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Jesus was not white: He was a Middle Eastern Jew with brown-skinned

There is no doubt that the real Jesus was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew who was murdered by the Roman State in the first century CE.

I was raised in a Christian family with a picture of Jesus on my bedroom wall. It's still in my possession. It's schmaltzy and a touch tacky in a 1970s kind of manner, but I enjoyed it as a kid. Jesus is sweet and peaceful in this photograph, gazing tenderly down at me. He has light hair, blue eyes, and is very white.

The issue is that Jesus was not a white man. If you've ever visited a Western church or an art museum, you could be forgiven for believing differently. While there is no physical description of the actual Jesus in the Bible, there is little doubt that the man who was murdered by the Roman State in the first century CE was a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew.

From an academic standpoint, this is uncontroversial, but for many of the millions of Christians who will meet to celebrate Easter this week, it is a forgotten fact.

Christians gather in churches on Good Friday to honor Jesus and commemorate his death on the cross. Most of these churches will portray Jesus as a white man, a man who looks like other Anglo-Australians and with whom other Anglo-Australians may identify.

Consider Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. He is an actor who is Irish-American. Consider some of the most renowned crucifixion paintings – Rubens, Grunewald, and Giotto – and we can see the European bias in presenting a white-skinned Jesus once more.
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Is any of this relevant? It certainly does. We recognize the relevance of different role models and the power of representation as a society.

Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o rocketed to stardom after winning the 2013 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 12 Years a Slave. Nyong'o has expressed her sentiments of inferiority as a young lady in interviews since then, claiming that all the ideals of beauty she saw around her were of lighter-skinned women. She just realized black could be attractive after seeing the fashion industry embrace Sudanese star Alek Wek.

Why can't we do the same for faith if we can see the relevance of racially and physically varied role models in our media? Why do we allow pictures of a whitened Jesus to continue to dominate?

Jesus is often depicted as a brown or black guy in many faiths and civilizations. Orthodox Christian iconography differs significantly from that of European art; for example, if you visit a church in Africa, you'll almost certainly encounter an African Jesus on exhibit.

However, we rarely see similar paintings in Australian Protestant and Catholic churches, which is a shame. It enables the mainstream Christian community to distinguish between their commitment to Jesus and compassion for individuals who appear to be different.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that causes a cognitive mismatch, where one might have a strong fondness for Jesus but no empathy for someone from the Middle East. It also has consequences for the theological premise that people are created in the image of God. If God is always depicted as white, then the default human is also white, therefore racism is justified.

The whitewashing of Jesus has historically contributed to Christians being among the greatest perpetrators of anti-Semitism, and it continues to express itself in the "othering" of non-Anglo Saxon Australians.

I can't help but wonder what our church and society would be like if we only recalled that Jesus was brown this Easter. If we were told that the corpse on the cross was a dark body, one that had been broken, tortured, and publicly killed by an oppressive state.

What if we might understand that the historical Jesus' unjust detention, mistreatment, and execution had more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than with those who wield power in the church and normally represent Christ?

Most radical of all, I can't help but wonder what would happen if we were more aware that the person Christians worship as God in the flesh and saviour of the entire world was a Middle Eastern Jew, rather than a white guy.

Bromby Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity College, University of Divinity Robyn J. Whitaker

The Conversation initially published this article. Read the full story here.


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