Mayukh Saha
Mayukh Saha
February 8, 2024 ·  7 min read

Why Is Jesus Depicted As White?

Historians largely agree that a man named Jesus existed, without any consideration of any religious texts or beliefs. However, Jesus’ appearance remains disputed. Factually, Jesus should have belonged to the Galilean sect. He was also, most probably, born and grew up in the Middle East. As such, a Middle Eastern man would be the first guess for his appearance. However, today, the popular representation is of Jesus being white. Moreover, many Western Christians dogmatically defend this appearance. The long history of Western racism is definitely one of the reasons for this misrepresentation. However, there are quite a few other reasons behind it as well. Let’s go through them:

The Biblical Depictions Of Jesus Is Not Very Clear

The New Testament rarely describes Jesus’ or anybody else’s appearance. Moreover, particularly for Jesus, the descriptions are unworldly, to say the least. As such, there is hardly any solid proof to go by. In Revelation, John saw Jesus as: “The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire… His feet were like burnished bronze… His face was like the sun shining at its brightest” (1:14-16). From this one, we get to know he has bronze feet and white hair, nothing about his race.

On the other hand, in the Old Testament, “the coming Messiah” is described as “fairer than the children of men” (Psalms 45:2). Furthermore, according to Lamentations 4:7-8, “Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more swarthy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: Their visage is blacker than coal.” It is only believed to be talking about Jesus. However, if it were so, then while purer than snow, the Nazarites’ faces were black. Perhaps this was a closer nod to reality. Finally, all this imagery is largely symbolic and probably misinterprets Jesus’ literal visage. These descriptions also vary by Bible version.

The Traditional Relation Between Whiteness And Purity

The Bible often associates white with purity. Many depictions of Jesus describe him as “the lamb of god.” The holy spirit is also often seen as a white dove. Jesus may have become white because of this long-standing link between white and goodness/purity. Or, it could also explain a greater and graver misconception that came about from literally interpreting Biblical whiteness as pale skin. Perhaps it was a way of saying that anyone can have a snow-white conscience, regardless of race. Unfortunately, the literal reading was long used to justify racism and slavery.

The Early Christians Had Little Time Or Chances For Accurate Representations

Christians faced the Roman Empire’s persecution for decades after Jesus’ death. So they used symbols to express their faith and keep connected discreetly. The ichthyos, the Jesus fish still popular today, and the Chi-Ro, a monogram of the first two letters of the Greek word “Christos,” meaning Christ, are two examples. As such, there are almost no images of Jesus from the period when people would have known or remembered his actual appearance.

The Romans Had No Intention To Give Any Glory To The Shunned Minority

Artists in Byzantine depicted a white-skinned, bearded Jesus with his middle hair parted as early on as in the sixth century. Earlier depictions, however, depicted him with a darker skin tone. The reason behind this, according to Biblical historian Christena Cleveland, was probably because Jesus was an ethnic minority while he was alive. Yet, “Jews were marginalized by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jewish groups in many imperial cities.” Moreover, Jesus Christ was not silent as a minority. The Bible shows him being something of a vocal revolutionary. For example, he organized grassroots movements to help those in need against the elite rich. As such, the Roman Empire probably did not like such a God’s image being proclaimed everywhere. For Romans, being less brown and less radical would have probably been better.

Roman Art Became The Standard

After Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 5th century, Jesus’ popularity skyrocketed. For that time period, this meant a flourishing of displaying him via art. Constantine popularised the image of Jesus as a white man with long brown hair, a beard, and a halo. As much of the artwork was done in Rome (in Europe), they may have depicted their Messiah as having similar features, helping them relate to the idol better.

Fake Middle Age Documents Began Describing Jesus

With the rise in popularity of Christianity over time, people required physical images of Jesus Christ. However, there wasn’t any. So, they did the next best thing and made it up. A fabricated letter from someone named Publius Lentulus (about 14-37 CE) to the Roman senate describes Jesus as tall, wavy-haired, rosey-cheeked, and blue-eyed. The time period has no proof of any Lentulus existing. Furthermore, the letter’s words and references indicate that it was probably created in the 13th Century. Other claimed ancient representations of Jesus arose around this time. However, like the Lentulus letter, these are proven to have been created in the Middle Ages. By then, Jesus’ white depiction was already influential and commonplace.

People Saw White Jesus In Their Visions, Or So They Said

Many ‘miracle images’ and visions of Christ appeared throughout the Middle Ages, just like the fake earlier letters. The Image of Edessa is said to depict Jesus from a cloth he used to clean his face. Historians, however, have dated this towel image and other famous artifacts claiming to have recorded Jesus’ face to the Middle Ages. They were not from Jesus’ lifetime.

For Romans, Non-Believers And Non-Whites Were Synonymous

In the time of the Middle Ages, the Pope was running the Roman Empire. As such, the Crusades (Holy Wars) against Muslim troops in and around Jerusalem were the highlights of the time. These continuous religious wars were between European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims. As such, the Christian troops saw that their enemy, who were non-believers, were non-white. The Crusades’ purpose would falter severely Jesus Christ’s appearance was more like the enemies than themselves. As such, the white European depiction received more traction.

Artists Would Stand To Profit More From Painting Jesus As White

During this time, the consequences for artists who defied the Church and their Jesus depiction could have been very dire. For struggling artists, the choice between Christ’s false depiction and being burnt for heresy was a no-brainer. Artists also wanted their work to sell. Deviating from White Jesus’ mainstream image would have only run contrary to this wish.

White Jesus Was A Building Block For Slavery

Slavery was based on the idea that only white people had morality and other faculties of the higher order. This view held that Black Africans had souls, but that they were hidden below their “heathen“-ness. As such, Europeans had a “Christian duty” to bring that soul out or “convert them”. White Jesus was crucial to justifying the fight over the slave’s soul. Francesca Ramsey, a researcher, explains that “white supremacy” was vital in the colonizing and slavery program of Europeans. How could there be “white supremacy” if the God’s message they followed was not white?

The Nazi Connection

Europeans popularised white Jesus during the Middle Ages to further their racial and political agenda against Arabs. This misuse to justify racism has happened multiple times since then. One of the most popular and significant ones added to the backdrop of World War 2. In the 1800s, anti-semitism rose in popularity, alongside the depiction of Jesus being Aryan or Nordic. Scholars tried to remove the Jewish background of Jesus. This resulted in the Nazi’s “Positive Christianity.” 

For Popular Media, Jesus Remains White

One of the most powerful modern influences in the world, the United States has continued depicting Jesus as white in movies and television. Historically, only white actors have been cast for the role such as Willem Dafoe and Christian Bale. White actors have played Christ in most 20th-century Jesus films. It was only in 2015’s “Killing Jesus” that a man of Middle-Easter origin and appearance, Lebanese Haaz Sleiman, was cast in the role of Jesus in a major film in English Language.

Fresh Attempts At Determining Jesus’ Race Continue To Be Vague

Based on computer imaging of 1st-century CE Jewish skulls, BBC claimed to reveal Jesus’ “real” visage in 2001. Biblical evidence implies Jesus looked like other locals. In the New Testament, Judas’ kiss identifies Jesus to his captors. If his appearance was that distinct, surely this act would not have been necessary. Naturally, BBC’s new Jesus was darker-skinned than typical white Jesus representations. However, he was simply described as “olive-skinned” and “swarthy,” which leaves his race uncertain. As such, there remains room for White Jesus supporters to say he was tan, not Arab.

Historians Do Not Have Enough Proof To Determine Jesus’ Race With Absolute Certainty

Historians are almost absolutely sure that Jesus was not white. However, what his exact appearance was, can only remain a conjecture. A human, who has been so widely believed to be God, cannot have unbiased representations at this point. Moreover, when doubt exists, people will unfortunately believe Jesus was white. Why? According to Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast, “[at] best, the assertion of Jesus’s whiteness reflects ignorance. At worst, it’s a sign of racial prejudice.”

White Jesus Is The Most Oppressive Of Any Other Kinds Of Jesus

So, with all these reasons, it is reasonable to wonder if other races and ethnic groups depict Jesus in their image. Surely, there should be Black and Korean Jesuses. Then, why the excessive attention and criticism of White? They are correct, partially. They do exist. However, the main distinction is that Black and Korean Jesus hasn’t been utilized to subjugate people like White Jesus.


  1. Why Is Jesus Depicted As Being White?Ranker. Elle Tharp. April 15, 2022.