Islamic Perspectives

[Previous] [Home] [Next]


Chapter 2


By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(March 2005)

Unlike Islam, Christianity does not claim that Jesus prepared under his own supervision a collection of his revelatory sayings and reports of revelatory events which he then passed on to his disciples. Christians agree that our knowledge about what Jesus said or did is to be gained by collections of traditions (gospels) about him prepared by others after him. This makes the Gospel tradition similar to the Hadith, both having a comparable degree of reliability or unreliability.



Extensive Observable Alterations in the Jesus Story at Every Stage


Even a very elementary critical study of the gospels establishes the following two important facts beyond any reasonable doubt:

1) The texts of the gospels have suffered many alterations. These are not simply alleged by extra-gospel traditions but proved by actual evidence from the earliest extant manuscripts. In a modern Bible one can hardly read a page without finding a footnote mentioning a variant reading in some ancient source. Some of the variations are unimportant while others are significant. Thus in Mark the account of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is missing from all the ancient manuscripts, as is the famous account in John 8 of the woman arrested for adultery and saved by Jesus from stoning. 1 John 5:7, the nearest statement to the Christian trinity in the whole of the Bible, is also not found in any early manuscript and is now omitted in every text of the Bible reconstructed with some critical approach. In 1 Tim 3:16, an earlier “which” or “who” was changed to “God” to support the divinity of Jesus at Constantinople in the beginning of the 6th century. Still, variations in the texts of the books of the New Testament are ultimately not serious, since they do not consist of a thorough revision of the whole text. By textual criticism we can recover the original text with fair confidence so that the text as a whole can be interpreted with most of the uncertainties arising not from textual variations but from the inherent uncertainties of the human language and obscurity of the context. Much more significant is the following fact:

2) Changes were made to earlier oral or written tradition by later oral transmitters or writers and some traditions were actually fabricated. Here are some examples:

a) In Mark a man asks Jesus:

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus replies:

"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone..." (Mark 10:17).

Luke agrees with Mark, but in Matthew the dialogue is completely changed. The man no longer addresses Jesus as Good Teacher but simply as Teacher. Instead of the Good Teacher we now have good deed:

"Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"

This changes the issue in Jesus' reply from the goodness of Jesus to goodness of deed:

"Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. ... “(Matt 19:16-17).

The agreement between Luke and Mark and the incoherence of Matthew's version shows that Mark is more original and Matthew is thoroughly altering the earlier version probably because he did not like Jesus admitting that real goodness is found only in God, not in any teacher such as he himself. Incidentally, this shows that Matthew did not know of the Trinitarian interpretation of the Markan passage, which manages somehow to see in it a subtle pointer to Jesus' divinity. For, had he understood the verse in that fashion he would not have subjected it to such a tortured revision.

b) All the synoptic gospels agree that Jesus went to John the Baptist to be baptized by him, his baptism being for the forgiveness of sins. This is entirely consistent with Jesus' view that there is none good but God. Now in Mark and Luke John the Baptist simply baptizes Jesus and no words whatsoever are exchanged between John and Jesus. But Matthew adds:

John would have prevented [Jesus from being baptized], saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then [John] consented.

Once again it is evident that it is Matthew who is adding to an earlier tradition rather than Mark and Luke omitting from it. And we can easily understand why he made his addition. Just as he could not accept Jesus' refusal in earlier tradition to ascribe any real goodness to himself, he could not accept that Jesus went to John to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore he fabricates the dialogue between John and Jesus. (This may be compared with the fabrication of the verse about stoning in the Hadith literature.)

c) Lest it should appear that Matthew is the only one who altered earlier tradition whenever it did not fit his view of Jesus, let us also take a couple of examples from Luke, who in fact revises Mark more often than Matthew does.

We are told in Mark 15:27, 32:

And they crucified with him two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.... Those crucified with him also taunted him.

This time Matthew agrees with Mark. He, like Mark, clearly states that both thieves or bandits crucified with Jesus mocked him like some of the soldiers and passersby. But look at what Luke has done to this tradition:

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, ... we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done no wrong." Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:39-43).

With one stroke of the pen, Luke or his source has turned one of the bandits of the earlier tradition into a reformed good guy. And just as some early "Muslims" out of nothing created the verse about stoning and Matthew or his source out of nothing created a dialogue between John and Jesus at the latter's baptism, Luke or his source has out of nothing created a dialogue between the reformed criminal and Jesus. Apparently, Luke felt that Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the world, should not leave this world without performing one last saving act.

d) In Mark the last words of Jesus before his death are: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He even gives the words in Aramaic: Eloi, Eloi, lema' sabachthani. Once again Matthew agrees with Mark except that he changes the Aramaic Eloi, Eloi into Hebrew Eli, Eli. But Luke was completely unimpressed by such touches of authenticity. He removes these words from the Markan account and replaces them by completely different ones:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.

Incidentally, the words in Mark and Matthew where Jesus prays, "My God, my God, ..." prove once again that earlier tradition did not present Jesus as God, ignoring of course the post-Trinitarian and highly artificial theory of Jesus' two natures. But Luke does not change the words for that reason. For, Luke, as also every other New Testament writer, is not a believer in the equality of Jesus with God. The reason he or his source changed the last words of Jesus is that he did not think someone so faithful to God as Jesus should die with words of despair, especially in view of the fact that even lesser Jewish martyrs mentioned, e.g., in the books of Maccabees, died with complete contentment.

e) Here is an example where both Matthew and Luke change earlier tradition, but in very different ways.

All the three synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus going to his own hometown and preaching in the synagogue there. The people reject him, to which Jesus reacts by saying that no prophet is honored or accepted in his own hometown. Mark concludes the story with the comment:

And he could do no deed of power [=miracle] there, except that he laid his hand on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief (Mark 6:5-6).

Here we are told that Jesus could not do any extraordinary miracles in his own hometown. Matthew does not want to accept this. He changes the words to:

And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief (Matt 13:58).

"Could not" has here become "did not," as if Jesus by his own free choice refrained from performing any miracles because of their unbelief. Here we have an example of how radically the meaning can change when a single word in a sentence is changed.

Luke also does not want to accept "could not" in the earlier tradition. But he has a completely different way of "correcting" it. After being rejected in his own hometown, Luke's Jesus says:

And you will say, "Do here also in your hometown the things (miracles) that we have heard you did in Capernaum" (Luke 4:23).

According to Mark and Matthew nobody was demanding any miracles from Jesus. According to Mark, Jesus probably himself wanted to do some miracles but could not. Luke or his source has out of nothing created these words for Jesus to speak. After stating that prophets are not accepted in their hometown, Jesus continues in the Lukan version:

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel [during famine] in the time of Elijah; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them were cleansed except Namaan the Syrian" (Luke 4:25-27).

Luke is not telling us clearly and directly that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth in front of his own people. But the issue is clearly on his mind. His answer is the same as that of Matthew: Jesus by his own choice did not do any miracles. Just as Elijah and Elisha performed miracles for people outside their own nation (Israel), so also Jesus performed miracles for people outside his own town (Nazareth).

The above are only five cases where alteration or tahrif in earlier Jesus traditions is taking place right before our very eyes. There are literally hundreds of such examples in the synoptic gospels. When we move to the Gospel of John and some non-canonical writings, there are even more alterations. In John, for example, Jesus is hardly recognizable as a Jewish prophet or messiah or rabbi or wise teacher that he originally was. He has become a pre-existent heavenly being, though still not one with God. Instead of speaking in short yet forceful brief statements his Jesus gives long discourses that recall the discourses of Gnostic revealers.

Above, we have mostly talked about changes made to Mark. Does that mean that Mark is above suspicion? Hardly! Had the traditions about Jesus been transmitted by a creditable process and then reported by Mark by a similarly creditable way, Matthew and Luke would not have felt so free to change his gospel. It is because they knew that nowhere, neither in Mark nor anywhere else, there existed completely reliable traditions about Jesus that they felt that they too like those before them were free to alter earlier traditions.

Thus every tradition in every gospel must be critically examined if we want to know what Jesus really said or did. And if that is done, it becomes clear that very small proportion of gospel reports can be accepted as they are. Many reports are simply fabrications while others have some historical material behind them that has been embellished or otherwise modified to varying degrees.



Christian responses to the unreliability of most gospel reports


Although, the gospel tradition is like the Hadith, there is one crucial difference between the two. As we noted above, the question of the authenticity of a hadith is a matter of scholarly activity. This is in contrast to the Christian gospels, which were never compiled by a use of any scientific method. At one time (in the third century C. E.) they were given a divine authority, although none of the gospels themselves claim such authority. Every word was believed as inspired by the Holy Spirit who was identified with God. As a result one could not subject the gospels to a scholarly critical analysis until the University, an institution inspired in the West by the Muslim civilization, considerably weakened the hold of the Church. Now far reaching critical studies are done in universities that are independent of the churches. The conclusions of these studies have, however, not been respected by the churches as they should have been. At best, under the umbrella provided by the secular ideology the Church and the University coexist, generally in a disregard or uneasy awareness of each other. Most church members disregard the work of critical scholars in the universities or dismiss the results of their painstaking labors with a laugh or a hand wave or fiercely oppose them. As for critical scholars in the universities, they either isolate themselves from churches, or express their conclusions in such a way as to avoid confrontation with the traditional Christians. Otherwise, they suffer persecution.

More specifically, we can divide the Christian responses to the results of critical studies of the gospels in four broad categories:

1) Some Christians reject the conclusion that much in the gospels is historically unreliable and insist that every gospel tradition is historically accurate. In line with the past church tradition they harmonize and weave together the conflicting gospel reports to construct what are essentially new stories about Jesus. For example, in Mark, after his resurrection Jesus does not appear to any body. But in Matthew he appears to the women who first discovered the empty tomb as they were leaving and then to the disciples as they were assembled on a mountain in Galilee. Luke-Acts also talks about the appearances of Jesus but in a way completely different from that in Matthew: Jesus does not appear to the women at the empty tomb and appears to the disciples not in Galilee but only in Jerusalem. In Luke-Acts the disciples are in fact expressly instructed not to leave Jerusalem. Most critical scholars today accept the obvious contradictions in these accounts, but traditional Christians accept them all the accounts as literally true. They put them together to postulate a series of appearances of Jesus to the male and female disciples in Jerusalem and Galilee. As another example, Matthew (27:5) and Acts (1:19) give different accounts of how Judas Iscariot met his fate. In Matthew he, having been overcome by remorse, hands over his blood money to the temple authorities, and then goes out and hangs himself. The temple authorities purchase a field with money returned by Judas. But in Acts, far from displaying remorse and returning the blood money, he himself purchases a field with his ill-gotten gains. And instead of committing suicide by hanging he dies by accident caused by God: one day while he was out walking he trips, falls down, and his internal organs burst out. Christians who accept the New Testament as accurate records of history try to combine the two accounts as follows: Judas hung himself, the rope broke, he fell down and then his bowels burst out!

There is evidence that Christian missionaries who have studied Islam for polemical and evangelical purposes use the Muslim traditions in the same way, especially when it suits them. Thus, instead of first dealing with the conflicts in the traditions about the collection of the Qur`an, they will simply put them in a particular sequence and conclude that the Qur`an has been altered many times during the course of history, each revision being so successful that not a single copy of the previous version was able to survive!!!

2) Another type of Christian response is to give some acceptance to the historical problems raised by the gospel reports, but nevertheless keep insisting on the commonly held traditional and official beliefs by some rationalizations. They may, for example, suggest that in Christianity it is the person of Jesus who is important and therefore it does not matter whether or not we have reliable information about what he taught or did. Yet important questions about Christian faith make it vitally important that we know accurately what Jesus said or did or what happened to him in the end. For example, the very statement that it is the person of Jesus that is important needs some basis in the teaching of the historical Jesus. What if it turns out that Jesus never regarded himself as divine or never gave the sort of importance to his own person that the Christians have come to give to him? What if he never rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of God and therefore never listens to the Christians when they pray to him?

Some Christians even try to make a virtue of the fact that they have four, often conflicting gospels, while the Muslims have only one Qur`an. This, they say, means that the Christians did not try to produce a single version of the teachings and life of Jesus and thus showed more faithfulness to earlier traditions and greater acceptance of diversity. The assumption here is that a prophet cannot leave behind an authentic book about his teaching, and if a community claims to possess such a book it must be the result of some dark conspiracy or use of force. Another assumption is that if there is a single founding document for a community then it cannot have diversity. In other words, the only or the best way for a community to have diversity is to have several documents containing different types of fabricated or distorted reports about the founder of the community. By this type of logic the USA cannot have enough diversity because it is founded on a constitution for which we have only a single authentic text and Muslims cannot have enough diversity simply because they have a major part of the words uttered by their Prophet preserved in a single authentic book. (Christians also give no credit to Muslims for having not four but at least six books of Hadith containing contradictory traditions!!!)

3) There are also some Christians who are committed to the traditional teachings of the church and use the critical methods to reinforce those teachings. Naturally, they have to do a lot of clever maneuvers to appear to achieve this objective. Their writings usually impress and satisfy only the believers.

4) A fourth response is shown by a small but growing number of Christians who give due value to the historical questions and their critical answers. They give new formulations of the Christian faith in the light of the critical conclusions. Some of them have formed organized groups, e.g. Jesus Seminar. But, as a rule they lack organization and are therefore vulnerable to pressure from the members of traditional, organized churches. Most of them, however, are able to deal with this pressure, since the church has no longer the power that it once had.

[Previous] [Home] [Next]