Blacks in the Bible

Article excerpt

Although film, books and art depict most biblical characters as blond and blue-eyed Europeans, a growing body of research indicates that Blacks or people who would be considered as Blacks today were among the major actors in the Bible, which is generally called "the greatest book of all time."

"Over the years, African-Americans have been introduced to a form of Christianity that was largely recast through the European culture," says Dr. Cain Hope Felder, a New Testament language and literature professor at the Howard University School of Divinity and the author of several books on the subject. "We are not creating something new. We are going back and recovering what was always there."

What was always there, Dr. Felder and other religious experts say, is incontrovertible evidence that noted biblical figures, such as the Queen of Sheba, Moses' Cushite wife Zipporah, Prophet Jeremiah's right-hand man Ebedmelech, and Sarah's Egyptian handmaiden Hagar, are among the many royal Black personalities mentioned in the Bible.

Although evidence on the presence of Blacks in the Bible dates back to the 18th century, only in the past 25 years have Black scholars and ministers made major breakthroughs on a subject that has been practically ignored or suppressed by White religious authorities. Modern research, however, is based on the findings of Black historians like William Leo Hansberry and W.E.B. DuBois, who identified major Black biblical characters more than 50 years ago.

Moreover, some scholars say, it has taken them just as much time to convince Black Americans of their findings.

"Black people have been duped into running from the Bible, thinking it was the White man's book," says the Rev. Walter A. McCray, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chicago and author of two volumes titled The Black Presence in the Bible. But in fact, Rev. McCray says, "Many notable biblical personalities were Black."

Scholars base their characterizations of biblical figures on a few basic hypotheses set forth, in part, by Dr. Charles B. Copher, professor-emeritus of Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and a leading authority the historical analysis of Blacks in the Bible. These assumptions are that 1) race was not the social and political issue that it is today, 2) most Bible activity took place in areas historically populated by people of color, such as the near Middle East and Northeast Africa; 3) "blackness" can be determined by scriptural references to skin color, Black ancestry and features characteristic of Black peoples.

Based on this criteria alone, "You'd have to say that the vast majority of peoples referred to in the Bible would have to be classified as Black," Dr. Copher says. Another school of thought holds to the view that only those people belonging to ancient Africa can be identified as Black.

In any case, Black preachers, scholars and historians are determined to establish the presence of Black kings, queens, war leaders and women of the Bible as part of missing links in Black history. "The question isn't where are the Blacks in the Bible," Dr. Felder said during a telephone interview, "but where are the Whites?"

"The information has been there for the reader all along," adds Dr. Renita J. Weems, an Old Testament assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in biblical hermeneutics. "To the extent that African-American people identify with their African heritage, I think that they can take pride in [the fact] that African people were very much embedded in the founding of the Judeo-Christian traditions."

Although there are differences of emphasis, Black scholars and an increasing of White biblical scholars agree on the eight most widely accepted Black personalities in the Bible:

* The Queen of Sheba. The queen, who visited King Solomon and marveled at his wisdom, was queen of Ethiopia and Egypt. In scripture, she is called "the queen of the South. …