The U.S.A today has seen a sharp rise in incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim feeling. Expressions of such feeling have been noticeable in Mosque bombings, arson, violence towards Muslims, discrimination at work, and even murder. The sources of such negative feelings come from a number of traditionally intolerant sources; the right-wing neo-conservatives, radicals, white supremacists, and fundamentalist Christians.
In their expressions of hate towards Muslims, these groups invoke alarmist, paranoid conspiracy-theory narratives of ‘Islamisation of the USA’ or ‘stealth Jihad’ by what amounts to only 2% of the population.
Militant fundamentalist Christians, have added a further layer to this narrative, and combined an aggressive concept of Christian proselytisation , to wage ‘Spiritual warfare’ on non-believers (which is a cross between the Crusades and Psy-Ops worthy of a Cold war regime). This usually involves a number of methods, ranging from publishing aggressive and skewed articles online, to video propaganda, and disturbing non-Christian community events with loud speakers, large insulting signs and scattering leaflets amongst crowds of ‘heathens’.
Although we have come to hear of the more infamous groups of militant Christians, such as Westboro Baptist Church, others, of a more obscure variety exist, such as Acts 17 Ministries – infamous for yearly disrupting the Arab cultural festival in Dearborn Michigan. This year, they intent to mass distributed a number of anti-Islamic propaganda, focusing on a number of Islamic theological beliefs; in an attempt to ‘counter the spread of Sharia law’.
One such article they intend to distribute, concerns attacking the Islamic belief that Jesus (a.s) is not divine. In order to achieve this, they resort to straw manning the interpretation of Quranic quotes which tell Christians to study their own Bible to see the truth of Islam. The militant Christians claim that it is the Bible itself which ‘clearly’ and ‘uncontrovertibly ‘proves’ the divinity of Jesus, and therefore Islam is wrong in it’s claims, and Muhammed (saw) is a false prophet.
David Wood of Acts 17 Ministries wrote and produced this little pamphlet. You can read it here. Let’s scratch the surface, and put this argument to the test…
God in his Word, the Holy Quran ( 5:46-47), tells us that:
‘And We caused Jesus, the son of Mary, to follow in the footsteps of those earlier prophets, confirming the truth of whatever there still remained of the Torah; and We vouchsafed unto him the Gospel, wherein there was guidance and light, confirming the truth of whatever there still remained of the Torah, and as a guidance and admonition unto the God-conscious.’
‘Let, then, the followers of the Gospel judge in accordance with what God has revealed therein: for they who do not judge in the light of what God has bestowed from on high – it is they, they who are truly iniquitous!’
Furthermore we read in Quran 3:3-4:
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 mankind, and it is He who has bestowed upon man the standard by which to discern the true from the false.
Behold, as for those who are bent on denying God’s messages – grievous suffering awaits them: for God is almighty, an avenger of evil.
It is important to bear 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 (“Glad Tidings”), 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
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.
Thus the Qur’an elliptically rejects the Christian’s 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.
Furthermore, by 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.
So in light of this Quranic teaching Muslims are entirely justified in asking Christians ‘What did Jesus say about himself?’ ‘Where did Jesus claim to be God?’
Our Early Sources of Information about Jesus
Most Christians who are not familiar with biblical scholarship probably think that knowing about the historical Jesus is a relatively straightforward matter. We have four gospels in the New Testament, so to know what Jesus said and did we should read the gospels. So what is the problem?
The problem in part is that the gospels are full of discrepancies and were written decades after Jesus’ ministry by authors who had not themselves witnessed any of the events of Jesus’ life.
But it gets worse. For honest readers notice not just the occasional contradiction or error in the New Testament; there are the existence of forgeries claiming apostolic authorship and containing fake eye-witness testimony (such as the notorious Second Letter of ‘Peter’); the troubling absence of the doctrine of the Trinity; the worrying interpolations/corruptions that have been discovered at crucial points in the NT: the so-called ‘Johannine Comma’ of 1 John 5:7 is clearly Trinitarian in teaching but is known to be a much later insertion by a Christian scribe; the absence of any resurrection appearances in the earliest gospel of Mark (check it out!); the fabrication of stories about Jesus (the famous story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 was not part of the gospel but added much later by an unknown scribe). All these facts are understandably deeply worrying for Christians, for how do we really know what is authentic and what is the inauthentic material in the NT? And to make matters worse – what about the unknown interpolations and corruptions that probably exist but still lie undetected?
But surely the most troubling phenomenon in the New Testament must be the difference between the Synoptic gospels and John. Most Christians are serenely unaware of the problem because they are not taught to notice what is evident to all serious students of the Bible.
Jesus in the Fourth Gospel
In John, Jesus speaks with an unclouded consciousness of a divine existence with God from before his time on earth (5.19ff and 8.12ff make this clear). But the question cannot be ducked whether the Jesus of the fourth gospel was intended as a historical portrayal, whether Jesus of Nazareth actually spoke in the terms used by John. Were the Christological claims of John’s gospel already in place from the beginning of Christianity? It is hardly likely.
Consider the following
James D. G. Dunn, one of the leading moderate New Testament scholars around and no “anti-supernatural liberal,” writes:
Few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus’ life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics. It is worth noting briefly the factors which have been considered of enduring significance on this point. One is the very different picture of Jesus’ ministry, both in the order and the significance of events and the location of Jesus’ ministry. Another is the striking difference in Jesus’ style of speaking (much more discursive and theological, in contrast to the aphoristic and parabolic style of the Synoptics). As Strauss had already pointed out, this style is consistent, whether Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, or to the woman at the well, or to his disciples, and very similar to the style of the Baptist, as indeed of 1 John. The inference is inescapable that the style is that of the Evangelist rather than that of Jesus. Probably most important of all, in the Synoptics Jesus’ principal theme is the Kingdom of God and he rarely speaks of himself, whereas in John the Kingdom hardly features and the discourses are largely vehicles for expressing Jesus’ self-consciousness and self-proclamation. Had the striking ‘I am’ self-assertions of John been remembered as spoken by Jesus, how could any Evangelist have ignored them so completely as the Synoptics do? On the whole, then, the position is unchanged: John’s Gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics.
(James D. G. Dunn, Christianity In The Making Vol. 1, Jesus Remembered, 2003, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 165-166.)
Other conservative Christian scholars who have similar types of verdicts to offer regarding the historicity of the gospel of John include: Bruce Stein, Craig A Evans and Martin Hengel, to name a few.
So when we consider the synoptic gospels on the one hand and John’s gospel on the other, 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 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.
So what did Jesus reportedly say of himself and the important question of eternal life in our earliest gospel?
Jesus in the Earliest Gospel
Mark chapter 10 reads:
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. 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
I invite you to consider the following
1) Jesus, as a humble Jew, denies that goodness comes from himself: only God is good. Ergo, Jesus is making clear that he is not God.
2) According to Jesus we are saved by obeying the commandments of God (note the striking contrast to Paul’s gospel about Jesus)
3) But in this particular encounter the man lacked one thing (only) that blocked him from eternal life: his riches. Jesus advises him to ’go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’ so the man will receive his heavenly reward as a result of selling his possessions. After that, he is invited to follow Jesus. Note carefully the sequence.
4) This passage caused embarrassment to later gospel writers (who used Mark’s gospel when compiling their own gospels) who changed Jesus words to remove Jesus’ denial that he is good/God:
Here is Matthew’s altered version in 19:17 (compare this with Marks original)
And he 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.’
Now let us turn to Paul’s answer to the same question 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. Jesus’ answer to the question about salvation focuses on obedience to the Torah. As a Prophet to the Jewish people, Jesus sees his faithfulness to God expressed in adherence to the Creator’s commands and precepts in the Torah.
Mark 2:5-7 and the forgiveness of sins
The point can be easily missed. At first the issue seems to be Christological – ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?; ‘…that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…‘ (2.7,10). But that is a dubious interpretation. What Jesus actually says is, ‘Your sins are forgiven‘ – something the priest could say in the Temple to everyone who had brought a sin offering. Note too that the phrase ‘the Son of Man‘ evokes no comment, it was clearly not seen as a claim to exulted or divine status by the crowd (indeed in Aramaic idiom the phrase means ‘man’). In the parallel story in Matt 9.8 the crowd ‘glorified God who had given such authority to men’.
Furthermore, John the Baptist presumably pronounced sins forgiven (see Mark 1.4/Luke 3.3) without apparently provoking any accusation of breaching the divine prerogative. Also in the Prayer of Nabonidus from Qumran, Nabonidus says ‘an exorcist pardoned my sins’, where human mediation of divine forgiveness is clearly implied (4QprNab4).
The gospels also narrate that the disciples were given authority to forgive the sins of others – see Matthew 16.19; 18.18 and John 20.23 (‘if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’)
My comments re the historical problems surrounding the gospel of John apply to all David Wood’s quotes from that gospel. I will not repeat them here. But let us not forget that according to Matthew 5 Jesus taught his disciples,
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
So the true followers of Jesus are light to the world – just as Jesus was.
The Final Judge
David Wood is correct to say that only God will be the Judge on the Day of Judgment but is wrong to draw the conclusion that Jesus was therefore God. That is not how the apostles understood Jesus’ role and status. If we survey the apostles teaching in Acts (assuming for the sake of argument its’ authenticity) we read in Peter’s very first sermon the following:
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, was a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” Acts 2:22
‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah’ Acts 2:36
And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 4:22
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. Acts 10:42
Now admittedly this is not Islamic teaching but it suggests that Jesus was a man who:
i) did miracles by the power of God
ii) was made lord and messiah by God
iii) was believed to be the messiah by his first followers
iv) as a man was appointed to be judge of the living and the dead by God.
Nothing of Peter’s teaching in Acts suggests that Jesus was believed to be Yahweh or God Incarnate or the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus was a man, a servant like David and the Messiah.
So, in conclusion, we read the Word that God speaks to the Christians of the world, with a clear warning:
People of the book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’ – stop this, that is better for you – God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust. (Qur’an, 4:171)