Joel Baden and Candida Moss, CNN, December 10, 2014
Editor’s note: Joel Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University. Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The opinions in this column belong to them.
The new biblical epic from director Ridley Scott, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” has a race problem.
We’ve known since the moment the full cast was announced: nearly every major role in the movie is played by a white actor.
What makes it worse for many observers is that, on the flip side, virtually every black actor in the movie is playing a part called “Egyptian thief” or “assassin” or “royal servant” or “Egyptian lower class civilian.”
In the weeks before “Exodus” opens, on December 12, a number of people, from African-American activists to Jewish journalists, have called for a boycott of the potential blockbuster.
If “Exodus” were a tale set in the antebellum South, such a disparity might be historically justifiable. But this story is set in Egypt (which was part of Africa even back then), with characters of exclusively Middle Eastern origin. According to the Bible, Abraham, and therefore all subsequent Jews, were of Mesopotamian–that is, Iraqi–descent.
Before we start skewering Scott too thoroughly, we should probably remember that the whitewashing of Bible movies is a well-established tradition. Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” should probably get a pass, as it was made in 1956, before Hollywood was integrated to any substantial degree.
But the same cannot be said for this past spring’s “Noah,” which has an even less diverse cast than “Exodus,” and with greater racial implications, seeing as how all of humanity is supposed to have descended from Noah and his entirely white family.
Nor should we pretend that this is a modern problem, or one unique to film representations of the Bible and its central characters. Every European painting of a biblical scene, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and beyond, depicts a whitewashed Bible.
The most obvious error in this sort of casting is the historical one: Inhabitants of ancient Egypt and Israel simply didn’t look like Christian Bale or Joel Edgerton.
The deeper problem is one of conflating whiteness with heroism and power. Is it so hard to imagine our biblical heroes as being nonwhite? Is it beyond belief that one of the greatest empires in world history had authentically dark skin, rather than being white folks just wearing a ton of makeup?
The race of the ancient Egyptians has been controversial for over two centuries. It is a loaded debate that cannot be understood apart from the historical contexts of the scholars engaged in the conversation.
The debate was particularly intense during the abolitionist movement in the United States. At stake were the claims of the pro-slavery faction: that black people were inherently physically and intellectually inferior and, thus, well-suited for slavery. If the ancient Egyptians–world leaders in architecture, engineering, farming, and literary production, as well as documented slave owners–were not white, then there was a problem.
This project reached its apex in the work of “American School” of anthropology, founded in the first half of the 19th century by Samuel George Morton, which claimed that God had created multiple hierarchically organized races, with Caucasians at the top.
From the second half of the 20th century onward, anthropologists have largely agreed that ancient Egyptians were indigenous to the Nile region and genetically representative of Northeastern Africa. Egypt has long been a genetic crossroads, because it has long been a political and economic crossroads, since before we have written records.
At least one important minority opinion, however, known as “the Black Egyptian hypothesis,” emphasizes racial ties between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. The theory–favored by W.E.B. du Bois–draws upon philology, the writings of historians, and art and architecture to argue that ancient Egypt was a black civilization.
This controversy over race is something the makers of “Exodus” claim to have thought about.
“We cast major actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture, from Iranians to Spaniards to Arabs,” Scott said. “There are many different theories about the ethnicity of the Egyptian people, and we had a lot of discussions about how to best represent the culture.”
Despite this discussion, the tableau produced in “Exodus,” unfortunately, is the one favored by 19th-century slave traders.
Whitewashing the Bible is problematic both because it is unhistorical and because it reinscribes the dangerous association of whiteness, divine favor and heroism that has plagued modern Christianity. Recognizing the violent and painful history of this idea–particularly as it pertains to ancient Egypt–is an important preamble to talking about it.