Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Was Jesus Black?

Christmas is coming, and soon we’ll be entrenched in all the Christmas themes. In a recent conversation, a friend casually said to me, “Well, you know Jesus was black, don’t you?” Needless to say, this led to a long conversation.

I researched this over 15 years ago, and did find that there is sufficient Biblical evidence to say that Jesus was indeed of mixed ancestry, including African. But whether or not that makes him “black” depends on whose definition you use.

Many have heard of the “black Madonna” and believe that to be a carryover from when everyone believed Jesus had African ancestors in his lineage. But that’s not “proof,” anymore than we can say it’s “proof” that Santa Claus is black because we saw a black Santa Claus last Christmas in Harlem.

Where is the proof? I have actually seen Old Testament quotes used to “prove” that Jesus was black. But you can’t use Old Testament quotes for proof, since those quotes were written before Jesus was born!

And you really can’t rely on the book of Daniel or the book of Revelation for proof of Jesus’ African ancestry either since those books are highly symbolic and prophetic and subject to diverse interpretations.

Many of the Old Testament quotes that are used to “prove” that Jesus is black are King James translations, and if you read from another Bible translation – such as the Lamsa Bible translated out of the Aramaic – there would be no “evidence” whatsoever there to suggest anything about Jesus being black.

The key to Jesus’ ancestry is to look at the genealogies listed in the Bible, specifically Luke 3: 23-31, and Matthew 1:1-17. Note carefully that most such lineages list only the male line, but there in these lineages (both a bit different, by the way), we are told of at least four of the women in Jesus’ genealogical line. These are Rehab, Ruth, Tamar, and Bathsheba. Rehab (also spelled Rahab) was a Canaanite. Tamar was probably a Canaanite. Bethsheba, often referred to as a Hittite, was more likely Japhethic, that is, not a descendant of Ham. (However, this is not clear). Ruth was in the line of Ham.

Now, who was Ham? Who were the Canaanites and Hittites?

According to Genesis 9:19, all mankind descended from Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth as they spread throughout the world. Ham’s descendants became the black people who settled in Africa, and parts of the Arabian peninsula. His sons were Cush, whose descendants settled in Ethiopia, Mizraim, whose descendants settled in Egypt, Put, whose descendants settled in Libya, and Canaan, whose descendants settled in Palestine. The descendants of Cush were the main populace of the Cushite Empire, which extended from western Libya to Ethiopia and Nubia, all of present day Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula into the mountains of Turkey. They spoke several languages and had skin pigmentation ranging from dark black to medium brown.

It takes a bit of study to ascertain who these people were – and there were other possible African women in Jesus’ lineage as well – but, in general, when we are speaking of Cushites, Canaanites, descendants of Ham, etc., we are speaking of Africans. It is entirely possible that this wasn’t a big deal when the scriptures were written since Jesus’ racial background would have been regarded as common knowledge.

Still, nowhere in the Scriptures can one find definitive descriptions of Jesus’ ethnicity or physical appearance. It just isn’t there. But the clues are there. He was obviously a Jewish rabbi, trained in the Jewish ways, whose background included people from all parts of the known world at that time.

Was Jesus black? It all depends upon how you define “black.” He was clearly a cosmopolitan man.

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