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. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 9:43 am |
    • Jen

      Israelites fleeing into Egypt!Not SUB SAHARA AFRICA! Your lies and stupidity astound me!

      January 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm |
      • dreamhunk

        Classical Greek historians, including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and
        Herodotus were pretty clear that black people ruled the middle east and
        africa. The ancient Hebrews who were black people married women from the
        sons of ham.

        The ancient Hebrews had dreadlocks Google "ancient Hebrews" or"
        ancient Hebrew dreadlocks." then click images and see what what you get.

        Go read genesis ten and then show me where white people in are genesis 10

        the Roman historian of 90 A.D., says that the Romans of his day
        popularly believed that the Jews, which then abounded in Europe, came
        from Ethiopia, the land of the Blacks
        Zephaniah 3 :10
        From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.
        From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants,[even] the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.
        Lamentations 4:8
        visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their
        skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a
        stick.Lamentations 5:10
        Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.
        Exd 2:19
        And they said, An Egyptian(speakin of Moses) delivered us out of the
        hand of the shepherds, and also drew [water] enough for us, and watered
        the flock.
        Explain how an ISRAELITE is mistaken as a son of HAM if they didn't look alike?
        Then 2000+ years later Acts 21:37-38 Shaul(Paul) a Hebrew mistaken as an Egyptian... So explain how SHEM's seed and HAM's didn't look alike?
        Google ancient Hebrews or ancient Hebrew dreadlocks click images and you see what the ancient Hebrews looked like!

        Sub Saharan african is a racist term used to categorize groups. Not all black people are african or indigenous to africa! I also want to add indigenous North-East and Saharan Africans are "Ethiopoid" Africans, theso called elongated Africans with thin features and carriers of the E3b haplogroup they share with millions of Europeans and Western Asians?

        January 7, 2014 at 8:42 am |
        • Jen

          These were my ancestors not yours Zulu


          January 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm |
      • shaune

        Jen, Wikipedia is not a credible source for a discussion such as this. Using Wikipedia is like taking a knife to gun fight.

        January 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
  2. dreamhunk

    ancient Hebrews are black! way too much proof!

    January 6, 2014 at 9:04 am |
    • Jen

      They were arabs, not blacks from the jungle, like yourself

      January 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm |
  3. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 9:01 am |
    • Jen

      The Phoenicians were from Lebanon, Malta and Sicily, and they look the same now as they did then, take that chip off your shoulder, and stick with your own race and history, the Zulus

      January 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm |
      • dreamhunk

        where is your proof your just all talk!

        January 7, 2014 at 8:43 am |
        • Jen


          January 7, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
  4. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:49 am |
    • Jen

      They are the nubians which are not the arabs from palestine, so please, mind your own business concentrate on your own people from the sub sahara africa you did not build pyramids or anything else

      January 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  5. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:47 am |
  6. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:47 am |
  7. dreamhunk

    So what colour was Jesus?
    By Giles Wilson
    BBC News Online Magazine

    Jesus, ancient and modern
    A traditional Jesus, left, and the BBC's image of what he might have looked like
    Jesus has been named the top black icon by the New Nation newspaper. Their assertion that Jesus was black has raised eyebrows in some quarters – so what colour was he?

    Was he white, white-ish, olive-skinned, swarthy, dark-skinned or black? There are people who believe he was any one of those shades, but there seem to be only two things about the debate that can be said with any degree of certainty.

    First – if the past 2,000 years of Western art were the judge, Jesus would be white, handsome, probably with long hair and an ethereal glow.

    Second – it can almost certainly be said that Jesus would not have been white. His hair was also probably cut short.

    I think the safest thing is to talk about Jesus as 'a man of colour'
    Dr Mark Goodacre
    Yet the notion that Jesus was black – highlighted this week in a survey of black icons by the New Nation newspaper which ranked him at number one – is genuinely held by some. One school of thought has it that Jesus was part of a tribe which had migrated from Nigeria.

    And Jesus probably did have some African links – after all the conventional theory is that he lived as a child in Egypt where, presumably, his appearance did not make him stand out.

    Blue-eyed and brown-eyed Jesus
    Blue-eyed Robert Powell, left, and brown-eyed Jim Caviezel
    The New Nation takes it further: "Ethiopian Christianity, which pre-dates European Christianity, always depicts Christ as an African and it generally agreed that people of the region where Jesus came from looked nothing like Boris Johnson," the paper says. As light-hearted evidence that Jesus was black, it adds that he "called everybody 'brother', liked Gospel, and couldn't get a fair trial".

    But the truth, says New Testament scholar Dr Mark Goodacre, of the University of Birmingham, is probably somewhere in between.

    "There is absolutely no evidence as to what Jesus looked like," he says. "The artistic depictions down the ages have total and complete variation, which indicates that nobody did a portrait of Jesus or wrote down a description, it's all been forgotten."


    January 6, 2014 at 8:45 am |
    • Jen

      Jesus was a jew from palestine, he was arab , not sub sahara african, so please stop these lies, and now i know why the north africans cannot stand the sight of you from the sub sahara, you tell lies

      January 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm |
      • Dennis Arashiro

        I have no problem with the facts you present in your posts, but why are you so insistent about it? Why do you display such venom against sub Saharan Africa and its people? You could have just presented information in a matter of fact manner but chose not to. The emotion in your posts says more about you than the issue at hand.

        January 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm |
        • jen

          Because you keep lying all the time and claiming peoples and ancient structures that you did not build, that's why and I am sick of it

          January 6, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
        • dreamhunk


          January 7, 2014 at 8:05 am |
        • dreamhunk


          January 7, 2014 at 8:07 am |
        • dreamhunk


          January 7, 2014 at 8:10 am |
  8. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:22 am |
  9. dreamhunk

    more proof see look!

    January 6, 2014 at 8:16 am |
  10. dreamhunk

    black jesus hahaha

    January 6, 2014 at 8:14 am |
  11. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:13 am |
  12. Phly

    WOW...everybody knows Superman is WHITE, why are we still on this discussion?

    January 6, 2014 at 8:06 am |
  13. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:03 am |
  14. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 8:02 am |
  15. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 7:59 am |
  16. dreamhunk

    'Jews a Race' Genetic Theory Comes Under Fierce Attack by DNA Expert
    Israeli Scientist Challenges Hypothesis of Middle East Origins

    Read more: http://forward.com/articles/175912/jews-a-race-genetic-theory-comes-under-fierce-atta/?p=all#ixzz2pcfChLn8

    January 6, 2014 at 7:56 am |
  17. dreamhunk

    DNA Study Finds European Jewish Women Did Not Come From Middle East

    By Jonathan Vankin, Mon, October 14, 2013

    Another group of scientists has waded into the decades-old controversy over the origin of Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews, publishing their findings that show a mass conversion of European women to Judaism about 2,000 years ago.

    The study, based on tracing the lineage of mitochondrial DNA — a type handed down only from the mother’s side of the family — shows only that women were converts.

    “Jewish men may indeed have migrated into Europe from Palestine around 2000 years ago,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Martin Richards of the University of Huddersfield.

    Those men appear to have married European women who then converted to the religion of their husbands.

    Ahkenazi Jews are the largest ethnic group among the world’s Jewish population. The word means “German” in Yiddish and is used to label jews who live in, or migrated from Eastern Europe. But how a large contingent of Jews showed up in Eastern Europe in the first place has long posed a puzzle.

    The subject is a contentious one, due to the Jewish people’s claim on the land that is now Israel, formerly called Palestine. If modern Jews, or a large segment of them, were shown to have originated somewhere other than that land in ancient times, the Jewish people’s historical claim to Israel could be perceived as invalid.

    The writer Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book The Thirteenth Tribe, argued that Ashkenazi Jews did not originate in Palestine but in fact were descended from Turkish converts known as the Khazars. But Koestler was writing before the widespread availability of genetic tracing technology. Historians and scientists now consider his hypothesis largely discredited.

    Numerous genetic studies since the advent of that technology have shown that modern-day Ashkenazi Jews carry genetic markers that link them not only to Jews from other ethnic groups from other areas of the world, but also to Arabs and Palestinians.

    Those studies led to the “Rhineland hypothesis,” the scientific theory that the vast majority of modern Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to about 20,000 Jewish men who migrated from the Middle East.

    But the new study focuses only on women. It finds that most of the female ancestors of modern Ashkenazis have DNA that can be traced back to areas that is now Europe, 10,000 years ago.


    January 6, 2014 at 7:52 am |
  18. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 7:43 am |
  19. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 7:42 am |
  20. dreamhunk


    January 6, 2014 at 7:34 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.