Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter One

The Historical Jesus

Revealed, Reshaped and Reinvented


The Original Jesus: a Man of God’s Time

He grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground.  Isaiah 53:2

For thirty years, from shortly after his birth, he lived in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee in northern Israel, unheralded, hardly noticed, and known simply as one of the young men of the region, the son of a carpenter. On hearing of him and his home town, a young man named Nathanael asked: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46). At the age of thirty he appeared in public, teaching in many of the local synagogues, healing those who were diseased and disabled, liberating others who were possessed by demons, and preaching about the coming kingdom of God. Many heard him gladly, but he soon stirred up the religious scribes and leaders of his day who reacted to his apparent breaches of their laws and customary traditions by disputing with him in public altercations.

Within three years he had become well-known throughout Galilee and Judea and many asked whether he was possibly the long-awaited Messiah, the promised Son of David. He opposed the Jewish priestly hierarchy, however, and antagonised them to the point where the chief priests, including Caiaphas the high priest, determined to do away with him. He was arrested and quickly tried and condemned on his own admission that he claimed not only to be the chosen Messiah, but the very Son of God himself, sent from heaven whence he would one day return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

The chief priests delivered him to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who, under relentless pressure from them, handed him over to be crucified. In a moment he was gone, dead and buried before most people knew he had even been arrested. But he was not soon forgotten like many of his predecessors who had made similar claims to messianic and prophetic leadership. His followers burst on Jerusalem within less than two months, the very city where the resistance to him had been most intense and where he had been executed. They proclaimed publicly that he had risen from the dead and had ascended to heaven, having been made both Lord and Christ at the right hand of God. Jesus of Nazareth had become the King of glory who would return to earth at the end of time to judge the wicked and glorify the righteous.

Jesus’ movement spread quickly throughout Europe but was persecuted by the Romans who were determined to make all the subjects of Roman rule bow to their emperor as a god and the divine ruler of the known world. Within four centuries, however, Roman emperors bowed the knee to Jesus, and acknowledged him as their king and divine Lord. Today his movement still continues to spread into lands where he has not hitherto been known. The Christian faith remains the largest and most widespread religious movement on earth.

The story of Jesus is contained in the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the first four books of the Christian New Testament. They reveal Jesus as the divine Son of God who came from heaven, sent by his heavenly Father, to become the Saviour of the world. The four gospels are remarkable books that focus on a single individual whose works, teachings and claims for himself far outweigh anything remotely similar in human history. The officers of the chief priests said of him: ‘No one ever spoke like this man!’ (John 7:46). The four gospels uniformly tell the story of the man who split history apart and who continues to be revered, worshipped and believed in by hundreds of millions of followers across the globe.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the records of the life and works of Jesus which history has delivered to us. They are the only historical records of who Jesus was, what he achieved, and what happened to him. They reveal him to be a unique personality, the Son of God, who laid down his life that we might live. His short life and ministry are surrounded by supernatural events. He was born of a virgin woman, having come down from heaven to become the Son of God incarnate and to be revealed as the promised Son of man and Messiah of Israel. He rose from the dead and returned to heaven where he is alive to this day, ruling over the heavens. He healed lepers, cast out demons, controlled the seas, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, and fed thousands with just a handful of loaves and a few fish.

The testimonies contemporary with the decades immediately after his lifetime, the four canonical gospels, also disclose him to be a supernatural being within himself. He transfigured himself on a mountain and shone like the sun before three of his closest disciples, Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:2). He claimed that he and his Father in heaven were one (John 10:30). He declared that he had pre-existed Abraham (John 8:58) and that he had seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18). He boldly proclaimed that no one could come to the Father but by him (John 14:6), that he was the door to the kingdom of God (John 10:9), and that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Matthew 28:18). He was not a man of his time, he was God’s man for all time.

The historical Jesus, being the Jesus delivered to us by the only historical records contemporary with his generation, stands as the most elevated human being who has ever lived on this planet, and who will ever live on it. He is the second person of the Triune God, he is the all-sufficient divine Saviour of the world, he holds the keys of the kingdom of heaven in his hands, he will come to judge the living and the dead and will sit on God’s judgment throne at the end of time, delivering the kingdom to his true disciples while consigning the rest to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). He left a clear warning – only those who truly believe in him and are prepared to walk in his steps will attain to eternal life. Until he returns to earth all the nations will determine their destiny purely in relationship to him.

As the apostle Paul put it, ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions, or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together ... For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Colossians 1:15-17,19).

Billions of Christians have believed in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour over the centuries since his time on earth. His movement continues to spread across the globe. But the world as a whole has not responded to him. Over the centuries it has not only rejected his divine claims on the human race; it has reinvented him, reshaped him, deconstructed him, reconstructed him, diminished him, re-identified him, misrepresented him, disfigured him, and even reviled him. It has treated Jesus in a way it has treated no other historical figure. And, on each occasion, it has claimed that its substitute is the historical Jesus, the original product, although no historical records relative to his time exist to support these claims.

The Modern Quest for the ‘Historical’ Jesus

One of the outcomes of the Renaissance and the so-called Enlightenment in Western Europe was the beginning of a rational approach to the Christian faith, especially its founder. In the 19th century a number of German writers began what soon became known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Their stated aim was to discover Jesus purely in a historical context on the basis that historians could not be theologians at the same time. It soon became obvious, however, and it is true right down to the present day, that these historians were determined to detach Jesus from everything supernatural about his life: his virgin-birth, his miracles, his transfiguration, his resurrection and his ascension to heaven. This was done not as part of their supposed historical research, it was done as an agenda which pervaded their writings.

At the same time every claim Jesus made for himself and those the church subsequently defined were also discarded. The synoptic gospels showed him to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the Son of man, etc. All these titles were rejected as Christological constructions of his followers in the early years after his death, culminating in John’s projection of him as God incarnate, the second person of the triune God in human form. To the extent that Jesus might have believed himself to be any of these things, they were no more than a part of his ‘messianic consciousness,’ illusions he had about himself. Whoever he was and whatever he believed about himself, God was not with him – he had not been sent by God, he had not come down from heaven, he had not been exalted at the right hand of God who had never spoken through him or to him. His miracles were rationalised as supposedly supernatural experiences that could be explained away in various ways.

Hermann Reimarus was one of the first questers – his aim was more to ridicule the biblical Jesus than to rediscover the supposed ‘historical’ Jesus and he attacked Jesus’ disciples as deliberate forgers of the supernatural legends that permeate the gospels. Ernst Renan, Heinrich Paulus and Karl Venturini were other early questers who followed the pattern that was soon developing, the latter suggesting that Jesus performed his healing miracles with medicaments from a medicine chest that he carried around with him!

The most influential writer and quester of the 19th century was David Strauss whose goal was to demythologise all the supernatural records surrounding Jesus so as to uncover the true ‘historical’ Jesus behind these accretions. Most of these writers did nonetheless show a healthy respect for Jesus and tended to concentrate on his moral and other teachings which they held in high regard and believed to be historical. Adolf von Harnack followed in their footsteps.

Albert Schweitzer, a Nobel Prize winner and well-known medical missionary in West Africa, entered the quest and wrote a very influential book on the subject, blowing away all his predecessors as misguided anachronists who were interpreting the 1st century Jewish Jesus in a 19th century enlightened European context. Schweitzer concentrated on the eschatological Jesus, pointing out how his apocalyptic vision permeated his teachings, focusing on the kingdom of God which Jesus appeared to believe was to appear imminently. Schweitzer insisted that the original Jesus could not be recovered unless he was carefully studied in this context.

Schweitzer’s effect, paradoxically, was to put the quest for the historical Jesus off the map for some decades. Nevertheless a new generation of German scholars revived it in the second half of the 20th century, in particular students of Rudolf Bultmann such as Ernst Käsemann. Bultmann had introduced a more analytical approach to the gospels now known as form criticism. His method was also based on the assumption that the early church had embellished the story of Jesus with myths, Christological constructions and the like, but he believed that an analysis of the forms in which the gospels had been composed could give impressions of who the original Jesus might have been. The aim was to sift the natural, historical Jesus from later legends, but Bultmann soon concluded that this was virtually impossible. The supernatural is interwoven into almost every event of Jesus’ life and the Christian Jesus so dominates the pages of the four canonical gospels that Bultmann believed the pursuit would probably prove fruitless.

Following Bultmann came the so-called ‘criteria’ method of form criticism. For a long time questers paid almost homage to it, believing the true Jesus could be recovered through the criteria of dissimilarity, coherence, embarrassment, multiple attestation and others. Today this approach appears to be dying out as a new generation of writers rejects it as not only selective but also as an unrealistic approach characterised by cutting and pasting texts that cannot possibly yield a coherent and acceptable historical Jesus.

Today most questers are American scholars. The German interest in the subject has generally subsided but it has gained fresh impetus across the Atlantic. One cannot help feeling, however, that the quest has gone back to its earliest days when each writer somehow managed to fashion his own ‘historical Jesus’ according to whichever methods of analysis would best yield the desired result. John Dominic Crossan has proposed Jesus the Mediterranean Jewish peasant, a Cynic philosopher proclaiming a kingdom of righteousness with no mediatorial influence. Geza Vermes believed that Jesus can only be understood against the background of contemporary charismatic Judaism. He was a self-styled miracle-working Hasidic preacher in the same mould as other similar Jewish pretenders such as Hanani ben Dosa.

Marcus Borg’s historical Jesus had no eschatological mindset – he was purely a social reformer. Dale Allison’s Jesus was precisely the opposite – Jesus’ vision was essentially apocalyptic as the gospels so abundantly show. Burton Mack, however, sides with Borg against any eschatological influence, promoting Jesus – the Cynic sage. EP Sanders concluded that Jesus projected himself primarily as a prophet and exorcist. NT Wright believes that Jesus saw himself primarily as a prophet who was destined to restore Israel and end her exile. However much these writers may appear to agree on certain aspects of Jesus’ life – his Judaic background, his individual charismatic influence, his opposition to the Jewish hierarchy of his day – the differences between them are what primarily characterise the whole ‘historical Jesus’ pursuit. Nothing has changed much since the days of Weiss, Strauss, Baur, Wrede and the other early questers. Each one still ends up with his own Jesus, one amenable to him and constructed purely according to his own preferences based on numerous preconceived assumptions.

The pursuit of the historical Jesus has come nowhere near any kind of widespread consensus. The one impression that most objective analysts of the quest cannot avoid is that all these questers really only agree on one thing – Jesus was only a normal human being, a man purely of his own time, and one who can only be known within his own Judaic context. The Church’s definition of him – the Son of God who came down from heaven to redeem mankind and who rose again to be exalted as Lord and Saviour at the right hand of his Father in heaven – is rejected not as a theological definition that historians cannot consider, but as decidedly unhistorical and for no other reason than that miracles don’t happen, God doesn’t intervene in human affairs, and – most importantly of all – that no natural human being could ever be a divine personality embodied in human flesh.

Going back into history, however, a different picture emerges. Modern historians reinvent Jesus in any and every way they can, but throughout the first seven centuries after Jesus those who first reinvented him freely acknowledged the supernatural elements of his life, and it is to the two most prominent examples of this process that we will turn.

The Gnostic Saviour: The First Reinvented Jesus

During the generations after his resurrection and ascension to heaven the legacy of Jesus was too strong and fresh to be undermined by anyone seeking to reinvent him and produce what Paul called ‘another Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 11:4). Disciples of Jesus who knew him personally were still around for at least the next forty years. Paul, writing twenty-five years after Jesus had gone, spoke of five hundred brethren to whom the risen Jesus had appeared, adding ‘most of whom are still alive’ (1 Corinthians 15:6). While apostles like Peter, Matthew, and John were still around together with thousands of others who had heard Jesus preach and witnessed his many miracles, it was not possible to forge a different Jesus. The growing church, determined to preserve the truth about him, would soon have recognised any heresy or distortion of the truth about Jesus (as it often did – cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3-4; Galatians 1:6-7; 1 John 4:1-3). No historical records of any description challenging the Jesus of the canonical gospels exist from any period during the 1st century.

In the 2nd century, however, sufficient time had passed for the impact of the original story to have lost its contemporary impact and the ground became more fertile for those who wanted to reinvent Jesus. The emerging Gnostic movement was the first to do so, and it did so on a large scale. Gnosticism had its roots in Platonic dualistic mythology, a Mediterranean mixture of Greek philosophy and eastern mysticism. It took root in the region during the 2nd century and lasted until the 5th century when the expanding growth of Christianity finally overwhelmed it.

The Gnostics found themselves, right from the start, competing with the spread of the Christian faith and struggled to keep up with it. The impact of the risen Jesus, his remarkable teachings, and the compelling message that he was the Son of God incarnate in human flesh who came to save sinners and open the door to eternal life, was something the Gnostics couldn’t ignore or compete with on its own terms. So they very deftly decided to appropriate and absorb Jesus into their own heritage and reinvent him as the alternative Gnostic ‘Saviour.’

Of the original Gnostic texts known to us, 22 have Jesus as one of their central themes while he is mentioned in 6 others. There are many contradictions and inconsistencies between them, but the Jesus they generally portray was a teacher alone, a communicator of Gnostic wisdom and enlightenment, helping humanity to save itself by gaining gnosis, a special ‘knowledge’ that every individual must gain if he wishes to be saved. Jesus’ basic teachings together with his miracles, crucifixion and resurrection are generally ignored or denied in these texts, though there are some notable exceptions. The alternative, often not even named as Jesus but called the Saviour, Master, the Son, the Christ, the Self-generated Child, etc., is an ethereal figure, a spirit from the heavenly cosmos who took over and possessed the man Jesus before deserting him just prior to his crucifixion.

Very rarely do you find any of the events or teachings of Jesus during his three-year ministry in Galilee and Judea in any of the Gnostic texts. Instead a transcendent figure appears to Mary Magdalene (who becomes Jesus’ most prominent disciple), Matthew, Peter, James, Thomas and others in what have become described as post-resurrection visions, usually at night, when he teaches them all the great mysteries of the heavenly pleroma, Gnostic wisdom and the like. In these visions he is usually described purely as the Saviour. Some Gnostic texts do refer to key elements of the Christian history of Jesus, but these are invariably distorted to diminish the Jesus of the canonical gospels and replace him with a very different personality. A good example is the Gospel of Judas which perverts the original story by projecting Judas Iscariot as the most enlightened disciple of Jesus who enters a heavenly cloud just before he betrays Jesus for a bag of money. Many of the key evidences are retained (the Gnostics knew they had to somehow root their ‘Saviour’ into the authentic New Testament records of his life), but the rest is invariably an awful distortion of the truth. These records, such as the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas, cannot be reliably dated earlier than the mid-2nd century, and some date from the early 3rd century (such as the so-called Gospels of Mary and Philip).

All Gnostic records of Jesus life and their misrepresentations of him are forgeries compiled long after his time. Their records have no historical foundation and cannot be traced back to the apostolic era when the authentic canonical gospels were written. Just as it took up to two centuries after Muhammad for numerous mythical legends of his life to appear in the growing body of Hadith literature, so the Christian Jesus was treated the same way. Gnosticism was the great depository of the growing legends and myths around him that fill so many of the Gnostic texts.

Yet much of the original story still appears in these texts. Unlike the modern quest for the historical Jesus, the Gnostics still treated Jesus as the divine man, though one possessed by the eternal Christ rather than actually being him. The Christ was the third person of the great Gnostic divine triad – the Father (the eternal All-in-All), Barbelo (his perfect female reflection) and the Son (their offspring). Some Gnostic texts, such as the Revelation of Peter and the Second Discourse of the Great Seth, acknowledge the crucifixion of Jesus but portray it as a victory for the Christ-spirit which escaped his body just before his execution. Other Gnostic texts mention the crucifixion, such as the Gospel of Truth which simply says of Jesus ‘he was nailed to a tree’ (NHS, p.37) and the Secret Book of James which quotes Jesus as saying ‘Remember my cross and my death, and you will live’ (NHS, p.25).

Many references are found to the supernatural elements of his person and life. The Gospel of Truth says of him: ‘The Name of the Father is the Son. In the beginning he gave a name to the one who came from him, while he remained the same, and he conceived him as a Son. He gave him his Name, which belonged to him. All that exists with the Father belongs to him’ (NHS, p.45). The Tripartite Tractate actually mentions the Christian Trinity before the doctrine was ever codified in the early church. Following Matthew 28:19 it says ‘there is no other baptism except the one – and that is the redemption – which takes place in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (NHS, p.97). The Gospel of Philip also speaks of those who ‘receive the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ (NHS, p.173). In the Letter of Peter to Philip, the apostle Peter is made to speak of both ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘our God Jesus’ (NHS, p.589).

Although the Gnostic texts disfigured Jesus and reinvented him into the great Wisdom Sage of Gnostic mythology, they nevertheless still retained sufficient evidences of the Gnostic awareness of who Jesus originally was – the Son of God who laid down his life for the redemption of the world. He remains a heavenly figure, one with his eternal Father (a title the Gnostics adapted from the original gospels to define the mystical Gnostic All-in-All), and a divine reflection of his being. In the centuries that followed various other misrepresentations of Jesus followed, usually retaining many of the unique features of his life and his supernatural essence, but nonetheless reducing him to a lesser being than the eternal Son of God of the New Testament scriptures.

In the 7th century, however, another new movement arose which was to become a major religion, the only one to establish itself after the time of Jesus on a scale comparable to the Christian faith, namely Islam. It was also destined to deconstruct the original Jesus and reinvent him in a different form, though this time the end-product was to be purely a normal man – a great prophet of God but still only an ordinary human being. But it too acknowledged many supernatural features about him in addition to awarding many unique titles to him, paralleling the divine attributes and titles found in the Christian scriptures. It was also to be heavily influenced by the Gnostic misrepresentations and distortions of his personality and the events of his life.

‘Isa alayhis-salam: a Prophet of Islam

In the year 610 a hitherto unknown Arab from Mecca in Arabia began to proclaim that he was a prophet of God in the same line as all the Jewish prophets and others before him whom Allah (the Arabic name for God) had sent to the nations to turn them back towards true worship of himself and right conduct towards other human beings. In the remaining twenty-two years of his life, first in Mecca and then in Yathrib (later renamed Medina), he preached the religion of Islam (submission to God) and ultimately claimed to be the last and the greatest of the prophets sent as a rahmatalil-alamin, a mercy to the worlds, and the one chosen to restate the original truths revealed through the former prophets.

Muhammad established a religion that today has close on a billion adherents, and the uniqueness of his domain is not something supernatural about himself but rather the book he delivered to the world, al-Qur’an, ‘the Recitation,’ a text which he said came to him piecemeal from an original inscribed on a tablet in heaven whose sole author was Allah himself. The Qur’an, accordingly, is a book which Muslims believe is inerrant and cannot be challenged as to the authenticity of its contents.

One of the prophets it directly acknowledges is Jesus, named ‘Isa throughout the book, a name which seems to be original to Islam as Arabic-speaking Christians prior to Muhammad’s time knew him (as they still do to this day) as Yasu’. The Qur’an, unlike modern historical Jesus ‘questers,’ acknowledges many of the unique features of his life. His virgin-birth is freely conceded, at times in language very similar to that found in the nativity records in the Gospel of Luke. It also accepts the many miracles that Jesus performed (without actually describing any of them in any detail save for one from a very apocryphal source – Surah 5:113). It denies emphatically that he was the Son of God and that he was eventually crucified, but freely acknowledges many of the other Christian features found in the canonical gospels. It teaches that he was raised to God instead of being crucified and that he will be a sign of the final Hour to come (Surah 43:61).

The Qur’an also regularly calls him al-Masih, ‘the Messiah’, or al‑Masihu ‘Isa. It describes him as a Word from God and a Spirit from him. It declares that he was perfectly holy and acknowledges his forerunner, John the Baptist. As in the Gnostic texts we meet here with what Paul called ‘another Jesus,’ one similar to the historical Jesus of the four canonical gospels, but redefined and reshaped.

Like the Gnostic gospels, many of the original features of his personality and life are admitted, but the actual person of Jesus is changed and contrasted with the Christian Jesus. Ironically, while the Gnostic texts elevated Jesus and projected him as having become possessed by a divine being from the heavenly pleroma, from the very heart of the eternal Father (the Gnostic All-in-All), the Qur’an expressly teaches that he was no more than a human being, created like all others from the substance of the earth. Yet, while the Gnostic texts all but dismiss his miracles, virgin-birth and bodily ascension to heaven, the Qur’an freely acknowledged these unique features of his life.

To the Gnostics, Jesus was indeed, within himself, possessed of the divine Christ, but he was only a teacher of Gnostic wisdom and guidance. To the Muslims, conversely, Jesus was an ordinary human being devoid of any divine presence within himself, yet was an active worker of supernatural signs and miracles. The Qur’an, however, despite denying that Jesus himself was in any way divine, nonetheless concedes titles to him (the Messiah, the Word and Spirit of God) that seem to elevate him to higher realms, titles it gives to no other prophet.

In this book we are going to analyse thoroughly what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus while at the same time looking at Muslim beliefs about him based indirectly on Quranic teachings, but which to some extent parallel pre-Islamic records (such as the belief that God substituted someone else for Jesus who was crucified in his place). Unlike many other books which analyse Jesus purely in his Quranic context, this one will go further and compare him with the historical Jesus in the context of other pre-Islamic movements which also reinvented and reshaped him, only to diminish his original status and redemptive work in the process.

Our prime target will be the Gnostic texts which camouflaged the original Jesus and clouded his true personality. We will see how heavily indebted the Qur’an is to these Gnostic texts as well as the biblical gospels for its image, and how this mixed dependence served only to produce yet another distorted and truncated Jesus, shorn of his divine glory and atoning death and resurrection. We will also see, nonetheless, how even as late as the 7th century so many of the supernatural features surrounding Jesus were still being acknowledged as they had been in so many other religious texts written in the Middle East in the centuries in between, a phenomenon that contrasts sharply with the modern quest to find a purely natural Jesus, rooted in the era and Jewish context of his time, who was only a normal human being who did nothing supernatural and in whom no divine presence dwelt. We will, however, see that although the Qur’an concedes so many supernatural features to Jesus, it was still a book no different to so many others written in the centuries after Jesus in its confusing attempt to redefine him against the background of his biblical life and image.