The Challenge of Islam: Does Early Testimony Matter to Muslims?

Just this past week I had the opportunity to speak to some Muslims about one of the largest differences in our faith and their faith. For Christians, the death and resurrection is central to the Gospel message. After all, the “Kerygma” in the Book of Acts is the Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23). But for Muslims, they think Jesus didn’t die. Instead, the early disciples were deceived and Allah delivered Jesus. It says in Sura 4:156-157:

“And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.”

As historians evaluate the sources available for the resurrection of Jesus, a critical question is the dating of the sources. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (1) In a previous post, I pointed out the earliest record for the death and resurrection of Jesus is 1 Cor. 15:3-8.

Over the years, I have talked to Muslims about this issue. As I just said, Islam states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years or more after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. It seems the evidence tells us that the historical content of the Gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection) was circulating very early among the Christian community. As I just said, historians look for the records that are closest to the date of event. Given the early date of 1 Cor. 15: 3-8 as well as other sources,  it is quite evident that this document is a more reliable resource than the Qur’an.

Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, took on the Christ-myther issue. It should be no surprise that this book was scolded by many atheists. As I have said before, even though I find Ehrman to be very inconsistent on many issues, I still have respect for him. One part of the book I found rather interesting is the section where Ehrman discusses the kinds of resources historians look for when they are trying to establish the past existence of a person. Let me go over a few of these and see how this criteria helps make a case for Jesus:

First, Ehrman says,

“Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously the better. If there were only two or two sources you might suspect that the stories were made up. But if there are lots of sources—just as when there are lots of eyewitnesses to a car accident-then it is hard to claim that any of them just happened to make it up.”-pg 40-41

How does this request hold up on what we have for Jesus? Well, we certainly have some early sources (40 to 60 ad) that being Paul’s Letters. Paul’s creed in 1 Cor 15. is a very early creed about the death and resurrection of Jesus. While not extensive in scope, Paul’s Letters mention some historical aspects of the life of Jesus such as:

1. Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16) 2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3) 3. Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4:4) 4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4) 5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5) 6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7) 7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7) 8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5) 9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16) 10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9) 11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7) 12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) 13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3) 14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11) 15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14) 16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7) 17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9) 18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14) 19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9) 20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15) 21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25) 22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21) 23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3) 24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20) 25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15) 26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4) 27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4) 28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8) 29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and 30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34). To see common objections to Paul, see our post here.

Let’s look at this point. Ehrman also says:

“Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details.”-pg 41

Do we see this in the Gospels? Mark Roberts mentions this issue in his book Can We Trurst the Gospels? Roberts notes a list of some of the details about Jesus’s life and ministry that are found in all four gospels, yes, including John:

• Jesus was a Jewish man.
• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).
• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superceded that of John.
• John the Baptist was involved with the descent of the Spirit on Jesus.
• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee, especially early in his ministry
• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.
• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, but rather the students came to them.)
• The brothers, Andrew and Simon (Peter), were among Jesus’s first disciples.
• The followers of Jesus referred to him as “rabbi.”
• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)
• Jesus taught in Jewish synagogues.
• Jesus was popular with the masses.
• At times, however, Jesus left the crowds to be alone.
• Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (in Matthew, more commonly the “kingdom of heaven”).
• Jesus called people to believe in God and in God’s saving activity.
• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.
• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church.)
• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s followers it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)
• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)
• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.
• One of Jesus’s miracles involved the multiplication of food so that thousands could eat when they were hungry.
• Jesus even raised the dead.
• The miracles of Jesus were understood as signs of God’s power that pointed to truth beyond the miracle itself.
• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.
• Jewish opponents of Jesus accused him of being empowered by supernatural evil.
• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that undermined the temple in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.
• Jesus referred to God as Father, thus claiming unusual intimacy with God.
• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)
• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned him or denied him during his crucifixion.
• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.

As Roberts notes,

“This is certainly an impressive list of similarities shared by all four gospels. It’s especially significant because I’ve included the Gospel of John here, even though it is the most unusual among the biblical gospels. It shows that John shares with the synoptics the same basic narrative. Thus the four biblical testimonies about Jesus are impressively similar at the core. Because Matthew and Luke used Mark, their witnesses aren’t independent, but they do corroborate Mark’s account. Thus the fact that there are four gospels contributes significantly to our confidence in their historical accuracy.”- pg 100

The sad thing is that I have had very little success when pointing this out to Muslims. But why? The answer is simple: Most Muslims think that Muhammad’s claim that the angel Gabriel visited him and that it was during these angelic visitations that the angel purportedly revealed to Muhammad the words of Allah. These dictated revelations compose the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Therefore, that settles it. If a perfect dictation is all we need, it doesn’t matter if Muhammad never lived in the first century nor for that matter it doesn’t matter that he never had any contact with the apostles/disciples.  It seems historical apologetics and the need for early testimony (as pointed out above) is no match for verbal dictation. Thus, the Qur’an is perfect and who cares if it came on the scene some six hundred years later.

Note: Also see our post- A Look at the Evidence for the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus

1. Hacket Fisher, D.H., Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.

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