What race can Jesus be?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
December 23, 2021, 10:17 AM UTC

The debate as to Jesus Christ’s ethnicity has been going on for a long time, perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Christ is commonly depicted as being a White man, with the Washington Post crediting Warner E. Sallman’s 1940 painting “Head of Christ” – which has since been reproduced a billion times ­– as playing a key role in this. 

The image of Christ as a man with white skin and blue eyes would appear to be at odds with what is likely, given the biblical account of his family hailing from the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, Britons are far more likely to say they usually see Jesus being depicted as White (58%) than Middle Eastern (22%).

This is despite the fact that a Middle Eastern Jesus is the one that makes most sense to Britons. Two thirds (68%) say it would be acceptable to depict Christ as having Middle Eastern racial characteristics, compared to only 9% who disagree.

This is slightly more than the number of Britons who say it’s ok for the Son of God to be shown as being White (63%). These figures are in line with those from the same study conducted in America by YouGov USA last year.

There is a noticeable age difference on these two characterisations: while opinion is near identical across all ages for a Middle Eastern Jesus, younger Britons are less accepting of a White saviour (51% of 18-24 year olds, 61% of 25-49 year olds) than their elders (66-67% of those aged 50 and above).

British Christians are slightly more likely than the wider public to say it is acceptable to have a White Christ (69%), while the same number find a Middle Eastern Jesus to be ok (68%).

Ethnic minority Britons are substantially less likely to say that depicting Jesus as being White is acceptable, with just 40% saying so (including 36% among Christians from ethnic minority groups). The majority do see a Middle Eastern Christ as fine (60%).

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has highlighted previously that in many locations of the Anglican church Jesus is presented as having localised racial characteristics. The Archbishop himself gave examples of having seen a Black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus and a Fijian Jesus.

Far fewer Britons are ok with other racial depictions of Jesus, although people are still more likely to see them as permissible than not. Depicting Jesus as being Black is seen as acceptable by 44% to 27%, a South Asian Jesus (e.g. of Indian or Pakistani appearance) by 40% to 30%, and an East Asian Jesus (i.e. of Japanese or Chinese appearance) by 37% to 32%.

While Christian Britons are generally about as likely to see such interpretations of Jesus as being acceptable as the wider public, they are also 5-6pts more likely to say they are unacceptable.

Ethnic minority Christians are about as likely as the wider Christian population to say that representing Jesus as Black or Asian is acceptable, and are slightly less likely to say that doing so is unacceptable.

See full results here and here

See also: What gender is God?