Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 17, 2013

Why The Western Church Needs To Recover Jesus’ Middle Eastern Ethnicity

There has been quite a buzz in the media this past week about Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly’s statement, “Jesus was a white man, too . . . that’s a verifiable fact.” People have been quick to point out that this is not actually very accurate. Kelly has since attempted to recant her statement by saying, “I also did say Jesus was white as I’ve learned in the past two days, that is far from settled.”

While there has been a lot of debate over the centuries about the exact ethnicity of Jesus, the fact that he was not an aryan or caucasian male is pretty much settled. Even American evangelist Billy Graham argues in his memoir Just As I Am that, “Jesus was not a white man.” As Comedien Stephen Colbert aptly put it this week, there were not very many blond hair and blue eyed Aramaic speaking Middle Eastern men in the first century!

When I was at Duke’s Summer Institute we took a closer look at the ethnic background of Jesus. Many scholars believe that Jesus was an Afro-Asiatic Jew who would have had dark skin and short dark hair. Back in 2001 forensic anthorpologist Richard Neave and New Testament Scholar Mark Goodcare attempted to recreate the face of Jesus. You can read more about this project by clicking here. Though there remains a lot of uncertainty about the exact look of Jesus, this is the image that Neave and Goodcare came up with.

I believe there is something more at stake here then just getting the color of our stain glass windows right. Recovering the true ethnicity of Jesus of Nazareth may help to challenge some of the false ways that Jesus has been accommodated to American culture.

In his book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Soong-Chan Rah argues that the white church in America has been heavily influenced by American culture. For example, he shows how the American value of individualism has shaped our spirituality. We often frame our spiritual life as a “personal” relationship with God that sometimes neglects the corporate and social dimensions of our faith. Similarly, the American value of consumerism has shaped how we measure success and run our churches. We equate success with attendance growth and financial stability, make decisions based on secular business models, and utilize modern marketing strategies that can create spiritual consumerism.

There are more extreme examples that could be cited as well. I was driving down the I-5 a while back and read a patriotic sign that said, “Give me my God, Gold and Guns.” Slogans like these are clearly drawing more on American culture than New Testament teaching. Jesus does, after all, say that we cannot love both God and money, and he seems to promote a rather non-violent ethic through his death on the cross. A lot of times Jesus is filtered through the lens of our current culture. If we are not attentive to the context of the scriptures we can easily start to create Jesus in our own North American image.

If we recover the fact that Jesus was a dark skinned Middle Easter man, perhaps we might be compelled to reassess the cultural assumptions we bring to bear on our faith. Perhaps we might be encouraged to value the voices of non-western Christians that have much to teach us about holistic evangelism and worship. Perhaps the church would become less segregated. Perhaps we might expand our social conscience to include a concern for the rights of immigrants or global economic injustices.

This Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Maybe this time around we might benefit from reflecting on the fact that our savior was born as an Afro-Asiatic Jew in the Middle East.


  1. You are able to speak a truth with great grace.Helps me to know that there are a few other voices out in the country and domain where I live when it comes to some western interpretations of who the Messiah is and what he was really about. Thanks for sharing. Henry

  2. Social justice is a messy, uncomfortable and self evaluating process, and the call of Christ to all that are part of the body. Coming into the building we call church, should be the continuation of our worship from all week, not the moment we take out to remember our committments. This Middle Eastern, First Century Jewish Jesus called us into action and asked us to self evaluate, be uncomfortable and to get into the messy bits of life.
    Great article. Thank-you!

  3. Part of this conversation requires us to understand that there are diverse ethnic divisions within Judaism resulting from years of exile and dispersion. There are three main ethnic subgroups within the Jewish tradition. They are as follows:
    Ashkenazic: Descendants of Jews from France, Germany and Eastern Europe
    Sephardic: Descendants of Jews from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa
    Mizrachi: Descendants of Jews from the Middle East

  4. Can anyone help me with next years C’mass cards? Joseph needs some nice terrorist threads and Mary shows just too much skin. Perhaps the wise guys need some weapons. Peace on earth, well, not quite yet.

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