Part of the first wave of black Bible professors in the US, Felder’s research challenged generations of scholarship that ignored or downplayed race in Scripture.
By showcasing the numerous people with dark skin mentioned in the Bible, the longtime Howard University School of Divinity professor argued that white interpreters had erased black people from the text. That erasure, he said, enabled modern, racist readings of the Scripture.
“Black people are not only frequently mentioned,” he wrote, “but are also mentioned in ways that are favorable in terms of acknowledging their actual and potential role in the salvation history of Israel.”
Based on his textual and linguistic analysis, as well as his research into the cultures of the ancient Near East, Felder concluded that Moses’s wife Zipporah was black; there were black people in King David’s army in 2 Samuel; and Ebed-Melek, the royal official who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life in Jeremiah 38, was also black. Felder said it was possible the prophet Zephaniah was black too.
He said Jesus was a person of color who might look black in modern America—and certainly didn’t look like a “white Hollywood star.”
The world of the Bible was full of racial and ethnic diversity, according to Felder, a United Methodist. Noting the pluralism, he believed, was a first step towards correcting “Eurocentric” interpretations, which can impose modern racial attitudes, including white supremacy, onto the text.
His death was announced by Howard, where Felder taught for 35 years.
On social media, African American scholars, journalists and activists shared memories and appreciation for his life and work.
Greg Carr, a professor at Howard, said he first met Felder in a church basement, where he watched Felder argue about the African origins of Christianity. Sherilyn Ifill, who works for the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP), said Felder was a man of great faith and groundbreaking scholarship. “#RestInPower,” she wrote.
Felder was born in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1943 and grew up in segregated neighborhoods in Boston. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard, where Felder said he first learned that an African American could be a scholar.
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Source: Christianity Today