In recent days some have called for all images and statues of a white Jesus to be removed because, they say, it promotes “white privilege.” Shaun King, in particular tweeted “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.”
Shaun King is a civil rights activist and writer associated with such groups as BLM. He has also been embroiled in controversy with various fund-raising schemes he started and then ended abruptly. Some have claimed that the objects of his fund-raising charities never saw any of the money he raised. It is also quite interesting that Shaun is very light skinned black man. Some have even questioned his status as a black man since the people on his birth certificate designated as his mother and father were both white. He claims, however, that his real biological father was a light skinned black man.
I never knew who Shawn King was until his recent tweet garnered so much attention. Others have tried to make the same argument, namely that Jesus was not white and specifically that He was black. I want to address this issue here.
The Bible does not explicitly give details about the color of Jesus’ skin, but there are things we see in the scriptures that give us some clues. First, we know that Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was neither African nor European. Therefore His skin was neither African black nor European white. His skin was the color of the Jewish people in the first century. What was that color? Let us examine some scriptures.
As we begin, we must understand that all people today have descended from Adam and Eve. Adam was the first man and Eve was the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20). Therefore, all the variety of skin colors in the world have their origin in the genes God gave in creation to Adam and Eve. In a very real sense, we are all brothers and sisters by creation. The apostle Paul stated it this way, that God had made of “one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
It is also the case that 1,656 years after Adam and Eve were created that there was a genetic bottleneck of eight people during the time of Noah and that we are all also descended from Noah’s three sons. The table of nations found in the book of Genesis (chapter 10) shows that Noah’s descendants re-populated the earth. Shem gave rise to the Semitic peoples of the middle east. Ham gave rise to the black peoples of Africa and Japheth gave rise to the European nations.
Given the fact that their genetic material provided for all the skin variations in the world, Adam and Eve’s children could have been born with different colors of skin. However, it is also possible that as people moved into their respective locations in the world, the genetic material was isolated and differences, including skin color, facial features, body sizes and cultural differences, began to appear between those groups. In any event, the differences between us are real and tangible.
Now what do we know about the skin color of the Jews? The Bible tells us that Moses married an Ethiopian woman (Num. 12:1). The word translated “Ethiopian” comes from the word for Cush. Cush was the son Ham who was Noah’s son. The name Ham is derived from a word which means “hot,” “sunburnt” and “black.” The name “Cush” means “black.” So Moses married an Ethiopian woman who was black skinned. Miriam and Aaron used this issue to condemn Moses, though their real problem was jealousy of his authority. The objection to Moses’ marriage to a black skinned woman was just an excuse. But the fact that they used the color of her skin is significant because it shows there was difference between the skin colors of Moses, Aaron and Miriam and Moses’ Ethiopian wife. Jeremiah also draws a clear line between the color of the Ethiopian’s skin and the skin of the Jew when he writes, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jer. 13:23). From this we surmise that the Jew’s skin was not black like the Ethiopians.
Another interesting fact about Moses is that when he was just a babe his mother put him in an ark of bulrush and left him at the edge of the river where Pharaoh’s daughter could find him. When he was found and Pharaoh’s daughter opened the ark, she immediately recognized the child as “one of the Hebrews’ children” (Ex. 2:6). There evidently was something distinctive about the child which revealed his nationality. It likely was not his clothing for a babe that young probably had little clothing to identify it.
In another instance we find one of Solomon’s wives being described as black (Song 1:5,6). Notice that she defended her skin color by saying that she was “comely” and that the sun had burnt her skin. But the significant point here is that she was of a different color than Solomon so that she was compelled to address that issue. Solomon did not share the same color skin as this black woman. In fact, in the Song of Solomon, Solomon is described as “white and ruddy” (Song 5:10). This accords with the description given of Solomon, and ultimately Christ, as the white lilly of the valley and the red rose of Sharon (Song 2:1). This red (or ruddy) and white are often associated with one another.
“Ruddy” is the expression that is used to describe two other people in the Bible. First, Esau was described as coming out of the womb “red” or ruddy and hairy (Gen. 25:25). Then David, Solomon’s father, was also described as “ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to” (I Samuel 16:12; 17:42). The name of the first man, “Adam,” of course, means “ruddy” or “red clay” (cf. Gen. 2:7).
The word “ruddy” is defined by the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary as “(of a white person’s skin) having a red color, often suggesting good health.” Collins English Dictionary defines this word as “(of the complexion) having a healthy reddish colour, usually resulting from an outdoor life; 2. (Colours) coloured red or pink: a ruddy sky” (Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991). Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines it as “a healthy, reddish color. In two places in the Bible the word refers to the rosy complexion of vigorous health (Song 5:10; Lam. 4:7). As a boy, David was also described as ruddy (1 Sam. 16:12; 17:42). Some scholars believe the word in this case may mean that David had red hair” (Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). The King James Version Bible Dictionary defines “ruddy” as “redness, or rather a lively flesh color; that degree of redness which characterizes high health; applied chiefly to the complexion or color of the human skin; as the ruddiness of the cheeks or lips.).” A 1742 dictionary defines ruddy as “of a blood-red colour, flesh coloured.”
In describing the state of God’s people during the captivity, Jeremiah states that before the captivity “her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire” (Lamentations 4:7). Later, however, because of the hardness of their lives, “their 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 4:8). Here we see the natural state was again white and ruddy but because of hardships, their visage had changed.
Clark’s comments on this verse are representative of other commentators and so it is quoted here.: “‘In the first line the whiteness of their skin is described, and in the second, their flesh;’ and as גֶּזֶר gazar signifies to divide and intersect, as the blue veins do on the surface of the body, these are without doubt intended. Milk will most certainly well apply to the whiteness of the skin; the beautiful ruby to the ruddiness of the flesh; and the sapphire, in its clear transcendent purple, to the veins in a fine complexion. The reverse of this state, as described in the following verse, needs no explanation. The face was a dismal dark brown, the flesh gone, the skin shrivelled, and apparently wrapped round the bones.”
These are the indications, then, we get from the scriptures as to the color of the skin of the Jews. It was not naturally black. Naturally, their skin complexion was generally light. This was apparently seen as the idea picture of man. If that were the case for Jews throughout Bible history, should we expect anything different from Jesus of Nazareth? He was, after all, of the lineage and seed of David.
rHowever, in every group, there is a wide variety of colors. There are some white people who are darker skinned and some black people who are light skinned. Such variations exist even within a family. Ultimately, however, it makes no difference at all what the color of Jesus’ skin was. Red, yellow, black or white, we are all precious in His sight, as the song states. No matter what color His skin was He is still our saviour. What is more important is that one day we, who have obeyed His commands, will all be like Him for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:2).
Eric L. Padgett