The Quranic Jesus and the Historical Jesus: A Messianic Prophet

All Islamic schools of thought accept it as a fundamental principle that for centuries, for thousands of years before the advent of Muhammad, there arose from time to time messengers, illumined by Divine Grace, for and among those races of the earth which had sufficiently advanced intellectually to comprehend such a message. Thus Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all the Prophets of Israel are universally accepted by Islam.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Memoirs of the Aga Khan: World Enough and Time, 1954)

Today, around 2.4 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims revere and love the figure of Jesus. However, there are important differences in how Jesus is understood in Christian and Muslim theology. Islamic understandings of Jesus are rooted in the Qur’an, revered by all Muslims as God’s revealed guidance through the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’anic description of Jesus diverges from developed Christian doctrine in many respects. Most significantly, the Qur’an asserts that Jesus was a great Prophet of God and the Messiah to the Children of Israel, but denies that Jesus was the literal son of God or the divine incarnation. This has led some Christians to discount the Qur’an’s perspective as unreliable and worthless because the Qur’an dates to 600 years after Jesus’s life and cannot serve as a historical witness to him. But this objection entirely misses the point, since the Qur’an never presents its claims about Jesus as a historical testimony or reconstruction of specific events. The Qur’an instead offers a theological exegesis or commentary about the person of Jesus, claiming to provide the most correct interpretation of who Jesus was ultimately and what his mission was truly about. Because the Qur’an was originally a set of oral recitations over 23 years – addressed to and in dialogue with an audience familiar with biblical materials – the Qur’an’s discourse about Jesus evokes many themes, symbols, and ideas from the Bible and Talmud in order to reinterpret them and thereby offer a new perspective on theological debates among Jews and Christians.

We need to remember that the Qur’ānic age roughly coincides with the epoch when the great exegetical corpora of monotheist tradition were edited and published, such as the two Talmudim in Judaism and the patristic writings in Christianity. These writings, not the Bible, as is often held, are the literary counterparts of the Qur’ān. . . Indeed, the Qur’ān should be understood first and foremost as exegetical, that is, polemical-apologetical, and thus highly rhetorical. The Qur’ān is communicated to listeners whose education already comprises biblical and post-biblical lore, whose nascent scripture therefore should provide answers to the questions raised in biblical exegesis — a scripture providing commentary on a vast amount of earlier theological legacies.

Angelika Neuwirth, (“Two Faces of the Qur’an: Qur’an and Mushaf” in Oral Tradition, 25/1 (2010): 141-156: 142)

Recent research by Sidney H. Griffith (The Bible in Arabic, 2013, p. 87) has argued that much of what the Qur’an has to say about Jesus and Christian doctrine is directed to the beliefs of Melkite and Jacobite Christians as well as certain Arab pagans who had incorporated Jesus into their pantheon. “The Christian doctrines and practices the Qurʾān rejects are in fact those affirmed by the contemporary, Arabic-speaking Christian Melkites, Jacobites, and Nestorians, whose theological heritage and scriptures were in Aramaic/Syriac, translated from the original Greek.” Along these lines, two recent studies by Gabriel Said Reynolds (The Qur’an and its Biblical Subtext, 2010) and Emran el-Badawi have demonstrated how the Qur’an is engaged in a dialogue with biblical, Rabbinical, and Christian exegetical traditions. El-Badawi’s study, The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Tradition (2013, p. 210), found that “11 percent of the Qur’ān is in dialogue with the entirety of the Aramaic Gospel Traditions” and “12 percent of the Gospels are in dialogue with the whole Qur’ān.” He concludes that “the Qur’ān is in close dialogue with the text and context of the Gospels through their transmission in the Syriac and Christian Palestinian dialects of Aramaic” (p. 212). Below are just a few examples from El-Badawi’s study where the Qur’an has reinterpreted or re-articulated a theme or idea from the New Testament:

Qur’anic Re-Articulations of Aramaic Gospel Passages (Examples):
(From El-Badawi, The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions, 220-226)
• Qur’an 3:59 is re-articulating Romans 5:14, 21 on Jesus as the Second Adam
• Qur’an 14:37, 2:126 is re-articulating Luke 3:8 and Matthew 21:43 on Abraham’s Progeny
• Qur’an 5:75, 25:7 is re-articulating Matthew 11:16, 19, 20:3, Mark 5:56 and Luke 7:32-34
• Qur’an 5:18, 9:30 is re-articulating Matthew 5:9 on God’s Servants vs. God’s Sons
• Qur’an 2:210, 6:158, 18:99 is re-articulating Matthew 24:30-31, Mark 13:26-27 on God or Son of Man coming down on the clouds
• Qur’an 24:35-36, 30:57, 61:6-8, 9:32, 25:61, 33:41-46 is re-articulating Matthew 5:14-16, 12:34, Mark 4:21, Luke 6:45, 8:16, 11:33, 13:35, John 8:1, 9:5, 5:35-3 on the Light of God, Light of the World, Lamp, and Houses of God
• Qur’an 1:1-7 is re-articulating Mathew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 on the al-Fatihah and Lord’s Prayer

When the Qur’an is understood to be offering exegetical and interpretative commentary about Jesus, his nature, and his mission, then a great deal of value can be found in the Qur’an’s presentation of Jesus. In fact, the image of the “Qur’anic Jesus” is very much in harmony with the picture of the “Historical Jesus” coming out of historical scholarship. The Historical Jesus refers to the portrait of Jesus that emerges from applying a critical historical method to the study of the New Testament with due regard to its first century Jewish Palestinian context. The Qur’an’s claims about Jesus – a) that Jesus was a Prophet of God and a Servant of God, b) that he claimed to be a human Messiah and not a God-incarnate, c) that he was sent to the Children of Israel to confirm the Torah, and d) that God exalted and vindicated him despite his death by crucifixion – are not only reasonable claims, but are entirely consistent with findings about the historical Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian movement in New Testament scholarship. For this reason, New Testament scholar James D. Tabor noted that the Book of James and the teachings of Jesus per the Q-Source present teachings similar to Islamic beliefs about Jesus in the Qur’an:

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…
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. . . Islam insists that neither Jesus nor Mohammad brought a new religion. Both sought to call people back to what might be called “Abrahamic faith.” This is precisely what we find emphasized in the book of James. Like Islam, the book of James, and the teaching of Jesus in Q, emphasize doing the will of God as a demonstration of one’s faith.

James D. Tabor (Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina),
(The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, 315-16)

The “Qur’anic Jesus” is much closer to the “Historical Jesus” than the “divinized Jesus” of developed Christian theology. The below presentation of the Qur’anic verses about Jesus alongside the findings of Historical Jesus scholarship by conservative Christian New Testament historians demonstrates that the Qur’anic view of Jesus is very much a restoration of the original historical image of Jesus as a Jewish Messianic Prophet.

1. Jesus was a Prophet and Messenger of God:

The Qur’anic Jesus:

The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; Messengers before him passed away; his mother was a just woman; they both ate food.
– Holy Qur’an 5:75

He [Jesus] said, ‘Lo, I am God’s servant; God has given me the Divine guidance (al-kitab), and made me a Prophet. Blessed He has made me, wherever I may be; and He has enjoined me to pray, and to give the alms, so long as I live.’
– Holy Qur’an 19:30-31

And He [God] will teach him the Divine guidance (al-kitab) and the Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel, to be a Messenger to the Children of Israel.
– Holy Qur’an 3:48-51)

The Historical Jesus:

The historical Jesus functioned as a Prophet in the Israelite tradition of prophecy and was recognized as a Prophet by his contemporaries. In the Biblical and Quranic contexts, a Prophet is a divinely-inspired and divinely appointed human being who conveys Divine guidance and possesses Divine authority among his people. Numerous verses in the four Gospels refer to Jesus as a Prophet, and these cases express the earliest historical beliefs regarding who Jesus was (see Appendix A).

The answers to the question “Who do people say that I am?” make one thing clear: Jesus was perceived to be a prophet. Insofar as he was understood to be a prophet in the tradition of Israel this would mean that Jesus, like his great prophetic predecessor Moses, was called to interpret the Torah and mediate between Yahweh and the people (Exod. 20:18-21; Deut. 5:23-29; 18:15-19). A prophet in the Deuteronomic tradition was a prophet of the Sinai covenant who made its meaning clear for the people and disclosed the consequences of disobeying or abandoning the covenant (Deut. 18:9-22). . . Standing in this tradition, Jesus can be seen as a “prophet of the justice of the reign of God,” as I have argued elsewhere in more detail. (12-13)
It is quite likely that Jesus was called a prophet in his lifetime. Jesus is often called a prophet or assumed to be a prophet in materials seeking to make other, more Christological points. Members of Herod Antipa’s court think he is like “one of the prophets of old” (Mark 6:15; cf. Luke 9:8). . . When he enters Jerusalem, he is greeted as “the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matt. 21:11)…Therefore, even though the materials are later, they all take for granted that Jesus was popularly acclaimed as a prophet or called a prophet by his opponents. (99)

– William R. Herzog (Former Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School),
(Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, 2005, 12-13, 99)

In short, there need be little doubt that Jesus was regarded as a prophet by many, that he saw himself in the tradition of the prophets, and probably also that he claimed a(n eschatological) significance for his mission (and thus himself) which transcended the older prophetic categories. . . Sanders sums up a fair consensus when he notes: ‘Many scholars have agreed that, of various roles which we can identify, Jesus best fits that of “prophet” (Jesus 239); ‘a charismatic and autonomous prophet’ (Historical Figure 238); The basic proposition of Schillebeeckx’s Jesus was that ‘in his life on earth Jesus acts. . . as the eschatological prophet from God’.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, 666)
(See also, James D. G. Dunn, Jesus the Prophet, The Furrow
Vol. 32, No. 8 (Aug., 1981), pp. 487-495, Read Here)

The early church is highly unlikely to have invented the many sayings, isolated but telling, scattered throughout the gospels, which call Jesus a prophet. Several of them are on his own lips. By the time the gospels were written down, the church had come to believe that Jesus was much more than a prophet. It might well have seemed risky theologically to refer to him in this way: it might have appeared that he was simply being put on a level with all the other prophets. It is therefore extremely probable that these sayings represent thoroughly authentic tradition. . . I suggest that Jesus was seen as, and saw himself as, a prophet; not a particular one necessarily, as though there were an individual set of shoes ready-made into which he was consciously stepping, but a prophet like the prophets of old, coming to Israel with a word from her covenant God, warning her of the imminent and fearful consequences of the direction she was travelling, urging and summoning her to a new and different way (p. 162-63). . . This portrait of Jesus as a prophet seems the most secure point at which to ground our study of Jesus’ public career, and in particular of his characteristic praxis. Equally impressive are the strong hints, throughout the gospels, that Jesus as modelling his ministry not on one figure alone, but on a range of prophets from the Old Testament (p. 165).

– N. T. Wright, (Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, St. Mary’s College, Former Anglican Bishop of Durham),
(Jesus and the Victory of God, Vol 1, 165)

2. Jesus was the human Messiah after Adam and not God:

The Qur’anic Jesus:

When the angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you good tidings of a word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; high honoured shall he be in this world and the next, near stationed to God.’
– Holy Qur’an 3:45

‘Lord,’ said Mary, ‘how shall I have a son seeing no mortal has touched me?’ ‘Even so,’ He said, ‘God creates what He will. When He decrees a thing He does but say to it “Be,” and it is… Truly, the likeness of Jesus, in God’s sight, is as Adam’s likeness; He created him of dust, then said He unto him, ‘Be,’ and he was.’
– Holy Qur’an 3:47-51

The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain; better is it for you. God is only One God. Glory be to Him — That He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian. The Messiah will not disdain to be a servant of God, neither the angels who are near stationed to Him. Whosoever disdains to serve Him, and waxes proud, He will assuredly muster them to Him, all of them.
– Holy Qur’an 4:171-172

They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Mary’s son.’ For the Messiah said, ‘Children of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord. Verily whoso associates with God anything, God shall prohibit him entrance to Paradise, and his refuge shall be the Fire; and wrongdoers shall have no helpers.’
– Holy Qur’an 5:72

They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Mary’s son.’ Say: ‘Who then shall overrule God in any way if He desires to destroy the Messiah, Mary’s son, and his mother, and all those who are on earth?’ For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, creating what He will. God is powerful over everything.
– Holy Qur’an 5:17

The Historical Jesus:

The historical Jesus claimed to be the awaited Messiah and called himself “Son of God” and “Son of Man”, according to the original biblical and Jewish background of these titles – none of which means “divine being” or “God incarnate.” While the Gospels and other New Testament passages portray Jesus as performing some of God’s acts and describe him using some of the Names of God, the practice of assigning Divine names and functions to special “ideal” human beings is well established in the Bible and Jewish tradition. For example, various biblical and extra-biblical passages describe Adam, Moses, Elijah, David, and Solomon with God’s names, titles, or activities (see Appendix B).

“Son of man” means “human being”; in the case of Mark’s Jesus, the phrase is applied as a title, indicating that Jesus is the Human One. The son of man is an idealized human figure who restores humanity, in himself, what the first human one lost: rule over the cosmos as God’s vicegerent. Like that first human one, whose name simply means “the human,” Jesus as the Human One acts in such a way as to determine the destiny of the humanity newly defined by him. . . Thus, the Gospels call Jesus “the Human One” (“son of man”) with all its multi-faceted resonances: he is the idealized human figure who, like primal humanity before him, rules on God’s behalf; he is the figure from Daniel who comes into the Adamic role of rule by way of suffering; and as idealized human he is given a share in God’s authority, participation in God’s rule, an embodiment of God’s own glory.

– J. R. Daniel Kirk (Former Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminar),
(A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, 356)/p>

‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthands for the divine name or being of Jesus. It is comparatively easy to argue that Jesus (like several other first-century Jews) believed he was the Messiah (see JVG, ch. 11). It is much harder, and a very different thing, to argue that he thought he was in some sense identified with Israel’s God. In this context, the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology.

– N. T. Wright, (Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, Former Anglican Bishop of Durham),
(‘Jesus’ Self-Understanding’, in S. T. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O’Collins, The Incarnation, 2002, 47–61: 52-53)/p>

Jesus saw himself as the leader and focal point of the true, returning-from-exile Israel. He was the king through whose work YHW was at last restoring his people. He was the Messiah. Three things need to be said at once about this claim. First, in case there is anyone left who has not grasped this point, the word ‘Messiah’, within Jesus’ world, does not refer, in itself to a divine or quasi-divine figure. . .So, when Peter says to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’, and when Caiaphas says the same words but as an ironic question, neither of them should be understood as either stating or asking whether Jesus thinks he is the incarnate second person of the Trinity. Subsequent Christian use of the word ‘Christ’ (the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’), and indeed of the phrase ‘son of god’, as though they were ‘divine’ titles has, to say the least, not helped people grasp this point; but grasped it must be if we are to understand Jesus in his historical context. Getting this straight frees the historian from a good deal of nonsense that has been propagated in the last hundred years or so.

– N. T. Wright, (Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, Former Anglican Bishop of Durham),
(Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, 478)

The common denominator in all of these cases is that ‘son of God’ denoted someone specially related to or favoured by God. With the king, the status was more formal; he represented God to his people. But in its broader reference the phrase seems to have denoted someone who was intimate with God, who closely reflected God’s character, who fully did God’s will (p. 711). . . As for what Jesus’ sonship meant for his disciples, the tradition does not encourage us to infer that Jesus made his relationship with God, as son to father, a subject of explicit instruction, still less that he required his disciples to assent to such a belief regarding himself (p. 724).

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, 711-724)

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.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Christology in the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 32)

There is no indication that Jesus thought or spoke of himself as having pre-existed with God prior to his birth or appearance on earth. Such self-assertions appear only in the latest form of the canonical Gospel tradition and presuppose substantial developments in christological thinking which cannot be traced back to Jesus himself… We cannot claim that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnate Son of God; but we can claim that the teaching to that effect as it came to expression in the later first-century Christian thought was, in the
light of the whole Christ-event, an appropriate refection on and elaboration of Jesus’ own sense of sonship and eschatological mission.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Christology in the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 254)

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 (p. 142). . . The dominant answer for Christian worship seems to be that the first Christians did not think of Jesus as to be worshipped in and for himself. He was not to be worshipped as wholly God, or fully identified with God, far less as a god. If he was worshipped it was worship offered to God in and through him, worship of Jesus-in-God and God-in-Jesus. And the corollary is that, in an important sense, Christian monotheism, if it is to be truly monotheism, has still to assert that only God, only the one God, is to be worshipped (p. 146). . . No, by and large the first Christians did not worship Jesus as such… Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God. But such worship is always, should always be offered to the glory of God the Father (p. 151).

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Did the First Christians Worship Jesus, 2010, 142-151)

3. Jesus came to confirm the Torah (Law) of Moses and not abolish it:

The Qur’anic Jesus:

And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him and We gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, and confirming the Torah before it, as a guidance and an admonition unto the godfearing.
– Holy Qur’an 5:46

[Jesus said]: ‘I am confirming the truth of the Torah that is before me, and to make lawful to you certain things that before were forbidden unto you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear you God, and obey you me.’
– Holy Qur’an 3:50-51

And when Jesus son of Mary said, ‘Children of Israel, I am indeed the Messenger of God to you, confirming the Torah that is before me, and giving good tidings of a Messenger who shall come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.’ Then, when he brought them the clear signs, they said, ‘This is a manifest sorcery.’
– Holy Qur’an 61:6

The Historical Jesus:

The historical Jesus was zealous in the observance and teaching of the Law of Moses. There is no evidence that Jesus sought to cancel or nullify the Law or end the practice of Temple sacrifices.

Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to complete. Truly I tell you: So long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened. Anyone therefore who sets aside even the least of the law’s demands, and teachers others to do the same, will have the lowest place in the kingdom of Heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the Law and teaches others to do so, will rank high in the kingdom of Heaven.
– Gospel of Matthew, 5:17-20

The historical Jesus interprets the Law of Moses more severely than the questioning Pharisees. . . On the basis of texts examined above I can conclude the following about the relationship of the historical Jesus to the Law of Moses: First, that Jesus did not abolish or revoke the Law of Moses. Second, that, at least in some cases, Jesus rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees about the interpretation of the Law of Moses. Third, that the historical Jesus appears to have continued the biblical prophets’ criticism of the traditional sacrificial cult and ritual purification, if and when these were considered to act automatically with the consequence that the participants’ actual (moral) behavior was of no importance. . . Fourth, we have seen that Jesus in some cases tightens the moral requirements of the Law of Moses.”

Per Bilde (Former Professor of Biblical Studies at Aarhus University),
(The Originality of Jesus: A Critical Discussion and a Comparative Attempt, 144)

It is evident that the earliest [Christian] community in no sense felt themselves to be a new religion, distinct from Judaism. . . [T]hey saw themselves simply as fulfilled Judaism, the beginning of eschatological Israel… Indeed we may put the point more strongly:…the earliest Christians were not simply Jews, but in fact continued to be quite orthodox Jews. . .This is the group with whom Christianity proper began. Only their belief in Jesus as Messiah and risen…mark them out as different from the majority of their fellow Jews. None of the other great Christian distinctives that come to expression in and through Paul are present. . . If we now shift our glance from the beginning of Christianity forward 150 years or so into the second century and beyond, it at once become evident that the situation has significantly altered: Jewish Christianity, far from being the only form of Christianity, is now beginning to be classified as unorthodox and heretical.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1990, 239)

Of the traditions most relevant to our particular question, we can conclude that Jesus probably spoke of his death as a means of (re-)establishing Israel’s (new) covenant with God, or as a suffering of the eschatological woes predicted most recently by the Baptist. That he saw his death as replacing the temple cult seems to press the evidence too hard. . . In short, that Jesus was the first to understand his death in terms of atoning sacrifice cannot be demonstrated with any confidence. . . If Jesus’ death was an effective sin offering, indeed the effective sin offering, then the unavoidable conclusion was that the Temple atonement ritual had thereby been rendered unnecessary and passe, that Jesus’ death had wholly replaced the temple cult as a way of dealing with sin. . . But it is precisely this conclusion which, according to Acts, the first Christians did not draw. According to Luke, the first Jerusalem Christians did continue to attend the temple. Peter and John were going to the temple “at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (acts 3:1), that is, the hour at which the afternoon Tamid sacrifice was offered (Josephus, Ant. I14.65; Dan. 9:21). This sacrifice of a male lamb, twice a day, was probably not thought of as atoning. But it was evidently regarded as essential for the continuing welfare of Israel, including the Diaspora. The first Christians’ continued association with this integral part of the Temple cult cannot but raise the question whether the understanding of Jesus’ death as the final sacrifice had yet taken hold in the thought and consequent practice of his first followers. . . This line of reflection argues decisively against the possibility that Jesus intended to establish a new cult in place of the temple.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(“When did the Understanding of Jesus’ Death as an Atoning Sacrifice First Emerge?” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children, ed. David B. Capes, 176-177)

4. God vindicated and exalted Jesus after his enemies crucified him:

The Qur’anic Jesus:

When God said, ‘Jesus, I will cause you to die and will raise you to Me and I will purify you of those who believe not. I will set thy followers above the unbelievers till the Resurrection Day. Then unto Me shall you return, and I will decide between you, as to what you were at variance on.’
– Holy Qur’an 3:55

So, for their breaking the compact, and disbelieving in the signs of God, and slaying the Prophets without right, and for their saying, ‘Our hearts are uncircumcised’ — nay, but God sealed them for their unbelief, so they believe not, except a few – and for their unbelief, and their uttering against Mary a mighty calumny, and for their saying, ‘We killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God’ — yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, but it only appeared so unto them. Those who are at variance concerning him surely are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise; and they slew him not of a certainty — no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is All-mighty, All-wise.
– Holy Qur’an 4:155-158

In these verses, the Qur’an is responding to boastful claims made by Jesus’s Jewish enemies that they had killed and crucified him; nowhere does the Qur’an deny the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion. What is being denied is the agency and role of Jesus enemies in the death of Jesus. Historically, Jesus was crucified by the Romans, with the support of some of his Jewish adversaries among the pro-Roman Jewish leadership. However, some Jewish rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud claimed that Jesus was tried, stoned, and hanged by the Jewish leadership according to Jewish law. The Talmud states that: “Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and instigated and seduced Israel to idolatry.” In the same section, the Talmud quotes a rabbi accusing Mary the mother of Jesus of being a harlot: “She who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters” (see Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 2007, pp. 63-74). Therefore, the Qur’an is answering back against the slanderous claims made of Mary and Jesus in the Talmud by denying the claim of Jewish enemies of Jesus to have killed him and asserting that it was God caused Jesus to die and that He exalted Jesus and raised him up. Thus, the Qur’an reinterprets the crucifixion and undercuts Rabbinical claims to have disgraced and shamed Jesus by asserting that Jesus’s death was, in reality, a victory for God and a vindication of Jesus.

The Qur’an reflects the insistence of the early Muhammad movement that the crucifixion of Jesus does not represent the defeat of God. In other words, this movement could not accept, as a matter of basic belief, that Jesus’s career ended on the cross, with God unable to intervene. . . Thus they argue that God was the ultimate victor because He could do something those who crucified Jesus could not; He could annul Jesus’s death by resurrecting him.

Suleiman A. Mourad, (“The Qur’an and Jesus’s Crucifixion and Death”, in Gabriel Said Reynolds, New Perspectives on the Qur’an, 356)

The Historical Jesus:

The earliest Christian belief concerning Jesus’s death and resurrection was that it signified that God has vindicated and exalted Jesus and justified him, as opposed to his death being a sacrifice for sins.

The most obvious conclusion to draw from all this is that the theme of Jesus’ vindication and exaltation dominated the earliest horizons of the first Christian reflection on what happened to Jesus. He had suffered the most barbaric and humiliating of deaths. But God has raised him from the dead. By raising him from the dead, God had shown Jesus to have suffered unjustly, like the Servant of Isaiah, and had vindicated him, as Isaiah 53 had foretold. It would appear, then, that the understanding of Jesus’ death as sacrifice for sins may have emerged initially not with the first Aramaic-speaking disciples but more likely with the Greek-speaking Hellenists, from whom Paul learned his 1 Corinthians 15 catechism.

– James D. G. Dunn, (Emeritus Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, Minister of the Church of Scotland and Methodist Preacher),
(Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, 237)

Despite a long tradition, I do not regard the resurrection as instantly ‘proving Jesus’ divinity’. In such Jewish thought as cherished the notion of resurrection was what would happen to everybody, or at least all the righteous. . . My own reading of the process goes like this. The resurrection and ascension proved, first and foremost, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This meant, at once, that his death had to be regarded in some fashion as a victory, not a defeat, whereupon all Jesus’ cryptic sayings about the meaning of his death fell into place.

– N. T. Wright, (Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, Former Anglican Bishop of Durham),
(“Jesus’ Self-Understanding”, in The Incarnation, ed. S. T. Davis, D. Kendall, G. O’Collins 2002, 47–61: 60)

Appendix A: Jesus Recognized as a “Prophet” in the Gospels

Jesus said to them, “A Prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”

Gospel of Mark 6:4

Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a Prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

Gospel of Mark 6:15

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the Prophets.”

Gospel of Mark 8:28

And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a Prophet without honor.”

Gospel of Matthew 13:57

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the Prophets.”

Gospel of Matthew 16:14

When Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds replied, “This is Jesus, the Prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Gospel of Matthew 21:10-11

They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great Prophet has appeared among us,”

Gospel of Luke 7:16

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the Prophets of long ago has come back to life.”

Gospel of Luke 9:18-19

[Jesus said:] “In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no Prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

Gospel of Luke 13:33

“What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a Prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.

Gospel of Luke 24:19

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a Prophet.

Gospel of John 4:19

John 6:14 – After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.“

Gospel of John 6:14

On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

Gospel of John 7:40

Appendix B: The Bible Assigns God’s Names, Divine Titles & Divine Powers to “Idealized” Human Figures:

[The below material summarizes the findings of J. R. Daniel Kirk, A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospel, 2015]

Prophet Adam and Theophanic Humanity as God’s Representation on Earth:
• God assigns names to created things – day, night, sun, moon, sky, land, seas (Genesis 1:3-9).
• God creates humanity in His image and dominion over every living being in the earth (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 8:5-8).
• God allows Adam to name every living creature in the world (Genesis 2:19-20) in the way that God named things.

Prophet Moses Represents God, Manifests God’s Radiance and Exercises God’s Powers:
• Moses is called “as God” (Elohim) to the children of Israel and to Aaron (Exodus 4:16).
• Moses is made “God (Elohim) to Pharoah” with Aaron as his prophet (Exodus 7:1).
• Moses by his hand separates the divides the waters with God’s power (Exodus 14), just as God separates and divides the waters (Genesis 1:1-8).
• The Aaronic Priestly blessing asking for “the Lord make his face shine one you…the Lord turn his face toward you” (Numbers 6:22-27) is fulfilled as Moses’s face radiant with the Light of God shines upon the people (Exodus 34:29-33); the Qumran community of Jews interpreted this as Moses embodying God as his representative.
• Philo of Alexandria calls Moses theos (god) and regards Moses as sharing in God’s sovereign rule. Philo likely prayed to Moses as well.

Prophet Elijah Exercises God’s Powers:
• Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Israelites falls upon their face before God (Genesis 17:3, Genesis 17:17, Numbers 14:5, Numbers 16:4, Joshua 5:14).
• Obadiah falls on his face before Elijah and calls him “my lord” (adoni), one of the titles of God (1 Kings 18:6).
• Elijah controls the rain and the water in the land by his word (1 Kings 17:1), just as God controls the forces of nature including the rains (Job 5:10, 28:25-27, Pslam 135:7, Pslam 147:8, etc.)

God Declares His “Sons” – Israel, Prophet Ephraim, and Prophet-King David:
• Israel is God’s Son – “My firstborn” and “My Son” (Exodus 4:22-23)
• Ephraim is God’s beloved Son – “My Firstborn Son” and “My dear Son, the child in whom I delight” (Jeremiah 31)
• God knew Jeremiah and chose him before he was conceived in the womb: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
• King David and each of his successor Kings is called the Son of God whom God always loves (2 Samuel 7:13-15)
• King David is told by God: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Psalm 2:7).
• God refers to King David as “My Firstborn”, and David calls Him “my Father” (Psalm 89).

The Davidic King as “God’s Son” and God’s Representation on Earth:
• The Davidic King and Messiah is called “the most excellent of men” and referred to as “O God” (Elohim) (Psalm 45:1-6) and God (Elohim) has anointed him; the same Psalm verse is applied to Jesus which includes the statement that God is above him (Hebrews 1:8).
• The Davidic King is endowed with God’s justice and judges on God’s behalf, while the desert tribes and kings bow down before him (Psalm 72).
• King David possesses the power to control the sea and the waves, a prerogative usually reserved for God (Psalm 89).
• King David is called the “shepherd” who feeds God’s people even though God declares Himself as their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:15, 23).
• King David is called the “prince” among His people above whom there is only God (Ezekiel 34:24).
• God calls King David “the most exalted of kings of the earth” and gives him power over the sea and the rivers – which only God properly controls (Job 5:10, 28:25-27, Psalm 135:7, Psalm 147:8, etc.).
• David replies to the prayer and says “You, LORD God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men” (1 Chronicles 17:16).
• The Davidic King is the Son of God whom God loves: “I will be his Father and he will be My Son” and God’s kingdom is equated to his kingdom (1 Chronicles 17:10-14).
• The entire assembly worships and prostrates to both God and King Solomon (1 Chronicles 29:20), and Solomon sits on the Throne of God (1 Chronicles 29:23).
• The future Davidic King and his house will be “like God” (Zecharia 12:8).
• The future Davidic King will shepherd in God’s Majesty and in God’s Name (Micah 5:4).

2 thoughts on “The Quranic Jesus and the Historical Jesus: A Messianic Prophet

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