Was Jesus black?
It is the age old question that has generated years and years of debate. But according to most scholars, the answer is not a difficult one.
“Jesus was definitely a person of color,” said Rev. Dr. Mark A. Lomax, pastor of First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, GA.
The question has been discussed for centuries. And it prompts another debate: Why does Jesus’ race matter?
According to Lomax, who is also an Associate Professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center, there is no historical matter that gives a clue of Jesus’ phenotype.
“But one thing that is known for sure, Jesus was not European. His people came from Egypt. Egyptians are dark skinned,” he said.
Marvin Perkins agrees. He co-authored the Blacks in the Scriptures DVD series launched in October of 2007. He states the facts that support the theory that Jesus would have had darker skin.
“Where did Joseph and Mary take Jesus to escape as they sought to hide from Herod?” he said. “They went to a place where they could blend in and not stand out: Egypt, known for its people of color.”
It cannot be argued that these people were African, said Reverend Derrick Rice, founding pastor of Sankofa United Church of Christ in Atlanta, GA.
“As contrite as this statement has become, we have arrived at a point where anthropological evidence shows these people were definitely African,” Rice said.
He references John’s description of Jesus in Revelations as substantial support to the argument of Jesus’ race.
“We have been conditioned to water it down. But you get these descriptions of wooly hair and feet of brass,” he said. “It might not hold up to scholarship, but what John dreamt was clear. You must wrestle with that.”
The debate over Jesus’ race dates back to the late 60s, around the civil rights movement, according to Lomax. He said individuals like James Cone and other liberation theology architects began a “Jesus is black” push, but they were not referring to his phenotype.
“They were suggesting that Jesus is where black people are,” he said. “Cone, former AME church Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, and Marcus Garvey began asking ‘where is our black God?’ when whites were saying their God is white and Asians were saying their God is yellow.”
Perkins, who identifies as a black Mormon, dates the genesis of the debate even farther than that, to the 19th century.
In 1775, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach wrote about race in a dissertation as he was graduating from medical school.
“He suggested that the human family should be divided into races and purported that personality, character and aptitude of an individual could be determined by the color of their skin,” Perkins said. “The academic was fascinated by this idea, but some years later it was abandoned.”
By that time it was too late, said Perkins, adding man had something on his hand that could be used to oppress and destroy the self worth of their target audience.
Lomax calls this oppression the awful tragedy of slavery in America.
“Whites did not believe black folk were capable,” he said. “And as a result, blacks can’t imagine someone so close to God could actually be black.”
So much damage has been done that black is associated with sin and the devil; while God, heaven and righteousness are associated with white, Lomax suggests.
But should we care? Should it matter what Jesus’ racial identity was?
The experts say yes.
Lomax suggests knowing Jesus’ race helps all of us, not just members of the black community. Possessing this truth, he believes, allows the black community the freedom to see that their skin color is not an issue for God.
“So why is it for us?” he asked.
Rice said he cannot “hate on those” who don’t think it’s important, but thinks we all should.
“If you put 100 Christian people in a room one thing they will all agree on is that Jesus represents truth,” he said. “If that’s the case, why don’t we want the truth about him if we have access to it? There is a problem with that.”
Vincent L. Wimbush, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University and director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, suggests something more. He thinks it is important, but also believes the focus should be shifted.
“Sometimes without knowing it, we project our own collective selves on a figure, whether it is a religious deity or even a heroic figure,” he said. “Projection has always been a part of human history.”
For the sake of peace, he said, it is important for us to understand what we are doing. Projection and mirroring is perfectly okay and psychologically healthy, he argues.
“If something is more like you then you feel better about yourself,” he said. “The problem would be when one community’s image is forced upon every other community.”
As is the case of Jesus’ racial identity.
To date, said Perkins, scientists have determined that there is but one race, the human race, and we all are 99.99 percent alike.
At the end of the day salvation has no color, he said.
“The savior’s sacrifice, his life, his death and his resurrection was for all mankind,” he said. “His color will continue to matter to some until we are able to receive each other as equals; one human family, one human race.”
Lomax believes the truth is simple.
“Jesus was minimally a person of color,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”