Qur'anic Christology

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This article examines some of the problems that have been pointed out in Qur'anic Christology.

Qur'anic Christology of Jesus' Essence

There can be no doubt that the Qur'an does not accept the Christian position that Jesus Christ was the Son of God or any Incarnation of God at all. Surah 19 states that to regard Jesus as Son of God is one of the worse sins according to Islam.

They say: "(Allah) Most Gracious has begotten a son!" (19:88) Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! At it the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin, That they should invoke a son for (Allah) Most Gracious. For it is not consonant with the majesty of (Allah) Most Gracious that He should beget a son.
Qur'an 19:88-92

The following quotation likewise states that the Qur'an strongly opposes Christian Christology according to which Jesus was the Son of God. Moreover, there are further suggestions that Jesus was nothing more than a messenger:

was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, ...

Here the Qur'an clearly refers to Jesus as a messenger of Allah, which means one of the prophets and a human being. Islam holds this position in common with Jews and many contemporaries to the authors of the New Testament.

In the Gospel of Mark and the corresponding verses of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Thomas 13 (an apocryphal gospel) it is documented that there have always been people who regarded Jesus as nothing more than a prophet:

Jesus went out, with his disciples, into the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?"
They told him, "John the Baptizer, and others say Elijah, but others: one of the prophets."

Beyond verses condemning the specific elevation of Jesus to the status of a deity, the Qur'an contains countless verses repudiating polytheism (shirk), which it also identifies as the greatest of all possible crimes.

In the following chapters, we will see that in fact all of this information about Jesus in the Qur'an derives from Christian sources with only little differences and almost no additions.

The Virgin Birth

However, surprisingly, and in stark contrast to the Jewish belief, the Qur'an recognizes Jesus as messiah:

Christ Jesus the son of Mary ...

This fact is of great importance since the term "Messiah" is just the Hebrew translation of "Christ" (the anointed one). Thus, we can begin to talk about a Qur'anic Christology. However, it does not necessarily mean that Jesus is the son of God, like most Christians believe.

The reason is that the term Messiah has many different meanings in Judaism and Christianity. Jewish people usually refer to a Messiah as the promised king, prophet or religious leader of Israel, the one who leads the Jewish people out of oppression. In Christianity - on the other hand - the word has become almost a synonym for the son of God in whom all promises are fulfilled.

But what kind of messiah is the Qur'an talking about? A Jewish king? A Jewish prophet? The Christian redeemer? To be honest, the fact that the Qur'an calls Jesus a Messiah does not necessarily imply that he is or has ever been the son of God; however, it can easily lead to confusion and misunderstandings. One might ask in what way the term Messiah serves the Islamic idea that Jesus was only a human being. In other words: Is it useful in any manner for the authors of the Qur'an to accept that Jesus was the Christ? It further seems that someone labeled "Christ" could be a mere prophet, as the Messiah is commonly understood to play a dominant role in apocalyptic speculations.

We also know from all the three synoptic gospels, that the apostle Peter, who later became the first leader of the Christian church, was also the first to confess that Jesus was the Christ. Without any doubt, this was an important milestone for Christianity:

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ."

This appears to be the first inconsistency in the Qur'anic argumentation. If somebody does not agree that Jesus was more than a prophet then it cannot be useful to recognize him also as Christ because it leads to confusions and misunderstandings. But why does the Qur'an use this term then? One answer is that perhaps the author does not understand that there are many meanings and sophisticated concepts behind the word Messiah.

Let us now have a look to the birth of Jesus, which is extensively referred to in Surah 19 (Maria). According to this record, the Qur'an accepts the Virginity of Mary, which is also being described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It should be noted that this story cannot be found in the gospels of Mark and John and that there are many scholars who do not believe that this story can be considered as a historical fact. There are also assertions that a translation error - the word "young woman" was mistranslated to virgin, which is very likely in Greek - let many early Christians imagine that Jesus was born by a virgin.

He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us':It is a matter (so) decreed."
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.
Qur'an 19:21-22

This legend seeks to point out that Jesus was the son of the Holy Spirit. So why must the Qur'an reproduce this old Christian legend in an only slightly altered version? If Jesus is no more than a prophet then it would have been much more comfortable for the author to ignore this subject or to write a quite different version which should express that there was nothing special about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, the author of the Qur'an seems to conflate the legend with their own understanding of historical reality. This would not be surprising for a commoner from the middle ages, but it is perhaps surprising coming from Muhammad, the final messenger.

Jesus as the Word of God

And there is more. In Surah 4:171 Jesus is also clearly referred to as Word of God.

was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, ...

This assertion seems to contradict the basic Islamic conception of Jesus. At first, the expression "word" which is obviously quoted from the Gospel of John 1:1, has a much more sophisticated meaning than known by the author of the Qur'an. The term logos in Greek means much more than "word". It means also "logic" or the highest principle of the universe, also known as god. Moreover, according to John 1:1 Jesus himself is regarded as the incarnation of this "word" or principle.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1)
. . .
The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

This Christian concept derives from the Hellenistic philosophy which asserts that the origin behind all things can be found in the logos.

The author of the Qur'an, it would seem, is not aware of this more sophistical meaning of "word", otherwise he may have avoided this expression which would seem to challenge the idea that Jesus was mere man. Furthermore, if Jesus is the "word" of God, then what is the status of the Qur'an, which also alleges to be the "word" of the God? The basic idea that Jesus is the "word" of appears rather problematic to Islamic theology.

Jesus Creating Living Creatures

In Surah 3:59 Jesus is described as equal to Adam (who is also called prophet in the Qur'an) who was made from dust.

The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: "Be". And he was.

This hints also to the genesis of the Old Testament. However, the Qur'an also refers to the story of the young Jesus who formed birds from clay in 3:49:

...in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave...

It must be noted, that this story obviously derives from an old apocryphal account of the childhood of Jesus, called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, also known as "The Second Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ":

1. This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook: and he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools, and made them straightway clean, and commanded them by his word alone.

2. And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things (or made them). And there were also many other little children playing with him.

3. And a certain Jew when he saw what Jesus did, playing upon the Sabbath day, departed straightway and told his father Joseph: Lo, thy child is at the brook, and he hath taken clay and fashioned twelve little birds, and hath polluted the Sabbath day. 4 And Joseph came to the place and saw: and cried out to him, saying: Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do? But Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping. 5 And when the Jews saw it they were amazed, and departed and told their chief men that which they had seen Jesus do.

This ancient text was probably written in Syria in the late second century or somewhat later, long before the Qur'an. There can also be no doubt about the intention of the text; the Genesis-like creation of birds by the young Jesus has to underline the identity of Jesus and God. Therefore, it serves the Christian idea of Jesus as the Son of God and not the Islamic idea that he was just a prophet.

Interestingly, the infancy-gospel, which was never recognized by the official Christian churches, circulated in Syria for many centuries. Thus, it is not unlikely that the Christian monk Bahira, who is regarded as a teacher of the young Muhammad in eastern Syria, told him also this story about Jesus.

It is not unlikely as well that Muhammad knew the story from childhood from Bahira. Later, when the Qur'an was written, he may have remembered the story, but failed to notice that this apocryphal record contradicts the Qur'anic Christology.

And it is even more astonishing, that the Qur'an renders this record in a very close neighborhood to the account of the creation of Adam. Drawing this parallel between god's creation of Adam and Jesus's creation of birds, both from lifeless clay, would once more seem to be ill-suited to Islamic theology.

Possible Gnostic Influence

In Surah 4:157 the Qur'an claims that not Jesus, but somebody else was crucified.

That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

Where is this information derived from? It is not unlikely that it also came from Bahira who may have quoted gnostic sources which he might have had access to. Indeed, there are many old gnostic scriptures which claim that not the Christ himself but somebody else (like Simon from Cyrene) was crucified. Many of the most interesting gnostic texts belong to the Nag Hammadi collection, which was discovered in 1945.

The Christology of many of these texts is quite different from the recognized canonical tradition and even further away from the Qur'anic standpoint.

One of the ancient gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi collection is "The second Treatise of the Great Seth", which may have been written at the end of the second century. Thus, it was written long before the Qur'an. Here is a quote:

But I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk ... Yes, they saw me; they punished me. 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 [from Kyrene], 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 second Treatise of the Great Seth: Translated by Roger A. Bullard and Joseph A. Gibbons

There are indeed many other gnostic texts which share the idea of docetism and that Jesus Christ was not crucified at all. In the Nag Hammadi collection alone there are around ten different sources representing the same point of view. Moreover, Irenaeus, an ancient churchfather, refuted all these gnostic views as heresy at the end of the second century, thus confirming their early existence.

In fact the idea that Jesus was the logos and a copy of God also has strong ties to gnosticism. It is even possible that this idea derived from gnosticism first. The problem here is that typical gnostic texts regard Jesus in a docetical manner which means that Jesus was no real human being at all, a pneumatic being, a fleshless copy of God.

Interestingly, the greek term "doceo" can be translated with "to seem" or "to appear as" which is also expressed in Quran 4:157. Therefore, it is indeed very likely, that the author of the Qur'an drew this words from ancient gnostic texts. This, too, struggles to find a comfortable home in Islamic theology.

Assumption into Heaven and Miraculous Powers

Whether he was truly crucified or not, Qur'an, gnosis and the canonical Christians all well agree in the concept that Jesus was raised to heaven.

Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

According to Surah 5, Jesus was even able to raise the dead. There is also confirmation that he received the holy spirit, made a bird from clay and performed further miracles like healing a born blind and lepers. (Quran 3:49)

...I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught thee the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel and behold! thou makest out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird by My leave, and thou healest those born blind, and the lepers, by My leave. And behold! thou bringest forth the dead by My leave...

Though the Qur'an points out that these miracles were only possible due to God, and not Jesus himself, it may have been simpler to simply exclude miracle stories altogether, as even Christians have generally understood these stories to be of a metaphorical nature. The similarity here, again, between the Qur'anic narrative and lay understanding of Christianity in the prophet's lifetime as well as the difference between the Qur'anic narrative and clerical understanding is strongly suggestive.

Later, in the same Surah the author clearly again appears mistaken in his understanding of Christian theology, describing the members of the Trinity as follows:

And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say)...

Here it is asserted that the trinity consists of God, Jesus and Mary. However this teaching has only been found, if at all, among a small historical sect of Christianity. Generally, the Christian trinity is understood to consist of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And these are not different gods, but only different aspects of the one and only God. One wonders why a universal message would address a small, transient group whose understanding of Christian doctrine disagrees with the overwhelming majority of Christians

Fostering further confusion, the Qur'an, after denying the Trinity, affirms the existence of an ambiguously (if at all) defined "Holy Spirit":

...Christ Jesus...was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: ... Say not "Trinity"

The repetition in the Qur'an of the complicated Christian doctrinal objects such as the virgin birth, Holy Spirit, logos, and messiah is altogether suggestive of an attempt to incorporate popular, apocryphal, and gnostic (rather than theologically "correct") Christian beliefs from Muhammad's time into the Qur'an. That these entities are mentioned and then poorly defined gives this attempted incorporation a decidedly clunky appearance.

See Also

Further Reading