Debunking the Myth of a Racist Bible (Under Construction)
There are many out of context quotes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament that are used to justify racism, or in an attempt to prove that the Bible is a racist document or promotes racism. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the Bible is explicitly anti-racist. I will be going through the verses and quotes cited as racist, as well as the verses and quotes that are anti-racist. I will try to go in order of most popular to least popular, to debunk as efficiently as possible.
Myth 1: Christ was racist to Canaanites in the New Testament
First, here is the entire interaction from Matthew 15:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. – Matthew 15
This quote out of context can make it seem that Christ is calling the woman a dog, because she is a Canaanite. The woman is referred to as a Canaanite in two of the Gospels, and a Syro-Phoenician in the other, both mean the same, in modern language Lebanese.
Those who have read the New Testament already know that Christ is not racist against Canaanites, and in fact one of his twelve apostles was literally called “Simon the Canaanite” and he was handpicked by Jesus Christ himself. The above is a religious distinction, this is obvious within the context, especially as the “Lost Sheep of Israel” that Christ was referring to was a multi-ethnic group in the first place, the twelve tribes, especially the scattered twelve tribes, were not all of the same race, although in modern times we tend to picture them all as Judean.
Using a geographic designation to refer to an individuals religion is the rule and not the exception in the Bible. For example, when you read a modern English Bible and you read the word “Jewish” what the underlying word in Koine Greek actually means is “Judean,” it is just translated as Jewish. So you can understand how referring to someone as a Canaanite is a way of identifying that person as of the Canaanite religion, in the same way that referring to someone as Judean identified them as of the Judean religion.
Then there’s the fact that there are many people’s ethnicity mentioned in the Bible as a simple identifier, virtually everyone is introduced in that manner, and if you stumble upon the above verse during a normal reading of the New Testament, you likely will never misinterpret it as racist, as it’s only out of context that the woman’s identification as a Canaanite stands out, which is what makes people think that Christ was referring to her race.
Regarding Simon the Canaanite, there are a few websites that repeat a lie, that I believe was originally posted on Blue Letter Bible, that the “Canaanite” portion of his name actually means a “Spiritual Canaanite” or “Zealot” or some variation thereof. His name is given as Simon the Canaanite in I believe 2/3 of the Gospels he is mentioned, and Simon the Zealot in 1/3 of the Gospels he is mentioned in. This is not a contradiction, and you do not need to choose your preferred translation, although of course if you were to do that, you would defer to the majority translation.
The reason these different translations are not a contradiction, is because both underlying words are not just similar in sound, they’re similar in meaning. In the times of the New Testament, groups were often referred to by their geographic location, for example when Paul is captured, he is accused of being a ringleader of the “Sect of the Nazarenes,” Christ being from Nazareth. The Zealots were a group of religiously Jewish individuals, in the far North of Galilee. The North of Galilee is actually much further north than the South of Canaan (Phoenicia), Canaan being a coastal area, and in the North of Galilee they shared a border with Canaan. The Zealots were located along this border, where they had freedom of movement across the border blurring the lines somewhat, and like many groups at the time they were referred to by their geographic location, which is why their name in the underlying language is just a slight adjustment of the word Canaan, like Nazarene is a slight adjustment to Nazareth.
All the names given in the Gospels are correct, they all mean of Canaan, and being a Zealot and a Canaanite are not mutually exclusive. We need to avoid confusing our modern interpretation of these words, with the ancient understanding of these words. To translate them to English and understand what they are referring to, it’s required we “view” these words from the viewpoint of those living in the time of Christ.
So what was the purpose of Christ calling this woman a dog? Most will agree that calling someone a dog is very rude, whether it’s religious discrimination or racial discrimination. If someone today was to call someone a dog (a more accurate modern equivalent might be bitch, which means a female dog) just because they were of a different religion, it would be considered hateful, and for good reason.
Christ’s life was a demonstration, in addition to all else it was. Every word of the New Testament has meaning, and every passage illustrates a lesson that God wanted recorded for all eternity.
This passage was to illustrate that faith in Christ transcends not only all racial and geographic barriers, but even religious barriers. While Christ initially ignored the woman, only upon his apostles encouraging him to send her away, does he approach her and tell her that he’s only there for the “Lost Sheep of Israel,” a religious and not racial distinction, as Judeans were only one of the tribes of Israel.
When she insists that she has faith in his ability to heal her son, he then says it’s not right for the food intended for the children to be tossed to the dogs. Note he does not directly call her a dog, and “It’s not right for food intended for the children to be tossed to the dogs” could very well just be an expression used at the time, although I have not researched whether or not it is, as that is irrelevant anyway.
So after urging from his apostles and in front of them, he rejects her request, saying he is only there for those of the lost sheep, that is to say, those of the apostles religion. Even after he says no, she persists with total faith, and in front of the apostles he heals her son, to demonstrate that faith in him can transcend other religious distinctions. I think this passage is important, because as Christians we tend to sort ourselves into various categories of Christianity, and perceive ourselves as separate groups, whereas I think this passage shows that as long as we have genuine faith in Christ, we will all be rewarded by Christ in a similar manner.
Myth 2: Various Passages Against Inter-Marriage or Assimilation
Especially in the Old Testament, there are many passages that forbid inter-marriage with neighboring tribes or peoples. These passages are usually viewed in the modern sense, which is greatly influenced by the “scientific racism” movement of the 1900’s. Some basic facts need to be remembered when reading these passages, and trying to understand exactly what distinction between these peoples are being made. Is it religious, nationalist, racial, geographic, or other?
The first fact to keep in mind is that the twelve tribes of Israel were, well, 12 tribes. They were not all of the same race, and this is demonstrable, the origin and identification of the 12 tribes will be given their own article on this website shortly. Until that article is written, I will just summarize by saying there are even different races identified even within individual tribes, and the notion that all 12 tribes were of the same race can be disproved countless ways, none the least by the fact that members of certain tribes seem to have been able to be identified visually, for example the woman from the tribe of Asher who blesses Christ in the temple. She is identifiable as “of Asher” even 7,00+ years after Asher ceased to have a geographic region and the entire tribe was depopulated and deported. As the only Israel that exists today is racially Judean, one tribe, I think that shapes the conceptualization people have of ancient Israel, a group of 12 tribes, which increases understanding. Ancient Israel was multi-ethnic, twelve separate groups with racial diversity even within individual groups.
Another obvious but still easy to forget fact is that there were not genetic tests back then, and all racial distinctions had to be made visually. Although many of the groups that Israel did not associate with would certainly have been of a different race, it’s also near impossible that none of the groups were composed of individuals of roughly the same racial background, given many of the groups identified are mere miles away. Therefore this implies either a cultural or religious difference rather than a racial one.
It is almost some sort of curse that Old Testament passages are always re-interpreted to be racial. For example, look at the countless, thousands upon thousands, depictions of the Hebrews leaving Egypt. You will almost always see the Egyptians and the Hebrews depicted as two very different looking races, and Moses will look as different from Pharaoh as a Swede from a African. Yet we know that at the very least, Moses looked completely Egyptian. From Exodus 2:
Some shepards came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today? They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”
As you can see from the above passage, when a group of women who have never met and did not know Moses describe him, they describe him simply as “An Egyptian.” Visually, therefore, he was an Egyptian. This is in line with modern interpretations of Hebrew as a social class rather than a race. The simple fact is, the vast majority of conflict between races in the Old Testament simply did not exist, they were struggles between social classes, different religious groups, and different cultures. When we look back at ancient history with a modern understanding, instead of perceiving the historical factors behind ancient practices like slaughtering your neighbors or refusing to marry this or that group, we tend to extrapolate the bias that exists in our modern day to day lives, and imagine that on a level where it would result in the ancient actions. I am not saying in ancient times they were more accepting, rather that their bias, or at least the bias recorded in the Old Testament, is relatively unrelated to race in the sense we understand it today, and race as they would have understood it, that is to say visually perceivable differences, are rarely if ever mentioned. I can think of only a few mentions in the Old Testament of visually perceivable differences off the top of my head, and the Old Testament is around 600k words. Whereas there are hundreds if not thousands of other distinctions.
Myth 3: Paul was racist towards Cretans.
One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” – Titus 1:12
This is a very misunderstood quote, and even Biblehub’s commentaries all get this passage wrong, claiming that Paul simply was mentioning that Cretans are bad people. That is all ridiculous of course, as Paul, although discussing Crete, was making a reference to the Epimenides Paradox. The Epimenides Paradox is a paradox from 600BC by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, that highlights an issue with using self-referencing logic. In this paradox, Epimenides, a Cretan, says that all Cretans are lazy gluttons, despite the fact he is a Cretan. Paul is criticizing those of the “circumcision party” in Titus 1:10, which explains the relevance of the reference in Titus 1:12, as Paul, although a strong criticizer of the circumcision party, was raised and lived his early life as a very ardent Jewish man, and was thus circumcised. So he was criticizing “those of the circumcision group” as a circumcised man, whilst writing to a person in Crete, thus why he made this clever and relevant reference to another who was famous for making a similar criticism.
Anti-Racist Biblical Passages
I’ll start with an example from the Old Testament, since people most often accuse the Old Testament of being racist, rather than the New Testament. This is a superb passage from Numbers 12. I love Numbers 12 as it contains my favorite quote in all of the Old Testament, Numbers 12:3.
“Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” – Written by Moses
The part of Numbers 12 that is relevant to this article is the following excerpts:
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite….
….. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous — it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!” The Lord replied to Moses, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.” So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.
So in Numbers 12, we have Aaron and Miriam complaining that Moses married a Cushite, a black woman. They used this resentment towards him to undermine his authority, saying God speaks to them as well, not just him. God comes down, reminds them he is the Lord your God, and makes Miriam’s skin, quote, “white as snow” with leprosy as a punishment for her hatred towards those with darker skin, fitting on many levels as the punishment increased what she was previously valuing, the whiteness of her skin, showing it’s lack of usefulness and futility, and making the sign of her recovery a return to darker skin. This was a temporary punishment that lasted for a week, but I’m sure it put an end to their complaining about Moses having a black wife.