Like most Christians living outside the Middle-East and northern Africa, my knowledge of Islam is limited, yet Islam's massive influence on world history from the time it began in the Seventh Century up to today make it a subject worth looking at. The question is: where to start? My most recent interest in looking into Islam came when a blogger named David made a post regarding the Muslim view of the Crucifixion. In particular, David was addressing a verse from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, which plainly says Jesus was not really crucified, but David came upon a few scholars who say otherwise. In looking into the evidence for myself, I believe that David is incorrect, and that I believe the Koran clearly denies the Crucifixion. This matter is important for Christian apologetics for obvious reasons: the Crucifixion is one of the central aspects of the Christian faith - if it didn't happen, Christianity is a lie; if it did happen, then the Koran is wrong and thus so is Islam. The first step then is to show the Koran does in fact deny the Crucifixion.
Everyone admits that the only mention of the Crucifixion in the Koran comes from a single passage, chapter 4, verse 157. Why only a single verse? That's a good question that I will address later. First, I think it's good to look at the verse, particularly in context, since I've found most of the people who analyze this verse tend to forget to examine the context (my highlights in red).
153. THE FOLLOWERS of the Old Testament demand of thee [O Prophet] that thou cause a revelation to be sent down to them from heaven. And an even greater thing than this did they demand of Moses when they said, "Make us see God face to face" - whereupon the thunderbolt of punishment overtook them for this their wickedness. After that, they took to worshipping the [golden] calf - and this after all evidence of the truth had come unto them! None the less, We effaced this [sin of theirs], and vouchsafed unto Moses a clear proof [of the truth],
154. raising Mount Sinai high above them in witness of their solemn pledge. And We said unto them, "Enter the gate humbly"; and We told them, "Do not break the Sabbath-law"; and We accepted from them a most solemn pledge.
155. And so, [We punished them] for the breaking of their pledge, and their refusal to acknowledge God's messages, and their slaying of prophets against all right, and their boast, "Our hearts are already full of knowledge"- nay, but God has sealed their hearts in result of their denial of the truth, and [now] they believe in but few things -;
156. and for their refusal to acknowledge the truth, and the awesome calumny which they utter against Mary,
157. and their boast, "Behold, we have slain the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, [who claimed to be] an apostle of God!" However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so; and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him:
158. nay, God exalted him unto Himself - and God is indeed almighty, wise.
159. Yet there is not one of the followers of earlier revelation who does not, at the moment of his death, grasp the truth about Jesus; and on the Day of Resurrection he [himself] shall bear witness to the truth against them.
160. So, then, for the wickedness committed by those who followed the Jewish faith did We deny unto them certain of the good things of life which [aforetime] had been allowed to them; and [We did this] for their having so often turned away from the path of God,
161. and [for] their taking usury - although it had been forbidden to them, and their wrongful devouring of other people's possessions. And for those from among them who [continue to] deny the truth We have readied grievous suffering.
As I just noted, the only mention of Crucifixion (or anything similar) is verse 4:157, so a lot hangs on how one interprets this. The context is pretty clear over all: it is a historical recap of the Jews, who have a history of doing various rebellious acts. Among the various things mentioned, one of them was "boasting" that they killed Jesus the Messiah. But the Koran states that this boast is a lie: "They did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him"! The great majority of Muslims, even today, interpret this as a plain truth that Jesus was not crucified. Further, the majority and prevailing opinion is that the line "but it only seemed so to them" means the Jews thought they crucified Jesus but they were wrong, in reality someone else was crucified that looked like Jesus. Popular theories for candidates for this "substitution" include Peter (accepting martyrdom for a greater spot in heaven) and Judas, who took on a similar look as Jesus and thus "appeared" as if Jesus was on the cross.
Because of the serious ramifications of denying the Crucifixion (for reasons I'll address in a bit), a tiny minority of Muslims (mostly modern scholars) claim Jesus was crucified and that 4:157 is being misinterpreted. David made a post about what this minority had to say and ended up agreeing with them. The problem is their alternate interpretations don't do justice to the text, even if there is a theoretical chance they are right. I will now address their primary alternate interpretations.
- When the text says "they did not slay him," some of the minority claim this means the Jews themselves didn't do it, but that the Romans were the ones actually responsible. This is reading into the text something that isn't there, and moreover it doesn't really amount to much. Surely everyone knows it was the Romans who did it, but the Jews were the ones who demanded it. This interpretation doesn't really affect the Jewish boast because they got what they wanted. Further, this doesn't make sense in light of the line saying the Jews were given the impression that they did and why it says God took up Jesus unto himself (as if to rescue Jesus from the danger).
- In a similar approach, some (interestingly those who are Christian apologists), say this is to be read in the sense of John 10:18, where Jesus says nobody takes His life from Him and instead He freely lays it down. Thus, the Jews didn't kill Jesus, rather He laid down His life. This is very improbable for many of the reasons mentioned above (not to mention this very issue didn't stop the Jews from killing Jesus in the Gospels). Again, the context is a historical recap and not some deep theological thought. And the idea God had to "take up" Jesus in the very next verse makes little sense if Jesus was freely laying His life down.
- Some say the text is saying Jesus did indeed die physically, but His "spirit" lived on. That's an 'esoteric' interpretation that doesn't fit with how the Koran presents information, which is in a matter-of-fact, plain information and history approach. The verse prior recalls the slanderous comments they made against Mary, which most notably include the slander that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
- A final claim is that Jesus was crucified, but not killed, and that He was rescued before death. This interpretation goes against the plain text saying they neither killed nor crucified Jesus, ruling out the very thing this theory requires. Also, if they crucified Jesus only partway, and Jesus escaped, why would they boast about their failing?
All these "alternatives" are quite weak in light of the context, plain wording of the text, and the Muslim outlook on life. The Muslims see defeat as a bad thing, a punishment from God, and conversely see victory as a sign of God's favor. For the Messiah to be crucified means God let a faithful man lose to his enemies, which is an abominable thought. For God to let Jesus be Crucified (a most humiliating event) and die would smear God's mighty and holy character, and thus this is out of the question for Muslim thought. Lastly, the fact that the Koran only speaks of the Jews who are said to believe in the Crucifixion (while Christians are charged in the Koran with other non-related errors) further supports the idea it was an abomination originating with Jews and not something Christians would actually believe as an important doctrine.
* * *
Now that it's established that Islam denies the Crucifixion, the Christian has to show why the Crucifixion is at the heart of Christianity and thus a historical and theological truth that cannot be denied. The fact is, the New Testament is so full of information on the Crucifixion and Resurrection that it's hard to find a single page not at least alluding to it. The Gospels would have no conclusion, Acts would be without any direction, and Paul's Epistles would be empty. In other words, the teaching of the Crucifixion is so extensive throughout the New Testament that you cannot simply say a passage here and there was forged or tampered with, rather the entire New Testament must be rejected. But to claim the entire New Testament is forged is too big of a claim for anyone to take seriously, for no ancient New Testament mauscripts give any evidence of such massive tampering. On top of that, the Early Church Father writings go back into the 1st Century, and they all universally and strongly testify to the Crucifixion as well. In short, denying the Crucifixion is far more of an extreme and unhistorical claim than the Mormons saying ancient Jews established civilizations in America. This realization is why I believe the main reason there is a minority of Muslims (particularly modern scholars) that accept the crucifixion.
In the end, if a Muslim is going to deny the Crucifixion - which they have to per the Koran and their theology on salvation - they're faced with choosing that over a solid historical testimony to the contrary.