There are several revisionist theories regarding the origins of Christianity peddled in popular academic culture. One of the more pervasive ones claims that a number of legitimate yet competing understandings of Jesus existed in the first century. Some viewed him as a great moral teacher. Others saw him as a political activist. Still others considered him an apocalyptic preacher. At some point, the theory goes, men began to attribute a divine nature to him. And in order to achieve ecclesial and political hegemony, they established this as the orthodox position.
This thesis is asserted in a variety of contemporary sources such as the various works of the Jesus Seminar, popular historical fictions like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and the scholarship of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. But it is not all that new. It was, in fact, proposed back in 1934 by the German scholar Walter Bauer (1877-1960) in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.
Long before Bauer, however, apologists for Islam advanced similar arguments. For example, one of the most formidable and influential Muslim theologians, Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), argued that the original understanding of Jesus and Jesus' understanding of himself was that he was merely a human prophet of Allah. Orthodox Christian Christology was a later development. Therefore, he concluded in the voluminous Correct Response to those who Corrupted the Religion of the Messiah, the "false religion of Christians is nothing but an innovated religion which they invented after the time of Christ."
It is tempting not to take such claims seriously. But consider this: contemporary Muslim literature on Jesus is increasingly asserting that Islamic Christology is supported by modern historical and biblical scholarship. The work of Louay Fatoohi, an Iraqi-born Christian who converted to Islam while attending university in Britain, is perhaps the most recent example. In The Mystery of the Historical Jesus (Luna Plena, 2007) he draws upon the scholarship of Bauer, Ehrman, and several others, and argues that a critical examination of primary historical sources necessarily leads one to the conclusion that the Jesus of the Quran is the real historical Jesus.
A number of other sources advancing similar claims-from books to youtubeislam.com-have Muslims convinced that Western biblical scholarship has vindicated the claims of Islam.
This, it seems, is reason enough to take seriously the Muslim understanding of Jesus. But there are others. Demographically, Islam has experienced exponential growth over the last century. Around 1906, America's "apostle to Islam," Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952), estimated that there were about 200 million Muslims across the globe. Today, the number is around 1.3 billion. And while the Muslim population in America is notoriously difficult to assess-with figures ranging from 2 to 10 million-one thing is clear: the number of mosques scattered across the country has skyrocketed. In just 1990 there were about 30. In 2001, there were over 1,200. Today, it is estimated that there are over 2,000.
Sociocultural and attendant political challenges notwithstanding, this presents a unique opportunity for Christian outreach. In decades past, Christians had to travel overseas to find major Muslim populations where it was (and still is) illegal (and punishable by death) to proselytize them. Now, many Muslims who come from countries with such restrictions live next door, attend schools, and work with us. In light of this, the possibilities for Muslim encounters with the gospel of Jesus Christ are and will continue to be an ever-increasing reality. Before addressing the issues surrounding such an encounter, though, a brief assessment of the Muslim understanding of Jesus is in order.
Jesus figures prominently in the theological narrative of Islam. He was one of the 124,000 prophets Allah raised up long before the time of Muhammad, the last of the prophets, to provide ethico-religious and legal guidance for the nations of the world. Among these prophets, though, he stands out, with Moses, David, and Muhammad, as a messenger who also recorded Allah's word in a book, called the Injil or (as it is commonly translated) Gospel.
The Quran depicts Jesus, in some cases, not entirely unlike the canonical Gospels. For example, Gabriel's annunciation of the birth of a son to a virgin named Mary is recounted. She is also described as being related to Zechariah who, despite his wife's old age, was promised a son later named John (the Baptist).
The Quran does not, however, give the geographical or geopolitical details of Jesus' birth. There is, for example, no report of a census issued by Caesar Augustus at the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Neither does it record the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph or the birth of Jesus in a stable.
Instead, it provides an ambiguous and contradictory description of Jesus' nativity. It explains that, after Jesus' conception, Mary withdrew to a remote place to hide her pregnancy. Eventually, she gave birth under a palm tree, and immediately thereafter-to comfort his distraught mother-Jesus spoke his first words, directing his mother to a stream of fresh water and some dates for refreshment. Afterwards, when Mary returned to her kin with a newborn child, she was not disgraced, for the infant Jesus explained how it was not through adultery but Allah's miraculous intervention that she gave birth. "I am a servant of Allah," the child Jesus declared, "He has given me the scripture and made me a prophet!" (Quran 9:16-33).
There are other miracles attributed to Jesus in the Quran. Chapter 5:110 surmises that, in addition to speaking from the cradle, he was also able to breathe life into a bird made of clay, heal the blind and leprous, and raise people from the dead. But none of these should be understood as a product of his divine powers. They were nothing but miracles of Allah designed to bear witness to his prophetic vocation.
The Quran is quite clear that the Jesus described in its pages was nothing more than a human messenger of Allah. He was created by Allah in Mary's womb, and although given the honorific title of Messiah and even referred to as the Word of Allah, it warns against attributing any divine properties to him.
Do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah anything but the truth. Jesus the Messiah, the son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah....Allah is but one God. Exalted is he above having a son. (Quran 4:171)In fact, those who do attribute divine sonship to Jesus are guilty of the most heinous and unforgivable sin of shirk. Such a profession is so serious that Muhammad called upon Allah to destroy such people, and enjoined Muslims to bring them unto submission through physical force as they carry out the timeless struggle to "cause Islam to prevail over all other religions" (Quran 9:29-33).
This irreconcilable difference with the biblical teaching on the person of Jesus is further complicated by the Quran's different picture of Jesus' mission. Islamic theology insists that Jesus and the Gospel were sent to confirm that which was revealed in the Torah before him, as well as to provide ideational and legal guidance to his contemporaries, and finally to announce and prepare humankind for the arrival of the last of Allah's prophets.
Jesus, son of Mary, said, "O Tribe of Israel, surely I am the messenger of Allah to you, confirming what was revealed before me in the Torah, and bringing good news of a messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad." (Quran 61:6)Ahmad is another name for Muhammad, and Muslim apologists insist that this passage is simply a reiteration of John 14:16. They therefore contend that the helper or comforter in the biblical text refers not to the Holy Spirit but to Muhammad.
These sorts of arguments and the Quran's general endorsement of the Gospel of Jesus raise some interesting problems. The Quran claims in a variety of places that the Gospel confirms the Torah and anticipates the Quran. Allah sent the Quran down to Muhammad, "confirming what came before it, and he sent down the Torah and the Gospel before this" (Quran 3:3). The issue that plagues Muslims apologists then is: why is it that the Gospel and the Quran, particularly, teach contradictory theologies and have different versions of what they both purport to be real empirical history?
One of the most popular traditions asserts that the original Gospel of Jesus has been lost. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are erroneous redactions of the original. Some deviously suggest that the Gospel of Barnabas-a forgery probably inspired by a convert to Islam dating to no earlier than the fourteenth century-is the closest to the original source that we have. Other Muslim apologists argue that the text of one, some, or all of the canonical Gospels, at the time of their composition, were accurate renditions of the Gospel spoken of in the Quran. But, they continue, Christians have over the centuries altered the actual text. Still others claim that the text is basically sound. It is only the interpretation of it that is not. All in all, they claim that either the canonical texts or the interpretation of them has been forced into a Procrustean bed of a later theology that divinized a human prophet named Jesus.
Along with its condemnation of the confession of the deity of Christ, the Quran has no room for the doctrine of the atonement. "Every soul draws its own merits; no one can bear the burdens of another" (Quran 6:164). Therefore, every human being will be judged on the basis of his or her own deeds. But the Christian doctrine of atonement is not just theologically incorrect; it makes no historical sense either, for the Quran declares that Jesus was not crucified; nor did he die (4:157). Instead, he was raised up unto heaven where he awaits his final return on judgment day. At that time, the Quran says, he will turn his back on those who considered him divine.
It is here-particularly the denial of the crucifixion of Jesus-that Islam poses one of its greatest challenges to Christianity. And Muslims know it! In a widely circulated book entitled Crucifixion or Cruci-fiction? Ahmed Deedat asserted (with reference to 1 Corinthians 15:14), "If Jesus did NOT die, and he was NOT resurrected from the dead, there can be NO salvation in Christianity!...In a nutshell, No Crucifixion!-No Christianity!"
This presents a major dilemma to Christian evangelism of Muslims, for without the cross of Christ (and, of course, the resurrection) there is no evangel. This, Islam's rejection of the reliability of the canonical Gospels, and the perception that Muslims are tough nuts to crack, has led many missiologists to emphasize the friendship approach to Muslims. And there is much to be said for this approach. It is indeed vital to establish a good rapport with Muslims.
At some point, however, Muslims need to hear the gospel of the historical and biblical Jesus. Certainly a sinful and fallen will sets up insurmountable barriers that the Holy Spirit alone, working through a clear articulation of the gospel, can penetrate. But there are some (pseudo) factual barriers that must be brought down, too. The most conspicuous is, of course, the misunderstanding of the person and work of Jesus.
One could approach this in a number of ways. But a concentrated apologetic will start with the very issue of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The strength of this method is that it can-at least initially-avoid sticky theological issues!
There is no good historical reason to prefer the Quran on the matter of Jesus' death-a seventh-century document (at best)-over the testimony of eyewitnesses and first- and second-century writers.
The resurrection of Jesus, too, can be shown to be an historical fact.
The goal should be to get Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John into the hands of Muslims. There they will see-from the testimony of those who were in the best position to tell us about Jesus-just who Jesus was and what he did. Friendship, acts of kindness, and genuine hospitality go a long way in fostering the right environment for effective evangelism. But it is the testimony of the Gospel writers that provide the most reliable witness to the gospel.
Adam S. Francisco is assistant professor of history at Concordia College (Bronxville, New York).
Issue: "Jesus Among other Christs" May/June 2009 Vol. 18 No. 3 Page number(s): 26-29
You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. We do not allow reposting an article in its entirety on the Internet. We request that you link to this article from your website. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation (email@example.com).
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.