Fox News host Megyn Kelly caused some controversy when she declared, on her Wednesday evening show: "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that."
Santa comments aside, Kelly's insistence on a white Jesus has offended a number of people, who counter that Jesus's Middle Eastern ethnicity would likely have given him a darker complexion than that of, say, Kelly herself.
But the question of Jesus's ethnicity turns out to be far more complicated than simply identifying his ethnic background. It gets into issues of history, religion and the particular metaphysics of Christianity. I discussed the issue with Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions and author of the recent bestseller "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." His answers surprised me. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
WorldViews: What, as far as we know, did Jesus look like? What do we actually know about him?
Reza Aslan: Well, what we know about him is that he was Galilean. As a Galilean, he would have been what is referred to as a Palestinian Jew. He would look the way that the average Palestinian would look today. So that would mean dark features, hairy, probably a longer nose, black hair. To put it in the simplest way possible, he would've looked like me. [Laughs]
You're very modest.
But I want to make a larger point, which might be interesting to you or may not be interesting. What I just described is Jesus. What Megan Kelly described is the Christ. And they're different people! In other words, the Christ can be whatever you want him to be.
When you go to, for instance, the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth. They have commissioned Christian communities from all over the world to paint a depiction of Jesus and his mother Mary. They've displayed all those paintings, and when you look at, for instance, the painting from the United States, what you see is a blonde and blue-eyed Jesus.
When you look at the painting from Guatemala, what you see are Jesus and Mary as migrant farm workers. I don't mean they look like migrant farm workers I mean they are migrant farm workers. When you look at the painting from China, Jesus and Mary are Chinese, literally Chinese. When you look at the painting from Thailand, Jesus and Mary are blue, as though they are Hindu gods.
So, it's a much more interesting issue that arises from her statement: Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.
What is it about Christ, historically or religiously, that leads people to want to convey him in their own images?
That is the entire point of the Christ.
The reason that Christianity spread so rapidly in the first two or three hundred years before the Roman adoption of Christianity is precisely because it was an infinitely malleable idea. As everybody knows, before Roman Orthodoxy, there were a thousand different kinds of Christianity. It could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. And that is precisely why it is now the largest religion in the world, because it has the ability to be whatever a worshipful community wants it to be.
Let me put in in a little bit more of a metaphysical way, but I think it will make more sense. The foundational metaphor for God in Christianity is man. What is God? Christianity tells you God is man, and so man is the metaphor for what God is in Christianity, because God became a man in the form of Jesus. How do you know, how do you define God? Think of the perfect man. God is infinitely good, infinitely caring, infinitely compassionate. God is all the greatest human attributes that you can imagine. That's what God is. It's a sort of a central metaphor.
What that does, however, is that by saying that God is man, God is a man, it allows you to then define what man is. If you're Chinese, then God is a Chinese man. If you're Middle Eastern, then God is a Middle Eastern man. If you're a blond, blue-eyed, white suburbanite woman, then God is a blond, blue-eyed suburbanite.
This is precisely why Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Because that central metaphor allows you to then thoroughly absorb this conception of Jesus as God into whatever your own particular understanding of humanity is.
This is, by the way, why the fastest-growing Protestant movement in the United States is the Prosperity Gospel, this notion that Jesus wants you to be materially wealthy. Which, of course, goes against everything Jesus ever said or did, but is nevertheless enormously successful because, if you are a white, middle-class suburbanite, then so is your Jesus.
But doesn't that risk burying or ignoring the historical Jesus, who had a specific ethnicity, as distinct from the Christ?
They are distinct. I think that might be uncomfortable for some Christians to admit, and it may be weird for people to think about. But the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are two different characters. And that's okay!
They are two different characters, and that's sort of the principle argument of my book, that Jesus of history was a Jew preaching Judaism to other Jews. That's the Jesus of history.
The Christ of faith can be anything, anything that you want him to be, and has been whatever you want him to be throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian history. He is a rebel against the state, he is the state, he's both of those things.
But it seems like that distinction between the historical Jesus and the metaphysical Christ can create a lot of arguments because people will confuse the one for the other. And they want the historical Jesus to be like the Christ, or to be like their Christ. But he might not be.
Right, exactly. I know they want that, and that's why people like me, who write books like "Zealot," get in trouble. It's precisely because of that notion.
But I think there's this larger sort of fundamental misunderstanding that is at the root of what you're talking about, and that is this: There is a misperception that prophets create religions. Jesus did not create Christianity; his followers created Christianity. Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. The prophet Mohammad did not create Islam; his followers created Islam. Prophet Muhammad was reforming the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Arab region. The Buddha did not create Buddhism. The Buddha was a Hindu; he was reforming Hinduism. His followers created Buddhism.
Religions are man-made – literally – man-made institutions that are built long after the death of the prophet for which they are named. So the reason that I, as a scholar, don't have a problem with that differentiation between Jesus and Christ – these are two different things, and you can go back and forth between them – is based precisely on that one fundamental fact. Which is that Jesus didn't create Christianity -- his followers created Christianity. And so, of course, Christ of Christianity is different from the Jesus of history. And that's okay.