A Tale of Two Messiahs: Jesus Is Back on Television (and isn't White)

There’s going to be a lot of Jesus going around this Easter. Jesus, his death, and the aftermath will be discussed and dramatized at length in the National Geographic miniseries Killing Jesus and NBC’s A.D.—The Bible Continues.

I actually don’t prescribe to watching any interpretations of Jesus’ life, because I think everyone gets it wrong —we don’t know a lot about the historical Jesus and folks use the idea of Jesus to promote racial and cultural heresies. For instance, the idea that Jesus is somehow an Anglo-Saxon. But in the aformentioned Jesus offerings, neither actor portraying the Son of God is white. One of them wasn’t even raised Christian.

A.D.—The Bible Continues is a continuation of the popular History Channel series The Bible and the film Son of God. A.D. focuses largely on the time of upheaval after Jesus was killed on the cross, but according to the promos, there are some flashback scenes with Jesus mentoring his flock. In this overarching film and History Channel TV series, Jesus was portrayed by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. But in A.D., Jesus will be played by Argentinian actor Juan Pablo di Pace.

Again, I’m not a person that gets into dramatizations of Christian stories, even though I am a Christian (at least in upbringing). But I do have to say that in A.D.’s defense, there’s quite a bit of multiculturalism going on with the cast. So, there’s that positive.

What’s really interesting is that Killing Jesus, which is spearheaded by Bill O’Reilly (whose stance on multicultural issues leaves something to be desired, to be too kind about it), has Jesus played by Muslim-raised Haaz Sleiman, and actually includes its fair share of non-white actors as well.

I’m sure some people will be up in arms that a Muslim-raised actor is playing the all-time Christian hero, but Sleiman (like myself), doesn’t define himself by just one religious title. Instead, he sees himself as a student of all religions. “[I] consider myself a Christian/Muslim/Jewish/atheist, all of it. I like to be inclusive of everyone,” he said to HitFix. “It doesn’t matter what your belief is, it’s all about one true, which is we all come from the same place. No one can argue with me about that.”

I’m also certain there will be some in certain sects who aren’t fine with a Middle-Eastern actor playing Jesus (Sleiman is Lebanese). But—and it’s weird for me to actually defend Bill O’Reilly—Sleiman as Jesus is actually the closest we’ve gotten in recent cinematic history to a proper representation of a historical Jesus. Jesus was born in the Middle East, after all.

In conclusion, it seems like the trend of casting non-white actors in prominent roles is reaching all the way to casting historical and religious figures like Jesus, who has been often cast as a white man despite the entire story of the Bible, New and Old Testaments, taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.

Seeing oneself in the image of holy figures is a very powerful self-esteem game, and in terms of Christianity historically being used as a bargaining chip and tool of oppression throughout the centuries, that game turns into something that’s dangerous. Doesn’t it make sense that the oppressor would spread their version of Christianity, that features a Jesus that looks like them, to those they plan on oppressing? In a way, it’s another form of the “divine right” taken from monarchies—that those who resemble God have the right to rule those whom they deem as not in God’s image. This is part of the reason why I, personally, don’t adhere to watching dramatic retellings of the Biblical stories.

No one knows exactly what the historical Jesus looked like or what he even did in his lifetime apart from the big moments chronicled in the Bible. But at the very least, with these different forms of Jesus now in pop culture, a new idea of who can portray Jesus has emerged and hopefully, that idea will stick around for a long time. The monarchy of the blond Jesus is hopefully over.

(L-R) Haaz Sleiman in Killing Jesus  and Juan Pablo di Pace in A.D.—The Bible Continues. Photo credit: National Geographic, NBC/Joe Alblas/LightWorkers Media