by Carl McRoy
(This chapter is from Carl’s book Black from the Past.)
Moses was the premier prophet, freedom fighter, and law-giver of the Old Testament. He is credited with writing the first five books of the Bible and setting the tone for the rest of the Bible. Moses’ teachings were so impactful that Jesus said, “If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NET). Everyone in the New Testament seemed to make claims on Moses, or make claims for Moses. Pharisees and Sadducees charged the early church leader, Stephen, with subverting the teachings of Moses (Acts 6:8–11). In response, Stephen defended himself with his own narrative of Moses and the Exodus that exposed his accusers as the real lawbreakers and troublemakers (Acts 7).
Paul is the ace apostle of the New Testament. He was highly educated, a persuasive speaker, a leader’s leader, a church planter, a practitioner of civil disobedience, and proficient writer of nearly half of the New Testament. Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” but also a Roman citizen (Phil. 3:5; Acts 21:39; 22:27,28). Paul was uniquely gifted and situated for serving as a self-described apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was not only a scholar of the Torah but was conversant with Stoic philosophy. He spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and was also fluent in Greek. This surprise led a Roman soldier to ask if Paul was an Egyptian (Acts 21:37, 38).
Isn’t Egypt in Africa?
Isn’t it interesting that speaking Greek didn’t lead the soldier to mistake Paul for a Greek or Roman, but for an Egyptian? Moses was also mistaken for an Egyptian—by his future wife (Exodus 2:19). Although history is sometimes taught in a way that removes Egypt from Africa in our minds, Egypt is geographically in Africa.
What did ancient Egyptians look like? The Encyclopedia Britannica credits the ancient Greek Herodotus (484-420 BCE) with authoring “the first great narrative history produced in the ancient world.” This renowned historian wrote, “The men of the country [referring to Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt] are black because of the heat,” and added that Egyptians “are dark-skinned and woolly-haired.”
Why is it that Moses and Paul were mistaken for Egyptians (Ex. 2:19; Acts 21:38), yet artists commonly represent them as if they were Scandinavians? Why do some of the very same artists depict the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27) and Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21) as Black? Libya (home to Cyrene) is on one side of Egypt and Ethiopia is on the other side of Egypt, so why color these African neighbors so differently?
Is it because of the roles they played?
What’s the role of their roles?
The unnamed eunuch could be viewed by some as a physically emasculated man working under the authority of a woman. Although literate, the eunuch doesn’t understand what he’s reading without the help of Philip, who is almost universally illustrated as White (Acts 8:30, 31). Simon of Cyrene is on the scene as a burden bearer, having been commanded by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ old rugged cross.
At first glance, these men seemed to play incidental rather than integral roles in the drama of the gospel’s going to all the world. One was a beneficiary of a supposed European missionary. The other appeared as an extra that was randomly pulled out of the crowd to be a “hewer of wood.” Since these supporting cast members entered and exited the stage so humbly, the artists (and more importantly, their patrons) found it helpful to paint from the darker parts of their palettes.
Using biblical art to portray people of color as servile subjects in need of White leadership and indoctrination was helpful for Christian colonizers. They needed to justify their consciences as they exterminated and exiled First Nations people while enslaving Africans to enrich themselves. Portraying spiritual champions such as Moses and Paul as White perpetuates the myth that Whites are God’s ordained moral leaders and righteous benefactors.
Your skin is not your sin
No matter what the art says, biblical literacy informs us that the Bible isn’t a European invention, nor is Christianity the White man’s religion. It is the revelation of God’s love for the whole world that emanated outward from the intersection of Africa and Asia through people of color such as Moses and Paul. The goal of this redemptive love is to reunite all humanity in all of our diversity, so that we can more fully reflect God’s glory than any one people group alone (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 14:6, 7).
This reminds me of a series of books by a friend of mine, Dr. James Black. One is God’s Got a Plan and You’re in It! Another is God’s Got a Plan and I’m in It! No matter how we have been socialized to feel about the skin that we’re in, we need to value ourselves and others according to Whose plan we’re in.
Carl McRoy is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, host of Message magazine’s “Your Liberation Library,” and author of Yell at God and Live, R U Tuff Enuff? and Impediments to Power. He enjoys quality time with family, posing as an amateur historian, and shooting pool.