Are There White People in the Bible? (Assess the Evidence)


The Bible teaches that people of all races are descendants of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:20). Common ancestry and the fact that all people bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), unite the human race, even though it’s made up of people of different nationalities, cultures, languages, and skin colors. A question many people have is if there are white people in the Bible.

There are white people in the Bible, according to the most common use of the term. The Bible rarely describes a person’s skin color. However, there are references in the Old and New Testaments to people with European ancestry, which is often central to the definition of the term “white” today.

What is a white person? Whose skin color does the Bible mention? Who, in the Bible, had European ancestry? What color of skin did people in the Bible have? Keep reading to learn more.

Holy Bible
Who was “white” in the Bible? See below

What is a white person?

Historians and sociologists observe that the definition of “white” with regard to people has changed a lot over time in Europe and America. The term doesn’t merely refer to a person’s skin color, but to their geographical ancestry.

Since “white” isn’t a nationality, like Italian, Kenyan, Canadian, or Jordanian, who is and who isn’t included in the term sometimes depends on the user, like a speaker or an author. This means that the definition of “white” with regard to a person sometimes changes depending on context.

Conventional dictionary definitions of “white” reflect this ambiguity.

DictionaryDefinition
dictionary.comOf human beings; belonging to a group marked by slight pigmentation of the skin, often of European descent. [1]
Merriam-WebsterOf or relating to any of various population groups considered as having light pigmentation of the skin… The meaning of white as it relates to population groups has historically been fluid, with people of particular ancestries being excluded for a time before being included, and vice versa. [2]
American Heritage DictionaryOf or belonging to a racial group of people having light-colored skin, especially when of European origin, and in some classifications also when of Middle Eastern or North African origin. [3]
lexico.comBelonging to or denoting a human group having light-colored skin (chiefly used of peoples of European extraction). [4]
chambers.co.ukSaid of people; belonging to one of the pale-skinned races [5]

Two details seen in most of the definitions for “white” above are:

  • Light or pale-colored skin: What hues constitute “light” or “pale” isn’t described, though the contrast with darker or browner skin shades or pigments is implied. Still, the difference between a bronze or tan-colored “white” person and a lighter-skinned “black” person is unclear.
  • European ancestry: Who is considered “white” has “historically been fluid,” according to Merriam-Webster. However, the definitions above show that European ancestry is conventionally implied in the term “white,” though people groups on other continents are sometimes included as well.

How does the U.S. Census Bureau define “white”? People with different historical and social viewpoints sometimes take issue with government definitions and categorizations for various reasons. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, the U.S. Census Bureau defines “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” [6]

How does Wikipedia define a “white” person? While some value Wikipedia more than others, it often reflects common thinking on a topic. For what it’s worth, the online encyclopedia says that “white” is a “racialized classification of people and a skin color specifier, generally used for people of European origin; although the definition can vary depending on context, nationality, and point of view.” [7]

Scripture
Why doesn’t Scripture mention skin color more often? See below

Why are descriptions of skin color so rare in the Bible?

The Bible sometimes mentions the color of a person’s skin. For example, Song of Solomon 1:5 reads, “I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon” (ESV).

Most scholars believe that the color of Esau’s skin is likely implied in the description of his birth: “The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau” (Genesis 25:25).

Why doesn’t the Bible mention skin color more often? It’s much more common for the Bible to mention a person’s nationality rather than the color of their skin. For example, in Acts chapter 8, Philip, a follower of Jesus Christ, helps a man understand a passage about the Messiah from the book of Isaiah and then baptizes him.

Luke, the author of Acts, makes sure that the reader knows that the man is Ethiopian, though he doesn’t specifically mention his skin color (8:27). Especially in the New Testament, the point of mentioning a person’s nationality is to express how Christ and the good news of the gospel unite people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

This is reflected in Peter’s statement in Acts 10:34-35, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (ESV). The Bible teaches that God doesn’t judge people based on their skin color, but on the essence of their faith.

For example, God told Samuel to “do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 1:16).

Similarly, in John 7:24, Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

man with a Bible
Was Cornelius “white”? See below

Are there Europeans in the Bible?

There are people in the Old and New Testaments that have European ancestry. Sometimes, like in the case of Cornelius, this is made very clear. There are other people whose ethnic background is probably European based on what the Bible says about them, but readers can’t be 100% certain.

Are those with European ancestry generally good or bad? In the Bible, European ancestry doesn’t alone determine a person’s standing with God. Faith alone determines one’s standing with God. To believe that because a person is European they are more righteous than someone with a different background is contrary to everything the Bible teaches about how people get right with God.

Some people with European backgrounds in the Bible express faith in God. Others are enemies of God and his people.

Cornelius

Cornelius is known for being the first Gentile convert to Christianity. Luke describes him as a centurion belonging to the Italian cohort, which was comprised of Roman citizens. Acts 10:1 reads, “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort” (ESV).

The name “Cornelius” is Roman and was common in Rome, Italy, in the first century. He also belonged to a cohort or regiment from Italy. Bible scholars universally agree that the textual evidence is clear that Cornelius had European ancestry. However, the New Testament doesn’t mention the color of his skin.

The Philistines

The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 teaches that the Philistine ancestry is rooted in Egypt, although in later times they settled and lived in Caphtor for generations (e.g. Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7), an area that includes Crete and locations west of the Aegean Sea.

Some of the well-known stories in the Bible about the Philistines, like David and Goliath, occurred during a period of time in which they would have been in Europe for centuries, if not longer. One recent study verified the Philistines’ European ancestry:

“The ancient Philistines — famous for their appearances in the Hebrew Bible, including the story of David and the giant Philistine Goliath — weren’t local to what is now modern-day Israel. Instead, this enigmatic group descended from a group of seafaring Europeans, a new study of ancient DNA finds.” The report continues:

After analyzing the ancient DNA of 10 individuals buried at a Philistine archaeological site, an international team of researchers found that the Philistines descended from people in Greece, Sardinia or even Iberia (present-day Spain and Portugal). These ancestors migrated across the Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age or early Iron age, about 3,000 years ago. [8]

The Bible doesn’t mention the skin color of the Philistines.

Sons of Japheth

Japheth was one of Noah’s sons (Gen. 10:1). His descendants included “Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras” (1 Chron. 1:5), some of which are associated with European people groups. Admittedly, some of these locations are difficult to identify today.

Yet, there is some evidence that Javan may refer to areas of ancient Greece, and that Tiras may refer to the ancient Etruscans on the Italian peninsula. Some scholars speculate that descendants of the Sons of Japeth may have populated northern Europe in later centuries.

The Bible doesn’t mention the skin color of the Sons of Japeth.

Gog of Magog

Ezekiel 38 describes a person named Gog who lived in an area called Magog and ruled over cities or towns called Rosh, Meschech, and Tubal. Ezekiel 38:2 reads, “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him” (ESV).

Many scholars identify ancient Gog with western Russia, i.e. Eastern Europe. Some attempt to identify the city and town names with modern cities and towns in Russia, but few scholars are persuaded that this can be done with accuracy.

Is Gog for God or against him? Gog is an enemy of God and his people. In Ezekiel 38:2, God says “prophesy against him” (emphasis added). Ezekiel’s prophecy describes a time when Gog and members of his alliance will attack Israel.

Some scholars believe this prophecy has already been fulfilled. Others are convinced that it will take place in the future. Either way, Gog has European ancestry. The Bible doesn’t mention the color of Gog’s skin.

Are there other people with European ancestry in the Bible? There probably is, but it’s hard to know for sure. Many scholars speculate that the Gentiles in the churches of Galatia and Ephesus that Paul writes to in the New Testament likely had European ancestry, but it’s hard to know for sure.

Did Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, or Paul have pale skin?

The Bible doesn’t mention the skin color of many of its main characters. A person’s faith is more important to the biblical narrative than the pigmentation of their skin. At the same time, a person’s skin color isn’t insignificant because God made it and it glorifies him.

Some readers hold that the authors of biblical books believed that their original readers knew what people in that part of the world looked like, so it wasn’t necessary to add such details. This speculation is possible, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s based on the authors’ unspoken assumptions.

Many scholars today believe that many biblical characters probably had olive-colored skin.

The unity of all skin colors

The Bible is clear that sin divides people of different races, but that Christ — through his death and resurrection — unites people of all ethnic backgrounds. As Revelation 7:9 makes clear (see below), one day people of all nationalities, races, and skin colors will unite in praise and worship of Christ in heaven.

  • Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • Acts 17:26, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”
  • Revelation 7:9, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”

References:
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