No man has perhaps attracted the attention of the world since the time immemorial as does Jesus the Christ (upon him be peace). Very little about his life, however, is known.
His story appears only in the Islamic and Christian traditions. The Jewish or Judaic tradition largely ignores him, although he was a Jew. History completely ignores him, except for a brief mention by a classical Jewish writer, Flavius Josephus.
Titus Flavius Josephus, whose Jewish name is Joseph ben Mattathias, was born in 37 C.E., a few years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus. He wrote five books. Except for the Antiquity of the Jews, his other books are considered contemporaneous history. Strangely, he made no mention about Jesus, except for a short line in the last part (called Book 20, Chapter 9.1) of his Antiquity of the Jews, which is not exactly about contemporary history, but the history of the Jews from the dawn of mankind to his time. The line reads:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.*
Even in that line, Josephus did not exactly write about Jesus, but rather about a man said to be Jesus’ brother, whose name was James, who was leading the rebellion against the Roman at that time.
Elsewhere, passages about Jesus were said to be inserted into Josephus’ writings, but they are not considered to be authentic (i.e., not penned by him). Even the line, “who was called Christ,” in the above quotation was alleged to be a later insertion by some.
In short, Jesus was not a historical figure. His life and work were largely ignored by his contemporaries.
Yet, he has captured the imagination of the world, especially among the Muslims and the Christians, and his life and his work have been the subjects of countless scrutiny.
The story about Jesus came to the scene shortly before he was conceived. According to the Islamic Tradition, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to his mother, bringing the good news that she was about to conceive a pure (i.e., holy) baby boy. His mother, Mary, wondered how she could conceive a baby, for no man has ever touched her. The Angel simply replied it is all too easy for God to do so. It is a thing decreed, Gabriel added, and God just need to say Be, and it is.
The Christian Tradition has additional story to it, saying that Mary was betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph the Carpenter, who wanted to break the betrothal upon hearing the news that Mary was pregnant, but was visited in his dream by an “Angel” who asked him not to break his engagement with Mary.
According to Islamic Tradition, Mary was said to be giving birth to Jesus alone, while the Christian Tradition says that Joseph was with Mary when she delivered Jesus to the world.
The Christian Tradition further says that King Herod, the Jewish king who was a Roman satrap at that time, was given the premonition that a baby boy will be born. This baby boy would challenge his kingdom, pretty much like the baby boy among the Hebrews would challenge Pharaoh during Moses’ time (upon him be peace). So Mary and her fiancée brought the baby boy to Egypt, looking for the safe refuge. Jesus only appeared when he was ten years old. He went to the Temple of Jerusalem, reading the Torah and challenging the priests there.
The Islamic Tradition, however, says that Mary’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of Jesus had caused the commotion among his people, the Jews. They accused her of adultery. She responded to the accusation by simply pointing to the baby Jesus, signifying that they should ask the baby boy themselves. They wondered how a newly born baby could speak, but the baby Jesus spoke in the cradle, defending the chastity of his mother.
Then his story disappeared from the scene in both Traditions, until he finally appeared at the age around thirty. He rebuked the Jews, especially their leaders, whom he accused of leaving the true spirit of Torah, clinging only to its letters, focusing only on dead rituals, and teaching people to do what they themselves did not do. He performed many miracles, including curing the lepers and reviving the dead.
Barely three years later, Jesus “disappeared.”
Hitherto, there are not many differences between the Muslims and the Christians regarding Jesus. Both agree that he was conceived without the help of a man, that a virgin mother gave birth to him. It is the Jews who questioned the chastity of his mother, accusing her of adultery. Islam places her among the few most virtuous women, even dedicating a chapter in the Quran to her name. Christianity meanwhile places her above the rest of women from the dawn of mankind to the end of the world. Both have nothing but respect for her.
The Quran talks about Jesus defended his mother’s chastity while in the cradle, while the Bible says that he went to read the Torah at the age of ten. These are not exactly contradictions, but rather complementary stories. The Christians shouldn’t have any problem about Jesus speaking in the cradle, as the Muslims shouldn’t with regard to Jesus reading the Torah at the age of ten.
When he re-entered into the scene as an adult, both Quran and Bible agree that he challenged the Jewish authority of his time, and that he had performed many miracles.
Bearing in mind that the four canonical Gospels in the Bible were not written by Jesus himself, but rather by other people who wrote the account of his life and his mission, a Muslim would feel at home reading passages attributed to his teachings. Barring a few passages that clearly say Jesus is merely human and not one of the three single God (Trinity), a Christian would likewise feel at home reading the accounts and the teachings of Jesus in the Quran.
These many similarities, however, are overshadowed by one fatal difference, namely the manner of Jesus leaving the world.
Now, historically the Christians have been having major disagreement as regard to Jesus leaving the world. Many versions have been put forward, but finally one version has been accepted as official, namely that Jesus was arrested, put on trial, beaten to a pulp, nailed to the Cross, died a few hours thereafter, buried in a tomb, resurrected from death three days later, met his disciples and ascended to Heaven, sitting with God the Father.
Islamic version is slightly different. As we have narrated earlier, the majority of the Muslims scholars say that someone else was arrested and crucified. Jesus was ascended to Heaven before all that commotion took place. This is because Quran has made it clear already that he was not killed, nor crucified, but only made to appear so (an Nisa 157). Quran is also equally clear in stating that Jesus was ascended to Heaven (an Nisa 158).
But then in Surah Ali Imran verse 55, Quran states: "O Jesus, indeed I will take you and raise you to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve.” The phrase “take you,” mutawaffika in Arabic, could also mean “cause you to die” or “cause you to sleep.” For that reason, scholars differ as to whether Jesus was raised alive or was made to die before he was raised to Heaven.
That he was raised to Heaven and will be brought back to the earth was never a matter of dispute, because the authentic Hadith says: "The Hour [Day of Judgement] will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya tax. Money will be in abundance so that nobody will accept it (as charitable gifts). (Sahih Al Bukhari)
Somehow, however, slightly more than two hundred years ago, around 1780 as Wikipedia says, someone by the name of Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, suggested that Jesus deliberately feigned his death. From thereon, various other theories were proposed along the same line, that Jesus was crucified but did not die on the Cross. He was only fainting and thought to have been dead. He was resuscitated, lived somewhere and died a natural death. This is known as Swoon Theory.
Various hypotheses and conjectures were put forward to defend this theory, such as the fact that death through crucifixion is a slow process, generally takes two or more days, while Jesus was crucified for only a few hours before he was taken down from the Cross, believing that he was dead already.
Islam should have no place for such conjectures and extrapolations, but somehow it does.
We shall talk about it in the second part of this instalment, inshaAllah.
End of Part 1
*In case one is interested in Josephus’ work, here is the link:
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