Blacks in the Bible
Ebony , Feb, 1994 by Lisa C. Jones
Although some film, books and art depict most biblical characters as blond and blue-eyed Europeans, a growing body of research indicates that Blacks or people who would be considered as Blacks today were among the major actors in the Bible, which is generally called “the greatest book of all time.”
“Over the years, African-Americans have been introduced to a form of Christianity that was largely recast through the European culture,” says Dr. Cain Hope Felder, a New Testament language and literature professor at the Howard University School of Divinity and the author of several books on the subject. “We are not creating something new. We are going back and recovering what was always there.”
What was always there, Dr. Felder and other religious experts say, is incontrovertible evidence that noted biblical figures, such as the Queen of Sheba, Moses’ Cushite wife Zipporah, Prophet Jeremiah’s right-hand man Ebedmelech, and Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden Hagar, are among the many royal Black personalities mentioned in the Bible.
Although evidence on the presence of Blacks in the Bible dates back to the 18th century, only in the past 25 years have Black scholars and ministers made major breakthroughs on a subject that has been practically ignored or suppressed by White religious authorities. Modern research, however, is based on the findings of Black historians like William Leo Hansberry and W.E.B. DuBois, who identified major Black biblical characters more than 50 years ago.
Moreover, some scholars say, it has taken them just as much time to convince Black Americans of their findings.
“Black people have been duped into running from the Bible, thinking it was the White man’s book,” says the Rev. Walter A. McCray, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chicago and author of two volumes titled The Black Presence in the Bible. But in fact, Rev. McCray says, “Many notable biblical personalities were Black.”
Scholars base their characterizations of biblical figures on a few basic hypotheses set forth, in part, by Dr. Charles B. Copher, professor-emeritus of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and a leading authority the historical analysis of Blacks in the Bible. These assumptions are that 1) race was not the social and political issue that it is today, 2) most Bible activity took place in areas historically populated by people of color, such as the near Middle East and Northeast Africa; 3) “blackness” can be determined by scriptural references to skin color, Black ancestry and features characteristic of Black peoples.
Based on this criteria alone, “You’d have to say that the vast majority of peoples referred to in the Bible would have to be classified as Black,” Dr. Copher says. Another school of thought holds to the view that only those people belonging to ancient Africa can be identified as Black.
In any case, Black preachers, scholars and historians are determined to establish the presence of Black kings, queens, war leaders and women of the Bible as part of missing links in Black history. “The question isn’t where are the Blacks in the Bible,” Dr. Felder said during a telephone interview, “but where are the Whites?”
“The information has been there for the reader all along,” adds Dr. Renita J. Weems, an Old Testament assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in biblical hermeneutics. “To the extent that African-American people identify with their African heritage, I think that they can take pride in [the fact] that African people were very much embedded in the founding of the Judeo-Christian traditions.”
Although there are differences of emphasis, Black scholars and an increasing of White biblical scholars agree on the eight most widely accepted Black personalities in the Bible:
* The Queen of Sheba. The queen, who visited King Solomon and marveled at his wisdom, was queen of Ethiopia and Egypt. In scripture, she is called “the queen of the South.” Scriptures: I Kings 10:1; II Chronicles 9:1; St. Matthew 12:42.
* Zipporah. She was Moses’ Cushite wife. It is said that Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, did not like her. Some say it was because of a family spat. Others claim it’s because Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, was Black. Scripture: Numbers 12:1.
* Ebed-melech. This Ethiopian eunuch saved the life of Jeremiah, the prophet. Scriptures: Jeremiah 38:7-13; 39:16.
* Ethiopian Eunuch. This unnamed eunuch received a spiritual conversion and a better understanding of the Scriptures after speaking with Philip. Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40.
* Hagar. She was Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, and she eventually had Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Scriptures: Gen. 16:1,3; 21:9.
* Pharaoh Tirharkah. He was an Ethiopian king. II Kings 19:9.
* Asenath. She was the Egyptian wife of Joseph, given to him by the Pharaoh. Asenath and Joseph had two sons, Manessah and Ephraim. Scriptures: Gen. 41:45.
* Simon of Cyrene. He helped Jesus carry the cross. Cyrene was an ancient city in Libya, Africa. Scriptures: St. Mark 15:21.
In determining the race of biblical characters, religious scholars consider legends, languages, Bible translations and other historical manuscripts. But there is some disagreement.
Although few, if any, believe in the “curse of Ham,” which was used as a justification for slavery, some experts, like Dr. McCray of Chicago, maintain that Blacks are indeed descendants of Ham, the youngest of Noah’s three sons. Ham — translated from Hebrew to mean “hot, heated or Black” — was called the father of Canaan in the Bible.
Canaan, along with Cush (or ancient Ethiopia), Mizraim (early Egypt) and Phut are considered to be Ham’s direct offspring.
If this is true, according to Dr. Copher, Dr. Felder and other scholars, at least one book of the Bible was written by a Black man, namely Zephaniah. Called the “son of Cushi,” Zephaniah was counted among the minor prophets of the Bible.
In addition to agreeing that Zephaniah was Black, some read King Solomon’s lyrical prose in The Songs of Solomon and conclude that he, too, was a Black man and that this song-like book was devoted to his relationship with the Queen of Sheba. In the book’s first chapter Solomon’s female companion proclaims, “I am black, black, but comely… look not upon me because I am black, because the sun has looked down upon me.”
If Solomon, King David’s son, was Black, some scholars reason that Jesus Christ himself — according to the genealogy outlined in the first chapter of St. Matthew — was Black. Other observers, not as convinced by this logic, just conclude that he was not White.
“Jesus was definitely a person of color. He was not Anglo or White, but that doesn’t mean that he was Black either,” adds Dr. Weems, who sees the benefit of dialogue on Blacks in the Bible as long as it does not lead to ethnic chauvinism.
And what about the Three Wise Men who carried gifts to Jesus? In fact, the Bible makes no reference to the number of wise men who greeted Jesus and his parents that day. It only states that the wise men were from the east — east of Bethlehem, that is. And many scholars believe that these “wise men,” magicians or the Magi as they are best known, were all from Egypt.
These arguments have whetted the interests of a growing number of Blacks and have prompted the production of several books, and even Bibles, that address the subject.
Black churches are also recognizing the power of physical religious images. Some assemblies, like the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, are discussing the idea of replacing their stained-glass windows and wall paintings, which depict biblical character’s as Whites, with multicultural images. Other churches, like Saint Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and Moore’s Chapel A.M.E. Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., have already executed such plans. “It’s the height of paradox for Black people to experience as much racism that we do during the week and then to go to our most holy place and see all of these White images of the so-called holy families,” Dr. Felder adds. “We want to see more multicultural images and more Black images that are more correct.”
Although there is evidence that Blacks were major contributors in ancient, biblical times, religious scholars say the major point is that the Bible depicted a multicultural world. “Whites are in the Bible as Greeks and Romans. Asia is mentioned and so is Hispana,” says Howard University’s Dr. Felder. “I think it’s this rich mosaic of diverse people in the Bible that makes it very compelling.”