Instead of writing a full-scale biography of Jesus of Nazareth, I want to focus on some aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that are commonly overlooked by most Christians. Any attempt to reconstruct the historical Jesus (as distinct from the incarnate deity of ecclesiastical faith) needs to take into account all the recoverable data about Jesus, much of which has been ignored by many Christians because of its’ embarrassment to Christian orthodoxy. Jesus’ reported sayings in the Gospels are frequently subjected to tortuous exegesis by fundamentalist Christians to make them fit later church tradition. Paradoxically, the data has been critically examined by none other than Christian scholars themselves.
It is the time-honoured Christian practice to read the New Testament gospels through the perspective of centuries of later church tradition. This later tradition developed in a very different environment to the milieu of Second Temple Judaism. Certain titles and expressions which had been used of or by Jesus underwent a radical semantic shift, resulting (to give but one example) in a title such as ‘son of God‘ acquiring a totally new and non-Jewish meaning in the Hellenistic world of the third and fourth centuries. The Catholic Church came to redefine the ontology of the man from Nazareth into categories of Greek philosophy and metaphysics. Thus, the charismatic healer and prophet from Nazareth became a God. The doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Jesus has always scandalised Jews and, later, Muslims would also find it blasphemous, an unacceptable Christian dogma.
Western biblical scholarship since the Enlightenment has tried to strip away these ideological accretions and uncover, as much as possible, the real Jesus of history: Jesus the Messiah, a prophet of God. There is an extraordinary resemblance between the historical picture produced by many biblical scholars and the Jesus of the Qur’an. This convergence has not gone unnoticed in recent works by New Testament scholars who see in it an exciting opportunity for rapprochement between the two Abrahamic faiths (I cite two examples in my conclusion below).
I want to explore four key issues that reveal crucial aspects of the teaching and life of Jesus that are commonly obscured or even suppressed by traditional Christian apologetics and piety – whether Evangelical or Roman Catholic.
N.B. There is a Glossary of unfamiliar terms at the end of this essay and Suggestions for Further Reading if you wish to explore the subject further.
The Key Issues
The key issues I will explore come under four chapter headings:
- Chapter 1: The Jewish Law: Jesus did not declare all foods clean
- Chapter 2: What Jesus taught about ‘being saved’, or inheriting eternal life (and what St Paul wrote)
- Chapter 3: Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as predicting his own death: difficulties with taking this at face value
- Chapter 4: Jesus did not claim to be the Creator of the universe
We will be covering these issues in the following sections.
Chapter 1: The Jewish Law — Jesus did not declare all foods clean
It is widely believed that Jesus taught and declared that all foods are clean, that is, it is permissible for his followers to consume every kind of meat. However, purported sayings of Jesus in Matthews’ gospel suggest otherwise.
At the beginning of his ministry Jesus is reported to have taught his disciples this crucial teaching:
- Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven1
(All quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible)
Towards the end of his teaching ministry, eighteen chapters later, we are told Jesus said:
- The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach2
When Jesus said this, he must have known that any Rabbi would say you could not eat pork, as it says in Leviticus 11:7-8:
- And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.
If you look at another New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles you will read that at a council held in Jerusalem, the disciples ruled that all believers must stay away from
- Food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals (Acts 15:29)
Incidentally, St Paul is reported to have agreed with this decision. Blood is not to be eaten, nor the meat of strangled animals because they would have the blood still in them (see Leviticus 17:10-12)
For the meat to be fit for eating the blood must be properly drained out of the animal (see v 13). The disciples knew their Bible and acted accordingly.
Nevertheless, many Christians think that in the book of Acts the disciples were told to give up obeying the Law on unclean foods. To support this assumption they refer to Acts 10 where Peter has a vision, in which a voice tells him,
- do not call anything impure that God has made clean (verse 15)
It is important to read this verse in its complete context. If you have a copy of the New Testament to hand, I recommend you read the book of Acts, chapter 10, verses 1-35.
If you have read the whole passage, you will see that this vision was not about clean and unclean foods, but about clean and unclean people. The voice from heaven told Peter that human beings should not be called ‘unclean’ just because they did not belong to Israel. Peter wondered about the meaning of the vision (vv. 17, 19). Then he explains what he understood to be the import of the vision:
- He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles or visit them. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
- I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts: 10:34)
So it is evident that, contrary to what many Christians assume, Peter did not proclaim that all foods were now clean. Indeed, if we look at Acts 15 again, at the council of Jerusalem the disciples ruled that all believers must stay away from,
- Food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals (Acts 15:29)
It may be of interest to note that these prohibitions are mentioned in the Qur’an too,
- You are forbidden to eat carrion; blood; pig’s meat; any animal over which any name other than God’s has been invoked; any animal strangled, or anything sacrificed on idolatrous altars3
(All quotations are from The Qur’an: a new translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem published by Oxford University Press, 2004)
A Very Curious Phenomenon
I have not mentioned a very curious phenomenon so far. According to Mark’s Gospel 7:18-19, Jesus supposedly said this:
- Don’t you see that nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you? For it doesn’t go into your heart but into your stomach, and then out of your body. (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean)
The words in parenthesis were added by Mark and were not spoken by Jesus.
An alert reader would have noticed that this statement directly contradicts the passages quoted above (Matthew, 5:17-20; 23:1-2; Acts, Chapters 10 and 15).
In these passages it is evident that the disciples were not told to abandon kosher food laws by Jesus and that they had to struggle with the difficult question of whether or not the Torah laws could be relaxed for converts (it is crucial to note that the issue was how the gentile converts should live, and not the disciples themselves who continued to observe the Torah).
Christian scholars have faced this problem with commendable honesty. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed. R. Brown et al, Prentice Hall, 1990) is a prestigious work of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship with contributions from top scholars in America and the UK.
Again the problem: If Jesus had been so explicit about the observance of Jewish food laws, why were there so many debates on this matter in the early church? (p. 612)
In historical fact Jesus did not abolish the ceremonial law as such since otherwise the struggles of the early church recorded in Galatians, Acts 10 and 15 would be unintelligible (p. 658)
Therefore, I would conclude that Mark has probably read the attitude of the church of his time and place back into the original sayings of Jesus. Mark is usually believed to have written his Gospel about 65-70AD for a non-Jewish audience, a generation after Jesus. The Hellenization of Jesus is already well underway!
The Plot Thickens!
Now this is not the end of the matter. There is a further complication to consider.
Three different positions are possible to adopt concerning Jesus’ real teaching about the Old Testament Law. They are:
i. Jesus completely abolished the OT law.
ul>In the light of the discussion so far we might be forgiven if we are tempted to dismiss this possibility straight away. But it is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 2:15. Paul says that Jesus,
- Set aside in his flesh the law with its commands and its regulations
In Paul’s letter to the Romans 14:20 he says unequivocally:
- All food is clean
In 1 Timothy 4:1-3 Paul (though most scholars do not think the apostle Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles, I assume Pauline authorship for arguments sakes) even condemns those people (James and the other apostles?) who order people to abstain from certain foods, and accuses them of abandoning the true faith and following demons!
- The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods.
Finally, as if it were not clear enough already, Paul in his letter to the Colossians 2:14 claims that Jesus
- cancelled the written code, with its regulations…
ii. Jesus taught that the Torah was still to be followed in its entirety.
- The Letter of James, to be found towards the end of the New Testament, assumes the continuing normativity of the law,
- For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you become a law-breaker. 2:10-11
As we have seen even Jesus is quoted as saying that no one should think he came to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). Furthermore, Jesus continues,
- Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven Matthew (5:19)
So even the smallest command in the Torah should be adhered to.
However, paradoxically, even in Matthew’s Gospel we read of Jesus cancelling some Old Testament Laws.
The Law of Moses states in Deuteronomy 24:1,
- If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…
In Mathew 5:31 Jesus clearly cancels the Law about divorce and issues a new commandment to replace it,
- It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery
iii. Jesus confirmed the continuing validity of Torah Law in general but abrogated some specific laws.
- This view is a mediating position between positions i and ii above and makes best sense of all the evidence. Confirmation of the correctness of this interpretation is found in Holy Qur’an, a book sent by God to discern what is true and what is false in previous books. Jesus says,
- I have come to confirm the truth of the Torah which preceded me, and to make some things lawful to you which used to be forbidden…(3:50)
Now, some readers might think this argument is a tendentious ploy to prove the Qur’an right. So it is instructive to reflect on the findings of Christian scholars who have wrestled with this problem:
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary makes the following observations:
The problem arises because the plain sense of the words is that Jesus affirms the abiding validity of the Torah; but this contradicts Paul (e.g. Gal 2:5, 16; Rom 3:21-31). Moreover no major Christian church requires observance of all 613 precepts of the OT law, (p.641)
If Matthew is right about Jesus in chapters 5 and 23 then:
There is a gap between the teaching here and the teaching and practice of the churches p.641
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (p. 641) suggests that even if we deny the genuineness of Matthew 5:17-20,
The denial of the authenticity of 17, 19, and 20 does not make Jesus hold the same view as Paul.
The Commentary suggests that these verses,
Reflect the outlook of Jewish Christianity, which, as a separate movement, was eventually defeated by Paulinism [churches influenced by Paul] and died out, perhaps to be reborn in a different form as Islam. (Emphasis added) – p. 641.
This quotation is an acknowledgement from top biblical scholars that Islam has much in common with the practice of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Paul, as we know, had very different views.
As far as modern Christians are concerned, Paul won his fight and they follow him p.641
The authors of the Commentary hold the view that neither Matthew nor Paul is entirely correct. They admit,
There are contradictions within the New Testament on penultimate matters p.641
As we have seen, the Qur’an has provided us with the key to finding the authentic teaching of Jesus on the Law. As I discuss in the conclusion, recent studies have demonstrated the extraordinary resemblance between the historical picture of Jesus produced by many biblical scholars and the Jesus of the Qur’an. How is this so? Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad via the archangel Gabriel, and intended as a guide for all times and places. Unlike the Bible we have today which contains Jesus’ words in an often corrupted and altered state, God has given mankind a book free from any errors, contradictions or alterations by man.
That said, I would like to reiterate that my discussion of the food laws in the Gospels has not been ‘tainted’ or derived through Qur’anic lenses. Putting the Qur’an aside and studying the Gospels according to the methodologies of historical enquiry – we would end up with a Jesus who has an uncanny resemblance with the Jesus presented by the Qur’an. Thus in the case of clean and unclean food, most scholars believe that the historical Jesus did not nullify the OT food laws. I recommend the discussion of this issue in The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, pp. 218-223 (see my suggestions for further reading below).
(I am indebted to Shabir Ally, President of the Islamic Information and Da’wah Centre International, Canada, for various suggestions contained in his excellent pamphlet What God said about Eating Pork, Al-Attique Publishers Inc. Canada, Second Edition 2003).
Chapter 2: What Jesus taught about ‘being saved’, or inheriting eternal life; what St Paul later wrote about salvation
If the reader has followed the discussion thus far he or she will have some idea of the difficulties facing the student in attempting to uncover Jesus’ true message from the many retrospective changes made to Jesus’ teaching.
Here I will simply put side-by-side two answers to the following question: How is a human being to attain eternal life, that is, how are we saved? The first answer is given by Jesus and the second answer by St Paul. Fundamentalist Christians often put this vital question to Muslims. They tell Muslims that if they want to be saved they need only put their ‘faith in Jesus’. The reader can judge for himself if these Christians are being faithful to Jesus’ teaching or not.
In Mark’s Gospel 10:17-19 we read,
- As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher’, he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No-one is good – except God alone.
You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother
Here is St Paul’s answer to the same question in Romans 10:9.
- If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved
The differences are startling. Jesus’ answer to the question about salvation focuses on obedience to the Torah. As a Prophet to the Jewish people, Jesus sees his faithfulness to God expressed in adherence to the Creator’s commands and precepts in the Torah.
For Paul, however, writing decades later, the Law itself has been abolished, and in place of faithfulness to the Creator, we are asked to put our trust in an event no human being witnessed – the alleged resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and the ‘Lordship’ of Jesus.
Chapter 3: Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as predicting his own death: difficulties with taking this at face value
Did Jesus clearly announce his suffering and death to his disciples? Or did his arrest, crucifixion and reported resurrection take them completely by surprise? We will briefly survey these questions in this chapter.
The synoptic gospels contain six separate instances in which Jesus predicts his suffering and death, and four times he predicts his resurrection. Here are three examples from Mark and one from Luke.
- And he charged them to tell no one about him. 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 Mark 8:30-31
- And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the son of man should have risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant…And he said to them,…How is it written of the son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? Mark 9:9-10
- But while they were all marvelling at everything he did, he said to his disciples, Let these words sink into your ears; for the son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men. But they did not understand this saying…and they were afraid to ask him about this saying. Luke 9:43-45
- And they were on the road, going to Jerusalem…And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him saving, Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise. Mark 10:32-34
Note the detailed prediction in Mark 10:32-34 (in bold) and how clear and unambiguous it is.
I wish to make the following observations on these passages:
- 1. According to the evangelists (with one exception, Matt. 12:40), all of the predictions were made during the final period of his life. They are all solemn in tone: ‘Let these words sink into your ears…’ They are not mysterious but expressed in plain language. There is no doubt that Jesus had put the disciples in the picture about soon to transpire events, at least six times.
2. Yet how did these same disciples react when the recently foretold events started to occur? At the critical time between his arrest and execution, absolutely no one seems to have remembered the repeated warnings concerning the events leading to the cross. All Jesus’ disciples fled when he was arrested (Mark 14:50). When Peter was confronted he denied having anything to do with Jesus or that he even knew him (Mark 14:66-71). None of the apostles (or his family) went with him to Golgotha, according to the Synoptic Gospels.
3. Jesus would certainly have had good grounds for believing that an attempt would be made on his life and that he may get killed. However, at the same time he prayed that God would save him from death. ‘Father, everything is possible with you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will‘ Mark 14:36
4. All the apostles were initially extremely reluctant to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Amazingly, after the death of Jesus and the women had returned from the tomb, the disciples ‘did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ Luke 24:11. The Greek word for nonsense is leros which literally means ‘silly nonsense’.
5. Would a group of people who had been assured in advance by their charismatic and prophetic teacher that the tragic events would be followed promptly by a happy ending have shown such deep disbelief? Even if we allow for the initial shock and fear caused by the arrest of Jesus at night, the apostles should surely have remembered the chain of events so often and so recently rehearsed before them by Jesus.
6. The evangelists had to provide some explanation for this curious phenomenon to ensure the credibility of their stories.
7. All the Gospels end up by laying the blame on the disciples themselves for failing to grasp or simply forgetting (!) the predictions of Jesus.
So we are faced with something of a historical dilemma:
Either Jesus did not, in fact, predict the events, and the weakness and disbelief of the disciples are quite natural and understandable.
Or he did, in fact, warn them, and the ignominious behaviour of every single one of the disciples is quite inexplicable!
Weighing up the pros and cons, at a distance of 2000 years, leads me to think that it is much more likely that the Evangelists invented the predictions and inserted them into their story (or it could also be that the predictions were fabricated prior to the composition of the Gospels and came to the authors though tradition), than all concerned should suddenly forget those clear, detailed and repeated warnings. Fabricated prophecies after the event are known to exist elsewhere in the Gospels. Matthew even went so far as to invent a prophecy about Jesus from the Old Testament: ‘he shall be called a Nazarene‘, see Matthew 2:23. There is no such passage anywhere in the Old Testament! Scholars call this genre of ‘creative’ writing pesher interpretation, and it was widely used by the teachers of the Qumran community in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We have seen that the final form of the Gospels is self-contradictory and occasionally bizarre. The apostles are portrayed as having no idea what rising from the dead meant (Mark 9:10), though historians are aware that the idea of resurrection was widely understood amongst 1st century Jews. The evangelists tried to excuse the disciples by saying that not only did they not understand Jesus, but also the meaning of his words was hidden from them.
In the attempt to give the Gospels some coherence and sense the evangelists make the apostles look extremely dense and dim-witted, hardly the reliable people Jesus would have chosen to continue his mission!
(I am indebted to Professor Geza Vermes, Director of the Forum for Qumran Research at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, for various suggestions contained in his book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus)
Chapter 4: Did Jesus claim to be the Creator of the universe?
The short and incontrovertible answer is No! The fact that later generations of Christians came to believe that Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’ (as stated in the Nicene Creed) is therefore in need of some explanation.
In this chapter, I will look at two historical phenomena which I hope will give us some understanding of this development. They are:
- i) the traditional Christian belief that to confess Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ is to confess his deity, and to say that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ means and always meant that Jesus is the pre-existent, second person of the Trinity, who ‘for us men and our salvation became incarnate’.
ii) An illuminating historical parallel to the divinization of Jesus: the divinization of the Buddha
i) The New Testament (NT) calls Jesus ‘the Son of God’. But what does this mean? It is important, if we wish to adopt a historical approach (and most Christians do not), to discover the significance of words and ideas in their original language, as the original speakers meant the original listeners to understand them. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, and spoken by most Palestinian Jews. Jesus’ Aramaic teaching (except for a dozen words that are still found in the gospels) has not been preserved.
In the years after Jesus was taken up to God, the early church spread quickly in the Greek-speaking (i.e. non-Jewish) world, and the gospels and letters that came to comprise the NT were all written down in Greek. It is important to grasp that this Greek NT is a ‘translation’ of the original thoughts and ideas of the Aramaic thinking and speaking Jesus, a translation not just into a totally different language but also a transplantation of the thought of the gospels into an utterly alien cultural and religious environment of the pagan Graeco-Roman world.
To discover the authentic teaching of Jesus, and what others believed about him, it is, therefore, necessary to be alert to any changes or developments in meaning arising from the transmission of ideas through the channel of Hellenistic culture.
Therefore, when we examine the term “son of God” in its original ‘context of meaning’ we make an interesting discovery. In Hebrew or Aramaic “son of God” is always used figuratively as a metaphor for a child of God, whereas in Greek addressed to Gentile Christians, brought up in a religious culture filled with gods, sons of gods and demigods, the NT expression tended to be understood literally as ‘Son of God’ (with a capital letter): in other words as someone possessing the same nature as God.
In the fourth century, the Catholic Church officially endorsed this new pagan idea at the Council of Nicea: Jesus was declared to be of the same ‘substance’ or ‘nature’ (the Greek word used was ousia) as the Deity. Pagan philosophy triumphed over the Jewish understanding of God.
The same transformation, or rather deformation of meaning occurred to another key term: ‘Lord‘. According to the gospels, the title ‘lord’ was regularly used as an address to Jesus during his ministry. In its Aramaic context, it was synonymous with ‘teacher’.
Later generations of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians would completely alter this meaning: the Aramaic definition of ‘Lord’ = teacher became synonymous with the title of God himself: the Lord Jesus = the Lord your God. As noted NT scholar James Dunn comments, expressing the consensus view of New Testament scholars (including NT Wright who is much beloved of evangelicals),
The history of this confession of Jesus as Lord in earliest Christianity largely revolves around the question, How significant is the application of this title to Jesus? What role or status does this confession attribute to Jesus or recognises as belonging to Jesus?…The problem is that ‘lord’ can denote a whole range of dignity – from a respectful form of address as to a teacher or judge to a full title for God. Where do the early Christian references to the lordship of Jesus come within this spectrum? The answer seems to be that over the first few decades of Christianity the confession of Jesus as ‘Lord’ moved in overt significance from the lower end of the ‘spectrum of dignity’ towards the upper end steadily gathering to itself increasing overtones of deity.
We need not doubt that the Aramaic mari underlies the Greek kyrie (vocative)…Mar was used of the first century BC holy man Abba Hilkiah, presumably in recognition of the charismatic powers attributed to him. Moreover, ‘lord’ was largely synonymous with ‘teacher’ at the time of Jesus, and Jesus was certainly recognised to have the authority of a rabbi or teacher (Mark 9:5 etc). We can, therefore, say that the confession of Jesus as Lord was rooted in the ministry of Jesus to the extent that he was widely acknowledged to exercise the authority of a (charismatic) teacher and healer (cf. Mark 1:22,27).
Whether ‘Lord’ already had a higher significance for Jesus himself during his ministry depends on how we evaluate Mark 12:35-37:
‘While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
‘ “The Lord said to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
Until I put your enemies
Under your feet.”‘
David himself calls him “Lord”. How then can he be his son?’
Even if it contains an authentic word of the historical Jesus (as is quite possible) it needs only mean that he understood Messiah to be a figure superior to David in significance and especially favoured by Yahweh. It does not necessarily imply that he thought the Messiah was a divine figure (Psalm 110 after all probably referred to the king).
From: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (emphasis in the original) pp.53-54.
So Dunn recognises that the title ‘lord’ originally denoted a human being. As the term began to be used in pagan contexts as the Gentile mission spread, where it was well established as a title for the cult deity in the mystery religions (especially Isis and Serapis), and also in Emperor worship – ‘Caesar is Lord’- a radical alteration of the meaning of the term occurred. Above all, St Paul advanced this change in meaning quite deliberately. He uses Old Testament texts that speak of Yahweh and applies them to Jesus (e.g. Romans 10:13). For Paul, ‘Lord Jesus’ had become a title of divinity. In a profound sense, Paul founded the religion of Christianity we know today.
- (It is of interest to note that evangelical fundamentalists are bitterly resistant to these historical facts. Typically, they are simply ignored, perhaps in the hope that the evidence will just go away. I have noticed this reluctance to discuss these key issues in my debates with Christians. One of the most articulate spokesmen of Evangelicalism, Andy Bannister, is on record expressing his willingness to debate the historical Jesus, as the reader can see on my blog. However, and I regret to say this is quite typical of Evangelicals, he repeatedly refuses to engage the historical questions I survey in this paper. In reality, Bannister and his colleagues demonstrate no interest in serious debate at all. They advocate what they call a “confrontational” approach to Islam and Muslims, and are a serious menace to harmonious relations between people of different faiths.)
As time passed the title used exclusively by Jesus to describe himself, the ‘Son of man’, came to denote Jesus’ humanity in contrast to his divinity. So in the thought of second-century Catholic theologian Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), the term ‘Son of God’ is interchangeable with ‘God the Son’. Most Christians today, in total ignorance of the historical transmutation of the meaning of these words, still think this way.
The term ‘son of man’ is a storm centre of New Testament scholarship, and the debate is quite technical. There is no consensus as to its meaning for Jesus or the Judaism of his day. James D.G. Dunn in his magisterial survey of the issue in Christology in the Making gives his considered view: the ‘thought of the Son of Man as a pre-existent heavenly figure [Dunn has Daniel chapter 7 in mind] does not seem to have emerged in Jewish or Christian circles before the last decades of the first century AD'(p 96). I refer readers to the discussion in Dunn’s book and The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes, chapter 7, ‘Son of Man sayings’.
A popular new evangelistic course in the UK called Christianity Explored provides participants with an introductory book about Jesus. It runs courses all over the English speaking world. The course is unashamedly conservative evangelical in theology and adopts a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. It repeats the claim that the terms ‘son of God’ and ‘God the Son’ are simply interchangeable titles. It saddens me that sincere seekers after spiritual truth are being misled into an uncritical fundamentalism, or far worse, the blasphemous worship of the Messiah. It is salutary to recall that Jesus is reported to have said in Mark’s Gospel, Why do you call me good? No-one is good – except God alone.
The perils of failing to ask the following simple question are incalculable: what would those who first used this language about Jesus expect their hearers and readers to understand by the phrase? (Dunn, Christology, p.13). The answers, detailed in this paper, will show that Christians need to re-evaluate their understanding of who Jesus was. If Christians would undertake this difficult but necessary task, they will find that the results will bear a striking resemblance to the Jesus of the Qur’an, and that the two great faiths would be in substantial agreement.
ii) We can see a comparable religious impulse behind this startling divinization of Jesus by looking at some developments in India at about the same time. The Buddha had died at the end of the sixth century BCE. A deep love developed for him and a need to contemplate his enlightened humanity became so strong that in the first century BCE the first statues of the Buddha appeared in NW India. Buddhist spirituality became focused on the image of the Buddha, enshrined in statues, despite devotion to a being outside of the self being quite different to the interior discipline advocated by Gautama.
Devotion to Jesus arose in a similar way, in disregard of his clear teaching about wholehearted love of God and neighbour. As the Gospels unmistakably demonstrate, Jesus invited people to turn in heartfelt repentance and obedience to God, never to himself. Later Christians inverted Jesus’ message by announcing the worship of the proclaimer rather than the God he proclaimed.
As I mentioned in my introduction, recent studies have demonstrated the extraordinary convergence between the historical picture of Jesus produced by many biblical scholars and the Jesus of the Qur’an. This similarity has not gone unnoticed in two significant recent works by New Testament scholars which were published in the last twelve months. Both celebrate this remarkable correspondence. Jeffrey J. Butz is Professor of World Religions at Penn State University and an ordained Lutheran Minister. His book is entitled The Brother of Jesus & the Lost Teachings of Christianity. I highly recommend this book. The other work is by James D Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. His book The Jesus Dynasty (published by HarperElement 2006) is a study of Jesus and the New Testament. His comments are a fitting conclusion to my study:
Muslims do not worship Jesus, who is known as Isa in Arabic, nor do they consider him divine, but they do believe that he was a prophet or messenger of God and he is called the Messiah in the Qur’an. However, by affirming Jesus as Messiah they are attesting to his messianic message, not his mission as a heavenly Christ.
There are some rather striking connections between the research I have presented in The Jesus Dynasty and the traditional beliefs of Islam. The Muslim emphasis on Jesus as messianic prophet and teacher is quite parallel to what we find in the Q source, in the book of James, and in the Didache. To be the Messiah is to proclaim a message, but it is the same message as that proclaimed by Abraham, Moses and all the Prophets.
Islam insists that neither Jesus nor Muhammad brought a new religion. Both sought to call people back to what might be called “Abrahamic faith.” This is precisely what we find emphasised in the book of James. Like Islam, the book of James, and the teaching of Jesus in Q, emphasise doing the will of God as a demonstration of one’s faith. Also, the dietary laws of Islam, as quoted in the Qur’an, echo the teaching of James in Acts 15 almost word for word: “Abstain from swine flesh, blood, things offered to idols, and carrion” (Qur’an 2:172).
The Christianity we know from the Q source, from the letter of James, from the Didache, and some of our other surviving Jewish-Christian sources represent a version of the Jesus faith that can actually unite, rather than divide, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. If nothing else, the insights revealed through an understanding of the Jesus dynasty can open wide new and fruitful doors of dialogue and understanding among these three great traditions that have in the past considered their views of Jesus to be so sharply contradictory as to close off the discussion. (pp. 287-288)
And only God knows best!
Appendix: What the Qur’an says about Jesus
The Qur’an describes the state of Christianity and its doctrines as they were in the seventh century, a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation. Mostly, the Qur’an accepts and promulgates many teachings that are accepted in Christianity. Jesus holds a particularly high place in Islam. Muslims accept the virgin birth but do not see it as a sign of his divinity (after all Adam and Eve did not have a human father either). Jesus did many miraculous signs, raising the dead, curing blindness and healing lepers. But these are not attributed in the Qur’an to Jesus as God, but as powers given to Jesus from God. The Bible confirms this important distinction, ‘People of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him.’ Acts 2:22.
(Incidentally, Muslims do not accept Paul as an authentic interpreter of the teaching of Jesus).
The Holy Qur’an says:
People of the book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’ – stop this, that is better for you – God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust. (Qur’an, 4:171)
Suggestions For Further Reading
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong, published by Vintage 1999.
From Abraham to the present day: the 4000-year quest for God. An enlightening and intellectually challenging book, Armstrong offers many valuable insights.
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, various editions.
Though James focuses mainly on Western spiritual experiences, this classic work reminds us of the staggering diversity of religious experience. A useful antidote to exclusivist conceptions of the Divine.
- The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, published by Penguin Books 1995. America’s most distinguished scholar in the field of Jesus-research, he provides a generally convincing picture of the real Jesus, set within the world of Palestinian Judaism.
The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, published by Penguin Books 2001. Vermes gives an equal voice to both the New Testament and non-biblical Jewish writings to uncover the historical figure of Jesus hidden beneath the oldest gospels, showing how and why a charismatic holy man was elevated into the divine figure of Christ. Essential reading.
The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes, published by Penguin Books 2004. The first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, he almost single-handedly brought to the attention of New Testament scholarship the significance of Jesus as a Jew.
Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation by James D.G.Dunn, Second Edition, published by SCM Press 1989. This classic text is crucial reading for scholars and public alike. An advanced work, but it repays the effort.
Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity by James D.G.Dunn, Third Edition, published by SCM Press 2006. Dunn is an author who simply must be read by all serious students of early Christianity. Like his other work on Christology mentioned above, it assumes the reader is familiar with the basic critical issues of NT scholarship.
The Brother of Jesus & the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Jeffrey J. Butz
The Apotheosis of Jesus of Nazareth by Paul A Williams. My attempt to summarise some of the issues discussed in Dunn’s work. The conclusions though are mine.
Escaping from Fundamentalism by James Barr, published by SCM Press 1990.
Barr is vital reading for those trapped in the rigid world of fundamentalism. I owe him a personal debt of gratitude. Sadly, Professor Barr passed away a few months ago.
- What God said about Eating Pork, & Issues for Muslim/Christian Dialogue, by Shabir Ali, published by Al-Attique Publishers Inc, 2003. A short work (32 pages) written with clarity and intelligence, and unusually for a Muslim apologist, Ali has a firm grasp of the New Testament material.
Understanding The Qur’an, Themes and Style by Muhammad Abdel Haleem, published by I.B. Tauris 2005. The tenets of Islam cannot be understood without a proper understanding of the Qur’an. This new book by a professor of Islamic Studies at London University is accessible and erudite.
The Messenger, The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan, published by Allen Lane 2007. The latest biography of the Prophet Muhammad in English, this book is destined, in my opinion, to become the standard popular work about this astonishing and much-misunderstood man. Highly recommended.
- Apologetics a branch of theology devoted to the rational defence of Christianity.
Buddha (Hindi) The enlightened one. The title applies to the numerous men and women who have attained nirvana, but it is often used of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism
Enlightenment, the an 18th century European movement marked by a belief in universal human progress and the importance of reason and the sciences.
Incarnation the embodiment of God in human form, especially of Jesus.
Islam self-surrender to God. The surrender of heart and will and mind to God is a basic principle of every authentic religion.
Ontology a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being
Second Temple Judaism
Synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke
Torah the law of Moses as outlined in the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy