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December 13th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight

Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN

(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."

"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."

Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."

The Fox News host would have none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"

Arguing about St. Nick, who was originally Greek before Currier & Ives got their hands on him, is one thing. But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history. You might even call it an American tradition.

What's new about this latest brouhaha is how swiftly Kelly’s remarks were attacked. Thousands of people have rebuked her through blogs, articles, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog."

“And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said on "The Daily Show." "Children who are sophisticated enough to be watching a news channel at 10 o’clock at night, yet innocent enough to still believe Santa Claus is real — yet racist enough to be freaked out if he isn’t white?”

It seems that now, if you want to call Christ — or even Santa — white, you should expect a fierce fight.

The immediate and widespread rebuttal showcases how much America has changed over the past few decades. The nation not only has a black president, but also has refused to endorse the Christian savior as white.

Since the earliest days of America, Jesus was thought of as a white man.

When white Protestant missionaries brought Bibles and whitened images of Jesus to Native Americans, at least a few mocked what they saw.

Taking the imagery seriously, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh asked future President William Henry Harrison, “How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you kill’d and nail’d him on a cross.”

It was not until around 1900 that a group of white Americans explicitly claimed Jesus was white.

Concerned that large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants, were “polluting” the nation, anti-immigrant spokesmen like attorney Madison Grant asserted the whiteness of Jesus to justify calls for exclusionary legislation.

READ MORE: From science and computers, a new face of Jesus

Making Jesus white was a means to distance him from Judaism.

“In depicting the crucifixion no artist hesitates to make the two thieves brunet in contrast to the blond Savior,” Grant wrote in his xenophobic best-seller "The Passing of the Great Race."

“This is something more than a convention,” Grant continued, and suggested that Jesus had “Nordic, possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes.”

Even Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that Jesus was white, after being asked why God created Jesus as a white man.

King responded that the color of Christ’s skin didn’t matter. Jesus would have been just as important “if His skin had been black.” He “is no less significant because His skin was white.”

READ MORE: Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy

Challenges to Christ’s whiteness have a long history, too.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham preached in the 1950s, and then wrote emphatically in his autobiography "Just As I Am," that, “Jesus was not a white man.”

But Graham was far from the first American to contradict the whiteness of Jesus. That honor goes to Methodist and Pequot Indian William Apess.

In 1833, he wrote to white Christians, “You know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services but to a colored one.”

Almost 100 years later, the Jamaican born, “back-to-Africa” spokesman Marcus Garvey told his followers, “Never admit that Jesus Christ was a white man, otherwise he could not be the Son of God and God to redeem all mankind. Jesus Christ had the blood of all races in his veins.”

In our age, the color of Christ has become both politically dangerous and the butt of jokes.

In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s words “God damn America” and “Jesus was a poor black boy” almost derailed then-Sen. Barack Obama from winning the Democratic primary.

Now, Kelly bears the brunt of attacks and, in no surprise, was pilloried by comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Few Americans went on public record against King when he asserted Jesus had white skin in the 1950s. Today, thousands upon thousands from virtually every race and tribe of Americans have taken Kelly’s words seriously and seriously disdained them.

All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.

What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did and how he related to people.

The gospels are full of discussions about Jesus and bodies. He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died.

READ MORE: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

The phenotype of Jesus was never an issue in the Bible. Neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John mentioned Christ’s skin tone or hair color. None called him white or black or red or brown.

Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one. When asked what mattered most, Jesus did not say his skin tone or body shape. He instructed his followers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world.

Edward J. Blum is the co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He can be followed on Twitter @edwardjblum. The views expressed in this column belong to Blum alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,485 Responses)
  1. Al J Cat

    Jesus' skin would have been a beige/olive colour. His ethnicity was Semitic, or Middle-Eastern/North African. Not Caucasian at all. In fact most of the evidence points to the idea that the Proto-European (from whom almost all white people are decended) people bypassed the Levant entirely

    December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • anon

      Was he Semitic? Maybe it's the same thing, but I thought his mother was a Levite. Or a true daughter of Aaron. Could be wrong here, but Levites would be a separate tribe from Jews, so I don't think he was Jewish. Many forget that there ARE twelve other tribes, including the half tribe. Aren't those of the Levite tribe fair of skin? He wasn't black in the sense we think of in this society, with the classical African features, but he certainly wasn't the dainty, thin nosed, super pale European types often depicted.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • therealzeitgeist

      Semitic people are Caucasians. Just like Slavs, Afghans, Iranians, and Irish are Caucasians. And that subdivision of a race into ethnicities is hardly unique. Look at Africa. Does a guy from Somalia look very much like a guy from Congo? About as much as the Irish guy looks like the Middle Eastern guy. But they're both 'black' people.

      Do you think Iranians are Caucasians? The Iranians sure do, the root of the word Iran is 'Aryan' as in 'land of the Aryan tribes.' Take one of these Iranians you see on TV. Take the towel off his head, give him a shave, voila...white guy.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Tim

      That's what I'm saying; he was born and raised in the Middle East; whatever "color" that makes him. This is such an ignorant discussion to even be having.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  2. atlwmn

    I can't imagine any possibility that Jesus was a white man. He lived in the middle east. Seems like a simple answer to me.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • aguilla112

      See, there you go. Using logic and actually thinking something through...

      December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  3. kyzaadrao

    Do you know what's even more silly? A "belief" blog that focuses on Fox, atheists and satanists and has little to do with belief but for trying to underhandedly degrade it.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • HodaM

      "Belief" entails much more than a narrow Christian world-view. It encompasses such topics as atheism, Satanism and other religions. It includes people that don't identify with religion at all, and how they form their moral compass. That's kind of the whole point.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
      • Ernest T Bass

        @HodaM................. nope on atheism, not a religion, not a belief...... why do people have such a hard time with this simple concept? Atheism = lack of belief in god.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • ozob

      How does this column "degrade" belief? The author quotes scripture and closes with the following statement: "Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world." Did you actually read it?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  4. spence

    I guess by her standards that even though slavery made some people "uncomfortable", it, too, didn't need to change

    December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  5. Lee M. Robinson

    To all who say it does not matter what color Jesus skin was, I say you are all miss educated about the Bible and why it does matter . Just as it mattered that he was a man and not a woman it mattered that he didn't look like his Roman killers who were white. To tell the truth about the Lord is the right thing to do. You can forget about trying to say the people of the region we now call the middle east are the same people as they were 2000 years ago, that's just foolish. Sound the same as saying Americans are the same as they were 1000 years ago, see how silly that sounds. No one in the middle east who has DNA of ancestors who lived as Jews 2000 years ago is white.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • HotAirAce

      I hope for the sake of the gene pool you are a Poe.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  6. crakkka

    I don't care about others.... but my Santa and my Christ are both white as snow.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • martiniano

      Crakkka, when you say you don't care about others it makes me curious. How do you match that statement with Mark 12:31

      "The second is this, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

      December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  7. JohnRJohnson

    If God created Man in his image, then God is a black dude.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • LOL

      actually the oldest man ever found was in Europe and was probably white .....so ......yea.....

      December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  8. Rob-Texas

    Santa is based on Saint Nicholas from Germany and was what would be called white.
    Jesus was Jewish and was not black but had middle eastern attributes.
    Pretty simple. No reason to argue about it.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • JohnRJohnson

      Neither Jesus nor St. Nicholas (Nikolaos of Myra) were white. "Santa" was Greek and, therefore, dark-skinned.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
      • martiniano

        St. Nick was Greek.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  9. Foz-man!

    Why are they quoting religious leaders about Jesus' race? I didn't see any quote from an anthropologist in the article. Whatever race was predominant in the year 0 in the Middle East was probably the race that Jesus was. Martin Luther King Jr, Billy Graham, or any other modern day preacher have no significant evidence to back up their statements.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  10. christian

    Does it matter People? Why should a race issue be a source division among people? Whether he was white, black, middle eastern does not change anything to what He achieved and did for the world.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • JohnRJohnson

      The point is that a "news reader" at FOX asserted with great authority that Jesus and St. Nicholas (Santa) were white.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Foz-man!

      Tell that to Megyn Kelly. If she didn't get her granny-panites in a bunch on live TV, we wouldn't be debating the issue.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Howard

      How can it not matter! All you mindless sheep need to start THINKING for yourself try to see what is true

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Easter Bunny

    I'm totally black by the way, just thought i'd throw that out there...

    December 13, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  12. JohnRJohnson

    Considering the fact that neither Jesus nor St. Nicholas (Nikolaos of Myra) were white, FOX News gets it wrong again.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • josh

      St. Nick was a Greek living in Asia Minor. Typically Greeks identify as White... Jesus though was a first century Jew and likely has a skin color similar to a modern Syrian. What box Jesus would have checked on a US census form though I don't know.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  13. France

    Of course, no one disputes that Santa, Christ/God and all figures powerful and noble were/are men which, of course, justifies women's second class status in virtually all corners of the earth. I only wish women had the power and ability to command respect that men of color do.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  14. AKLoggie

    First, Jesus would have been Mediterranean or middle eastern in appearance since that was where He was born and where His ministry was – he certainly would not have been "Lilly White" and most likely not blond haired. Secondly, the article asserts the origin of St Nick as being Greek, his original is actually in the area of modern day Turkey – he would have also been Mediterranean or middle eastern in appearance.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • josh

      He was a Greek living in Modern day Turkey. While darker skinned than me, Greeks tend to self identify as White and both Greeks and the Anatolian people of the time (Turks weren't there yet) were of European decent (see Indo-European expansion theory).

      December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  15. JohnRJohnson

    Interesting, considering the fact that neither Jesus nor St. Nicholas (Nikolaos of Myra) were white.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  16. Al J Cat

    "he's a historical figure that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa" How is this ladies stupidity not the theme of the article?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • SantaLover

      My understanding is that she is saying that throughout history, we know Santa for what he is, this white bearded man, not that he existed in person....but I can see how that could come across....

      December 13, 2013 at 11:51 am |
      • Al J Cat

        Actually, the Santa you know today was invented by Coca Cola about 100 years ago. Before that there were as many likenesses of him as there were people.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:54 am |
      • Black Pete

        Throughout history? lol, you might want to re-read your history books if you think the current version is the original. I worked for Santa for years but now he has a bunch of short white elves working for him because it wasn't PC to have Santas slaves be depicted as they originally were...

        December 13, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • martiniano

      I thought the same thing. There is only one external (non-Biblical) mention of Jesus and it is by Josephus. Josephus did not know Jesus, he heard about him. No known mention of Jesus, his trial or killing is found in Roman or Hebrew records.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Ben

    So where exactly in the Bible does it say “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What chapter and verse is that found in?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • longtooth

      I'm far from being a biblical scholar, but I thought the same thing. "Do unto others, etc.", is known as The Golden Rule, but is not attributed to Jesus.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
      • josh

        Jesus did say that Matt 7:12

        December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
      • chieftrainer

        Correct that it is not attributed to Jesus. Luke wrote it in Luke 6:21.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
        • josh

          Nope, Luke 6:21 says "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh."

          That's from the sermon on the mount, Luke is quoting Jesus.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
        • chieftrainer

          My mistake. Yes, Jesus is attributed as saying that.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
        • chieftrainer

          Sorry, I meant Luke 6:31 and yes I agree, Jesus did say that.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • chieftrainer

      If rhetorical, I don't quite see the connection.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • josh

      A bit off topic, but Matthew 7:12.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • martiniano

      Jesus is reported to have said "Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself." Who knows what he really said. If he wrote anything it was either destroyed or is hidden in the bowels of the Vatican.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • miahmom

      google it

      December 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • joe

      Google the quote.

      December 14, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  18. popeye1128

    Jesus was most likely olive skinned. Santa is whatever you want him to be.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • martiniano

      My Santa is a Thai tranny with an orange landing strip.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  19. JuanSolo

    Well I know one thing for sure in the story of Adam and Eve, Adam wasn't black. Ever heard of taking a rib from a black man?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  20. moment of faith

    I say is Jesus is black then so is the anti-christ

    December 13, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • TW

      Oh this one is funny!!

      December 13, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • martiniano

      So you believe he was black?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.