By Toby Jepson
Most Muslims deny that Jesus was ever crucified. I hope in this paper to examine and evaluate some of the reasons that are given in support of this assertion.
Claims such as this are usually made for one of two reasons: either there is factual evidence, or there is a need to make the claim despite a clear lack of evidence. It is my opinion that this claim falls into the latter category, although I shall examine some supposed evidence that is sometimes given in support.
The Opinion of the Qur’an
The Qur’an is, of course, the primary source of Muslim belief and practice. Surah 4:157 states:
And because of [the Jews’] saying, ‘We killed Messiah ‘Isa, son of Maryam, the Messenger of Allah,’ – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of ‘Isa was put over another man, and those who differ therein are full of doubts. 1
Here we have a clear denial of the crucifixion. Note the idea that the likeness of Jesus was transferred onto another man. We shall return to this question below.
In the Muslim mind then, the issue is sealed: the Qur’an says it, so it must be. However, for the non-Muslim observer, this is not good enough. On something so important we would expect corroboration from other reliable sources. This would then help us to evaluate whether the Qur’an, a work at best from the 7th century, has any authority to pronounce on events in the 1st century.
Supposed Historical Evidence
There are Muslims who, to their credit, claim ample historical support for their denial of the crucifixion. Consider the following quote:
There are also several historical sources other than the Bible and the Qur’an which confirm that many of the early Christians did not believe that Jesus died on the cross…The Cerinthians and later the Basilidians, for example, who were among the first of the early Christian communities, denied that Jesus was crucified…The Carpocratians, another early Christian sect, believed that it was not Jesus who was crucified, but another in his place… 2
In attempting to dispel the ‘myth’ of Jesus’ crucifixion, the authors appeal to ‘historical sources’ that refer to some of the ‘earliest communities of Christians’. The implication is clearly that these groups, being near to the event, had real, historical reasons for denying Jesus’ crucifixion. They are portrayed as genuine, orthodox believers, fighting for the truth against a rising tide of heresy, in particular the ‘Pauline’ Christians and their ‘false’ doctrines such as the trinity and the deity of Jesus.
In order to judge this claim, we need to know who these groups were, what they believed and why they denied the crucifixion. Then we may evaluate whether they have any relevance to the debate.
Basilides taught at Alexandria in Egypt, around 125-150AD. 3 The early church historians (Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Clement) differ as to exactly what he taught, but he seems clearly of the Gnostic school of thought. His followers appear to have expanded his doctrine after his death.
Irenaeus tells us that the Basilidians believed in one supreme God called Abraxas, who presided over 365 different heavens. Each heaven was ruled subordinately by a different order of angels, the lowest order creating the earth. The God of the Jews was one of these inferior angels. The gods of other nations (e.g. Ammonites, Moabites) were also angels of this order, whose interests therefore conflicted, resulting in fights and feuds between them and their followers. In the course of time all became corrupt and lost their original heavenly knowledge (gnosis in Greek).
In order to rectify this situation, Abraxas sent down his Son, the Christ, who joined himself to the man Jesus, teaching mankind the knowledge they had lost. The God of the Jews, obviously angry at this encroachment, was unable to harm the Christ, yet instigated his people against Jesus, whom they therefore killed. 4
Along with many in the 2nd century, the Basilidians held that matter was inherently evil. They could not accept that the resurrection of physical human bodies would serve any possible good, so they denied it. Denying a general physical resurrection, they had to deny the physical resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, this obliged them to deny Christ’s crucifixion, instead saying that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in his place. 5
The Cerinthians were an earlier group, followers of Cerinthus, one of the original Gnostic teachers in the mid to late 1st century. Irenaeus and Jerome state that the apostle John wrote his account of the gospel primarily as a refutation of Cerinthus’ heresy.
Again, Cerinthus’ beliefs are unacceptable to both Christians and Muslims. He taught that the creator was not the Supreme God, but a power that was ignorant of and inferior to the one true God. The divine Christ was sent by the Supreme God and joined to the man Jesus, who himself was not born of a virgin, but in the normal way via sexual intercourse. In fact, Cerinthus did believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but simply taught that the divine Christ departed prior to the event, leaving the man on his own. 67
Carpocrates was an Alexandrian Gnostic from the early 2nd century. It is thought that 2 Peter and Jude were directed against early forms of his heresy. He taught that the creator was not the Supreme God and also denied the virgin birth. Jesus was portrayed as a man endowed with special knowledge from a previous existence, who rose above his fellow humans and attained his unique position as Christ. This led Carpocrates to suggest that anyone with sufficient knowledge and power could attain the same spiritual level as Christ did.
Some of their beliefs are uncertain, but Irenaeus states that they believed in a form of reincarnation, where escape from bodily existence was conditional on seeking out every possible human experience, despising the enslaving laws of society. Although the founders may not have been guilty of the grosser impurities, their principles certainly led to them. Carpocrates’ son, Epiphanes, argued that God must have been joking when he forbade Israel to covet their neighbours’ wives, as it was God who had given humans the desire for multiple sexual partners. 89
The Relevance of Gnostic Teachings
We must not deny the importance of this brief historical survey. To begin with, not all of these groups actually denied that Jesus was crucified. Some thought he was, yet downplayed the importance of the physical man, elevating the divine Christ who was supposedly separate. Others claimed that someone else was cunningly switched for Jesus before the crucifixion. What is clear is that they were basing their beliefs on flawed philosophy, not historical knowledge. They rejected the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ simply because it was distasteful to them.
Even more importantly, their worldview was one which both Christians and Muslims must reject completely. Some of the major beliefs of these groups are outlined again below:
- the God of Abraham and Moses (i.e. Allah) was a created being, an angel;
- there were many other Gods of the same order as the Creator (i.e. polytheism);
- Jesus was either a man who was joined to the divine Son at his baptism and then deserted before the crucifixion, or who by his own effort attained his status as Christ;
- the physical resurrection of humans at the Day of Judgement would not happen;
- physical matter (e.g. the human body) was inherently evil;
- the virgin birth of Jesus did not occur;
- no rules governed behaviour as good and evil were imaginary.
Not all of these ideas were held by the same group, but they give a good idea of where they were coming from. They were not ‘Christians’ at all but followed their own romantic idea of a ‘Christ’ that had no basis in history. By the same reasoning I can claim to be a devout Muslim because I think that I ‘submit’ to God in my own way, not according to the Qur’an. This is clearly not acceptable.
Neither were they good Muslims; yet the Qur’an tells us that Jesus’ followers were (Surah 5:111).
And when I inspired the disciples [of Jesus] to believe in Me and My Messenger, they said: ‘We believe. And bear witness that we are Muslims’. 10
Therefore, the Gnostics’ opinion on the crucifixion is frankly worthless. Their beliefs are shown to have little to do with history, Christianity or Islam. They are interesting by all means, but are of little help to honest Muslims who wish to refute the crucifixion with sound evidence. Ironically, the Basilidian belief that someone was exchanged for Jesus before the crucifixion may be a possible source for the identical idea found in the Qur’an.
The Gospel of Barnabas
This fascinating book is seen by many Muslims as preserving an original and accurate account of the life of Jesus. Unfortunately, few have ever read it. The following quotes from the ‘gospel’ give the gist of its account of the crucifixion:
…the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus…The soldiers took Judas and bound him, not without derision. For he truthfully denied that he was Jesus… So they led him to Mount Calvary… and there they crucified him naked… 11
This clearly supports the Qur’anic assertion that another was crucified in Jesus’ place after having been made to look like him. This would be both convenient and convincing if the ‘gospel’ had any historical authenticity at all. Sadly, it is nothing but a pious mediaeval fraud, whose gross blunders of history, geography, language and more make quite amusing reading. Readers should consult one of several well-written critiques. 12 Suffice it to say that it appears to have been written by a disgruntled Christian in mediaeval Europe who converted to Islam and wanted to do something in support of his new-found faith, even before he had understood it fully. A few of its more major mistakes are listed below:
- It assumes that Jerusalem is a sea port and Capernaum in the mountains, whereas the reverse is true;
- It mentions both shoes and wine barrels, neither of which were invented by the time of Jesus;
- It claims that the Year of Jubilee occurred every 100 years (biblically it was every 50), a situation that only ever occurred once in history, under a mediaeval Pope;
- Its view of Hell is at odds with the Qur’an, but strangely reminiscent of the mediaeval Italian poet Dante, in his book The Inferno;
- It claims that Jesus was the Christ but not the Messiah (this it ascribes to Muhammad) – a terrible mistake as they are one and the same, Christ being derived from Greek and Messiah from Hebrew, both meaning ‘the anointed one’.
Thus it can be seen that this witness is again totally unreliable and gives us no insight into the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion. Muslims would do best to avoid this forgery, as it is only harmful to their cause.
Contemporary Reports that Support the Crucifixion
Having dealt with the claims against the crucifixion, it would be well to consider the positive evidence given by historians of the period soon after Jesus’ life. 13 There is ample evidence from early Christian writers, but I shall include only those from non-Christians, as these authors had no vested interest in Jesus or his crucifixion.
- Tacitus, a Roman historian from the 1st/2nd centuries, said: ‘[Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.’
- Lucian was a 2nd century satirist and referred to Jesus as, ‘…the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world…’ He denounced the Christians for ‘worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.’
- Josephus, a 1st/2nd century Jewish historian, had this to say: ‘[Jesus] was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day’.
- It appears that other references were made that have been lost to us today. Bishop Apapius in the 10th century stated: ‘We have found in many books of the philosophers that they refer to the day of the crucifixion of Christ.’ He then goes on to list and quote the ancient works, some of which are not known to modern scholars.
As already seen, Muslims believe that someone was crucified and that people were made to think it was Jesus. Therefore it could be said that these quotes prove nothing. However, the Islamic view is that the early Christians knew that it was not Jesus, so it is strange in this case that all the sources speak of Jesus. We know from elsewhere that many Christians gave their life for the belief that Jesus died and rose again. This would never be the case if they did not believe it.
In this paper I have dealt with some sources that are used by Muslims to lend support to their denial of Jesus’ crucifixion. All have been shown to be late, unreliable and therefore of no worth to the debate. On the other hand, I have quoted contemporary sources outside Christianity that take the crucifixion as historical fact. From this brief overview it is clear that there is ample evidence for the crucifixion, but virtually none against.
We return to my assertion in the introduction, that Muslim denial of the crucifixion is based on need rather than fact. Their only authority in this case is the Qur’an, a book far removed from the event it claims to inform us of. It is in direct contradiction to the historical material we have looked at and therefore its authority on this question must be rejected. Muslims, in taking the Qur’an to be divine revelation, are forced to claim that all other sources that disagree with it are mistaken or corrupted. Yet as shown above it may well be one of these suspicious sources that forms the basis for the Qur’an’s denial in the first place.
We are left asking why the Qur’an should choose to deny the crucifixion without good evidence. I assume that this is related to the Islamic idea of prophethood, that God would not allow his great prophet to die such an ignominious death at the hands of traitors and sinners. However, once again the problem lies with the Islamic view. The righteous can suffer, as the book of Job makes abundantly clear. God does not rejoice to see the righteous suffer, but he often has a much larger agenda and is willing to allow it when a greater good will result. We see that nowhere clearer than in the crucifixion, where the only Righteous One offered himself as a loving sacrifice in order that all sinners could have the opportunity of forgiveness. We only need to accept the Bible’s perspective on the situation. I would urge all Muslims to do just that.
- Khan, MM. The Noble Qur’an. Riyadh. Darussalam, 1996 (15th edition) ↩
- ‘Ata’ur-Rahim M, Thomson A. Jesus, Prophet of Islam. London. Ta-Ha, 1996 (revised edition). p47. ↩
- Cross FL. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford. OUP, 1997. pp168, 169. ↩
- Blunt JH. Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties and Schools of Religious Thought. London. Longmans Green & Co, 1891. pp67-69. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Op Cit. pp104-106. ↩
- George L. The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics. London. Robson Books, 1995. p71. ↩
- Ibid. p66. ↩
- Blunt JH. Op cit. pp102,103. ↩
- Khan MM. Op cit. ↩
- Gospel of Barnabas. Trans. Ragg L & L. No publisher or date given. Chapters 216, 217. ↩
- E.g. Campbell WF. The Gospel of Barnabas – its True Value. Rawalpindi. Christian Study Centre, 1989. ↩
- Material taken from McDowell J. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. San Bernardino. Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972. pp84-88. ↩