Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Cullmann’

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.

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Come, see how he dies…

October 29, 2009

I think we don’t talk enough about the resurrection. I’m not talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, circa 30 AD – though the more we talk about that, the better. I mean we don’t talk enough about the one that’s going to happen – your resurrection and mine. The Nicene Creed has “I believe in the resurrection of the dead”, and we don’t explicitly deny this, but we much prefer to talk about “going to heaven when we die”. The problem is, most people hear that and think of the immortality of the soul. Pictures of people in heaven floating around playing harps on clouds doesn’t help.

heaven

Bad theology

We forget that the Bible doesn’t offer the solution to death of the immortality of the soul, but offers instead the resurrection of the body – at the return of Christ and the renewing of all creation. Daniel 12:1-4 gives voice to this:

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Paul says the same thing in 1Corinthians 15:

the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

This is so different to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Christians should resist the sharp dualism offered by the idea of an immortal soul being released from a mortal body – that’s Platonism, not Christianity!

This affects our view of death, as well. Oscar Cullmann famously presented the difference between the Greek view of death and the immortality of the soul and the Christian view of death and the resurrection of the body by comparing the deaths of Socrates and Jesus.
(Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament” in Krister Stendahl (ed.), Immortality and Resurrection, Death and Resurrection (New York: Macmillan, 1965))

Socrates faces death calmly. For him, it is insignificant because the soul is essentially deathless. Drinking the hemlock only sets him, the real Socrates, free from the prison-house of his body. Death liberates his soul, and he returns to eternity. “The destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed”.

By contrast, come, see how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he struggles with his impending fate. He knows that his life can be entrusted to his Father’s faithfulness and love, but death is an all-too-real experience. He is in agony anticipating it. Death means being forsaken by God and being taken away from real, full-blooded existence, at least for a while. Jesus knows he is an embodied being, and that whatever existence there is in the grave, it is radically reduced from the fullness of life God intends for humanity. Death is a horror and a terror, beyond which we can only have hope because of God’s promised recreation: resurrection of the body.

Cullmann’s point should stop us from being careless in the way we express the Christian hope. It is not enough to say “I will go to heaven when I die” – death must be undone and the dead must be raised in new, perfect, incorruptible bodies. Death is ambiguous at best – an enemy which cannot ultimately harm us; inevitable, but not the final word. It will be undone – until then, we can recognize with our Saviour its horror and unnaturalness; in hope because God has promised to resurrect the dead, and God keeps his promises.