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. ryanwin

    No appeal to Jesus ancestry will resolve this petty argument. Jesus was the son of Mary, but also the son of God. Nobody can say he wasn't white or otherwise. Drop it, folks.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  2. Snowdog

    Are you serious. What kind of ridiculous article is this??? People really need to get over this race issue.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Me

      I agree!!

      December 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  3. Vic


    December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Zip

      God, guns and guts.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  4. smgordon

    was jesus white? are jews white?

    next question: what place on earth is the point of orgin of jews/ jesus?

    would that not be where Israel sits today surrounded by arabs that are BROWN in color?

    how is it a white race of jews is in the middle east surrounded by arabs and not be arab themselves or brown for that matter?

    December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  5. Phillip Bunn

    Actually, Jesus is an alien so he is most likely gray.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  6. Gino

    We were in an older church last week that's now considered an historical site. one of the major stained glass windows has a 10' high image supposedly of Jesus.

    However, within the glass is a large area at the bottom that says, "IN MEMORY OF T.M. WIMMER".

    This finally proves that WIMMER was the man's last name.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Pizza

      Jesus Wimmer. Hey, works for me!

      December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  7. urr_qasdim

    Forget Santa; let's concentrate on the real guy here. Jesus (Yeshu'a), the son of Yoseph and Miriam, was a Middle-Eastern Jew and looked brownish like today's Arabs. Most of the paintings of Jesus were done by Northern European masters who never saw a Middle-Eastern guy, so their only models were fellow Northern Europeans. No wonder Jesus appears in those paintings in a way he couldn't have possibly looked in real life.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Gino

      Tell that to most stains.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  8. The GOP need to pack up and leave

    Jesus was middle-Eastern and Santa was an elf. It says so in the poem - 'a right jolly old elf' who drove a miniature sleigh and eight TINY reindeer. That's why he could fit down chimneys. He was tiny.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

      Perfect. 🙂

      December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  9. Miden Testea

    Jesus was whatever color people want to claim. Some claim him because they believe it holds power to associate with themselves. The story might be true but the images photos and stories are not. People have made money and exploited his name and likeliness in vain. The true facts and artifacts will and never be displayed because they are locked up. You will only get a book and lots of english letters when it was written in hebrew and the Pope dont speak hebrew. I never trust secrets nor someone telling me what to believe. If you want to believe he is white or black or yellow or red go right ahead. Its yours to believe not mine. Oh and Jewish people are considered white in America but a minority so they benefit from all governments contracts.. Figure that!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  10. Tony

    Jesus was Puerto Rican!!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • UncleBenny

      I thought he was Mexican.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  11. Robby Morris

    Um, there is zero proof of a historical Jesus. NONE. I find it fascinating that this myth persists as well. There is abundant proof that Christians existed as early as the 1st century CE, but none that a historical Jesus existed.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Robby Morris: Bart Ehrman, one of the most liberal biblical scholars on the planet (if not THE most), writes this in the forward to his book "Did Jesus Exist?"


      Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

      But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

      I was surprised because I am trained as a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity. But I was almost completely unaware—as are most of my colleagues in the field—of this body of skeptical literature.

      I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, or colleges of North America or Europe (or anywhere else in the world). Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

      These sundry books and articles (not to mention websites) are of varying quality. Some of them rival The Da Vinci Code in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge, not just of the New Testament and early Christianity, but of ancient religions generally and, even more broadly, the ancient world. But a couple of bona fide scholars—not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament—have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to most of the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a (very) small but (often) loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be.

      Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable. But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist.

      Serious historians of the early Christian movement—all of them—have spent many years preparing to be experts in their field. Just to read the ancient sources requires expertise in a range of ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and often Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, not to mention the modern languages of scholarship (for example, German and French). And that is just for starters. Expertise requires years of patiently examining ancient texts and a thorough grounding in the history and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity, the religions of the ancient Mediterranean world, both pagan and Jewish, knowledge of the history of the Christian church and the development of its social life and theology, and, well, lots of other things. It is striking that virtually everyone who has spent all the years needed to attain these qualifications is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure. This is not a piece of evidence, but if nothing else, it should give one pause. In the field of biology, evolution may be “just” a theory (as some politicians painfully point out), but it is the theory subscribed to, for good reason, by every real scientist in every established university in the Western world.

      Still, as is clear from the avalanche of sometimes outraged postings on all the relevant Internet sites, there is simply no way to convince conspiracy theorists that the evidence for their position is too thin to be convincing and that the evidence for a traditional view is thoroughly persuasive. Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing—whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of presidents, or even a presidential place of birth—will not be convinced. Simply will not be convinced.

      And so, with Did Jesus Exist?, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

      But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
      • Zip

        All those words and he cannot once point to any evidence.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
        • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

          Precisely. If it's so evident that Jesus existed, you would think the clear evidence would be more readily available.

          December 13, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
        • Russ

          @ Zip: it's the forward to the book. you want the evidence he's talking about... read the rest.
          (I can't believe i'm actually defending Bart Ehrman here, but that only illustrates the point he made in the 3rd to last paragraph.)

          December 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        It is believed that Jesus is in some sense eternal and can bring us to eternal life, but we can say few things with certainty about Jesus. Is the bit about eternity certain?

        December 13, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
        • Russ

          @ TTTOO: not for Ehrman. as he admitted, he's an agnostic with atheistic tendencies – which goes to the point: he's arguing FOR the historicity of the person of Jesus, even while disagreeing with the content of the teachings of said person.

          the OP was objecting to the existence of Jesus. if there was anyone who would be in his camp in biblical scholarship, it'd be Ehrman... and he's decidedly on the opposite stance. as virtually every biblically scholar agrees, Jesus did exist.

          but to your broader point, you don't have to be a Christian to believe there was a historical person. but that DOES bring the discussion to the accounts rather than dodging them by saying "well, there's just not enough evidence to know if there even was such a person..."

          so yes, let the discussion begin.

          December 13, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
      • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

        Since you are so clearly definite in your assertion about the reality of Jesus' existence, please provide, in plain, direct, and concise language, the single most compelling piece of stand-alone evidence available. Just the one - given your absolute degree of confidence, it shouldn't be too difficult. I will consider it.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • Russ

          @ stillwaiting: as i said above, this is the forward from Bart Ehrman's book "Did Jesus Exist?" if you want the evidence, read the rest... or even just read a good critical review online. that should give you a summary.

          and again, i'm not an Ehrman fan. he's on the opposite end of the spectrum from me. but if there was any biblical scholar who MIGHT argue that Jesus didn't exist, it'd be him... but instead he argues the exact opposite.

          December 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
      • Gino

        Give him this: he was one hell of a community organizer.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
        • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

          Note that this is assuming he WAS.

          December 13, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

      Yep. In the end it all only comes down to the Bible, which we know full well is no proof at all. Thanks for making the point.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
      • Gino

        Now, there' s a book of horror and fairy tales for you.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
        • stillwaiting aka Basho1644

          Indeed! The "greatest one ever written". 😉

          December 13, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  12. claudius1964

    I don't care what color Santa Claus is..... as long as he gets me a PS4 for christmas.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Santa Claus

      NIce try kid , I seen what you did with that goose. that was not nice at all.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  13. Roco

    Jesus is purple. I saw him at the airport last week.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Smurfs are purple and the first black cartoon.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
      • Cheryl Magnuson

        You are obviously color blind. Good.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm |
    • 1mill

      Yeah – I saw him too. Pure purple with a fancy shine. I swear he was there and he told me that every 10 years he changes his skin color to see what the blogosphere will write.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  14. Mick

    As we all know from TV and movies, Jesus was a blue-eyed, long haired Englishman.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  15. Realist


    ... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com...

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

    ............. emanates from the .............

    ... http://www.EvilBible.com


    December 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  16. David Park

    Biased news reporting at its best cough cough*. It is so evident that the purpose of this article to bash on fox news. If someone from CNBC or any other democratic media outlet said the same thing, this article would not exist. It's obvious Megyn Kelly is just fed up how people are sensitive to what color Jesus and Santa is. She wasn't saying trying to say that Jesus and Santa is white.... It doesn't matter! Grow up CNN.....

    December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • Cheryl Magnuson

      Please. Fox "News" is anything but. CNBC would never air such stupidity. Get over yourself.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
      • Ken

        Hahahaha. "CNBC would never air such stupidity." Oh wait, you weren't serious were you?

        December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      S-h-e d-i-d s-a-y "Jesus was a white man too".

      It is Ms. Kelly's own words that make her network look stupid.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • Eric

      Except she doesn't say "it doesn't matter", because she makes it clear it's important kids know that "Santa Claus is white". In other words, it's *not* important for kids to know that St. Nicholas really lived in Turkey rather than the North Pole, or that he wore a mitre rather than a red cap, or that he didn't have magic reindeer and a workforce of elves – but mess with his *color* and that's a whole other matter.

      Likewise Jesus. We don't know what Jesus looked like, but we sure as hell know he didn't look like the blond-haired, blue eyed Aryan ideal that's been depicted for centuries. On the other hand, turn the hue knob a bit in the *other* direction, and all hell breaks loose.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • the answer

      well she is biased herself. thank god i am an atheist. it is funny to see what the righteous people argue about

      December 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  17. JC

    Jesus is God's son. He is, most likely, seen as the Faithful want to see him.....

    December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  18. Tom

    No… Big... deal….

    December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  19. Serious Truth

    What a shocker! A man born 2,000 years ago in the middle-east has brown hair, blue eyes, & light skin. Wait, that doesn't make sense. Oops! I forgot religion is involved. Of course Jesus looks American.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • Dan J

      You've got to be kidding, right? Ask any anthropologist, and they'll tell you how there were blondes, redheads, blue eyes ad green eyes represented in the middle east throughout antiquity. Your ignorance is mildly bigoted.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  20. Vinny

    A Jewish Nazarean who is said to be a descendant of David and Abraham would be a Semite/Canaanite. A rational human being with a middle school education can tell you that a poor carpenter with that lineage and that part of the world, was likely brown, olive-skinned and closely resembled arabs. Modern Jews are a mix of Póllocks, Germans and Turks.....they look nothing like the wavy haired desert dwellers of yester-year.

    Use your brains, sheeple.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      African too.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Dan J

      And by today's standards, the U.S government recognizes arabs, nazarites, etc as white.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
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