Islam and the Crucifixion

Muslims based their rejection of the actuality of the death of Christ on this text from the Koran, Sura 4.156-57:

"They [the Jews] denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: ' We have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah.' They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did" (THE KORAN, trans. N.J. Dawood. Penguin Books: 1956, 1984).

Note that not only is the Crucifixion denied, but only the Jews are said to have had any role in the the fate of Christ. Not a word is said about the part played by the Romans.

I've never seen any sensible arguments by Muslims in defense of this text from the Koran. I'll quote the account of the Crucifixion given in Mark 15.22-41:

They brought him [Jesus] to the place of Golgotha (which is translated Place of the Skull). They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take. It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." With him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left.

Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross." Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sebach- thani?" which is translated, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Some of the bystanders who heard it said, "Look, he is calling Elijah." One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down." Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, "Truly, this man was the Son of God!" There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses and Salome. These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him. There were also many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem [NAB].

I chose the account of the Crucifixion from Mark's Gospel partly because it's the oldest of the four canonical Gospels. It may have been written around AD 65. I would put some stress on the sheer NUMBER of the witnesses Mark cites as having seen the execution of Jesus.

I grant that the reality of the death of Christ might have been open to seemingly plausible challenge if all we had were the accounts of Jesus' death in the four Gospels. However, that is not the case. Another early source mentioning the Passion of Christ is the notice Flavius Josephus gave in JEWISH ANTIQUITIES 18.3.3. sub sub sections 63-64:

"At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah [some believe this part is a later Christian interpolation]. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out."

Quoted from page 60 of Fr. John P. Meier's A MARGINAL JEW (Vol. 1. Anchor/Doubleday: 1991).

The "Testimonium Flavianum" is among the most violently debated passages of the writings of Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100). The point I wish to stress is that the ANTIQUITIES, appearing as they did circa AD 93-94, is one of the earliest non Biblical sources to mention the DEATH of Jesus. And that Jesus was executed due to the hostility of the Jewish leaders and with the assent and assistance of Pilate.

Again, nothing here to support Mohammed's denial of the reality of the Passion of Christ.

On pages 1092-96 of THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH (Vol. 2), the late Fr. Raymond E. Brown mentions several efforts to explain away the Crucifixion by writers who claimed Christ did not die on the Cross because of either confusion or a plot. The following text comes from pages 1093-95 of THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH (Vol. 2, Anchor/Doubleday: 1994):

I. CONFUSION. By the 2nd century a number of suggestions were being circulated that someone other than Jesus was crucified on Golgotha. According to Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 1.24.4) the gnostic Basilides maintained that Jesus did not suffer. "Rather a certain Simon of Cyrene was compelled to bear his cross for him...and through ignorance and error it was he who was crucified." If this view was in circulation in the 1st century, it may have been one of the reasons why John ignored the Simon tradition and insisted that Jesus carried the cross by himself (pp. 916-17 above). Thomas, whose name John three times explains as "Twin" (11:16; 20:24; 21:2), was confusingly identified in Syriac-speaking Christianity, especially in the Edessa region, with Jude (Judas), one of the four "brothers" of Jesus mentioned in Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55).

Thus was created the figure of Jude Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus, a portrait popular in Gnostic circles. The idea that Jesus had a look-alike may have been one of the factors that led to the thesis that someone who looked like Jesus was crucified instead of him. A gnostic form of that is the contention that the bodily appearance of Jesus was crucified, but the real Jesus (who was purely spiritual) was not. Cerinthus made the distinction in terms of the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Jesus, for Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 1.26.1) reports Cerinthus' view that Christ descended on Jesus at the baptism and "in the end Christ withdrew again from Jesus -- Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible inasmuch as he was a spiritual being."

In the Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter (VII.81.7-25) we read that Peter saw two figures involved in the crucifixion: Executioners were pounding on the hands and feet of one; the other was up on a tree laughing at what was going on. "The Savior said to me, ' The one whom you saw on the tree, happy and laughing, is the living Jesus; but the one into whose hands they drive the nail is his fleshly part. It is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came to being in his likeness'" The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (VII.51.20-52.3) affirms: "I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out first the one who was in it, and I went in...He was an earthly man; but I, I am from above the heavens."

The confusion this caused among the unenlightened during the passion was graphically described: "It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I...It was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder" (VII.56.6-11). The Koran (4.156-57) criticizes the Jews for saying, "We killed the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah, when they did not kill or crucify him; but he/it was counterfeited [or: a double was substituted] before their eyes.... And certainly they did not kill him."

Islamic apologists have pointed out that Mohammed would have had no trouble accepting the crucifixion of Jesus; therefore the fact that he did not accept it shows he got revelation on the subject from God. But we do not know how much orthodox Christianity Mohammed knew; the Arabian Christianity he was acquainted with probably came from Syria and was heterodox. It may have brought with it the gnostic substitution views described above. (Troger, "Jesus" 217, maintains that certainly the Islamic commentators on the Koran were familiar with gnostic texts.) The suggestion of a counterfeit leads us to another aspect of the approaches that deny to Jesus a death by crucifixion.

II. PLOT. The idea of the crucifixion as a deception was in circulation in antiquity. In 1966 attention was called to a defense of Islam written ca. 1000 by 'Abd al-Jabbar. The part against Christianity drew knowledge of the latter not only from the canonical Gospels but also from translated Syriac writing(s) of the 5th century; these seem to represent the compositions of an early Jewish-Christian sect that did not regard Jesus as divine (2nd-century Nazarenes?). According to the underlying account Judas agreed to point out Jesus the Nazarene to the Jews; and so amid a great crowd assembled for the Passover "Judas Iscariot took the hand of a man and kissed his hand," running away after that. The Jews seized the man who had been pointed out and brought him before Pilate, but the man sobbed and wept and denied that he had ever claimed to be the Messiah.

Al-Jabbar, interpreting it to mean that Judas deliberately pointed out the wrong man, uses this to prove that Mohammed was right. Was deception by Judas what the 5th-century writing meant, or is it being read into the document by light of the Koran? If deception was the meaning, did it go back to the earliest stages of the Jewish-Christian group, or was their understanding of the crucifixion contaminated between the 2nd and 5th centuries?

In any case, by 1000 Judas had entered into plot theories as the one responsible for a scenario quite different from the standard account of Jesus' death on the cross.

Summarize Fr. Brown, Gnostic theories, and Muslim apologists here....

Needless to say, I find VERY unconvincing the idea of the reality of the Crucifixion being disproved because Mohammed denied it happened.

Sean M. Brooks 

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