Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly inspired widespread outrage online after claiming on the air Wednesday that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were white men.
While discussing a Slate article that argued Santa Claus should be depicted as a penguin to avoid racial confusion, Kelly became frustrated and claimed that "just because it makes you feel uncomfortable it doesn't mean it has to change." She then definitively stated that not only was Santa Claus white but also that Jesus was a white man.
"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. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?" Kelly said.
Kelly immediately attracted criticism online, and it’s easy to see why. While historians generally agree that Jesus was real, there are no historic sources describing his race. As such, Jesus’ appearance has been a hotly contested topic for more than a thousand years.
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Kelly’s statements on Jesus and Santa’s race have at least some truth to them. Santa Claus is indeed usually depicted as white, but then again, he’s a fictional character who can be depicted in pretty much any way imaginable. Santa can, however, be traced to the 4th century Christian St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop living in a Roman-occupied area of what is now Turkey. There’s reason enough to believe that the historical St. Nicholas, based on his heritage, would look fairly Caucasian to our modern eyes, though maybe a little darker than the snow-white depictions in Coca Cola ads. Kelly can have that one.
Jesus’ race, however, is a much trickier question. For hundreds of years, European and American representations of Jesus have shown him as white, and this depiction long ago cemented itself in the public consciousness. Generally, Christians around the world have portrayed Jesus as a member of their own races, leading to depictions of Jesus as white, black and even Asian. Jesus the historical figure, however, probably didn’t look like any of these.
Jesus was a Jewish man living in what is now Israel under the Roman Empire. Most historians now agree that based on this, Jesus likely had much more in common with modern Middle Easterners than Caucasians. In 2001, a team of British anthropologists created a hypothetical model of Jesus’ face based on the skull of a fellow first century Jew. Their result was an olive-skinned man with black hair and dark eyes.
Just last year, Edward J. Blum, historian of race and religion at San Diego State University, explained to NPR that Jesus “definitely wouldn’t be white.” Instead, Blum said, Jesus was likely “darkly complected, not pure black, more in a kind of light brownish.”
More importantly, however, Blum argued that Jesus’ race simply wasn’t notable to the writers of the Gospels.
“There were four Gospel writers,” Blum said. “Why didn't one of them say, oh, and here's what his skin looked like, and here's what his hair looked like. They didn't, none of them did, because it wasn't important to them. It's important to us.”