What do we mean by “black“?
There are several difficulties surrounding any discussion of this sensitive topic. Some are obvious; others are less so. Not least is the question, what do we mean by “black” people? In America today, we mean African-Americans — those with African ancestry and dark skin color. But is that how the people who lived when the books of the Bible were written would have thought?
There are differences between ancient and modern concepts of what “black” means when it is applied to people. For example, in the table of nations in Genesis 10, the word used to describe the people descended from Ham in the ancient Hebrew, Akkadian and Sumerian languages is related to the color black. But what does this mean? Our traditional understanding of the Old Testament is influenced by the ancient rabbinic method of interpretation known as Midrash. These interpretations sometimes take precedence over the literal meaning of the text being interpreted. They also belong to another time with other socio-economic conditions and concerns. When ancient rabbinic literature mentions black people, does it mean ethnically “Negro” or just people of generally darker skin? Genesis 10:6-20 describes the descendants of Ham as being located in North Africa, Central Africa and in parts of Southern Asia. Psalm 105:23 mentions the “land of Ham” in Egypt, and Psalm 78:51 connects the “tents of Ham” with Egypt.
Other Old Testament Evidence
In Genesis 10, Nimrod, son of Cush (whose name means “black“), founded a civilization in Mesopotamia. In Genesis 11, Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldees, a land whose earliest inhabitants included blacks. The people of the region where Abraham came from can be proven historically and archaeologically to have been intermixed racially. So it is possible that Abraham and those who traveled with him could have been racially mixed.
Genesis 14 tells how Abraham’s experiences in Canaan and Egypt brought him and his family into areas inhabited by peoples who were very likely black. Both archaeological evidence and the account in 1 Chronicles 4 tell us that the land of Canaan was inhabited by the descendants of Ham.
Further black presence can be found in the accounts of Hagar the Egyptian, Ishmael and his Egyptian wife, and Ishmael’s sons, especially Kedar. The Kedarites are mentioned many times in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Nehemiah, and the word kedar means “blackness.”
Still further evidence of black presence in the patriarchal period appears with Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. Joseph married an Egyptian woman, Asenath, who was descended from Mizraim, which made her Hamitic. Thus there is a strong possibility that Asenath was black. She was the mother of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Jeremiah had been cast into a dungeon to die. Jeremiah 38:7-12, and 39:16-18 tells the story of how Ebedmelech petitioned the king and took men to rescue Jeremiah. He was not willing to stay back. He was willing to get involved in this great injustice. In Jeremiah 39:18 God tells Ebedmelech, “As a reward for trusting me, I will preserve your life and keep you safe.“
It is most difficult to determine if this person was from African descent or not. The reason is that the Song of Solomon is a love poem. Song of Solomon 1:5 says, “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.” But naturally this is poetic language as is the next verse which describes how she is dark. In her favor is the fact that Solomon uses the uniqueness of her skin color as a point of beauty to him, and the Hebrew word he uses here is shachar which does mean black. So if one of Solomon’s brides were black, you would have to say that she received one of the highest honors of all time because the Song of Solomon is considered one of the most beautiful love poems of all ages.
The New Testament
The New Testament also contains ample evidence of a black presence. Acts 8 tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, one of the first Gentiles to be baptized. He came from a black region, so he may have been black. In Acts 13 we read of Simeon, called Niger, the Latin term for black. There is also Lucius from Cyrene, a geographical location of black people.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch is found in Acts 8:26-39. Verses 26-29 tell us, “And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.“
We see from verse 27 that this man was an important government official in the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. We also see that the man was one who loved reading God’s word. We don’t know why he had a copy of Isaiah, but we know that God brought him to this passage to show him the way of eternal life. Notice how God brought these two men together. From a social class viewpoint Philip was from the lower class whereas the Ethiopian was an important government official. Racially, Philip was Jewish whereas the Eunuch was African. But neither man saw these distinctions in each other. All they saw was another person seeking the things of God. And they joined together, rich and poor, white and black, to share the good news of God’s message. God used Philip to lead the Eunuch into an encounter with Christ. I wonder how many Ethiopians heard the gospel message because of this one man’s testimony.
Mark 15:21 tells us the first part of the story of Simon. “And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.” We know very little about Simon. We see from this verse that he had come from the country to Jerusalem on this occasion, perhaps on business. He must have been a strong man. I don’t think the soldiers would have picked a weakling. God had appointed him to be there, not to help Jesus with the cross, but to encounter the one who was to be crucified for his sins. Except for Mark’s obscure reference to Rufus and Alexander we would have no more information about Simon.
Rufus in Rome
It is in Romans 16:13 that we have Paul’s reference to Rufus, “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” According to the patristic writing of the second century the gospel of Mark was written for the Roman Christians. If this is true, it would make sense that Mark would identify Simon of Cyrene as the father of Rufus and Alexander, two men that the Roman Christians would know. None of the other gospel writers include the names of the sons. So perhaps the Rufus that Paul greets is the same Rufus that Mark writes about. It is a good possibility. So I’m going to include Rufus in our list of black men in the Bible. This reference tells us about Rufus and it also tells us more about Simon.
Paul emphasizes that Rufus is chosen in the Lord in Romans 16:13. Rufus must have been a willing follower of Christ. But this also tells us that Simon not only accepted Christ as his Savior, but he passed on the gospel message to his sons.
Do these references give us absolute proof? No. But the weight of evidence indicates that blacks were not excluded from “Bible action.” Modern scholarly opinion refutes the theologians who argued against a black presence in the Bible. But sadly, the past Euro-centrist interpretation of the Bible, which did recognize a black presence in the Bible, was deliberately used by some in the past to justify the subjugation and enslavement of peoples of color.
I believe it can be argued that there is a black presence in the Old and New Testaments. But either way, what is certain is that the Bible teaches that God has made all people of one blood. All humans — male, female, black, white, red, yellow and brown, are God’s children. They are all made in the image of God for salvation through Jesus Christ.
The New Testament makes it clear that no one is excluded from God’s love and purpose. Paul tells us that there is “neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:26-29). God’s Word concerns, involves, and speaks to all people inclusively.