In previous posts, I have been reviewing a book by Muslim polemicist/apologist Abu Zakariya (in particular, chapter 5 of the book). So far, we have seen that Zakariya’s objections to the gospels as inspired Scripture and eyewitness testimony, to Messianic prophecy, and to the reliable passing on of stories about Jesus have fallen far short of convincing. Here are links to my four previous rebuttals to Zakariya:
- Were the Gospels Written Under Divine Inspiration?
- Was the Crucifixion of Jesus Foretold in the Old Testament?
- Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony?
- Were the Stories About Jesus Passed on Reliably?
In this fifth installment, I am going to address Abu Zakariya’s contention that the Qur’an has the true insight into the crucifixion.
Problems with the Substitution View
Zakariya begins by quoting from Surah 4:157-158:
They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him. God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.
Zakariya takes the classical interpretation of this text, which is that someone was made to resemble Jesus and was put on the cross in His stead. He finds support for this interpretation in the narrations of Ibn Abbas, one of the companions of Muhammad (Al-Nasa’i, Al-Kubra, 6:489):
Just before God raised Jesus to the Heavens, Jesus went to his disciples, who were twelve inside the house. When he arrived, his hair was dripping with water (as if he had just had a bath) and he said, ‘There are those among you who will disbelieve in me twelve times after you had believed in me.’ He then asked, ‘Who among you will volunteer for his appearance to be transformed into mine, and be killed in my place? Whoever volunteers for that, he will be with me (in Heaven.’ One of the youngest ones among them volunteered, but Jesus asked him to sit down. Jesus asked again for a volunteer, and the same young man volunteered and Jesus asked him to sit down again. Then the young man volunteered a third time and Jesus said, ‘You will be that man,’ and the resemblance of Jesus was cast over that man while Jesus ascended to Heaven from a hole in the roof the house. When the Jews came looking for Jesus, they found that young man and crucified him.
Zakariya concludes from this,
From an observational perspective, would anyone be able to tell the difference between Jesus being crucified, and it being made to appear like he was? Whether it was the real Jesus, or someone who looked, sounded and acted in an identical manner to Jesus, or even an illusion of it being Jesus that tricks the eyes, most casual observers would not be able to distinguish between them. If you think about it, these various scenarios would appear identical for all intents and purposes and would end up being recorded the same way.
The problem is that, if the narration from Ibn Abbas is the correct way things went down, then the twelve disciples of Jesus knew that someone had been made to resemble Jesus and had been crucified in His stead. This is problematic since we know that the disciples themselves believed Jesus to have been killed by crucifixion. There can be absolutely no question about this. This, then, is an oddity on the thesis being here put forth.
On the other hand, if the disciples themselves were duped into believing Jesus had been killed by crucifixion, this means that Allah deceived his own followers, since the Qur’an asserts twice that Jesus’ disciples were Muslims (Surah 3:52, 61:14).
How do we know that the disciples believed Jesus had been crucified? For one thing, the gospels — which go back to apostolic testimony (for some of the reasons why I know this, see my previous article here) — all indicate that Jesus died by crucifixion. Mark’s gospel is directly associated with the eyewitness testimony of Peter (who was present at the cross). John’s gospel is directly associated with the beloved disciple (as I demonstrated in the previous article), who was also present at the cross and even had a dialogue with Jesus while Jesus was hanging on the cross (John 19:26). Besides the gospels, there are also the speeches of the apostles in Acts which make the cross and resurrection of Jesus the cornerstone of the gospel proclamation (e.g. see Peter’s speech in Acts 2:23-24). Furthermore, we also have the epistles of Paul which evidence the earliest apostolic beliefs — for instance, the creedal tradition passed on by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 or the Carmen Christi hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:5-11 which references the crucifixion. Moreover, Paul’s preaching of the gospel to the gentiles (which made the crucifixion a centerpiece) was apparently approved by the Jerusalem eldership, which included Peter and Jesus’ brother James (Galatians 2:7-9). Finally, in 1 Corinthians 15:11, in reference to the Jerusalem leaders (Peter, James, the twelve) and having just spoken of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, says, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” Thus, Paul assumes that the Corinthian Christians believed his message to be consistent with what had previously been told to them by the Jerusalem leaders.
A further problem with the substitution view is that there would have been no need for someone to take the place of Jesus on the cross if the purpose was simply to deliver Jesus from crucifixion. Why not simply take him up to heaven and have him escape the grasp of those who wanted to kill him? Why would Allah subject one of his followers to such a painful and humiliating death needlessly? The only reason why one would posit such a substitution view is in an attempt to explain away the manifest evidence that Jesus did indeed die by crucifixion, as every credible scholar in the field maintains.
Finally, there is the problem that Jesus Himself predicted ahead of time His impending death and subsequent resurrection. Therefore, if Jesus did not die by crucifixion, then one of two things is true. Either, Jesus is a false prophet (which makes Islam false since the Qur’an maintains that Jesus was a true prophet of Allah), or Jesus did die by crucifixion, just like He said he would — but in this case, Islam is also false, since the Qur’an maintains that Jesus did not die but rather ascended to heaven (Surah 4:157-158). This catch-22 is what I call the crucifixion dilemma. One may object by casting doubt on whether Jesus really did foretell ahead of time his impending death, as recorded in the gospels. But let us now take a look at some of the evidence that Jesus really did predict this.
Here, I will give only a couple of examples. As a first example, consider the false testimony of the witnesses at Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas. In Mark 14:58 (also paralleled in Matthew 26:61), they say that they heard Jesus say,
‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’
Likewise, in Mark 15:29-30 (paralleled in Matthew 27:40), when Jesus was on the cross, we read,
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”
Notice that nothing in either Matthew or Mark give us a pretext for this accusation. It is an unexplained allusion, which itself is a mark of verisimilitude. In fact, a claim that one threatened to destroy the second temple was a rather serious allegation. But nonetheless, Matthew and Mark choose to leave it hanging. Perhaps they didn’t know the pretext, but nonetheless faithfully record what the false witnesses and the mockers at the cross said. It seems though that this accusation against Jesus is not something that has been fabricated out of whole cloth, but rather it appears to rather be a garbled version of something Jesus had actually said — especially in light of the reference to “in three days”, a phrase often associated with Jesus’ predictions concerning His resurrection from the dead. But now turn over to John 2:18-19, and what do we find?
18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Jesus here, it turns out, is speaking about his resurrection from the dead, with the real temple (where the presence of God dwells) being His body. Thus, John provides the pretext for the accusation but makes no mention of the later misrepresentation of Jesus’ words and the accusation based on this statement of Jesus. Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, do not give us the pretext for the accusation, but give us the later misrepresentation of what Jesus said. This is particularly striking since Matthew and Mark were written before John, and so they do not have John’s gospel in mind as they write. This hand-in-glove fit, or undesigned coincidence, supports independence and thereby corroborates the veracity of the saying.
As a second example, consider the incident reported in Mark 8:31-33:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.
This saying of Jesus is supported by the criterion of embarrassment, since it seems particularly unlikely that Mark (whose source Peter was) would invent an incident involving such a double rebuke involving Peter and Jesus, especially with Jesus saying to Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” But the double rebuke makes no sense except in light of Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. Thus, the criterion of embarrassment supports the veracity of this saying.
Finally, the sheer number and varied nature of Jesus’ predictions of His impending death and resurrection itself suggests that it goes back to eyewitness memory.
Therefore, there is no escape from the dilemma — either Jesus did not die by crucifixion (making him a false prophet and therefore Islam false), or he did die by crucifixion (contradicting the Qur’an and thereby also entailing the falsity of Islam). Pick your poison.
Biblical Support for the Islamic View on the Crucifixion?
Abu Zakariya claims that both the Old and New Testaments support the Qur’anic view that Jesus was not crucified. Yes, you read that right — Zakariya actually claims support from the Old and New Testaments!
From the Old Testament, he cites Psalm 91:10-15. I addressed Zakariya’s butchering of this text in my previous article where I interacted with Zakariya’s use of the Old Testament. As I pointed out previously, the text of Psalm 91 is not even primarily about the Messiah at all, but rather it speaks of the security of the faithful under God’s protection (and Satan twists and misuses it during his temptation of Jesus). But Christ’s special purpose was to go to the cross and pay the penalty for our sins. This is the consistent testimony of Messianic prophecy and is the consistent theme throughout all four of the gospels.
The text that Zakariya mangles from the New Testament is Matthew 26:38-39:
38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
These words that have been attributed to Jesus are a clear indication that he did not want to be crucified, supporting the Qur’anic narrative about the crucifixion. This should be a point of reflections for Christians, for if the primary mission of Jesus was to die on the cross, then why did he pray to God to avoid the crucifixion?
Once again, Zakariya has simply not read the text carefully, nor has he read it in context. So let’s survey some of the context of Matthew 26 leading up to the quoted statement of Jesus.
- Matthew 26:1-2: When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
- Matthew 26:11-13: 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
- Matthew 26:26-28: 26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
- Matthew 26:30-32: 30 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
It is after these multiple statements concerning Jesus’ death that we read of the incident in the garden of Gethsemane. If one’s interpretation of a verse flies in the face of everything else said by the same chapter, this should be cause to reconsider one’s interpretation of the text.
Furthermore, Jesus did not pray that he might not die on the cross, but rather he prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus, being a man, despised having to endure the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). However, he surrendered His own will to that of the Father, thus voluntarily enduring the shame of the cross.
In fact, this even relates to another undesigned coincidence. Turn over to John 18:11, in which Jesus, after the soldiers come to arrest Jesus and after Peter has struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest, says,
“Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
John’s gospel nowhere else uses the metaphor of a cup to represent the sufferings of Christ. So why does John use this metaphor here? We learn from the synoptic gospels that Christ had just been praying that night in those very terms, asking the Father that, if there be another way to save mankind apart from His enduring the wrath of God, that the cup might pass from Him. However, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Jesus declares, “shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Now he understands the Father’s decision to give Him the cup. This undesigned coincidence, or artless dovetailing, between John and the synoptics corroborates the historical veracity of both sayings.
This also carries with it a special significance in relation to the Old Testament, which also uses the metaphor of a cup to describe God’s wrath. For instance, in Psalm 75:8, we read,
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.
Yet, on the cross, Jesus consumed the cup right down to the very last drop, draining it down to the dregs. It was thus far more than the physical sufferings of the cross that caused Christ to tremble, even sweating as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground — Christ was to also endure the wrath of God against sin on behalf of all those who would place their hope in Him. Christ’s use of this cup metaphor, then, reveals His understanding of the significance of His impending suffering and death on the cross.
Support for the Islamic View on the Crucifixion Among Early Christian Groups?
Having claimed support from the Old and New Testaments for the Islamic view, Zakariya asserts that,
…we find support for the Qur’anic crucifixion narrative in history. There were numerous first and second century Christian groups who denied the crucifixion of Jesus.
The first ancient group that Zakariya wishes to claim as his own is Basilides and his followers (the ‘Basilidians’). Zakariya cites a quotation of Basilides from Irenaeus in his Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 24, section 4:
The Unborn and Nameless Father seeing their miserable plight, sent his First-born, Nous (and this is the one who is called Christ) to deliver those who should believe in him from the power of the angelic agencies who had built the world. And to men Christ seemed to be a man and to have performed miracles. It was not, however, Christ who suffered, but rather Simon of Cyrene, who was constrained to carry the cross for him, and mistakenly crucified in Christ’s stead…
The passage itself indicates exactly why Basilides took that view. He writes, “And to men Christ seemed to be a man…” Basilides was a gnostic heretic, who believed that Christ did not really have a physical fleshly body (since the physical world was seen as being defiling and corrupting), but rather only appeared to be a man. If he was not really a man but only appeared to be so, then he can hardly have been in fact fixed to a cross. Thus, to claim Basilides as one of his own is an indication of Zakariya’s desperation to find any measure of historical support for his view.
I wish I could say that his examples get better but unfortunately they only go down hill from here. The next group Zakariya cites are the Philadelphian Christians, to whom Ignatius of Antioch wrote one of his letters. Zakariya writes,
The first scentury Church Father Ignatius wrote a letter to a Christian community, the Philadelphians, who seemed to deny that Jesus died and was resurrected on the basis that it was not found in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Quoting Ignatius (epistle to the Philadelphians section 8),
And I exhort you to do nothing out of strife, but according to the doctrine of Christ. When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified.
Zakariya here thoroughly butchers Ignatius’ meaning. Here he is not even addressing heretics, but non-believers who have refused to believe the gospel because the Christ’s sufferings do not accord with their Messianic expectations based on their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. It has nothing to do with anyone who denies that Jesus was crucified.
In fact, Ignatius speaks in very approving terms of the Philadelphian believers. He even writes in the prologue of the epistle,
To the church of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ at Philadelphia in Asia; mercifully settled in all godly concord; steadfastly rejoicing in the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord; and in the fullness of His mercy, holding sure and certain conviction of the same.
This doesn’t sound very consistent with Zakariya’s claim that Ignatius was addressing them as heretics.
In a final attempt to find support for his view, Zakariya appeals to the Trallian Christians, to whom Ignatius also addressed a letter. Zakariya writes,
Ignatius wrote a letter to a Christian group known as the Trallians, who seemed to believe that the death of Jesus was only in appearance, not in reality. Here, Ignatius tries to correct their understanding about the crucifixion.
Quoting Ignatius again (epistle to the Trallians section 10):
And when He had lived among men for thirty years, He was baptized by John, really and not in appearance; and when He had preached the Gospel three years, and done signs and wonders, He who was Himself the Judge was judged by the Jews, falsely so called, and by Pilate the governor; was scourged, was smitten on the cheek, was spit upon; He wore a crown of thorns and a purple robe; He was condemned: He was crucified in reality and not in appearance, not in imagination, not in deceit. He really died, and was buried, and rose from the dead, even as He prayed in a certain place, saying, “But do Thou, O Lord, raise me up again, and I shall recompense them.
Again, Ignatius is not addressing the Trallians as heretics but rather as fellow believers in Christ. This is clear from the prologue of the epistle:
To the holy church at Tralles in Asia; beloved of God the Father of Jesus Christ, elect and godly, endowed with peace of body and soul by the Passion of Jesus Christ, who through our rising again to Him is our hope.
In his letter, Ignatius is warning the Christians in Tralles about the destructive gnostic heresies (which deny the reality of Christ’s physical incarnation). This much is clear, since in section 6 he says,
And so I entreat you (not I, though, but the love of Jesus Christ) not to nourish yourselves on anything but Christian fare, and have no truck with the alien herbs of heresy. There are men who in the very act of assuring you of their good faith will mingle poison with Jesus Christ; which is like offering a lethal drug in a cup of honeyed wine, so that the unwitting victim blissfully accepts his own destruction with a fatal relish.
Ignatius even goes on to write,
Not that I suspect anything of the kind among you; I am only trying to protect you in good time, because you are dear to my heart and I can foresee the devil’s snares ahead.
Thus, this text in fact explicitly contradicts, rather than supports, that the Trallian Christians gave any credence to the Islamic perspective on the crucifixion.
To be honest, I do not get the impression that Abu Zakariya has even read the letters of Ignatius. If he had, it is difficult to see how he would make such blunders. His citations of Ignatius give every appearance of having been copy/pasted from the internet with no regard for their context.
It is regrettable that over these five blog posts we have seen so much disappointing argumentation and sloppy scholarship on the part of Abu Zakariya. Chapter 5 of his book, Jesus: Man, Messenger, Messiah, as I have shown, contains not a single compelling argument to call the historical veracity of the crucifixion of Jesus into question. On the other hand, Zakariya’s inability to argue against the crucifixion serves to highlight the strength of the evidence supporting and corroborating the crucifixion of Jesus. In future blog posts, I will also be addressing other chapters in the book.