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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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.
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.
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.
. . .
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.
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:
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":
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.
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:
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.
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)
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:
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":
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.