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by Paul Bilal Williams
This book is dedicated to Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad) of Cambridge University, an English Muslim Scholar of the Sufi Tradition
Ibadah Ibn Assamet related that the Messenger of God (pbuh) said, “If anyone bears witness that there is no deity save God alone, who has no partner, that Muhammad is His Servant and His Messenger, that Jesus is God’s Servant and Messenger, the son of His Handmaid, and His Word which he cast into Mary and a Spirit from Him, and that Paradise and Hell are real, God will cause him to enter Paradise, no matter what he has done.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
Lines lead from the very first Jewish Christianity to the seventh century, indeed to Islam…The analogies between the Qur’anic picture of Jesus and a Christology with a Jewish-Christian stamp are perplexing. These parallels are irrefutable and call for more intensive historical and systematic reflection. Hans Kung, Islam, Past, Present and Future (2007, One World Publications, pp 37, 44) Fr Hans Küng is a professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen. He is considered by many as a leading intellectual giant of the Roman Catholic Church.
This book is in reality the work of many hands. Few ideas in it are original to me. What merit it does contain is the fruit of other peoples research, especially New Testament scholars JDG Dunn and Geza Vermez, whose work I have drawn upon extensively. Last but not least I am humbled to mentioned the generous ﬁnancial support I received for over a year from Mohammad - who selﬂessly encouraged me to complete this work at my own speed. May God reward him for his efforts. Finally, any errors or mistakes in this book are my responsibility alone.
The book’s intended readership:
i) Muslims who invite people to Islam. This text aims to make signiﬁcant background knowledge of the scholarly issues pertaining to the historical Jesus easily available to Muslims, and as such can be used as a dawah1 resource. I hope, inshallah, that the dawah bar can be raised so that Muslims involved in dialogue and debate with Christians can be better informed concerning what the Christian’s own scholars are saying about Jesus. Sadly most Christians are completely in the dark about the research undertaken on the Bible and are unaware of the surprising amount of agreement between scholars of quite different religious backgrounds (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish etc) about who Jesus was. ii) Non-Muslims who are interested in a Muslim persecutive on Jesus and how this corresponds with much western New Testament scholarship on Jesus. The Christology 2 of the Qur’an is surely of interest to non-Muslims who are invited by God to accept a nontrinitarian understanding of Jesus which not only ﬁts the facts of history but gives to Jesus an honoured place in the constellation of Prophets and Messengers sent by God. A Disclaimer. In this book I cite many distinguished New Testament scholars whose professional work is devoted to understanding the historical Jesus. As far as I am aware they would all agree that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans in the 30s AD. This view is contrary to the Quranic Revelation which unambiguously denies that Jesus was cruciﬁed and asserts that he was saved from death and raised to God. Someone might say, ‘I like the idea of quoting scholars who agree with your Christology, 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 for instance, which contradicts Islam. Some may argue that you are cherry picking.’
Da‘wah or Dawah (Arabic: "ة#د) literally means "issuing a summons" or "making an invitation". A Muslim who practices da‘wah is called a dā‘ī. A dā‘ī is thus a person who invites people to understand and/or embrace Islam through a dialogical process, and may be categorized in some cases as the Islamic equivalent of a missionary.
Christology (from Greek Χριστός Khristós and -λογία, -logia) is the ﬁeld of study which is concerned with the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth.
That is a very good point. In response I want to say 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. I will nevertheless address the question of the cruciﬁxion of Jesus in the light of historical criticism below.
Paul Williams London 2013
The verses following the one cited
Matt The Gospel according to Matthew and/or its author NT OT par. New Testament Old Testament parallel(s) in one or more of the other Gospels to the passage cited
pbuh peace be upon him Q Quelle source for material shared by Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark
1 What is meant by “Christology”?
2 The Christologies of the New Testament Writers
i) The Christology of the Synoptic Gospels
ii) The Christology of Q
iii) The Christology of John
iv) The Christology of Paul
Discussion. The Problem of John.
3 The Didache: a first century witness to non-Pauline Christology
4 Various Approaches to New Testament Christology
i) non-scholarly Christian fundamentalism: the rise and role of Internet polemics
ii) scholarly conservatism: has the debate exhausted itself? 8
iii) scholarly liberalism: the phenomenon of orthodox Christian scholars who become ‘liberal’
iv) non-scholarly Muslim polemic: crude but effective or off-putting and counterproductive? Pro and contra.
v) scholarly Islamic approaches: an early text (buy!) and contemporary examples. Up to scratch?
5 The Christology of Jesus
i) So who did Jesus think he was? The academy and Revelation.
ii) The role of the Quran vis a vis the New Testament.
6 The role of the Quran vis a vis the New Testament.
7 Mind the Gap.
The problem. The development of Christology? Charlie Moule’s important question: evolution or development? Why the case for evolution is stronger. The fundamentalist denial of Christological ‘evolution’.
Scholarly attempts at bridging the gap:
i) A Biblical scholar’s view: Tuckett in his book....final chapter: Jesus was more than he realized. The strange notion that Jesus was God - he just didn't know it.
ii) A Victorian Cardinal’s solution: John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine - vs the blasphemous deification of Jesus, a prophet of Islam.
8 The Christology of the Quran: A Disputed Question. A Case Study: A Christian theologian’s polemic against the Quranic understanding of Jesus and God in Alister McGrath’s recent book Heresies. A Muslim response. hermeneutical key: de jure and de facto. A
9 An Extraordinary Christological Convergence: Another Sign of the Quran’s Divine Origin?
10 Conclusion Christology: Some New Perspectives for Dawah
A) A representative sample of prominent New Testament scholars’ evaluation of the Gospel of John.
B) At a glance chronological and thematic summary of the 4 gospels
C) The Religion of Jesus vs the Religion about Jesus: discussion and key texts
D) The Triumph of Paulism
E) Miscellaneous articles
F) Glossary of terms: Academic; Islamic, and Christian
1 What is meant by “Christology”?
Who was Jesus? What role did he play in God’s plan for Israel? Was he part of a Trinity of divine persons? Was he God? Christology discusses the evaluation of Jesus to be found in the diverse books of the New Testament and in the later Christological definitions of the Christian Church.
Scholars often speak of a ‘low christology’ and a ‘high christology’.3 Low christology covers evaluations of Jesus that do not suggest he was divine, eg., Messiah, Rabbi, Prophet and Master. High christology covers evaluations of Jesus in the Christian tradition that promote ideas of Jesus’ divinity, eg., Lord, Son of God - and of course the title ‘God‘ itself.
Further christological lines of enquiry might ask, ‘What was the Christology of Jesus?’ and ‘How did Jesus understand himself?’ This much more difficult historical task has led many Christian scholars to advance some very disturbing conclusions. Here is a representative example:
‘But if we are to submit our speculations to the text [the New Testament] 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.’
Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation p 32, by James D. G. Dunn.
see for example Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, page 4
So the questions raised by a study of Christology are not just of academic interest and relevance but have a critical bearing on faith itself and will inform our concept of God and our understanding of the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the God he proclaimed.
In the ongoing debates between Muslims and Christians the results of western christological research are of great significance, contributing to our understanding of who Jesus thought himself to be and how this compares to later Christian discourse on his nature, status and purpose. The purpose of this book is to suggest that the Quranic statements concerning Jesus - as the actual verbatim Words of the Eternal and Omniscient God - not only converge with the results of western christological research, but can contribute to an authentic rapprochement between the Abrahamic faiths - based on the truth about Jesus and the God he so faithfully worshiped. Put simply, I argue that the Jesus discovered by western scholarship bears a remarkable resemblance to the Jesus of the Quran and this fact can be a basis for a new shared agreement between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
As one leading Roman Catholic theologian comments,
The analogies between the Qur’anic picture of Jesus and a Christology with a JewishChristian stamp are perplexing. These parallels are irrefutable and call for more intensive historical and systematic reflection.
Hans Kung, Islam, Past, Present and Future (2007, One World Publications, pp 37, 44)
2 The Christologies of the New Testament Writers
It is a curious fact, unknown to the vast majority of Christians who faithfully fill the pews each week, that since the nineteen century historians of the Bible have attempted to look afresh at the person of Jesus of Nazareth to see what his life signified to those first century writers who wrote the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It is important to understand that the Bible is a library of books written over a period of a 1000 years or more by mostly unknown authors. Today, Christians still disagree about which books should be in the Bible. Roman Catholics think it should contain 73 books, Protestants 66 books and most Orthodox Christians 78 books. However, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believe the Bible contains 81 books - the highest figure of all! 4
The New Testament contains 4 ancient biographies of Jesus called ‘gospels’, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Careful readers have long recognised that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are quite similar, although not identical. Students of the Bible refer to the first three gospels as the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ because they include many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, with similar wording in the Greek. They are so similar that most modern scholars think they are interrelated.
The Ethiopian broader New Testament canon has eight additional books: the four books of Sinodos, the two divisions of the Book of the Covenant, Ethiopic Clement, and the Ethiopic Didascalia
i) The Christology of the Synoptic Gospels
On a first reading of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is tempting to take these stories at face value: here are ancient texts that tell us what Jesus said and did. Their reliability and facticity is usually assumed without question. And this way of reading of the gospels has been ubiquitous in the Christian churches for much of the last 2000 years.
Today, however, such a reading of the gospels is no longer possible. To start with the most obvious observation: there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching. The fourth gospel, that of St John, presents the reader with a substantially different account of the teaching of Jesus, a conflicting chronology of his life (for example the date of Jesus’ crucifixion) and perhaps most significantly, presents a high christology that is radically different from the synoptics. Thus NT scholars have long concluded that the gospels tell us as much about the views of their authors as they do about the events and words of Jesus they allegedly narrate.
Christopher M Tuckett (Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Oxford) in his critically acclaimed work Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, (Edinburgh University Press 2001) comments:
‘The picture of Jesus in John is in many respects very different from the picture in the other three, so-called ‘synoptic’, Gospels. Furthermore, most would agree that, in general terms, the synoptic picture is more likely to reflect the realities of Jesus‘ own time, and the Johannine account represents an (at times) extensive rewriting of the Jesus tradition by a later Christian profoundly influenced by his own ideas and circumstances. However, it is 15
now recognised that what applies to the Fourth Gospel applies equally to all the Gospel: the synoptic Gospels, quite as much as John, have been influenced by the ideas and the circumstances of their authors. Thus in reading all the Gospels, we have to be aware of the fact that we reading accounts of Jesus‘ life as mediated by later Christians and hence we may learn much, if not more, about the latter as about Jesus himself in studying the Gospel texts.’
pp. 105-106 (emphasis in original)
So with these important scholarly caveats in mind we can move on to consider the Christology of Mark’s gospel, commonly believed to be the first of the four to be written. Disclaimer: this survey of the gospels is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all the Christological titles or beliefs about Jesus in the four gospels. For such an account see the Recommended Reading list.5 Here I consider only a selection of significant christologies to be found in the gospels.
Mark This section is purely descriptive and analytical and focuses on the titles used of Jesus by him. I will evaluate Mark’s Christology in a later chapter.
Mark is commonly considered to have been written in Greek sometime around 65-70 AD. The author is anonymous. So who is Jesus according to Mark? The opening verse (Mark 1:1) identifies what the gospel is all about:
at the end of this book
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Some scholars believe that the words ‘the Son of God’ were added to the original gospel of Mark by unknown scribes as the words are lacking in several important early manuscripts, such as the oldest complete NT manuscript the Codex Sinaiticus. Scholarly debate continues but clearly it is not certain that Mark included these words in his original gospel. But the term is used elsewhere in Mark’s gospel.
There is no sense that Jesus pre-existed with God from all eternity, a central theme in John. Indeed it is probable that at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:11, where Psalm 2:7 is cited in reference to the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, we have the Christological moment when Jesus became Son of God.
‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’’
At Mark 8:29 Peter makes this assertion about Jesus’ identity:
‘Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’
(To anticipate the discussion somewhat, scholars believe that whoever wrote ‘Matthew’s’ gospel used the gospel of Mark in writing his own gospel. It is significant that Matthew has ‘improved’ Mark by adding the words “the Son of the living God” to Peter’s utterance - thus heightening his Christology - see Matthew 16:16).
At Jesus‘ trial before the Sanhedrin6, the key question is the identity of Jesus (14: 61-62)
Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”, and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’
Finally, the centurion identifies and confesses Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ (or ‘a son of God’) 15:39. The title ‘The Son of God’ suggests Jesus is the unique bearer of this title; ‘a son of God’ suggest a status shared between a number of people. The earliest extant Greek manuscripts are all written in uppercase Greek (‘uncials’), so the decision to capitalize the word ‘son’ as ‘Son’ is the translators choice. It is more impressive to translate the phrase as ‘The Son of God’ rather than ‘a son of God’!
Here is a subtle but significant example of how Christian translators can influence the readers perception of Christology.
The ancient Jewish court system was called the Sanhedrin. The Great Sanhedrin was the supreme religious body in the Land of Israel during the time of the Temple.
A key feature of Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ concern for secrecy about his identity, see for example 3:11-12, and 8:30:
Mark 3:11-12 Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.
Mark 8:30 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
But the most significant Christological title in Mark is to be found only on the lips of Jesus: ‘the son of man’. This meaning of this enigmatic title has puzzled scholars for generations but I will postpone discussion of this till later. It is to be found on the lips of Jesus at Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33; 10:45; 14:21, etc.
It is of great significance to note that Jesus is never referred to as ‘God’ in Mark’s gospel nor does Jesus describe himself as divine. As we shall see, Mark’s Jesus even denies that he is ‘good’:
‘As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’’ Mark 10
In the light of the churches later unequivocal statements about Jesus’ divine identity this fact is of the greatest significance.
Matthew’s gospel was written around 80-85 AD. Like Mark, the work is anonymous. The anonymous author of ‘Matthew’ (the title ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ was added later in the second century) used Mark as a source, correcting, editing and adding to it as he saw fit. These changes can tell us a great deal about Matthew’s understanding of Jesus.
The title ‘Son of God’ is absolutely central for Matthew’s Christology, and is his most important designation for Jesus. I have already mentioned how Matthew added the title ‘the Son of God’ to Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity (cf. Mark 8:29 with Matthew 16:16). There are multiple such ‘enhancements‘ strengthening Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as God’s Son.
Matthew in chapters 1 & 2 of his gospel adds to Mark an account of Jesus’ birth of a virgin (Luke too has a nativity narrative which contradicts Matthew in numerous details 7). The story is of the divine origin of Jesus, not just as son of David but as Son of God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke 1: 28-36:
And Gabriel came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’
This is the point of Jesus’ being ‘begotten’ as Son or the creation of Jesus to be the Son of God - a key Christological moment. As Professor Raymond Brown comments, there is in
Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown—in his impressive, detailed, and generally helpful Birth of the Messiah comments: “This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different—they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth, and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehem, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-23). A second difﬁculty is that Luke tells us that the family returned peaceably to Nazareth after the birth at Bethlehem (2:22,39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew's implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family ﬂed from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth. Of the options mentioned before we made the detailed comparison of the two narratives, one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p.46
Matthew ‘no suggestion of an incarnation whereby a figure who was previously with God takes on human flesh’. (p. 141 in Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: a Commentary on thew Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Chapman 1977).
Matthew reverses Mark’s negative portrayal of the disciples as dim-witted and hard of heart and has them openly ‘worshiping’ Jesus. Compare the story in Mark 6:47-52 with Matthew’s altered version 14:33. Here is a fine example of a mutation in Christology:
Our earliest gospel Mark in 6:47-52 says:
‘When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.’
Compare Matthew’s ‘improved’ version of Mark in 14:33:
‘When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’’
A further augmentation in Christology can be seen if we return to Mark’s story of the centurion confessing Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ (or ‘a son of God’) in 15:39. The story is 22
told rather differently in Matthew. The centurion utters his words at the foot of Jesus’ cross (as in both gospels) but then in Matthew the confession is not so much a response to the death of Jesus itself, but rather to the most cataclysmic miracle in the gospels: the earth splits open, tombs are opened and the bodies of the dead walk around and are seen alive by many people in Jerusalem, 27:51-53:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
This event is only mentioned in Matthew, no other gospel writer seemingly knew of it and contemporary historians knew nothing of it, including the historian Josephus who was from Jerusalem and alive at that time! So from Mark’s stark story of Jesus alleged death on a cross, we move to a different world where Jesus’ death now takes on a cosmic dimension, an apocalyptic upheaval in nature and seemly the beginnings of the general resurrection of the dead itself! It is surely inconceivable that an event so sensational and of such magnitude would not be noticed by historians of the day such as Josephus, and the failure of any other Christian sources to mention it suggests that Matthew has produced a fictional narrative.
Luke was probably written around 80-85 AD. Like Matthew, Luke in chapters 1 and 2 of his gospel adds a birth narrative to Mark’s gospel. But as Dunn notes,
‘Here too it is sufficiently clear that it is a begetting, a becoming which is in view, the coming into existence of one who will be called, and will in fact be the Son of God, not the transition of a pre-existent being to become the soul of a human baby or the metamorphosis of a divine being into a human foetus.’ 8
In plain English then, Jesus was created by God. Dunn, like most other scholars I have surveyed, seems shy of speaking plainly about the implications of his research, particularly when it leads him away from ‘orthodox’ positions on Christology. Bart D. Ehrman is an outstanding exception to this endemic coyness. This may explain why he receives so much ad hominem abuse from conservative Christians. Truly he takes up his cross daily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
In Luke 1:35 we read, ‘The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ Dunn also notes that in the Acts of the Apostles there is no sign of any christology of pre-existence.
Luke is famous for presenting a picture of the ‘human’ Jesus, one who has compassion for the poor and sinners 9. Jesus‘ concern for sinners is found in the famous parable of the
p. 51 in Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation SCM press 2003.
see his concern for the poor at 1:52-3; 4:18; 6:20.
Prodigal Son found only in this gospel at Luke 15. The overwhelming impression is of a man who is a friend and advocate of the socially marginalized (see also the parable of the Good Samaritan, again exclusive to Luke in 10:25-37).
But what about Luke's christology? Luke suggests that Jesus was regarded as and believed himself to be a Prophet. Jesus compares his mission with that of the prophets Elijah and Elisha10. When Jesus brings the widow of Nain’s son to back to life the people exclaim ‘a great prophet has risen amongst us‘11.
Consistent with Jesus’ self-designation as ‘son of man’ in Matthew and Mark, the Jesus of Luke calls himself the ‘son of man’. This mysterious title is found only on Jesus‘ lips. The controversy surrounding this title (if it is a title) will be discussed later. It is noteworthy that though ‘son of man’ is ubiquitous in Jesus’ preaching before his ascension it is virtually absent from Luke’s story of the early church in Acts (with the sole exception of Stephen’s vision in Acts 7:56). Acts is the second volume of Luke’s two volume work, the first volume was his Gospel. ‘Acts’ (short for Acts of the Apostles) seems to provide a historical sketch of the spread of the Christian gospel by Jesus’ apostles, especially the apostle Paul. Scholars, however, have long known that ancient historians typically made up the speeches of their characters, so the speeches in Acts tells us more about Luke's views than the views of the people they purport to characterize.12
Jesus own use of the term ‘son of man’ is entirely missing from Paul’s writings about Jesus.
10 11 12
Luke 4:25-27 7:16
see A Brief Introduction to the New Testament chapter 11, by Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford University Press, second edition 2009
Lord and Christ
Above all, the two most significant christological titles for Luke are surely Lord (kyrios) and Christ (christos).
The word ‘kyrios’ had a very wide range of meanings. Kyrios can be just a term of polite respect to a teacher (as it is still used by students of their teachers in Greece today or so I am told). So it is unlikely that Luke, situating his narrative in the intensely monotheistic environment of 1st century Judaism, intends Jesus to be understood as divine when the term is used of Jesus in his gospel.
For Luke, Jesus is a royal David figure, the ‘christos’, Christ (2:11, 26). Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah in 9:20. Luke states that it is as christos that Jesus suffered and died. So we read that the risen Jesus in Luke 24 tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus that the christos had to suffer and die as foretold ‘in all the scriptures’. However the claim that the Christ/Messiah must suffer is a story invented by Luke because there is no mention of a suffering Messiah anywhere in the Old Testament. Taking their lead from Paul of Tarsus who in his First Letter to the Corinthians asserted ‘that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, Christians have argued that the Scriptures (ie the Jewish Bible) predicts that the Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of the world.
The Jewish Bible fails to substantiate this claim. The messiah is never portrayed as suffering and dying for anyone’s sins. Christians sometimes refer to one of the four
Servant Songs 13 to be found in the Book of Isaiah - Isaiah 53. But the Servant in all these passages is the nation of Israel itself - personified - as a contextual reading makes clear. Nowhere does the text mention the messiah. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes, ‘Amongst British Old Testament scholars the prevalent opinion identifies the Servant with Israel in some form‘ (article, ‘Servant Songs’)
As Professor Christopher Tuckett of Oxford University correctly notes: ‘appeals to the description of the suffering servant figure of Isaiah 53 are not relevant here: the figure of Isaiah 53 is not said to be a messianic figure’ (p146, Christology and The New Testament, Edinburgh University Press, 2001).
A final point should be made about Luke’s christology: Jesus is very much subordinate to God. God raises Jesus from the dead in Acts 2:32-3 (Jesus does not raise himself). God works miracles through Jesus in Acts 2:22. God makes Jesus both Lord and Christ in Acts 2:36. Luke makes a vital ontological distinction between Jesus and God in Acts 2:22: Jesus is supremely a man chosen by God to do God’s will (see also Acts 17: 31). This last observation accords with the Quranic description of Jesus as a mere man who rejected any claim to divinity, ‘The Messiah does by no means disdain that he should be a servant of God’ (Qur’an 4:172). The Quran continues, “Indeed, they have disbelieved who have said, “God is the Messiah (Jesus), son of Mary.” The Messiah said, “Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” (Quran, 5:72)
Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.
As an aside I would like to narrate a significant story of how Jesus, according to Luke, understood God’s mercy and forgiveness.
One of the most famous of all Jesus’ parables is found in Luke’s gospel: the so-called parable of the prodigal son. It is a story about how God treats repentant sinners. I have reproduced it in full here:
The Famous Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and 28
celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
Note that the father when he sees his repentant son returning home does not say ‘Because I am a just as well as a loving father, I cannot forgive him until someone has been duly punished for his sins’, but rather he had compassion, ran and embraced him and welcomed him home. So God does not need a sacrifice in order to forgive anyone. As the English convert from Christianity to Islam Ruqaiyyah Maqsood wrote: ‘the split-second of turning from Christianity to Islam is the realization of the truth of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the parables, God is loving enough to forgive directly. That was the whole glory of the Judaism which Jesus upheld.’
Islam places great stress on God as a God of mercy and forgiveness whom the individual can approach directly without the need of any mediator or priest. God says in the Quran:
‘O My servants, who have transgressed against their souls. Do not despair of the mercy of God, for He forgives all sins, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’ (39:53).
John The gospel of John was the last canonical Gospel to be written, probably around AD 90-95. Traditionally it was ascribed to John the son of Zebedee, but most scholars see reasons to doubt this 14 In contrast to the Christology of the synoptic gospels the Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as being fully conscious of having pre-existed as the divine Son of God from all eternity. For example, ‘I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.’ John 6:38; ‘He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world’ John 8:23. Curiously there is no birth narrative to be found in John. Was he unaware of Jesus’ miraculous birth or did it just not suit his purpose to recount this event?
It has long been observed by attentive readers that when we move from the Jesus of the synoptic gospels to the Jesus of the gospel of John we are immediately aware of profound
see A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehman.
differences in John’s presentation, on multiple levels. In John Jesus is portrayed less as a human messiah, and more as a divine being who comes to earth to reveal the truth necessary for salvation.
Here are some examples of these differences:
i) Chronology. John contradicts the synoptics 15 concerning significant dates: the cleansing of the temple occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the synoptics, but at the beginning in John; the date of the crucifixion occurs on the eve of the Passover in John, but on the feast of Passover itself in the synoptics.
ii) The content, vocabulary and style of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus in the synoptic gospels speaks in short pithy sayings and parables, John’s Jesus teaches in long drawn out discourses with no parables. The key focus of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptics ‘the Kingdom of God’ appears only once in John. Jesus in John makes some unique claims, the famous ‘I ams’ - ‘I am the resurrection and the life’; ‘I am the way the truth and the life’; ‘Before Abraham was, I am’; and so on, all strangely absent from Matthew, Mark and Luke. But it is in John uniquely that we get the two most explicit statements concerning Jesus’ divinity, at the beginning and the end of the story. The Prologue (which does not contain Jesus’ own words) states that the Word was not only in the beginning ‘with God’, but in some sense ‘was God’ (1:1). Thomas, towards the end of the gospel, proclaims Jesus to be “My lord and my God” (20:28).
The synoptic gospels: ‘The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which narrate so many of the same stories that they can be placed side by side in parallel columns and so can “be seen together” (the literal meaning of “synoptic”).’ From the glossary in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart. D. Ehrman.
I will cite below some significant examples of the scholarly consensus concerning the historicity of this gospel in light of its’ unique take on Jesus. It is natural to ask: why is Jesus portrayed so differently in John when compared to the synoptics? Why does this gospel identify Jesus as God’s equal when none of the other gospels does? The virtually unanimous consensus of scholarly opinion on these questions raises some important questions for the Church: why is this consensus virtually unknown to the Christian masses? Any why is the general public unaware of this research? There are some exceptional scholarly communicators such as Bart Erhman16 who have recently attempted to educate the Christian and non-Christian public, see especially his brilliant book ‘Jesus, Interrupted Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them)’ by Bart D. Ehrman published by HarperCollins.
Muslims involved with dawah can make use of this material in their discussions with Christians to ground their position on solid scholarship.
The Christology of Paul
Next to Jesus himself, the apostle Paul is the most important person in early Christianity. Nearly half of the New Testament books claim to be written by him, though today historians recognize that many are not authored by Paul but are forgeries (such as the two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus). Originally known by his Hebrew name Saul he is better known today by his Roman name Paul (Paulus) which means “small”. Jerome, the 4th
Bart D. Ehrman is an American New Testament scholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
century Christian writer, believed Paul was born around 5 B.C so he would have been close to Jesus’ age though there is no evidence that the two ever met each other. His connection to Jesus was based on his own visionary experiences after the death of Jesus where he claimed to have ‘seen’ Jesus. He also claimed to hear a disembodied “voice” that he identified as “words” of Jesus. (see 2 Corinthians 12:9 for example). In one of his authentic letters he boasted that unlike Jesus‘ original followers who knew him personally and heard him preach, he had received his authority and commission straight from the heavenly Christ and so needed no merely human approval or authorization (see Galatians chapter 1 and 2 Corinthians 5:16).
Paul believed that Jesus was a divine pre-existent heavenly being, the first created being of all God’s creation: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”, Colossians 1:15.
He existed in the “form of God” and was “equal to God” (Philippians 2:6) though God the Father still remains the ultimate transcendent deity (‘to the glory of God the Father’, see Philippians 2 verse 11).
Though for Paul Jesus was clearly more than just a human being, Paul was careful to differentiate Jesus from God as such. Here are several examples:
1 Corinthians 8:6
‘yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.’
Clearly Jesus has a God.
In 1 Corinthians 11:3 we read,
‘But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.’
This passage refers to the ascended heavenly Christ and suggests he is ontologically quite distinct from (and inferior to) ‘God’ who is Christ's ‘head’. In other words God and Jesus are completely different beings.
In 2 Corinthians 1: 3 we read ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation’
Again - Jesus has a God.
Ephesians 1:17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
(How can Jesus “be God” and “have a God” at the same time?)
Romans 15:6 So that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 11:31 (KJV) The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.
Here God is the God of Jesus.
Paul rarely mentioned anything that Jesus taught and said little about Jesus’ life other than his alleged death on the cross. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Paul’s thought is that the message Jesus had preached became transformed into Jesus as the message: the Messenger had become the message! Or another way of putting it: Jesus’ message was theocentric, it was focused not on himself but on God (see the famous Sermon on the Mount in Mathew’s gospel chapters 5-7). In contrast, Paul’s message was Christocentric, that is it was centred not on God but on his heavenly Christ. The Proclaimer had become the proclaimed, an inversion of fundamental importance for understanding the history of Christianity since Jesus.
Discussion: The Problem of John
My brief survey of the Christologies of the four gospels above highlights a serious problem that New Testament historians have pondered over for more than a century: the problem of John.
To give the reader a flavour of the the way scholars have wrestled with the problem I present a representative sample of how leading NT scholars define the problem - and their 35
proposed solutions. Concerning the reliability of all the gospels Christopher Tuckett, Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Oxford, writes,
“Nevertheless the nature of the Gospel tradition means that we cannot simply take everything recorded in all the Gospels as unquestionably genuine reports about what Jesus said or did in a pre-Easter situation.”17
p. 203, Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, 2001, Westminster John Knox Press.
Most Christians, now and in the past, read John’s gospel as if it presents an accurate historical account of Jesus’ ministry which we can just read off from the gospel’s surface, like a modern history textbook. But of the four gospels, John is a particularly controversial document, the historicity of which is widely doubted.
EP Sanders, described by John B. Meier as America’s “most distinguished scholar” in the of historical Jesus research, explains:
“It is impossible to think that Jesus spent his short ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps. Consequently, for the last 150 or so years scholars have had to choose. They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teaching of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels
by ‘pre-Easter situation’ is meant the time before the death and resurrection of Jesus
and that John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them.” E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure Of Jesus, 1993, Penguin Books, pp. 70-71.
Acclaimed evangelical scholar Richard Bauckham in his recent book on the gospels Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) argues that the fourth gospel stems from an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, namely, the disciple John. At the same time, however, Bauckham also acknowledges that,
“All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists 18 and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree that the latter presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.” (p. 410.)
Next, we consider the verdict of the late conservative Christian scholar and apologist F. F. Bruce, a favourite of conservative Christians. In his commentary on John's gospel 19 he wrote the following (and I provide a long quotation so that the read may get a better understanding of how this top evangelical scholar discusses the issues, and because of his interesting discussion of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar):
‘The Evangelist records words which were really spoken, actions which were really performed. His record of these words and actions includes their interpretation, in which
The Evangelists are the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel of John, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co 1996
their inward significance is disclosed and faith is quickened in Jesus as the Revealer of the Father and the Saviour of the world.
The source of the Evangelist's interpretation of Jesus' words and actions is clearly indicated in his record. He reports Jesus' promise that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, would come to guide his disciples into all truth, especially by bringing to their remembrance all that Jesus had taught them and making it plain to them. In reporting this promise, the Evangelist implies that he himself experienced a rich fulfillment of it, as he pondered the significance of what Jesus had done and said during his ministry, as he shared with others what he and his companions had seen and heard, and as he finally caused the contents of this gospel to be set down in writing. If in this Gospel the words and deeds of Jesus appear to have undergone 'transposition into a higher key' than that with which we are familiar in the Synoptic Gospels, this is the effect of the Spirit's enabling the Evangelist to adapt the story of Jesus to a different public from that for which the earlier Gospels were designed. The Spirit was, among other things, to serve as a trustworthy interpreter; his interpretive ministry is clearly to be discerned in the Gospel according to John.
Interpretation (which in the Gospels involved, at an early stage, translation from the Aramaic which Jesus normally spoke into Greek) may take a variety of forms. A word-forword transcription or translation is scarcely an interpretation in the usual sense of the word. Today one would 'interpret' the words of Jesus by transposing them from the Hellenistic Greek in which they have been preserved into a late twentieth-century idiom (whether English or any other language). Interpretation may result in an abridgment or a summary (it is widely believed, for example, that the speeches in Acts are literary summaries of what was originally spoken at much greater length). It may, on the other hand, result in an expanded version of what was said; if so, it will probably include a good 38
deal of paraphrase. If the effect of such an expanded paraphrase is to bring out the sense more fully, then the use of this form is amply justified.
Plutarch, in his Life of Brutus, describes what happened in Rome on the morrow of Julius Caesar's assassination:
‘Anthony and his supports demanded that Caesar's will should be read in public, and that Caesar's body should not be buried in private but with customary honours. Brutus agreed to these demands.
‘The first consequence of this was that, when it became known that according to the terms of his will the dictator had presented seventy five drachmas to each Roman citizen and had bequeathed to the citizens the use of his gardens beyond the Tiber, a great wave of affection for Caesar and a powerful sense of his loss swept over the people. The second consequence was that, after the dead man had been brought to the forum, Anthony delivered the customary funeral oration over his body. As soon as he saw that the people were deeply stirred by his speech, he changed his tone and struck a note of compassion, and picking up Caesar's toga, stiff with blood as it was, he unfolded it for all to see, pointing out each gash where the daggers had stabbed through and the number of Caesar's wounds. At this his hearers lost all control of their emotions. Some called out for the assassins to be killed; others dragged out benches and tables from the neighbouring shops and piled them on top of one another to make an enormous pyre. On this they laid Caesar's corpse and cremated it. As the flames began to mount, people rushed up from all sides, seized burning brands, and ran through the city to the assassin's houses to set fire to them.’
A vivid enough account, to be sure. But how was Caesar's will read, and what exactly did Mark Anthony say in his eulogy? A satisfying answer to these two questions is provided in a well-known English interpretation of Plutarch's narrative - not a word-for-word translation but an expanded paraphrase in which it is Anthony who reads Caesar's will aloud after he has excited the indignation of the crowd by exhibiting Caesar's torn and blood-stained robe and exposing his wounded corpse. Anthony's whole speech, from its low-key exordium:
Friends, Romans, countryman, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him -
To its ringing peroration:
Here was a Caesar! When comes such an other?
Is a translation of the freest kind, a transposition into another key; but Shakespeare's genius enables him to put the right words into Anthony's mouth, 'endeavouring as nearly as possible' (in Thucydidean fashion), 'to give the general purport of what was actually said'.
What Shakespeare does by dramatic insight (and, it may be added, what many a preacher does by homiletical skill), all this and much more the Spirit of God accomplished in our Evangelist. It does not take divine inspiration to provide a verbatim transcript; but to reproduce the words which were spirit and life to their first believing hearers in such a way that they continue to communicate their saving message and prove themselves to be spirit and life to men and women today, nineteen centuries after John wrote - that is the word of the Spirit of God. It is through the Spirit's operation that, in William Temple's words, 'the 40
mind of Jesus himself was what the Fourth Gospel disclosed'; and it is through the illumination granted by the same Spirit that one may still recognise in this Gospel the authentic voice of Jesus.’ (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John,1983, Eerdmans, pp. 15-17.) *
In sum, F. F. Bruce says in effect that we should not view the fourth gospel as presenting the literal words of Jesus. Bruce, as a committed Christian, chooses to believe that the ‘Spirit of God’ put ‘the right words’ into Jesus’ mouth in John’s account. I have quoted this long passage from Bruce’s commentary to give the reader a flavour of how some conservative Christian scholars seek to give religious and spiritual credibility to John when an unvarnished account of Jesus‘ life and teaching presents us with a very different picture.
The problem that Bruce evades can be summarized thus:
i) If the gospel is straightforward history, then we have the most amazing and powerful self-testimony of Jesus.
ii) And if John’s gospel is unvarnished history then the popular apologetic question is unavoidable: Jesus was either mad, bad or God. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, made much of this argument in his book Mere Christianity. But, according to Bart Ehrman 'there could be a fourth option – legend' (Quoted by Neely Tucker, "The Book of Bart", Washington Post 5 March 2006).
iii) And if Jesus made claims such as:
‘I am the resurrection and the life’, John 11:25
‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, John 14:6
‘Before Abraham was, I am’, John 8:58
Why do the other gospels make no mention of them?
Luke claims at the beginning of his gospel to have ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus’ (Luke 1:3). If Jesus made such claims then why do the other gospels make no use of them? Why would they ignore them so completely? Why is Jesus’ style of teaching in John so very distinctive, and so different from that in Matthew, Mark and Luke?
Another prominent conservative evangelical scholar, John Drane, a student of F. F. Bruce, concludes:
‘. . . they [New Testament gospels] are certainly carefully crafted narratives aiming to tell the story of Jesus' life and teaching. As such, they are not to be judged by the standards of scientific enquiry, but according to the practises of story telling, in which the 'truth' of a narrative is to be judged as a whole on its own terms, rather than in relation to notions of truth and falsehood drawn from some other sphere of human endeavour. The early Christian communities clearly had no problem in accepting that within the gospel traditions there would be a subtle combination of factual and fictional elements. Had they not done so, they would certainly not have tolerated the existence of four gospels which, for all their similarities, are sufficiently different from one another as to defy all attempts at producing 42
one harmonized, factual version of the life and teachings of Jesus from them. They knew that both artists and historians operate under similar constraints as they seek to balance fact with fictional elaboration, and that the telling of a good story . . . depends on the coherent combination of both these elements. While all four gospels contain factual fictive elements, the fourth gospel appears to have a greater preponderance of the latter.’
John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, Lion Publishing Plc. Revised Edition. 1999 pp. 210-211.
Christianity Today is America’s top Evangelical magazine. Professor Richard Bauckham won the prestigious Christianity Today Book Award in biblical studies for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.
Bauckham (Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of St Andrews, Scotland) has also authored a little known (at least outside of scholarly circles) book entitled God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. He argues that the first Christians included Jesus in the unique identity of the God of Israel in a way that was compatible with Jewish monotheism. In other words, Bauckham claims the early Christian redefined Jewish monotheism in such a way as to include Jesus within its conception of God.
One of the weaknesses of his argument is his use of texts that he himself clearly believes are fictionalised accounts of Jesus’ teaching.
Consider these statements taken from his book God Crucified (emphasis mine):
‘The Gospel of John places on the lips of Jesus during his ministry another of the characteristically Deutero-Isaianic declarations of unique divine identity. The Johannine choice is the concise statement ‘I am he,’ usually translated in the Septuagint Greek as ego eimi (‘I am’), the form in which it appears in John’s Gospel.’ (page 55)
‘We observed earlier [page 55] how John places Deutero-Isaiah’s great monotheistic selfdeclaration of God – ‘I am he’ – on the lips of Jesus in the series of seven absolute ‘I am’ sayings.’ (page 63)
If the author of the Fourth Gospel knowingly placed the I am statements in Jesus’ mouth, then Jesus obviously did not say them, and John has invented sayings which countless generations of Christians have nevertheless taken as literal reportage.
But if John’s portrayal of Jesus represents a ‘highly interpreted’ and partly fabricated account of his life and teaching why should we believe what it says?
Bauckham’s views are based on a detailed analysis of the gospels’ genre and a comparison of the synoptic gospels and John. His views on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings in John are widely shared by other scholars (outside of fundamentalist seminaries).
Bauckham argues that the fourth gospel [John] stems from an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, namely, the disciple John. At the same time, however, Bauckham also acknowledges the differences between the fourth gospel and the Synoptics and argues that John is a more reflective and a highly interpreted account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Regarding the four gospels in general, he concludes:
In all four Gospels we have the history of Jesus only in the form of testimony, the testimony of involved participants who responded in faith to the disclosure of God in these events. In testimony fact and interpretation are inextricable; in this testimony empirical sight and spiritual perception are inseparable.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 411.
As we have seem, regarding the gospel of John specifically Bauckham says:
All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree that the latter presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.
(Ibid. p. 410.)
According to Bauckham, the eyewitness author of the gospel of John did not just simply rehash mere eyewitness reports, but he also weaved into his story of Jesus his highly reflective interpretations and understanding of the events:
… we can also apply the contrast between Mark (or the Synoptics in general) and John more widely. The greater selectivity of events recorded, the more continuous narrative with its more strongly delineated plot, the lengthy discourses and debates – all these distinctive features of the Gospel of John, as compared with the Synoptics, are what make possible the much fuller development of the author’s own interpretation of Jesus and his story, just as comparable features of the works of the Greco-Roman historians enable the expression of their own understanding of the history, making their works more than mere reports of 45
what the eyewitnesses said. But in the case of the Gospel of John these characteristics are linked with its claim to be entirely the testimony of an author who was himself an eyewitness. In this case, the whole historiographic process of eyewitness observation and participation, interrogation of other eyewitnesses, arrangement and narrativization in the formation of an integrated and rhetorically persuasive work – all this was the work of an eyewitness, whose interpretation was, of course, in play at every level of the process, but in what one might think of as a cumulative manner, such that the finished Gospel has a high degree of highly reflective interpretation. The eyewitness claim justifies [really?] this degree of interpretation for a context in which the direct reports of the eyewitnesses were the most highly valued forms of testimony to Jesus. In the case of the other Gospels it was important that the form of the eyewitness testimonies was preserved in the Gospels. The more reflective interpretive Gospel of John does not, by contrast, assimilate the eyewitness reports beyond recognition into its own elaboration of the story, but is, as it stands, the way one eyewitness understood what he and others had seen. The author’s eyewitness status authorizes the interpretation. Thus, whereas scholars have often supposed that this Gospel could not have been written by an eyewitness because of its high degree of interpretation of the events and the words of Jesus, by contrast with the Synoptics, in fact the high degree of interpretation is appropriate precisely because this is the only one of the canonical Gospels that claims eyewitness authorship.
(Ibid. pp. 410 – 411.)
Note that Bauckham does not deny the “highly reflective interpretational” status of the gospel of John. He only justifies it by arguing that the author was an eyewitness.
In light of the above, even if we are to accept the fourth gospel as a product of an eyewitness, it does not mean that we can simply read off from its surface the words attributed to Jesus as if Jesus literally uttered them in his historical ministry.
3 The Didache: a first century witness to non-Pauline Christology
Also known as ‘The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles’ The Didache was written sometime between AD 50 and 100. This means it is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament and predates NT books such as II Peter (written as late as 150 AD). Jesus scholar Professor Geza Vermes comments, ‘The work transmits anonymously a primitive form of Christian message attributed to the twelve apostles of Jesus and most of the material implies that the audience or readership was of Jewish rather than Gentile background’.20 Reading the Didache one gets the clear impression of a very early Judaeo-Christian church, refreshingly free from the influence of the exalted Christologies of Paul and John. The word ‘God‘ appears 10 times in the work but it never refers to Jesus directly or indirectly. Unexpectedly, ‘Father‘ and ‘our Father‘ also occurs 10 times but God is never described as the Father of Jesus (compare this to the highly coloured language of Father and Son in the Gospel of John). But what strikes the reader used to traditional Christian language concerning Jesus is the Didache’s rudimentary Christology. Four times it designates Jesus as ‘your Servant‘ (according to Professor Geza Vermes, three times in the Greek text and once in the Coptic translation). This designation servant/servant of God is also found in the (possibly) later Book of Acts as one of the earliest titles applied to Jesus (Acts 3:26; 4:27, 30). Didache 9:2 states:
Geza Vermes p 136. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325
‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy Vine of thy servant David, which thou hast made known to us though thy servant Jesus.’21 Nowhere in this very early first century work do we discover the Pauline ideas of atonement and redemption through Jesus’ sacrificial death. Nor do we encounter the Johannine idea of the eternal Logos. The Didache affords us priceless evidence of an undeveloped Christology characteristic of the early Jewish Christians, which contrasts the highly evolved Christ-mysticism of Paul and John. By the second century Paul’s Christology became dominant in the emerging Catholic church and Jewish ideas about Jesus were rejected in favour of exclusively Gentile ideas of a dying and rising saviour god - so similar to soteriological patterns ubiquitous in the pagan world. In other words, the emerging Jesus cult resembled in many ways the pagan cults of the Roman Empire. Professor Geza Vermes in his new book Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, described as ‘A beautiful and magisterial book’ by Lord Rowan Williams, the Archbishop Of Canterbury, has some fascinating comments about the Eucharist in Paul and the Didache: ‘The communal Eucharist was a real meal and not just a religious ritual. Its purpose was to feed the participants and it went on until they all had enough to eat. At the same time it was a symbol reminding the members of the spiritual food and drink, and the eternal life that Jesus promised to the church. In connection with the ‘breaking of the bread’, let it be stressed that neither the parallel accounts of Acts nor the Didache discloses knowledge of any theological symbolism linking the sacred communal meal of the early church with the Last Supper. For Paul, however, the ritual of the Lord’s Supper was a reiteration of the sacrificial death of Jesus and implied a mystical participation in his immolated body and
translation by Maxwell Staniforth p. 194, in Early Christian Writings, Penguin Classics 49
blood. The Eucharistic ideas transmitted in the Didache are definitely non-Pauline, and may even be pre-Pauline.‘ p. 142 Concerning the dating of the Didache, the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press) states, The author, date, and place of origin are unknown. The work is quoted as Scripture by Clement of Alexandria, and is mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea and by Athanasius. Although in the past many English and American scholars (J.A. Robinson, R.H. Connolly) tended to assign it to the late 2nd century, most scholars nowadays place it in the first century, including J.P. Audet, OP, who dates it c. AD 60. (p 479)
Conclusion So the Didache is an invaluable first century witness to a non-Pauline Christology. It is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament and even predates New Testament books such as II Peter. The primitive form of the Christian message (attributed to the twelve apostles) preserves a form of Christianity quite different to that which became dominant in later centuries and became known as ‘orthodox’ christology. History discloses to us the reality of many Christianities (plural) with different understandings of God, Jesus and salvation. There never was a single Christianity going back to the golden days of the apostles. Diversity, disagreement and schism were characteristic features of this religion from the very beginning.
4) Various Approaches to New Testament Christology
Studies of the historical Jesus take a number of different forms ranging from fundamentalist christologies (simplistically sloganised in demotic Christian discourse as ‘Jesus is God’); to the erudite scholarly conservatism of NT Wright and Raymond Brown and others; the scholarly liberalism of academia; the non-scholarly conservatism of traditional Christian readings of the gospels (as in the Roman Catholic Church for example); and scholarly and non-scholarly Muslim polemic (the former is exemplified in the writings and debates of Dr Shabir Ally, the later is represented in Muslim apologetic websites of varying quality and knowledge).
i) Non-scholarly conservatism
Even though the Gospels were written some 30 to 70 years after Jesus they are assumed by non-scholarly conservatives to be verbatim accounts of what he did and said. This approach characterises the traditional Christian reading of the gospels, still found in mainstream churches today and is quite distinct from Christian fundamentalist preoccupations with textual inerrancy and anti-intellectualism. However, 30-70 years is a very long time, and eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable even in court cases. There is plenty of scope for followers of the emerging movement to elaborate and adorn the memory of Jesus with stories ‘suitable’ to such a figure in the ancient world as tends to happen with religious movements centered around a particular individual.
Non-scholarly conservatism will typically be completely unaware scholarship and it’s implications for Christian faith. For example, recent scholarly work22 has considered the many examples of Christian forgery produced for polemical purposes from the time of the New Testament where nearly half of the NT books make false authorial claims - through the second and third centuries, and up to the end of the fourth century, with the PseudoIgnatian letters and the pseudonymous Apostolic Constitutions. "Arguably the most distinctive feature of the early Christian literature," writes Professor Bart Ehrman, "is the degree to which it was forged."
Clearly, ignorance is bliss for the non-scholarly conservative Christian.
Not surprisingly, this view posits that there was no significant development in Christology in the NT.
We have seen above in Matthew 16:13-20 where Jesus is acknowledged by the apostle Peter as ‘the Son of the living God’23,
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Forgery and Counterforgery, The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics by Bart D. Ehrman, 2012.
the term ‘son of God’ in its original Jewish context was simply a metaphor for a righteous Jew, but in the Gentile world the term ceased to be an innocent ﬁgure of speech and acquired a metaphysical meaning, attributing divinity to a person so called. The Islamic tradition rejects this latter development as compromising the strict monotheism proclaimed by God’s Messengers and Prophets.
Non-scholarly conservatism believes that this is a direct historical reminiscence from Jesus’ ministry and offer it as an explanation of why later Christians called him ‘the Son of God’. But scholars who disagree point to the fact that the earlier gospel of Mark (which Matthew knew and used in compiling his own gospel) has no such confession of faith by any of the disciples. The only statement of belief in Mark is that Jesus is the Messiah. Most scholars would see Matthew's addition as his own belief retrospectively inserted into Mark’s narrative, making this a clear example of how Christology evolved in the first century.
Some other examples of non-scholarly conservatism include the reading of John 8:58 (‘Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’’) and John 17:5 (‘So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed’.) Jesus speaks as a preexistent divine person and describes the existence he had before Abraham or even before the world began. This is believed to be a direct historical reminiscence from Jesus’ ministry. But scholars who disagree, object that there is no indication of preexistence in the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke which is very odd if Jesus was known to have spoken in this highly unusual way in public and to his disciples.
However, this nonscholarly conservatism was virtually ubiquitous in the Christian churches until the 1700s when many scholars began to recognise the deep problems inherent in treating the gospels as verbatim reports. With the coming of historical criticism 24 the vast majority of scholars became aware of the development of Christology in the early church and particularly in the gospels themselves.
see glossary for my deﬁnition of the term
Nonscholarly conservatism continues to be the norm amongst church going lay Christians (especially the Roman Catholic Church) and tends not to be defensive 25. One might ask why - despite the fact that ministers, pastors and priests receive an advanced education in biblical studies at theological colleges - why do they fail to pass on the fruits of this knowledge to their congregations?
ii) Non-scholarly Christian fundamentalism: the rise and role of Internet polemics
What is today called Christian fundamentalism represents an extreme reaction to the methods and findings of biblical scholarship. It has a widespread presence on the internet and finds expression in reactionary political movements in the USA. (See James Barr’s work in Recommended Reading for definitive studies of this phenomenon). No longer concerned to simply defend the Bible against what it considers to be attacks on its reliability and accuracy, Christian fundamentalism is now a leading contributor of Islamophobic attacks on Islam and Muslims and champions an uncritical support for political Zionism as a supposed fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Since the rise of the internet in the 1990s the central focus of non-scholarly Christian fundamentalism is no longer the local church, the Christian newspaper or the itinerant preacher, but online. Polemics from this movement are characteristically aggressive, arrogant and anti-intellectual. Utterly intolerant of any worldview that does not simply agree with its own perspective, it possesses a binary worldview, with no appreciation of insights
in contrast to Christian fundamentalism which is typically aggressive in expression and simplistic in theology.
from other religions or objective biblical scholarship. It vigorously defends the inerrancy of the Bible, a stance that often requires highly fanciful intellectual gymnastics to maintain. Its’ bete noir is ‘liberalism’ though this is largely a figment of the fundamentalist imagination and bears little relation to the actual world of mainstream biblical scholarship about which fundamentalists typically ignore.
For fundamentalist Christians the most significant fact about Jesus is that he is ‘God’. Jesus claimed to be God during his ministry and the Bible teaches this clearly. There is little stress on the significance of his humanity. To be a Christian is to believe that Jesus was God. There is no awareness of the development of Christology within the NT, the unique Christology of John, or the Christological controversies of the early centuries. Indeed, the work of the early Fathers such as Ireneaus, Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine who formulated the classical Christological doctrines of Jesus’ two natures 26, his consubstantiality27 with the Father, his eternal status as the Second Person of the Trinity28 are largely unknown, unappreciated, and irrelevant.
the belief that the incarnate Jesus was completely God and completely man at the same time. Muslims (and others) have long criticized this idea as self-contradictory and incoherent. I am not ware of a convincing Christian response to this critique in the academic literature. For a devastating philosophical critique from a Christian perspective read The Metaphor of God Incarnate by John Hick, published by SCM press, second edition 2005. This penetrating insight into contemporary discussions of incarnational theory will be essential reading in Christology for many years to come. Highly recommended.
Consubstantial is a Latin word used in christology to translate the Greek term homoousios. ‘Consubstantial’ describes the relationship between the Divine persons of the Trinity and asserts that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are ‘of one being’ or one substance. The concept was ofﬁcially deﬁned at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 in present-day İznik in Turkey. Though the idea was unknown to Jesus and his ﬁrst followers it is required belief in the main Christian denominations today.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity deﬁnes God as three divine ‘persons’ or hypostases: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit; "one God in three persons". The three persons are distinct, yet are one "substance, essence or nature". According to this doctrine, there is only one God in three persons, yet each person is God, whole and entire. This of course is a contradiction: there is just one God, Jesus is completely God, yet so are the other two individuals (Father and Holy Spirit) which makes a total of 300% three gods! Christians describe this incoherence euphemistically as a ‘mystery’. Mathematicians might use a different word to describe it. I believe it is polytheism.
For this study I simply note the existence of this approach to Christology, but it has little to contribute to a scholarly investigation of the NT or studies of the historical Jesus.
iii) Scholarly liberalism and the phenomenon of orthodox Christian scholars who become ‘liberal’.
Scholarly liberalism recognizes that the NT contains a high Christology and that there is some continuity from the NT to later creedal statements concerning Jesus. However scholarly liberalism does not accept that these high evaluations of Jesus in any way reflect the historical Jesus’ own evaluation of himself. Often so-called ‘liberal’ scholars start their careers as quite conservative academics, but who over their course of their continued research adopt increasingly non-conservative positions on Christology and other historical and theological questions in response to the findings of their research. A recent and well publicized example is that of New Testament scholar Professor Bart Erhman who started his academic life as a convinced fundamentalist Christian until bit by bit his personal honestly compelled him to adjust his beliefs to the historical evidence and he abandoned his Christian fundamentalism (his belief in inerrancy went first). He notes,
‘For over a century now, since the landmark publication of Albert Schweitzer’s masterpiece, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, the majority of scholars in Europe and North America have understood Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. A good deal of work on the subject has been done since Schweitzer...but his instincts appear to have been right.’ 29
p. 156, Jesus, Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) by Bart D. Ehrman.
5 The Christology of Jesus
So who did Jesus think he was?
He thought he was a man. This might seem to be a somewhat superfluous claim to make but the significance of this statement is often overlooked in the Christian tradition. Let us go back for a moment to what most New Testament scholars now regards as reasonably certain regarding the historical Jesus and the evolution of Christology that can be detected in the pages of the New Testament.
The scholarly consensus is that the first gospel to be written was Mark. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings source known as Q. I think this is the most plausible explanation, though a few scholars disagree. To take Matthew as an example: he relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark to ‘improve’ his presentation of Jesus. This shows us that for Matthew, facts could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note the negative portrayal of Jesus’ disciples in Mark: they are shown as hard of heart and timid and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message. Matthew has a very different and positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to fit his view point. Compare for example Mark 6:51-52 and Matthew 14:27-33 57
Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Likewise it is clear that there has been a development in the way Jesus is presented in the pages of the New Testament. Let’s look at the earliest gospel to be written, that of Mark.
This shows us a very human figure:
1) Jesus is a man who prays to God (1:35)
2) Jesus is unable to work miracles in his own town (Mark 6:1,5): 58
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him....And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
But in Matthew’s redaction of Mark in we read,
And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
In other words, he ‘could not’ is changed to he ‘did not’ - inability to act becomes a decision not to act. The incapacity is removed and Jesus‘ status is accordingly enhanced.
3) Jesus confesses his ignorance about the date of the End of the world (13:32):
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’
4) Jesus did not know the identity of a woman who touched him and had to ask his disciples for help (Mark 5:30),
Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’
But see Matthew’s redaction in 9:20-22:
Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.
In the earlier Gospel of Mark Jesus is ignorant of who had touched him. This shortcoming is eliminated in Matthew's improved version where Jesus immediately identifies the woman.
5) Jesus was so irritated by the absence of figs he cursed a fig tree even though it was not the season for figs see Mark 11:13-14,
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
But see Matthew’s redaction of Mark in 21:18-22,
In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the 60
disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once? ‘Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’
Matthew transforms Jesus’ ‘mistake’ into an edifying spiritual lesson for the disciples!
6) Jesus even denies that he is perfectly good in the earliest Gospel of Mark chapter 10,
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
As a humble Jew Jesus attributes ‘goodness’ as originating with God not himself.
Now see Matthew's version and how he has subtly corrected it to remove the embarrassment of Jesus’ denial that he is ‘good’,
Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. Matthew 19:17
‘Why do you call me good?’ has been changed to ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ a subtle change that completely alters the meaning of the question. Matthew may 61
have removed an embarrassing saying of Jesus but has unintentionally created another problem: the Messiah is asked what good deed must he do to have eternal life, but oddly the Messiah (the Anointed of God) who should know a thing or two about good deeds leading to life rebukes the man! But if God’s Anointed knows nothing of good deeds what hope for the rest of us! This problem did not arise in Mark’s earlier account.
7) Mark portrays Jesus despairing of God’s help at the crucifixion as he cries: ‘My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ (15:34) – Luke and John both omit this in their gospels.
So it seems clear that in the earliest gospel Jesus does not exhibit any of the attributes of God that Jews, Christians and Muslims commonly accept: unlike God, Jesus is not all knowing; he is not omnipotent; he is not perfectly good; he is not eternal; he is not immortal; he is not unchanging. Therefore it seems obvious that he cannot be God.
If we compare these incidents from Mark with Matthew’s version of these same stories we can see that he has removed Jesus’ potentially embarrassing statements (at least from a later Christian point of view).
As a mental experiment lets assume that Matthew had a copy of Mark in front of him. What Matthew does is to make Mark fit his understanding of Jesus. In each case Matthew introduces significant changes to Mark’s account with the result that Matthew has a somewhat higher christology (i.e. a higher doctrine of Jesus’ nature) than Mark. Matthew has quietly changed statements where Mark implied or said that Jesus was weak or ignorant.
As already mentioned Mark 5:30 reported a woman with a flow of blood that had persisted for twelve years touched Jesus’ clothes and was cured. Mark portrays Jesus as not knowing who touched him:
Mark’s gospel says: ‘Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who has touched my clothes?’’
In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus knew immediately who touched him, picked her out of the crowd and said to her, “Courage my daughter your faith has restored you to health.”
Here’s a second example, in the gospel according to Mark chapter 10 we read the following story:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
Jesus’ denial that he is ‘good’ does not mean that he considered himself to be a sinner. No. It simply means that when faced with the One God Himself Jesus did not consider himself to be perfectly good.
That this passage caused embarrassment to later gospel writers (who used Mark’s gospel when compiling their own gospels) is evident from the changes they made to Jesus’ words by removing his denial that he is ‘good’.
Here is Matthew’s altered version in 19:17 (compare this with Mark’s original) 63
And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’
Instead of Mark’s original ‘why do you call me good?’
Further evidence of his humanity is seen in his behaviour suggesting he was a devout, yet human worshiper of God in Heaven.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35
This suggests Jesus’ wholehearted acceptance of the Shema, his belief in Jewish monotheism: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one." Deuteronomy 6:4
Other incidences that disclose Jesus’ complete humanity (which is incompatible with the later Christian belief in his deity) can be briefly noted:
i) His ignorance of the date of End of the World:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Mark 13:32.
However, God is omniscient.
iii) The earliest Gospel portrays Jesus on the cross as experiencing total abandonment by God: ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Mark 15:34.
iv) Jesus curses the fig tree, even though it was not the season for figs. ‘On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.’ Mark 11:12-14
Though Muslims and pious Christians would find it deeply perplexing, Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as uttering offensive racist comments to a non-Jew. Matthew 15:21-26 states:
‘Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
When Jesus is portrayed as calling the gentile woman a “dog” he was using a standard derogatory term for non-Jews.
However the truth of Jesus’ claim: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ is confirmed by the Quranic revelation:
And when Jesus, the son of Mary, said: "O children of Israel! Behold, I am an apostle of God unto you, sent to confirm the truth of whatever there still remains of the Torah” 61:6
The central affirmation of Islam is that Jesus was a prophet of God and a Messiah of Israel. Is there any evidence in the earliest gospels of Jesus identifying with these roles?
There are at least two occasions in which Jesus is portrayed as describing himself as a prophet. One was the time when Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth where he was not accepted as a prophet because he was seen as just an ordinary person, a carpenter whose family still lived there.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” Mark 6:4. See also Luke 13:33.
Finally, according to Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem,
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” 66
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Chapter to do: The academy and Revelation? If so consult: Tom Wright & Marcus Borg book/discussion. Explore aspects of their differing approaches.
Dunn Christology in the Making.
Maurice Casey’s new book - see his discussion ‘Son of Man’ is ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ verse: discuss the importance of translation back into original Aramaic of Greek sentences to obtain clarification of obscure meaning (& see Erhman on meaning of Son of Man). Christological significance.
The role of the Quran vis a vis the Bible
It may be interest to the reader to consider how the Quran views itself in relation to the Torah, the Gospel and the New Testament. The Quran is the self-designated Divine 67
‘quality control’ over these previous scriptures. The Quranic revelation describes it’s role thus:
And unto thee O Prophet have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein.
Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee.
Asad’s Commentary on this verse states,
The participle muhaymin is derived from the quadriliteral verb haymana, "he watched [over a thing]" or "controlled [it]", and is used here to describe the Qur'an as the determinant factor in deciding what is genuine and what is false in the earlier scriptures (see Manar VI, 410 ff.).
‘Step by step has He bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, setting forth the truth which confirms whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations]: for it is He who has bestowed from on high the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, as a guidance unto
Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur'an
mankind, and it is He who has bestowed [upon man] the standard by which to discern the true from the false.’
It is to be borne in mind that the Gospel frequently mentioned in the Qur'an is not identical with what is known today as the Four Gospels, but refers to an original, since lost, revelation bestowed upon Jesus and known to his contemporaries under its Greek name of Evangelion ("Good Tiding"), on which the Arabicized form Injil is based. It was probably the source from which the Synoptic Gospels derived much of their material and some of the teachings attributed to Jesus. The fact of its having been lost and forgotten is alluded to in the Qur'an in 5:14. - Regarding my rendering of al-furqan as "the standard by which to discern the true from the false", see also note 38 on the identical phrase occurring in 2:53.
And [likewise,] from those who say, "Behold, we are Christians,” We have accepted a solemn pledge: and they, too, have forgotten much of what they had been told to bear in mind - wherefore We have given rise among them to enmity and hatred, [to last] until Resurrection Day: and in time God will cause them to understand what they have contrived. O followers of the Bible! Now there has come unto you Our Apostle, to make clear unto you much of what you have been concealing [from yourselves] of the Bible, and to pardon much.
Now there has come unto you from God a light, and a clear divine writ, through which God shows unto all that seek His goodly acceptance the paths leading to salvation and, by His grace, brings them out of the depths of darkness into the light and guides them onto a straight way.
Thus the Qur'an elliptically rejects their claim of being true followers of Jesus: for, by wrongfully elevating him to the status of divinity they have denied the very essence of his message.I.e., their going astray from the genuine teachings of Jesus - and thus from true faith in God - is the innermost cause of the enmity and hatred which has so often set the so-called Christian nations against one another and led to unceasing wars and mutual persecution.
Inasmuch as verses 15-19 are addressed to the Jews and the Christians, the term al-kitab may suitably be rendered here as "the Bible". It is to be borne in mind that the primary meaning of the verb khafiya is "it became imperceptible" or "not apparent" or "obscure" and that the same significance attaches to the transitive form akhfa. There is of course, no doubt that in its transitive form the verb also denotes "he concealed [something]", i.e., from others: but in view of the preceding phrase, "there has come unto you Our Apostle to make clear unto you", it is obvious that what is alluded to in this context is the concealing of something from oneself: in other words, it is a reference to the gradual obscuring, by the followers of the Bible, of its original verities which they are now unwilling to admit even to themselves.
Now this Qur'an could not possibly have been devised by anyone save God: nay indeed, it confirms the truth of whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations] and clearly spells out the revelation [which comes] - let there be no doubt about it - from the Sustainer of all the worlds.
And yet, they [who are bent on denying the truth] assert, "[Muhammad] has invented it!"
‘The above passage has a twofold significance: firstly, the wisdom inherent in the Qur'an precludes any possibility of its having been composed by a human being; and, secondly, the Qur'anic message is meant to confirm, and give a final formulation to, the eternal truths which have been conveyed to man through a long succession of prophets: truths which have subsequently been obscured through wrong interpretation, deliberate omissions or interpolations, or a partial or even total loss of the original texts.
For an explanation of the phrase ma bayna yadayhi, rendered by me in this context as "whatever there still remains [of earlier revelations]", see surah 3, note 3.’
I have reproduced Asad’s note here:
3. Most of the commentators are of the opinion that ma bayna yadayhi - lit., "that which is between its hands" - denotes here "the revelations which came before it", i.e., before the Qur'an. This interpretation is not, however, entirely convincing. Although there is 71
not the least doubt that in this context the pronominal ma refers to earlier revelations, and particularly the Bible (as is evident from the parallel use of the above expression in other Qur'anic passages), the idiomatic phrase ma bayna yadayhi does not, in itself, mean "that which came before it" - i.e., in time - but, rather (as pointed out by me in surah 2, note 247), "that which lies open before it". Since, however, the pronoun "it" relates here to the Qur'an, the metaphorical expression "between its hands" or "before it" cannot possibly refer to "knowledge" (as it does in 2:255), but must obviously refer to an objective reality with which the Qur'an is "confronted": that is, something that was coexistent in time with the revelation of the Qur'an.
Now this, taken together (a) with the fact - frequently stressed in the Qur'an and since established by objective scholarship - that in the course of the millennia the Bible has been subjected to considerable and often arbitrary alteration, and (b) with the fact that many of the laws enunciated in the Qur'an differ from the laws of the Bible, brings us forcibly to the conclusion that the "confirmation" of the latter by the Qur'an can refer only to the basic truths still discernible in the Bible, and not to its time-bound legislation or to its present text - in other words, a confirmation of whatever was extant of its basic teachings at the time of the revelation of the Qur'an: and it is this that the phrase ma bayna yadayhi expresses in this context as well as in 5:46 and 48 or in 61:6 (where it refers to Jesus' confirming the truth of "whatever there still remained [i.e., in his lifetime] of the Torah").
9 An Extraordinary Convergence: Another Sign of the Quran’s Divine Origin?
Muslims have a highly developed polemic to suggest that the Qur’an is indeed the Word of God. Here are some typical examples of evidences put forward for the Quran's divine origin:
The man who received the Revelation Muhammad was known for his sincerity and integrity, such that even his enemies called him al-Amin (the trustworthy). He was persecuted, resisted offers to compromise, and steadfastly maintained his message for over twenty-three years. He died with very few material possessions having given away all his belongings to those in need. Historians have to conclude that he was sincere.
It is an extraordinary fact that the Qur’an speaks to the prophet, commands him, and even criticizes him. This is not consistent with the idea of Muhammad as the self-conscious author. The Author declares himself to be the Creator of the Heavens and the earth.
The Qur’an mentions a wide variety of physical phenomena to teach mankind lessons. The statements are not intended to teach science. Yet modern scientists are amazed at the accuracy of these statements. For example, the Qur’an says things about development of the human embryo which remain accurate today. So it would have been impossible for a man in the seventh century to have known these facts with certainty. These and many other arguments together suggest a strong case for the divine origin of the Quran.
But I have always been impressed by the extraordinary convergence of the Quranic teaching about the status and role of Jesus and the majority view of western New 73
Testament scholars on the same issue. Unless the Quran has a divine origin how can we explain the remarkable agreement between those historians whose life work is to uncover the truth about the historical Jesus with the Quranic statements about his status, role and teaching? Was Muhammad just very lucky to get it right, just as he was most fortunate in his understanding the evolution of the embryo and spot on concerning the physical origins of the universe?
Is this extraordinary convergence yet another sign of the Quran’s divine origin? Let us explore this in more detail.
Who was Jesus of Nazareth? This is the title of the final chapter of Professor Graham Stanton’s critically acclaimed book The Gospels and Jesus, Oxford University Press, 2002. I reproduce here the last two paragraphs:
‘The key to the story is the ending. Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the last time not simply in order to ‘minister’ to its inhabitants. He went to Jerusalem in order to confront the religiopolitical establishment with his claim that the kingdom of God was at hand. On the basis of his convictions about the presence, power, and will of God, Jesus called for a reordering of Israel’s priorities. In that sense he sought the renewal of Judaism. Renewal movements generally involve a the discovery of basic principles and a call for loyalty to an inherited tradition. The ‘Jesus movement’ was no exception. In due course what Jesus and his followers intended as a ‘recall to basics‘ led to the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism – but that is another story.
Jesus certainly did not intend to found a new religion. He did not repudiate Scripture, though on occasion he emphasized some Scriptural principles at the expense of others. 74
With a few rare exceptions he did not call in question the law of Moses. But he did challenge established conventions and priorities. Jesus believed that he had been sent by God as a prophet to declare authoritatively the will of God for his people: acceptance or rejection of him and his message was equivalent to acceptance or rejection of God.’
Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus pp.269-270, Oxford University Press, 2002, (emphasis mine). Graham Stanton (1940 – 2009) was Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University.
Now compare and contrast this with what Jesus says in the Quran about his ministry:
“He [Jesus] said: ‘I am indeed a servant of God. He has given me revelation and made me a prophet; (19:30)
‘He [God] will send him as a messenger to the Children of Israel’ (3:49)
‘I have come to confirm the truth of the Torah which preceded me, and to make some things lawful to you which used to be forbidden.’ (3:50)
“When Jesus came with Clear Signs, he said: ‘Now I have come to you with Wisdom, and in order to make clear to you some of the (points) on which you dispute. Therefore, fear God and obey me. God, He is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him — this is a Straight Way.’ But sects from among themselves fell into disagreement. So woe to the wrongdoers, from the penalty of a Grievous Day!” (43:63-65)
“And behold! God will say [i.e. on the Day of Judgment]: ‘Oh Jesus, the son of Mary! Did you say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, You would indeed have known it. You know what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Yours. For You know in full all that is hidden. Never did I say to them anything except what You commanded me to say: ‘Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ And I was a witness over them while I lived among them. When You took me up, You were the Watcher over them, and You are a witness to all things’” (5:116-117).
This extraordinary convergence of the Quranic teaching about the status and role of Jesus and the majority view of western New Testament scholars deserves to be much more widely known and merits further research by Muslims and Christians.
Further evidence of an extraordinary convergence: Jesus, the Law and The Qur’an
Certain early Christians claimed that Jesus abolished the Torah with its commandments. One such individual was Paul of Tarsus 31, who never met Jesus during the latter’s lifetime. In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians he writes:
‘He [Jesus] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances’ (2:15) In his Letter to the Romans Paul told the Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike) that: ‘We are discharged from the Law’ (7:6)
Paul, from the city of of Tarsus in what is now Turkey was born early in the ﬁrst century A.D. or late in the last century B.C. in a Greek-speaking area of the Roman Empire. Paul was executed in Rome, under Nero, in about A.D. 67. On his way to Damascus in Syria he experienced a “vision” (as he called it) of Jesus. He also wrote a large part of the New Testament. He never met Jesus.
Significantly, other Christians claimed that Jesus taught precisely the opposite: that the Law was valid in all its details. Matthew in his gospel attributes this view to Jesus. Jesus is quoted as saying that no one should think he came to abolish the law, since he did not come to abolish but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Most Christians in my experience then ignore what Jesus is alleged to have said in the immediately following verses where Jesus insists on obedience to every commandment in the Torah:
‘Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:19)
Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry Matthew quotes Jesus as saying:
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.’ (Matthew 23:2-3)
So according to this teaching, every commandment in the Torah is still to be followed, even the ‘least’. But confusingly Matthew has Jesus cancel some Torah laws. In Matthew 5:31 Jesus cancels the law about divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 and issues new regulation to replace it.
There is a third possible explanation available however: to be found in the teaching of Jesus in the Quran and in Graham Stanton’s study of the historical Jesus. As we have seen above Stanton concludes:
‘With a few rare exceptions he did not call in question the law of Moses. He did not repudiate Scripture, though on occasion he emphasized some Scriptural principles at the expense of others.’
Compare this with the Quran:
‘I have come to confirm the truth of the Torah which preceded me, and to make some things lawful to you which used to be forbidden.’
So Jesus did not abolish the Law as Paul erroneously claimed (recall that Paul never met Jesus during his ministry) and neither did Jesus teach his disciples to obey even the smallest commandment of the Torah as Matthew erroneously portrays Jesus as doing (it is relevant to note that most New Testament scholars do not think that Matthew’s gospel is an eye-witness account).
The truth is somewhere in between and is to be found in the remarkable convergence between the best New Testament scholarship (represented by moderate mainstream western scholars such as Stanton) and the teaching of God Himself in the Qur’an.
Some readers might harbor the suspicion that Stanton is a lone voice among the cream of New Testament scholars. So let us take note of another prestigious scholarly work, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) which is recommended by The Church Times:
‘It can be confidently recommended as the one-volume critical exegetical commentary of the Bible‘
In its commentary on Matthew 5: 17-20 the NJBC states,
‘The problem arises because the plain sense of the words is that Jesus affirms the abiding validity of the Torah; but this contradicts Paul. There are contradictions within the NT on penultimate matters. Matthew 5:17-20 was written ‘against the Hellenizing Christians, particularly Paul and his followers’. p.641.
Concerning verses 17, 19 and 20, it notes that these
‘Reflect the outlook of Jewish Christianity, which, as a separate movement, was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out, perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam.’ p. 641.
This last quote is a remarkable acknowledgment that Islam has much in common with the practice of Christians in the first century.
Muslims will not be surprised that the Quran gets it just about right, and some may wonder if this extraordinary convergence is yet another Sign of the Quran’s Divine origin.
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.’ 79
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 for instance, which contradicts Islam. Some may argue that you are cherry picking.’
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‘ 32
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.’
JDG Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, p32.
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 a simple repentance to God – without a mediator – which is what Islam teaches too, see Matthew 5-7 ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ for example).
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 81
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 Dosa33, Apollonius of Tyana 34 – 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
Hanina ben Dosa (1st century, CE) was a scholar and miracle-worker.
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.
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.”35
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 al,l 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.’
From Bart Erhman Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).
Surat ‘Āli `Imrān 3:7
9 Did Jesus claim to be the Creator of the universe?
Did Jesus claim to be the Creator of the universe? The short and incontrovertible answer is No! The fact that later generations of Christians came to believe that Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’ (as stated in the Nicean Creed) is therefore in need of some explanation.
In this chapter I will look at two historical phenomena which I hope will give us some understanding of this development. They are: i) the traditional Christian belief that to confess Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ is to confess his deity, and to say that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ means and always meant that Jesus is the pre-existent, second person of the Trinity, who ‘for us men, and our salvation, became incarnate’.
ii) An illuminating historical parallel to the divinisation of Jesus: the divinisation of the Buddha +++ i) The New Testament (NT) calls Jesus ‘the Son of God’. But what does this mean? It is important, if we wish to adopt an historical approach (and most Christians do not), to discover the significance of words and ideas in their original language, as the original speakers meant the original listeners to understand them. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, and spoken by most Palestinian Jews. Jesus’ Aramaic teaching (except for a dozen words that are still found in the gospels) has not been preserved. In the years after Jesus was taken up to God, the early church spread quickly in the Greek-speaking (i.e. non-Jewish) world, and the gospels and letters that came to comprise the NT were all written down in Greek. It is important to grasp that this Greek NT is a ‘translation’ of the original thoughts and ideas of the Aramaic thinking and speaking Jesus, a translation not just into a totally different language but also a transplantation of the thought of the gospels into an utterly alien cultural and religious environment of the pagan Graeco-Roman world.
To discover the authentic teaching of Jesus, and what others believed about him, it is therefore necessary to be alert to any changes or developments in meaning arising from the transmission of ideas through the channel of Hellenistic 36 culture. Therefore, when we examine the term “son of God” in its original ‘context of meaning’ we make an interesting discovery. In the Jewish Bible the phrase the “son of God” is always used figuratively as a metaphor for an obedient man of God, whereas in Greek addressed to Gentile Christians, brought up in a religious culture filled with gods, sons of gods and demigods, the NT expression tended to be understood literally as ‘Son of God’ (with a capital letter): in other words as someone possessing the same nature as God. In the fourth century the Catholic Church officially endorsed this new Hellenistic idea at the Council of Nicea: Jesus was declared (by a majority vote!) to be of the same ‘substance’ or ‘nature’ (the Greek word used was ‘ousia’) as the Deity. Pagan philosophy triumphed over the Jewish understanding of God. The same transformation, or rather deformation of meaning occurred to another key term: ‘Lord‘. According to the gospels the title ‘lord’ (Greek: Kyrios κύριος) was regularly used as an address to Jesus during his ministry. In its Aramaic context it was synonymous with ‘teacher’(mari). So the title designated a human being.37 Later generations of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians would completely alter this meaning: the Aramaic definition of ‘Lord’ (= teacher), became confused for the title of God himself: the Lord your God. Hence Jesus, the teacher, becomes Jesus the Lord your God. As noted NT scholar James Dunn comments, expressing the consensus view of New Testament scholars (including NT Wright who is much beloved of evangelicals),
postclassical Greek history and culture from the death of Alexander the Great.
However, the Greek word Lord (Kyrios) is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. There it designates ‘God’.
The history of this confession of Jesus as Lord in earliest Christianity largely revolves round the question, How significant is the application of this title to Jesus? What role or status does this confession attribute to Jesus or recognise as belonging to Jesus?…The problem is that ‘lord’ can denote a whole range of dignity – from a respectful form of address as to a teacher or judge to a full title for God. Where do the early Christian references to the lordship of Jesus come within this spectrum? The answer seems to be that over the first few decades of Christianity the confession of Jesus as ‘Lord’ moved in overt significance from the lower end of the ‘spectrum of dignity’ towards the upper end steadily gathering to itself increasing overtones of deity. We need not doubt that the Aramaic mari underlies the Greek kyrie (vocative)…Mar was used of the first century BC holy man Abba Hilkiah, presumably in recognition of the charismatic powers attributed to him. Moreover, ‘lord’ was largely synonymous with ‘teacher’ at the time of Jesus, and Jesus was certainly recognised to have the authority of a rabbi or teacher (Mark 9:5 etc). We can therefore say that the confession of Jesus as Lord was rooted within the ministry of Jesus to the extent that he was widely acknowledged to exercise the authority of a (charismatic) teacher and healer (cf. Mark 1:22,27). Whether ‘Lord’ already had a higher significance for Jesus himself during his ministry depends on how we evaluate Mark 12:35-37: ‘While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
‘ “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand Until I put your enemies Under your feet.”‘ David himself calls him “Lord”. How then can he be his son?’ Even if it contains an authentic word of the historical Jesus (as is quite possible) it need only mean that he understood Messiah to be a figure superior to David in significance and specially favoured by Yahweh. It does not necessarily imply that he thought the Messiah was a divine figure (Psalm 110 after all probably referred to the king). From: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity pp.53-54. So Dunn recognises that the title ‘lord’ originally denoted a human being. As the term began to be used in pagan contexts as the Gentile mission spread, where it was well established as a title for the cult deity in the mystery religions (especially Isis and Serapis), and also in Emperor worship - ‘Caesar is Lord’ - it becomes clear that a radical alteration of the meaning of the term occurred. Above all, St Paul advanced this change in meaning quite deliberately. He uses Old Testament texts that speak of Yahweh and applies them to Jesus (e.g. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 10:13). For Paul, it appears that ‘Lord Jesus’ had become a title of divinity. In a profound sense, Paul founded the religion of Christianity we know today. The son of man In the Greek New Testament "the son of man" is invariably rendered as "ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου" with a definite article. Strangely, the title (if it is a title) has never been part of the Christian creed. There is much debate amongst NT scholars about the meaning of this 88
phrase and there is no consensus as to its significance for Jesus himself or how the gospel writers understood the term. As time passed the phrase (used exclusively by Jesus to describe himself) came to denote Jesus’ humanity in contrast to his divinity. So in the thought of second century Catholic theologian Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), the term ‘Son of God’ is declared as interchangeable with ‘God the Son’. Most Christians today, blissfully unaware of the historical transmutation of meaning of these words, still think this way. The term ‘son of man’ is a storm centre of New Testament scholarship, and the debate is quite technical. There is no consensus as to its meaning for Jesus or the Judaism of his day. James D.G. Dunn in his magisterial survey of the issue in Christology in the Making gives his considered view: the ‘thought of the Son of Man as a pre-existent heavenly figure [Dunn has Daniel chapter 7 in mind] does not seem to have emerged in Jewish or Christian circles before the last decades of the first century AD’ (p 96). I refer readers to the discussion in Dunn’s book and also The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes, chapter 7, ‘Son of Man sayings’. A popular new evangelistic course in the UK called ‘Christianity Explored’ provides participants with an introductory book about Jesus. It runs courses all over the English speaking world. The course is unashamedly conservative evangelical in theology, and adopts a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. It repeats the claim that the terms ‘son of God’ and ‘God the Son’ are simply interchangeable titles. It saddens me that sincere seekers after spiritual truth are being misled into an uncritical fundamentalism, or far worse, the blasphemous worship of the Messiah. It is salutary to recall that Jesus is reported to have said in Mark’s Gospel, Why do you call me good? No-one is good – except God alone.
The perils of failing to ask the following simple question are incalculable: what would those who first used this language about Jesus expect their hearers and readers to understand by the phrase? (Dunn, Christology, p.13). The answers, detailed in this book, will show that Christians need to re-evaluate their understanding of who Jesus was. If Christians would undertake this difficult but necessary task, they will find that the results will bear a striking resemblance to the Jesus of the Qur’an, and that the two great faiths would be in substantial agreement. ii) We can see a comparable religious impulse behind this startling divinisation of Jesus by looking at some developments in India at about the same time. The Buddha had died at the end of the sixth century BCE. A deep love developed for him and a need to contemplate his enlightened humanity became so strong that in the first century BCE the first statues of the Buddha appeared in NW India. Buddhist spirituality became focused on the image of the Buddha, enshrined in statues, despite devotion to a being outside of the self being quite different to the interior discipline advocated by the Buddha himself. Devotion to Jesus arose in a similar way, in disregard of his clear teaching about wholehearted love of God and neighbour. As the Gospels unmistakably demonstrate, Jesus invited people to turn in heartfelt repentance and obedience to God, never to himself. Later Christians inverted Jesus’ message by announcing the worship of the proclaimer himself rather than the God he proclaimed. Recent studies have demonstrated the extraordinary convergence between the historical picture of Jesus produced by many biblical scholars and the Jesus of the Qur’an. This similarity has not gone unnoticed in two significant recent works by New Testament scholars which were published in the last twelve months. Both celebrate this remarkable correspondence. Jeffrey J. Butz, is Professor of World Religions at Penn State University and an ordained Lutheran Minister. His book is entitled The Brother of Jesus & the Lost 90
Teachings of Christianity. I highly recommend this book. The other work is by James D Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. His book The Jesus Dynasty (published by HarperElement 2006) is a study of Jesus and the New Testament. His comments are a fitting conclusion to this chapter: ‘Muslims do not worship Jesus, who is known as Isa in Arabic, nor do they consider him divine, but they do believe that he was a prophet or messenger of God and he is called the Messiah in the Qur’an. However, by affirming Jesus as Messiah they are attesting to his messianic message, not his mission as a heavenly Christ. There are some rather striking connections between the research I have presented in The Jesus Dynasty and the traditional beliefs of Islam. The Muslim emphasis on Jesus as messianic prophet and teacher is quite parallel to what we find in the Q source, in the book of James, and in the Didache. To be the Messiah is to proclaim a message, but it is the same message as that proclaimed by Abraham, Moses and all the Prophets. Islam insists that neither Jesus nor Muhammad brought a new religion. Both sought to call people back to what might be called “Abrahamic faith.” This is precisely what we find emphasised in the book of James. Like Islam, the book of James, and the teaching of Jesus in Q, emphasise doing the will of God as a demonstration of one’s faith. Also, the dietary laws of Islam, as quoted in the Qur’an, echo the teaching of James in Acts 15 almost word for word: “Abstain from swine flesh, blood, things offered to idols, and carrion” (Qur’an 2:172). The Christianity we know from the Q source, from the letter of James, from the Didache, and some of our other surviving Jewish-Christian sources, represents a version of the Jesus faith that can actually unite, rather than divide, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. If nothing else, the insights revealed through an understanding of the Jesus dynasty can open wide new and fruitful doors of dialogue and understanding among these three great 91
traditions that have in the past considered their views of Jesus to be so sharply contradictory as to close off discussion.’ (pp. 287-288) ***
10 The Apotheosis 38 of Jesus of Nazareth
‘We believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man...’ These extraordinary words express the faith of the Christian church since it formulated them in a creed in 325AD at the Council of Nicea. Jesus is identified unequivocally as “very God” of “very God”, of the same substance as the Father. In a word, Jesus is God. However, unknown to the vast majority of Christians who faithfully fill the pews each week, since the nineteen century, historians of the Bible have attempted to look afresh at the person of Jesus of Nazareth to see what his life signified to those first century writers who wrote the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For the purposes of this study I want to focus on one aspect of this ongoing enquiry into Christian origins: the earliest recoverable christology. By which I mean the study of those beliefs held (as far as we can now determine) about Jesus of Nazareth by his immediate followers; those whose lives chronologically overlapped with that of Jesus but who never
Exaltation to divine rank or stature; deiﬁcation.
met him (e.g. the apostle Paul); and the beliefs of the evangelists 39 who composed our four gospels. As we have seen above 40 it is clear that there has been a development in the way Jesus is presented in the pages of the New Testament. Even a cursory reading of the earliest gospel to be written, that of Mark, shows us a very human figure, a man who prays to God (Mark 1:35); is unable to work miracles in his own town (Mark 6:5); confesses ignorance about the date of the End of the world (Mark 13:32); and who apparently despairs of God’s help at the crucifixion (Mark 15:34). If we then read the chronologically last of the four gospels, that of John, we move into a different world. Here Jesus seems to move effortlessly through his ministry, who is clearly portrayed as a divine figure, indeed as “God” himself. The creed quoted above finds a familiar echo in the prologue to John’s gospel. Chapter one, verse 14 ranks as a classic formulation of the Christian belief in Jesus as God incarnate: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. So even this brief survey has shown the enormous development which occurred in less than two generations after Jesus was taken up to God. I believe it is now possible to pinpoint one instance in the synoptic gospels 41 where we can actually witness the writer’s intentional elevation of Jesus from a man into a divine being. We can observe in one small but significant instance the remarkable apotheosis of Jesus.1 I do not claim that this example explains but a small fraction of the theological movement that lead ultimately to the Nicaean creed. In fact a large part of the Trinitarian doctrine was initiated in embryonic form by the apostle Paul in the 40s and 50s of the first century.
39 40 41
The Evangelists are the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. See chapter 5
The synoptic gospels: ‘The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which narrate so many of the same stories that they can be placed side by side in parallel columns and so can “be seen together” (the literal meaning of “synoptic”).’ From the glossary in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart. D. Ehrman.
James D.G. Dunn perhaps more than any other scholar has made truly significant contributions to Jesus research. His book Christology in the Making, a New Testament Inquiry into the Origins the Doctrine of the Incarnation is vital reading for the student of Christology. In his Forward to the Second Edition of the book (p xii) he asks whether the Christological development to be found in the NT is either an organic development (tree from seed) or an evolutionary development (mutation of species)? It will be clear to the reader that I believe it is the latter. I will consider this in more detail in my conclusion at the end. Let us now survey the evidence. 1. Preamble Edward Schweizer in an article published in 1959 stated: “The idea of the pre-existence of Jesus came to Paul through Wisdom speculation.”2 He further concluded that in the expression “God sent his Son, to…” which is common to Paul and John one finds “a christology which seeks to grasp Jesus in the categories of the pre-existent Wisdom or Logos.”3 Turning to the Synoptic gospels we find that “Jesus appears as bearer or speaker of Wisdom, but much more than that as Wisdom itself. As pre-existent Wisdom Jesus Sophia…”4 In this article I intend to focus exclusively on the synoptic gospels and their formulation and development of Wisdom christology. To my knowledge, the most thorough study to date on this subject is to found in the work of Dunn in Christology in the Making, A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation5. I have relied on his exegesis
and survey of the Wisdom literature in my analysis of the subject. The conclusions though are mine. 2. Wisdom in Pre-Christian Judaism To get our inquiry going we must ask who or what was this Wisdom whose functions and descriptions are attributed to Christ in the New Testament? To get an answer we need to inquire into the meaning of this concept in those Second Temple Jewish texts before the rise of Christianity. This will provide us with a historical “context of meaning” with which to evaluate NT texts. The central passages can be found in Job 28, Proverbs 8 22-31, Ecclesiasticus 24, Baruch 3.9-4.4, Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-11.1, 1 Enoch 42 and various references to Wisdom in Philo. So who or what is Wisdom in this literature? Dunn lists a summary of the current options in what he calls “a still unresolved debate”.6 The main options are as follows: a) Wisdom is a divine being, as parallels in Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts b) Wisdom is a hypostasis – i.e. a “quasi-personification of certain attributes proper to God, occupying an intermediate position between personalities and abstract beings”7 c) Wisdom is simply a personification of a divine attribute d) Wisdom is the personification of cosmic order (for example the Stoic42 language of Wisdom of Solomon) So, if we are to answer with any historical precision the question ‘What did it mean that the first Christians identified Christ as Wisdom?’ we must come to a decision from the list of
a school of philosophy founded in the 5th century BC by Zeno, who taught that people should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity.
options as to which is the best interpretation of these Old Testament and inter-testamental passages. When these passages are considered in chronological order we see a development in the concept of Wisdom. Dunn sees this as ‘due in large part to the influence (positive and negative) of religious cults and philosophies prevalent in the ancient near east at that time’ [on Judaism]. “Job 28: Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold which they refine…But where shall wisdom be found?” Clearly there is no personification here or wisdom as a divine attribute. Von Rad describes it as “the order given to the world by God”.8 In Proverbs 8 Wisdom is robustly personified as a woman: ‘Does not wisdom call out? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand…she cries out aloud’. Dunn sees talk of Wisdom as a woman as an attempt to counteract the pernicious influences of the Astarte43 cult by portraying Wisdom as much more attractive than the ‘strange woman’ he warns against in Proverbs 2, 5, 6, and 7. Wisdom in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon is the personification of cosmic order She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well (8.1);[Wisdom, who] sits besides God’s throne (9.4). Stoic thought about cosmic reason is particularly evident in 7.22ff.: intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile,… For wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
Astart is mentioned in the Jewish Bible as a goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature.
because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. Dunn concludes his in-depth survey of the Jewish literature with the view that no worship is ever offered to Wisdom; Wisdom has no priestly cast in Israel. “When set within the context of faith in Yahweh 44 there is no clear indication that the Wisdom language of these writings has gone beyond vivid personification.”9 “The wisdom passages are simply ways of describing Yahweh’s wise creation and purpose”.10 Second Temple Judaism therefore, as far as the textual evidence goes, suggests that there was no thought of Wisdom as a “hypostasis”11 or “intermediary being”. Wisdom, like the name, the glory, the Spirit of Yahweh, was a way of expressing God’s immanence, his nearness to the world, his concern for Israel; while simultaneously conserving his utter otherness, his transcendence. Wisdom was a personification of God’s own activity in creation, revelation and salvation. This is important to bear in mind as we consider the synoptic gospels use of Wisdom language in reference to Jesus. 3. Q and the Contrasting Redactions of Matthew and Luke What is Q? The Q document (or just “Q” from the German Quelle, “source”) is a postulated but now lost textual source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The recognition of 19th century NT scholars that Matthew and Luke share much material not found in their generally recognised common source, the gospel of Mark, has
Yahweh: the Hebrew proper name of the Deity, formally rendered in English as ‘Jehovah’ (deﬁnition from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
suggested a second common source, called Q. It seems most likely to have comprised a collection of Jesus sayings. 12 The contrasting redactions of Matthew and Luke Having briefly discussed the nature of Jewish Wisdom language I now want to analyse how the synoptic gospels utilise such language in their redaction of the Q logia45, and why this is so significant for our understanding of the historical Jesus and how later generations came to portray him. I want to focus on Matthew chapter 23 and the parallel passages in Luke. In this chapter Matthew seems to identify Jesus as Wisdom. He does this by editing the Q material at his disposal. It is possible, by a comparison with Luke, to demonstrate how this was done. Dunn gives us several examples of this redaction but I want to focus on one, partly for simplicity’s sake but also because my example most clearly demonstrates this fact. (It might prove helpful for the reader to read these quotations in their larger gospel context). Luke 11.49: Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute’… Matt. 23.34: (Jesus’ words) ‘Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town…’ Here we have a Q saying. I would argue that Luke’s version is nearer to the original Q form, because it is more probable that Luke’s Wisdom utterance: ‘I will send them…’ is more likely to be the original than that he deliberately altered a precious first person saying of Jesus: ‘I send you…’
In New Testament studies the term ‘logia’ (Greek: ‘λόγια’, sayings, utterances, oracles) is a term applied to the sayings attributed to Jesus.
So in Q we have Jesus quoting a saying of Wisdom where she promises to send emissaries to Israel, and Jesus is the spokesman of Wisdom. So much is clear. When we turn to Matthew’s redaction of Q, he has turned the saying of Wisdom into a saying of Jesus himself. For Matthew, Jesus is Wisdom. How are we to assess the significance of Matthew’s Wisdom christology? The synoptic tradition allows us to see the changing thought of Christians in the first century. We are fortunate to be able to compare and contrast Matthew and Luke with their sources Mark and Q. With close and intelligent attention to the texts we can detect where Matthew and Luke have altered or expanded the traditions about Jesus. Not all changes to Mark and Q are theologically significant. Sometimes the evangelists abbreviate a longer story in Mark, or retell a story about Jesus to bring out a particular dramatic point. Here however I want to argue that the evangelist in his redaction of Q (here and else where, see Matthew 11.25-30; 23-37-9) has made a move of incalculable theological significance the gravity of which is not sufficiently recognised by Dunn in his otherwise perceptive discussion of the issue. I refer of course to the beginnings of the apotheosis of Jesus implicit in Matthew’s narrative. I want to provide a snapshot of this metamorphosis. Dunn’s characterisation of this transformation as a “transition” is too weak; we are dealing with something of profound theological significance.13 4. Christ as Wisdom in Matthew’s Gospel and the Apotheosis of Jesus of Nazareth Mathew, without any apparent fanfare has made a change in Jesus’ ontological46 status from Jesus as a messenger of Wisdom to Jesus as Wisdom. Historically one may
Ontology: relating to essence or the nature of being
postulate that this opened up the possibilities for a subtle deification of Jesus, which becomes explicit in the chronologically later parts of the NT (the prologue to John’s gospel comes to mind). This means that we have a fundamental shift away from the historical Jesus of Nazareth towards the Trinitarian speculations of the patristic47 era. As Dunn concludes, “when we press back behind Q, insofar as we reach back to the actual words of Jesus himself, the probability is that Jesus’ own understanding of his relation to Wisdom is represented by Q rather than by Matthew.”14 If the gospel was written after 70 CE (according to the consensus of scholars), the outbreak of hostility between rabbinic Judaism and Jewish Christianity which occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 (which is implied by Matthew 23) may have been provoked by what to Jewish monotheistic ears trained to value the unity of the Godhead, must have sounded like the rankest blasphemy in attributing deity to a creature. 5. Conclusion It will be apparent from this analysis that at least one writer known to us many years after Jesus’ ascension, by his deliberate editing of the gospel sayings of Jesus, took a completely new step: he applied Wisdom categories that had previously dramatised God’s saving actions in the world to a man who lived only decades earlier. The most sophisticated attempt known to me to save orthodox Christian teaching in the face of early Christianity’s changing doctrines about Jesus is to be found in the celebrated Victorian churchman John Henry Newman. He was concerned to defend the truth of Catholic teaching about Jesus against historical evidence suggesting that the dogma of the deity of Christ was not church teaching till centuries after Jesus’ time. He wrote a highly influential work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
relating to the Fathers (theologians, bishops) of the early Christian Church, their writings
It was composed in 1845, when Newman was halting midway between two forms of Christianity. Its aim was to explain and justify what Protestants regarded as corruptions and additions to the primitive Christian creed, and to show these to be legitimate developments. In a series of eloquent and erudite analogies, he seeks to show that the present highly complex doctrines of the Church lay in embryonic form in the original deposit of faith, which then evolved or unfolded through later clarification and reflection to give us the Catholic doctrines we have today. 15 Newman was writing at a time when Victorian England was coming to terms with the notion of development in history and science. The idea of evolutionary change was part of the zeitgeist48, and soon Darwin would publish his monumental Origin of Species. But was Newman right? Did the church’s developing doctrines about Jesus simply make explicit what had been implicit in the truth about Jesus? Could one still credibly believe that Jesus believed himself to be Almighty God as the Nicaean Creed suggests? Would Jesus himself be content with what the church has done with his memory and teaching? In answer to these questions I would like to leave the last word to the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, who has spent over 50 years of scholarly activity studying Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament and Jesus. By the end of the first century Christianity had lost sight of the real Jesus and of the original meaning of his message. Paul, John and their churches replaced him by the otherworldly Christ of faith, and his insistence on personal effort, concentration and trust in God by a reliance on the saving merits of an eternal, divine Redeemer. The swiftness of the obliteration was due to a premature change in cultural perspective. Within decades of his death, the message of the real Jesus was transferred from its Semitic (Aramaic/
the spirit of the age; its ‘common sense’
Hebrew) linguistic context, its Galilean/Palestinian geographical setting, and its Jewish religious framework, to alien surroundings…Jesus, the religious man with an irresistible charismatic charm, was metamorphosed into Jesus the Christ, the transcendent object of the Christian religion. The distant fiery prophet from Nazareth proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God did not mean much to the average new recruit from Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth or Rome. Their gaze was directed towards a universal saviour and even towards the eternal yet incarnate Word of God who was God.16 A Further Thought At the end of the day the considerations of this chapter do not exist in a vacuum. If I am broadly on target in my analysis then this matters profoundly. In the arena of the world’s religions, claim and counter claim about religious truth calls each of us to respond thoughtfully and with courage. If orthodox Christianity, the Christianity of the Trinitarian creeds, is now shown to be too radically discontinuous with the historical flesh and blood Jesus who walked the streets of Jerusalem 2000 years ago, then we are obliged to look elsewhere for unadulterated revelation. Someone once asked the noted English Muslim writer Gai Eaton why there is no historical criticism of the Qur’an as there is of the Bible. He answered: There is a misunderstanding: the Bible is made up of many different parts, compiled over many centuries and it is possible to cast doubt upon one part without impugning the rest; whereas the Qur’an is a single revelation, received by just one man, either you accept it for what it claims to be, in which case you are a Muslim or you reject this claim, and so place yourself outside the fold of Islam.17 102
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
Apotheosis: elevating to the status of a god; deification Schweizer, Herkunft, p.109 Schweizer, ‘Hintergrund, p. 92 F. Christ, Jesus Sophia, pp.80, 99 Second Edition, 1989, SCM Press Ibid., p.168 Ibid., p.168 Von Rad, Wisdom, p.148 Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 170
10. Ibid., p.174 11. Hypostasis: having being, substance 12. For further information and links go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_document 13. Ontology: concerned with the nature of being 14. Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 206 15. Harrold, Charles F., A Newman Treasury, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1943, pp.83-84 16. Geza Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus, Penguin, 2000, p. 263 17. Gai Eaton has written some of the most acclaimed books about Islam in the English language. Particularly recommended is Islam and the Destiny of Man.
10 Conclusion: Christology, Some New Perspectives for Dawah
‘At a glance’ chronological and thematic summary of the 4 gospels
The Gospel of Matthew written around 80-85 AD. Author unknown. Used Mark, Q and other material. Portrays Jesus as the new Moses who gives his disciples the true 105
interpretation of the Mosaic Law and expects his disciples to keep it. The first book of the New Testament.
The Gospel of Mark written around 65-70 AD. Anonymous Greek-speaking Christian. The writer portrays Jesus as completely misunderstood by nearly everybody he encounters (compare Matthew). The first gospel to be written. The resurrection narrative in chapter 16 is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts, though it is still included in modern Bibles.
The Gospel of Luke written around 80-85 AD. Probably by a Greek-speaking Christian and companion of Paul. He uses Mark, Q and other sources to compile his gospel. Jesus is portrayed as a prophet and his teaching about God, salvation and sin is very similar to the prophets of the Jewish Bible (and very similar to that of Muhammad, the last prophet of God). Unlike Mark, Luke does not share the view that Jesus death was an atoning sacrifice for sin. (Mark’s striking statement that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ in Mark 10:45 is deleted by Luke who clearly rejects such a view - in abhorrence to the idea of human sacrifice perhaps?). Any verses that suggest such an understanding in Mark are removed by Luke and Jesus dies a righteous martyr, rejected by God’s people. Simple repentance to God will bring forgiveness of sins (see Luke 15).
The Gospel of John written 90-95 AD. The last canonical gospel to be written. Traditionally believed to be by John the son of Zebedee, but most scholars doubt this today. In many ways quite different to the synoptic gospels: Jesus is portrayed as the preexistent divine Son who utters the famous ‘I am’ sayings unique to this gospel. Most scholars consider these sayings to be the literary creation of the gospel writer. The gospel 106
has proved to be enormously influential on Christian thought about Jesus and provided the Christological foundation of the later Church’s creedal statements about Jesus. It is central to much evangelical preaching today. ***
The Religion of Jesus vs the Religion about Jesus: discussion and key texts
Examples of the Religion of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels
Luke 18: “Today salvation has come to this house”.
The significance of this passage lies in Jesus’ declaration of the availability of salvation “today”, long before his alleged death for man’s sins. NT scholars have long noticed that for Luke salvation and forgiveness of sin does not depend of Jesus’ atoning death. Rather, like an Old Testament prophet Jesus calls the people of Israel to sincere repentance and faith in the One God. Jesus as such is not the object of his proclamation, a fact that is curiously ignored by many Christians today. These Christians do not follow the religion of Jesus but the religion about Jesus. Luke 18 is a key text to understand Jesus’ soteriology:
‘He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,
‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 107
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said,
‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Note that the man received salvation that very day - not later as a result of Jesus’ alleged death on the cross.
Matthew 6: The Lord’s Prayer.
This famous prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to recite is recorded in two quite different forms in the gospels (Matt 6 and Luke 11), but the version always used by Christians today is found in Matthew chapter 6. Note particularly the petition for forgiveness from God:
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 108
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’
So Jesus teaches forgiveness is freely available from God if the repentant sinner asks for it on sole the condition that he forgive others who sin against him. Note the absence of any mention of the atoning death of Jesus. In the religion of Paul (see especially his Letter to the Romans chapter 3), forgiveness of sins is only available through faith in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. Again we see the stark contrast between the religion of Jesus vs the religion about Jesus. The reader is invited to reflect on whether the religion of Jesus or Paul’s religion about Jesus more closely resembles Islamic teaching as found in the Quran and hadith. In my view there is a demonstrable continuity between the teaching of Jesus on salvation, sin, forgiveness, and God, on the one hand, and the teaching of Islam on these same subjects on the other.
Mark chapter 1: John the baptist’s proclamation
‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of 109
Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.’
The implication is that people’s sins were forgiven through the ministry of the Baptist. Note again the absence of any mention of the atoning death of Jesus. I often share this passage with Christians. I ask them a simple question: were the peoples’ sins forgiven when they were baptized by John? Usually the penny drops and there is a long silent pause as they try to find an answer that does not render entirely redundant their belief in the necessity of Jesus atoning death! But the telling fact remains, that those who responded to the Baptist’s call were forgiven their sin. And Jesus had not even started his ministry at this point!
Luke 18: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector
This parable is one of my favourite gospel stories. It is elegantly concise and spiritually profound.
‘He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this taxcollector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified
rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
In beautiful simplicity Jesus teaches that people are made right with God, ‘justified’, by humbling themselves before God. Note the absence of any mention of the atoning death of Jesus. Again we see the stark contrast between the religion of Jesus vs the religion about Jesus which insists on Jesus’ death as a precondition for justification of the sinner. Contrast this parable with Paul’s view in Romans 3: 21-31. It is hard not to conclude that Jesus and Paul followed two quite different religions. Which of the two is closer to Islam I will let the reader ponder in his heart.
Luke 10: The Parable of the Good Samaritan
This beautiful story of universally famous for teaching the importance of compassion to the stranger, particularly to one who is not of our tribe or sect.
‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was 111
going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’’
What is often overlooked in the near universal appreciation of this parable is that for Jesus in Luke the equation was simple: Salvation = Love of God and Love of Neighbour. Note again the absence of any mention of the atoning death of Jesus.
Matthew 25: The Judgement of the Nations
Also known as The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, this famous scene is not really a parable at all. But for our purposes I want to draw attention to the how people are portrayed as being saved and how they are damned. What is the criteria that qualify a person for Heaven or hell? Is it faith in Jesus atoning death and resurrection sufficient as Paul believed? Read the passage and decide for yourself and ask what conclusions can we draw about how we gain entrance to heaven.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
So how are people brought into the kingdom? ‘Because I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
The sheep are puzzled because they don’t recall meeting Jesus, the Son of Man, let alone doing anything for him.
But he tells them, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, so you did it to me.” In other words, it is by caring for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned that they inherits God’s kingdom. The goats, on the other hand, are sent away to the “eternal fire that is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Why? Because unlike the sheep, they did not take care of the Son of Man when he needed help. They, too, are puzzled, because they don’t recall ever seeing Jesus. But they saw others in need and turned their backs on them: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, so you did not do it to me.” Matthew ends with this terrible conclusion: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
How do these words compare with Paul? His teaching is very different. Paul believed eternal life comes by believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s story of the sheep and the goats has salvation coming to people who have never even heard of
Jesus, to people who treat others with kindness and mercy. This is a very different view of how people are to be saved.
The Triumph of Paulism
In recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement the great British biographer A. N. Wilson reviews Tom Wright’s new book, Simply Jesus, Who he was, what he did, why it matters. Wright, now retired as Bishop of Durham, is currently professor of New Testament studies at St Andrews University. He has written over fifty books, nearly all of them concerned with Jesus and most with the question of reconstructing the first-century Palestinian Judaism from which Christianity sprang.
Wilson too is a committed Christian who nevertheless asks the right questions about the New Testament. It is his comments in the review that I want to share with readers.
‘A core issue must be: how do you get from the Galilean prophet (or whatever you think he was) to the Christ proclaimed in St Paul’s epistles, which were written some twenty years after Jesus’s lifetime? The problem for New Testament scholarship, which necessarily follows the matter chronologically, is framed slightly differently. Paul’s letters are the first Christian documents, and they reveal two things. First, that there is a lively cult of the Messiah among the fledgling gentile congregations of Asia Minor; second, in the Letter to 115
the Galatians, we discover that there is an all but irreconcilable rift between Paul and his gentile followers on the one hand, and, on the other, the Jerusalem “church”, which insisted that the followers of Jesus continue to observe Judaism with regard to the dietary laws, circumcision and so forth. Time passes, and what scholarship slowly realizes is that the Pauline, gentile “church” – destined to separate itself entirely from Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 – is also destined to rewrite history. The Jews protesting at Paul’s activities in Galatia in AD 51 are Trotsky sitting beneath the strutting figure of Lenin. They are about to be airbrushed out of the story. Only as the Ebionite sect does later history know, or guess, very much about those who took an entirely different view of Jesus from the one that developed as orthodoxy – with the definitions of the Councils of the Church, Christ’s status as Second Person of the Trinity, Christ as an incarnation of the godhead, and so forth.’
Spot on! Wilson highlights the early deep schism between Paul and his gentile followers on the one hand and James (head of the Jerusalem Church) on the other. Paul’s law free gospel which he claims to have received in a vision, eventually supplanted the original Torah observant gospel of Jesus, and a new religion was born which we today call ‘Christianity’, but which is in fact largely a Messiah cult established with brilliance and fanaticism by Paul of Tarsus, a man who never met Jesus! The 2nd century inheritors of the original Jerusalem disciples were vilified as heretics by a church which became ever more anti-semitic. The child turned on its parent in an unholy act of matricide. Only with the advent of Islam in the seventh century was the monotheistic faith of the original disciples recognised and restored.
As the prestigious New Jerome Biblical Commentary observes,
‘Jewish Christianity as a movement was eventually defeated by Paulinism and died out, perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam’ (page 641).
Was Jesus a Religious man?
‘We are so accustomed, and rightly, to make Jesus the object of religion that we become apt to forget that in our earliest records he is portrayed not as the object of religion, but as a religious man.’ The Teaching of Jesus, p. 101.
These words come from the pen of the late, great New Testament scholar TW Manson. The earliest evidence we now possess portrays Jesus as a deeply religious man whose ministry and teaching pointed unambiguously towards God and His Kingdom. Our earliest narratives show Jesus praying to his God, going on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and participating in synagogue worship on the Sabbath.
Truly, Jesus was a religious man. The Qur’an is a reminder of this fact and calls on Christians to the worship of the One true God whom Jesus worshiped - and to renounce the worship of Jesus.
The Most Embarrassing Verse in the Bible
When I was a committed Christian I enjoyed reading the incredibly well-written and absorbing books by CS Lewis. I don’t mean the The Chronicles of Narnia, those classic novels for children, but his theological works. He has rightly been acclaimed as the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century. My personal favourite is the famous The Screwtape Letters, a satirical novel written as a series of letters from a senior demon Screwtape to his nephew, a junior “tempter” named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British gent known only as “the Patient”.
Arguably the most important work of 20th century Christian apologetics is Mere Christianity, in which Lewis tries to avoid denominational controversies in order to explain (what he sees as) the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Remarkably, it seems his work is as popular amongst evangelicals as it is amongst Roman Catholics.
In one significant respect Lewis and I crossed paths, intellectually speaking. Since even before I ‘committed my life to Christ’ I had read the New Testament closely and discovered what Lewis termed “The Most Embarrassing Verse in the Bible”.
Here is his explanation of the problem.
“Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed 118
created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”
It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.
C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, p.97
This embarrassing verse nearly stopped me from becoming a born-again Christian, but I put the issue to one side and converted anyway. I was entranced by the idea that God loved me so much that He died for my sins (a mistaken notion I have since renounced).
Let’s look at the passage in more detail as it is found in the earliest Gospel of Mark chapter 13. Verse 30 is the problem text. Read it yourself in context and ask yourself what it means.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray.6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against
nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.
the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.
they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
The Desolating Sacrilege
14 ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains;15someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; field must not turn back to get a coat.
to those who are pregnant and to those who
are nursing infants in those days!18Pray that it may not be in winter.
in those days
there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.
if the Lord had not cut short those days, no
one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.
if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look!
There he is!”—do not believe it.
messiahs and false prophets will appear and
produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. already told you everything.
be alert; I have
The Coming of the Son of Man
24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.
he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
also, when you see these things taking
place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. pass away until all these things have taken place. my words will not pass away.
I tell you, this generation will not and earth will pass away, but
The Necessity for Watchfulness
32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, 121
each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, suddenly.
else he may find you asleep when he comes
what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
(New Revised Standard Version)
Rev Keith Ward (Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) calls verse 30 ‘a mistake which is so central, so clear and so glaring that it is very hard indeed to deny that it is there.‘ (page 16, A Vision to Pursue SCM Press, 1991).
In a disarmingly autobiographical passage (p 17) he writes
‘Various Christians have wriggled and squirmed to evade this point; I have done it myself. But every wiggle and every squirm is strained, implausible and, in the end, deceitful. What the sentence says is plain enough. It is only because we know it is false that we look for some other interpretation, to save the appearance of truth. So it is suggested that ‘this
generation’ means this age (between the birth of Jesus and the end of the world); so it could be as long as you like (as 1 Peter says, ‘A thousand years is as one day to God’). But if you can play with words like that, anything can be true. When Jesus says, ‘Surely I am coming soon‘ in Revelation 22:20, he means ‘Surely I am coming in quite a long time – at least 2000 years.‘ If you can believe that, you can believe anything; things can mean the opposite of what they say.
I can personally confess to much wriggling and squirming on this issue, and it is a sort of comfort to realise that some of the best minds in Christendom have wriggled and squirmed too.
Distinguished New Testament scholar Professor James Dunn comments,
‘It looks very much as though Jesus thought the End was imminent within the lifetime of his own generation (Mark 9.1 pars.; 13:30 pars. – where ‘this generation‘ can only refer to the contemporaries of Jesus).
Page 349, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity by James D.G.Dunn, Third Edition, published by SCM Press 2006.
The notorious atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not A Christian also argues
“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospel narrative…He certainly thought that his second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at the time. There are a great many texts that prove…He believed that his coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of his earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of his moral teaching.”
Over the years, both as a Christian and even today as a Muslim, I like to search out New Testament commentaries by reputable scholars and look up the passage on Mark 13 to see what it says. If memory serves me right I estimate that over 90% of all the 30 plus commentaries I have read agree that there is a significant error in this passage. Not all scholars attribute the mistake to Jesus however. Some say the erroneous imminent 123
eschatology has been attributed to Jesus by the early church and that Jesus himself taught either an entirely futurist eschatology (date unknown) or that the future age to come was completely realised in his ministry.
As a Muslim I cannot countenance the possibility that a prophet of God could be in error about such a matter, so on a priori theological grounds the error must lie with the gospel writer and the early church rather than Jesus.
But the fact remains, as CS Lewis rightly said, it is The Most Embarrassing Verse in the Bible.
Thus saith the Lord?
The apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians speaks of Christians as people who ‘wait for [God's] son from heaven…who rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thess 1.10). Later, Paul adds that ‘we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Thess 4.15). He does not say, ‘those who are alive (which could refer to some far future and as yet unknown group), but ‘we who are alive’, thus showing his expectation that the Lord will come before Paul’s death. Furthermore, Paul boldly claims that this is ‘the Lord’s own word’ (1 Thess 4.15).
The plain fact is that the end of the world simply did not come before Paul’s hearers had all died. Paul was writing in the 50′s AD and today’s date is 2012.So one can demonstrate empirically that Paul was mistaken. But why does this matter?
Paul said that his teaching was the ‘Lord’s own word’. But if this is the case then the Lord (presumably Jesus) made a mistake and mislead Paul about Jesus’ second coming. Paul therefore thought he had a true word from the Lord but the passing of historical time absolutely disproves this. 124
A more plausible explanation is that Paul, who had several visions of Jesus, was not in fact receiving truth from Jesus/God but was the victim of his own religious imagination. If this is the case (and the empirical evidence leads to this conclusion) then it puts in serious doubt the authenticity and veracity of Paul’s other visions of Jesus, above all the Damascus Road vision in Acts, beautifully portrayed by Caravaggio [include pic?] above.
So this little problem passage has momentous consequences for Christian belief which rely heavily on the integrity and truthfulness of Paul’s testimony. If Paul was mistaken about the end of the world occurring in the first century then we cannot automatically trust his other claims to have received divine revelation in the rest of his letters.
Here are the verses in their immediate context:
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.
A selection of mainstream New Testament scholarly views on Christology I think it is important for Muslims (and Christians!) to be aware of what responsible biblical scholars are saying about the gospel of John. This gospel more than any other has laid the christological foundation for later beliefs about Jesus. Yet, even conservative Christian scholars no longer believe that Jesus actually said the words attributed to him in John. So here is a section of top NT scholars and their assessment of the problem of John. None of these academics is particularly ‘liberal’ and they are representative of the broad consensus of biblical scholarship. I think it is important we study such texts and learn the 125
reasons why historians have reached their conclusions rather than just cite them as ‘authorities’. I would also encourage readers to obtain copies of these books and read them through for themselves.
The Gospel of John by Professor Christopher Tuckett
When we turn from the synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] to the Fourth Gospel [John], we move in some respects into a different world. The differences between John and the synoptics have long been recognised, reference often being made in this context to the famous statement of Clement of Alexandria (early third century) that, whereas the other Gospel writers gave the ‘bodily‘ facts about Jesus, ‘John wrote a spiritual Gospel’ (cited by Eusebius, E.H. 6.14.7.). Although the differences between John and the synoptics can perhaps be exaggerated, there can be no denying that at many levels John presents a radically different presentation of the life and ministry of Jesus. There are differences at the more superficial level of dates and places, for example in John, Jesus 'cleanses' the temple early in his ministry; in the synoptics it is much later. In John, Jesus is active for much longer in Jerusalem; in the synoptics, Jesus is in Jerusalem for only one final week of his life. In John, Jesus dies on the eve of Passover, in the synoptics he dies on the feast of Passover itself. But there are also differences in the whole mode and content of Jesus‘ own teaching: instead of the short pithy sayings and the parables which characterise the synoptic presentation of Jesus' teaching, John's Jesus teaches in long discourses with none of the parables so characteristic of the synoptics. So too, categories such as the 'kingdom of God', which is so prominent in the synoptics, rarely appear in John; in turn other categories, such as teaching about 'eternal life', dominate the picture in John. But the area where this difference is most prominent is precisely the area of Christology. In general terms, the synoptic Jesus says very little explicitly about himself: his preaching is about God, the kingdom of God, the nature of God’s demands, etc. The Johannine Jesus by contrast is far more explicit about himself so that his teaching focuses on his own person far more directly. John’s Jesus makes himself the object of faith far more explicitly that in the synoptics. John 14:1 is typical: 'Believe in God, believe also in me'; cf. also 20:31. In the synoptics the motif occurs only in Matthew 18:6 ('these little ones who believe in me') which is almost certainly due to Matthew's redaction (the Markan parallel in Mark 126
9:42 lacks the phrase 'who believe in me'). And he teaches quite openly about himself and the importance of his own role on God’s plan, supremely in the great ‘I am...‘ sayings which come throughout the Gospel. In line with this, the beginning and end of the Gospel focus directly and explicitly on the person of Jesus. Thus the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-18) speaks of Jesus as the Word of God; and in what is probably the ending of at least one version of the Gospel, it is stated that the book has been written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God’ (20:31). So too the figure of Jesus is portrayed in a more exalted role throughout the story. Jesus is fully in control of all the events concerned. His miracles highlight his person, and indeed at times Jesus acts in order to highlight even more his activity. Thus in chapter 11, when Lazarus falls ill and dies, Jesus is portrayed as deliberately delaying going to heal him in order apparently to make the miracle of raising him all the more stupendous (11:4, 15). John describes what appears to be a vestige of the agony scene in Gethsemane (12:37); but in John there seems to be no real agony on Jesus’ part and Jesus displays unbounded and unquestioning confidence in God. So too, in the account of Jesus‘ actual death, little if anything is made of Jesus‘ suffering. Jesus admits to thirst on the cross, but only in order to fulfil scripture (19:28); and his final word is no agonized cry of dereliction, as in Mark, but a statement of supreme confidence: ‘it is finished‘ (19:30). Above all, it is John that we get the two most explicit statements in the New Testament about the divinity of Jesus. Moreover they come at key points in the narrative - at the beginning and at the end encompassing the whole story in a powerful inclusio. Thus the first verse of the prologue affirms that the Word was not only in the beginning ‘with God’, but in some sense also ‘was God‘ (1:1); and Thomas at the end of the story openly confesses Jesus as ‘my Lord and my God’ (20:28). John thus presents Jesus explicitly in far more exalted terms than anything we find in the synoptic Gospels. In terms simply of historical reliability or ‘authenticity’, it seems impossible to maintain that both John and the synoptics can be presenting us with equally ‘authentic’ accounts of Jesus‘ own life. (By 'authentic' accounts I mean here historically accurate representations of what Jesus himself actually said and did. The theological 'authenticity' of John's account is quite another matter). The differences between the two are too deep seated and wide ranging for such a position to be sustainable. If there is a choice, it is almost certainly to be made in favour of the synoptic picture, at least in broadly general terms. The Johannine picture then presents us with a view of the Jesus tradition which has been heavily coloured and influenced by John and his own situation.
Extract from Christopher Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament pp.151-152, in chapter 9: ‘The Gospel of John’. Tuckett is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Oxford. ***
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham, Evangelical scholar Professor Richard Bauckham in his recent book on the gospels argues that the fourth gospel stems from an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, namely, the disciple John. At the same time, however, Bauckham also acknowledges the differences between the fourth gospel and the Synoptics and argues that John is a more reflective and a highly interpreted account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Regarding the canonical gospels in general. He concludes: ‘In all four Gospels we have the history of Jesus only in the form of testimony, the testimony of involved participants who responded in faith to the disclosure of God in these events. In testimony fact and interpretation are inextricable; in this testimony empirical sight and spiritual perception are inseparable.’ (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 411.) Regarding the gospel of John specifically, Bauckham says: ‘All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree that the latter presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.’ (Ibid. p. 410.) Furthermore: 128
‘The concurrence of historiographic and theological concepts of witness in John's Gospel is wholly appropriate to the historical uniqueness of the subject matter, which as historical requires historiographic rendering but in its disclosure of God also demands that the witness to it speak of God. In this Gospel we have the idiosyncratic testimony of a disciple whose relationship to the events, to Jesus, was distinctive and different. It is a view from outside the circles from which other Gospel traditions largely derive, and it is the perspective of a man who was deeply but distinctively formed by his own experience of the events. In its origins and in its reflective maturation this testimony is idiosyncratic, and its truth is not distinguishable from its idiosyncrasy. As with all testimony, even that of the law court, there is a point beyond which corroboration cannot go, and only the witness can vouch for the truth of his own witness.’ (Ibid p. 411.) According to Bauckham, the eyewitness author of the gospel of John did not just simply rehash mere eyewitness reports, but he also offered his highly reflective interpretations and understanding of the events: ‘... we can also apply the contrast between Mark (or the Synoptics in general) and John more widely. The greater selectivity of events recorded, the more continuous narrative with its more strongly delineated plot, the lengthy discourses and debates - all these distinctive features of the Gospel of John, as compared with the Synoptics, are what make possible the much fuller development of the author's own interpretation of Jesus and his story, just as comparable features of the works of the Greco-Roman historians enable the expression of their own understanding of the history, making their works more than mere reports of what the eyewitnesses said. But in the case of the Gospel of John these characteristics are linked with its claim to be entirely the testimony of an author who was himself an eyewitness. In this case, the whole historiographic process of eyewitness observation and participation, interrogation of other eyewitnesses, arrangement and narrativization in the formation of an integrated and rhetorically persuasive work - all this was the work of an eyewitness, whose interpretation was, of course, in play at every level of the process, but in what one might think of as a cumulative manner, such that the finished Gospel has a high degree of highly reflective interpretation. The eyewitness claim justifies this degree of interpretation for a context in which the direct reports of the eyewitnesses were the most highly valued forms of testimony to Jesus. In the case of the other Gospels it was important that the form of the eyewitness testimonies was 129
preserved in the Gospels. The more reflective interpretive Gospel of John does not, by contrast, assimilate the eyewitness reports beyond recognition into its own elaboration of the story, but is, as it stands, the way one eyewitness understood what he and others had seen. The author's eyewitness status authorizes the interpretation [again, really? Is this not just post-modernism?]. Thus, whereas scholars have often supposed that this Gospel could not have been written by an eyewitness because of its high degree of interpretation of the events and the words of Jesus, by contrast with the Synoptics, in fact the high degree of interpretation is appropriate precisely because this is the only one of the canonical Gospels that claims eyewitness authorship.’ (Ibid. pp. 410 - 411.) Note that Bauckham does not deny the "highly reflective interpretational" status of the gospel of John. He only justifies it by arguing that the author was an eyewitness. In light of the above, even if we are to accept the fourth gospel as a product of an eyewitness, it does not mean that we can simply read off from its surface the words attributed to Jesus as if Jesus literally uttered them in his historical ministry.
What are the Gospels? by Richard Burridge
The Revd Professor Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College, London and a leading expert on the gospels. He has written the standard work on the gospels entitled: What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2004, Cambridge University Press).
‘Some modern studies assume that if there is ‘fiction’ in the gospels, then they are inauthentic or unreliable. However, closer attention to literary criticism shows that no one wrote a classical biography to provide a documented historical text as we might capture something with a tape recorder, but rather in an attempt to get ‘inside’ the person. Thus, John’s stress on ‘truth’ is not about documented fact but the higher truth of who Jesus is, which is why he writes in a biographical format. For him, Jesus is ’the way, the truth and the life’, so his Jesus says these words (John 14.16). To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely. This is neither a lie nor a fiction; it is simply a way of bringing out the truth about the subject which the author wishes to tell the audience.’
pp 67-68 in Jesus now and then published by SPCK 2004.
I strongly disagree with Dr. Burridge when he says: ‘To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely’. I believe that if we wish to do responsible Jesus research then this is precisely the kind of question we must ask.
A greater preponderance of ‘fiction’ in the Gospel of John?
John Drane is an Evangelical theologian who is probably best known for his two bestselling books on the Bible, Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament (both published by Lion in the UK and Fortress Press in the US).
He is also an adjunct professor in New Testament and Practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, California as well as being a Visiting Scholar at Spurgeon’s College in London and a Visiting Fellow of St John’s College, Durham.
John Drane, a student of F. F. Bruce, concludes:
. . . they [New Testament gospels] are certainly carefully crafted narratives aiming to tell the story of Jesus’ life and teaching. As such, they are not to be judged by the standards of scientific enquiry, but according to the practises of story telling, in which the ‘truth’ of a narrative is to be judged as a whole on its own terms, rather than in relation to notions of truth and falsehood drawn from some other sphere of human endeavour. The early Christian communities clearly had no problem in accepting that within the gospel traditions there would be a subtle combination of factual and fictional elements. Had they not done so, they would certainly not have tolerated the existence of four gospels which, for all their similarities, are sufficiently different from one another as to defy all attempts at producing one harmonized, factual version of the life and teachings of Jesus from them. They knew that both artists and historians operate under similar constraints as they seek to balance fact with fictional elaboration, and that the telling of a good story . . . depends on the coherent combination of both these elements. While all four gospels contain factual and fictive elements, the fourth gospel appears to have a greater preponderance of the latter.
John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, Lion Publishing Plc. Revised Edition. 1999 pp. 210-211
The Evangelical Problem of the Gospel of John Ben Witherington III is a celebrated American Evangelical New Testament scholar. He is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He has written over thirty books and has made many appearances on radio and television programs.
He was interviewed by Lee Strobel for The Case for Christ a book popular with fundamentalist evangelicals. Strobel calls him an “expert”, a “leading scholar” possessing ”impeccable academic credentials”.
In Witherington’s major academic work The Christology of Jesus he says this:
Most of my material, with rare exception, is taken from Mark or Q. Thus, I will start with what are probably our earliest sources and go into later material, if it confirms hints in the authentic synoptic material or if it helps make sense of that data. I will not be dealing with material such as the “I AM” discourses in the Fourth Gospel [John] because it is difficult to argue on the basis of the historicalcritical method that they go back to a Sitz im Leben Jesu. Even when we can get back to such a Sitz im Leben Jesu from Mark or Q, what can be recovered is often only the substance of what Jesus said or did, although sometimes we are able to recover his very words.
From Ben Witherington III’s The Christology of Jesus, Chapter 1: Methodological and Historical Considerations, page 30.
Some brief comments,
1) Witherington’s reluctance to utilise the ‘I Am’ statements in John is quite unremarkable in itself, and follows the consensus of virtually all other NT scholars. What is significant in my view is the fact the Witherington is one of the leading faces of American evangelical Christianity which often looks to him for a scholarly validation of their theology (see for example chapter 7 of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel). But as this quote demonstrates, he is in considerable doubt concerning the historical value of the 133
discourses in John which, significantly, contain the highest Christology of any of the four gospels.
2) Even in the earliest recoverable Jesus material in Mark and Q Witherington demonstrates typical scholarly reserve and knows that only ‘sometimes’ can we recover Jesus’ actual words. This caution is a world way from ubiquitous evangelical and fundamentalist use of the gospels which give the impression that they all contain only the actual words of Jesus himself. At least some of Evangelicalism’s best scholars know that this is not the case.
A comment on ‘Jesus is Lord’ by JDG Dunn
‘The history of this confession of Jesus as Lord in earliest Christianity largely revolves round the question, How significant is the application of this title to Jesus? What role or status does this confession attribute to Jesus or recognise as belonging to Jesus?…The problem is that ‘lord’ can denote a whole range of dignity – from a respectful form of address as to a teacher or judge to a full title for God. Where do the early Christian references to the lordship of Jesus come within this spectrum? The answer seems to be that over the first few decades of Christianity the confession of Jesus as ‘Lord’ moved in overt significance from the lower end of the ‘spectrum of dignity’ towards the upper end steadily gathering to itself increasing overtones of deity.
We need not doubt that the Aramaic mari underlies the Greek kyrie (vocative)…Mar was used of the first century BC holy man Abba Hilkiah, presumably in recognition of the charismatic powers attributed to him. Moreover, ‘lord’ was largely synonymous with ‘teacher’ at the time of Jesus, and Jesus was certainly recognised to have the authority of a rabbi or teacher (Mark 9:5 etc). We can therefore say that the confession of Jesus as Lord was rooted within the ministry of Jesus to the extent that he was widely acknowledged to exercise the authority of a (charismatic) teacher and healer (cf. Mark 1:22,27).
Whether ‘Lord’ already had a higher significance for Jesus himself during his ministry depends on how we evaluate Mark 12:35-37:
‘While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
‘ “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand Until I put your enemies Under your feet.”‘
David himself calls him “Lord”. How then can he be his son?’
Even if it contains an authentic word of the historical Jesus (as is quite possible) it need only mean that he understood Messiah to be a figure superior to David in significance and specially favoured by Yahweh. It does not necessarily imply that he thought the Messiah was a divine figure (Psalm 110 after all probably referred to the king).’
From: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (emphasis in the original) pp.53-54.
So Dunn recognises that the title ‘lord’ originally denoted a human being. As the term began to be used in pagan contexts as the Gentile mission spread, where it was well established as a title for the cult deity in the mystery religions (especially Isis and Serapis), and also in Emperor worship – ‘Caesar is Lord’- a radical alteration of the meaning of the term occurred. Above all, St Paul advanced this change in meaning quite deliberately. He uses Old Testament texts that speak of Yahweh and applies them to Jesus (e.g. Romans 10:13). For Paul, ‘Lord Jesus’ had become a title of divinity.
In a profound sense, Paul founded the religion of Christianity we know today.
Escaping from Fundamentalism
by James Barr.
‘What must I do to be saved?’ ‘Compare these two different answers to the question how one may be saved:
1) [The jailer in Philippi] said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ (Acts 16.30f.)
2) A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mark 10:17-22)
Now in the fundamentalist and revivalist tradition the Acts passage gives exactly the correct answer. What Paul and Silas there say is precisely what the evangelistic preacher says. Only this one thing counts, that one should believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the passage in Mark is on a quite different footing. Few in that tradition of Christianity [fundamentalist evangelicalism] will be asked if they have kept the Ten Commandments, as if that would answer the question of the means of salvation. Even fewer in fundamentalist society are likely to be told that thy may inherit eternal life through selling their goods and giving to the poor. Although this is the very teaching of Jesus himself, one 136
will commonly find that it is effectively downgraded and made figurative, and subordinated to the type of answer that the Acts passage gives. The ‘goods‘ that the young man possesses, it may well be suggested, are not actual goods or money that he has to give to the poor, but rather rather his worldly bases of security, his knowledge, his morality, his attendance at church: it is these, rather than actual possessions and money, that he has to get rid of. Put at its crudest, this interpretation says that ‘sell what you have and give to the poor‘ means ‘make a decision for Christ and become an evangelical.‘ This is a very drastic reinterpretation of Jesus‘ words. But the need for so drastic a change in their meaning should not surprise us too much: for what Jesus says, taken for itself, would seem to imply that eternal life may be ensured through the keeping of the commandments plus the giving away of one’s property – a teaching that might well seem to many to be a complete contradiction of the idea of justification by faith.’
Excerpt from Escaping from Fundamentalism pp. 112-113 by James Barr. I highly recommend this book to Christians struggling with fundamentalism. It is also an excellent resource for Muslims engaged in discussions with Christians. Barr was a Scottish Old Testament scholar, Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford from 1976 to 1978 and Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford from 1978 to 1989.
Barr served as President of the Society for Old Testament Study (1973) and of the British Association for Jewish Studies (1978), and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993. He died in Claremont, California aged 82.
What do top western scholars say about the Quran? The Cambridge Companion to the Quran edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, published 2006
“This collection of essays, lucidly written and edited, will provide an indispensable resource for students, teachers, and scholars in Qur’anic studies and for anyone looking for an overview of past and present controversies in interpreting the Quran.”
Michel Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature in the Divinity School, University of Chicago.
On the dust jacket Cambridge University Press says: ‘Jane McAlauliffe brings together an international team of scholars to explain its complexities and provides a fascinating entrée to a text that has shaped the lives of millions for centuries.’
Angelika Neuwirth’s essay is entitled: ‘Structural, linguistic and literary features’. Here is an extended excerpt from her article subtitled ‘The Pre-Canonical Quran’, pps 100-101.
‘The presentation of qur’anic developments in this chapter presupposes the reliability of the basic data of tradition accounts about the emergence of the Quran, assuming the transmitted qur’anic text to be the genuine collection of the communications of the Prophet pronounced during his activities at Mecca (about 610-22 CE), and again at Medina (1/622 until his death in 11 /632). It is true that the earlier consensus of scholarly opinion on the origins of Islam has, since the publication of John Wansbrough’s Quranic Studies and Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism, been shattered, and that various attempts at a new reconstruction of those origins have been put forward.
As a whole, however, the theories of the so-called sceptic or revisionist scholars who, arguing historically, make a radical break with the transmitted picture of Islamic origins, shifting them in both time and place from the seventh to the eight or ninth century and from the Arabian peninsula to the Fertile Crescent, have by now been discarded, though many of their critical observations remain challenging and still call for investigation. New findings of qur’anic fragments, moreover, can be adduced to affirm rather than call into question the traditional picture of the Quran as an early fix text composed of the suras we have. Nor have scholars trying to deconstruct that image through linguistic arguments succeeded in seriously discrediting the genuineness of the Quran as we know it. These include the work of Christoph Luxenberg, who views the Quran as an originally Syriac-Arabic melange later adapted to the rules of classical Arabic, and Gunter Luling, who reads the Qur’an as a collection of hymns composed in a Christian 138
Arabic dialect ad later revised to fit the grammatical rules newly established in the eighth and ninth centuries. Whereas Luling’s reference to the earlier hypothesis by Karl Vollers, who had identified the original language of the Qur’an as broadly dialectical, points to a yet unresolved problem, Luxenberg’s assumption of a Syriac-Arabic linguistic melange as the original language of the Qur’an lacks a methodologically sound basis.
The alternative visions about the genesis of the Quran presented by Wansbrough, Crone and Cook, Luling and Luxenberg are not only mutually exclusive, but rely on textual observations that are too selective to be compatible with the comprehensive Qur’anic textual evidence that can be drawn only from a systematically micro-structural reading.’
Angelika Neuwirth holds the chair of Arabic Studies at the Freien Universitat of Berlin, where she directs the Seminar fur Semitisik und Arabistik. She has published extensively on the text of the Qur’an, especially on its formal qualities and its source criticism, particularly as regards its liturgical uses
Why the Christian Understanding of Salvation is ‘Morally Grotesque’
Islam places great stress on God as a God of mercy and forgiveness whom the individual can approach directly without the need of any mediator or priest. God says in the Quran:
‘O My servants, who have transgressed against their souls. Do not despair of the mercy of God, for He forgives all sins, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’
(39:53). From this understanding, which was shared by Jesus, ﬂow certain critical observations regarding the later Christian view of the necessity of Jesus’ alleged vicarious atonement. The Christian idea that guilt can be removed from a wrongdoer by someone else being punished instead is morally grotesque. Or if we say that God in the person of God the Son punished himself in order to be able to
justly forgive sinners, we still have the absurdity of a moral law which God must satisfy by punishing the innocent in place of the guilty. As the medieval theologian St Anselm wrote in his work Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), ‘it is a strange thing if God so delights in, or requires, the blood of the innocent, that he neither chooses, nor is able, to spare the guilty without the sacriﬁce of the innocent’. I believe the basic fault of the Christian understanding of salvation is that it has no room for divine forgiveness. For a forgiveness that has to be bought by the bearing of a just punishment, or the offering of a sacriﬁce, is not forgiveness, but merely an acknowledgement that a debt has been paid in full. The Cross is not a symbol of forgiveness at all: on the orthodox Christian view, it denotes the repayment of a debt, as the inﬁnity of Original Sin is atoned for by the inﬁnite sacriﬁce of God’s own temporary death. But what humanity really needs, as we look back over our long record of disobedience, is a model of true forgiveness by a God who does not calculate, who imposes no mean-spirited ‘economy of salvation’ worthy only of accountants and bookkeepers. As the Bible teaches: The letter killeth – the spirit giveth life. But in the authentic teaching of Jesus to be found in the synoptic gospels (that is the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) there is, in contrast, genuine divine forgiveness for those who truly repent. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to address God directly and to ask for forgiveness for our sins, expecting to receive this, the only condition being that we in turn forgive one another. There is no suggestion of the need for a mediator between ourselves and God or for an atoning death to enable God to forgive. One of the most famous of all Jesus’ parables is found in Luke’s gospel: the so-called parable of the prodigal son. It is a story about how God treats repentant sinners. Note that the father when he sees his repentant son returning home does not say ‘Because I am a just as well as a loving father, I cannot forgive him until someone has been duly punished for his sins’, but rather he had compassion, and ran and embraced him and welcomed him home. So God does not need a sacriﬁce in order to forgive anyone. As the
English convert from Christianity to Islam Ruqaiyyah Maqsood wrote: ‘the split-second of turning from Christianity to Islam is the realisation of the truth of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the parables, God is loving enough to forgive directly. That was the whole glory of the Judaism which Jesus upheld.’ Another example is to be found in Luke’s story of the tax collector and the Pharisee, the tax collector standing far off would not lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. Jesus declared that this man went home justiﬁed before God. Jesus insisted that he came to bring sinners to a penitent acceptance of God’s mercy: ‘Go and learn what this means, he said, quoting God: “I desire mercy, and not sacriﬁce.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Matt 9.13) In my experience Christians often use the analogy of a ‘debt’ to explain how God needs someone to pay off our sin debt to him, and, because of his justice, he must take the payment from someone. Jesus however had very different ideas about God, namely that God is quite able to just cancel our debt of sin and forgive the sinner. In Matthew 18 we read Jesus’ teaching:
The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of pounds. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was ﬁlled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand pounds. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full. “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
So God freely forgives our sins and expects us to forgive our neighbour too. The Lord’s Prayer, of course, has the same commandment. So how is a human being to attain eternal life, that is, how are we to be saved? Interestingly, Jesus was asked this very question and you can read his answer in the gospel according to Mark chapter 10. Here is the story:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Note that Jesus does not tell the man that he must put his faith in Jesus, or that salvation is solely dependent on Jesus dying to atone for his sins. No. As a humble Jew Jesus recognizes that the attribute of goodness is found perfectly in God alone, not in himself; that to sincerely obey the commands of the Torah is the main road to salvation, but in this individual’s case he lacked just one thing – he needed to give away his wealth to the poor and this would result in his gaining treasure in heaven. Note carefully the sequence. That this passage caused embarrassment to later gospel writers (who used Mark’s gospel when compiling their own gospels) is evident from the changes they made to Jesus’ words by removing his denial that he is good Here is Matthew’s altered version in 19:17 (compare this with Marks original) And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ (Instead of Mark’s original ‘why do you call me good?’) By way of contrast let us turn to Paul’s answer to the same question about salvation in Romans 10:9: If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved The differences are startling. As we have seen, Jesus’ answer to the question about salvation focuses on obedience to the Torah and giving to the poor. As a Prophet to the Jewish people, Jesus taught that faithfulness to God is to be expressed in adherence to the Creator’s commands and precepts in the Torah. Paul’s religion focused on Jesus and he claimed that the Torah had been abolished. Jesus in Matthew chapter 5 taught precisely the opposite.
Jesus’ teaching was fully in accord with contemporary Jewish understanding. Leading Jesus scholar EP Sanders, in his authoritative work on Jesus’ Jewish background says, and I quote, ‘The forgiveness of repentant sinners is a major motif in virtually all the Jewish material which is still available from the period (p 18, Sanders Jesus and Judaism). For Judaism sees human nature as basically good and yet also with an evil inclination that has to be continually resisted. However, God being aware of our ﬁnitude and weakness is always ready to forgive the truly repentant. In Islam there is a very similar view. God is frequently described in the Quran as ar Rahman ir Rahim (The Merciful and the Compassionate). Jesus, mirroring the teaching of the Quran, teaches that God knows our weakness and forgives those who, in the self-surrender of faith, bow before the compassionate Lord of the universe. Once, the Prophet Muhammad reported that the Devil said: ‘By my honour, O Lord, I shall never stop misguiding your servants so long as life remains in their bodies! The Almighty, the Glorious Lord, said: By My honour, I shall never cease forgiving them, so long as they ask forgiveness of Me!‘ (Ahmad). Another wonderful saying is: ‘O son of Adam – so long as you call upon Me and ask of me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins as great as the earth itself, and were you then to face Me ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness in equal measure.’ (Tirmidhi, Ahman). However, it needs to be pointed out that just as some people refuse to stop on the crazy path to their own destruction, despite the intercession of their loved ones, so the future lives of some people will be extremely unpleasant because of their absolute refusal to accept the love and mercy of God and to live in a way that is acceptable to him.
God tells us in the Quran: ‘If God were to punish people according to their wrongdoing, he would not leave on earth a single living creature; but He gives them respite for a stated term; and when their term expires, they will not be able to delay their fate for a single hour, just as they cannot bring it forward by a single hour.‘ (16:61) Our salvation lies in our own hands and in the supreme compassion of Allah, who loves each individual He has created. *** I would like to share with you some teaching about God’s mercy and forgiveness that is to be found in authentic Hadith. The way they speak of God may surprise you if you think that Muslims believe in a remote and distant deity. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, Indeed, God is more happy with the repentance of His servant than a man who stops in a barren, desolate land; with him he has his riding animal. He then goes to sleep. When he wakes up he realizes that his mount is gone. He searches for it until he is on the verge of dying (for the mount was carrying his supplies and provisions). He then says, “I will return to the place wherein I lost it, and I will die there.” He went to that place, and he was then overcome by sleep. When he woke up, his mount was standing right beside his head: on it was his food, his drink, his provisions, and the things he needed. God is more happy with the repentance of his believing servant than the aforementioned man when he ﬁnds his mount and his provisions. (Bukhari & Muslim) * A man heard chirping in a thicket, found some young birds, and took them. Their mother came and ﬂew around his head, so he uncovered them and, when she alighted on them, wrapped them up together in his garment and brought them to the Prophet. He commanded the man to put them down and
he did so. The mother would not leave them. The prophet said, “Do you wonder at the mercy of the chick’s mother for her young? By Him who sent me with the truth, God shows more mercy to His servants than this mother shows to her young. Take them back and put them where you found them, and their mother with them.” (Abu Daud). * The Quran says: “Say, if you love Allah, obey me (Muhammad), Allah will love you and forgive you your sins, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” Quran 3:31 * For them will be a Home Of Peace in the presence Of their Lord: He will be Their Friend, because they practiced righteousness. (Quran 6:127) * “To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward” Quran 5:9 * The messenger of God said, ‘When God completed the creation He wrote the following, which is with Him above His throne: ’My mercy takes precedence over My wrath’ * The Prophet said, “Among those who came before you there was a man who had murdered ninety-nine people. Then he set out asking whether his
repentance could be accepted or not. He came upon a monk and asked him if his repentance could be accepted. The monk replied in the negative and so the man killed him. He kept on asking till a man advised him to go to such and such village. So he left for it but death overtook him on the way. While dying, he turned his chest towards that village where he had hoped his repentance would be accepted, and so the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment quarreled amongst themselves regarding him. Allah ordered the village towards which he was going to come closer to him, and ordered the village whence he had come to go far away, and then He ordered the angels to measure the distances between his body and the two villages. So he was found to be one span closer to the village he was going to. So he was forgiven.” The messenger of God pbuh said: ’No one will be saved from the hell-ﬁre and admitted into Paradise by his deeds alone. When asked, ‘Not even you O messenger of God? he said, ‘Yes, not even me, unless God covers me with His mercy. * And ﬁnally, A man came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked,’ When will the day of judgment come?’ The Prophet replied, ‘What have you prepared for the judgment day that you are so concerned for it? He replied, ‘I do not have any good deeds in my account, but I do have one thing: I love Allah and His Messenger.’ The Prophet then said, ‘In that case, do not worry; you will be with those whom you love.’” (Bukhari) *
This is Islam’s great secret, unknown to most in the West: the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This man’s life and teaching came to me as a complete surprise. What an amazing man! A real prophet of God. But above even this – dare I say it – is the outrageous and astonishing grace and mercy of God!
My Review of J.D.G. Dunn: ‘Did early Christians worship Jesus?’
Did the ﬁrst Christians Worship Jesus?‘ by James D.G. Dunn, published by SPCK 2010 Most Christians believe that Jesus is God and worship him as part of the Trinity. But what did the New Testament writers say about worshipping Jesus? Did they view him as God, as someone we should worship? Are Christians today guilty of what Dunn calls ‘Jesus-olatry‘? In this new book by James D.G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity, Durham University and author of numerous ground-breaking works) he examines the key New Testament texts and the arguments of the most inﬂuential recent interpreters. In somewhat dense academic prose Dunn articulates his ‘reservations’ concerning recent work by two senior scholars in Britain, Larry Hurtado (Edinburgh) and Richard Bauckham (St Andrews) who argue that Jesus was worshipped from the beginning of Palestinian Jewish Christianity as one who shared or was included in the identity of the one God of Israel (‘christological monotheism’, see Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, 2003, and Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 2008)
Dunn writes, ‘Bauckam argues that it does most justice to the New Testament texts and to the christology espoused by the ﬁrst Christians to see them as identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel. In the light of our ﬁndings, it is appropriate to ask whether this new coinage of ‘divine identity’, and Bauckham’s thesis that the ﬁrst Christians saw Jesus as sharing or included in the divine identity, is a helpful resolution to the tensions between the diverse ways in which Paul and the ﬁrst Christians conceptualized the relationship of Jesus to God and to themselves. Bauckham offers this formula as a more satisfactory alternative to the standard distinction between a ‘functional’ and an ‘ontic’ christology, as providing a more satisfactory way of assessing the earliest christological reﬂection, within the matrix and traditions of Second Temple Judaism, than the explorations of its concepts of divine agents and heavenly intermediaries. But I have some reservations.’ Dunn’s ﬁrst concern is with the language of ‘identity’. In traditional christology the concept of ‘person’ (God is three persons in one God) is highly problematic since our usual understanding of that term today is very different from the technical understanding of the Latin word persona, a term devised to provide a way of distinguishing between Father, Son and Spirit with in the Trinity. The Latin persona means basically a mask, as used by actors in a play which represented the character being played; and so by extension it came to denote the ‘character’ itself. Dunn thinks that ‘identity’ language runs the same risk. Dunn asks, ‘what constitutes human/personal identity? Ethnic origin, country of birth and basic education, profession, family, friends hobbies…? If not ‘essence’ or ‘being’, then relationships. So how does that diversity in identity-composition work in relationship to Yahweh – the Creator, the Lifegiver, the God of Israel, the Father and God of the Lord Jesus Christ, the ﬁnal judge…?’ He concludes, ‘The New Testament writers are really quite careful at this point. Jesus is not the God of Israel. He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh. An identiﬁcation of Jesus with and as Yahweh was an early attempt to resolve
the tensions indicated above; it was labelled ‘Modalism’, a form of ‘Monarchianism’ (the one God operating ﬁrst as Father then as Son) and accounted a heresy.’ pp 141-142. Dunn concludes his book with ‘The Answer‘, ‘If what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesusolatry.That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term ‘Jesus-olatry’ as in an important sense parallel or even close to ‘idolatry’. As Israel’s prophets pointed out on several occasions, the calamity of idolatry is that the idol is in effect taken to be the God to be worshipped. So the idol substitutes for God, takes the place of God. The worship due to God is absorbed by the idol. The danger of Jesus-olatry is similar: that Jesus has been substituted for God, has taken the place of the one creator God; Jesus is absorbing the worship due to God alone.’ p 147. So Dunn effectively takes issue with the great christological statements of the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) and joins the ranks of the unitarians in afﬁrming a simple monotheistic theology. But his conclusions have far reaching implications for orthodox Christianity which stands condemned as promoting the serious sin of idolatry in its worship of Jesus as God. The other great monotheist faiths, Judaism and Islam, have always claimed that the worship of Jesus constitutes a denial of Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion, but Dunn in his conclusion seems reluctant to take on board the effectiveness of these critiques. I believe the only alternative religion that claims universality in its scope is Islam, which offers an appropriate evaluation of Jesus as Messiah, prophet, messenger and Word from God without falling into the 150errors of ‘Jesus-olatry’ (Christianity) or a denial of the divine mission of Jesus of Nazareth (Judaism).
All Christians should read this book, and Muslims too will ﬁnd much to beneﬁt their dawah.
A survey of Christian responses to New Testament scholarship on Christology How the proclaimer became the proclaimed It might be of use to review what we can responsibly know about Jesus’ own selfunderstanding according to recent New Testament scholarship. Christopher Tuckett is Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of Oxford. In his excellent book ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and his Earliest Followers‘ in a chapter entitled ‘Jesus’ Self-Understanding’ (pp 202-226) he writes, ‘Did Jesus think of himself as in any sense Son of God? For many this is perhaps the most important question of all to ask about Jesus’ self-understanding, showing some clear continuity between Jesus and later Christian claims. We should be alert to the possibility – even probability – that, even if Jesus did think of himself as in some sense a/the son/Son of God, this may not have meant anything remotely similar to what later Christians meant in using that phrase of Jesus. Sonship seems here to imply a relationship of trust and conﬁdence, reﬂected too in some of the Q sayings about God as the ‘father’ of the disciples. It probably does not indicate any idea of ontological being, at least at the level of Jesus. Language of divine sonship, as we have seen was thoroughly at home in a Jewish context, indicating perhaps a special relationship to God characterised by obedience and trust on the side of the human being, and by special choice or favour on the side of God. Jesus’ God-talk seems to ﬁt perfectly well into this mould. But it does not suggest that the one referred to as the ‘son’ of God is in any sense a ‘divine’ being. Jesus very probably saw himself as a son of God. As such he claimed a special personal relationship with God and a closeness to God. As such too he claimed the right to enable 151
others to share in that relationship. But the latter should warn us against seeing Jesus’ sonship as ‘unique’ in the sense that later Christians claimed Jesus’ divine sonship as unique and qualitatively different from that of other human beings. If anything Jesus’ own ideas of his divine sonship work in precisely the opposite direction: to unite others to enable them to share in the relationship to God which he claimed to enjoy himself. We have looked at a number of facets of the Jesus tradition to try to recover something of Jesus’ own self-understanding. One must say that, at the end of the discussion, the conclusions may be more than a little imprecise. So much of Jesus’ ministry is not directly concerned with his own person: it is focused on God and on the needs of other people. We thus have to deduce possible facets of Jesus’ self understanding from what is implied quite as much as from what is said explicitly. That there is an ‘implicit Christology’, in the sense of a ‘special position/role’ occupied by Jesus and implied in his actions, seems undeniable. Trying to gain greater precision is much harder. In some sense Jesus seems to have regarded himself as a prophet with a mission that would arouse hostility and violence against himself. He was willing to accept that violence, convinced that he would be ultimately vindicated by God, and may have used the imagery of the vision of Daniel 7 to express this (albeit perhaps a little cryptically). He may have had some idea of ‘messiahship’ as not totally against his own beliefs about his role, though it would seem that many aspects often associated with messiahship were probably not part of a programme which he would accept as his own. In all this he claimed a close personal relationship with God, expressed through an idea of sonship, but which others would share with him. All this probably distances Jesus’ own self-understanding by some way from later claims about Jesus to be the unique Son of God, meaning by that a fully divine member of an eternal Trinity. There may be also something of a gap between Jesus’ self-understanding and the views of his earlier followers (who may not quite have reached the stage of Chalcedonian orthodoxy immediately!). Does such a gap matter? It is that question which we address very brieﬂy in the Postscript.’ * So clearly for Tuckett the challenge for Christians today comes in the form of the signiﬁcant gulf (or divergence) between Jesus’ self-understanding and the quite different views about him held by later Christians. I propose here to ﬁrstly outline various attempts to bridge this gap (or at least to render it harmless), and secondly to 152
evaluate their ‘success’, by which I mean ‘can traditional Christological beliefs founded on the Nicene Creed survive?’ Tuckett’s discussion of the problem is instructive and goes to the heart of the differences between Christianity and the strictly monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism in their approach to the fundamentals of religious truth namely, i) what exactly constitutes Revelation, and the alleged human input into its formulation ii) the ﬁxed ontological distinction between God and human beings. I will argue that of the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity is the odd one out. It has muddled the clear metaphysical distinction between God and His creatures. According to Tuckett (p. 228) the gap between Jesus’ self-consciousness and later claims about Jesus was experienced as a signiﬁcant problem for English speaking scholarship and theology - but not for German theology. For the former it was felt to be of supreme importance to demonstrate that there was an unbroken continuity between the historical Jesus and later Christian tradition. Any signiﬁcant breach between Jesus and the later church would obviously undermine the truth claims of Christian belief enshrined it the churches Christological creeds and councils. If Jesus had not subscribed to a doctrine about himself how could later generations go beyond their Master? German scholarship in contrast apparently did not see a problem. Rudolf Bultmann, a German Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar, was one of the major ﬁgures of 20th century biblical studies. In his Theology of the New Testament he wrote, ‘The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.’ (vol. 1, p.3). In other words the Christology of Jesus himself is not seen as an element of New Testament theology but as a preliminary discussion to it. Next, Tuckett seems to make a virtue of necessity when, (after reiterating the “mismatch” between Jesus’ ideas about himself and later Christians) he comments: ‘This is simply part of a much broader ﬁeld of the whole series of ‘discontinuities’ between Jesus’ own ideas and later developments. ...it would seem that many of Jesus’ ideas were in one way ‘wrong’. Jesus probably expected the end of the present world order within the lifetime of his contemporaries, and in this case his expectations were not fulﬁlled. 153
Yet the very fact that Jesus was ‘wrong’ may be precisely the reason why he might appropriately be the focus of religious commitment. A Jesus who knows exactly what is going to happen, a Jesus who has doubts about anything, a Jesus who is sustained by companions, human or angelic, is not a ﬁgure who plumbs the depths of the human condition to the full. A Jesus who is in perfect communion with God at all times [here Tuckett has in mind the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, My God why have you abandoned me?”] is not a Jesus who shares the human condition of alienation from God in anything but a superﬁcial way.’ p. 229 The reader will have noticed that Tuckett has here completely abandoned any idea of Jesus as the Eternally begotten Son, Second Person of The Trinity. The more imperfect, weak and ‘wrong’ Jesus is shown to be more ﬁtting for our religious devotion! So Jesus becomes a very imperfect role model and example for his followers. Compare this somewhat disappointing role model with the commendation from the last of God’s Prophets Muhammad: ‘Oh People, no prophet or apostle will come after me and no new faith will be born. Reason well therefore Oh People, and understand the words which I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Quran and my example (the Sunnah) and if you follow these you will never go astray.’ Islam maintains that no community has been without its righteous guides and teachers to help its people towards the truth and to lead them from the depths of darkness to the light of Islam (submission to the One God). The Prophet was sent as a teacher and role model for all of mankind. Lastly Tuckett proposes a solution to the problem of the ‘gap’ that is both clever and sophisticated but which ultimately fails to offer a credible solution that enables traditional orthodox Christology to survive objective historical inquiry into who Jesus considered himself to be. Tuckett’s proposal centres around the notion of ‘personal identity’. Recall that the orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus was/is 100% God and 100% man, as one person, Jesus.
Tuckett’s argument goes something like this (this is my paraphrase of his argument but the examples are mine): What constitutes our identity? Is it just the opinion we have of ourselves, the estimation we give to our status and role in life? Are we not social beings also whose enduring identity is partly deﬁned by the opinions of others? Take for example a writer or composer who produces work that is not appreciated in his or her lifetime. Subsequent generations may hail them as a great writer even a genius. Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and the most inﬂuential physicist of the 20th century. Yet his Munich schoolmaster wrote in Einstein's school report in 1895, "He will never amount to anything". Today he is acclaimed as one of the greatest physicists of all time. Tuckett claims, ‘The ‘real’ Jesus thus may not be just who Jesus thought he was. The ‘real Jesus’ is quite as much the person relating to others, and to whom his followers related and reacted....All this is simply to suggest that, if we are asking about the validity of any claims about Jesus‘ identity, then Jesus‘ own claims or beliefs about himself may be only one part of the evidence which we will want to use. Certainly the possibility of an element of discontinuity between Jesus‘ ideas about himself and the ideas of others about him should be no bar to accepting the latter if they conﬂict a little with the former!’ pp. 230-231 I must confess to ﬁnding this argument somewhat bewildering. Tuckett considers as “evidence” for who the “real” Jesus was, much later views about his person. But what is this so-called “evidence”? Presumably at least the ‘evidence’ of the gospels themselves. But earlier in his book Tuckett warns the reader, ‘In terms simply of historical reliability or ‘authenticity’, it seems impossible to maintain that both John and the synoptics can be presenting us with equally ‘authentic’ accounts of Jesus‘ own life. (By ‘authentic’ accounts I mean here historically accurate representations of what Jesus himself actually said and did. The theological ’authenticity’ of John’s account is quite another matter). The differences between the two are too deep seated and wide ranging for such a position to be sustainable. If there is a choice, it is almost certainly to be made in favour of the synoptic picture, at least in broadly general terms. The Johannine picture then presents us with a view of the Jesus tradition which has been heavily coloured and inﬂuenced by John and his own situation.’ 155
(Christology and the New Testament pp.151-152, in chapter 9: ‘The Gospel of John’.) So the exalted claims for Jesus in the Gospel of John are not ‘historically reliable’ or ‘authentic’. If so, how can they count as “evidence” for who Jesus really was? Tuckett is not consistent in his evaluation of historical sources. Furthermore, his criterion for the ‘real’ Jesus simply appeals to the victors in the acrimonious debates in the early church about who Jesus really was. It took several centuries before ‘orthodox’ Christology found general acceptance in the Church (against much opposition from committed Christians), and it ruthlessly suppressed alternative models of the ‘real’ Jesus (see the accessible study, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Deﬁne Christianity during the Last Days of Rome’ by Richard E Rubenstein). Lastly, Tuckett does not engage with cross cultural studies of apotheosis that highlight the need for caution before simply afﬁrming as “evidence” a relatively late evaluation that stands at some considerable distance from the historically reconstructable original. The history of religions teaches us that people are adept at turning individuals into what they never were. In antiquity, Enoch, who according to the book of Genesis was the son of Cain, eventually morphed into Metatron, the occupant of God’s throne. At least this is what we are invited to believe in the Old Testament Apocryphal book of Enoch. In the seventh century AD the Muslim Caliph Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace), was thought by a few extremists to be the incarnation of Allah, a trend he vigorously opposed. In our own time, the Rastafarians transformed Haile Selassie, even during his lifetime and without any encouragement from him, into “the lion of the tribe of Judah,” their Messiah, and an incarnation of God. So history shows us that the religious imagination has again and again piled layer upon layer of legend upon its heroes and saints. I could mention other signiﬁcant religious ﬁgures such as The Buddha and the Virgin Mary, to whom prayer and worship are both given today. Tuckett has provided us with abundant evidence that the early Christians did something similar with Jesus of Nazareth. 156
I hope the reader can see from this study how weak some of the solutions are despite coming from a top Oxford scholar who is evidently sympathetic to the difﬁculty informed Christians face. The prophet Muhammad was alert to this human tendency to divinise saints and holy men. He said: "Do not over-praise me as the Christians over-praised Jesus the son of Mary. I am His slave, so say: 'God's slave and messenger'." Narrated by both Al-Bukhari and Muslim In the last chapter I will summarize the Christology of the Quran and how it relates to the Christology of the historical Jesus.
Instructive Parallels between the Early Church’s Hostility to the Jews and Contemporary Evangelical Attacks on Islam by Paul Williams Why do so many Evangelical Christians expend so much effort disparaging Islam and Muslims? In From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, Paula Fredriksen (Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University) unwittingly provides a possible answer to this question. Professor Fredriksen describes the persistent attraction of Judaism for Gentiles in the early centuries after Christ. Curiously, the early Church fathers most often expended their energies criticising Judaism (see example below), rather than the idolatry of the Roman Empire or its brutal abuse of power. Fredriksen identifies the reason why: Judaism represented an attractive alternative to the new religion of Pauline Christianity. Similarly, for many thoughtful people in the West, Islam represents an attractive alternative to the illogicalities of Trinitarianism. Evangelicalism’s prime directive therefore is to eliminate its principal rival: Islam. An ironic goal, as followers of the latter religion believe in Jesus the Christ and the prophets sent to Israel as well. She writes: Judaism was more than a standard challenge to Christian identity; it was also a competitor for Gentile adherents. During this period [1st and 2nd centuries] and long after, Gentiles
continued to attach themselves to the synagogue for the same reasons that had always drawn them before: Judaism’s monotheism, its antiquity, its articulated ethics and strong community, its claims to revelation, and its prestigious sacred text. The rise of the Gentile Christianity is itself the best evidence of Judaism’s appeal: the church, though it repudiated the synagogue, also used it socially and religiously as a model. Christianity thereby offered to Gentiles fewer of Judaism’s disadvantages (circumcision for adult males; association with a nationality implicated, after the bloody revolts of 66, 117, and 132, in anti-Roman activity) but many of the same attractions (strong community, revealed ethical guidelines, and the scriptures themselves – already available, thanks to the Hellenistic synagogue, in Greek). But the churches competed for these Gentiles against a religious community both better established and more broadly recognised. Here Christianity again offers the best evidence of Judaism’s abiding appeal. Christian invective, from the gospels through the writings of the second-century fathers and beyond, most often and most energetically targeted Judaism. Why? If its goal were to wrest Gentiles from the errors of paganism, one would expect more attention to polemics against idolatry; if its goal were to condemn the unethical exercise of power, one would expect stronger criticism of the empire, which after all had executed the Saviour and continued, sporadically, to persecute his followers. Why expend so much effort disparaging a community ostensibly engaged in compatible activity, turning Gentiles from idolatry to the worship of the God revealed in scripture? Because, to those Gentiles drawn to such religions and such communities, Judaism represented an attractive alternative to the church. pp 211-212 Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus by Paula Fredriksen. The new ‘anti-Semitism’ It may be illuminating by way of example to cite recent statements of what I call the new antisemitism: disparaging rhetoric now emanating from evangelical circles about Islam. Notice how it parallels the toxic anti-Jewish rhetoric that was virtually ubiquitous in the early church. Nabeel Qureshi is an outspoken member of the resurgent Christian anti-Islam movement in the United States. On the Answering Muslim website he recently wrote: “Muslim terrorists are just that, the embodiment of Islam” (blog entry February 2010). Rev Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) told the press that “Islam is a very evil and wicked religion.” On a radio broadcast he said: “Islam is a terror organization.”
Televangelist Rev Pat Robertson on Muslims and their faith: “These people are crazed fanatics, and I want to say it now: I believe it’s motivated by demonic power. It is satanic and it’s time we recognize what we’re dealing with.” As is well documented, virulent anti-Jewish rhetoric has been the besetting sin of Christianity. Here are two representative examples from prominent and hugely influential Christians of the past. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), was an important early church Father. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches honour him as a saint and Doctor of the Church. Chrysostom preached: “The Jews … are worse than wild beasts … lower than the vilest animals. Debauchery and drunkenness had brought them to the level of the lusty goat and the pig. They know only … to satisfy their stomachs, to get drunk, to kill and beat each other up … I hate the Jews … I hate the Synagogue … it is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.” I quote a longer extract from the most famous of the Protestant Christians and Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther. I warn the reader that his words are extremely offensive. In 1543 he wrote: “What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we can not tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy. In this way we cannot quench the inextinguishable fire of divine rage nor convert the Jews. We must prayerfully and reverentially practice a merciful severity. Perhaps we may save a few from the fire and flames [of hell]. We must not seek vengeance. They are surely being punished a thousand times more than we might wish them. Let me give you my honest advice. First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of His Son and His Christians. Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. For they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable, like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land, as they boast, but miserable captives, as they complain of incessantly before God with bitter wailing.
Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught. Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more… Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. For they have no business in the rural districts since they are not nobles, nor officials, nor merchants, nor the like. Let them stay at home…If you princes and nobles do not close the road legally to such exploiters, then some troop ought to ride against them, for they will learn from this pamphlet what the Jews are and how to handle them and that they ought not to be protected. You ought not, you cannot protect them, unless in the eyes of God you want to share all their abomination… To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews… Let the government deal with them in this respect, as I have suggested. But whether the government acts or not, let everyone at least be guided by his own conscience and form for himself a definition or image of a Jew. When you lay eyes on or think of a Jew you must say to yourself: Alas, that mouth which I there behold has cursed and execrated and maligned every Saturday my dear Lord Jesus Christ, who has redeemed me with his precious blood; in addition, it prayed and pleaded before God that I, my wife and children, and all Christians might be stabbed to death and perish miserably. And he himself would gladly do this if he were able, in order to appropriate our goods… Such a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot are these Jews, who for these fourteen hundred years have been and still are our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune. I have read and heard many stories about the Jews which agree with this judgment of Christ, namely, how they have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnapped children, as related before. I have heard that one Jew sent another Jew, and this by means of a Christian, a pot of blood, together with a barrel of wine, in which when drunk empty, a dead Jew was found. There are many other similar stories. For their kidnapping of children they have often been burned at the stake or banished (as we already heard). I am well aware that they deny all of this. However, it all coincides with the judgment of Christ which declares that they are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil, who sting and work harm stealthily wherever they cannot do it openly. For this reason, I would like to see them where there are no Christians. The Turks and other heathen do not tolerate what we Christians endure from these venomous serpents and young devils…next to the devil, a Christian has no more bitter and galling foe than a Jew. There is no other to whom we accord as many
benefactions and from whom we suffer as much as we do from these base children of the devil, this brood of vipers.” Translated by Martin H. Bertram, On The Jews and Their Lies, Luther’s Works, Volume 47; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. The question remains therefore: how can Muslims constructively respond to this resurgent ‘new anti-semitism’? Firstly, there is the important Qur’anic principle of responding with what is better, and not being dragged into the abusive slanging matches so often seen on the Internet (and elsewhere). Secondly, despite the apparent predominance of evangelicalism in the world there are important points of discussion that can be had with committed Christians who do want to engage in respectful dialogue. These points might include the fact that all religious traditions emphasise God’s love for the poor and outcast; the importance of understanding the Islamic belief that God’s love makes redemption available throughout history, not only during a defined period two thousand years ago; the urgent need to deconstruct the media stereotype often imposed upon Muslims (as on Jews in the past) as being violent and legalistic. Our contribution as Muslims to this ongoing discussion is that we worship a God who while being the source of justice, is nevertheless absolutely free in His love and mercy to forgive whom He chooses. To Christians we say that this appears to us considerably less legalistic than a theology that considers mankind’s sinfulness a debt that He must collect. Finally, we ask evangelicals to acknowledge the ‘Judaeophobia’ to be found in the New Testament itself (see for example John 8: 44,47), and recognise how it has generated hatred towards the Jews throughout nearly two thousand years of Christian history. This acknowledgement (belatedly made by many non-evangelical Christian theologians) might lead to a greater evangelical sensitivity to how the early Christians demonised Jews and the Jewish faith, and lead, inshallah, to a much needed reappraisal of the current disparagement of Muslims and Islam.
The Blessed Virgin Mary
On a ﬁrst reading of the gospels it is tempting to take these stories at face value: here are ancient texts that tell us what Mary the Mother of Jesus said and did. Their reliability and facticity is usually assumed without question. And this way of reading of the gospels has been ubiquitous in the Christian churches for much of the last 2000 years. Today, however, such a reading of the gospels is no longer possible. As we have seen there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching. It is illuminating to apply the same methodology to the Gospel portraits of Mary that we have employed with such powerful effect concerning the gospel portraits of Jesus. I want to examine how the gospel writers depict Mary the mother of Jesus. The earliest surviving gospel, that of Mark, portrays Mary (along with Jesus’ brothers) in a negative light, placing them literally outside the crowed circle of those who make up his eschatological family – which is based on faith. Mark 3:20-35 reads:
…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end
has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without ﬁrst tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
The scholarly consensus is that Mark was the ﬁrst to be written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings source known as Q. I think this is the most plausible explanation (though a few scholars disagree). So Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark. This shows us that for Matthew ‘facts’ could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note how Matthew improves the negative portrayal of Jesus’ mother and brothers in Mark: in the latter they are shown as outsiders who think Jesus is mad and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message. Matthew has a very different positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to ﬁt his view-point. He omits Mark’s negative story where Mary (and Jesus’ brothers) all try to ‘restrain’ Jesus because they thought he was ‘out of his mind’. So it is clear that there has been a development in the way Mary is presented in the Gospels. In Matthew’s gospel Mark’s negative portrayal is eliminated.
Luke (unlike Mark) also presents a highly positive portrait of Mary. In the scene parallel to Mark’s (with the brothers in the house) she is now included in the eschatological family – those who hear the word of God and do it (see Luke 8:19-21). Luke, like Matthew, omits the embarrassing and offensive passage (Mark 3: 20-21). In a ground-breaking ecumenical study a team of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant scholars collaborated in producing an agreed statement on Mary in the New Testament (Mary in the New Testament A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars published by Paulist Press 1978, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and others.) In reference to Mark’s gospel chapter 3, verse 21, the study concludes:
We understand the verse to mean: “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him; for they were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’”
Concerning Matthew 12:46-50 (equivalent to Mark 3:31-35) the scholars comment,
‘The Matthean form of the passage is not very different from Mark’s. However, it is not so much in the passage itself that Matthew differs from Mark but in the context. The introductory scene [Mark 3: 20-21] in which “his own” think he is beside himself is completely absent. Presumably the omission was deliberate, and it can be understood if Matthew interpreted Mark’s “his own” to include Jesus’ mother.’
p. 99 (emphasis added). The study concludes with this assessment of the Synoptic gospels depiction of Mary:
We have spoken of a “negative portrait” of Mary in the Gospel of Mark. The principal text which leads to that designation is Mark 3:20-35.
The Matthean and Lucan parallels to Mark 3:20-35 (Matt 12:24-50; Luke 8: 19-21) give a rather different picture, largely by modiﬁcation of the Marcan text. Both evangelists have dropped the harsh introduction in Mark 3:20-21. Luke goes further in softening the Marcan picture by eliminating also the question of Jesus, “Who are my mother and brothers?” and by transferring the Beelzebul controversy to another place (11:14-23). Thus, in the Synoptic depiction of Mary during Jesus’ ministry, we have a development from the negative estimation of Mark to the positive one of Luke, with Matthew representing the middle term.
pp. 286-287. ♦ So what is the truth about Mary? With the gospel writers contradicting each other (Matthew and Luke contradict/disagree with Mark) what has God reliably told us about the Mother of Jesus? Unfortunately the New Testament gospels are not a reliable source of information at this point. As Muslims we hold Mary in the highest regard. A chapter in the Holy Qur’an is named after her: Surah Maryam. Surah 3:42 states,
‘The angels said to Mary: ‘Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women.
But how can we as Muslims navigate our way through these gospels? What is the truth about Mary? How does the Quranic revelation see itself in relation to the Bible? God speaks to his prophet, Muhammad (pbuh), in the Quran saying:
And unto thee O Prophet have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth, conﬁrming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein. Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views, forsaking the truth that has come unto thee. Unto every one of you have We appointed a different law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but He willed it otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (Surah 5:48) ***
The Christology of the Quran: A Disputed Question A Case Study: A Christian theologian’s polemic against the Quranic understanding of Jesus and God in Alister McGrath’s book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, SPCK Publishing (Nov 2009). McGrath complains that the Quran misrepresents two key Christian beliefs: the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. He writes, ‘Most Christians ﬁnd that the Quranic representation of these concepts bears little relation to their orthodox statements... The problematic Quranic representation of Christianity can be argued to reﬂect knowledge, whether direct or indirect, of heretical versions of Christianity that are known to have been present in this region. As we have insisted throughout this work, heresies must be considered to arise within the church, and hence 166
can be regarded as “Christian,” even though in a weak sense of the term. Nevertheless, they cannot be regarded as authentically Christian. The Quran thus critiques ideas that lie on the fringe of the Christian faith - and that virtually all Christians would also agree to be defective.’ pp 224-225 Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth McGrath believes the Quran represents Christians as worshiping a trinity made up of God, Jesus, and Mary, and that the Quranic polemic is really directed at the so-called Collyridian sect which treated Mary as a goddess. Collyridianism was an obscure early Christian heretical movement whose adherents apparently worshipped the Virgin Mary. The main source of information about them comes from their strongest opponent, Epiphanius of Salamis, who wrote about them in 375 AD. However, there is no evidence that Collyridianism still existed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (the 6th and 7th centuries AD) McGrath further complains that the Islamic characterisation of the Trinity “simply cannot be sustained by any comparison with orthodox Christianity.” p. 225. Furthermore, McGrath rejects the Quranic view of Jesus of Nazareth because he claims it reﬂects ‘heretical christologies’ that were allegedly popular in the Arabian peninsula and not the ‘orthodox’ view he himself holds. As a former Christian who enthusiastically subscribed to all the orthodox beliefs concerning Jesus and the Trinity (as enshrined in the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon) I am nevertheless impressed by the precision and deftness by which the Quran demythologizes these ‘orthodox’ doctrines. McGrath does not appreciate the Quranic modus operandi by which it polemically unveils Christianity's metaphysical errors. He expects it to be a compendium of Christian theology. It is not. The Quranic purpose lies elsewhere in refuting error and reasserting the truth about God and His prophets which Christianity (by which I mean the theologies of the historic Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, not obscure 7th century heresies) has distorted. Moreover, the Christology of the Quran bears a striking resemblance to recent biblical research that has concluded that neither Jesus’ family, nor the apostles, nor his Jewish disciples, believed that Jesus was God. They believed, like Muslims, that Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, but still a human being.
As the Lutheran biblical scholar Rev Professor Jeffrey J. Butz concludes in his signiﬁcant work, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity. “It is more than than intriguing that the Muslim understanding of Jesus is very much in conformity with the ﬁrst Christian orthodoxy - the original Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus.” p186 (italics added). Butz laments: “If Jewish Christianity had prevailed over Pauline Christianity, history would likely have been written quite differently. It is quite likely that such atrocities as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust would never have happened. If the Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus had prevailed, Jews and Christians might never have parted ways, and Islam would have never have become Christianity’s perceived enemy.” p 187 I propose to demonstrate that the Quranic polemic against Christianity is in fact relevant to the vast majority of Christians in all the major mainstream Churches, both in the 7th century at the time of the prophet and today. I will argue that the Quran, though not concerned to debate Christian theology, does accurately disclose the idolatry and error to be found in the substance of these two doctrines. I will cite all the relevant passages that explicitly refer to Jesus and discuss their understanding of the Christian views of the Trinity and Jesus. Surat 4, 171-2: 'O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say 'Three'. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.' The Cambridge Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad (also known as Tim Winter) comments on this passage: ‘The Qur'anic term for 'exaggeration' used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a 168
revered and charismatic ﬁgure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation - hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.’ ‘Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, deﬁnes the frontier of acceptable veneration: 'Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet, Then praise him as you will, and with all your heart. For although he was of human nature, He was the best of humanity without exception.' A few years previously, the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled by the divine light reﬂected in the mirror like heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to any puriﬁed human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of divine light in Jesus' heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus' primordial existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.’ (From The Trinity a Muslim Perspective, text of a lecture given to a group of Christians in Oxford, 1996. The full text can be viewed online at masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/trinity.htm)
Surah 5:72-77: Those who say, ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have deﬁed God. The Messiah himself said, ‘Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers. 169
Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afﬂict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask His forgiveness? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food [like other mortals]. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are. Say, ‘How can you worship something other than God, that has no power to do you harm or good? God alone is the All Hearing and All Knowing.‘ Say, ‘People of the Book, do not overstep the bounds of truth in your religion and do not follow the whims of those who went astray before you - they led many others astray and themselves continue to stray from the even path.’ Verse 72 above is clear: Christians have proclaimed that God’s Messiah is God. But our earliest surviving gospel, that of Mark, portrays a very human ﬁgure who prays to God; who does not know vital information because it has not been revealed to him (the date of the End); and who even denies that he is “good” (Mark 10). Moreover, in the Gospel of John there is a saying of Jesus which is remarkably similar to Jesus’ words in the Quran. Quran: The Messiah himself said, ‘Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord. Gospel of John: Jesus said to her...“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In both passages Jesus has a God. Therefore he cannot logically be God (as God is One God). But what about the Quranic statement, ‘Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God’? Is this not a misunderstanding of orthodox Christian doctrine? I think not, once we understand the polemical methodology of the Book. McGrath misunderstands the Quran’s purpose when he comments: ‘This could easily be interpreted, in quasi-pagan terms, as the divine Father, Son, and Mother’ (note 4 on p.268). 170
The Quran is not a textbook of Christian theology. It does not enter into intra-Christian debates about the nature, substance and hypostasis of the Godhead. A comparison of two Latin terms might be relevant and helpful here: de jure and de facto. De facto: said of something that is the actual state of affairs, in contrast to something's legal or ofﬁcial standing, which is described as de jure. De facto refers to the "way things really are" rather than what is "ofﬁcially" presented as the fact. In Christian texts we often read of the following three items: God, his Son/Messiah and the Holy Spirit. For example, I Corinthians 8 states: ‘For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.’ I Corinthians 11 states: ‘I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.’ Here God is the half of two, so to speak. In 2 Corinthians 13, God is the third of three: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’ Now ofﬁcial Christian doctrine says that God, his Son and the Spirit are One God. The Quran does not engage with this de jure position but tackles head on the de facto reality: God is presented as one of three, God = the Father God without remainder, the Messiah/ son is clearly distinct from and subordinated to God (as in 1 Corinthian 11). The ‘Spirit‘ is perhaps a personiﬁed attribute of God himself (as in OT usage) but in Paul it is virtually a separate hypostasis (though this is disputed). The Quran in its saying, ‘Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God’, appears to be reasserting the pure, undiluted monotheism of the OT prophets. The danger of associating other beings with God such as 171
Jesus, is that the latter become progressively deiﬁed, a process Western scholars have long documented in the New Testament itself. This the Quran condemns. Surah 5:116-117 When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say - if I had said such a thing You would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know what is within You, You alone have full knowledge of things unseen - I told them only what You commanded me to: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” My comments on the last passage above apply this passage too. The Quranic teaching is another example of a de facto critique of Christianity, by insisting that Jesus is just a messenger of God, merely a mortal human being. His mother was merely a creature too (though a Lady of great virtue). Both have become the objects of veneration, prayers and even worship in the mainline churches over the last 2000 years. Only in the past several centuries have the newly formed Protestant churches rejected the worship of Mary, but they continued to worship her son nevertheless. A lesson half learned perhaps. God asks of Jesus, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ In truth Jesus never said such a thing, as his almost incredulous reply attests, May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say...’ It will now be obvious that McGrath has not appreciated the subtlety of the Quranic critique of Christian beliefs. Once this is grasped then the Quranic message can be appreciated for what it is: a piece of precision polemic of enduring and universal relevance, as pertinent as today’s newspaper. ***
A Review: Jesus and the Constraints of History by A.E. Harvey Chapter 7, Son of God: the Constraint of Monotheism
A.E. Harvey is a leading biblical scholar and Canon of Westminster Abbey. Harvey discusses the important fact that at the heart of Judaism lies the fundamental ‘constraint’ of monotheism. The Shema, the prayer every pious Jew recites daily begins: ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One’. This uncompromising belief in the One God set Israel apart from and in opposition to the paganism of the Roman Empire. This, of course, was the environment in which Jesus was born and conducted his ministry, the ‘historical constraint’, to use Harvey’s term.
No such constraints operated in the Greek-speaking world of the Empire. The Greek pantheon was essentially open: there was no difﬁculty adding new members. Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician, had been acknowledged as a god in virtue of his many accomplishments. The philosopher Plato was called ‘divine’ for his surpassing wisdom.
But this deiﬁcation of individuals did not imply a serious theological commitment concerning their metaphysical status from all eternity, rather in colloquial discourse if an individual was thought to have exceptional gifts or powers then the Greeks could describe him as ‘divine’ or as a ‘god‘. (Compare the old-fashioned expression in English, ‘he was absolutely divine!’. A random search on the internet produced these amusing results: ‘The Absolutely Divine Miss Piggy’; "She looked absolutely divine in her blue and white gown”. Divine here has the meaning of being very good or pleasing).
‘It is this more analogical use of the language of divinity which has caused the question to be raised whether the uncompromising monotheism of Palestinian Judaism may not have been signiﬁcantly modiﬁed when Jews (writing in Greek) sought to commend to pagan readers the exceptional virtues and powers of the great personalities of the Old testament. Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, and others are occasionally described by the ﬁrst century Jewish historian Josephus as having ‘divine‘ characteristics (see Jewish Antiquities, chapter 3 verse 180; chapter 8 verses 34 & 187; chapter 10 verse 35), and by Philo as possessing a certain divinity, and the question is much discussed [in the scholarly literature] whether these Hellenistic Jewish writers have departed signiﬁcantly from the rigid distinction between God and man which is implied throughout the Old Testament, and have compromised their ancestral monotheism in their attempt to emphasise the god-given characteristics and qualities of the heroes of biblical history. To which it may be relied that what we ﬁnd in these authors is not so much a religious as a linguistic phenomenon. In the idiom of the readers for whom they were writing, to call Moses (in some sense) divine was to insist on the altogether exceptional nature of his gifts and to imply that these gifts were from God. But it was not for one moment to suggest that Moses should be (or ever had been) acclaimed or worshipped as a god, or that his existence qualiﬁed in any way the unique divinity of the Creator of the world. The constraint of monotheism exercised its hold on these writers as ﬁrmly as it did on those of the Bible itself.‘ In my view Harvey is too generous in his defense of these Hellenistic Jewish writers. A serious danger remains in the use language proper only to God in their writings about Moses and Solomon. This is not just an innocent ‘linguistic phenomenon’ but represents a slippery slope which leads to a de facto polytheism violating the fundamental principle of monotheism.
The Cambridge Islamic scholar Abdal-Hakim Murad writes on a different but related question concerning the Christian estimation of Jesus. He notes, ‘the Qur'anic term for 'exaggeration'...ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic ﬁgure’.
In his article ‘The Trinity, a Muslim Perspective‘ Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad writes: 174
‘The term 'son of God', frequently invoked in patristic and medieval thinking to prop up the doctrine of Jesus's divinity, was in fact similarly unpersuasive: in the Old Testament and in wider Near Eastern usage it can be applied to kings, pharoahs, miracle workers and others. Yet when St Paul carried his version of the Christian message beyond Jewish boundaries into the wider gentile world, this image of Christ's sonship was interpreted not metaphorically, but metaphysically. The resultant tale of controversies, anathemas and political interventions is complex; but what is clear is that the Hellenized Christ, who in one nature was of one substance with God, and in another nature was of one substance with humanity, bore no signiﬁcant resemblance to the ascetic prophet who had walked the roads of Galilee some three centuries before. From the Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated: 'The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers the like of whom had passed away before him . . . O people of the Book - stress not in your religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of a people who went astray before you.' (Surat al-Ma'ida, 75)
And again: 'O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say 'Three'. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.' (Surat alNisa, 171-2)
The Qur'anic term for 'exaggeration' used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic ﬁgure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation - hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of 175
Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him. Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over nonSemitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation.’ So in the light of this evidence Muslims are not as sanguine as A.E. Harvey appears to be about the ability of monotheists to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences, spiritually speaking, of confusing the creature with the Creator.
Harvey believes that the New Testament writers have successfully avoided this error and ‘submitted to this constraint’, i.e. they have adhered to the restrictions of monotheism. He cites Jesus’ endorsement of monotheism in Mark 12:29:
‘One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the ﬁrst of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The ﬁrst is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”’
Also noted is that ‘Jesus accepted the prohibition which this implied of any moral comparison between himself and God in Mark 10:18’:
‘Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’
Continuing his theme that the New Testament writers successfully avoided breaching the bounds of monotheism, Harvey notes that Jesus is portrayed in the Fourth Gospel as strongly refuting the accusation that he set himself up as being equal to God. Harvey explains, ‘Most explicitly at John 10.33: Jesus‘ reply makes the semantic point that there is precedent in his own culture for using the word θεός for beings who are other than the one God’.
‘The New Testament writers similarly are insistent about the absolute oneness of God, and show no tendency to describe Jesus in terms of divinity: the few apparent exceptions are either grammatically and textually uncertain or have an explanation which brings them within the constraint of Jewish monotheism.’ I tend to disagree with Harvey at this point. I think the evidence, critically considered, favours the view that there are at least three passages in the NT where Jesus is clearly called God:
Hebrews 1:8-9; John 1:1; John 20:28 (see the judicious discussion by Raymond E. Brown in his ‘An Introduction to New Testament Christology‘ Geoffrey Chapman, 1994, page 185f.)
Discuss AE Harvey’s introductory comments in
1. Introduction: Jesus and Historical Constraint
this chapter to be ﬁnished.........
F. Glossary of terms: Islamic, Christian and Academic
Adoptionism A belief, widely held within the earliest Christian movement, and still active in the 2nd and 3rd century CE, that Jesus was a normal human being, a prophet, and is not a deity. God later gave him supernatural powers at his baptism (see Mark 1) when God chose Jesus as his "adopted" son. Adoptionism was later declared a heresy by a number of early church councils. Allāh (!)ا The Arabic name of God. Used by Arabic speaking Christians, Jews and Muslims. ‘Aqīdah (ة$%&') The Islamic creed, or the six article of faith, which consists of the belief in God, Angels, Messengers and Prophets, Scriptures, the Day of Judgment, and Destiny
Aramaic Semitic language, similar to Hebrew. Became the common language of the Persian empire (including Palestine) from about the 6th century B.C. Everyday language of Judaism, Hebrew surviving only in scholarship and liturgy. It was the language of Jesus. Islam (*)م+)ا "submission to God". The Arabic root word for Islam means submission, obedience, peace, and purity.
Christ The English term for the Greek word Χριστός (Christós), which literally means "The Anointed One." The Hebrew word for Christ is ַ( מָשִׁיחMašíaḥ, usually transliterated Messiah). The word may be misunderstood by some as being the surname of Jesus due to the frequent juxtaposition of Jesus and Christ in the Christian Bible and other Christian 178
writings. Often used as a more formal-sounding synonym for Jesus, the word is in fact a title, hence its common reciprocal use Christ Jesus, meaning The Anointed One, Jesus. Christology The academic study of Jesus of Nazareth especially his status, signiﬁcance and role vis a vis God. Scholars have long noticed that the four gospel writers each articulate a distinctive Christology with a major difference between the Christologies of Mathew, Mark and Luke (the ‘synoptic gospels’) on the one hand and John on the other. Professor James Dunn of Durham University, a leading New Testament scholar, writes ‘there was no real evidence in the earliest Jesus tradition of what could fairly be called a consciousness of divinity’ (Christology in the Making, 1980, p. 60). Dhimmi (,ّ.)ذ "Protected person"; Jews and Christians (and sometimes others, such as Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and Zoroastrians), living in an Islamic state whose right to practice their religion is tolerated under Islamic law.
Didache Also known as The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles, The Didache was probably written between c. AD 50 and the end of the ﬁrst century. This means it is the very earliest witness to the Christian understanding of Jesus outside of the New Testament and predates NT books such as II Peter (written as late as 150 AD). Jesus scholar Professor Geza Vermes comments, ‘The work transmits anonymously a primitive form of Christian message attributed to the twelve apostles of Jesus and most of the material implies that the audience or readership was of Jewish rather than Gentile background’ (Geza Vermes p 136. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325). Reading the Didache one gets the clear impression of a very early Judaeo-Christian church, free from the inﬂuence of the exalted Christologies of Paul and John. Ebionites From the Hebrew root "Ebion" which means poor, oppressed or humble. A group of Jewish Christians. Some theologians believe that before Paul came on the scene, the Ebionites (or their predecessors) formed the original Christian movement. This included the people 179
who knew Jesus best: his disciples and family. They were led by Peter and James. They rejected Paul's writings, believing him to be an apostate from the Mosaic Law. They denied the deity of Jesus, viewing him as a the ﬁnal and greatest prophet. The members were scattered during uprisings circa 70 and 134 CE, and died out by the 5th century. Eisegesis The process of taking a preconceived belief and interpreting a biblical passage in a way that supports that belief. This is a very common phenomenon, although the interpreter is not generally conscious of the process! Some current hermeneutical theories would argue that some kind of eisegesis is a necessary part of the exegetical process. Evangelist i) the author of a Gospel; ii) someone who preaches the gospel (Christian message). Exegesis Analyzing passages from the Bible to understand what it meant to its author and others in the author's culture (see ‘Historical criticism’ below). Falsafah (01234) "Philosophy" The methods and content of Greek philosophy which were brought into Islam. A person who tries to interpret Islam through rationalist philosophy was called a faylasuf (ف623%4), "philosopher".
Fiqh (7&4) Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh is an expansion of the code of conduct (Sharia) expounded in the Quran, often supplemented by the Sunnah and implemented by the rulings and interpretations of Islamic jurists. Fiqh deals with the observance of rituals, morals and social legislation in Islam. There are four prominent schools (madh'hab) of ﬁqh within Sunni practice and two within Shi'a practice. Historical criticism An approach to Bible interpretation which seeks to interpret the Bible in the light of what the biblical authors intended to say in their own historical circumstances, rather than as
timeless statements of religious truth. This approach to the Bible gained acceptance in Western academic circles during the 19th century and is dominant in universities today. Fundamentalist evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on scriptural inerrancy mirrors Islamic beliefs about the Qur’an. Therefore a certain symmetry exists between the two faiths. This superﬁcial similarity is attractive to debaters. However, in fact the two scriptures are quite dissimilar in composition and authorship, a factor which is sometimes overlooked. The English Muslim writer Gai Eaton was once asked why there is no historical criticism of the Qur’an as there is of the Bible. His answer from the Islamic perspective is illuminating: ‘There is a misunderstanding: the Bible is made up of many different parts, compiled over many centuries and it is possible to cast doubt upon one part without impugning the rest; whereas the Qur’an is a single revelation, received by just one man, either you accept it for what it claims to be, in which case you are a Muslim or you reject this claim, and so place yourself outside the fold of Islam.’ Kalam (839: ا83') Literally, “words” or “speech,” and referring to oration. The name applied to the discipline of philosophy and theology concerned speciﬁcally with the nature of faith, determinism and freedom, and the nature of the divine attributes. Lā ilāha ill-Allāh (! إ; ا7:);إ "There is none worthy of worship other than God." The most important expression in Islam. It is part of the ﬁrst pillar of Islam. Also is the message of all the Prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
Q (Q = ﬁrst letter of the German Quelle = ‘source’): a source hypothesized by Synoptic scholars to explain the material common to Matthew and Luke but not derived from Mark. Considered to be a collection of Jesus’ words made in the 50s, either written or oral. Qur'an (&?آن:)ا
The word Qur'an means recitation. Muslims believe the Qur'an (Koran) to be the literal word of God and the culmination of God's revelation to mankind, revealed to prophet Muhammad in the year AD 610 in the cave Hira by the angel Jibril. Septuagint (or "LXX", or "Greek Old Testament") is a translation of the Hebrew Bible, begun in the late 3rd century BCE. The Septuagint is quoted by the New Testament (particularly by St. Paul), and by the Apostolic Fathers.
The traditional story is that Ptolemy II sponsored the translation for use by the many Alexandrian Jews who were ﬂuent in Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, until the development of Byzantine Greek around 600 CE), but not in Hebrew. The Septuagint is not a straight translation of the original but reﬂects the exegetical traditions and theological viewpoints of the translators. Some churches consider the translation to be inspired by God. Sharī‘ah (0@A?B:)ا "the path to a watering hole"; the eternal ethical code and moral code based on the Qur'an and Sunnah; basis of ﬁqh. Synoptic problem The problem of the literary relationship between the three ‘Synoptic gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke), posed by the amount of subject-matter they share and the many similarities in wording and order. Common dependence on oral traditions (including Aramaic ones) may account for some of the phenomena, but there are such close parallels in the Greek that a direct literary connection is generally accepted.
Mark is held by most scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and that it was used as a source by Matthew and Luke, and for the considerable non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke their authors drew independently on a now lost common source known to critics as Q. ‘Ulamā’ (ءDE3') or ulema the leaders of Islamic society, including teachers, Imams and judges. Singular alim. 182
Ummah (0ّ.ُ;)ا (literally 'nation') the global community of all Muslim believers. Wahy (GH)و revelation or inspiration of God to His prophets for all humankind Yahweh (Hebrew: )יהוה, often rendered Jehovah or the LORD (in small capitals), is a modern scholarly vocalization of the name YHWH as it appears in Biblical Hebrew, where it is written without vowels as יהוה. YHWH is one of the names of the God of Israel in the Jewish Bible.
Glossary compiled with reference to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the Wikipedia entry ‘Glossary on Islam’, and my own entries. ***
For further study of the issues raised in this book I recommend the following scholarly works
(additional books have now been added to list on bloggingtheology)
NB If you want just one book that is highly regarded by all New Testament scholars as a reliable introduction to the historical Jesus then get a copy of The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, published by Penguin Books 1995.
The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, published by Penguin Books 1995. America’s most distinguished scholar in the field of Jesus-research provides a generally convincing picture of the real Jesus set within the world of Palestinian Judaism.
The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, published by Penguin Books 2001. Vermes gives an equal voice to both the New Testament and non-biblical Jewish writings to uncover the historical figure of Jesus hidden beneath the oldest gospels, showing how and why a charismatic holy man was elevated into the divine figure of Christ. Essential reading.
The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes, published by Penguin Books 2004. The first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, he almost single-handedly brought to the attention of New Testament scholarship the significance of Jesus as a Jew.
Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation by James D.G.Dunn, Second Edition, published by SCM Press 1989. This work (and Unity and Diversity below) has made me think harder and more rigorously than 184
any other book on Jesus. This classic text is crucial reading for scholars and public alike. An advanced work, but it repays the effort.
Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity by James D.G.Dunn, Third Edition, published by SCM Press 2006. Dunn is an author who simply must be read by all serious students of early Christianity. Like his other work on Christology mentioned above, it assumes the reader is familiar with the basic critical issues of NT scholarship.
An Introduction to New Testament Christology by Raymond E. Brown published by Paulist Press 2005. Excellent introduction by a top Roman Catholic scholar.
Christology and The New Testament by Christopher Tuckett published by Edinburgh University Press 2001. An accessible and scholarly introduction by a top British academic. Highly recommended.
The Brother of Jesus & the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Jeffrey J. Butz Written for a popular audience Butz successfully condenses recent academic writing about James the brother of Jesus for the general reader. Reading this book will change forever one’s understanding of early Christianity and the forgotten figure of James.
Escaping from Fundamentalism by James Barr, published by SCM Press 1990. Barr is vital reading for those trapped in the rigid world of fundamentalism as so many Christians are these days. I owe him a personal debt of gratitude.
How Jesus Became Christian by Barrie Wilson, published by Phoenix 2009. Discusses the early Christians and the transformation of a Jewish teacher into the Son of God.
Jesus of Nazareth An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching by Maurice Casey, published by T &T Clark 2011. A new ‘life’ of Jesus written by one of the outstanding scholars of his generation, it offers an in-depth resource on the ‘Historical Jesus’ debate.
The Metaphor of God Incarnate by John Hick, published by SCM press, second edition 2005. A penetrating insight into contemporary discussion of incarnational theory and will be essential reading in Christology for many years to come. Especially valuable for Islamic dawah.
Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D. Ehrman published by HarperCollins 2011. Written for the general public (rather than academia) Ehrman exposes one of the greatest ironies of the early church: the use of deception to establish the truth. Christian forgeries were widespread in the ancient world and Ehrman shows how some of them ended up in the New Testament.
A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehman, published by Oxford University Press, 2009. An excellent introductory guide to the New Testament, beautifully illustrated.
A New History of Early Christianity by Charles Freeman, published by Yale University Press 2009. A New History of Early Christianity shows how current debates about the faith are rooted in the many controversies surrounding the birth of the religion and the earliest attempts to resolve them. Charles Freeman’s meticulous historical account of Christianity from its birth in Judaea in the first century A.D. to the emergence of Western and Eastern churches by A.D. 600 reveals that it was a distinctive, vibrant, and incredibly diverse movement brought into order at the cost of intellectual and spiritual vitality. Against the conventional narrative of the inevitable ‘triumph’ of a single distinct Christianity, Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. A great read!
Jesus and his Jewish Context by Geza Vermes, published by SCM press 2003. In this stimulating work, one of the most renowned scholars of ancient Judaism explores how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and the earliest Jesus movement fit into the Jewish world of Judea and Galilee. Very useful for Muslim apologetics.
Reformation : Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmaid MacCulloch published by Penguin 2004. MacCulloch, professor of Church History at Oxford University, has written what is widely considered to be the authoritative account of the Reformation. “It is 186
impossible to understand modern Europe without understanding these 16th-century upheavals in Latin Christianity” he writes. “They represented the greatest fault line to appear in Christian culture since the Latin and Greek halves of the Roman Empire went their separate ways a thousand years before; they produced a house divided.” The resulting split between the Catholics and Protestants still divides Christians throughout the Western world. It affects interpretations of the Bible, beliefs about baptisms, and even how much authority is given to religious leaders. What makes MacCulloch’s account rise above previous attempts to interpret the Reformation is the breadth of his research. Rather than limit his narrative to the actions of key theologians and leaders of the era -Luther, Zingli, Calvin, Loyola, Cranmer, Henry VIII and numerous popes – MacCulloch sweeps his narrative across the culture, politics and lay people of Renaissance Western Europe. This broad brush approach touches upon many fascinating discussions surrounding the Reformation, including his belief that the Latin Church was probably not as “corrupt and ineffective” as Protestants tend to portray it.
Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eaton, published by the Islamic Texts Society 1994. This beautifully written book converted me to Islam, alhamdulillah.
Muhammad, his life based on the earliest sources by Martin Lings. The book is a work of art and utterly enthralling. Probably the finest biography of the prophet (pbuh) in the English language.
Purification of the Heart, signs, symptoms and cures of the spiritual diseases of the heart by Hamza Yusuf. A profoundly wise and liberating book.
What God said about Eating Pork, & Issues for Muslim/Christian Dialogue, by Shabir Ali, published by Al-Attique Publishers Inc, 2003. A short work (32 pages) written with clarity and intelligence, and unusually for a Muslim apologist, Ali has a firm grasp of the New Testament material.
An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Yasir Qadhi, published in 1999 by Progress Co. Ltd. An excellent foundational work introducing the basics for understanding the Qur’an.
Understanding The Qur’an, Themes and Style by Muhammad Abdel Haleem, published by I.B. Tauris 2005. The tenets of Islam cannot be understood without a proper understanding of the Qur’an. This new book by a professor of Islamic Studies at London University is accessible and erudite. In the second edition of the book Professor Haleem kindly mentions me…
The Quran and the Secular Mind, A Philosophy of Islam by Shabbir Akhtar, published by Routledge 2008. Fascinating reading.
Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World by Jonathan A. C. Brown. ”A must read and a great read. The combination of impeccable, critical scholarship with a story teller’s style has produced an introductory volume that is both substantive and remarkably engaging.” John L. Esposito, Founding Director of the Center for MuslimChristian Understanding at Georgetown University, and Editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Islam
The Book of Hadith, Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from the Mishkat al-Masabih Selected by Gai Eaton and published by The Book Foundation 2008. For me, this collection of beautiful gems is evidence of why the teaching of Muhammad and Jesus (peace be upon them both) came from the same divine source.
Islam in Victorian Britain, The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam by Ron Greaves, published by Kube 2010.
Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, by Jonathan A.C. Brown published by Oxford University Press 2011. Accessible and scholarly introduction to one of the greatest figures of mankind, and perfect for Dawah!
Islam as Political Religion: The future of an imperial faith by Shabbir Akhtar, published by Routledge 2011. More fascinating reading from the author of The Quran and the Secular Mind, A Philosophy of Islam
Finally see the Recommended Reading List at www.acommonword.com by Timothy Winter, Sheikh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge.
THE ROAD TO MECCA: MY STORY
From Hedonism to Faith
I was brought up in a secular family in England, where I rebelled against the Christian practice of my school by becoming an outspoken atheist (not terribly original I know). I was one of those students who refused to bow my head during the school assembly prayer. When I was 23 I moved to London. One weekend I was cycling back from an all night party on Sunday morning when I passed by St Mary’s Church in Islington. I was attracted to its neo-classical architecture and decided to go inside for a look. The Sunday service was in progress and I sat at the back, watching. What happened next is one of those experiences it is impossible to put into words. I felt an external force, Love, wash over me, but I would not let it in. It was very intense and most unwelcome, yet paradoxically I liked it. I felt that if I stayed in the church I would breakdown in tears or worse. So I left. Was it God’s presence? I think it was.
Unsurprisingly I returned the following Sunday looking for a repeat experience, and of course, nothing happened. But it propelled me on a spiritual quest that lead me to become a born-again Christian a year later in my local Baptist church. I had some amazing spiritual experiences, and felt God was intimately involved with my life, prayer became real to me, and I felt I had entered a moral universe for the ﬁrst time. I was rather hedonistic before my conversion, in fact I had been a so-called ‘gay activist’, and not surprisingly I lost most of my friends when I became a Christian. Accepting Christianity meant I accepted that God had reserved sexual intimacy for the married state alone. Some of my gay friends called me a ‘traitor’ (amongst other unprintable things!) As I love reading, I read and read: theology, biblical studies, commentaries and philosophy. But above all I studied the Bible. I had so many questions, and not many answers. But some issues worried me profoundly and sent me off researching for answers. I started to feel my born-again faith was under threat… Faith in Question There were some really difﬁcult challenges thrown up by my reading of the Bible. I was especially worried by what I read in Mark’s gospel chapter 13. I read there that Jesus taught the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and the end of the world would occur within the generation then living. Did Jesus get it wrong? Did he really believe the world would end in the ﬁrst century? And then what about all those statements in Paul’s letters that said the End was soon to come? Then there was the issue of homosexuality. How does one interpret Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:9? More and more Christians (yes – even evangelicals) were interpreting these passages in a liberal direction in ways that permitted gay relationships, but I thought their interpretations were self-serving and inﬂuenced by the Zeitgeist. I stuck to my guns. Nevertheless, I felt increasingly marginalized in my views. Most of my Christian friends who
came from a homosexual background were abandoning Christian morality and going back to the so-called ‘gay scene’. They were supported by an increasing number of priests and bishops. I refused to do this out of obedience to God. One day I decided to study the Bible at university and I enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of London. How I enjoyed being a full-time student! But I was ill-prepared. Because of my theological battles over sexual ethics with other Christians, I had developed a thick armor of conservative theology and polemic. Liberal theology was my big enemy. I had marshaled detailed arguments to defend the inerrancy of the Bible and the deity of Jesus; arguments to defend the idea that only through belief in Jesus could a person be saved (and everyone else was doomed to eternal hell ﬁre). The big crunch at college came when I was required to write an essay on the historicity of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. Every book in the bibliography I was required to read assumed the Exodus was a legend. I protested to my Old Testament tutor, but to no avail. Eventually I resigned from the degree course, a decision I now bitterly regret. But it was the wrong time for me to be a theology student at university. I was a committed fundamentalist. I discover Islam… A couple of years later something happened which had unforeseen consequences. I had joined a 12-step programme to help me overcome a particular addiction I was powerless over. No amount of prayer seemed to deliver me from its clutches and I was desperate to be free. In this 12-step group I discovered that some people were committed Christians too (evangelicals and charismatics). If you are familiar with the 12 steps you will know that Step 3 is about coming to acknowledge that a Power greater than oneself can free us from the addiction. By the grace of God I found freedom,and so did many others who were not even Christians. This confused me. Salvation – in the biblical sense of freedom from the slavery of sin, wholeness, doing the will of God – was being experienced by ‘unbelievers’. I thought this
was theologically impossible! My world-view had to come to terms with this new reality. As I experienced more and more wholeness and healing in many aspects of my life I made a decision to look again at the fundamentals of my Christian faith: I wanted to make a ruthlessly honest reappraisal of the foundations of Christianity. So I reread the best contemporary New Testament scholarship and used my intelligence, reason and desire for truth to guide me (I studied works by Raymond E. Brown; James DG Dunn; Graham Stanton; Geza Vermes; EP Sanders; NT Wright; AE Harvey, and others – all but one are Christians). I wanted to ﬁnd the truth: Did Jesus really think he was God? I wanted to take a new hard dispassionate look at the historical evidence and follow the truth even if it lead me out of Christianity. Was the Bible really without error? If there were serious errors in the Book (like the erroneous belief that Jesus would return in the ﬁrst century) then how could I trust it on other important matters? Was the grace of God available only through the Christian faith? I had discovered that God’s grace could transform the lives of non-Christians who called on Him. So maybe there were other paths to God… Co-incidentally, I took an academic interest in Islam. I read the Qur’an from cover to cover (in English) and unannounced I walked into my local mosque in Regents Park. The brothers there were very kind, easily spotting an English guy who had no idea where to go. I set myself a three month time limit to learn all I thought I needed to know about the reality of Islam, then I would move on. I aimed to discover if Islam was really a religion of terror, hostile to Western civilisation and humane values. Unfortunately I had become very Islamophobic and had started to boycott my local halal shop because the men had beards and so must be nasty militant types! (They turned out to be nice Shia brothers)
So like with Christianity, I decided to look into Islam as objectively as I could. I wanted to undertake this enquiry for myself away from the inﬂuence of the media. At the mosque I asked many questions and even argued against Islam. What was Islam really like? I listened and I learned. But I certainly never everhad any thought of becoming a Muslim! I did not learn my theology all at once, but have always had to dig deeper and deeper. Martin Luther I had thought Christianity was the only show in town. Now, I had signiﬁcant indications that other people lived a vibrant spiritually authentic existence, but were not Christians, ﬁrst on the 12 step programme, and then slowly, I discovered, in Islam. Could I have been wrong in my Christian beliefs? Could I be brave enough to question my most cherished beliefs about God and the Bible? Revisiting biblical studies and asking new questions of the New Testament lead me away from traditional Christianity. So, did Jesus think he was God? The evidence suggested that he did not as the earliest historical evidence indicated that he was a prophet of God and a devout Orthodox Jew and not the dying and rising saviour god of later Pauline Christianity. Was the Bible really without error? Looking dispassionately at the evidence I was forced to accept that serious error exists in the Bible. And unlike the Quran the Bible nowhere actually claims to be the word of God! Was the grace of God available only through the Christian faith? Muslims and other non-Christians demonstrated all those aspects of holiness of life I had previously assumed were exclusive to Christians.
In a new spirit of openness I discovered something amazing, beautiful, strange, yet oh so familiar: Islam. The Qur’an came alive to me, like the Bible had before. Islam’s great secret, unknown to most in the West is the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): this man’s life and teaching came to me as a complete surprise. What an amazing man! A real prophet of God. It was mind-blowing stuff! I said my Shahada. I found that my intensive reading of the Qur’an did not raise a multitude of distressing questions as had my reading of the Bible. Islam is basically a simple religion of one God that I ﬁnd much more inclusive and pluralistic than my narrow Christian faith. However I still have much to learn and yes I still have unanswered questions and problems I wrestle with, but my faith is not on the line any more. The Truth is friendly to enquiry, there is nothing to fear. I am an imperfect human bring with a long and convoluted past. But I am on a journey and God has blessed me in so many ways….
visit my blog at bloggingtheology.wordpress.com
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