New Bible Paints Jesus Black

January 09, 1994|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

What Jesus really needs is "a paint job," says the editor of a popular new version of the King James Bible.

The Rev. Cain Hope Felder, whose African Heritage Study Bible portrays Christ as a black-skinned Messiah, says it's time for white Christians to "get out their brushes."

He's only partly jesting, says Mr. Felder. His new Bible, which projects an Afrocentric view of Christianity, is changing the way blacks and others look at the faith.

"The most dramatic aspect is that people who feel marginalized and brutalized and neglected in America, black people in particular, are responding to this Bible as something that gives them a sense of being a whole person with a historical past," says Mr. Felder, a biblical studies professor at Howard University in Washington.

Ministers from the Eastern Shore and Baltimore's inner city are using the Bible to promote self-esteem among black Christians and to attract young people. About 1,000 copies of the Bible have been distributed in local congregations.

The Bible is significant for all classes and races, said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. "But for those in the projects, I think the pictures alone of African personalities and groups that lived during biblical times are extremely important," he said.

From Maryland prisons to an Islamic community in Tennessee to a Chicago Roman Catholic parish, the new version of the Bible is reclaiming blacks who have come to see Christianity as a white man's religion, adherents say.

Mr. Felder said he has received more than 700 letters from prisoners around the country asking for a copy or describing how it changed their view of Christianity.

One inmate at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup wrote in August, after reading a U.S. News and World Report article:

"I am a 32-year-old inmate that has been incarcerated since age 16. African-American males need to see positive examples of themselves in every respect -- political, social and especially religious. I beg you all to please send me a used, damaged or complimentary copy of the African Heritage Study Bible. I need to know why the story of Ham [one of Noah's sons, considered a progenitor of black people and once believed cursed] is not a curse upon African people."

A woman incarcerated in Carson City, Nev., wrote of her "extreme joy" at seeing for the first time "my African-American heritage [as] being a part of Jesus' miraculous work throughout the Bible."

For those in prison, the new Bible can have a particularly dramatic impact, said the Rev. Chester A. France, a Protestant chaplain at the House of Correction in Jessup, where a number of men are using it.

"A lot of people of African origin have been taught that nothing good can come out of Africa. In this Bible, they can see people who look like them are characters in Bible history," he said.

Though the text of the African Heritage Study Bible is the traditional King James Version, unchanged, verses about Africa and biblical characters of African descent are highlighted.

Full-color pictures feature blacks. Maps emphasize where important African events and places mentioned in the Bible occurred in the ancient world, and study notes teach an Afrocentric view of Christianity.

The entire cast of biblical characters -- from Abraham to Jesus -- is depicted as quite dark-skinned in the illustrations. No one claims to know exactly how dark Jesus was, but more people are acknowledging that he was probably a man of color. If Jesus lived now, he would be a "soul brother," Mr. Felder said.

Picturing Jesus as pale-skinned grew from Europe's strong influence on American culture, said Mr. Felder, who is also the author of several books on race and biblical studies. A white Jesus is a symbol of "the Eurocentrism that dominates the entire academic community," he said.

Most scholars acknowledge that Jesus probably did not fit the blond, blue-eyed stereotype.

But neither, many say, was he black. By claiming that he was, black religious leaders are making the same mistake their white counterparts have made, said Walter Sundberg, a church historian and professor at Lutheran Northwestern Seminary in Minneapolis.

"It really is not possible to portray first-century Jews as black," Mr. Sundberg said. "I think one of the most irresponsible things you can do with the Bible is to edit it, to change it so it becomes a mirror of your own people."

Since the first century after Christ, various cultures have depicted Jesus as looking like them, the professor said, and supporters of the African Heritage Study Bible "have an important point to make, but I think this goes too far."

Despite the controversy, the new Bibles have been selling well since they appeared in August. About 130,000 copies have been sold, and 150,000 more were printed last month to meet demand.

Many white pastors seem open to the concept of the African Heritage Study Bible, though few white churches are circulating it, Mr. Felder said.

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