White Christmas is Cancelled

It is a little disputed fact that the Christian Nativity story is set in the Middle East yet the dominant portrayal of Jesus is that of a white European man with straight hair. Although there is little description in the bible, the book of Revelations describes the Christian messiah as wooly haired and with bronzed feet – so how has a blonde and blue eyed Christ become the archetypical depiction?.

CNN June 2020

In the past artistic representations of Jesus were generally made in the likeness of local people affirming the Christian belief that (all) men were made in the likeness of God.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27 

“You go into their churches and you don’t see a White Jesus — you see a Black Jesus, or Chinese Jesus, or a Middle Eastern Jesus — which is of course the most accurate.

Archbishop of Canterbury

However as time passed, the dominant representation of Christ became that of a a white European. Over time this imagery has been misappropriated by some to promote ideas of racial superiority and has “othered” the Middle Eastern origins.

Just as decolonising the history curriculum is vital to challenging systemic racism and teacher bias in education, #decolonisingChristmas is equally important to challenging preconceptions of “good” ,”bad” “Godliness” and Middle Eastern culture.

As educators, a simple step towards rectifying these misconceptions is ensuring that we use images and resources that reflect the bible’s Middle Eastern origins.

Of course no one can say precisely what the Jewish man from ancient Palestine, that Christians believed lived over two thousand years ago, looked like – but this post is a collation of links, research, resources and historical conclusions relating to the region in antiquity and the impact of “white Jesus” on modern society.

As such the opinions and copyright for images are not owned by TAREN but are to shared here to encourage understanding, reflection and to diversify resources. #nowhiteJesus

What did Jesus look Like?

In this article Joan Taylor uses historical knowledge and primary resources to hypothesise what Jesus may have looked like.

Early depictions of Jesus

Rome adopts christianty as official religion and religious depictions begin to change.

In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan accepting  Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 323AD

Once Christianity became the accepted religion of the Roman Empire, representations of Jesus began to adopt European features. Revered artists of the time used images and models in their own likeness and iconography related to their old religion to create statues or paintings of Christ. Often status of Jesus were modelled on earlier statues of Zeus King of the Roman Gods.

During 1350 to 1600 A.D. Christian religious imagery was heavily influenced by European Renaissance art. Some of the best-known depictions of Christ, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel were created during this time.

The Last Supper was painted by Leonardo DaVinci.  The figures representing the twelve Apostles and Christ himself were painted from living persons.

The life-model for the painting of the figure of Jesus, a local choir boy Pietri Bandinelli was chosen first.  When it was decided that DaVinci would paint this great picture, hundreds and hundreds of young men were carefully viewed in an endeavor to find a face and personality exhibiting innocence and beauty, free from the scars and signs of dissipation caused by sin. None of these models however resembled the likely middle eastern appearance of a Jewish Palestinian from Galilee.

Looking at this self portrait of Leonardo Davinci, you can see the European features of long blonde hair and blue eyes which become synonymous with modern depictions of Jesus.

The Last Supper by Leonardo Davinci

Leonardo da Vinci used, as a model for his portray of Jesus in The Last Supper.

White Jesus and white supremacy

The events of 2020 amplified concerns about racism and the relationship between Europe’s history of colonization and Christianity. Many argue that the Westernised depiction of Jesus has been used as a tool of white supremacy and oppression. Although conflicts of religion, history, art and conquest began centuries ago, “whiteness next to godliness” ideologies are still negatively impacting world majority peoples today.

Olivia Pierce TED Talk Power of a portrait why Christianity is perceived as the white man’s religion.

The Head of Christ, also called the Sallman Head, is a 1940 portrait painting of Jesus of Nazareth by American artist Warner Sallman (1892–1968). The Christian popular devotional art, it had been reproduced over half a billion times worldwide by the end of the 20th century cementing the European depiction as “the real” Jesus Christ.  

Revisiting the holylands

When asked what’s the most significant influence the Middle East has had on European society, most British people would struggle for an answer at best- or make some reference to terrorism at worst.  Very few would say “Christianity”.

So why don’t we associate Christianity with The Middle East?

For linguistic reasons many Biblical names were changed to more Anglicized versions whilst translating The Bible. Although this made translation easier an aspect Middle Eastern culture was lost.

For example Abraham’s real name was Avraham (Ibrahim), and his sons were Yitzhak and Yaakov, not Isaac and Jacob. Moses was in fact named Moshe (Musa) and other examples include Jonathan (Yonatan), Benjamin (Binyamin), Jesse (Yishai), Joseph (Yosef) and Mary (Maryum). How often have you casted Yosef and Maryum for the annual nativity?

Another contributing factor the failure to recognise many of the ancient locations in the Bible by their current names.

Here are 40 maps crucial for understanding the Middle East — its history, its present, and some of the most important stories in the region today.

This table is a useful tool to place Biblical locations on a present day map.
The Ancient Country or People The Current Name or Region
Ammon, Moab and Edom     Jordan
Arabia Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and some of Iraq and Jordan
Aram  Syria
Assyria  Iraq
CanaanNorthern Israel and Southern Lebanon
CushEthiopia and some of Sudan, Somalia,and further regions on the African continent and Yemen
DecapolisNorthwestern Jordan and a small part of Israel
Dedan and ShebaSaudi Arabia
Magog, Rus and RoshRussia
Meshech and Tubal  Turkey
MidianWestern Saudi Arabia and Southern Jordan
Phoenicia Lebanon
PersiaIran and some of Iraq
Phut/Put   Libya and some of Egypt and North Africa
ScythiaSouthern Russia
TogarmahParts of Turkey, Turkomen, Turkestan and Armenia
TarshishCarthage (and possibly even Great Britain)
The Ancient CityThe Current Location
AlexandriaMediterranean coast of Egypt
AntiochNorthwest Syria (Coastal) – present day “Hatay”
Athens, Berea, Corinth, Philippi and ThessalonicaGreece
CyreneNorthwest Libya
Ephesus, Pergamum and SmyrnaWestern Turkey
Haran and Padan-aramEastern Syria
Iconium and LystraCentral Turkey
ShinarIraq – Ancient Babel and present day “Babylon”
Sidon and TyreWestern Lebanon (Coastal)
TarsusEastern Turkey
UrSoutheastern Iraq

additional resources

Book Trust Book List stories on Refugees – Younger Children

Book Trust Book List stories on Refugees – Older Children

P4C – Sainsbury’s Christmas Advertisement



Santa Claus/ Father Christmas



 Christmas imagery and illustrations


Leave a Reply