Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – That the Qur’an recognizes the virgin birth, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus is something worth remembering on Easter.
In a nativity scene about Jesus’s supernatural precociousness, the Qur’an has him speak in the cradle, saying, (Mary 19:33): “So peace be upon me, the day I was born, and the day that I die, and the day that I am raised.”
The difficulty of the Qur’an’s Arabic and the hundred and fifty years of silence between its first recitation by the Prophet Muhammad in 610-632 AD and later commentaries, such that later generations lost touch with its original context and meaning, has created an unnecessary controversy over one difficult passage of the Qur’an that speaks of Jesus’s crucifixion. I believe that the verse defends Jews against the charge that they had Jesus killed (we know historically that it was the Romans and that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution).
Verses 4:155-156 reflect a controversy that the Prophet Muhammad had with local Jews in the Medina period (say mid-620s). The Qur’an castigates a section of that community for violating the primal “covenant of the prophets” by rejecting the verses brought by Muhammad, which it sees as a venial rather than a mortal sin. (The Qur’an maintains that before time, human beings covenanted with God to recognize each new prophet that he sent, serially.) It laments that only a few believed in the new religion. It also throws in their face the charge that they had in biblical times sometime risen up against their own prophets and dispatched them.
As Gabriel Said Reynolds has pointed out, this allegation of Jews killing prophets is not a prominent theme in the Hebrew Bible, but such incidents are mentioned, e.g. 2 Chronicles 24:20-21:
- “17 Now after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and did obeisance to the king; then the king listened to them. 18 They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles[c] and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. 19 Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord; they testified against them, but they would not listen.
20 Then the spirit of God took possession of[d] Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” 21 But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord.”
2 Chronicles also blames the destruction of the First Temple on Jewish mistreatment of their prophets:
- 2 Chronicles 36:16–17, which says that the Babylonians were able to destroy the first temple in 586 BCE because Jews “kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy. Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand.”
Reynolds argues that the Jewish commentary literature and then Christian Syriac literature magnified this theme in late antiquity, so that the Qur’an is referring to a commonplace of its own time.
Then Qur’an 4:156 scolds some Jews for speaking ill of Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Q. 4:157 continues the criticism, saying, “And their assertion, ‘We killed Jesus Christ the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ But they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them so. Those who disputed over this entertain doubts about it. They have no knowledge and are only followers of conjecture. They most certainly did not kill him.”
Note the contrast with Q. 4:155 (building on 2 Chronicles), which says that some Jews had been perfectly capable of killing prophets. Here, the Qur’an absolutely denies, however, that they killed Jesus in specific.
The later Muslim (and Western) commentary literature has presented many diverse interpretations of this verse, surveyed by Todd Lawson, but in my view these approaches suffer from not being contextualized in history.
The great Princeton classicist Glen Bowersock, in his Crucible of Islam, was one of the first academics to see the period in which Islam first arose clearly, as powerfully shaped by the war of 603-629 between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Iran. Moreover, the seventh-century sources suggest, as Bowersock argues, that people in the Near East chose up sides. Chalcedonian Christians favored the emperors Phokas (602-610) and Herakleios [Heraclius] (r. 610-641).
I hold that the early Muslims around Muhammad supported the Romans, as explained in my new book:.
Miaphysite Christians of Egypt and Syria may have tilted to the Sasanians, and these would have included many Arabic-speaking tribes.
Likewise, many still-pagan Arabic speaking tribes, as with Mecca and Taif, probably also supported the Iranians.
The seventh-century Christian sources, for what it is worth, maintain that the large Jewish community in Galilee and Tiberias also swung behind the invading Iranians, since they had felt mistreated by the Christian Roman Empire. Iran took Syria and Palestine and Egypt. On taking Jerusalem in 614 the Iranians took the relics of the True Cross to Ctesiphon, their capital (today’s Madain in Iraq).
An obscure early seventh century work, the “Easter Chronicle,” points to a polemic (a sort of war propaganda) against the Christian Roman Empire by Zoroastrians that instanced Jews.
Emperor Herakleios and his Roman army had taken Sasanian Ninewah in what is now northern Iraq in late 627, after two and a half decades of war in which the Iranians had been the big winners. But now the tide turned decisively. Herakleios and his men went down to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon. They weren’t able to take it because the Iranian army destroyed the bridge over the fast-flowing Tigris. But that they got so close to the capital, destroyed the reputation of Iranian Emperor Khosrow II for invincibility and encouraged his son, Sheroyeh, to make a coup against him.
Sheroyeh had his father Khosrow II executed on February 28, 628.
The anonymous author of “The Easter Chronicle” says that when news of the Iranian tyrant’s ignominious death reached Constantinople that spring, Herakleios sent out a dispatch to the provinces with the announcement. It said in part:
- “And let all we Christians, praising and glorifying, give thanks to the one God, rejoicing with great joy in his holy name. For fallen is the arrogant Chosroes [Khosrow], opponent of God. He is fallen and cast down to the depths of the earth, and his memory is utterly exterminated from earth; he who was exalted and spoke injustice in arrogance and contempt against our Lord Jesus Christ the true God and his undefiled Mother, our blessed Lady, Mother Lady, Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, perished is the profaner with a resounding noise . . .
And on the 25th of the same month February, Seiroe was crowned and proclaimed Persian king, and on the 28th of the same month, after keeping the God-abhorred Chosroes bound in irons for 4 days in utter agony, he killed the same ingrate, arrogant, blaspheming opponent of God by a most cruel death, so that he might know that Jesus who was born of Mary, who was crucified by the Jews (as he himself had written) against whom he blasphemed, is God almighty . . .”
— Chronicon Paschale, trans. Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1989), 182-183.
So this source is saying that Khosrow II himself had belittled Christianity, defaming Mary and holding that the object of Christian devotion, Jesus, had been summarily dispatched by the Jews.
And these are precisely the charges against some Jews that the Qur’an makes in the same period of the 620s– that Jews belittled Mary and boasted that they had killed Jesus. If they were allied with Sasanian Iran, it is natural that they participated in its war propaganda against the official ideology of the Christian Roman Empire.
For its part, the Christianity of that day saw the faith of Christ as the only true religion, denounced Neoplatonic monotheism as pernicious and closed the Athens Academy, demoted Zoroastrianism to paganism, and increasingly saw Judaism as a superstition rather than a true religion. The polemical Christian work of the late 600s, Jacob the Newly Baptized, says Jews are going to hell if they did not recognize Jesus.
In contrast, the Qur’an argues for religious pluralism. Members of all the monotheistic religions, it preaches, can get to heaven if they live righteous lives.
It says of a faction of seventh-century Jews (The Heights 7:159): “Among the people of Moses is a nation that guides others by the truth and establishes justice.”
Likewise, seventh-century sources say that Jews and Christians during the Great War attacked each other’s religious edifices. Emperor Justinian had ordered that all synagogues be turned into churches (they weren’t, except maybe for a few in what is now Tunisia).
The Qur’an (The Cow 2:113–114) urges Jews and Christians to see each other as both rooted in the biblical heritage and to respect each other’s houses of worship:
“The Jews say, ‘The Christians have nothing to stand on;’ and the Christians say, ‘The Jews have nothing to stand on’ -—even though they both recite the Bible. Those who are ignorant say the same thing. God will judge among them on the Resurrection Day regarding those matters over which they dispute. Who is more of a despot than one who forbids the mention of God’s name in the houses of God, and strives to tear them down? They should not have entered them save in fearful reverence. Their lot in this world is disgrace, and in the next they face severe torment.”
So my own view is that 4:157 is not denying Jesus’ death and resurrection. These are recognized in 19:33, though the Qur’an does not see Jesus’ death and resurrection as salvific– it sees the Word or Logos preached by messengers of God like Jesus as saving.
In 4:157, the Qur’an is denying that the Jews killed Jesus, and is doing so as part of a strategy in the Medina period 622-632 of denying Sasanian propaganda talking points; perhaps also this is part of an effort at recruiting Jews to join the early Muslims’ political alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire against Sasanian Iran.
I think it is entirely possible that Muhammad knew enough about Jewish law and Roman history to know that crucifixion was a pagan Roman punishment (Christian Rome after Constantine’s conversion in 312 removed crucifixion from penal law in honor of Christ), and so would have known that the Sanhedrin could never have imposed such a death on Jesus. Hence, he denies that Jews killed Jesus. Because of this, Muslims never bothered Jews about the death of Jesus, unlike medieval Christian Europe, much of which continued unfairly to blame them collectively through the generations for his death.
Some later Muslim theologians (not all) misread the verse to deny that Jesus was crucified at all, and some even adopted a Gnostic or Docetic scenario where a body double was crucified in Jesus’ place. I think “it was made to appear to them” (shubbiha lahum) means something like “they were propagandized into believing that…” and that the phrase is very possibly a reference to Khosrow II’s campaign to enlist Jews against Christians.
In any case, it is striking how close the positions refuted in 4:155-57 are in their diction to those that the Eastern Roman authorities attributed to Khosrow II. This war propaganda, I argue, is the real context of these Qur’an verses.