Megyn Kelly of Fox News apparently thinks that Jesus was white. Yes, this is a rather unsophisticated claim, but not particularly surprising. It’s probably the case that all, or almost all, of the images of Jesus she has encountered depict Jesus as having European features. This is the most common representation of Jesus’ ethnicity in European and North American art. Should a national news persona be more informed than this? Yes, but, again, it isn’t surprising that she wasn’t.
In the early years of the twentieth century Albert Schweitzer wrote Von Reimarus zu Wrede, which came to be called in English The Quest of the Historical Jesus. The book surveyed about a century of scholarship on Jesus and then put forward Schweitzer’s own Jesus who was characterized by what he called “thoroughgoing eschatology.” In this work, he argued that from the various accounts of the historical Jesus we learn more about the scholars who produce the accounts than we do about Jesus himself; scholars tend to produce accounts of Jesus that reflect the scholars’ own values. This is no less the case in our own time than in Schweitzer’s.
As Kelly’s comment demonstrates, it is not simply biblical scholars who re-create Jesus in their own image, but artists, actors, preachers, and virtually anyone else who has an interest in Jesus’ portrayal. Forensic scientists have produced an image that might actually be somewhat historically accurate, but, then again, we really can’t know. If you’re not familiar with this image, visit Matt O’Reilly’s blog site and see his post on the “Popular Mechanics” Jesus.
The characteristics of the brave man are stiff hair, an erect carriage of body, bones, aides and extremities of the body strong and large, broad and flat belly; shoulder-blades broad and far apart, neither very tightly knit nor altogether slack; a strong neck but not very fleshy; a chest fleshy and broad, thigh flat, calves of the legs broad below; a bright eye, neither too wide opened nor half closed; the skin on the body is inclined to be dry; the forehead is sharp, straight, not large, and lean, neither very smooth nor very wrinkled.
The signs of the coward are soft hair, a body of sedentary habit, not energetic; calves of the legs broad above; pallor about the face; eyes weak and blinking, the extremities of the body weak, small legs and long thin hands; thigh small and weak; the figure is constrained in movement; he is not eager but supine and nervous; the expression on his face is liable to rapid change and is cowed. (LCL 3.807a.31-807b.13)
Physiognomic thinking was quite common in the Greco-Roman world. It was not simply the property of educated elites, but a mindset that permeated the culture. It appeared in both official biographies of emperors and popular novelistic biographies, such as the Life of Alexander. So why, then, did the tradition fail to pass down through the evangelists any physical description of Jesus?
Personally, my opinion is….
I don’t know.
Schweitzer said of Jesus, “He comes to us as One unknown.” How true that is, and in so many ways.