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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. sixthromeo

    What this article says is that if one is not pure caucasian, fitting in to Hitler's Aryan concept, then one is not white. That is preposterous. This article is saying that Arabs are not white, it is attempting to make Arab as a different race; well, surprise, people they are the predominant source of all Caucasian blood. Had all the New Testament stories come out of Ethiopia, we might have a different concept but they did not. Talk about "race baiting," this article is exactly that.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  2. Cathy

    Wow, talk about being uneducated and misinformed. It goes to prove that the blond anchor on fox might be in front of a host of people everyday, and yet have no clue. The fact that she claims Jesus was white, shows how very sad and under educated she is. Miss, you ought to read history and understand geography just a little bit. She even has the nerve to address children in telling them total nonsense. I am ashamed for the TV station and its management.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • lol??

      "..............I am ashamed for the TV station ......................." What's the goin' rate for ashamed work for corps these dayz?? I could use a little holy day cash.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Fedup

      She is not "and and under educated" as you claim. she was raised this way...to think that "Gods" can only look like like her. It was ingrained in her since she was born. This is why you have people claiming that forcing religion on children is a form of child abuse, because this is one among MANY examples of religious dogma resulting in ignorance and arrogance. Religion, by it's nature, required ignorance of fact. The word "faith" should be added as the eighth deadly sin, because faith...by it's very definition...required that you turn your back to fact, evidence, intelligence.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am |
      • lol??

        Faith is believing what God says. Ask Abe about it. You blew it on your definition.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  3. DRew KaliMan

    South African Crusade 1973

    Billy Graham discusses the race of Jesus Christ.

    "Christ belongs to all people!" Graham proclaims.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTHxivBCahA&w=640&h=390]

    December 13, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  4. Perry

    Get a clue folks. Jesus was born in Palestine. If you consider the people of the area white, then I guess you consider Jesus white.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • lauradet

      Good point, but no one considers people in that region white.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
      • Greg

        Really? have you been there? My wife was born in Beirut and she has blonde hair and blue eyes, and her native tongue is arabic. She's as white as any "white" person, just like me. Anyone that doesn't consider people born in Israel or Lebanon to be "white" is clueless.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:49 am |
      • Dave

        I do. What do you consider them to be?

        December 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  5. Piccolo

    Anybody who thinks that Jesus was white needs to do a little research instead of blindly following the portraits of him with blonde hair and blue eyes. The guy was a semite, and probably appeared more arabic than white.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • Fedup

      Anyone that thinks Jesus was anything more than a preacher typical of his day. That's it. History has created the rest.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:40 am |
      • Slovensko

        How many of those other "preachers" of the day still had a following 2000 years later? Jesus never wrote any books, wrote any music, etc, yet people still know of him and talk about him. No way a homeless guy from that area has near the impact that Jesus did unless he was God in the flesh.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
        • Dyslexic doG

          so by that logic Buddha and Muhammad and all the other thousands of gods must be real too because they are still written about and still worshipped millennia later.

          believe or don't believe but please don't believe for an asinine reason like that. sheesh!

          December 13, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  6. me

    I don't understand. If Jesus was a Jewish man from Israel he would have a complexion and physical characteristics of a Middle Eastern man. Santa is based on Saint Nicholas of Myra in present day Turkey. Once again he would have a complexion and physical characteristics of a man from that area. Why is this even an issue? I understand that some people may want images or representations of these two men to reflect their own physical characteristics but historically we cannot deny what they would look like. But I feel it is very wrong to exclusively portray Jesus and Mary with blonde hair and blue eyes and insist that that is exactly what these people looked like historically.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Mary was a remnant of the tribe of Ephraim, black as coal.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:04 am |
      • Rett

        Where did you learn that?

        December 14, 2013 at 6:43 am |
      • tessie may

        Please cite your source for that! I would be extremely interested.

        December 16, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  7. Robert

    Forgive my criticism, but is this not an absurd discussion? We know the historical fact that Jesus was born to Jewish parents in the middle east. If you look at similar people today, that would undoubtedly be his"color". The bigger issue is that his "color" does not matter. Even discussing it seems disgusting because it masks the deeper issue. It is not WHAT color was Jesus' skin but WHO was Jesus Christ? But it really does make sense that we would get distracted by the surface question for the bible says, "Man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.".

    December 13, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • lol??

      'Sides Jesus knows about fake races. He mentioned Noe.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • lauradet

      I thought god implanted Jesus in Mary. Joseph was not the biological father, so how can both parents be Jews?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
      • Robert

        Good point! His adopted father was Jewish.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  8. CharlesBronson

    Not that I agree with the assertion that Jesus is white. But if someone said Jesus was Oriental or Hispanic, I doubt there would be such a great concern. It's the belief today, and we can all thank the merits of affirmative action, that whites owe something to other people. Making Santa Claus "not white" is less about Santa Claus and more about asserting that whites are not "diverse" and thus shouldn't be mentioned. It's ironic when people say that color of your skin shouldn't matter but then they turn around and say "Ooo white people aren't diverse and thus are undeserving. Let's make assessments indeed based on the color of their skin. That's called reverse racism." Such incredible hypocrisy. Make Santa Claus purple.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  9. Ben

    Interesting. Jesus was a Jew. John Stewart is a Jew. Is John Stewart suggesting he is not as white as white gets?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • umley

      Jewish is a religion–not a race, and has nothing to do with skin color. (Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr., were [converted] Jews). But Jesus was from the Middle East, and probably was at least olive-complected. I have seen several TV programs that attempted to depict what Christ looked like, and he was shown as being darker complected. In fact, in one depiction, he rather resembled Osama Bin Laden.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:38 am |
      • G to the T

        True but "jewish" can also most definitely refer to an ethnic group. Many "jews' are not religious.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  10. smartaz

    If you care, one way or another, then you really don't understand him anyway.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  11. Raymonde

    Most Jews I see are white.
    Jesus is known to have been a Jew.
    The assumption makes sense.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Mary was an Epraimite, among the remnant recovered from the Northern Kingdom by Isaiah.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:54 am |
      • tessie may

        Again, I ask for your source?

        December 16, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • Hollee572

      Most American Jews are "white" because our ancestors resided in Europe for the last 1900 years. We no doubt intermarried among Europeans and some Europeans may have converted to Judaism as well. Being Jewish is an ethnicity, Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people(though one can be ethnically Jewish and not practice Judaism). If you go to India, the Jews there look like other Indians; go to Africa and the Jews there look like other Africans. The Jewish people are comprised of many races and nationalities.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:53 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        However race and nationality are make believe too (let alone 'jews' as the chosen form).

        It's hard to get away from this 'discussion' since all other utterly nonsense is still based on it and then some.

        Me? I am who I am regardless of popular assumptions handed down by popular primitive re-repeating demands.
        People are completely nuts.

        December 14, 2013 at 5:04 am |
    • Hermando

      The Jews that you see today are not the same Jews that lived in that region 2000 years ago. There were much darker then.
      I don't mean to offend anybody but lets be honest with ourselves.....how can nordic blue eye white man originate from that region. a picture of Sadam Husan with a long beard would be convincing....Lol

      December 16, 2013 at 7:33 am |
  12. Bill

    His mother was a middle east jew so dark skin. His Father?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Robert

      I love this comment!

      December 13, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  13. lol??

    Whaddya mean Jesus can't jump?? He invented it .

    December 13, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  14. Netmonger

    If Jesus actually existed, he was *JEWISH*. Thats the story. Jewish people arent 'white'. They're lighter in skin color then say Africans, but not as 'white' as Europeans. The God of Christianity is Yahweh – thats his name - the God of Abraham. He's the *Jewish* God. How someone call themselves a Christian when they dont know these basic things?!? For crying out loud if people are going to take a pre-existing fictional religion to base their fictional religion on, can ya' at least get the facts straight?!? LOL!! And if ya' have to twist the facts to make the story more appealing, isnt that a big red flag showing that its a STORY not REALITY?!? Its totally nuts.. Death is scary to just about everyone, but its 2013: as a species, we need to get beyond this childish need to believe in fairy tales to get through life. Its been responsible for the death of millions in relgious conflicts, and its holding us back from advancing forward.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • lol??

      ".....................................we need......................." Socie "Wegodians" are so needy.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • gbh

      Amen!

      December 13, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  15. RG

    I think you are all nuts.
    Religion was created to scare and control people and extort all kinds of things from them.
    I think Christianity was created by Jews to group "weaker," less important people into a controllable, gullible mass.
    Amen.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • lol??

      Your family is a troop.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:38 am |
  16. Wootings

    ...first of all, if Jesus (or someone pretending to be the messiah) ever existed in that part of the world, he'd have been the same color as everyone else in that part of the world. Which is to say...not white.

    On the other hand though, if we're going to argue about what color Jesus was, we should give equal time to discussing what color the Easter Bunny is, what hair color the Tooth Fairy has, and whether or not the Boogeyman qualifies for food stamps.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • Pete

      I'll give you a 2/10

      December 13, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • RootbeerBandit

      I'm confused as to why a lot of the coments say "if" he existed. We can argue all day about if he was the messiah, but there is substantial evidence SOMEBODY named Jesus was preaching in that area at that time via contemporary writers both religeous and secular. Whether the rest of the stories are true is up for debate...

      December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am |
      • Joey

        Not really. The same secular sources mention Hercules as being real as well, and none of them are contemporary.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  17. HotAirAce

    No argument here over jesus' skin color. Why should anyone question the details of a mentally ill delusional's delusions?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • CharlesBronson

      you're a real intellectual.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  18. John P. Tarver

    The King of the Jews prophesy claims Christ was an Ephraimite, black as coal. The American Civil war was lost on that issue, as the folks in Memphis knew a kinsman redeemer was required for the salvation of man. With the Dredd Scot decision declaring "Slaves are cattle" and Darin's "Origin of Species" claiming "blacks are cattle" someone had to make a stand.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • tessie may

      I can't believe I have been answering you seriously. You are just making stuff up and throwing it out there. I need to remember "no more replies to Mr. Tarver".

      December 16, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  19. CharlesBronson

    Not that I agree with the assertion that Jesus is white. But if someone said Jesus was Oriental or Hispanic, I doubt there would be such a great concern. It's the belief today, and we can all thank the merits of affirmative action, that whites owe something to other people. Making Santa Claus "not white" is less about Santa Claus and more about asserting that whites are not "diverse" and thus shouldn't be mentioned. It's ironic when people say that color of your skin shouldn't matter but then they turn around and say "Ooo white people aren't diverse and thus are undeserving. Let's make assessments indeed based on the color of their skin. That's called reverse racism." Such incredible hypocrisy. Make Santa Claus purple for all i care.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • Joe from Boston

      ...but then he would be Barney Claus.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:45 am |
      • CharlesBronson

        I think it's telling that no one is questioning what I just said. Usually, people might make an accusation of racism. But that would be hypocrisy.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  20. kso

    Jesus was the same color as his father. Invisible. 😉

    actually, as an art major, one of the cool things about art history relative to jesus, is that you find out his hair color and length, along with beard vs no beard, and all varying depictions of age have changed throughout the ages. you also find out there are no actual busts or depictions of the actual man jesus originating from that time period. kinda odd and suspect for such an influential figure if you ask me.

    who's that long-haired Caucasian hanging on the cross and what was that commandment about worshiping false idols?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:29 am |
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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.