Are There White People in the Bible?

Left: Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop (1899), oil on canvas, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Joseph E. Temple Fund, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. Public domain. Below: Black Lives Matter protest, Nashville, Tenn., June 4, 2020.

The Swiss anti-fascist theologian Karl Barth is well-known for advising people to read Scripture with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he lived today, would he have advised the same when using our smartphones and scrolling through social media feeds?

That’s what I was doing when I came across one of the popular images of 2020: a White woman at a Black Lives Matter demonstration with a placard that read “There are no White people in the Bible (take all of the time you need with this).” That seemed like something worth taking time over.

White Christianity has often depicted characters in biblical scenes as pale-skinned. Given the people’s origins and location, this is unlikely. Christianity in its origins was a movement consisting principally of colonized people who suffered under military occupation in the Middle East and Africa. The opening lines of Matthew even give us a family tree that shows Joseph, a many-times grandchild of Abraham and Sarah, as the descendent of migrants from what is now Iraq.

The early part of the Acts of the Apostles gives us a taste of the diversity of the early Christian movement: it mentions people from the places now called Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territories. The first non-Jewish person to join the movement was a eunuch from Ethiopia who worked in what is now Sudan. (As I list these countries, I can’t ignore that many of them were on Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban.)

Does that mean though that there are no White people in the Bible? Race isn’t only about color; it is a social system about power. In this respect, the Bible shows systems of inequality that are all too familiar. Although it’s true that the Roman army was much more ethnically diverse than White history often chooses to remember, it’s likely that at least some of the Roman occupiers would have been—what we now call—of European descent.

I think there is one person in the Jesus movement who we can be pretty sure was White by something close to our current definition of the term. His name was Cornelius, a Roman soldier of the “Italian regiment,” who to everyone’s surprise asked to join the movement: the second Gentile to do so. No one seemed to have worried when the first non-Jew joined (the Ethiopian eunuch working for the Kingdom of Kush). That is perhaps because that kingdom did not oppress the Hebrew people, and was a historic opponent of Roman imperialism. In contrast, the prospect of an oppressor joining leads to an almighty row, which in different forms continues through the Book of Acts, as Paul takes the movement through the Greco-Roman world. One might imagine the debate in today’s context if a lot of White police officers started joining Black Lives Matter groups.

The controversy in Acts is finally resolved when Peter and James agree that the Greco-Roman gentiles Paul is converting do have a place under certain conditions; afterall, the Spirit had been poured out on all people at Pentecost. But White readers would do well to read this passage with humility. Christianity’s beginnings are in what we’d now call a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led movement to which people of European descent were only a later addition. As some must have feared from the start, White Christianity has often acted much more like the Roman Empire than it has like the Kingdom of Heaven. In 2018, the U.S. attorney general even quoted Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify separating migrant children from their families.

Reading about Paul side by side with a book like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is enlightening. In stark contrast to Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, Paul is a citizen of the Roman Empire, a form of unearned power and privilege that saves his life several times; provides him better treatment in custody; and, on one occasion, even prompts an apology from the authorities. Reading his letters—to the Galatians for example—we may well interpret some of his less-sensitive comments as flowing from the fragility and injured pride of the privileged.

© Andrew Winkler/Unsplash

As someone who tries to navigate the challenges of simultaneously living in and trying to transform a system that is imbued with injustice, I recognize similar challenges faced by Paul. In his final letter, he admits he is a “slave to sin.” This prompts uncomfortable questions for me. It is likely that despite my efforts, as a White person, I too perpetuate the structural sins I benefit from: are there times when I too am insensitive or unaware of negative consequences of my actions? Even in this, I find some comfort: incomplete as Paul’s perspective inevitably was, he did what he could. Even in his imperfection, God had a purpose for him.

Objectively, it’s true that there are no White people in the Bible. As Katharine Gerbner explained in “Slavery in the Quaker World” in the September 2019 issue of Friends Journal, the system of categorizing people according to race is only a few hundred years old. But Gerbner also explained that the system of White supremacy, as we know it today, was rooted in and aided and abetted by White Christianity. To uproot White supremacy from our faith, we need to go deeper to its origins, and see what our foundational texts say to us.

When we take the Scriptures as a whole from beginning to end, we see that God takes the side of the outsider and the oppressed. As a pioneer of Black liberation theology, James H. Cone explains: “God did not become a universal human being but an oppressed Jew, thereby disclosing to us that both human nature and divine nature are inseparable from oppression and liberation.”

Cone didn’t live to see the global reaction to the killing of George Floyd, but his words have gained a new life among Christians concerned about racism: 

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “re-crucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

More from Friends Journal on the Bible
• “Homosexuality: A Plea to Read the Bible Together,” by Douglas C. Bennett
It is the issue that most threatens to create new schisms in the world of Quakers.

• “Being Honest about the Bible in Religious Education,” by Donald W. McCormick
If we believe a Bible story didn’t happen, shouldn’t we say so? 

• “How Quakers Read the Bible,” by Jon Watts
A QuakerSpeak video interview with Quaker theologian Paul Buckley.

More from Friends Journal on Antiracism
• “A Quaker Antiracist Reading List,” by Friends Journal staff
It’s not enough to say the United States is haunted by its racist past.

• “Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity,” by Adria Gulizia
The early Friends have much in common with today’s Black Americans.

• “Recognizing Racism, Seeking Truth,” by Inga Erickson
Making amends, not excuses, for unintended racism.

Tim Gee

Tim Gee is a member of Britain Yearly Meeting. He is the author of Why I Am a Pacifist. His next book, Open for Liberation: An Activist Reads the Bible, is due later this year.

11 thoughts on “Are There White People in the Bible?

  1. Two points:

    In Ethiopia, the first Christian kingdom, everyone including Jesus and God are pictured as black.

    According to the US Census, people from the Middle East, such as Iraqi, Syrians, etc. are considered white.

  2. A parallel article showing the ways in which white intellectuals have used the Bible to justify racism and slavery ~ designating African descendants as “The Sons of Ham,” for instance, or twisting biblical quotes to suit their purposes ~ would be useful to the discussion as well; they’re part of our heritage, whether we remember such allusions and/or approve of them, or not.

    1. Cornelius an Italian was the first gentile to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit not the Ethiopian eunuchs.
      Who by all indications was Jewish. Genesis 10:5 clearly identifies the sons of Japheth as Gentiles. The sons of Japheth are Europeans. The sons of Ham and Shem are not defined as Gentiles by the Bible. The decedents of Ham And Shem intermarried. Abraham, and Moses married Hamite or Kushite women as well as King David. Solomon had an affair with a Kushite woman, the Queen of Sheba. These Biblical characters would not have married Gentiles. There wasn’t a Middle East during biblical times per Josephus and other early historians there was a East Ethiopia and west Ethiopia. East Ethiopia would have included the Biblical lands and most of what’s now called the Middle East. The Bible also identifies Arabs and Arabs did not play a large part in the Biblical narrative. Cushites and Shemites who physically were indistinguishable per scripture are the people of Biblical. Black and Brown people like African Americans.

  3. The issue falls right smack in the middle of the crux of white lies and black truths. The Hamitic myth and heritage of the “discovery doctrine” are the props and supporting pillars of delusional and manic, xenophobic, white bias and it’s correlative:western bigotry. The religious rulership of Anglophile Christiandom (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition and Roman Church (western American Catholic establishment), thru mis-education, dis-information, indoctrination, and (false) propaganda spread anthropologic and theologic untruths from the pulpit by disguising the “Scriptures” and mis-interpreting historical paintings / sacraments. The Quaker body is, as well, responsible for the mis-representation of illustrations, icons and images of old, original, orthodox apostolic communities. Both missionary and monk must be literally defunct

    1. Off memory he was 1 of the following Jewish, Roman or Greek; brown brothers. I’m here because in my prayer time Jesus asked me…..where are the white people in the Bible…my jaw literally dropped BOOM

      1. White identity and thinking are al the way through the Bible. Christianity’s earthly non-white origins do not justify Christian support for the Black Lives Matter organization. That organization is counterfeit. You can spot a counterfeit if the organization violates Scripture and BLM does.

        1. White identity and thinking are NOT at all in the Bible. NO WHERE! With God of course Black lives matter. With God ALL lives matter and everyone is the same!! The largest group of counterfeit people I see are those calling themselves evangelicals who do not have any of the traits the Bible says a Christian should have and they have chosen to idolize a leader who has all of the attributes of an antichrist and none of those traits the Bible says are the fruit of an indwelling Holy Spirit.

  4. I have read two articles explaining whiteness. Both of the writers as others
    cling to the ABNORMAL person of a JESUS, the bible text states that a spirit`
    overshadowed the body of a flesh and blood human female and she became
    pregnant with a baby jesus who alledgely died on a cross for the alledged SINS
    of humans.. these sories are way out. women passed child baring having a childetc.
    get with it.

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