Friday, January 18, 2008

Skin color in early Christianity and Judaism

About 15 years ago, I received an e-mail from a specialist in Jewish studies, Dr. David Goldenberg, who had read an article of mine and wanted to know more about the subject. The article described how early Christians perceived Black Africans, or Ethiopians as they were then called, especially those who lived as a small visible minority in the Mediterranean world. I had come to this subject out of a desire to understand how differences in skin color were perceived in contexts that preceded the historical experiences of European colonialism and black slavery. This desire led me to such culture areas as the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity, ancient India, and the contact zone between Melanesia and Polynesia. Ultimately, I wanted to isolate the patterns of perception and response that existed during the long period of human existence when, in any given society, skin color differed primarily between men and women.

David Goldenberg came to this subject from a very different angle. A number of African American authors were arguing that the Jews had invented anti-black racism, the “proof” being early rabbinical writings that had reinterpreted the Curse of Ham (originally pronounced on the Canaanites) as applying to the dark-skinned peoples of Africa. These writings certainly did exist. My article, however, showed that they were part of a larger Mediterranean tradition of attitudes to skin color that had originated as much with early Christians as with Jews.

For David, the situation was all the more worrisome because many Black Muslims were taking up the argument that “the Jews did it.” Ironically, this early Christian/Jewish ‘colorism’ had not disappeared from the Middle East with the rise of Islam; the Muslim world preserved it virtually intact, including the notion that God had condemned Black Africans to slavery and had blackened their skin as a mark of shame.

I provided him with more references, including other articles I had written. God knows what he thought of my other articles. Even fellow anthropologists think they’re weird—“But what does that have to do with racism?”

Some years after, in 2003, David Goldenberg came out with a book that pulls together all of his research: The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I have only just now started reading it and truly regret not having done so sooner. It provides a lot of material I was not aware of and is by far the most authoritative work on the subject. As such, it forms a companion piece to Bernard Lewis’ Race and Slavery in the Middle East.

Today, people routinely interpret antipathy to dark skin as being racially based. Dr. Goldenberg rises above this simplism, arguing that attitudes to skin color were much more fluid and less ethnically constructed in the ancient world. At that time, they were still largely aesthetic in nature and centered on the individual. It was only later, with the expansion of European societies into the non-European world, that these attitudes became almost wholly racialized and, as such, assumed a preponderant role in the modern worldview.

In short, what we call ‘racism’ did not develop historically from a blank slate. It arose from a transformation of earlier sentiments that were unrelated to race or ethnicity. This earlier pre-racial world is now half-forgotten, if not forgotten entirely.

As The Curse of Ham concludes on its last page:

Yet, what struck me as I read through hundreds of modern biblical commentaries and historical and cultural studies of ancient Judaism was how strongly the perspective of one’s own time and place shapes one’s view of another time and place. We today are heirs to centuries of anti-Black sentiment, which has greatly conditioned our perspective.
(Goldenberg, 2003, p. 200)

References

Frost, P. (1991). Attitudes towards Blacks in the early Christian era, The Second Century, 8(1), 1-11.

Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, B. (1990). Race and Slavery in the Middle East. An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press.

8 comments:

gaxxer said...

My article, however, showed that they were part of a larger Mediterranean tradition of attitudes to skin color that had originated as much with early Christians as with Jews.

Judaism gave birth to Christianity and I can't see that "as much with" is anything but rhetoric designed to pretend there's an equality that doesn't exist. Did Christians "invent" these ideas on their own or take them entirely from paganism?

We today are heirs to centuries of anti-Black sentiment, which has greatly conditioned our perspective.

We don't need to "inherit" anti-black sentiment: we need simply observe the world around us and note the grossly disproportionate rates at which blacks commit serious crimes against non-blacks. And against each other. (If we explain this by racism, we are in effect saying that blacks are too stupid to recognize how they're harming themselves by reacting to racism in such a fashion.)

Anonymous said...

....the Muslim world preserved it virtually intact, including the notion that God had condemned Black Africans to slavery and had blackened their skin as a mark of shame.
If you know anything about Islam you would have known that God created man from earth and and the fact that we have diffreent skin colours does not mean that God prefers one race over the other God will judge us on our deeds. If there are Muslims that believe this to be true than they are ignorant to what their own religion preaches.

Peter Frost said...

"Did Christians "invent" these ideas on their own or take them entirely from paganism?"

The word "invent" is inappropriate since it implies a deliberate, goal-directed process. I'm saying that the Christians, Jews, and pagans of antiquity shared a common social environment and held certain common values, especially in relation to skin color. These values were originally gender-based, i.e., fair skin was associated with desirable feminine characteristics and dark skin with desirable masculine characteristics.

As growing numbers of black Africans entered the Mediterranean world of late antiquity, these gender-based attitudes became reorganized along lines of ethnic differentiation.I deal with this question at greater length in my next post.

"We don't need to "inherit" anti-black sentiment: we need simply observe the world around us and note the grossly disproportionate rates at which blacks commit serious crimes against non-blacks."

Do you feel the same way about all people with darker skin? How do you explain the existence of color prejudice against people from south and east Asia who, if anything, are better behaved than white North Americans and Europeans? I'm not being politically correct here. I'm saying there are responses to skin color that have nothing to do with real or alleged behavior.

"If there are Muslims that believe this to be true than they are ignorant to what their own religion preaches."

I was talking about the Muslim world, not Islam. By 'Muslim world', I mean what flesh and blood people really think and do, and not what they're supposed to think and do.

gaxxer said...

"Did Christians "invent" these ideas on their own or take them entirely from paganism?"

The word "invent" is inappropriate since it implies a deliberate, goal-directed process.


No, it implies that the ideas were created out of nothing, which isn't the case. Prejudice against blacks has a factual basis.

As growing numbers of black Africans entered the Mediterranean world of late antiquity, these gender-based attitudes became reorganized along lines of ethnic differentiation.I deal with this question at greater length in my next post.

They were "reorganized" because the groups in question were in fact "ethnically differentiated": they differed in far more than skin color, but skin color was a convenient symbol of those other differences.

"We don't need to "inherit" anti-black sentiment: we need simply observe the world around us and note the grossly disproportionate rates at which blacks commit serious crimes against non-blacks."

Do you feel the same way about all people with darker skin?


No, I don't, because not all races with darker skin behave the same.

How do you explain the existence of color prejudice against people from south and east Asia who, if anything, are better behaved than white North Americans and Europeans?

I explain it by the their possession of serious faults, such as financial dishonesty and hostility to whites. South and East Asians aren't "stereotyped" as violent and stupid like blacks because they aren't violent and stupid. They have other faults.

I'm not being politically correct here. I'm saying there are responses to skin color that have nothing to do with real or alleged behavior.

Please name some. When whites get to know a group with darker skin, their prejudice against it may be exaggerated, but it will have some basis in fact.

Peter Frost said...

"I explain it by the their possession of serious faults, such as financial dishonesty and hostility to whites. South and East Asians aren't "stereotyped" as violent and stupid like blacks because they aren't violent and stupid. They have other faults."


I see. And when Indian companies import fashion models from Russia, it's because they perceive Russians as financially more honest. It has nothing to do with physical characteristics ... like skin color.

You can usually find some kind of cultural proxy that will stand in for some undesirable physical characteristic. But I don't think anti-racists are fooled by this tactic. So who are you trying to fool. Yourself?

I'm an academic. I'm not an apologist or a strategist. Please don't waste my time with arguments that you yourself don't believe.

Anonymous said...

>>
I see. And when Indian companies import fashion models from Russia, it's because they perceive Russians as financially more honest. It has nothing to do with physical characteristics ... like skin color.
>>

If dark skin was a sign of virility in mediterranean caucasoid males (presumably because it means they work outdoors and are well conditioned, much like a _good tan_ is perceived to mean today) then the reality of the above statement is baiting because it does not compare like with like so much as assume it, without proof. A native African does not have tanned skin, they have black skin.

Which means the real question you need to ask here is not 'why do whites hate those of darker skin'? But /why do those of darker skin like whites/?

No aesthetic 'admiration' of either gender by any separate ethno-culture group will survive enslavement and constant denigration over centuries.

Nor does it explain how a people from the heart of Africa with presumably ZERO prior contact with caucasoids would suddenly adopt such culture-normed interest upon first encounterment in the Mediterranean basin.

What's strange is scary and this more than anything leads to isolation of culture groups that sets the resource competition threshold for prejudices real or imagined on a _group_ associative basis. Again, if aesthetics of the unusual were appealing in and of themselves, interbreeding would mesh cultures instead of frictioning them against each other.

Which in turn sets your whole **accomodative** (revisionist) theory on it's heel.

For without prior experience of each other from both sides of the gender gap, there can be no such assumption of aesthetic appeal or religious discrimination resulting from it. And without an associative economics comparison there can be no hard proof of preference by color or against it on that level.

As for the modern day Indians, you need only be aware of some of the cultural practices of rural India-

http://www.psychohistory.com/htm/06a1_incest.html

To understand why upper castes do not appreciate some of the habits of the lower ones and are _highly prejudiced_ against their own for marrying outside of caste-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsi

That the Parsi and other upper class groups rate highly those whose skin pigmentation is lightest to the extent of preferentialism is again, not the artifice of some Judeo Christian conspiracy but a singular expression of their own culture, dating back to their arrival as Zoroatrians from Persia, long before any of the Big Three monotheistic cultures could assert it's will on the Indian Subcontinent.

It is a tactical hubris of evangelical subsumation of local culture that man must yield his right to judge and be judged only by an outsider's jealous god. Those with a will to own their own lives refuse to yield their right to see and judge of their own senses and thus be certain within their own minds.

As such, I find your comparison to be one of apples and carts, and feel I must ask where is the horse driving the logic of your own upset?

Slaughter said...

anonymous wrote of supposed low caste habits as the reason for disapproval of marrying out.
But even high up the castes light skin goes with higher status.

Dont try to tell me that the chances of marrying up are not greater for the light skinned.

Donnie Darkko said...

We don't need to "inherit" anti-black sentiment: we need simply observe the world around us and note the grossly disproportionate rates at which blacks commit serious crimes against non-blacks. And against each other. (If we explain this by racism, we are in effect saying that blacks are too stupid to recognize how they're harming themselves by reacting to racism in such a fashion.)

Typical, This is nothing but a bunch of B.S. First off, the blacks that commit crime stems from the lifestyle of living in poverty and a life of ignorance and neglect that stems from the oppression that African Americans had to endure. No excuse for this but it has nothing to do with skin color...
Also what does American crime rates have to do with the perception of Ethiopians and blacks African living along the Mediterranean and Nile Valley by Hebrew historians. What self contradicting non sense are you trying to prove...?

No, it implies that the ideas were created out of nothing, which isn't the case. Prejudice against blacks has a factual basis.

Now prove that blacks when compared to whites are more violent and barbaric. Your post is nothing but American conserative rubbish...presented from the position of a typical American that knows nothing of the world but what is beyond his next Beer Joint or fast food restaurant.

White European are historically and even in Modern times the most murderous, barbaric people of the Human race. White people have massacred and practiced mass genocide on people from native Americans to Africans and Asians and the Jews all in their attempt to gain political power. White people have even killed themselves with examples in Europe and to this day continue to ravage and slaughter people on whole scales...raging war against foolishness such as Iran and the tali-ban....Making up lies to provide reason for this war/wars....even blowing up the World Trade center.

To put it lightly, Whites are on average more violent, they created nothing but societies where people work to stuff their houses with crap and are slaves to debt....

There is nothing that whites have done that has benefited mankind in any way shape or form.