I have often disagreed with my fellow Christians on this point – I strongly welcome their interaction with this article – as a Christian, I would be quite happy to be refuted 😉
Christians often say that Q 4:157, which is normally interpreted to deny the crucifixion of Jesus, is a massive historical blunder, and an embarrassment for the Qur’an. The crucifixion is one of the most certain facts of history. As skeptical scholar John Dominic O’Crossan says: ‘That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.’ [‘See John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 145; see also 154, 196, 201.’]
Cited via Gary R. Habermas; Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kindle Location 400; 2787). Kindle Edition.
I would agree that there is indeed very good evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, which I won’t go into here. Indeed, it is a ‘minimal fact’, that virtually every scholar in a relevant field would agree upon (Habermas & Licona, see below).
But Muslims are the only group with a viable alternative – God made it look like Jesus was crucified, when he actually wasn’t. This might seem far-fetched, but it does actually fit nicely with (at least the English translations of) 4:157:
That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:- [Emphasis added]
The translations differ in the middle of this verse, but the common element is that there was some ‘resemblance’ or ‘appearance’ of Jesus being crucified. Thus it is not at all surprising that this is what the onlookers saw and what, later on, the written records tell us.
A Christian might respond: ‘Yes, but they are relying on faith! They have no evidence for this other than the Qur’an, written 600 years later, in a different language, in a different location. Plus, once you start allowing deus ex machina, ‘God-did-it’ solutions, history is over!’
(1) Yes, they are relying on faith. That’s fine. On faith they accept this because the Qur’an tells them – the real issue is whether the Qur’an is a good source of knowledge, worthy of placing faith in. Is it trustworthy? Is it divinely inspired? That’s a whole different issue.
(2) History is not over. To have a theological reason for believing God acted in a certain miraculous, even misleading (some might say), way on one occasion when he had good reason to do so doesn’t mean he will do it all the time, when he doesn’t have good reasons to do so.
A stronger argument though, is that this suggests a moral deficiency in God – that he led people astray, and that he created the world’s largest false religion (Christianity) by mistake. These are good points, though I am not sure how problematic they really are within an Islamic framework. 3:54 (Pickthall) reads: ‘And they (the disbelievers) schemed, and Allah schemed (against them): and Allah is the best of schemers.‘ I would note that 3:55 seems to refer to the same raising up of Jesus as is envisaged in 4:157. If the Jews schemed against Allah’s messenger (Isa/Jesus), to crucify him, can not Allah scheme against them in return? See also – http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/allah_best_deceiver.htm (for anyone interested, I am not condoning all of the things Sam Shamoun has said. But I stumbled upon this article via Google, and it may have some relevant Qur’an citations).
The fact that this divine intervention led to the founding of the false religion Christianity (centered upon the crucifixion and resurrection) is a bit difficult, but it is not insurmountable. Maybe intention is what counts – Allah intended only to save Jesus, not to start a false religion – thus he is not morally culpable, even though he was unfortunate as to the results of his actions. Additionally, the crucifixion may have laid the groundwork for Christianity, but it didn’t require it. Just because God made it look like Jesus died, doesn’t mean Christians (from the Islamic perspective) were then justified in making up the doctrine that this death in some way atoned for their sins. Anyway, maybe Allah had no choice – his concern for the righteous Jesus just meant he had to save him. The good of the individual was more important than the side effects that would effect many – after all the life of one is as valuable as the life of mankind (5:32).
Ultimately, maybe Allah does not want everyone to be guided rightly – 35:8 ‘Then is one to whom the evil of his deed has been made attractive so he considers it good [like one rightly guided]? For indeed, Allah sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills.’ (Sahih International)
In summary thus far, I have disagreed with my fellow Christians as to the degree to which this is a clear historical error in the Qur’an. There is no issue, to my mind, until we get down to the moral issue, which is not always made clear/present when Christians raise this issue to attack the Qur’an. As for the moral issue itself – it gives moment for pause, but I don’t think it is unanswerable or even particularly convincing when understood within the Islamic framework, in light of the suggestions I have given above.
Now that I have upset some Christians, allow me to upset some Muslims (I like making friends!). I do think 4:157 is a problem – not because of the crucifixion, but because of the resurrection.
If we interpret 4:157 to deny the crucifixion of Jesus (which I, and a minority of others, wouldn’t necessarily), then Jesus was not placed dead in the tomb. He cannot therefore have been resurrected. Yet there is, I believe, very good historical evidence in favor of the resurrection of Jesus: The Minimal Facts Approach.
This approach was pioneered and developed by Gary Habermas & Michael Licona, and I’m a huge fan. The below information is from the core of their book – I will give further details below.
This approach only uses ‘facts’ virtually all relevant scholars accept, even skeptical ones. It provides some of the arguments in favour of them too, but I don’t have time to go into that. The arguments are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed they had seem him alive again after his death.
- Paul, the Church persecutor, was suddenly changed
- The sceptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed
These facts are accepted by 90% of scholars, according to G. Habermas in a radio interview where he discussed his methodology (it was from his website, http://www.garyhabermas.com/audio/audio.htm, unsure which exact link).
A lesser ‘fact’, which I find good historical grounds to hold, is:
5. The tomb of Jesus was then empty.
This last one is only held by about 2/3-3/4 of scholars, so that’s why it is separated off.
According to Habermas and Licona, many non-resurrection explanations have been put forward for these facts, but they all have serious flaws. ‘Today, the prevalent view among sophisticated critics is that the disciples seem to have experienced something. But what it was may not be known, and the general bias is against resurrections.’ (Locations 705- 708) While they may not hold to the resurrection (I would argue for metaphysical reasons, not due to the historical evidence itself), they do not put forward alternative theories.
I strongly recommend reading the main core of the book (the rest is in response to objections) – it won’t take you long, maybe an hour. Read pp. 47 – 83 (Kindle locations 371-705) of Gary R. Habermas; Michael R. Licona (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel: Grand Rapids, MI.
If it whets your appetite, try the awesome, but huge, Licona, M. (2010) The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, IL.
Why is this important? Well if God saved Jesus from death, and if resurrection requires the death of Jesus, how come the earliest Christians, including the disciples of Christ, sincerely believed he had died and risen again? What had they seen?
One might respond that because Allah had saved Jesus from death on the cross (4:157), he permitted Jesus to appear to his disciples to show them he was alive. But this would produce belief in his non-crucifixion rescue – not a resurrection belief, which presupposes his death! I find it slightly hard to believe that Jesus, appearing to his disciples alive again, might not mention that Allah had saved him from death, and instead let them mistakenly believe uncorrected that this was Jesus resurrected from the dead who stood before them. Jesus would have known they thought he had died – for Allah had made it look thus. Surely Jesus would have clarified the situation?
PS: I wanted to clarify the title, so you can all appreciate how clever and witty I am. I have voiced my problems with the ‘crucifixion argument’, certainly in an un-nuanced form, and questioned whether it should be ‘resurrected’ to be used again, or whether it should be buried in the ground and laid to rest. But the reference to ‘resurrecting’ also proleptically hints at what I consider the stronger argument to be…
Jonathan McLatchie has added an intriguing addition to the argument (my wording). Jesus, who was a prophet according to Islam, predicted his own death. If Islam is correct that Jesus is genuinely a prophet, then Islam is inconsistent, because a genuine prophet predicted something that contradicts Surah 4:157.
I personally think this argument has a lot of merit – that is because I, like Jonathan, agree with the arguments put forward that such ‘passion predictions’ were indeed put forward by the historical Jesus. Jonathan discusses some of the evidence for these ‘passion predictions’ – somewhere in this recent debate – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF8sYIyE6cM (I don’t know the exact place I’m afraid). I was also very impressed by the arguments of C. A. Evans , “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Resurrection?, 86-96, in (Porter, S. E., ed.) (1999) Resurrection. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
But I should note in fairness, that I believe myself, Evans and Jonathan are in the minority on this matter. I am happy to be corrected.