Jesus is mentioned in the Koran 154 times in 19 stories, more than the Prophet himself. Mary or Miriam, his mother, dedicated to God from childhood and serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, is actually mentioned more in the Koran than in the Bible -she is spoken of 100 times. Of course, the Muslim narrative differs from the Christian while both maintain their sometimes conflicting accounts are wholly correct.
In Islam, Jesus is the messenger of God and his servant, as is Mohammad. He is a sign (ayat) and a mercy from God. Jesus’ principle message to both religions is one of truth- do not do one thing and be another, do not pretend to be religious with a great show of reverence when you are not inside. Honest humanity is exactly like honest architecture: when Pugin rages against the Georgian theatrics of Bath, he is saying the same thing: the facade should honestly reflect what is going on inside.
For Islam, Jesus/’Isa is “the son of Mary” (I count 22 times and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran), as he is also described in Mark 6:3: οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τέκτων, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς Μαρίας, ἀδελφὸς δὲ Ἰακώβου καὶ Ἰωσῆ καὶ Ἰούδα καὶ Σίμωνος; καὶ οὐκ εἰσὶν αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ ὧδε πρὸς ἡμᾶς; καὶ ἐσκανδαλίζοντο ἐν αὐτῷ. Of course, in Mark’s account, while it can be understood to be a reference to the Virgin birth, it might also suggest the locals were suspicious of Jesus’ true paternity, and the Talmud elaborates on this elsewhere. ‘Isa is also called the “word of God” Kalimat Minhu and “the spirit of God”. ‘Isa is an icon and an example of humility and poverty, owning nothing and giving up the world, an important message to a society dominated by consumption and obsessed with wealth. ‘Isa had three things- a robe, a bowl and a comb. He subsequently gave away the comb and the bowl- what do I need these for when others could use them?
‘Isa is the prophet of the end times, returning as the Messiah (Al Masih): this was foretold by the angels. He is described as Messiah 11 times in the Koran.
إِذْ قَالَتِ الْمَلآئِكَةُ يَا مَرْيَمُ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُبَشِّرُكِ بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنْهُ اسْمُهُ الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ وَجِيهًا فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالآخِرَةِ وَمِنَ الْمُقَرَّبِينَ
Differences and the Nativity
(Al Emran 45) The Koranic story differs from the Christian story in the absence of a stable, a manger and Joseph, but so much of the Christian infancy narrative is fairly loose, with contradictions between Matthew and Luke, a complete lack of any infancy narrative in John and Mark and some very picturesque details added from the Protoevangelium of James, (later reworked in Armenian and Syriac) to form the christmas crib scene popularised by St Francis of Assisi in 1223 and painted by everyone from Giotto onwards. The ox and the ass are also in icons of the nativity, together with a midwife who arrives a bit too late, but helps to bathe the baby. There is also the legend of Aphroditianus and the “Revelation of the magi” where the various visitors see the Christ-child in different forms, as a throned king, a warrior and a martyr. In the Revelation, there are 12 magi, one of whom comes from Shir or China. In the Arabic Infancy narrative, the magi take back with them the swaddling cloths which have mystical powers akin to the shroud of Turin and now on display in either Dubrovnik Cathedral or as the “Windel Jesu” in Aachen Cathedral. One tradition in the late middle ages sees the swaddling clothes made from Joseph’s underpants, rather coyly represented in a 1400 painting, now in Antwerp, by Joseph Malouel as a stocking.
The site of the nativity is celebrated in the ruins of the church of the Kathisma of the theotokos, about 3 miles outside Bethlehem. This follows exactly the narrative of the Protoevangelium of James where even before the Holy family get to Bethlehem, Mary asks to get off the donkey and Joseph locates a cave in the middle of the desert. In the centre of the church is a rock where Mary rests before giving birth.
While celebrating the Virgin-birth, Islam does not say that this also means Jesus is divine. this is where the two traditions start to divide and indeed where the controversy arose a few weeks’ ago in Glasgow. Again, while calling Jesus “Word of God” Islam is not attributing Divinity to him.
In both Islam and Orthodoxy, choosing to do what is right, Mary is seen as the perfect model of what our life can be. In this, Orthodoxy avoids the pitfalls of Augustinian original sin and therefore of the “Immaculate conception” and shares with Islam in presenting Mary as a role-model not only for women but for everyone. She is a symbol of purity, obedience and dignity. In Islam, Mary is alone, giving birth to ‘Isa under a date-tree in the desert and as in the biblical narrative, she suffers gossip because of the scandal of giving birth without an identifiable father.
There are miracles attributed to ‘Isa that do not appear in the canonical Gospels, but they are certainly found in the Apocryphal texts, that he talked from his cradle, that he brought clay birds to life, cured the blind, lepers and that he raised the dead- in the case of the Koran, one of the sons of Noah. One of the big debates that tends to pop up is completely mistaken- that the miracles point to Jesus’ divinity. In fact, throughout the New Testament, Jesus routinely attributes the miraculous to God- as indeed the early teaching in Acts 2:22 attests: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you…”
Where things really start to get complex is in the death of Jesus. For the Christian, this takes place on a cross at the age of 33. For the Muslim, it takes place in serenity surrounded by angels at the age of 120. The Koran even acknowledges the Christian claim (4: 157) and explains that this was a deception. Some accounts talk about a replacement for Christ, a rescue operation that leads Judas to be arrested and killed rather than Jesus.
In this, Islam is paralleled by the 3rd Century Gospel of Basilides and the Apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas:
“God, who had decreed the issue, reserved Judas for the cross, in order that he might suffer that horrible death to which he had sold another. He did not suffer Judas to die under the scourges, notwithstanding that the soldiers scourged him so grievously that his body rained blood.
“So they led him to Mount Calvary, where they used to hang malefactors, and there they crucified him naked, for the greater ignominy. Judas truly did nothing else but cry out: God, why have you forsaken me, seeing the malefactor has escaped and I die unjustly? Truly I say that the voice, the face, and the person of Judas were so like to Jesus, that his disciples and believers entirely believed that he was Jesus; wherefore some departed from the doctrine of Jesus, believing that Jesus had been a false prophet, and that by the art of magic he had done the miracles which he did: for Jesus had said that he should not die till near the end of the world; for that at that time he should be taken away from the world.”
But the Gospel of Barnabas was probably a 16th century forgery.
The crucifixion story is not very reliable
Pauline Theology (beginning in 1 Cor 15) is dominated by the crucifixion, so the Islamic account appears to challenge the core belief in Christianity. I was listening to someone talking about the crucifixion event the other day, however, and was astonished by his claim that the account of the crucifixion is one of the most accurate testimonies to an actual execution in the ancient world. Well, yes and no. What the New Testament account does is to spin the story with enough graphic detail that the vital legal questions remain unasked and unanswered. It seems to me that it is not at all clear why Jesus merited a death sentence under Roman law at all. There is a hint that the apostles were armed in the Garden of Gethsemane and if Jerusalem were under lock-down, then maybe a case can be made against them, but not really against Jesus. There is no evidence that he was armed. Beyond that, while there might just be a case for the Jewish authorities to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy, again there is no good reason in the narrative why that does not happen and why instead Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities.
Despite this, and perhaps most importantly in a defence of the historical reliability of the Gospel testimony, it is improbable that the crucifixion event would ever have been invented. Why would any group want to glorify a sadistic and shameful execution especially when the incarnation narrative, which was already emerging, provided quiet sufficient evidence of an intervention in history by God?
If we move to the Reformation and the emphasis placed by the reformers on the Atonement, then the crucifixion swings even more mightily centre-stage. More than that, the ever-present image of Jesus as a shepherd merges into an image of Jesus both as Paschal lamb and as scapegoat – one event, the crucifixion combining the festivals of both Passover and Yom Kippur.
Just as there have been Christians who have questioned the Virgin Birth (the Bishop of York, for instance in the not-so-distant past), so too, quite demonstrably, there have been Christians throughout history who have questioned the reality of the crucifixion or the centrality of that event. It is not such a shocking claim.
Islam is certainly not alone in denying that the crucifixion was real. The Gnostics had already done this. Here is the relevant paragraph from the Nag Hammadi scriptures-
It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.
The idea that Jesus survived the crucifixion is brilliantly done in the Kazenzakis book, “The Last Temptation” and in the film – I remember the scene where St Paul confronts Jesus and says he invented Christ, “I don’t care whether you’re Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world…I created the truth out of what people needed. If I have to crucify you to save the world then I’ll crucify you and if I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too, whether you like it or not…. My Jesus is much more important and more powerful.”
The same story of survival, incidentally, is also told in “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln) and its sequel, “The Messaianic legacy”, even “the Passover plot” by Hugh Schonfield (a Glasgow academic and one of the original Dead sea scrolls’ academics, slightly given to the sensational and less glamorous than Geza Vermes but who authored a very competent reworking of the gospels “The Authentic New Testament”) -it lies behind the dreadful “Da Vinci Code” stuff. It is implicit in the Philip Pullman novella “The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ” which in turn, I think, is a fantasy based on the idea, already suggested by Leonardo’s twin Jesus painted in the Last supper, that Thomas, the twin (Didymus) was the brother of Jesus and took his place on the cross, a theological version of the 2006 film “The Prestige” with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. I was asked to look at the Pullmann book a couple of years’ ago to see what could be done to turn it into a film. A tough call but in the end, Pullmann got cold feet and pulled out of the project.
And finally there is the AntiChrist, المسيح الدجّال Dajjal, the one-eyed opposite to everything ever preached by Jesus. This cyclopedic travesty of goodness will rule with brute force, atheism and deceit. Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus will descend and defeat the anti-Christ. What Islam does that Christianity does not is to provide specifics- ‘Isa returns in eastern Damascus to confront injustice, his hands resting on the shoulders of two angels, and his hair dripping with oil. When he tosses his head, the beads of oil will fly off like pearls. He will destroy the cross and kill the pig. When the Dajjal sees ‘Isa, he will dissolve “like salt in water”.