Prophet Jesus (a) in History: How has his mission been understood in different eras?
Part 2: Are narratives grounded in history or subject to evolution? What are the different narratives about Prophet Jesus (a)?
Our new series is to look at Prophet Jesus (a) from the perspective of his historical picture and to aid the Muslim in understanding this development toward greater interaction with their Christian counterparts.
In part 1 we reviewed the Qur’anic verses which tell the Muslims that they have duties of care toward the Christian communities, namely protection of their faith and protection of their sanctified sites. Similarly the Qur’an calls on all peoples of faith to protect each other’s holy places and states that entrance into Mosques, Churches and Synagogues must be done with reverential fear.
In this part we will introduce the idea that the way a historical individual is remembered evolves with time. That is to say the narrative around a person may change and what is popularly known about him can shift both with time and space. This is a particular study elucidated on by scholars by Bart D. Ehram in Jesus Before The Gospels and Barry Schwartz in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory.
The Qur’an in particular seeks to ground the narrative of the [prophetic] individuals it refers to. This is because one of its reasons of revelation was to correct the narratives that had been falsified over time and also to ensure it preserves the accurate understanding of these great individuals going forward. The following verses mention not only that we should remember certain personalities by recalling their stories by they also provide characteristics that root their narrative around its pivot.
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مُوسَى إِنَّهُ كَانَ مُخْلَصًا وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَّبِيًّا19:51 And remember through this divine writ, Moses. Behold, he was a chosen one, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet.
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صَادِقَ الْوَعْدِ وَكَانَ رَسُولًا نَّبِيًّا19:54 And remember through this divine writ, Ishmael. Behold, he was always true to his promise, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِدْرِيسَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صِدِّيقًا نَّبِيًّا19:56 And remember through this divine writ, Idris. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مَرْيَمَ إِذِ انتَبَذَتْ مِنْ أَهْلِهَا مَكَانًا شَرْقِيًّا19:16 And remember through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place
وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صِدِّيقًا نَّبِيًّا19:41 And remember to mind, through this divine writ, Abraham. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet
As you can see the mentioning of the figure is immediately followed with a particular set of descriptions. Why did the Qur’an link Prophet Ismail (a) with his truthfulness? Because that was a central aspect to his mission and response to his time, central to his eternal legacy. Similarly why mention Lady Maryam (a) as withdrawing from her family for servitude of God? Because though against the norm of her time and how some characterise gender norms, Lady Maryam’s fulfilment of her potential could not be proscribed by culture, also something central to her eternal legacy.
Although the Qur’an seeks to ground the narrative, the way people remember an individual indeed evolves. That may be down to the availability and accessibility of information on that person or how a culture evolves its ethics or needs and so engages in a collective ‘historical revisionism’.
Bart Ehram provides examples of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. The former has come to be known as the great champion of equality and freeing of slaves. Whereas historically there was a long period when he demonstrated great racism. Lincoln believed ‘blacks’ could not serve on jury’s or should be deported to colonies. In a debate with Stephen A. Douglas he said
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of equality.”
Why is Lincoln so well known for championing equality but less known for such earlier beliefs? Because as abolitionists and civil rights movements grew it projected Lincoln’s later beliefs only as evidence of his support ignoring other elements of his personality. This is what would become known of him.
The same evolution, Ehram points out, is how people ‘remember’ Christopher Columbus. Having a day named after him, he was initially celebrated for his ‘finding’ the America’s. As the true history of the United States was written, people have come to realise the terrorism Columbus performed. He is no longer celebrated but loathed. This is because colonisation is now also loathed and so what people remember of Columbus has changed too. James Loewen states
“Columbus introduced two phenomena: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere and the transatlantic slave trade.”
The same shift in remembering can be said for so many people: Winston Churchill; Martin Luther King; Tony Blair and so on.
How then is Jesus (a) remembered by Christians? Indeed this too has changed with time and space. What the earliest Christians knew of, championed and celebrated is very particular. Once the Gospels were written some 60 to 100 years after Jesus (a) the stories of Jesus shifted. This occurred again with non-canonical books being compiled and from the events at The First Council of Nicea, with the first consensus on Christianity occurred in 325 AD.
Of course today, the way Jesus (a) is remembered, celebrated, emphasised and transmitted is very different to all those previous periods. How Jesus was remembered and his earliest known narratives is what this series will look at.
How do Muslims ‘remember’ and speak of Prophet Isa (a)? Let us mention three narrations that ‘ground’ the Muslim understanding of who Jesus (a) was
1) Jesus (‘a) said, “My servant is my hands and my mount is my feet; my bed is the earth and my pillow, a stone; my blanket in the winter is the east of the earth and my lamp in the night is the moon; my stew is hunger and my motto is fear; my clothing is wool and my fruit and my basil is what grows from the earth for the wild beasts and cattle.
I sleep while I have nothing and I rise while I have nothing, and yet there is no one on earth more wealthy than I.”
2) One of the Imams is reported to have said, “It was said to Jesus the son of Mary (‘a), ‘How did you begin the morning, O Spirit of Allah?’ He said, ‘I began the morning with my Lord, the Blessed and Supreme, above me and the fire (of hell) before me and death in pursuit of me. I have not obtained that for which I wished and I cannot keep away the things I hate. So who of the poor is more poor than I?’”
3) Jesus (‘a) said to the disciples, “Be satisfied with a little of the world, while your religion is safe, likewise the people of this world are satisfied with a little of the religion, while their world is safe; love Allah by being far from them, and make Allah satisfied by being angry with them.”
The disciples said, “O spirit of Allah, so with whom should we keep company?” He said, “He the sight of whom reminds you of Allah, his speech increases your knowledge and his action makes you desirous of the other world.”
In this part we will present what Muslims should know about the Gospels so they may engage in healthy learning when discussing them with Christian counterparts.
Both the Qur’an and narrations about the Prophet Muhammad (s) were written down immediately. It is well known that the Prophet (s) ordered scribes to write revelation and these have been carbon dated to his era. Despite the first two caliphs prohibiting the writing of narrations, companions like Jabir ibn Abdullah wrote narrations and these became the basis for what was taught and spread until collections of narrations became systematised in the second century.
Is this the same for the Prophet Jesus (a). Was his divine book scribed for posterity and did his companions – known as the Hawariyeen in Islam – write what what they saw?
In regards to the first, the Qur’an on numerous occasions mentions the revelations including the Injeel to Prophet Isa (a): “For it is He who has revealed the Torah and Bible” (3:3) and “Let then the followers of the Injeel judge in accordance with what God has revealed therein” (5:47) yet we have no record or copy or artefact of this revelation.
In regard to the second, and the focus of is this sermon, it is important to realise that the disciples did not write what they saw or memorised. They were lower-class, likely illiterates who spoke Aramaic. Not only did the twelve disciples not write down what they saw, neither did any of the eye witnesses of Jesus’s miracles or sayings or actions.
So what are the earliest written and surviving reports of Jesus (a)? We have the Book of Acts, the Letters of Paul and The Gospels.
There are however, many questions Muslims may raise to their Christian counterparts regarding the authenticity of the Gospels.
The Gospels were written in pristine, high level Greek at least forty to seventy years after Jesus (a). If the disciples spoke Aramaic and they did not write down what they saw, who translated these events into Greek? Who oversaw the accuracy of this and the choosing of stories and sayings to include?
Moreover, if the disciples were in Palestine, how did these Gospels reach the furthest parts of the Roman Empire without intermediaries?
The earliest Gospel is that of Mark, which is the shortest account, more theological in its narrative. Matthew and Luke appear to have another source; these are the sayings of Jesus. Unfortunately we do not know the authors of these four Gospels; that is to say the authors are unknown. It is akin to someone 70 years after the Prophet Muhammad (s) writing accounts and attributing them to his greatest companions like Abu Dharr, Salman al-Muhammadi or Jabir ibn Abdullah but us not knowing who the authors are that are claiming to scribe their views.
Another issue is that in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus (a) attempts to stop his name being made famous as the Messiah; he actively prohibits the telling of his acts to others.
For example, when he (a) heals the sick he states (1:44) “And said to him, ‘See you say nothing to any man, but go on your way.’”
When he exorcises the demons (3:11-12) he tells them not to convey what they saw; the same when his disciples call him the Messiah and he tells them not to let it be known (8:29-30) and when they see him as divine light and he tells them not to reveal until after his death (9:1-9). If these stories we embargoed during his lifetime, how do we know the accuracy of what was conveyed after his his death as he was not there, nor did his companions write down what he did.
The Book of Acts was mentioned earlier. According to it, the disciples stayed in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. As mentioned, The Gospel authors were in Greek speaking parts of the Roman Empire. This raises the questions as to what are the chances that in these Roman churches were eye witnesses spreading, writing and re-telling their accounts of Jesus? How much was being recreated in the absence of eye-witness accounts?
For example, the Church of Corinth, West of Athens, was established by Paul. Paul knew several eye witnesses but never Jesus. Paul spent two weeks with Peter, a disciple and eye-witness and with James, the half-brother to Jesus, in Jerusalem. After these two weeks Paul converts many pagans in Corinth, presumably by retelling these stories of Jesus. He goes away to start another Church.
Apollos a teacher – himself never met Jesus, comes to Corinth and continues the Ministry. This raises the question of as Athens begins to learn of Jesus, who is teaching his mission and who is answering questions about the theology and sayings of Jesus (a)? If Peter saw Jesus, and Paul saw Peter for two weeks, once Paul conveys what he learned that person is now hearing it third hand – what happens when he conveys what he heard from Paul – and so on and so forth.
Due to this lack of control on the stories of Jesus many versions of the same events were in circulation; many were from non-canonical Gospels but were still famous amongst early Christians.
Today, when the birth story of Jesus is retold it is usually from the Gospel of Luke 2:1-7
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
It is famous that there was no space at the inn and baby Jesus was placed in a manger. However, early Christians may not have known or believed in this version.
The Proto-Gospel of James (the half-brother of Jesus) writes the biography of Lady Mary (a) including the birth of Jesus very differently that when she (a) goes into labor, Joseph hurries to find her a private place – not in an inn but a cave. As he goes to find a mid-wife time stands still and “then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.” When he returns with a midwife the cave is covered by a brilliant cloud which is replaced by a blinding light emanating from the cave.
The midwife runs to find another who, hearing this story, refuses to believe until she examines the hymen of Mary. For her doubt her hand is suddenly set ablaze where she is told to pick up the baby Jesus, who is already able to walk, to return her hand to normal.
This version of the birth story was far more famous in early Christendom. The Gospel of James has the same problem the other Gospels have in that its authors cannot be sourced. In fact this gospel was written anywhere between 140 to 250 AD and was eventually rejected by Pope Innocent I in the 400’s and condemned altogether in the year 500.
The point being raised is that how do we know these stories of Jesus (a) were accurately conveying who he was and what he said if their origins cannot be properly verified?
Because of the multiple versions and interpretations by the 7th Century, the Qur’an sought to give the proper account of Jesus (a), including his birth:
The Angel Gibrael (a) approaches Lady Mary (a) saying, “”I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.” She asks, “”How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?”
He said, “Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.’”
“So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates” (Qur’an 19:19-25)