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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and his Ancestors

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Abstract

The common perception is that Jesus and his ancestors, the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews—descendants of Abraham—were white people. Added to this is the perception that God was and still is white. The implication is that, because the Hebrews were white of complexion, the white God has chosen them to be his chosen People. A white Jesus was introduced to Africa when this continent was colonised and ‘Christianised’ by the Europeans, specifically from the 17th century onwards. Because of this, the perception that Jesus was white is still common in Africa. The aim of this article is to (re)consider the skin colour of Jesus on the grounds of recent research done on the matter. Finds and results of multi-, inter-, and trans- disciplinary research are used to arrive at a conclusion.
Journal of Early Christian History
Volume 4 • Number 2 • 2014
95
ISSN 2222-582X © Unisa Press
pp 95–115
RECONSIDERING THE SKIN COLOUR (RACE)
OF JESUS AND HIS ANCESTORS1
Willem H. Oliver
University of south Africa, Pretoria
ABSTRACT
The common perception is that Jesus and his ancestors, the Hebrews/Israelites/
Jews—descendants of Abraham—were white people. Added to this is the perception
that God was and still is white. The implication is that, because the Hebrews were
white of complexion, the white God has chosen them to be his chosen People.
A white Jesus was introduced to Africa when this continent was colonised and
‘Christianised’ by the Europeans, specically from the 17th century onwards.
Because of this, the perception that Jesus was white is still common in Africa.
The aim of this article is to (re)consider the skin colour of Jesus on the grounds of
recent research done on the matter. Finds and results of multi-, inter-, and trans-
disciplinary research are used to arrive at a conclusion.
Keywords: Jesus, race of Jesus, origin of humankind, Africa, prehistory.
1 INTRODUCTION
This article touches on a rather ‘sensitive issue’ – the skin colour of Jesus of Nazareth
and of his ancestors. Skin colour does not seem to have been a sensitive issue before and
during the times of the Bible, but became a sensitive one through later ages, as certain
groups of people wanted to defend/promote their own skin colour. This may be best
illustrated by the European missionaries who proclaimed a white Jesus to the people
of Africa. It became an issue that has marred Africa and her inhabitants for at least the
past two to four centuries. The Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, articulated this in his
1 This article was presented as a paper at the Voice and Voicelessness Conference held in Gaborone,
Botswana, in September 2013.
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Willem H. Oliver
modern African novel called Things fall apart.2 This was, however, also the case in
the USA, as Edward Blum and Paul Harvey depicted it in a book called The Color of
Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America. This (race) issue gave rise to
the awakening of Black Liberation Theology in the 20th century in the USA with initial
proponents like Malcolm X (Little) and James Cone.3
In writting this article, full cognisance is taken of the fact that the last word has not
been spoken on the skin colour and even the race of Jesus, as there is ongoing research
done on this issue. At this stage some of the ‘facts’ on the table, as far as it is known to
and interpreted by the author, are discussed and put forward.
For this article the nds and results of the following methodologies were utilised:
forensic anthropology (an outgrowth of physical anthropology done by
researchers like A. Midori Albert and Richard Neave);
primatology (a branch of Zoology dealing with primates);
palaeoanthropology (the study of primate and human evolution);
human osteology (the study of the skeleton);
genetics and human prehistory (done by researchers such as Stephen Oppenheimer);
craniometric evidence (measurement of the skull to determine its characteristics as
related to sex, race and body type); and
archaeogenetics (employing genetics, archaeology and linguistics to examine the
origin and spread of people groups), as well as linguistics and DNA studies (done
by scholars like Clyde Winters).
These ndings and results are combined within the framework of an historical
methodology.4
There is no intention with this article to get involved in any racial dispute or racialising
of Jesus to arrive, for instance, at a black ideology or Black (Liberation) Theology.5 This
article only wants to reconsider an issue that is taken for granted by many people all
over the world – that the skin colour of Jesus and his ancestors was white.
2 C. Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: William Heinemann, 1958).
3 E. J. Blum and P. Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 11.
4 Cf. J. Mouton and H. C. Marais, Basiese Begrippe: Metodologie van die Geesteswetenskappe
(Pretoria: RGN–Uitgewers, 1992), 157.
5 Examples are C. Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World,
1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); S. Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race,
Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (New York: Routledge, 2002); T. S.
Maluleke, ‘Black Theology Lives! On a Permanent Crisis.’ Journal of Black Theology in South Africa
9/1 (1995): 1–30; I. J. Mosala, ‘The Use of the Bible in Black Theology’ in I. J. Mosala and B.
Tlhagale, The Unquestionable Right to be Free: Essays in Black Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986),
175–199.
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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
2 THE USE OF ‘WHITE’ AND ‘BLACK’/‘RED’
TERMINOLOGY IN THE BIBLE6
2.1 THE TERM ‘WHITE/R’
The term ‘white’ occurs 58 times in the Bible, referring inter alia to illness,7 the colour
of animals,8 and the cleansing of sins9 which includes the metaphor of white clothing.10
Only in one case, that is Song. 5:10, it could refer to skin colour, but then more in the
sense of a shiny or brilliant skin — see below.
The term ‘whiter is used only three times in the Bible, once referring to white
teeth11 and twice to the cleansing of sins (‘whiter as snow’) in the same vein as Isa. 1:18.
Commentaries mostly concur that the focus of this phrase is on cleanliness or pureness
of the heart.12
2.1.1 THE CASE OF SONG OF SONGS
Song. 1:5 depicts a woman referring to herself as ‘dark’ while she describes her lover
as ‘radiant and ruddy.’13 Some translations like the KJV translate the terms ‘dark’ and
‘radiant’ with ‘black’ and ‘white’ respectively, leaving the impression that this narrative
depicts the love between a white man and a black woman. The Hebrew word (şag
radiant), rather depicts something being shiny or brilliant than crediting it with a
specic colour. It is also of interest to take cognisance that these two terms are not
contrasted with each other, and that they are not even used in the same pericope. In the
rst instance the woman supplies a good reason for her being dark darker than her
friends — ‘because I am darkened by the sun as she had to toil the land.14 The fact that
she referred to herself as being dark does not imply that her friends were white people.
In the second instance the woman could not nd her lover and then asked her friends
to help nd him. On their question on his appearance15 she depicted his outstanding
characteristics, rstly by stating that he was ‘radiant and ruddy.’ The combination of
these two Hebrew words would rather characterise the person as being easy to observe
and very healthy,16 than depicting him as a white person.
6 Either the TEV or the NIV are used for the cited translations.
7 Like in most of Leviticus.
8 Cf. Gen. 30:35, 37, Zech.1:8, 6:3, and other scriptures.
9 Isa. 1:18.
10 Like Eccl. 9:8, Dan. 7:8, Matt. 28:3, and other scriptures.
11 Gen. 49:12.
12 Cf. A. A. Anderson, ed., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1–72) (Vol 1. London:
Eerdmans, 1983), 397.
13 Song. 5:10.
14 Song. 1:6.
15 Song. 5:9–10.
16 Cf. heading 2.2.2.
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Willem H. Oliver
2.2 THE TERMS ‘BLACK’ AND ‘RED’
2.2.1 BLACK
In Lam. 4:7–8 the term ‘black’ refers to a situation or condition of a person—that
of death. In Job. 30:28 and 30 ‘black’ is used as a referral to Job’s skin that became
darkened due to his illness.
2.2.2 RED
Both 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42 refer to David as a ‘ruddy’ or ‘reddish’ man. This term
does not refer to his skin colour, but rather to the fact that David was full of vitality and
in good health. In Lam. 4:7–8 the Hebrew term is mostly translated with ‘good health.’
Gen. 25:25 recalls the birth of Esau, reporting that he had a red colour and was very
hairy. The Hebrew word used here referring to his ‘skin colour’ is the same word used
in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42. Apart from being very hairy, Esau rather looked real healthy
at his birth, probably more healthy than his brother who was born just after him.
2.2.3 THE KUSHITES
Jer. 13:23 states: Can an Ethiopian (actually a Kushite – probably referring to an
inhabitant of the upper Nile region) change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can
you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. In this passage the Kushite’s skin colour
is not contrasted to that of the Israelites, but the emphasis is on the fact that it would
not change. The implication of this passage is therefore not that the skin colour of the
Israelites was white.
2.3 THE CASE OF NUMBERS 12
According to some commentaries Num. 12 depicts a white Moses who married a black
woman, with his brother and sister scolding him about it.17 That would imply that the
Israelites were white and that skin colour did have relevance when the Israelites left
Egypt. This passage is still used today to indicate that God is against mixed marriages.18
A reading of Num. 12:1 out of context with a twenty-rst century (European)
point of view may imply that Miriam and Aaron reprimanded Moses, amongst others,
because he married a ‘black’ Kushite woman. A closer examination of the verse within
the context, however, shows that skin colour did not have anything to do with the
17 Cf. R. Brown, The Message of Numbers (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2002), 106–107; R. A. Watson,
The Book of Numbers (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1894) 136–137.
18 Cf. e.g. The Dubious Disciple. ‘Numbers 12:10, Black and White.’ (http://www.dubiousdisciple.
com/2013/05/numbers–1210–black–and–white.html, 2013); 9Marks Journal. ‘Did Moses Marry a
Black Woman?’ (http://www.9marks.org/ journal/did–moses–marry–black–woman, 2013).
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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
reprimand.19 The context of Num. 12:1–3 shows that Aaron and Miriam were angry at
Moses, not because of the colour of the Kushite woman’s skin,20 but because Moses’
action (his marriage to the foreign woman) could put the authority of Miriam and Aaron
in jeopardy to also speak on behalf of the Lord. According to Mic. 6:4 Moses was sent
to lead Israel out of Egypt, together with Miriam (who was a prophetess) and Aaron (the
high priest), who therefore formed part of the leadership. It seems as if they were afraid
that this (foreign, not an Israelite) woman could now become part of the leadership,
or even replace them.21 This deduction is supported by the fact that neither the woman
nor her skin colour was even mentioned by the Lord in the following pericope, Num.
12:4–16, where he spoke to Aaron and Miriam on the theme of Moses being the Lord’s
special friend to whom he talked ‘face to face.’22
2.4 OVERVIEW
It appears that, during the times of the Bible, skin colour did not have much prominence
or relevance.23 Nowhere in the Bible do we nd a specic skin colour being dominant
over or contrasted with another one. Kidd24 states that the Bible is colour-blind with
regard to racial differences. We are aware of racialism in Israel during Jesus’ time, as
they considered themselves better people than the Samaritans their neighbours and
actually blood family of them – but that was not based on skin colour, but on the purity
of race.25 This phenomenon is called ‘racial otherings’ by Sadler.26
3 A WHITE JESUS
The Eagles, a rock group during the last quarter of the previous century, in a song called
‘The Last Resort’ articulated their (racial) feelings bluntly: ‘[Jesus] brought the white
man’s burden down, brought the white man’s reign.’ He apparently did nothing for the
black people, because he was white and just looked after his own.27 Up to this very day
many people have a xed mental perception of a white Jesus, drawn from depictions of
him from a westernised point of view, as seen in modern art and lms like The Passion
of the Christ (2004), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Greatest Story
Ever Told (1965). However, in a controversial movie called Dogma, the writer-director,
Kevin Smith, portrayed a black Jesus, which sent shock waves through the world in
19 Cf. R. S. Sadler, ‘Can A Cushite Change His Skin?: Cushites, “Racial Othering” and the Hebrew
Bible,’ Interpretation 60 (2006): 397.
20 Actually her skin was also of colour just as Moses’ skin — see later in this article.
21 Cf. G. B. Gray, Numbers (ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956), 122ff.
22 Num. 12:8.
23 Cf. Sadler, Cushite, 388.
24 Kidd, Forging of Races, 19.
25 Cf. John 4:9.
26 Sadler, Cushite, 387.
27 Cf. Matt. 15:24; Mark 7:27.
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Willem H. Oliver
1999. For many (other) reasons this was not a very popular lm. This lm was followed
by a low-budget lm called Color of the Cross by Jean-Claude La Marre in 2006, also
depicting Jesus as a black man, which did not draw much criticism to it, mostly because
it was not shown internationally.
By searching the internet, one nds quite a few articles/blogs portraying Jesus as
white, but without any substantial evidence. The website Stuff White Christians Like
puts it this way:28
White Christians effortlessly counter claims of an olive-skinned Jesus with historical evidence of
their own: Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story and the Hanna-Barbera video series The Greatest
Adventure Stories from the Bible clearly show that not only was Jesus white, but so was every
other person mentioned in the Bible.
The Christian Identity Forum explains the perception of the author that Jesus was
white:29
In the New Testament, Christ is called the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Adam was white and so
Christ must have been white…God’s Law was and is intended for white people, and white people
alone. But he [Jesus] answered and said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of
Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Here Jesus conrms that He came to redeem the Israelites and nobody else
– it is the House of Israel that makes up the Anglo–Saxon, Celtic, and Nordic peoples of today.
The last example noted here comes from Pastor Ezekiel. He seemingly has ‘the proof
that Jesus was white:30
Have you ever looked at a picture or painting of a black Jesus and thought to yourself, “This
just doesn’t feel right?” You ask yourself, “Is the painter joking? Is he making fun of Jesus?”
The answer is yes, the artist is being sarcastic and that artist is surely burning in hell’s re as I
type this. Jesus was white. Yes, He was born in the Middle East, but His father was not Middle
Eastern, He was God. God is NOT Middle Eastern. When was the last time you saw a painting
of God with a Turban wrapped around His head? Never? Exactly. God is white. God has always
been white. Every depiction, every description and every painting I have seen of God has been
white. God impregnated Mary, NOT Joseph. Therefore, Jesus is white. That is what drew people
to Him in the rst place. A white skinned man in the Middle East 2000 years ago was surely a
miracle and Jesus was and is a miracle worker.
One can ask oneself critically whether the above three passages are real proof for a
white Jesus. In the rst passage the ‘proof’ lies in books being written on the subject,
followed by a sweeping statement that all the people in the Bible had a white skin. The
second passage claims that Adam was white. That is derived from his name, in that the
28 Stuff white Christians Like. ‘White Jesus’ (http://www.stuffwhitechristianslike.com/2009/02/15
–white–jesus.html, 2009).
29 Christian Identity Forum. ‘Why Was Jesus White?’ (http://www.thechristianidentityforum.net/
theblog/why–was–jesus–white/, sa.).
30 Pastor Ezekiel. ‘Proof that Jesus is white’ (http://www.landoverbaptist.net/showthread.php?t=
33204, 2008).
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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
Hebrew root dm can be translated with ‘reddish’ or ‘to show blood in the face,’ and that
is associated with someone (a white person) blushing.31 In fact the term ‘red’ refers to
the ground from which Adam was created by God, and not to the colour of his skin.32
The last passage by Pastor Ezekiel is rather proof to the other side of the coin. The
paragraph reects on the Middle East as a community of colour, housing a miraculously
white Jesus, because ‘Jesus was and is a miracle worker.’ Without further remarks it can
be concluded that none of these passages has the right to any claim.
Jesus is usually depicted as a long-haired blond, bearded, blue-eyed, white-robed
Aryan.33 Prominent pictures of a white Jesus are dating as far back as 1460 C.E., like the
Dead Christ by Giovanni Bellini in the Museum Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. Kidd states that
the rise of racial anthropology in nineteenth-century European intellectual life alongside a shift
in Christological interpretation away from a supernatural Messiah of universal signicance to
the immediate and particular worldly context of the historical Jesus raised, in somewhat sinister
form, the issue of Jesus’ racial background.34
A good example of this time is Emile Burnouf who postulated that Jesus’ homeland,
Galilee, was an Aryan region quite different from Semitic Palestine. Although most of
Palestine was Semitic, that is of colour, a ‘minority’ north of Jerusalem, specically in
Galilee, was ‘probably’ Aryan – white. According to Burnouf, this was the reason why
Aryan Greeks and Hellenised Jews were so prominent in adopting Jesus’ teachings, as
they were seemingly also white.35
Chamberlain popularised this idea in Europe during the late 19th century and the
beginning of the 20th century. According to him Galilee was full of ‘purely Aryan blood’
due to Phoenician and Greek migrations to this part of the country, complemented by
Assyrian colonisation, ending up in producing Jesus as a non–Jew.36 American and
European scholars, especially German Biblical scholars, grabbed Chamberlain’s views
during the rst half of the 20th century.37 One of the prominent German theologians of
the previous century, Walter Grundmann, took this issue one step further as he articulated
that Jesus’ teachings were ‘in absolute opposition to Judaism.’38
31 Cf. Angelre. ‘The Mormon Faith & Black Folks’ (http://www.angelre.com/mo2/blackmormon/q23.
htm, sa.).
32 See later in this article.
33 Kidd, Forging of Races, 45.
34 Kidd, Forging of Races, 48–49.
35 E. Burnouf, The Science of Religions (London: S. Sonnenschein, Lowrey, 1888), 195–196.
36 H. S. Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (London: Ballantyne & Co., 2005),
205–212.
37 Kidd, Forging of Races, 50.
38 S. Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2008), 152. Cf. T. Penner, ‘Die Judenfrage and the Construction of
Ancient Judaism: Toward a Foregrounding of the Backgrounds Approach to Early Christianity.’ (ed.
P. Gray, and G. R. O’Day. Leiden: Brill, 2008), 431–432.
102
Willem H. Oliver
At the beginning of the previous century, as racial identity became very important
in the USA, we nd the same trend. Grant states that almost every artist depicted a blond
crucied Jesus with two brunet thieves on both sides. By depicting Jesus in this way, the
artists suggested that he was of a Nordic, possibly Greek descent.39 Buckner Payne, half
a century before Grant, held the same idea.40
Blum and Harvey supply the reason why Jesus had to be white in the 18th and 19th
century USA:41
By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face. But he
[Jesus] was a shape–shifting totem of white supremacy. The differing and evolving physical
renderings of white Jesus gures not only bore witness to the exibility of racial constructions
but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as
white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and
forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.
Muhammad adds to this:42
As America rose to superpower status in the 20th century she became the world’s leading
producer and global exporter of White Jesus imagery through lm, art, American business, and
Christian missions, and has thereby dened the world’s view of the Son of God. This globally
recognisable Jesus is a totally American product. Indeed, he is an American. Warner Sallman’s
iconic image of Jesus called Head of Christ (1941) became the most widely reproduced piece
of artwork in world history and its depiction the most recognisable face of Jesus in the world.
By the 1990s it had been printed over 500 million times and achieved global iconic status. With
smooth white skin, long, owing blondish-brown hair, long beard and blue eyes, this Nordic
Christ consciously disguised any hint of Jesus’ Semitic, oriental origin – and departed from
the older European depictions. It both shaped and was shaped by emerging American ideas of
whiteness. The beloved White Jesus of today’s world was Made in America.
In Catechetical (Sunday) Schools, children’s Bibles and most lms we are assured that
Adam and Eve were white, and that Jesus and his family/Israelites were white. Mention
is made of black people, but that issue was never discussed further. The impression was
clear: God made white people, and then, due to sin, God cursed Canaan (through his
father Ham) and they became black.43 As Jesus was born from the lineage of Seth, he
had to be white – full stop.
39 M. Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 230.
40 B. H. Payne, The Negro: What is his Ethnological status? (Cincinnati: Published for the Proprietor,
1867), 47.
41 Blum and Harvey, The Color of Christ, 8.
42 W. Muhammad, ‘Color Struck: America’s White Jesus is a Global Export and False Product’
(http://www.nalcall.com/artman/publish/National_News_2/article_ 9463.shtml, 2012).
43 Cf. Gen. 9:24–26.
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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
4 A JESUS OF COLOUR
As an introductory remark one proponent of Black Liberation Theology who needed to
portray Jesus as black must be mentioned. His name was James Cone and he articulated
his view as follows:44
White liberal preference for a “raceless” Christ serves only to make ofcial and orthodox the
centuries-old portrayal of Christ as white. The “raceless” American Christ has a light skin, wavy
hair, and sometimes – wonder of wonders – blue eyes. For whites to nd him with big lips and
kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to nd him partying with tax-collectors. But
whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so
detestable to white society.
Although Cone had a valid and very strong point, his intention was to use Jesus’
postulated blackness as a metaphor for his identication with the oppressed on earth.45
Just as the references to the whiteness of Jesus above were not really convincing, so is
this observation of Cone. The aim of this article rather is to seek other ways as mentioned
to reach a conclusion.
4.1 THE ORIGIN OF ALL HUMANKIND
To arrive at a point where one can articulate oneself with more conviction on the
skin colour of Jesus and his ancestors it seems signicant to investigate the origin of
humankind. Stephen Oppenheimer, a British paediatrician and geneticist, carried out and
published research in the elds of genetics and human prehistory. In one of his books
called Out of Africa’s Eden, covering the history of humankind up to 10 000 years ago,
he refers to the use of gender-specic gene lines – the so-called Adam-and-Eve genes.
According to him, these two sets of gender-linked genes are passed on unchanged from
generation to generation with no shufing, and can therefore be traced right back to the
origins of mankind.46 Oppenheimer inter alia based his assumptions on the following
two publications:
In 1987 a paper by Cann, Stoneking and Wilson acted as a landmark in the
understanding of the peopling of the world by using gene trees.47
During the late 1970s mitochondrial DNA studies were pioneered by Wesley Brown
and Douglas Wallace in the USA.48
In this book Oppenheimer mainly discusses the origin of humankind over the past
200 000 years. According to him it is very important to state that humans were not
44 J. H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 68.
45 Cf. Kidd, Forging of Races, 48.
46 S. Oppenheimer, Out of Africa’s Eden (Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball, 2003), xviii.
47 R. L. Cann, M. Stoneking, and A. C. Wilson, ‘Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution,’ Nature 325
(1987): 31–36.
48 Cf. M. Richards and V. Macaulay, ‘The Mitochondrial Gene Tree Comes of Age,’ The American
Journal of Human Genetics 68/6 (2001): 1315.
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Willem H. Oliver
‘put’ on earth ‘fully formed, thinking, talking, and unique among animals.’49 They were
rather selected and moulded by an environment that was erce, blind and unthinking.
During these times they had to adapt physically and behaviourally in order to survive
the struggle with their greatest enemy but best teacher, the climate. From his research
he concludes that Africa was the origin (birthplace) of every human species to walk this
planet.50 Added to this he slams the door in the face of those who thought that Europe
was the cradle of modern man, based on the fact that conventional writing and reading
skills were invented in the West more than 4 000 years ago, complemented by radio,
television, computers and space craft later, when he states that this does not mean that
the West was rst to be modern.51 Rather, our African ancestors left Africa ‘painting,
talking, singing, and dancing and fully modern.’52 He calls the rst female ancestor
who served as the origin of all female lines in Africa, the ‘Mitochondrial Eve.’ That
female line much later produced a subsidiary ‘Out-of-Africa Eve’ line whose genetic
daughters peopled the rest of the world.53 The central argument of his book is that there
was only one original exodus of modern humans from Africa ‘each gender line has
only one common genetic ancestor that respectively fathered and mothered the whole
non-African world.’54
As all the African people were of colour, it seems obvious that Adam and Eve, so
to speak, were also of colour. Tierney55 portrayed ‘Eve’ as follows:
Scientists are calling her Eve, but reluctantly. The name evokes too many wrong images – the
weak-willed gure in Genesis, the milk-skinned beauty in Renaissance art, the voluptuary
gardener in “Paradise Lost” who was all “softness” and “meek surrender” and waist–length
“gold tresses.” The scientists’ Eve – subject of one of the most provocative anthropological
theories in a decade was more likely a dark-haired, black-skinned woman, roaming a hot
savanna in search of food. She was as muscular as Martina Navratilova, maybe stronger; she
might have torn animals apart with her hands, although she probably preferred to use stone tools.
She was not the only woman on earth, nor necessarily the most attractive or maternal. She was
simply the most fruitful, if that is measured by success in propagating a certain set of genes. Hers
seem to be in all humans living today: 5 billion blood relatives. She was, by one rough estimate,
your 10,000th-great-grandmother.
The once-off out-of-Africa exodus of ‘moderns,’ mentioned above, took place not out of
North Africa, but about 70 000 or 80 000 years ago, using the ‘southern route,’ leaving
Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea at the isthmus.56 These moderns moved in an
easterly direction to India. From there some of them moved to Australia, which was
49 Oppenheimer, Eden, 3.
50 Oppenheimer, Eden, 51.
51 Oppenheimer, Eden, 114.
52 Oppenheimer, Eden, 113.
53 Oppenheimer, Eden, 46. Cf. J. Tierney, ‘The Search for Adam and Eve,’ Newsweek 111 (Jan 1988):
46–52.
54 Oppenheimer, Eden, xx.
55 Tierney, Adam and Eve, 46.
56 Oppenheimer, Eden, 67.
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Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
inhabited more than 60 000 years ago, while the European ancestors had to wait until
at least 50 000 years ago to move from the south towards Turkey and the Levant.57
This implies that the rst non-African modern humans were Asians,58 coming from the
Near East.59 They entered Europe via the Bosporus, which was dry at that time.60 As
these people were already in India 55 000 years ago, therefore predating the arrival of
the people in Europe, it makes a ‘strong case for South Asia as the ultimate ancestral
home of European lines.’61 At that time the Neanderthals, not part of the gene line of the
modern Europeans or of modern humans, were already in Europe, and they stayed there
until their demise around 28 000 years ago.
4.2 THE ORIGIN OF GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE
As parts of the prehistory of humankind was covered under the previous heading,
more ‘recent times’ are discussed under this heading. Anything between the twenty-
rst and the nineteenth centuries B.C.E., God called Abraham to be the father of his
Chosen People.62 Terah, the father of Abraham, lived in Ur in Babylonia (the land of
the Chaldeans), but decided to move from there to the north-west and settled in a city
called Haran/Harran.63 There Terah died, and there God called Abraham when he was
75 years old. Abraham and his family (his wife, Sarah, as well as his nephew Loth and
his family) then moved in a south-western direction to the land of Canaan. There they
settled in Shechem, a holy place of the land.
The question that needs clarication is, ‘Where did Terah come from?’ Winters
utilised archaeogenetics to determine an answer.64 Archaeogeneticists employ genetics,
archaeology and linguistics to examine the origin and spread of people groups.65
Analysing literature containing the craniometric, linguistic, archaeological and
y-chromosome sequences of African and Eurasian populations, Winters concluded that
the human y-chromosome haplogroup R1*M173 was only found in Africa and Eurasia.
Added to this, substantial data showed that there was a migration some 5 000 years ago
from Africa (especially Kerma a city to the north of today’s Sudan) to Eurasia (and
not vice versa as postulated by others).66 The people group that migrated eastward
was the Kushites, also called Ethiopians. The term ‘Ethiopian’ is a composition of the
57 Oppenheimer, Eden, 130.
58 Oppenheimer, Eden, 130.
59 Oppenheimer, Eden, 133.
60 Oppenheimer, Eden, 133.
61 Oppenheimer, Eden, 139.
62 Gen. 12:1ff.
63 Gen. 11:31.
64 C. A. Winters, ‘The Kushite Spread of Haplogroup R1*–M173 from Africa to Eurasia,’ Current
Research Journal of Biological Sciences 2/5 (2010): 294.
65 A. C. Linsley, ‘Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors’ (http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2010/09/
abrahams–kushite–ancestors.html, 2010a).
66 Winters, Kushite Spread, 294.
106
Willem H. Oliver
two Greek terms αἴθω (burn) and ὄψ (face), therefore denoting a burnt face – seemingly
people of colour.67 They were prominent kingdom builders.68 During that time the region
from Egypt to India – including Persia, Media, Elam, Aria and the entire area between
the Tigris and Indus rivers – was called Ethiopia or Kush, with certain parts like Elam
specically under Ethiopian rulers. Even the kings of Sumer were often referred to as
‘Kings of Kush.’69
According to craniometric evidence, there was a migration of Kushite people into
Mesopotamia and Anatolia between the 5th and 4th millennia B.C.E. Terah’s ancestors
migrated specically from the Upper Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa (East Africa)
to the coastal areas of Arabia. Centuries later these groups split up into Afro-Arabians
and Afro-Asiatics. Linguistics and DNA studies have proved that Terah was a Kushite,
most probably belonging to the above mentioned migration group, more specically
the Nilotic Ainu group. Parts of this group migrated as far east as Japan, and north to
Southern Siberia, and formed part of the Afro-Asiatic group. The term ‘Afro-Asiatic’
refers to people groups who spoke Afro-Asiatic languages. These languages can be
divided into three main groups, namely the Saharan Africans, the Afro-Arabians, and
Aramean Afro-Asiatics.70 The last two groups can be traced back to the ancient Kush. The
Kushites were agro-pastoral people who cultivated Millet/Sorghum and raised cattle.71
They were devotees of the Horus cult, which formed part of the later Isis cult in Egypt
as Horus was said to be Isis’ son she had from her husband-brother Osiris – therefore
they were also called Horites. The centre of this cult was in Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) in
today’s Sudan.72
The Nilotic Ainu had a red skin tone, while their rulers were bearded.73 This
correlates with the skin tones of the Ethiopians (‘burnt/red faces’) as mentioned above.
In the Ainu language Abraham means ‘burnt father’ (‘ab’ = father and ‘ham’ = burnt
also in Arabic), referring to his reddish skin tone. This skin tone is to be distinguished
from black, as it is duly portrayed in drawings of the time, for example the drawing from
the Great Temple located in the ancient Wawat (or the legendary Ybsambul) in Nubia,
near the borders of Sudan, about 300 kilometres from Aswan, showing Nubian captives
of Ramesses/Ramses II who were red and black.74 Both these skin colours were visibly
distinguished from white.
67 Cf. Sadler, Cushite, 390.
68 A. C. Linsley, ‘Abraham’s Ancestors Came Out of Africa’ (http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/
2010/06/abrahams–ancestors–came–out–of–africa.html, 2010b).
69 Winters, Kushite Spread, 296.
70 Jesus allegedly spoke an Aramean dialect – West-Aramean.
71 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
72 A. C. Linsley, The Christ in Nilotic Mythology (http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2011/01/
christ–in–nilotic–mythology.html, 2011).
73 Linsley, Abraham’s Ancestors.
74 Dynasty XIX, ca. 1275–1225 B.C.E.
107
Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
Interestingly, in the light of what has been said under this heading, the writer of
Genesis 1-11 made use of ‘indigenous’ (Kushite) names when referring to the forebears
of Abraham. Even the Hebrew writing system shows signicant similarities with the
Ainu writing system, especially the one used in Japan.75 According to Linsley the rst
stories in the Bible – the creation of heaven and earth, of Adam, etc. – are Nilotic.76 As
the Kushites were living on reddish-brown soil, it was tting to link the name of the rst
man on earth to the reddish–brown soil: Adam (as has already been said, the root of this
Hebrew word refers to something red, like blood or soil).77
Abraham was part of the Horite marriage pattern, which was characterised by
endogamy or tribal marriages, especially of the ruler-priest line.78 Abraham is said to be
part of the lines of Ham and Shem. The following diagram describes the line, starting
with Noah:79
Figure 1 Noah’s line
From this diagram we derive that the lines of Ham and Shem intermarried, when
Nimrod married the daughter of Asshur. Their two sons called Asshur the younger and
Arpachsad were regarded as belonging to the house of Shem, and not to the house of
their father, who was from the line of Ham. Most of the time a Horite ruler-priest had
75 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
76 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
77 Cf. Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
78 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
79 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
108
Willem H. Oliver
two wives, the one being his half-sister, and the other a patrilineal cousin or niece.
Added to this he also had two concubines. This pattern is especially evident in the lives
of Abraham and Jacob. According to Linsley the father of a family would give gifts to
the rstborn sons of concubines, together with the younger sons of his wives and then
send them away to conquer their own land and settle away from the ruling son/s. In Gen.
25:6 we read that Abraham also gave gifts to all his sons and then sent them away. Only
Isaac, his son by his sister-wife Sarah had the privilege to stay. This marriage pattern
drove Kushite expansion across the Afro-Asiatic Dominion.80
Quite another story, but one that substantiates the research done by Linsley to a
certain extent, is found in the History Book of Tacitus, a Roman historian who lived
between 56 and 117 C.E. In his History Book 5.2-5 he stated the following:
2. As I am about to relate the last days of a famous city [referring here to Jerusalem], it seems
appropriate to throw some light on its origin. Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the
island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was
driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There
is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idaei, came to be called
Judaei by a barbarous lengthening of the national name. Others assert that in the reign of Isis
the overowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into
the neighbouring countries. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin, who
in the time of king Cepheus were driven by fear and hatred of their neighbours to seek a new
dwelling–place. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde who, not having sufcient territory,
took possession of part of Egypt, and founded cities of their own in what is called the Hebrew
country, lying on the borders of Syria. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the
Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer, who called
the city which they founded Hierosolyma after their own name.
In this paragraph Tacitus dwelt on the origin of the Jews. His rst choice was Crete
which he coupled with the myth of Zeus (Jupiter) who dethroned Saturn. This could be
a reference to the top of the Minoan epoch in Crete between 1700 and 1450 B.C.E., a
time when Palestine was already populated by Jews.81 The Solumi tribe (his last option)
formed part of Greek mythology. The remaining options that Tacitus referred to were
people of colour: The Ethiopians (Kushites) and Assyrians.
4.3 LOCATION OF SKIN COLOUR IN THE OLD WORLD IN JESUS’ TIME
The ndings under sub-heading 4.2 indicate that the ancestors of the Hebrews were
of colour, and that Abraham and his family were more reddish or even light brown
distinguishable from white. Approximately 50 000 years ago Europe was populated
with ‘modern mankind’82 – assumable people of colour. The various groups of people
80 Linsley, Abraham’s Kushite Ancestors.
81 Facts and Details. ‘Minoans, Their Art, Culture and Religion and Thera Eruption (3000 B.C. to 1,400
B.C.)’ (http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=2043, 2008).
82 Oppenheimer, Eden, 349.
109
Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
split up over Europe (as they already did in Asia), somehow drifted apart and then
‘evolved’ in isolation from one another.83 The map used by Oppenheimer shows that the
entire Old World was almost lled with people of colour, except for the northern and
north–western parts of Europe.84 Oppenheimer supplies a reason: skin and hair colour
are evolving over many generations according to the intensity of the sun. The reason
is that skin darkness, dependant of the pigment melanin, is controlled by a ‘number of
poorly understood genes and is also under evolutionary control.’85 People who are living
in tropical and sub-tropical regions have the risk of burns and blisters, as well as skin
cancer induced by ultraviolet light. Therefore their skins become darker. The melanin
in pigmented skin allows it to radiate excess heat efciently, and to protect it against
the destruction of folic acid, which is an essential vitamin. Therefore people who live
in sunny climes will develop darker skins over a long period of time to lter out the
rays of the sun.86 Where there is less sun and therefore a lower risk of skin cancer, the
risk of rickets (osteomalacia) appears, which is a bone disease caused by the lack of
sunlight. Therefore the skin will lose its colour in order to suck up the meagre sunlight,
and the people will become fair skinned over generations of time. As the rst modern
humans to inhabit the north of Europe and Asia were rather dark skinned, they evolved
through a long time to becoming paler, especially to the north of Europe. Most Africans
have always been under ‘intense selective pressure’ that made them stay dark-skinned.87
The darkest-skinned people group (non-Africans) are still living in sunny and tropical
countries.
4.4 THE SKIN COLOUR OF JESUS
One of the rst scholars who suggested that Jesus was of colour was Godfrey Higgins,
attributing to Jesus the colour of the Indian ‘Christna’ (later Krishna) while referring
to old paintings of Jesus and his mother that portrayed them both as black.88 Josephus
commented about Jesus in the rst century C.E.:89
At that time also there appeared a certain man of magic power…if it be meet to call him a man
(whose name is Jesus), whom (certain) Greeks call a son of (a) God, but his disciples (call) the
true prophet…he was a man of simple appearance, mature age, black-skinned (melagchrous),
short growth, three cubits tall, hunchbacked, prognathous (macroprosopos), a long nose,
83 Oppenheimer, Eden, 195.
84 Oppenheimer, Eden, 200.
85 Oppenheimer, Eden, 198.
86 Cf. N. Jablonski, and G. Chaplin, ‘The Evolution of Human Skin Coloration,’ Journal of Human
Evolution 39 (2000): 57–106.
87 Oppenheimer, Eden, 199.
88 G. Higgins, Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw aside the Veil of Saitic Isis; or an Inquiry into the Origin
of Languages, Nations and Religions (London: London Press, 1836), 49–50.
89 XVIII:III,3, in a reconstructed and unaltered Russian translation ‘that preserved the original Greek
text’ according to Mohammad 2012.
110
Willem H. Oliver
eyebrows meeting above the nose…with scanty (curly) hair, but having a line in the middle of the
head after the fashion of the Nazaraeans, with an undeveloped beard [my italics].
The part in italics does not appear in the traditional Complete Works of Josephus.90 It is,
however, a better match to the earliest iconographic evidence at our disposal, compared
to the ‘white Christ’ mentioned above.
An article by Mike Fillon in the Science magazine Popular Mechanics in 2002
supports this view. According to Fillon the Evangelists would surely report it if Jesus
had a stark contrast with his followers (contra the reference to Pastor Ezekiel). This
was the reason why Judas Iscariot had to reveal Jesus from his followers to the soldiers
in the garden of Gethsemane.91 As no bodily remains of Jesus could be found to probe
for DNA, the only way out was to look at the imagination of artists. As there were two
distinct groups of artists – the western group on the one hand, and those who depicted
Jesus as black, Arab or Hispanic on the other – this was no solution, but then:
An answer has emerged from an exciting eld of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods
similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli
archaeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image…of the most famous
face in human history…An outgrowth of physical anthropology, forensic anthropology used
cultural and archaeological data as well as the physical and biological sciences to study different
groups of people, explains A. Midori Albert, a professor who teaches forensic anthropology at
the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Experts in this highly specialised eld require
a working knowledge of genetics, and human growth and development. In their research they
also draw from the elds of primatology, palaeoanthropology (the study of primate and human
evolution) and human osteology (the study of the skeleton). Even seemingly distant elds like
nutrition, dentistry and climate adaption play a role in this type of investigation.
While forensic anthropology is usually used to solve crimes, Richard Neave, a medical
artist retired from the University of Manchester in England, realised it also could shed
light on the appearance of Jesus. The co-author of Making faces: using forensic and
archaeological evidence, Neave had ventured in controversial areas before. Over the
past decades, he had reconstructed Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the
Great, and King Midas of Phrygia. If anyone could create an accurate portrait of Jesus,
it would be Neave.92
Neave rst used the description of Matthew on the events of Gethsemane and
concluded that the Evangelist depicted Jesus as a typical Galilean Semite of his era.
He therefore acquired three well-preserved skulls from near Jerusalem where Jesus
used to preach. He then used computerised tomography with which he created X-ray
‘slices’ of these skulls. By doing this, he revealed minute details about each of the
skulls’ structures. The next step was to utilise special computer programs to evaluate
90 Cf. W. Whiston, Josephus: Complete Works (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981).
91 Cf. Matt. 26:47–49.
92 M. Fillon, ‘The Real Face of Jesus: Advances in Forensic Science Reveal the Most Famous Face in
History,’ Popular Mechanics 100 (2002): 68–69.
111
Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
reams of information concerning already known measurements of the thickness of soft
tissue at certain key areas on the human face. In this way he ‘re-created’ the muscles and
skin that would most probably overlay a representative Semite skull. The last step was
to use computer software to verify these results with anthropological data. Having done
this, the researchers were ready to build a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. This
they did by creating a cast of the skull. They then applied layers of clay that matched
the thickness of the facial tissues specied by the computer program and covered it with
simulated skin. Following this, they modelled the nose, lips and eyelids according to the
shape determined by the underlying muscles.93
There were still a few key features that Neave could not determine from the skulls:
Firstly the eyes: he got vital clues from drawings that were found at some
archaeological sites, dating back to the 1st century, before the Bible was compiled.
These drawings led him and his team to determine that the eyes of Jesus were rather
dark than light-coloured.
Then the beard: They also concluded that Jesus would have a beard – similar to the
Jewish tradition of his day.
Then they determined the length of men’s hair in Jesus’ time: research showed that
it was rather short, and not the length people assumed it would be on evidence of
the Shroud of Turin, which was a fraud.
The next feature to be determined was the build of men during those times: they
analysed skeleton remains and determined that the average length of a Semite male
at the time of Jesus was 1.55 metres (5 feet and 1 inch), while the average weight
was about 50 kilograms (110 pounds). Added to this the team decided that Jesus
was muscular and physically t, because, before his public ministry, he worked
outdoors as a carpenter till his thirtieth birthday. This would also cause his face to
be weather-beaten, making him look older than other people of his age.
Neave and his team combined all these features onto a sculpture and came up with a
dark and swarthy Middle Eastern man. Allison Galloway, professor of anthropology
at the University of California in Santa Cruz differed from Neave on a few points,
but concluded: ‘This is probably a lot closer to the truth than the work of many great
masters.’94 The picture recalls the scripture in Isa. 52:14: He had no beauty or majesty
to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
4.4 ARTWORKS
The best evidence for paintings portraying Jesus and his ancestors are reliefs (sculptural
techniques). The earliest reliefs portraying the Hebrews date back to the ninth and eight
centuries B.C.E. and are found in the British Museum in London. As most of these
93 Fillon, The Real Face of Jesus, 69.
94 Fillon, The Real Face of Jesus, 71.
112
Willem H. Oliver
reliefs are reddish in colour, it is difcult to really determine the skin colour of the
depicted Hebrews. The most prominent characteristics are that their hair was rather
short and curly, complemented by a curly beard. The earliest visual depiction of Jesus
that we are aware of is a painting found in 1921 on a wall of the baptismal chamber
of the house-church at Dura Europos, Syria and dated at around 235 C.E. The picture
entails the story of Jesus healing the paralytic man,95 and depicts a short, dark-skinned
person with a curly afro.96
In European art, versions of the ‘white Christ’ appeared as soon as the 4th century
C.E., although there were also other non–white pictures of Jesus during that time. Some
of the best examples of a white Jesus are to be found in the paintings that Michelangelo
did in the sixteenth century on the commission of Pope Julius II as he painted the ceiling
of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican full of frescoes, on an area of approximately 40 by
13 meters. Up until the 14th century there were pictures of a coloured Jesus painted by
artists, the last one probably being the fresco by Duccio-di-Buoninsegna in 1308 C.E.97
There were also pictures of Jesus that were ‘altered’ with time. Two frescos – both
of them are in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome – serve as a good example. The
rst fresco is most probably done in the fourth century C.E. and depicts a coloured
Jesus. The second fresco is visibly ‘whiter’ than the rst one and probably dates later
than the rst one.
5 CONCLUSION
With all that has been said here, we have only touched the ears of the hippo. On the
evidence we had at hand we can derive that the rst people on earth were black, and
that these black people over a long time populated the whole earth. As some of them
moved into colder areas, that is to the far north of Europe, their skin tone became paler
after centuries of time. Again, Abraham’s ancestors were of colour, but we may refer to
them as reddish or light brown, as Abraham and his children became the Chosen People
of God. One can therefore derive that Jesus, one of the descendants of Abraham, who
was born in a Middle-eastern community, also was of colour. Another deduction is that
he was most probably of the same colour as his parents and disciples – and that was a
stark off-white colour.
Oppenheimer remarks in the Epilogue to his book referred to above, that trying to
present the genetic history of mankind before 10 000 years ago in fewer chapters than
Julian Barnes’ The History of the World in 10½ Chapters is a rather ambitious aim.98
To try and be persuasive in one short article about the skin colour of Jesus is more than
ambitious, maybe foolish. Fortunately this is not the intension of this article, as it is
95 Cf. Mark 2:1–12.
96 Realhistory. ‘Ancient Man and His First Civilizations: How did Jesus and the Hebrews become
White?’ (http://realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/ Misc/Jesus/Jesus.htm, sa.).
97 Cf. Realhistory.
98 Oppenheimer, Eden, 351.
113
Reconsidering the Skin Colour (Race) of Jesus and His Ancestors
intended to merely serve as an introduction to the fact that there are two sides to the coin
concerning Jesus, and that the ‘darker side’ looks more obvious at this stage.
A last word: skin colour did not matter before and during biblical times, but
became an issue during the past few centuries. Therefore the reader is urged to partake
in the venture to make South Africa a country where race does not determine anything
negatively. A good reason for this is to be found in the true words of Oppenheimer: ‘As
we are all descendants of the one gene line, “race” is actually a politically incorrect
word, even “ethnicity”.’99 He explains:
…the word “race” itself, tainted forever by the Nazi era, is outlawed by many anthropologists
as unscientic, derogatory, meaningless, and giving the misleading impression that races are
discrete entities when in fact variation, gradation, and admixture occur everywhere.100
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