How is it that in America the image of Jesus Christ has been used both to justify the atrocities of white supremacy and to inspire the righteousness of civil rights crusades? In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey weave a tapestry of American dreams and visions–from witch hunts to web pages, Harlem to Hollywood, slave cabins to South Park, Mormon revelations to Indian reservations–to show how Americans remade the Son of God visually time and again into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors, and mightiest strivings for racial power and justice.
We have some outtakes from our original interview with Blum and Harvey that we wanted to publish as independent posts. Here, Blum and Harvey discuss the Plublius Lentulus letter, a fraudulent document that described what Jesus looked like, and its influence on Americans’ perspectives of Jesus.
Q: Just what is the “Publius Lentulus letter”? And why is it significant?
A: The Publius Lentulus letter was a fraudulent letter written sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries that claimed to come from a Roman proconsul during the time of Christ. It gave a vivid physical depiction of Jesus that described his hair as “the color of the ripe hazel-nut” that fell “straight down to his ears, but below the ears wavy and curled.” The letter described Christ’s brow as “smooth” and his face “without wrinkle or spot.” It also described his beard as “abundant, of the color of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin.”
The most fascinating thing about the letter is that before the Civil War, just about everyone knew that it was a fraud. Whenever Americans discussed it, such as the President of Yale University Ezra Stiles, they admitted that it was a fake and that the Bible said nothing of what Jesus looked like. But then between the Civil War and the Great Depression, white Americans transformed it into a believed truth. They started referencing it as a fact, started making visual imagery based upon its description, and began claiming that it proved that the white race was supreme because God made it that way.
The Civil Rights Movement convinced Americans intellectually that Jesus could not have been white, but the artwork inspired by the Publius Lentulus letter has continued on through the artistic work of Warner Sallman, Richard Hook, movies, and television shows. The Jesus of South Park or Family Guy looks like he’s taken right off the page of the Publius Lentulus letter. Because of the artistic influence, the Publius Lentulus letter has made it possible for Americans to consider Jesus white without any words to defend it.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey are the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. For videos, teaching materials, reader-submitted stories, and more, visit colorofchrist.com. You can be a fan on Facebook and follow the authors on Twitter @edwardjblum and @pharvey61.