MAIN QUESTION 1: Why is Jesus portrayed as a white man in western civilization?

RHETORICAL YET 'FEEL FREE TO ANSWER' A FOLLOW UP QUESTION 2: Isn't a blatant misrepresentation of the figure of Christ wrong?

I've had people tell me that "We are all made in God's own image" and therefore Jesus can be any color.


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    Which is the question? Whether Jesus should be portrayed as white, or whether he can be portrayed as a woman? Is the question about colour or sex? (Please edit the question to clarify, don't answer in a comment) – Andrew Leach Dec 18 '13 at 15:11
  • SE questions should ask ONE thing. Otherwise you get a mixture of answers. – Andrew Leach Dec 18 '13 at 15:13
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    @LordStryker I did vote to close as a duplicate, and I am downvoting because your question really seems to be more about making a point than gaining information. When you get the chance, please check out our tour and specifically How we are different than other sites. – Affable Geek Dec 18 '13 at 15:56
  • @AffableGeek Edit my post so it doesn't 'seem' that way to you. Narnian has left a pretty good answer so far and I'm highly appreciative of it. To those who are obviously mistaken, take a deep breath and move on. – LordStryker Dec 18 '13 at 16:00

Why is Jesus Portrayed as a White Man in Western Civilization?

This is just an idea, but it sounds plausible: People in western civilization are white; they imagine Jesus as being like themselves (or more probably, like the community they live in). I suspect that if westerners didn't influence some other (ethnically different) people's visual conception of Jesus, they would imagine him as "normal," which to them would mean that he looks similar to the other people in the community.

Isn't a blatant misrepresentation of the figure of Christ wrong?

If you knew what he looked like and "drew" him a different way, that might be wrong, but it would probably depend on your motives. If you don't know what he looks like, then no matter what, you'll probably draw him incorrectly, but whether it's right or wrong depends on your motives. To call an inaccurate drawing a "blatant misrepresentation" suggests (to me, based on how that phrase is often used) that the artist is attempting to deceive the audience. That is a function of the artist's motives, not the work itself.

Here are some questions I ask myself when I consider such a thing:

  • Is the figure of Jesus behaving in a consistent manner with what we know about Jesus revealed in the Scriptures?
  • What is the artist attempting to say about Jesus by how he's drawn?

Discerning something about the artist's motives would lead me to conclude one way or another about the moral value of the work.

Can Jesus be Female?

Because we know for certain that Jesus was male, it would be a deliberate (though not necessarily malicious) misrepresentation of the facts to portray him as otherwise. I don't know if I could say that this is morally wrong, but in most cases, I would be leery of doing so. There's enough "based on a true story" fiction around that I'd prefer not to fudge known facts for the sake of making a political statement.

Why was Jesus male? That might be a useful question to answer, but it doesn't change the fact that he definitely was a male.

God is neither male nor female. He is whole. Humans are not "whole" in this sense. God has made us "half," for whatever his reasons are. I don't think he prefers any gender over the other. Jesus was born a man, but that doesn't need to be a slight to women.

  • My 'can Jesus be female' question is a response I make to people who use the justification that "we are all made in God's own image" as an excuse for having a white Jesus. It should be clear from this that I am completely unconvinced of this weak justification. If Jesus CAN'T be female because that is historically inaccurate, then by the same token, Jesus CAN'T be white (though maybe he was an albino... who knows?). – LordStryker Dec 18 '13 at 16:12
  • I think gender is a different issue entirely because if Jesus had been female, the nature of his ministry could very well have been fundamentally different. The message would probably have been the same, but people would have perceived it very differently. The appointed role that men played in the society of his day probably had something to do with why he was born a man. I don't think his skin color would have had such a significant impact on how he was perceived. – mojo Dec 18 '13 at 18:20
  • All we really know about his appearance is "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Is 53:2; NIV) This would bolster the assertion that he looked like a typical Jew of his day, but it doesn't seem like it's enough to fight over. – mojo Dec 18 '13 at 18:21
  • To be fair, Isaiah was written many years before anyone knew what Jesus looked like. Is there a NT description? – LordStryker Dec 18 '13 at 18:27
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    While what Isaiah wrote down wasn't detailed, it is an accurate description, being a prophetic utterance. We should expect Jesus not to have been especially beautiful or striking in appearance. No, I can't think of any sort of attempted description in the NT. – mojo Dec 18 '13 at 19:05

Historically speaking during the Roman empire, Rome itself was the center of the world, but by virtue of governmental rule and also after Constantine. Artists who depicted Jesus likely did so according to the norms of their societies. Once the pattern was established, it seems to have carried throughout the centuries that have followed. So, why is Jesus depicted as white? Probably because Roman artists originally depicted Him that way.

Was Jesus white? Well, He certainly was not Anglo-Saxon, if that is what we are asking? Jesus was Jewish in a middle-eastern civilization, and it is of extreme significance that He was so. Prophetically speaking, He had to be of Abraham's and David's seed. As such, His skin color was perhaps a bit darker than that of Europeans and lighter than that of Africans. Jesus was most definitely not American or British or German.

So, is it wrong that Jesus is often depicted as an Anglo-Saxon in Western civilization? Of course it is, if we are asking whether or not it is accurate. Whether or not it is morally wrong is another issue altogether.

It should be noted that the 2nd commandment (or 1st for the Catholics) specifies the prohibition of making images to look like God (or man or beast) as objects of worship. Thus, any depiction of Jesus should at least be questioned to some degree.

Again, Jesus was Jewish and had to be so. His ethnicity in the flesh, however, is in no way a slight to any other ethnicity, as from the very beginning throughout the entirety of Scripture, God loved the entire world.

  • So Jesus is currently depicted as being white in western civilization based on historical conventionalism? That seems silly. Images of God is already morally sketchy as it is so it bothers me that people can be so readily comfortable with making a white Jesus. – LordStryker Dec 18 '13 at 15:54
  • @LordStryker Agreed. Jesus was not white. However, in churches all over the world, if they ever act out a Passion play, someone has to play Jesus, and demanding that a Jewish person play Jesus, instead of a European, African or Asian, is ridiculous. It is not a big deal and should not arouse anger or rage in any of us. – Narnian Dec 18 '13 at 16:03
  • Oh, thats a good point. I hadn't thought about performances. I think, however, that it is a big deal when it comes to imagery only because of the 'special' way people treat these figures or images of Christ which can be very problematic, leading back to the whole idolatry thing. I think we can all agree that there are religious people who get offended if you argue that Jesus isn't white, just like some people get upset if you argue that Santa isn't white. – LordStryker Dec 18 '13 at 16:08
  • Well, St. Nicholas was Greek, so depicting him as anything else is certainly inaccurate, but not immoral. I always get coal anyway, so I don't care what he looks like. – Narnian Dec 18 '13 at 16:12

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