Some reflections on Jesus and the Quran

Islamic Gallery British Museum3

 

The American anti-Islam Christian apologist Sam Shamoun recently issued a challenge to me concerning the Quranic narratives about Jesus. He writes:

‘if you are consistent then doesn’t it trouble you that no bonafide NT scholar or historian would ever take what the Quran reports about Jesus seriously? Does it not bother your conscience that scholars such as Evans would view the speeches of Jesus in the Quran as nothing more than fairytales and myths which Muhammad concocted and/or modified from sources that no credible scholar accepts as containing authentic material on the life of the historical Jesus? In fact, cite me one NT or historical Jesus scholar that believes the fairytale of Jesus speaking as an infant as reported in the Quran.’

I replied as followed:

Yes, it is certainly true that western scholars do not take Quranic statements about Jesus (e.g. that he was not crucified) and miraculous stories about him (Jesus speaking as an infant) as historical evidence. Let’s investigate why this might be so.

Western historical scholarship does not accept the miraculous as a data in historical research. It certainly would not accept the Quran (a book from the 7th century) as the actual words of the Creator who knows all things. Such a move would be alien to the presuppositions of western secular historical research. These same scholars’ comments on John are not bound up with questions of the miraculous – but are based on comparisons between the 4 gospels, their differences, and the likely historical realities of Jesus of Nazareth.

So a typical western secular historian who looks at a Book apparently created in the 7th century AD showing Jesus speaking from the cradle, or Jesus not being crucified, or Jesus turning clay birds to life, would see these stories as inadmissible evidence, a priori. The miraculous and the supernatural are inadmissible to western historians on philosophical (not historical) grounds – they just do not happen.

The author of John’s gospel tantalizingly claims,

‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ John 21:25

So we know that other stories were circulating at the end of the 1st century. It is unreasonable to insist they have ALL been lost forever. The Quran informs us otherwise. God is all-knowing and is quite capable of reminding mankind of events in the life of Jesus that have been forgotten or dismissed as myth or legend.

Concerning the alleged crucifixion of Jesus I reproduce the following extract from my book Resurrecting Jesus: Rediscovering the original Jesus in the light of modern Bible Scholarship and the Quran. 

A Bad Case of Cherry Picking?

A friend kindly offered me his critique of my belief in ‘an extraordinary convergence: another sign of the Quran’s Divine origin.’

He wrote,

‘I like the idea of quoting scholars who say this kind of stuff, however how would you respond to someone who says that you are doing selective citation? For instance, the scholars you cite would surely agree that Jesus was crucified, which contradicts Islam. Some may argue that you are cherry picking.’

I replied:

That is a very good point. In response I would want to make to points:

1) that my focus is on Christology: who Jesus was – God, a man or somehow both? Not the circumstances of his birth or death. It is crucial for the Christian case that Jesus was actually God incarnated as a human being. But this very claim has been thoroughly undermined by scholars because an exhaustive enquiry into the earliest Jesus tradition suggests there is no evidence that Jesus thought of himself as God. This is expressed by Dunn:

‘Alternatively, it still remains open to us to say, Of course Jesus was much more than he ever knew himself to be during his earthy life. But if we are to submit our speculations to the text and build our theology only with the bricks provided by careful exegesis we cannot say with any confidence that Jesus knew himself to be divine, the pre-existent Son of God’ [2]

2) The Quran makes a very interesting claim:

“God has sealed them [the Jews] in their disbelief, so they believe only a little – and because they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary, and said, ‘We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him – God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.’

Surat An-Nisā’ 4:155-157. (Translation by Abdel Haleem).

Is this claim at all plausible from a historical perspective? Was Jesus miraculously saved from crucifixion by God? Why should mankind pay any attention to what the Quran claims anyway?

The distinguished Christian philosopher and believer in the crucifixion Rev Professor John Hick, was honest enough to admit,

‘Historically it is very difficult to dispute the qur’anic verse since presumably it would not be possible for observers at the time to tell the difference between Jesus being crucified and his only appearing to be crucified – unless what is suggested is that someone else was crucified in his place.’

Religious Pluralism and Islam, lecture delivered to the Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought, Tehran, in February 2005.

(The disputed historical question of the crucifixion of Jesus is really a very minor issue for Muslims as Jesus did not go around Galilee preaching that forgiveness of sins was made possible through his death but instead through simple repentance to God – without a mediator – which is what Islam teaches too, see Matthew 5-7 ‘The Sermon on the Mount’).

So why do Western historians not use the Quranic data in their research into the historical Jesus?

The problem of miracles. Bart Erhman writes apropos the resurrection of Jesus,

“But that is not why historians cannot show that miracles [including the miraculous deliverance of Jesus from crucifixion?], including the resurrection, happened. The reason instead has to do with the limits of historical knowledge. There cannot be historical evidence for a miracle. To understand why, we need to consider how historians engage in their craft. Historians work differently from the way natural scientists work. Scientists do repeated experimentation to demonstrate how things happen, changing one variable at a time. If the same experiment produces the same result time after time, you can establish a level of predictive probability: the same result will occur the next time you do the experiment….”

Erhman continues,

“Historians work differently. Historians are not trying to show what does or will happen, but what has happened. And with history, the experiment can never be repeated. Once something has happened, it is over and done with…..”

“Did Lincoln write the Gettysburg address on an envelope? Did Jefferson have a long-term love affair with one of his slaves? ….Make up your own questions: there are billions..There is nothing inherently improbable about any of these events; the question is whether they happened or not. Some are more probable than others. Historians more or less rank past events on the basis of the relative probability that they occurred. All that historians can do is show what probably happened in the past.”

“That is the problem inherent in miracles. Miracles, by our very definition of the term, are virtually impossible events…..by their very nature, (they) are always the least probable explanation for what happened. This is true whether you are a believer or not. Of the six billion people in the world, not one of them can walk on top of lukewarm water filling a swimming pool. What would be the chances of any one person being able to do that? Less than one in six billion. Much less.”

“….historians cannot establish that miracles have ever happened. This is true of the miracles of Mohammed, Hanina ben Dosa [3]”, Apollonius of Tyana [4]” – and Jesus.”

“But what about the resurrection? I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. Some people believe it did, some believe it didn’t. But if you do believe it, it is not as a historian, even if you happen to be a professional historian, but as a believer. There can be no historical evidence for the resurrection because of the nature of historical evidence.” [5]

Erhman’s comments about historical method (more precisely Western post-Enlightenment secular historiography) and the resurrection apply with equal force to the Quranic claim,

‘They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them’.

Why should mankind pay any attention to what the Quran claims anyway? The Bible does not claim to be a revelation from Almighty God. Some parts of the Bible even deny that they are from God at all, for example, ‘To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer…’ from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 7:12. Here Paul carefully distinguishes between ‘the Lord’s’ teaching and his own opinion which is by definition not Revelation from Almighty God.

In contrast the Quran actually claims to be a Revelation from Almighty God,

‘Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction’ Surah 4:82.

If there is a God then it is very likely indeed that he would wish to reveal His Will to guide us in the path most pleasing to Him. The Quran is one of very few extant books to claim a Divine origin. Therefore it would be sensible and wise to ponder the Quranic message – as it indeed invites readers to do.

Consider the Quran’s claims about itself…

‘He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except “men of understanding.’ Surat ‘Āli `Imrān 3:7”

 

—————————————

Notes:

“[2] JDG Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, p32.
[3] Hanina ben Dosa (1st century, CE) was a scholar and miracle-worker.
[4] Apollonius of Tyana c.15? to c.100? CE was a Greek philosopher from the town of Tyana in the Roman province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. Little is known about him with any certainty. He is thought to have lived around the time of Christ and was compared with Jesus of Nazareth by Christians in the 4th century and by various popular writers in modern times.
[5] From Bart Erhman Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).”

 

=================================================================

 

A correspondent emailed me the following comments on my reply to Sam. I have reproduced them with their permission:

A. No NT scholar takes the Quran seriously:

1. So what if no NT scholar takes the Quran seriously in what it says about Jesus? That doesn’t mean the quran is wrong.

2. All NT scholars are trained in Biblical studies and that’s what they focus upon and know little about the Quran and neither have the time to specialise in the latter. So the question is not generally that of “seriousness.” This is DIFFERENT from the case of NT scholars not taking GJohn as a brute historical account and not considering it as serious history.

3. Most NT scholars are committed Christians. They have specific presuppositions and world views, which causes them to a priori dismiss beforehand any accounts about Jesus outside of the canonical literature. Yet there are some who do not share such presuppositions and who are more open to consider outside accounts with more seriousness.

4. Even if all NT scholars dismissed the Quranic account, that wouldn’t matter at all. They’re not generally experts of the Quran and know very little about it to begin with.

So the entire comparison here (NT scholars dismissing GJohn as historical source and NT scholars dismissing the Quran is a FALSE comparison).

B. why is Jesus speaking as a baby a fairytale more than Jesus turning water into wine, walking on the sea, performing exorcisms, multiplying food etc etc? The answer is simple: ones presuppositions = a particular Christian presumes the NT to contain facts about Jesus and presumes another account narrating other miracle events “must be” false, well because, it “must be.” It does not get more complicated than this.

Other than the above quick thoughts, your own answer is most appropriate and nothing more needs to be added.



Categories: Bible, Christianity, Islam, Quran

7 replies

  1. Williams, as an anti-Christian Christophobe your comments go from bad to worse. Take what you said here, for instance:

    “Western historical scholarship does not accept the miraculous as a data in historical research. It certainly would not accept the Quran (a book from the 7th century) as the actual words of the Creator who knows all things. Such a move would be alien to the presuppositions of western secular historical research. These same scholars’ comments on John are not bound up with questions of the miraculous – but are based on comparisons between the 4 gospels, their differences, and the likely historical realities of Jesus of Nazareth.”

    It is rather sad that you choose to employ such smoke and mirror tactics in order to salvage your belief in a false prophet. Let me repost the scholars you appealed to in your reply to me:

    “You obviously have a chip on your shoulder about Singers views. I am more interested in the fact that leading New Testament scholars INCLUDING EVANGELICAL SCHOLARS (SUCH AS PROFESSOR CRAIG A. EVANS) have concluded that John’s portrait of Jesus is NOT the historical Jesus. Jesus did not actually utter the famous ‘I am’ statements. Does that not cause you anxiety? It did me when I was a Christian.”

    Since many, if not most, NT scholars and all Evangelical ones DO IN FACT ACCEPT THE MIRACULOUS, and therefore do not discount them as data in their historical research, this either means you are again being deceptive or you are simply ignorant concerning this field. Either way, it is obvious that you have no answer to my question which is why chose to attack straw man and throw out red herrings.

    So let me rephrase my question. Can you explain why none of these Evangelical Scholars that you appeal to take the claims of the Quran concerning Jesus seriously, but would view Muhammad’s assertions regarding Jesus speaking as an infant or his denial of the crucifixion as nothing more than nonsense?

    Hopefully, you won’y attack straw man or employ deceptive tactics to get around your dilemma.

    Like

  2. The reason why western scholars do not take the Quran to be a miracle is because there is strong evidence that it is not a miracle, let alone the actual, direct, verbatim word of God. This is not only a western thing, many people across the world including Arabic speaking individuals from the time of Muhammad up til now do/did not believe the Quran to be God’s literal word. This includes problems such as conflicts in manuscript evidence, the history of Quranic transmission and compilation, difficulties in the texts even for people who speak Arabic, instances where it is clear that God is not the speaker, historical errors, scientific errors, evidence that some of the stories originated from fables and legends such as the seven sleepers, instances where people are made up in general such as Al-Khidr, and more.

    “It is crucial for the Christian case that Jesus was actually God incarnated as a human being.”
    How is this crucial? Show me a New Testament passage which shows this is crucial. The crucial Christian case is actually the death and resurrection of Jesus as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15. If Jesus did not rise our faith is a delusion. It doesn’t say anywhere, “if Jesus is not God our faith is a delusion”. Instead, even by Paul, God is called the God and Father of Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:3, Ephesians 1:3). If Jesus being God was crucial to Christianity there would be no Unitarian Christians, yet we find across the world many Christians who are comfortable with not believing Jesus to be God. Acts 2:24 says God raised Jesus from the dead, so even if you take away Jesus’ divinity you still have to tackle his death and resurrection; there’s no reason why it could not have been an act of God regardless of whether Jesus was divine or not.

    In regards to Jesus being miraculously delivered from crucifixion, it’s simple really: if that’s what happened then that’s what his followers would believe, likewise that would be the message they spread including Paul. As a result, that would be the mainstream Christian belief but it isn’t. It took God six centuries to apparently correct this belief, something He could have done right at the start. But according to the Quran, God likes to watch us struggle in confusion because had he willed, we would not be arguing right now but intends it to be this way (Surah 2:253).

    Like

  3. Max, when I said “It is crucial for the Christian case that Jesus was actually God incarnated as a human being”, I was not primarily thinking of the NT texts but traditional Christian doctrine as taught by the historic Christian churches – and Christian apologists such as CS Lewis. They all believe that it is an absolutely key doctrine that Jesus was/is God.

    Like

  4. Sam, I am surprised to read your claim that, ‘many, if not most, NT scholars and all Evangelical ones DO IN FACT ACCEPT THE MIRACULOUS, and therefore do not discount them as data in their historical research’

    Can you back up your claim?

    As to you question:

    ‘Can you explain why none of these Evangelical Scholars that you appeal to take the claims of the Quran concerning Jesus seriously, but would view Muhammad’s assertions regarding Jesus speaking as an infant or his denial of the crucifixion as nothing more than nonsense?’

    This has already been addressed in my article. Perhaps you did not read it carefully enough.

    Like

  5. Paul, you really need to stop with your obfuscation and start actually engaging my arguments. Do I really need to prove to you that to be an Evangelical one must accept the possibility of miracles, otherwise he is no Evangelical but an anti-supernaturalist liberal? Really? Seriously? Moreover, you have failed to answer anything, and therefore rereading your article doesn’t help address my questions. So could you be so kind as to provide an actual rebuttal to my questions and arguments?

    Like

  6. Interesting Max, I have similar views.
    Also, many books claim to be revelations from God. Why should we take the Quran more seriously than those ones?
    Mani was a “prophet” who existed a few centuries before Muhammad, he claimed to be the last prophet and also claimed that he was the “Paraclete” mentioned in the gospel of John.
    Joseph Smith claimed that his book was a revelation from God, and look how many Mormons there are today.
    Same with Babi and Bahullah of Babism and the Bahai faith, and there have been plenty throughout history.

    I’ve noticed that Paul never actually deals with arguments from the Islamic side. He only has arguments against Christianity then says “the Quran is from God”. What else do you have Paul? Can you explain why it is from God so we can at least move forward with the arguments?
    And saying “because it claims to be” is a terrible argument, like I’ve shown many people claim their experiences or books are from God.
    The bible may not directly claim to be from God but has plenty of evidence that shows it was inspired by God. And if you think the word inspired is strange, read your own Quran which uses that same term to explain how the revelations came to Muhammad.

    Like

  7. Great article my Paul.. may ALLAH the creator of the heavens and the earth reward you!!

    Like

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: