, is that “Black scholars, for the first time—certainly since the 1960s—have begun to realize that they can challenge the dominant White theological establishment.”
In what is described as a “reappraisal of ancient biblical traditions,” this new breed of Black biblical scholars are challenging long-standing views about who Jesus was, where He came from and what He looked like, and they are debunking many of the popular racial myths purported to be biblical interpretations.
“It is an understandable concern of African-Americans, given our history in this country and given the way the Bible and Scriptures have been used against us,” says the Rev. Renita J. Weems, assistant professor of the Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University School of Divinity in Nashville, referring to whether it should matter to Black people if Jesus is or is not a person of color.
“We have been told our color is a curse, and all our images of God and biblical personalities have been European,” Weems says. “It would be a correction of at least two or three centuries of racial oppression. It should be a concern, but I’m not sure it should be a preoccupation.”
At issue are the teachings of European scholars who have “de-Africanized” the Bible in their interpretations and who view Blacks, Afro-Asiatics and other people of color as essentially unimportant to a biblical exegesis.
Some European scholars consider the argument that Jesus was a person of color to be negative, revisionist history, while African-American scholars consider it positive, corrective history. In short, contemporary Black biblical scholars have upped the ante and staked their own claim on the Holy Scriptures.
“Artists, writers and people of renown or people who are of astute minds have always sought to correct things when they find that they are incorrect,” says James W. Peebles, publisher and compiler of the Original African Heritage Study Bible. His company, Winston-Derek Publishers Group, of Nashville, turned to scholars such as the Rev. Cain Hope Felder, professor of New Testament language and literature at Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D.C., to help develop a Bible that, says Peebles, “puts everything back into focus.”
For instance, in footnotes to the account of the crucifixion of Jesus in Mark 15:21 and Matthew 27:32, the Original African Heritage Study Bible states that Simon of Cyrene, the man called upon to carry the cross of Jesus as the Roman soldiers led him out to be crucified, was an African visitor to Jerusalem. He had come from the province of Cyrenaica in northern Libya, where many Black people lived.
This Easter season, many African-Americans will worship with the added knowledge that the man who helped to carry their savior’s cross—and the man on the cross—were people of color, much like themselves.
This is more than just an academic exercise.
Black biblical scholarship has given comfort to African-American religious communities that have become discontented with European images and biblical interpretations that suggest Blacks contributed little to the biblical narrative, that they come from a cursed race (Genesis 9:25–27) and that they were destined in the Scriptures to be the slaves of other nations. In Genesis 10 are the descendants of Noah’s sons. These scriptures, and others, were used as justification, first for the enslavement of Blacks in America, and then for the legalization of racial segregation and discrimination.
Black church denominations, including Protestant and Catholic, are publicly addressing the issue of racism in religion.
Some predominantly White mainline denominations, evangelical groups and ecumenical organizations also are studying the issue of racism within the church. Even after such reviews, some Whites have not altered their vision of Jesus. Some openly question whether an Afrocentric view of the Bible, with a Jesus of color at the center, is nothing more than a kind of me-ism and false pride that could become a barrier between the races.
“I think what has happened in the past is that people in the dominant culture—the White, European culture—have imposed their understanding of God upon other people throughout the world,” explains Cone, “and therefore, as long as Whites imposed that position upon the African-American community and made them accept the White God, everything was fine, and that was regarded as objective and true.”
Now that European truths are no longer readily accepted and African-Americans and other people of color have begun to critically evaluate what they have been taught, there is a new level of racial tension.
“White scholars get angry, and they say all we get into is kind of ‘everybody’s view of God is just as good as anybody else’s,’ and that’s not true,” says Cone. “What we are saying is that if we are going to come up with a God that is good for everybody, then everybody has to be a part of that debate.
“It is not God who does all this talking, it is human beings who do it. It is human beings who write books, do theology and do biblical and scientific work. And we know that human beings are not perfect; therefore, they need to be challenged, and they need to be challenged with evidence.”
In the Book of Acts, Chapter 8, is the well-known account of the roadside baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, a high treasury official in the court of Candace, the Ethiopian queen. Earlier in the text (Acts 2) is the account of Jews from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Libya near Cyrene who were at Pentecost, the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and followers, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
An important fact of biblical history is that the Church at Antioch in Syria (Acts 11) is recognized as the first Christian church and is where the term “Christian” came into use. Footnotes in the Original African Heritage Study Bible attribute 50 percent of the prophets and teachers in the Church at Antioch as persons of color, with Acts 13:1 giving particular attention to two of them: Simeon, called “Niger,” a Latin term for “black,” and Lucius, of Cyrene.
But beyond interpreting important personalities of the Bible as Black or of African descent, African-American scholars have declared that Jesus himself was a person of color.
Two of the most popular and often-cited passages to buttress this idea are Revelation 1:14–15 and Daniel 7:9, which describe the African features of the Messiah: “hairs were white like wool” and “feet like unto fine brass.”
In addition to references, Black scholars have turned to historical, anthro-pological and archaeological data, as well as biblical hermeneutics to make their case. Much of the discussion centers around the ancient Mediterranean world and, specifically, Canaan, which is known today as Palestine and was called the “Promised Land.” In biblical times, it was located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Other areas are the Fertile Crescent, called the Near East; Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; Ethiopia, called Cush; and Egypt, one of the major military powers in biblical times.
Ancient recorders such as Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth cen-tury B.C., in Herodotus’ History, described Egyptians as Black and “having wooly hair.” And in their art, Egyptians depicted themselves as people with reddish brown, yellow and black skin tones.
The ancient cultures of the Bible were quite unlike modern society, with its overt color prejudices. In biblical times, people were more concerned with ethnic groups than skin color.
“People of antiquity were aware of color differences, but people were not categorized according to the color differences,” explains Weems, who also is a noted author. “Given what we know of people of color in that region, there were no European people. Even as we look at pictures of people of the Mediterranean region, we see people who are very brown in pigmentation.”
And there was a great amount of social exchange between people. “It was an important trade route that connected Egypt with the rest of the world,” she adds.
Some clergy maintain that African-Americans have been misguided in their understanding of the geography of the Scriptures, largely because Europeans were cast in the starring role as the people who gave us the Bible. A true picture of the region’s geography was further hampered when the approximately 105-mile Suez Canal was built between 1859 and 1869, separating Asia from Africa. Subsequently, this region was renamed the Middle East.
“The picture one gets from the biblical references, historical information and geographical considerations, is that the biblical people of the Middle East, which would include Jesus, were not nordic Caucasian but a mixture of Semitic and Hamitic people who were dark- and olive-skinned,” notes a pamphlet titled, What Color Was Jesus?, published by Urban Ministries of Chicago, the nation’s largest independent African-American publisher of Sunday and vacation Bible school materials.
It maintains, as many Black scholars do, that the Gospel traveled west from Palestine to Italy and Europe, thus reversing the traditional teaching that Europeans brought Christianity to Africa. “Artists like Michelangelo painted Jesus and other biblical characters like themselves in order that Europeans could relate to them more easily . . . people all over the world do the same today,” says its literature.
It is not unusual for people to create images out of their own history and culture. What is unusual is that Black people, for so long, have used images out of European and White culture for their idea of God. “It is not unusual to go to China and see God looking like the Chinese,” Cone says, “or go to Japan and see God . . . coming out of Japanese culture.”
There are certain accepted facts in Black biblical scholarship that appear repeatedly in writings and discussions: The people of Egypt were dark-skinned; Egypt is in North Africa, not today’s “Middle East”; Blacks traditionally have been described as descendants of Ham (Genesis 10); and that the Israelites mixed with the descendants of Ham.
“Mary, the mother of Jesus was Afro-Asiatic and probably looked like a typical Yemenite, Trinidadian or African-American of today,” says Felder, who is founder and chairman of the Biblical Institute for Social Change, housed at Howard University, and general editor of the Original African Heritage Study Bible.
Matthew 2 relates the story of Mary and Joseph’s harrowing escape from King Herod, who sought to kill the young child who had been declared to be King of the Jews. Herod wanted no competition as supreme ruler. An angel of the Lord came to Joseph and told him to flee into Egypt with his wife and child and to stay there, in safety, until the Lord called him out of Egypt. Black scholars believe the family of Jesus was dark enough to blend in with the people of Egypt and not draw attention to themselves.
“Imagine the divine family as Europeans hiding in Africa. This is quite doubtful,” Felder submits, taking the position that Egypt has always been a part of Af-rica, despite European scholarship that places Egypt at the southern extension of Europe.
Randall C. Bailey, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and chairman of Bible studies at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center, says, “Sometimes the methods used to deny the presence of Africans within the text have been subtle. Other times they have been not so subtle.”
Bailey suggests turning to biblical maps, where one is likely to find very little of Africa. The key to the map may even be placed in the space where Africa is, he adds, “which conveys to the reader that this is wasted space, unimportant.”
Some maps, he says, show only ancient Israel, while others show the Fertile Crescent, Rome, Greece and Asia-Minor in great detail but very little of what is ancient Africa. Books have even located Cush, ancient Ethiopia, outside of Africa. Ethiopia is mentioned in the Scriptures more than fifty times, and Egypt more than six hundred times, giving poignancy to Bailey’s argument.
Many of today’s Black scholars are building on the works of Charles B. Copher, professor emeritus of the Old Testament and a former vice president for academic affairs at the Interdenominational Theological Center. Copher, who holds a doctorate in biblical studies from Boston University, is considered the “dean” of this new school of African-American biblical scholarship for his work in the 1940s on Black biblical hermeneutics and the Black presence in the Old Testament.
“Many Blacks are coming today to take a new look at Jesus Christ when it is stated that he is Black or African,” says the Rev. Walter A. McCray, author of The Black Presence in the Bible. “They take a look at Him in His humanity, and, if they read and believe the Gospels, they will see Him in his deity as Son of God and savior of the world and hence put their faith in Him.”
As with everything else in popular culture, some have found a way to cash in on this interest—from Baby Jesus dolls to coffee-table picture books on ancient Ethiopia.
Still, it is the spiritual growth that is most important. African-American writers, artists and publishers of Black books are using the scholarly research in developing historically correct Bible study and Sunday-school materials, children’s literature and master works of art. The National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville has created a series of African-American Bible resources, including a collection of children’s coloring books with dark-skinned characters on the cover. It also carries a primer in Black biblical hermeneutics, called Experience and Tradition, by Stephen Breck Reid.
“Our young people just know about slavery, as if that is our beginning, so they act as slaves or [with] lack of self-esteem,” says Hardina Anderson, of Gary, Indiana, and president of the newly formed Christian African-American Booksellers Association. The group makes Black Christian literature, as well as other spiritual products produced by Blacks using non-White images, more readily available. “If they can be made to understand that they were a part of the beginning of civilization and realize their real value, then they may begin to act a different way,” Anderson explains.
If all young people see are White angels and White Godly images, she says, then it says to Black people that they are not expected to be good or to be a part of the heavenly realm.
But if Blacks see Jesus as a person who looks like them, that is indeed heavenly.
Excerpted from The Best of Emerge Magazine by George Curry. . Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.