Jesus

Surah 4 (Al-Nisa/Women): 156-157

156. …(A)nd for their (the Jews’) misbelief,
and for their saying about Mary a mighty calumny,

157. And for their saying ‘Verily, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of God’…. But they did not kill him, and they did not crucify him, but a similitude was made for them.

And verily, those who differ about him are in doubt concerning him; they have no knowledge concerning him, but only follow an opinion.

They did not kill him, for sure!

[‘The Koran’, E H Palmer, 1880]

 

Jesus’ birth and childhood

With the exception of Moses’ being placed in his basket upon the Nile, all Old Testament prophets, even the almost-sacrificed son of Abraham, are introduced into the Qur’an as adults, most with no details whatsoever of their background. However, approximately two-thirds of the Qur’an’s telling of the story of Jesus (‘Isa’) relates either to his infancy or to events that took place prior to his birth. These elements include:

In addition, an extended passage of Jesus’s reported speech, produced in verses {3.49-57}, begins with him speaking as an infant, referring to his childhood miracle of bringing clay model birds to life as an event that was then still in the future, but the speech then transforms seamlessly into a conversation with his disciples, so that one is unable to say for certain which part of the speech were spoken as a child and which as an adult.

 

Much of the Quranic presentation of Jesus’s pre-ministry narrative will be unfamiliar with those familiar with the canonical gospels, but is drawn from apocryphal sources, including:

  • the pledge by Mary’s mother that she will dedicate her unborn child (Mary) to God, {3.35},
  • the description of Mary being raised in the Jewish Temple by her uncle Zechariah, during which time she is miraculously fed by angels, {3.37}, and
  • the random selection of Joseph from a group of men to be Mary’s husband, {3.44},
  • as a child the young Jesus miraculously breathed life into clay model birds – a miracle predicted by Jesus in {3.49} and recalled by God in {5.110}.

The first three of these reflect episodes that are recorded in the apocryphal gospel, the Proto-evangelium of James .The miracle of the clay birds appears in the apocryphal gospel, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, according to which, Jesus performed this miracle to remove the evidence of his having created the models on the sabbath, see 〈19.〉 Both the apocryphal gospels of James and Thomas are thought to date from the second century.

 

Concerning the Qur’an’s account of Jesus’s birth, though, a far more intriguing source of the Qur’an was revealed by Stephen J. Shoemaker in Christmas in the Qur’an: The Quranic Account of Jesus’ Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition .  In {19.22-23}, Mary gives birth to Jesus ‘in a place far off’ when ‘the pangs of childbirth’ came upon her. In this, the Qur’an again follows the Proto-evangelium of James. But the Qur’an then has the newly born baby Jesus miraculously commanding that a date palm tree to bend down and offer its fruit, fresh ripe dates, to Mary and that a spring appear at her feet for her to drink from, {19.24-26}. Shoemaker showed how this miracle of the date palm had appears in various traditions that had circulated in the near east since the third century . However, these traditions had without exception described the miracle as having been performed, not during the nativity, but later during the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Shoemaker explains how the miracle might have found itself contained within the Qur’an’s nativity narrative by reference to the ruins of the Church of the Kathisma, discovered in the 1990s three miles north of Bethlehem. This Church had once been the focus of the Jerusalem Church’s Nativity celebration, since it had been built to mark Jesus’ birth on the road to Bethlehem, as described in the Proto-evangelium of James. After the church had canonised the Gospel of Matthew with its now well-known story of Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem stable, Bethlehem naturally became the centre of the Church’s Christmas celebration. A new significance had to be found for the redundant Church of the Kathisma, and so it became repurposed as the supposed site of the miracle of the date palm during the Flight into Egypt, in which context it is described in a pilgrim guide written c. 560-570. The church does not lie on a direct route between Bethlehem and Egypt, but Mary and Joseph might easily have been supposed to have taken a roundabout route to avoid Herod. When the ruins of the church were excavated in 1997, they showed that it had at some stage been converted into a mosque and decorated with date palm mosaics. ‘Thus’, Shoemaker concludes, ‘the early Muslims found themselves in possession of an ancient Christian nativity shrine which had recently been identified as the site of Mary’s encounter with the date palm. Rather than preserving the two traditions separately … the Islamic tradition fused them into what has become the Quranic version of the Jesus nativity’ .

 

It is interesting that in his Christmas sermon of 634, two years after the reported death of Muhammad, but the same year in which a Palestinian chronicler, Thomas the Presbyter, reported a raid on Gaza led by a Muhammad, the patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, lamented that he was unable to travel to Bethlehem because an ‘army of godless Saracens’ barred his way there, precisely at the location where the Church of the Kathisma lies. The significance of Shoemaker’s theory is that it seems to show that the first part of Surah 19 {19.2-33} was composed during the Arab raids on Palestine in 634. If it was announced by the same individual who had composed the rest of the Qur’an, this corroborates the non-Arab that accounts describing Muhammad as himself active in Palestine 〈49.〉 It also suggests that, Jesus having been conspicuous by his absence from the early surahs, the Qur’an took on a remarkably pro-Christian flavour after the commencement of the Palestine campaign.

 

Jesus as an adult

In the latter part of the passage referred to above as having commenced with Jesus as a child, predicts that he will ‘heal the blind and the leper give life to the dead by God’s leave’ , words repeated almost verbatim by God speaking in the past tense in {5.110}. It proceeds with Jesus asking his apostles ‘Who will be my helpers unto God?’ and receiving their assurances that they were submitters. It also contains God’s assurance that he would raise Jesus unto Him, and place his followers in authority over those who disbelieved whom He would ‘punish with a severe punishment in this world and the Hereafter.’

The only further passages relating to Jesus as an adult are:

  • his request of God, after some initial hesitation, of ‘a table spread with food’ for himself and his followers, {5.111-115}, an apparent conflation of the miracle of the loaves and fishes with the Last Supper, (and possibly chosen, from amongst all the gospel miracles, to emphasise Jesus’s non-divinity since eating is a sign of mortality 〈21.〉),
  • his prediction of a messenger who come after him who would be called ‘Aḥmad’, see 〈5.〉 above, and
  • his rebuttal of the Jews’ boast that they had crucified him.

 

 

The most common explanation offered in Islamic tradition for God’s statement in {4.157} that He had ‘made it appear’ to the Jews that they had killed Jesus is that God substituted some other person to be crucified in Jesus’s place. It is understandable, given the Qur’an’s theme of God vindicating the righteous and punishing the unbelievers that its author would have no use for the Passion of Jesus. If a visual deception was intended by the Qur’an’s author, he would have been following in the tradition of the second century apocryphal Gospel of Basilides, in which Jesus is said (we only have an unsympathetic summary of its text) to have miraculously swapped his outward appearance with Simon of Cyrene and to have ‘stood by laughing’ as the unfortunate Simon was crucified in his place. No reason is suggested in the Qur’an for God stooping to carry out such a deceit on ‘the Jews’ which, like the references to Him plotting 〈11.〉, raises awkward questions concerning the Quranic God’s honesty. Nor does the verse explain why God should condemn the Jews for believing what he had ‘made appear’ to have been true. Rather than Jesus’s rising from the tomb, Islamic tradition, based upon {3.55}‘s ‘When (God) said: O Jesus, I shall take thee and raise thee unto Me…’ concludes that Jesus was taken up into heaven without any earthly death – although this account conflicts with Jesus’s own prediction of his earthly death and resurrection as it is recounted in {19.30-33}.

 

 

The role of Jesus in the Quranic scheme

The role of Jesus in the Qur’an is highly paradoxical. There are no explicit references to Jesus or Christianity at all in the early surahs of the Qur’an, 〈10.〉 In middle-period surahs, he is included in four of the lists of Jewish prophets, {2.136}, {3.84}, {4.163-165} and {6.84-87}, indicating that the Qur’an wished him to be considered as but one human prophet amongst many. This is, of course, entirely consistent with the Qur’an’s emphatic rejection of the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God: {4.171}, {5.17, 72-77 & 116-8}, {9.30-31}, {17.111}, {19.34-38}, {43.57-59} and {112.1-4}.

{5.72} They certainly disbelieve those who say: ‘Truly God is the Messiah, the son of Mary’…

Surely whoever ascribes partners unto God, God has forbidden him the Garden, and his refuge shall be the Fire.

And the wrongdoers shall have no shelter.

In {5.116-117}, Jesus is interrogated by God and forced to deny that he had encouraged this idolatry, and in a particularly tetchy-sounding {5.17}, God reminds the Qur’an’s audience that should He so wish, He could ‘destroy the Messiah, son of Mary, and those on earth altogether’.

 

Yet in other verses Jesus is described as, in his nature, substantially different to any other man who has ever lived. The Quran agrees with the gospels that Jesus was born of a virgin, {3.47} and {19.20}, conceived by the Spirit of God or an angel 〈12.〉 It refers to him eight times, {3.45}, {4.171-172}, {5.17, 72 & 75} and {9.30-31}, as ‘the Messiah’ although no significance whatsoever is attached to this title, and it may even have been misunderstood as having been a part of Jesus’s name (‘…whose name is the Messiah‘, {3.45}). Even more surprisingly, the Qur’an refers to Jesus twice, {3.45} and {4.171} (and an arguable third occasion at {19.34}), as not merely having been miraculously brought into existence as a consequence of God’s word but actually being ‘Word of God’ itself, and in {4.171}, the Qur’an equates him with ‘a Spirit from God’:

{4.171}Verily the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His Word which He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him…

The Qur’an also incorporates Jesus in the anticipated events leading up to the Last Day 〈96.〉, when it is anticipated that Jesus shall return to earth to herald the imminent judgment of God – ‘(H)e is indeed a portent of the Hour’, {43.61} – following which Jesus ‘will be a witness against’ the People of the Book, presumably Jews (and Sabeans) as well as Christians, {4.159}. Some of these passages read as though they could have been lifted straight from a Syriac Christian devotional text (a possibility that has been promoted by some revisionist historians .)

 

By the extended infancy and childhood passages, and the honorific titles, the Qur’an’s emphasis in relation to Jesus is upon his nature rather than upon anything he said or did. We are told that he healed the afflicted and raised the dead, but such dramatic miracles having been mentioned in passing, the only specific miracles that are recounted – the date palm and spring, the clay birds and the apostles’ feast – seem relatively minor and self-serving. In The Qur’an in Context, A Christian Exploration, Mark Robert Anderson describes the Qur’an’s Jesus as proceeding from an ‘unattractively adult and self-important’ child, to a ‘decidedly needy’, adult, most commonly presented seeking the help of others and responding to requests and accusations. Qur’anic Jesus certainly conveys no hint of gospel Jesus’s ethical message: the complete rejection of violence and his encouragement of universal, selfless compassion and the unconditional forgiveness of enemies. Nor does his self-sacrifice at the crucifixion fit with the Qur’an’s model of an interventionist God vindicating and rewarding those who are obedient and punishing those who err.

 

One may well wonder if as many Christian beliefs that served to venerate Jesus as possible were belatedly grafted onto the Qur’an, so long as these did not interfere with its overall scheme and essential message of obedience towards its announcer and the strict application of Mosaic law. So whilst his birth of a virgin, titles of ‘Messiah’ and God’s Word and Spirit, his performance of miracles and eschatological role all raise Jesus to a status far more exalted than any other biblical prophet – even, in many ways above the Quranic announcer who claims none of these for himself – these metaphysical attributes appear without any clear theological context or purpose.

 

‘Isa

The Quranic name, Isa, bears little resemblance to the name by which Jesus is known by Arabic-speaking Christians. Isa more closely resembles Esau, the elder son of Isaac, who was bribed and cheated out of his Abrahamic inheritance by his younger brother, Jacob. Esau is nowhere mentioned in the Qur’an which, as we have seen presents Jacob as a third son of Abraham 〈19.〉. If there was an intended association of Jesus with Esau, this is unlikely to have been complimentary to him, carrying the hint of an abandonment of  birthright and possibly a reference to the royal house of Herod, which had claimed descent from Esau, and whom the Romans had installed over Judea as their proxy ‘kings of the Jews’.

For Christians, see 〈88.〉

 

John, the cousin of Jesus

As with Jesus, John is introduced with accounts of his conception and birth (see above) but unlike his cousin, John fails to really mature in the Qur’an at all. He is included in one list of prophets, {6.84}, and in a separate list of ‘the righteous’, {3.39}. However, the Qur’an’s only substantive description of him is couched in terms that one might use to praise a well-behaved youngster, rather than a prophet of God:

{19.12} ‘O John, take the Book with strength.’

We gave him judgment as a child,

{19.13} And a tenderness from Our Presence, and purity and he was reverent,

{19.14} And dutiful towards his parents.

He was not domineering or rebellious…