Were Adam and Eve white?


Many years ago  I saw a black Christ for the first time. I had to get used to this. As a child I had become accustomed to pictures in the children’s Bible of Jesus as a Caucasian met long blond hair. When some thirty years later I was responsible for the production of the Dutch version of Arthur Maxwell’s ten volume Bible Story, I gave no further thought to the fact that the illustrations by Harry Anderson and other artists pictured Jesus as an American male in an American park scene.  Yes, there was a picture of the little children who (in spite of the protests of Jesus’ disciples) were allowed to come to Jesus, and  one of these children had a dark skin. But Jesus himself? He was solidly part of my own western culture.

It was a considerable shock when I gradually realized that there were people in other cultures who had decided to picture Jesus as one of them—not as an American or Northern European, but as a Korean, a Chilean, an African, a Maori or an Apache. And, of course, if you give it a little thought, you must agree that these people in other cultures also have the right to express there conviction that, in becoming man Jesus became the representative of all people from all cultures, in all ages—and thus also their representative.

However, for me, about a week ago, another dimension was added to this issue. In the book  Reading the Bible from the Margin,[1] the author Miguel de la Torre points out that westerners almost automatically assume that Adam and Eve had a white skin. To be honest, that is also what I had always assumed. Until a week ago I had never looked for a basis for that supposition. In fact, the question of the origin of the physical differences between human races has never occupied me very much. I had always, without giving it much further thought, simply assumed that the development of these differences between the various races must have required a long time–that one could not easily fit into any biblical scheme of 6.000 years. The fact that humans have different colors of skin was, no doubt, due to climatological circumstances, I thought. That black people were descendants of Cham—the son of Noah who was cursed because of his misbehavior—is a theory that I always rejected as an obnoxious racist opinion.

But do we have a good reason to think that the first human beings did not have a dark skin, but, on the contrary, were ‘white’? The Bible does not seem to provide any solid information that allows us to answer this question decisively. We do not have any selfies of Adam and Eve, and we simply do not know what they looked like and whether they had a dark, a light, a yellow or a red skin.

Why did I never think about this? De la Torre claims that this is because all of us (and that includes me) read the Bible from our own ‘social location.’ Who and what I am, and where I come from, determines to a major extent how I read the Bible. As a ‘white’ person I tend to automatically assume that the first human beings were white, and for centuries the ‘whites’ have shared this message with the rest of the world’s population: it became a part of our story as we did our missionary work.

I encountered another striking example of this phenomenon in de la Torre’s book. The person who reads the Bible from the ‘social location’ of the favelas in a South-American city, will approach many biblical passages in a way that differs from how I, as a reasonably prosperous retired pastor who lives in a pleasant apartment in the Netherlands, read my Bible. When, from my ‘social location), I preach a sermon—or listen to a sermon—about poverty and prosperity, there will invariable also be a statement like: Yes, we must allow others to share in our prosperity. But [and then follows a crucial remark] this does not mean that God condemns our prosperity and does not want us to enjoy life. As long as we also . . . . [you will know how to complete this statement].  Reading from our own ‘social location,’ we want to ensure that we safeguard our privileged position. It is in fact for us quite natural to think that way. But we must be aware that we do not read in the same way as those who ‘read from the margins.’

There are people (including theologians and church leaders) who keep  emphasizing that we must opt for a ‘plain’ reading of the Bible. We must simply read what the text says. However, these people do not follow their own instructions and, in fact, are unable to do so. They also read from their ‘social location’, as all of us do. And thus their reading will always be selective and subjective. This is unavoidable for all of us. This is not something to be ashamed of, as long as we remember that others—and with just as much right to do so—read from their own ‘social location.’

[1] Door Miguel A. De la Torre; uitgave: Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).