A Middle Eastern Jesus and Why it Matters [Part I]

“The Christ of history is the Christ of faith” is a rightly accepted evangelical affirmation in response to the Quest for the Historical Jesus in the academy. God the Son – the second person of the Holy Trinity – took on humanity as Jesus of Nazareth who lived, died, and rose from the grave over 2000 years ago. According to Paul’s appeal in 1 Corinthians 15, the historical credibility of Christ life, death, and resurrection is essential to an abiding faith, the integrity of the gospel, and Christian eschatological hopes. History matters. And salvation history – namely Jesus’ particularity as a man in Ancient Palestine “in the fullness of time” – is not a negligible factor to what Christians believe. Here are a couple of reasons why the historical Jesus is essential to Christian faith and how a denial of this Jesus distorts Christian theology.

Son of Man – Son of David

For the common Bible reader, genealogies tend to serve more as a cure for insomnia rather than an essential component to Christology. However those who get lost in the abundance of names and doubt the significance of genealogies to the biblical narrative, forget that every man who “begets” the next ties the historical thread of God’s plan for redemption together. The New Testament picks up on this genealogical tradition in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – showing that the Messiah was expected and his ancestry matters – for at least two reasons. (1) The promises of God for redemption were predicated upon the fact that the Messiah be the “seed of a woman” (Genesis 3:15). Jesus could not have been a creature less than humanity, so he had to share in our nature, yet without sin, for “what has not been assumed cannot be redeemed”. Any common man or woman would not suffice – it had to be a Son of Adam. (2) Scriptures attests to a God who keeps covenants and whose word never returns void. The Messiah had to be from a particular ethnic group and family lineage as the Son of David according to biblical prophecy (2 Samuel 7:16, Galatians 3:16, Isaiah 11:1-2).

What makes the Docetic (i.e. gnostic) heresies of the early centuries of the Church reprehensible is that they claimed that creation was evil – when God said “it was good”. They also undercut the truth above that an actual flesh and blood Son of Adam – the prophesied Son of David would be the Messiah. Any Christological position that subverts the historical particularities of Christ fails the litmus test of biblical theology and ignores the genealogical bridge from eternity past to that Holy Night in Bethlehem.

The Image of God – The Image of Man

Humanity was created in the image of God, and despite the Fall this truth remains. When God became a man, he accomplished what was necessary for man to be redeemed. Therefore, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers” and is as “our elder brother” – the perfect image of God (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:10-12). Jesus is perfect humanity and “Christlikeness” is the aim of Christian discipleship, so how Christ is depicted – whether in a paintings or mental pictures – envisages the goal of Christian maturity.

A recent uptick in conversations surrounding the question “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” – a longstanding question asked by minority communities, can largely be attributed to the historical precedent of images of a white Jesus that have often been wed to ethnocentric ideologies. A white Jesus has served more than aesthetic ends but supports a historical and theological inaccuracy and a potentially distorted Christology. Christians who don’t fit the white Jesus image are then judged by their proximity to whiteness, based on skin color and cultural norms – functioning within a society that has normalized being white as the prototype imago dei and Christlikeness. Most evangelical Christians would affirm that the Bible contains an accurate account of the historical Jesus in the Gospels. So the concept of white Jesus – in its denial of the historical/biblical necessity of the Middle Eastern Jesus – appears to at least tacitly deny the historical/biblical Jesus. Jesus’ humanity is inextricably linked to his historical identity and to caste him in a white face should not be an acceptable option for biblical Christianity.

Although taking on the particularities of being a Jew in the Middle East (skin color, hair, size, etc.) – the Son of God became a man that is for all people to follow. The image of Christ all Christians are to conform to does not need white skin in order to be universal.