The Historical Factuality of the Crucifixion
Christians buttress evidence for the historical factuality of the cross by appealing to eyewitness-accounts and reports found in non-Christian historical sources (Josephus, Tacitus). The Christian witness to the crucifixion is plausible since it is inconceivable why Christians should invent the crucifixion which declares that their founder died an accursed death (under divine judgment) on the cross. As such, an outright denial of the crucifixion would tantamount to a willful blindness to historical reality. Muslim critics therefore grudgingly acknowledge that historically a crucifixion did occur. However, they suggest that someone other than Jesus was crucified. They argue that Christians have misunderstood the significance of the cross because they are victims of an illusion. God, they claim, replaced Jesus with someone that bore his likeness.

Muslim scholars bypass the historical record with an appeal to the Quranic revelation: Surah 19:33 – “So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)!” Surah 3:55 – “Behold! God said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: then shall ye return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute” and Surah 4:157-159 – “That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God”; – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: – Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise; – And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them.”

Synthesizing these verses, Muslims conclude that God took Jesus to himself (in heaven) and replaced Jesus with someone else to be crucified on the cross. It must be stressed that the Muslim rejection of the crucifixion of Jesus is based on Quranic exegesis rather than on objective historical investigation of primarily historical sources (the Gospels). Notably, Muslim polemists exude an air of certainty in contrast to the modest conclusion of historians who work directly from historical sources. After all, the Quran is the final revelation of God.

But interpretation of the Quran is not as certain as what we are today led to believe. The reality is that the authoritative tafsir ( commentary) by classical Quranic commentators disagree with one another. For example, Al-Tabari notes the variety of views held by the classical commentators on the meaning of the death of Christ in the verse Al ‘Imran [3]:55. Al-Tabari writes:

Exegetes [ahl al-ta’wil] have differed about the meaning of the “death” [wafat] of Jesus here:

1. Some of the have said: “‘Death’ [wafat] is with the meaning of sleep.” The meaning for them is “I am causing you to sleep and raising you to myself in your sleep.”…
2. Others have said, “‘Death [wafat] here is with the meaning of seizing [qabd].” The meaning is: “I am seizing you from the earth and raising you to myself.” People commonly say: “I exacted [tawaffaytu] from so-and-so the money which he owed me.” That is, I received it in full [istawfaytuhu] and I seized it [qabadtuhu]. So the meaning of His saying “I am causing you to “die” and raising you to myself” is: I am seizing you from the earth alive to be close to me, and taking you to be with me without death, and raising you from among the unbelievers…
3. Others have said, “‘Death [wafat] means the death of real, literal dying [wafat mawt haqiqiyya], that is, “I am causing you to die literally [mumituka].”…
4. Others have said that this verse contains non-chronological arrangement [taqdim wa-ta’khir]. The implication is: I am raising you to myself and cleansing you of the unbelievers, and I will cause you to die after I send you back to earth at the end of time… And the best-supported [rajih] is the second statement: “I am seizing you [qabiduka] from the earth and causing you to ‘die’ [mutawaffi ka].” This is the best-supported [rajih] because of the continuous transmission [tawatur] of reports from the Messenger of God (may God bless him and save him) about the return to earth of Jesus (upon him peace) at the end of time.

Thus, al-Tabari lists four theories of interpretation which he found in the traditions of Islamic exegesis before him: (1) sleep, (2) wafat = qabd, (3) literal death, and (4) non-chronological arrangement.

Likewise, Fakhr al-din Al-Razi observes that the various schools of thought among scholars [madhahib al-ulama’] held conflicting views on the theory of substitution theory that alleges that someone else was crucified instead of Jesus (al-Nisa [4]:157). In particular, al-Razi lists five versions of the substitution theory of which he is aware:

1. The Jews deliberately crucified another person and lied about it,
2. A man named Titayus was sent by “Judas the chief of the Jews” to kill Jesus, but God caused Titayus to appear like Jesus, and he was crucified instead,
3. The man charged with guarding Jesus was caused to look like Jesus and was crucified in his place,
4. Jesus asked his twelve disciples for a volunteer, and one man volunteered and was made to like Jesus and was crucified,
5. A hypocritical disciple who proposed to betray Jesus was caused to look like Jesus and was crucified.

Al-Razi’s summarizes: These interpretations are mutually contradictory and incompatible with one another. God knows best what the facts are about these matters!

I think such recourse to theological agnosticism is premature, if not unnecessary. It comes as no surprise to me when Quranic interpreters remain confused since they choose to rely solely on seventh and ninth century texts (Quran and later hadiths) and ignore the primary historical documents written in the first century, namely the Gospels. I would have thought that when scholars fail to find unanimity in their opinions, they would go and recheck the facts with the earliest historical sources, namely, the Gospels. In this regard, their reluctance to confront historical facts by retreating into theological agnosticism is telling.

Nevertheless, al-Razi must be credited with honesty when he registers a crucial theological objection to the substitution theory al-Nisa [4]:157:

If it were permissible to say that God (exalted is he) casts the appearance of one person onto another person, then this would open the door to sophistry. For if I see Zayd, perhaps it is not Zayd at all, but rather the appearance of Zayd has been cast onto this person! In that case neither marriage nor divorce nor property could continue to exist and be trusted. It would also lead to calling into question the idea of transmission of historical reports [al-tawatur] because a report which is historically transmitted can contribute to knowledge only on condition that its ultimate source is something perceptible to the senses. If we allow this kind of confusion to take place in things perceptible to the senses, then it will discredit historical transmission, and that will necessarily call into question all laws [shara’i‘].

That is to say, such a denial would put Muslim scholars on a slippery slide, for if we deny incontrovertible eyewitness reports then surely, all human testimony regarding divine laws and prophecy would be equally questionable. Indeed, this would result in the discrediting of the prophethood of all prophets. Finally, if we reject what the normal human senses perceive, then we are denied all possibility of attaining the truth. Equally problematic would be a question of divine integrity. A God who makes the onlookers misperceive the person on the cross to be someone else must be a God of deception [For further discussion, see Chawkat Moucarry, Faith to Faith (IVP 2001), pp. 134-137].

The substitution theory suggests that Islam was influenced by early Gnostics who denied the crucifixion. It is therefore ironic that Christians have stepped forward to defend the integrity of the Quranic witness by suggesting that the substitution theory represents a misreading of the Quran by later interpreters. David Brown offers a suggestion that would make the Quranic witness more rational:

These verses are intended to be a rebuke to the Jews, and particularly to Muhammad’s contemporaries in Medina, for various acts of unbelief,. . . the reference to the crucifixion does no more than dispute the claim made by the Jews that they had disposed of the Christian Messiah and repudiated his claim to be an apostle of God by crucifying him. In particular, the phrases ‘they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him’, do not necessarily mean that there was no crucifixion, but that, even if there was, it was God who was responsible for all that happened during the last hours of the Messiah’s life and that the Jews had done whatever they did only by permission of God’s will. A similar figure of speech occurs in 8:17 in which the Muslims’ action at the Battle of Badr are attributed to God and not to their own volition; they did in fact fight and kill, but only by God’s permission and direction. These verse, therefore, do not explicitly deny the Christian story of crucifixion, for they refer primarily to Jewish claims against the Christians.

Information on the tafsir (commentary) of classical Muslim commentators such as Al-Tabari and Al-Razi is taken from Joseph Cumming currently at Yale University. See his excellent research paper,“Did Jesus Die on the Cross? Reflections in Muslim Commentaries” found in Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions ed., J. Dudley Woodberry, Osman Zumrut and Mustafa Koylu (University Press of America 2005).

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