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, 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) and passim).
So why do Western historians not use the Quranic data in their research into the historical Jesus?
There is 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….”
“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, Apollonius of Tyana – 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.”
Erhman’s comments about historical method (in reality 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 3:7
(The above is an extract from my book Jesus as Western Scholars See Him: A Resource for Muslim Dawah Carriers, page 82).
‘The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought’
‘According to the majority of modern Muslims and Christians, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion of Jesus, and with it, one of the most sacred beliefs of Christianity. However, it is only mentioned in one verse – “They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather, it only appeared so to them” – and contrary to popular belief, its translation has been the subject of fierce debate among Muslims for centuries.
This the first book devoted to the issue, delving deeply into largely ignored Arabic sources, which suggest the the origins of the conventional translation may lie within the Christian Church. Arranged along historical lines, and covering various Muslim schools of thought, from Sunni to Sufi, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an unravels the crucial dispute that separates the World’s two principal faiths.’