Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Jesus in the Qur’an and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

February 26, 2010

I’ve been to some of the Islam Awareness Week events at Nottingham University this week – including a talk about Jesus and Muhammed. I was surprised to hear that Jesus (or “‘Isa”) is mentioned much more frequently in the Qur’an than Muhammed is, and that several things are said about him in the Qur’an which, to my mind at least, suggest that he is more than a prophet.

One of them is the well-known verse (5:110) where several (possibly apocryphal) events from the life of Jesus are recounted: 

Then God will say, ‘Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, “This is clearly nothing but sorcery”

Quite often people point out that this verse has parallels (and is probably dependent upon) the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (and also the “Proto-Evangel of James” for the talking baby Jesus story). There are also allusions to things in the Canonical gospels, such as healing the blind and the leper, and raising the dead. But rather than doing a “source criticism of the Qur’an”, perhaps we should consider also the theological implications of this story.

1 1 When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.
   2 Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
  3 And a certain Jew, seeing the boy Jesus with the other children doing these things, went to his father Joseph and falsely accused the boy Jesus, saying that, on the Sabbath he made clay, which is not lawful, and fashioned twelve sparrows.
  4 And Joseph came and rebuked him, saying, “Why are you doing these things on the Sabbath?” But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.” And the sparrows, taking flight, went away squawking.
  5 When the Pharisee saw this he was amazed and reported it to all his friends.”

Following Oscar Cullmann (in his translation of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Hennecke and Schneemelcher (eds), N.T. Apocrypha, I:363-417), scholars have tended to see the stories about Jesus in the apocryphal gospels rather as gratuitous miracle stories – or “‘theologically mute’ stories of marvels”  when actually they have a purpose and theological significance (Stephen Gero, “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: A Study of the Textual and Literary Problems” Novum Testamentum 13 (1971), p.47), much as the “nature miracles” of the canonical gospels have a theological (Christological) significance. In the case of the “animation of the birds” story in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there is both a point about observing the Sabbath (Jesus is rebuked for making clay birds on the Sabbath) but also a Christological point: it is no accident that Jesus makes these birds out of clay before giving them life. This is parallel to what God does in Genesis 2:7:

“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

The version of the story in the Qur’an is even more closely parallel to God’s creative activity in Genesis 2:7, with the added detail that Jesus breathed into the bird so that it became a living being:

Genesis 2:7 Qur’an 5:110 (excerpt) Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1:2-4(excerpt)
then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows.[…]

But Jesus, clapping his hands, commanded the birds with a shout in front of everyone and said, “Go, take flight, and remember me, living ones.”

It seems to be bizarre that the Qur’an (usually an advocate of a low Christology!) should include this tale, given the high Christology implied by the story and the details of phrasing in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, God created Adam out of clay (7:11-12) which makes it even more clear that Jesus is doing a divine, creative thing. To be sure, the text inserts (by my leave) to a number of Jesus’ miraculous signs out of monotheistic embarassment, but the problem seems to remain. How can it be that Jesus is doing something which the Qur’an ascribes to God, if he is merely a prophet?

To this might be added the Qur’anic claim that Jesus, alone of all the prophets, is sinless; and that (arguably) he did not die. This is in tension with the normally low Christology of the Qur’an. Even from the Qur’an there are suggestions that Jesus is more than a human prophet.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam: “Distinct and Undivided”?

April 29, 2009

I’ve just got back from an inter-religious discussion event organsied by the Nottingham University Jewish Society (J-Soc) called “Distinct and Undivided”. Three clerics (a Progressive Rabbi, an Imam and a Vicar) from London were holding a public conversation about relations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, during which the audience could also ask questions. There was also a (kosher) buffet served afterwards, so I managed to get some falafel and salad as well, which is always a bonus.

The conversation itself did raise some interesting points, but I felt that the “ground rules” given at the beginning really impoverished the discussion and prevented these points being fully developed. The Christian speaker started by drawing a distinction between a “debate” and a “dialogue” and said that the event would be the latter – which he then went on to define in a very Hegelian way: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This didn’t bode well, I felt!

The approach taken by the Jewish Rabbi and the Christian Vicar in particular was fairly pluralist – the question of conversion came up and they both tried to say that it wasn’t their aim to convert people to their own religion, but that people should just celebrate who they are. The vicar did concede that the New Testament seemed to command mission but that it needn’t be taken literally or prescriptively: The “Great Commission” is only a few verses, after all, and it apparently reads “make disciples of all men” – so if we are to take it literally we should not evangelise to women. Of course, this is a parody of what “taking the Bible literally” actually means, and the text actually says “make disciples of all nations”! Another question from a J-Soc member pulled the speakers up on their apparent readiness to disregard their own scriptures in order to maximise the common ground between the different religions, which was an absolutely valid point: The Rabbi then admitted he did not consider the Torah to be the word of God; and the vicar made appeal to “you can interpret it how you like” line. By this stage I was developing more respect for the Imam, who at least held that the Qur’an was entirely true and divinely inspired, although he too seemed ready to reinterpret “problem texts” when questioned on the penalty for apostasy. The approach the three speakers were using for interfaith dialogue was really exemplified by their answer to a question on whether unity within a religion (intramural debate) or relations between different religions (extramural debate) was more important: the answer was that all religious debates are intramural; after all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all worship the same God.

In fact, after the event, chatting with some of the other people from the audience, I got the distinct feeling that none of the adherents of any religion felt that this was a good approach. The first thing a guy from J-Soc said to me was that the Rabbi didn’t represent his views, or the views of 90% of British Jews – and I wanted to add that I did not agree with the vicar’s insistence that Christ was not the only way to God. Christian, Jewish and Muslim students seemed to be unanimous that at least two of these three religions must be wrong – since they are fundamentally irreconcilable. To model the kind of approach to interreligious dialogue given by the Rabbi and the Vicar really does mean you have to compromise on core doctrinal points of your own religion. But why not take the Imam’s approach of holding your own religion to be true and seeking to be consistent with that, and then talking to those of other religions from that perspective?

For a Christian, such an approach must not compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and his divine-human identity. He must not be conceded to be a mere prophet, or teacher, or just one of many ways to God. The New Testament’s bold insistence on the universal validity and need of the gospel must be given full force – and we must not abandon the hope that our non-Christian partners in interreligious discussion will be converted. Of course, and I shouldn’t need to say this, nobody can be compelled by argument or pressure to trust Christ – but it should be something we prayerfully hope for.

From this perspective it is possible to have authentic friendship and relationship with an adherent of another religion – the differences between our religions are honestly highlighted and given full recognition, as well providing us with a chance to talk about common points of contact. In some ways this is harder than the kind of pluralism that pretends diverse faiths can all be equally valid – because it involves tolerating the right of someone  to believe what we believe to be wrong.  Tolerance of people’s right to false belief is great, and a Christian thing to do, but it doesn’t mean we cannot criticise that false belief. None of the religious students I spoke to objected to this kind of approach – it seems we don’t want syncretism, or postmodern acceptance-of-everything-as-true, but real, honest debate.

And with that in mind, come along to Lunchbar this Friday (1st May) where the speaker will be addressing the question “Do all religions lead to God?”. 1.00-1.50pm, Portland Building Atrium. Free lunch included etc etc.