What Race Was Jesus?

In a silly conversation about whether Santa Claus is white or black, I understand that a network commentator recently said that like Jesus was white.

So to which race did Jesus belong? It depends on what you mean by that question.

What Did Jesus Look Like?

Do you mean, “What did Jesus look like?” We don’t know the answer to that question, except in the broadest sense. We have no images crafted by his contemporaries.

About a decade ago, Popular Mechanics published an image that was based on a forensic reconstruction of the kind you see on television shows like Bones and CSI. Using a number of first century skulls from the area near Jerusalem, British forensic anthropologists created digital and physical models of a typical skull from region. Then they layered clay on the model to represent the soft tissue layers.The shape of face that you see in the photo to the left probably represents a pretty typical Jewish man in first century Judea. The skin pigment, hair color and length, however, are not based on forensic evidence but on artistic representations from first century archaeological sites. It’s a reasonable approach, but by no means as solid as the forensic reconstruction of the skull and soft tissue. Some of the team’s conclusions seem silly. For example, the team decided that Jesus must have had short hair because Paul told the Corinthians that it was a shame for a man to have long hair. That’s pretty shaky reasoning in my book.

But let’s assume that Jesus looked exactly like the man in the photo. To which race does this man belong?

Race as an Administrative Category

The United States government – specifically the Office of Management and Budget – says that Jesus is white – or at least he would be if he were answering questions in the decennial U.S. census. According to the Census Bureau, a member of the white race is defined as

A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa

And it says that its categorizations of race

generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.

In other words, the Census Bureau says that it defines race in this way because that’s the way that most Americans define it. It’s the commonly accepted understanding of “White” – at least when the other choices are Black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander.

There is immense physical variety in each “race” identified by the Census Bureau. In the Census Bureau’s reckoning, the “original people” of India are the same race as people from Korea, but not the same race as people from Saudi Arabia. Palestinians are the same race as Swedes, but not the same race as the Pashtuns of Afghanistan.

Race as an Anachronism

While you would have to be blind or a fool not to notice the physical differences between people, the ancient Mediterranean world – the world of Alexander and Caesar – did not necessarily conceive of race in the same way that later Europeans often did. The Roman Empire spanned from northwest Europe to the borders of Persia to the northern tier of Africa. In the ethnically diverse Roman Empire, class, citizenship and social relationships mattered more than racial characteristics. To be sure, the ancients had their prejudices about various people-groups, but these didn’t always align with modern concepts of race. The question of Jesus’ race, then, is anachronistic. For the Romans, Jesus was simply a Judean, and a non-citizen subject of Rome.

Race as a Social Construction

The census bureau mentions the “social definition” of race and contrasts it with biology and genetics. Race is indeed a social construction. In Europe, the use of “race” as an explanatory category didn’t really begin until the 17th century, with the near simultaneous rise of scientific classification and the expansion of European colonization into Africa, Asia and the Americas.

As Rome dissolved and its power ebbed, less-powerful princes each came to rule their respective petty fiefdoms. European powers became isolated from the rest of the world, but over time they were linked to each other by ties of royal kinship.

When Europe became technically and economically strong enough to exert itself once again in Africa and the Americas, it found justification for colonization and slavery in the emerging concept of “race” – a broad grouping of people with similar physical characteristics. With the dawn of science, some people claimed that there was biological justification for their domination and exploitation of others. Some races were just superior, and others inferior. And when you look at the world through the lens of race, that‘s what you see, maybe even in the pages of the Bible.

Racial thinking did not always confine itself to the color of one’s skin. For the Nazis, the white people of Eastern Europe were subhuman. Slavs, Romani, Jews and a host of others belonged to another race. Only the Aryan race – which consisted of western and northern Europeans – was destined to rule the world.

In the west, recent social critics have tended to divide the world between whites – people of European ancestry – and people of color – everyone else. In this construct, whites have inherited a privileged place in society because of the explicit racism of their forbears and the inherent racism still present in the resulting social structures. Non-whites are a victim of social, economic and political injustice, both past and present. And while academic social theories sometimes border on meaningless nonsense, again, you would have to be blind or a fool not to notice that race plays an important role in American society.

Of course assigning people to a social class based on physical characteristics has not been limited to people of European descent. You will find varieties of it in other parts of the world as well.

Racialists, then, have not always described the world in the same way. There is no agreed-upon framework of who belongs to which race or how race ought to work within society. That’s because the underlying concept is a fraud and an illusion.

Race as a Pseudo-Scientific Illusion

In the early days of modern science, people tended to look at race as an objective scientific category. It seemed obvious to them. Just like there are different kinds of beasts of the field and birds of the air, there are different kinds of humans. Each could be categorized and studied, and its essential nature discovered. Now, we know better.

What we see as race is simply an illusion, an artifact of relatively recent evolution among genetically isolated human populations. When the genetic isolation disappears, so do the apparently set-in-stone racial characteristics. The deep gene pool of humanity is capable of producing a kaleidoscope of physical characteristics.

What Race was Jesus?

So to which race did does Jesus belong?

The human race.

The Book of Common Prayer has this beautiful prayer:

O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The prayer alludes to Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:26 in the King James Version):

[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.

The word became flesh and lived among us. Jesus was born a member of the one race of humans. I look forward to the day when that’s how we see everyone.