‘And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised,” we read in the Gospel of Luke, “he was called Jesus.” For centuries, Jan. 1 was celebrated in the Christian church’s liturgical calendar as the Feast of the Circumcision. That defining ritual of initiation into Judaism, the event where Jesus received his name, might have sealed for good the question of his ethnicity. But an ancient religious amnesia, combined with a modern construction of categories by race, has confused things. Recently, in the run-up to Christmas, there was a media kerfuffle over Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s insistence that Jesus, like Santa Claus, was “white.” In the heated back-and-forth that followed, the impoverishment of contemporary thinking on racial matters was once more on display. Leaving aside Santa, the flap over the “whiteness” of Jesus was absurd and insignificant.
Well, not quite. The contretemps showed how readily one’s unexamined assumptions can distort not only facts about history’s great figures, but also the actual meaning they had in the first place.