You've probably heard by now that Fox News host Megyn Kelly has gotten herself into a bit of a racial controversy for claiming that Santa Claus and Jesus were both white. The comment came in an interview in which she was responding to this post by Aisha Harris at Slate. Check out the video above. You can hear Kelly's regrettable comment about Jesus shortly after the 1:45 mark.
Let's begin by getting the Santa nonsense out of the way. Who cares how Santa Claus is portrayed? He's imaginary, not real. So imagine him however you want - black, white, penguin, puppy - it doesn't matter. Sure he's loosely based on the 4th century figure of St. Nicholas, but let's not pretend that the the jolly ol' fellow doing photo sessions down at the local mall bears much resemblance to the heretic punching Nicholas of Nicaea.
Much, much, much more importantly is the question of Jesus' ethnicity. Let me say emphatically that if there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain, it is that Jesus of Nazareth - who ministered by the waters of the Sea of Galilee and traveled around Judea proclaiming the inauguration of the reign of God - was not white. He was a Semite, a Jew, a native of the Middle East. Like others in that region he would have had a dark or olive complexion.
Back in 2002, Popular Mechanics ran a piece called "The Real Face of Jesus", in which they reported how they fed a lot of data on the physical characteristics of first century Jewish men (based on some well-preserved remains) into a computer in order to produce the image of what Jesus may have looked like. The result is the picture to the left. We do not, of course, know for sure what Jesus looked like, but this guy would have probably fit in nicely in Jerusalem in the first century. And I guarantee you that Jesus looked more like this than the weird illustrations in my kids' Bible story books.
Jesus Then and Now
Now you may have noticed that the title of this post doesn't put the question of Jesus' skin color in the past tense, and this is what I'm really interested to get to. The question is not what did Jesus look like, but what does Jesus look like. The question of Jesus ethnicity is important not only because Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century, but also because Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and is alive even now. The Semitic Jesus who was born of Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus is the same Jesus who now reigns over all creation. The question of Jesus' ethnicity matters not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but more importantly for the sake of knowing the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who even now makes intercession for us, the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead and whose kingdom will have no end. Jesus is a real person, and we need to do the best we can to think of him rightly. We don't get to remake him in whatever image suits our preferences. We need to reckon with the reality that right now, at this very moment, the one who is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and who reigns over heaven and earth has Jewish skin, a Jewish body, and a Jewish face.
It's almost Christmas, and the point of Christmas is not so much that Jesus is another year older. The point is the Incarnation, the reality that the eternal God who made all things has come down from heaven and taken on human flesh for us and for our salvation. The Jesus we worship and who reigns over all is the King of the Jews, the Son of David, the seed of Abraham. To borrow language that Paul picked up from Isaiah, he is the Root of Jesse sprung up, who has risen to rule over all the nations. In him the Gentiles will hope, and we do.