In a labored attempt to appeal to Christians, Muslims will often tell us that they believe in Jesus just as we do. They will tell us that they revere and adore Jesus as a prophet of God. They will tell us that there are two faiths that historically believe in Jesus and believe in what he says, and they are Islam and Christianity. The difference, so they will tell us, is that Christians have distorted the teachings of Jesus through the centuries so that now we worship him as God, we maintain that he died on a cross for the sins of the world and we maintain that his message is relayed in the New Testament. In contrast, the Islamic conception of Jesus maintains that Jesus was one prophet among many. It was his duty to capture fallen Israel and return them to God’s righteous path. The duty of any prophet is to bring people back to God. The question is, if this was the duty of Jesus, how did he fair? Did the Islamic Jesus fail?
If we are going to answer this question, we need to consider what success would have looked like. If the Islamic Jesus would have succeeded, his followers and the generation after them would have believed in a message that was compatible with Islam. They would not have believed in the deity of Christ, nor the death and resurrection of Christ. So, did the Islamic Jesus fail? I assess these issues as I ask this question.
His death and resurrection. There is gap between the death of Jesus and the earliest Christian writings of about twenty years, perhaps a little less. We know what Paul believed and we know what the gospels say. They affirm trinitarianism and they affirm the death and resurrection of Christ. They affirm that salvation comes by faith alone. Within a few decades, sayings and deeds were attributed to Jesus which, if Islam is true, Jesus could not have said. The question is whether we can fill that gap. What happened between the time of the death of Christ and the writings of the New Testament?
Well, first of all, I might say that it should not trouble us that the disciples waited so long to put the pen to the page. This was a pre-literature society, and we would not expect them to keep journals or instantly strive to write these things down. That is not how things were recorded in the ancient near east. Rather, there were established oral traditions. Oral traditions were creeds that represented the faith of the people. The Jews did this throughout their history and the disciples continued this tradition.
In Galatians 1:18, Paul indicates that he went to Jerusalem and stayed with the apostle Peter for about two weeks. While he was there, he also saw the apostle James, who was probably the pastor of the church in Jerusalem (as church tradition holds). While there, he was introduced to the oral traditions that the Jewish Christians were receiving. We find these oral traditions weaved into Paul’s letters as they become relevant. Paul did not invent them. He used them. In his letters, he relays the oral traditions and hymns that he has learned from the early Christian communities. In this way, we can fill that twenty year gap by appealing to the traditions that Paul adopted.
There are a few indicators of an oral tradition. When speaking of a sacred tradition, a Jew would say, “I delivered to you what I received.” Then there would follow a rhythmic four line creed. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul relays one of those oral traditions to us. That oral tradition tells us that Christ died, was buried, was raised from the dead, and appeared to many. Did the Islamic Jesus fail? Well his earliest followers would have maintained a view that is standard Christian theology and is in direct opposition with Islamic tradition.
The trinity. Further, and critically, the Carmen Christi is more telling. In Philippians 2:5-8, Paul cites an earlier tradition that indicates that Jesus is God, existed alongside the Father from eternity until the incarnation (See my article What Does Philippians 2:5-8 Mean?).” As Islam Guide’s article about Jesus” tells us, Jesus did not come to change the basic doctrine of God, but rather to confirm it. The author has in mind the distinction between unitarianism and trinitarianism. But if Jesus came to affirm the unitarian doctrine of God, the mind boggles as we consider his utter failure. The unitarian doctrine of God would not be clarified until six hundred years later, when what Jesus really said came to light, because everybody in the historical context apparently missed it, and the earliest traditions indicate that he taught that he was God, yet distinct from the Father. Did the Islamic Jesus fail?
If Islam is true, then within the same generation of his death, the people of Israel (for the earliest Christians were Jews) instantly forgot his teachings. He made no lasting impression in an Islamic context. The only impression that remains is the stain of distortion. If Islam is true, then Jesus came to set the people straight, and they instantly began to worship him, to attribute false sayings to him, and to say that he died and rose again (a proposition that is historically, completely un-Jewish). Did the Islamic Jesus fail? Obviously. Nobody listened to him and everybody did the opposite of what he told them to do.
Did the Islamic Jesus Fail? Muslims will often say that the purpose of a prophet is to come to a nation and correct them so that they will return to the path of righteousness. The Jews received Jesus. He proclaimed the message of God to them. But alas, that message was utterly lost until, as I said, six hundred years later, in another country, in another language, and relayed by a man without even a first hand source to Jesus. Did the Islamic Jesus fail? We can understand the purpose of a prophet is well enough in Islam. But if Jesus wanted to relay Islamic doctrine to the people of Israel (or at least something close to it), it is very confusing that all that emerged was Christian theology.
If you would like to get in on the discussion about this, join my Theology Discussion Group!