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. Rima

    Scholars have long debated the exact ethnicity and nationality of Jesus. Recently, at a theological meeting in Rome, scholars had a heated debate on this subject. One by one, they offered their evidence……..

    THREE PROOFS THAT JESUS WAS MEXICAN: 1. His first name was Jesus 2. He was bilingual 3. He was always being harassed by the authorities

    But then there were equally good arguments that…. JESUS WAS BLACK: 1. He called everybody “brother” 2. He liked Gospel 3. He couldn’t get a fair trial

    But then there were equally good arguments that…. JESUS WAS JEWISH: 1. He went into His Father’s business 2. He lived at home until he was 33 3. He was sure his Mother was a virgin, and his Mother was sure he was God

    But then there were equally good arguments that…. JESUS WAS ITALIAN: 1. He talked with his hands 2. He had wine with every meal 3. He used olive oil

    But then there were equally good arguments that…. JESUS WAS CALIFORNIAN: 1. He never cut his hair 2. He walked around barefoot 3. He started a new religion

    But then there were equally good arguments that…. JESUS WAS IRISH: 1. He never got married 2. He was always telling stories 3. He loved green pastures

    But perhaps the most compelling evidence….. THREE PROOFS THAT JESUS WAS A WOMAN: 1. He had to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice when there was no food 2. He kept trying to get the message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it 3. Even when He was dead, He had to get up because there was more work = to do…..

    December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
    • Lux14

      LOL, this was funny. Thanks for bringing some humor to this debate.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Guy

      Very good Rima this is a "keeper" I'm going to send it to all of my dear Christian friends

      December 13, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • jo2

      Very funny!!

      December 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
    • Kaspar Almayer

      Oh man that was the most unfunny thing I've read in a while.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
      • Rima

        lighten up Kasper,No offense is intended. There have been arguments for thousands of years. NO ONE knows the answer Every culture portrays an image in thier ethnicity.The Chinese depict him as Chinese .The Virgin Mary appeared in 1513 to Juan Diego as a dark skinned woman who spoke in his language.The Lady of Guadelupe.Christopher Columbus and his crew who were deeply devoted to the Virgin Mary – not so surprising – after all his boat was named “Santa Maria” – but what is fairly obscure is that Columbus and his crew were attached to a dark skinned version of the Virgin Mary. Each night, at sunset, the crew sang songs to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe of Spain – a black Madonna.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  2. Hubris

    My Jesus is a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed hippy surfer dude who likes to smoke weed and who gives away all his money. In reality he probably more resembled the likes of Saddam or Arafat.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  3. Mary Ann Gore

    The nights I waiting up to see Santa Lucky Megan obviously saw him

    December 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  4. Christian Open-Minded White Mama

    Come on, Megyn. Jesus was a Sephardic (i.e., Middle Eastern) Jew. Whoever believes Jesus was "white" drank way too much altar wine...

    December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • quidestveritas

      middle easterners are "Caucasian" as the term was traditionally used.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  5. Brad4

    Santa Clause is not a real person but the myth in Western Civilization is that he is white. Not just white, but very white.

    Jesus was a real dude. He was not white or black.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  6. BlochWavefunction

    Jesus does have a verifiable presence even in secular primary sources, but literally every historical record (secular or spiritual) places Jesus in a geographical region where it'd be utter nonsense to treat him as Caucasian. So... What? What is going on here?

    December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • quidestveritas

      traditionally, people from the middle east are/were classified as "Caucasian."

      December 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Mario

      Try not speaking with such perfect knowledge. No secular 'primary sources' that i have ever laid eyes on, could/have verified the existence of this 'person'.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
  7. What

    So, Jews and Greeks are not white?

    December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Vinny

      Modern Jews are a mish-mash of Pols, Germans, Turks and Hebrews. In Jesus' time, the descendants of Abraham and David were Canaanites that were more closely related to Syrians and Lebanese Arabs. Brown or olive skin middle eastern people. So I guess if you consider brown people "white"....then he was white.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  8. Mario

    "If oxen and lions had hands and could paint with their hands and produce works of art, as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods likes horses and oxen like oxen. Each would represent them with bodies according to the bodies of each. So the Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians give theirs red hair and blue eyes."
    ~ Xenophanes of Kolophon (born: 570 BC died: 480 BC at age: 90) 530

    December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  9. mockngbirds

    Santa's come in all colors, white is one of them.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  10. Jim

    If Jesus ever existed at all (which is a real question at this point), he was a Jew living in the middle east....to think he had white skin and blonde hair is laughable

    December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Rob

      In the Scriptures he was described as his skin was the color of Ash

      December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
      • Vinny

        First...why would you even consider what was written in "scriptures" as anything other than stories/myth? Religious texts have always been questionable at best. He was a middle easterner of Canaanite descent. He was most likely brown/olive skinned.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Tyler Dykstra

    "White" as an ethnicity typically refers to European descent. Jesus was not born or raised in Europe; neither was Saint Nicholas, who was born a Greek in Asia Minor. He served as a bishop in modern day Turkey. Wrong on both counts Megyn Kelly. I'm offended as a Christian. This type of over-generalizing makes my faith seem like a European fairy tale that was created by and for white people. This reinforces the stigma in many places that Jesus is the "white man's savior." That is historically false and unverified. God is the God of all peoples. Important bishops, like Saint Nic–were not all painted white, they were actually somewhat diverse. Get your facts straight before you open your mouth on national television.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Robert McDowell

      I concur with your thoughts. In fact what I see still happening in the USA, is the Disney-ization of historical events. Little girls and boys are being brainwashed by Disney history. The media and our culture has purposely led people astray i the past that are too lazy to look up and read the real history. When I grew up in Southern California, our church had a picture of a dirty blond jesus. (remember the cool jesus in Dogma) I digress. Point is. If there were any black or brown people in the church, or if the Jesus looked less of the Sons of Anarchy type, (well the congregation would have walked out) So I learned that most people are biased who they worship with, whether they know it or not.
      For ministers to preach to people and make a living off the offering of the congregation, They have To preach to their audience, they make their surrondings familar. Does this make it legitimate worship or just a country club? That was always the question I had. I know now that religion should never get comfortable. Questions should be asked, it is better to worship with strangers who have a strong belief in God, (through Works). That is a personal question for all. Really, Do you think that Jesus would care what color his skin was ? Who of us could have chosen our skin color ? It was chosen for us..

      December 13, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
  12. GAW

    So much for anchors being anchors. Bring back Ron Burgundy.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  13. rwhite

    I dont know what the big deal is about one definite fictional character and another who may be historically enhanced.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  14. realist

    Anyone who knows anything about history, geography and human evolution knows that there were no caucasians ("white people") in that part of the world (modern day Israel) at that point in time (2,000 years ago). Not even the occupying Romans could be considered "white."

    The concept of Jesus as "white" developed in Western European art during the middle ages and the Rennaisance and ws a calculated effort on the part of the Roman Catholic church. And the rest, as they say, is history (however incorrect it may be).

    December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  15. bluevortex

    James H. Charlesworth (b. 1940) is the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary and thinks Jesus face was probably dark brown. St. Nicholas was a 4th century Christian saint who lived in what is now Turkey; it is unlikely that he was white; in fact a Russian 'icon' from the 14th or 15th century shows him as quite brown. Around the world, Jesus skin color and appearance has been changed to match local culture and features. I don't think we should minimize Megyn Kelly's claim that these two people were white but take it for what it is. What is it? Is it racist? My guess is that America is becoming more and more multi-cultural and just as whites have been dominant in the past, other 'colors' are becoming more assertive. In response, some whites want to re-assert 'whiteness'. What's happening is part of a historical process whose outcome we probably can't tell. I'm OK with whites wanting to assert themselves and the same for non-whites. I hope that we can all see ourselves as human (and American in America) and I hope we all move in that direction.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • lol??

      We?? You wanna be a socie leader?? It pays well.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Mr. Joe White

    Two Absolute Facts in my opinion:

    #1. Jesus will return in the blink of the eye.

    #2. That man will appear as black to all blacks, white to all whites, Mexican to all Mexicans, and Chinese to all Chinese etc! Want proof? Come to a mall in CA to visit Santa in Compton. Then go to visit him in a mall in San Diego. Then head over to a mall in Tucson AZ, then back to CA to visit Santa in a San Francisco mall! Funny thing is..., this will be Exactly how all people will see him at the time of his return! Think about it. Isn't anything possible???

    December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  17. JamesK

    Jesus, white? Just another example of their God being created in their image instead of the other way around.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • jane

      Kinda like the rest of the religious zealots and their masquerade gods

      December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Savior

    Considering santa was a german invention, calling him white makes sense. However, if your ant to call jeebus white, then you may as well call all arabs white since he's from the middle east. Oh, and if your argument is israel, just remember that the jews back form those days were sephardic (i.e. the kind of people you find in spain and portugal, a.k.a. not your traditional definition of white).

    December 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Chris Honry

      You must mean Southern Spain, where the Islmaic invasion happended long before the Crusades.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Cheryl Magnuson

      Since when is Germany near Turkey?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • quidestveritas

      Spanish and portugese people would be considered "white" would they not? and if Spanish and portugese people aren't white, one would think that neither are Italians or greeks. what about Turkish people, or Lebanese people? are they white? and if not, what are they?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • JamesK

      It's not just Jesus; his mother Mary is usually depicted as being more lily-white than an English woman kept in a basement apartment, and his dad, God, is super white. So white that his clothes are all white, so's his beard, and he lives up in the all white clouds of heaven. Same for his "brother" the Holy Ghost. Ever see a ghost that wasn't white? And how do they show that guy, but as a pure white dove! Yup, it's an all-white God, all right!

      December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  19. K Kim

    No Christian should assume that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 since the Bible makes it virtually impossible to discern a specific date. Celebrate Christmas (if you want) by giving the gift of life – the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven – to someone who has never known the blood sacrifice of Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • KellyP

      Oooh ... a blood sacrifice, like those of the Maya and various cannibal tribes?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • Atul

      Did you pass out saltines and fluorine cups at the company christmas party?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  20. truthtellerandfactfinder

    Let's be honest the earliest depiction of Christ was what???? Black, white Christians have been brain washing the world with the distorted facts about the color of Christ for so long that it is comical. Don't argue with me and call this racist (that's the new thing call the oppressed the racist) get off your lazy butts and do honest research of your own. Yes he was a jew however the early day jews did not look like my jewish brothers and sisters that you see today.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Honestanswer

      Jewish folk in biblical days varied in skin tone. But it would be more acurate to compare Christ to an Arab the a blonde European. He had a tan folks. But I don't think he had very dark skin as did the Black Africans during that time. Most christians dont want to except that Jesus was Jewish and that he lived and dressed and ate as a regular Jewish person did in those days and it may be awhile before they see the truth and except that he was also not white.. But anyways...MERRY CHRISTMAS...

      December 13, 2013 at 4:39 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.