© Andy Bannister, 2001You are welcome to email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction : the challenge of Jesus
Whether one is Christian or Muslim, there is no getting away from the challenging figure who is Jesus of Nazareth. Yet beyond acknowledging that he was indeed a remarkable figure, Christians and Muslims quickly begin to disagree when talking about Jesus. Christians believe that in Jesus, the God who created the world revealed himself fully to his creation. Muslims, on the other hand, believe him to be merely a prophet; important, yes, but nowhere near as significant as Muhammad himself.
Yet the problem is this. Most Muslims know very little about the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The Qur’an contains little about him, indeed most of what is recorded are merely extended birth narratives. Whilst it is said that he taught great crowds, little information is given as to the content of that teaching. The Qur’an records no sermons, no parables, none of his gentle words to the poor and dispossessed, none of his cutting challenges to the religious establishment of the day; it is all missing. For that, one needs to turn to the New Testament and to the gospels.
When one raises the question of Jesus, Muslims are often quick to ask “we honour Jesus Christ, why do you not honour Muhammad?” But I would challenge my Muslim friends and readers with this — if I were to say ‘oh, I honour Muhammad, he was a great racing car driver!’ you would look at me as if I were mad; you see, the key concern is not whether one claims to honour somebody or not, but firstly whether one actually knows what they stood for. Until Muslims know what Jesus said, did, and claimed to be, then for them to claim that they honour Jesus is at best misleading. The aim of this series is to help Muslims rediscover their lost Jesus — to investigate for themselves what he did, said, and taught.
One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars is N T Wright, whose massive works The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God are required reading for anybody who wishes to be taken seriously in the academic arena. Wright suggests that there are five key questions that anybody wishing to form an opinion about Jesus needs to take seriously and be able to answer . These are:
- How did Jesus fit into the Judaism of his day? Did he believe the same as everybody else at the time, or did he stand out? And if so, how?
- What were the aims of Jesus? What was he seeking to achieve as he was operating within the Judaism of his day?
- Why did Jesus die? Why did the Jewish leadership seek to have him executed, and how did they persuade the Romans to go ahead with it? 
- How and why did the early church begin? What transformed a bunch of frightened men, after the loss of their leader, into a bunch of fearless preachers prepared to face martyrdom for their message? Why did they begin to preach that Israel’s history had reached its promised climax in Jesus?
- Why are the gospels the way they are? One can see that the gospels are, on the one hand, very different from the Jewish background of first century Palestine. Yet they are also significantly different from the early church. (For example, they contain no mention of issues that are of great concern in the later New Testament; speaking in tongues, circumcision, the debate concerning Gentiles and so forth).
To state somewhat simply, as Muslim polemicists tend to, that “Jesus was merely a prophet” or that “the gospels have been corrupted” is to miss the point — rather like travelling to Disneyland, taking a photo of the ticket booth, and returning home again. Unless one can explain Jesus in terms of his historical background, understand what motivated him and drove him to follow through his vocation, and then explain how this gave birth to a new movement called “Christianity”, then it must be a case of back to the drawing board.
Muslims have lost their Jesus, and the aim of this mini-series is to help them recover him, as we examine what he taught, what he did and said, and attempt to constantly hold Wright’s five questions in the back of our minds as we seek to formulate some answers.
Rediscovering the power of story
Even a cursory glance through the gospels will reveal that Jesus was a man who loved stories. He communicated by parables and metaphor. Yet this is something that is singularly lacking in the Qur’anic presentation of him. Perhaps because the Qur’an does not really utilise the genre of “story”, Muslims often fail to appreciate that Jesus in the New Testament is a great storyteller — something that is lost when one reduces one’s contact with him to mere proof-texting .
If story is one major aspect to the ministry of Jesus, there are two others that we need to take account of as we read the New Testament. The first of these is that of action. Jesus was a man of action; as one reads the gospels we read of arguments with the Pharisees, miracles, prophetic-acting-out, and a range of other things. But these cannot be divorced from what Jesus said and taught. Consider the famous story of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem in Mark 11. Unless one reads this in its immediate context, then one cannot allow it to be mutually interpreted by the incident where Jesus prophetically curses the fig tree. Why did Jesus clear the Temple? The answer can only be found by reading the actions and statements together. This is cry for a unified Jesus, not a Jesus of the polemic and the proof text.
The third aspect of the ministry of Jesus requires getting your head around the Judaism of his day. In first century Judaism, symbols were one of the big things. And three of the biggest were the Temple, the Torah, and the Spirit. All three were ways of talking about God’s dealings with his people, Israel:
- the Temple represented God’s presence with his people; through its system of priests and sacrifices was how one gained forgiveness and was made righteous with the God of Israel.
- the Torah represented the way God wanted you to live. It was, in one sense, the very embodiment of divine Wisdom. If as a first century Jew you wanted to live rightly, then you followed the Torah .
- And most powerfully of all, the Spirit represented God’s way of working in history. Like Islam today, first century Judaism believed in a God who was almighty and transcendent. To protect his transcendence, the Old Testament speaks of ‘God’s Spirit’, inseparable from God himself, which is the way that God gets things done on earth. To speak of God’s Spirit was to speak of God himself; for example, see Old Testament passages such as Genesis 1:2; 1 Sam 19:23; Job 33:4 and many more.
Why is this important? Because, as we shall see later in this series, Jesus himself was a strong advocate of symbols. The way that he acts towards these massively important Jewish symbols of the day, and indeed creates powerful symbols of his own, will help us as we seek to look more closely at Jesus and to ponder Wright’s five questions which we encountered above.
Tell me a story …
Jesus, then as we have seen, was a man who told stories. His stories often connected with the religious symbols of his day. They certainly utilised language, images, and metaphors that his contemporaries could understand. One of the most significant stories he told — one that gives us insight into his mindset — can be found in Mark chapter 12. The context is this; Jesus has just caused a ruckus in the Jerusalem Temple, cleansing it of traders, and prophesying its destruction. The religious leaders challenge him, and ask him from where he derives his authority to do all that is doing. And Jesus tells this story …
“A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.
Again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed.
He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.”
Jesus asked, What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11; RSV translation)
The audience who heard this story would not have been in doubt as to what Jesus meant by it. Even 2,000 years later, it is very clear. What does need explaining however, is that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, a “vineyard” was a symbol for Israel herself. We can see this in a wide range of Old Testament texts, such as Isaiah 5:1. Indeed, Jesus’ whole story is a very clever retelling of Isaiah 5:1-7, a passage in which God’s judgement on Israel was promised if they refused to do what was right. Once you pick up on that imagery, the rest of the story falls into place:
- If the vineyard represents Israel, who does the owner of the vineyard symbolise? The answer is God himself.
- The tenants in the story represent the people of Israel, to whom God had given the land (the vineyard).
- The servants represent the many prophets that God sent to his people, to persuade them to mend their rebellious ways (a story told in great detail in the many prophetic writings in the Old Testament).
- But after all the servants have been ignored, ill-treated, and killed, who comes next? The answer … the son of the vineyard owner.
Why is this important? For a number of reasons, not least that Jesus saw himself as in a different class to the servants (prophets) who had come before. They were merely messengers sent by the vineyard owner (God) to the tenants (Israelites). Jesus, however, saw himself as the obedient son. This already has profound implications for an Islamic understanding of Jesus. Because Jesus does not see himself as one in a line of prophets, preceded by John the Baptist and followed by Muhammad. As far as Jesus is concerned, the line of prophets had ended — John was the last. He, Jesus, is in a different class … he is the obedient son of the vineyard owner.
That Jesus saw himself as in a different league to previous prophets becomes clear when you look at other examples of his actions and his teaching. Remember those three key symbols of Judaism that we spoke about earlier. We mentioned Temple, Torah, and Spirit. No good first century Jew would have anything but the highest respect for those would he not? Yet we find the following …
- That in regard to the Temple, Jesus considers it to be defunct — and he actively speaks against it. Indeed, his whole purpose of going to Jerusalem at the climax of his ministry seems to be to speak against it and the religious regime centred upon it.
- In regard to Torah, Jesus seems to consider himself free to abrogate or add to many aspects of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, we have some the greatest ethical teaching of Jesus. Several times he says of commands in the Old Testament “you have heard that it was written …” and then precedes to respond “but I say to you …” We see him change the Law regarding divorce, revenge, murder, adultery, and love for enemies. And all on his own authority.
- And in regard to God’s Spirit, we see what for a first century Jew would have amounted to blasphemy. Jesus claims authority over the very Spirit of God itself; in John 15:26 Jesus promises that he will send God’s Spirit …
“But when the Counsellor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me”.
21st century Muslims tend to miss what would have been blasphemy to a good Jew; how could Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, claim to send God’s Spirit? Sending the spirit was God’s prerogative alone In the Old Testament, as we have seen, the Spirit represented the very presence and activity of God himself. The claim of Jesus would have been similar to you or I saying “I can command God’s power” or “I can send God’s wisdom” … utterly blasphemous.
As N T Wright, who we encountered earlier, remarks:
‘Judaism had two great incarnational symbols, Temple and Torah: Jesus seems to have believed it was his vocation to upstage the one and outflank the other. Jesus acted and spoke as if he thought he were a one-man counter-temple movement.’
Whatever else he thought he was, Jesus clearly thought he was no ordinary prophet. In the Parable of the Vineyard above, we have seen that Jesus categorically drew a line between himself and the previous prophets. No more prophets could come after the obedient son of the vineyard owner, because after the son God would intervene and do something very different. This fundamental difference between Jesus and all other prophets is also marked out by his attitude to the great symbols of Judaism; Torah, Temple and Spirit. Jesus clearly considered himself, as the obedient son, to have authority over all three of them. This raises profound questions for the Muslim understanding of Jesus. Muhammad cannot, categorically and absolutely, stand in a line of prophets stretching back through Jesus. Jesus did not consider himself as just one of many prophets, and as such he certainly did not expect any other to come after him.
That is because Jesus understood that through him, the God of the Old Testament was bringing about his promised Kingdom, which the Old Testament prophets had looked forward to. One cannot understand Jesus without understanding his teaching about “the Kingdom of God”, a phrase that appears over one hundred times in the gospels. But that is a topic for a later part in this series.
We have seen how it is vital that Jesus be understood in the context of first century Judaism. Muslims commit a perverse twisting of history when they try to suggest he was effectively a seventh century Muslim, preaching an identical message to Muhammad. Jesus was not a Muslim, nor for that matter was he a 21st century American protestant! One needs to understand him in his context; and the only way to do that is to access him through the New Testament gospels.
Secondly, this paper has been a call to read the message of Jesus in its entirety. Sadly, my Muslim friends are very fond of proof texting (Christians are not averse to this error either). The most you will hear most Muslims quoting the gospels is one verse here, one verse there, simply to make a point. However, our understanding of Jesus is only correct if it fits all of the material in the gospels, and addresses the five key questions we studied above. If we can only support our picture of Jesus by quoting one or two verses, lifted out of context, then I would suggest we have the wrong picture of Jesus. A Muslim would rightly argue that a proper understanding of Islam needs to take into account the whole Qur’an; not just one or two favourite verses. I would likewise argue that any presentation of Jesus that does not take account of all of his parables, miracles, and actions is equally flawed and highly skewed. Thus this is a challenge for Muslims to rediscover the New Testament and engage with the Jesus it presents, not pull it apart.
Thirdly, we have seen how Jesus understood himself to be in a class apart from other prophets, and indeed the line of prophets to have finished. Jesus spoke of himself as the obedient son of the vineyard owner, sent by that owner (God) when the line of messengers had failed to prepare people for the coming Kingdom of God. Thus to call Jesus “a prophet like Muhammad” is not so much a travesty as a foolish misunderstanding. You may say Muhammad was a prophet if you wish, but he was certainly not one like Jesus, because future prophets did not fit into the world view of Jesus of Nazareth . If we are to properly understand Jesus, the man and his message, and ultimately who he claimed to be, then we need to understand the total uniqueness that underpinned all that he claimed and did.
‘The Quest for the Lost Jesus’ is a new, regular series at ANSWERING ISLAM. The author will attempt to produce new papers in the series at least once every 8 weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please do feel free to email me.