Chelsea Johnson | Editor-in-chief
Take down your paintings and crucifixes, folks. Author and professor Paul Harvey talks about how Jesus really wasn’t white—and where on Earth we got the idea from.
Paul Harvey, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, studies racial anthropology. He co-authored the book, The Color of Christ, which explores the American tradition of the caucasian symbol of Jesus Christ. Although he mentions that the historic view of Jesus as so has long been debunked, his pure white image remains.
“If you Google Jesus, you will find at first a plethora of white images, before other kinds of images come your way,” said Harvey. That’s a product of a long history in America of the whitening of Jesus.”
Most are familiar with the image: flowing, feathered brown hair, blue eyes and a groomed goatee. Yet, few are aware that the classic image of Jesus is believed to come from a painting of Pope Alexander VI’s son, the blood-thirsty Italian cardinal, Cesare Borgia. (Also known as Jeremy Irons from the Showtime series, The Borgias—for the three of you who watch the raunchy attempt at a historical remake.)
The issue of the image of a white savior becomes especially troublesome when examining the perspective of minority groups who’ve experienced racial oppression from white people groups. Harvey explained that in many ways, minority groups of the past simply had to accept the image, regardless of what it represented. “African American, Native American and other ‘minority’ Christians couldn’t help but deal with the image of a white Jesus; it simply was omnipresent all around them,” said Harvey.
Yet, in light of the majority culture’s view—or rather, the reigning culture’s view of Jesus—many converted the white image of Jesus to that of their own race. “It’s what we call a ‘trickster of the Trinity,’ meaning that a white Jesus could subvert white supremacy as easily as [he could] uphold it,” said Harvey.
He referenced instances where slaves accepted the image of Jesus offered to them by slaveholders and instead used the image to “enforce notions of self-worth and liberation that was quite contrary to what the slaveowners had in mind,” said Harvey. “So Jesus might appear ‘white’ in their visions of him, but he was a white man allied with them.”
Harvey views the historic Jesus as a man who has always been “multiracial,” coming from what he describes as “the crossroads of the world.” His work focuses on displaying race as an ever-changing construct invented to serve social purposes. The image of Jesus has simply become “a subject of that larger project.”
In regard to whether the view of Jesus as a subject of race will continue to evolve, Harvey might say we’re using the wrong words. In fact, he wouldn’t use the term “racial makeup” at all and would instead attribute the concept to an attempt to construct racial hierarchies.
And still, regardless of word choice, there seems to be hope for the remaining disillusioned few. “It’s safe to say that there’s a recognition of Jesus’s roots, and therefore appearance, in the ancient Middle Eastern/North African world.”
In that case, perhaps we should begin to recast our frescos and pull out our paintbrushes. Oh, and someone might want to tell the casting director for the old Jesus of Nazareth movie that, chances are, Jesus didn’t have bright blues.