Why Jesus Is Not A Black Man, Part 2: The Sub-Saharan African Distinction

Jesus and the disciples at The Last Supper. Hulis & Suleyman Mavruk, 1997.

In Part 1 of this topic, written several months ago, I made the claim that Jesus, contrary to some, was not a black man. He was Jewish, and the Scriptures testify to the fact that He was Jewish. Matthew provides a look at Jesus’s Jewish ancestry, from his earthly mother Mary (who was Joseph’s cousin, and thus, shared Joseph’s ancestry), all the way back to Abraham, the “father” of the Jewish nation. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth, and presented in the Temple — all in accordance with Old Testament Law. Luke even goes so far in his Gospel to reveal that Mary gave two turtledoves in accordance with Jewish custom and law at the birth of her son, Jesus. The early chapters of Luke’s Gospel give this information.

While Jesus was certainly Jewish and observed Jewish customs, I also made a point in the last post that, if Jews and Africans were the same, Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, wouldn’t have had a problem with Moses marrying an Ethiopian woman, as Numbers 12 states. Miriam and Aaron wouldn’t have opposed Moses marrying one of his own people. Zipporah, the wife whom Scripture mentions by name, was a cousin of Moses’ — Zipporah was from the Midianites, cousins to the Israelites.

But there’s another reason why Jesus isn’t a black man: He wasn’t born, nor ever lived in, sub-Saharan Africa.

sub-saharan africa: jesus never lived there

If you’ve done a DNA test in the past, recently, or are considering one in the future, there’s a phrase of which you should be aware: it is “sub-Saharan Africa.” The phrase sub-Saharan means “below the Sahara,” as “sub” means “below.” For many geneticists and DNA companies, African ancestry is divided between sub-Saharan Africa (that is, Africa below the Sahara Desert) and Africa above the Saharan Desert. Some assume that to live in any part of Africa makes a person “black,” but it does not.

This can be seen on DNA ancestral analysis results. When I first received my 23andme results a year ago, I noticed that “sub-Saharan Africa” included countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea, the Congo, and Angola. But then I had “North Africa” DNA that was separate from sub-Saharan African ancestry. North Africa is part of Western Asia with the major DNA companies. Some will label it “Middle East,” but even being part of the African continent, these companies treat “North Africa” distinct from sub-Saharan Africa. The reason for this pertains to what we think of as “Black African” and how that is distinct from “African” in general.

what we mean by african

When we refer to “African,” we (referring to humans in general) think of black people. We think of those who are dark-skinned. The African-American experience isn’t limited to just those of black skin tone, however. But that’s how many think of an African person. To be sure, even brown-skinned persons such as Kamala Harris (both her parents are brown-skinned, neither are dark-skinned) consider themselves to be African-American, which is accurate. And yet, as I’ve said before, the African-American status isn’t just limited to dark-skinned people.

But DNA companies are a bit more precise in how they perceive Africans. And, contrary to what many think, not all Africans are Africans as we perceive them to be. I’ll explain what this means below.

what dna companies mean by “African”

What DNA companies mean by “African” can only be expressed in two ways: 1) sub-Saharan African and 2) Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan African refers to that part of Africa that is below the Sahara. This part of Africa is where the sun beats down on human skin. Scientists say that those born in sub-Saharan Africa are those who possess darker skin. To be sure, my mother’s parents, mom and her parents both have darker skin than me, for example, and my mother’s paternal grandfather also possessed darker skin. DNA tests show that my maternal male line (from my mom’s dad back) comes from Nigeria, which is below the Sahara (and thus, sub-Saharan). Scientific research says that those who lived below the Sahara in sub-Saharan Africa have darker skin because they were closer to the equator than the rest of those living in Africa (northern Africa, that is).

Sub-Saharan Africa refers to the African countries south of the Sahara, excluding Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Morocco (according to the UN). Mauritania, Comoros, Djibouti, and Somalia (along with Sudan) are considered to be Arab countries as well (Middle Eastern). Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco are countries considered to be stationary Middle Eastern countries on the African continent.

When geneticists and genealogists refer to sub-Saharan African ancestry, they’re referring to the same thing that many of us mean when we refer to “black” Africans: that is, those whose families trace their ancestry back to the part of Africa that’s closest to the equator: southern Africa, which, of course includes South Africa. My paternal cousin, Nelson Mandela, known as a civil rights activist during apartheid in South Africa, is such an example of what we mean by African. We refer to dark-skinned individuals whose families come from African countries where the sun beat down on them to such an extent that their skin is darker. Egypt, for example, where my father has ancestry, isn’t such an example. The skin tone of Egyptians differed from those of southern Africans.

Egyptians would have had the skin tone of, say, Kamala Harris, her father, or brown-skinned individuals today. Though I’ve criticized Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), he does a few things right in the movie. One of them is that he portrays Moses as having a brown skin tone. Moses was able to remain in the Pharaoh’s home and family because he likely resembled their skin tone. Had Egyptians been dark-skinned and Moses brown-skinned (or vice versa), he would’ve stood out — and his paternity would’ve been suspect. He likely resembled the skin tone of Pharaoh and his sister, who drew Moses from the water. The secret of Moses’ conception and maternity likely remained a secret until Moses killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand (Exodus 2:11-12).

So one must remember that DNA companies distinguish two different types of Africans: those of the North, who were most likely Middle Eastern, and sub-Saharan Africans, who resemble the dark-skinned, black Africans we’ve come to identify as Africans in the United States.

how Jesus fits into all this

How does Jesus fit into all this? Well, Jesus fits into the discussion because some say, “Well, Jesus spent some significant time in Egypt when His earthly father, Joseph, fled from King Herod, who sought to kill Jesus, the legitimate King of the Jews. Because Jesus spent some time in Egypt, then He must be African.”

The reality is that, for Jesus, His time in Egypt was short-lived. First and foremost, He was born in Bethlehem of Judea, according to the Scriptures (see Matthew 2:4-6). This means that He Himself is Jewish. His earthly father Joseph, was from the same Davidic lineage as His mother, Mary (Luke 2:4), making His ancestry Jewish. The lineage mentions Joseph’s lineage only, but Mary’s was also of the House of David — which explains why Joseph is mentioned without tension.

Some want to take Jesus’ time in Egypt, and the bondage of the Jews in Egypt for 430 years, and say that “Jesus is a black man,” that He’s African and thus, sub-Saharan African. But He isn’t. Jesus spent time in Egypt, which is in North Africa, not South Africa. Jesus wasn’t like the Ethiopian woman Moses married; He didn’t match the Ethiopian woman’s skin tone, for He was Jewish and thus, Middle Eastern. Having done half a dozen DNA tests myself, I can attest that Ancestry and 23andme (the two top DNA companies in the US) list “North African” ancestry separately from “sub-Saharan African” ancestry. Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) lists Egyptian, Arab, and Levantine ancestry as “Middle Eastern” instead of just “African.” The reason? They don’t consider North Africa as sub-Saharan African; the people of North Africa would’ve had a brown skin tone versus the dark, ebony skin of sub-Saharan Africans.

This isn’t to say that one can’t live in sub-Saharan Africa without having dark skin. There are Afrikaaners, white South Africans with mixed ancestry (sub-Saharan African and Dutch ancestries), who live in Southern Africa yet have Caucasian skin. Even if Jesus lived in sub-Saharan Africa, it wouldn’t have necessarily made Him have dark skin that we associate with African ancestry. But if Jesus had lived there, the fact that 1) He wasn’t born there and 2) His parents weren’t born there means that Jesus Himself wouldn’t have been African any more than you or I would be French for staying in France for 2 or 3 years.

conclusion

When it comes to what most mean by “African,” the sub-Saharan vs. North African distinction matters. It’s the dividing line between Middle Eastern and Black African. Anyone born in Egypt would be African, and anyone with parents born in North Africa would be “African.” However, their ancestry would be Middle Eastern, not “Black African” as we think of it. While they would be African because they were born in Egypt (and Egypt is on the same continent as Nigeria, for example), they wouldn’t necessarily bear the same skin tone as sub-Saharan Africans or even be black for that matter.

Many of us have come (rather erroneously, I might add) to think of African as merely “black.” That is, if someone isn’t dark-skinned or even brown-skinned, they aren’t African. And yet, some Middle Easterners are African, yet brown-skinned. While it’s true that some Africans have Jewish cousins, and some Jews have African cousins, African ancestry doesn’t make someone black. A Caucasian can have North African ancestry, but that doesn’t qualify as black ancestry. “African” and “Black” aren’t interchangeable terms.

We also tend to confuse “black” with “people of color” (or POC). Jesus would have been a POC (person of color) because He was Middle Eastern with Jewish ancestry and lineage. Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and even African-Americans of mixed ancestry qualify as brown-skinned people and thus, people of color (POC). But brown-skinned people are not black because black is a skin tone, and brown and black are two different colors/tones.

Many African-Americans would take issue with someone trying to make Martin Luther King “European” or Caucasian, or Moses to be Caucasian. But when we attempt to claim Jesus as an “unarmed black man similar to George Floyd, who was killed for something He didn’t do, we are letting liberation theology lead us down the wrong path. In our efforts to make Jesus “Black,” we’re being racist against the Jewish race and lifestyle. Racism is still racism, no matter its form.