Who is “white Jesus”? Did the pope who launched the Doctrine of Discovery also replace pictures of Christ with his own kin?
If the historical Jesus had brown skin, who is the white guy Christians have been worshiping? Some believe it is 16th-century Italian playboy, Cesare Borgia. Borgia’s father, Pope Alexander IV, is responsible for the 1493 Papal bull that launched the genocidal Doctrine of Discovery, but did he also conspire to replace images of Jesus with pictures of his own son?
In her 2018 book What Did Jesus Look Like?, historian Joan E. Taylor draws upon archaeological evidence to conclude that if images of Jesus were historically accurate, he would be depicted with dark brown or black hair and brown skin.
A more historically accurate image of Jesus, created as part of a collaboration between anthropologists and computer scientists, appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics in 2002.
If the historical Jesus had brown skin, who is the white dude Christians have been worshiping?
The Italian playboy who supplanted Christ
According to one long-running conspiracy theory, contemporary depictions of “white Jesus” are none other than Cesare Borgia, a notorious 16th century playboy.
Depending on who you ask, the conspiracy theory goes something like this:
Cesare Borgia was the son of Pope Alexander VI, who was born into the powerful Borgia family. Pope Alexander IV wanted to people to worship his kid instead of Christ (Talk about a god complex!), so he had images of his son used to replace of images of Jesus.
Cesare is often remembered for scandals and debauchery, including the infamous “Banquet of the Chestnuts,” an orgy Cesare purportedly held at the Papal Palace in 1501 during which… well… some very naughty things happened to a pile of chestnuts…
If this conspiracy theory is true, Christians have been worshiping before images of this notorious ne’er-do-well instead of Jesus since the early 16th century.
While many have pointed out that images of “white Jesus” existed long before Cesare Borgia was born, perhaps there’s some truth to the idea that depictions of Jesus came to be recreated in the guy’s image?
This conspiracy theory has captured imaginations for centuries.
In 1843, French novelist Alexandre Dumas made the claim that all modern depictions of Jesus were actually Cesare Borges in his book of essays, Celebrated Crimes.
We’ll likely never find definitive evidence that Pope Alexander IV tried to supplant Christian holy figures with images of his own family, but we do know for certain that he did some pretty heinous stuff…
The Borgia Family legacy: a doctrine of genocide
Perhaps the worst among Pope Alexander IV’s confirmed actions was his issuing of the Papal Bull of 1493, which codified the genocidal “Doctrine of Discovery” into church law. This doctrine has been used for over five centuries to justify the genocide and enslavement of Indigenous people, as well as theft of Indigenous land.
In 2016, water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation joined clergy in burning copies of the documents that make up the Doctrine of Discovery.
In a 2018 report, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) highlighted ways the Doctrine of Discovery continues to affect modern court rulings, showing how the Doctrine still perpetuates forms of harm against Indigenous groups to this day.
In July 2022, during Pope Francis’ visit to Canada, Indigenous activists unfurled a banner that read “Rescind the Doctrine” while the pope was performing mass.
How a tribe in Washington State was harmed by the Doctrine of Discovery
Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest (Lummi) has criticized Pope Alexander’s Papal Bull of 1493, exploring how it, among other documents, underpinned a count ruling that robbed her tribe of fishing rights in their ancestral waters in 1897.
“In 1880 John Waller and The Alaska Packers Association destroyed a Lummi fishing village that had been in use for millennia. They forced the fishers to leave using threats of violence. In 1895 Lummi filed a case against the Alaska Packers Association in an attempt to uphold our treaty rights to fish in our usual and accustomed fishing grounds…”Reciprocity in the Age of Extinction by Rena Priest
The court decision to deny the Lummi fishing rights in their ancestral waters led to decades of food insecurity, while setting the stage for the bloody Fish Wars of the 1960s and 1970s, which created lasting trauma for the Coast Salish people.
This court ruling led to generations of trauma, and it is just one example of ongoing harm against Indigenous people that was legally undergirded by documents that include the Doctrine of Discovery.
Time to end the Borgia legacy
The harm caused by the Doctrine of Discovery runs deep.
Whether or not you believe that Pope Alexander IV conspired to have his own son supplant Christ, we know for sure that his Papal Bull of 1493 is still harming Indigenous people today.
Please sign the the petition to repudiate Alexander’s 1493 Papal Bull. Time to give the Borgia legacy the boot!
Do you think Christians are worshiping images of Cesare Borgia? Or do you have a different theory on the identity of “white Jesus”? Add your own theory to the comments!
UPDATE, July 5th, 2023: Since the time of this publication, the doctrine of discovery was rescinded thanks to the hard, persistent work of Indigenous activists.
Teresa Smith has been part of the alter-globalization movement since 1999 and has been around for a number of activist projects since. She has been part of the Slingshot collective since 2012, and punk rocker Robert Eggplant once characterized her as “someone who often wears floral prints.”