The People of the Scripture challenge you to bring down to them a book from Heaven. They had asked Moses for something even greater. They said, “Show us God plainly.” The thunderbolt struck them for their wickedness. Then they took the calf for worship, even after the clear proofs had come to them. Yet We pardoned that, and We gave Moses a clear authority.
And We raised the Mount above them in accordance with their covenant, and We said to them, “Enter the gate humbly”, and We said to them, “Do not violate the Sabbath”, and We received from them a solemn pledge.
But for their violation of their covenant, and their denial of God’s revelations, and their killing of the prophets unjustly, and their saying, “Our minds are closed.” In fact, God has sealed them for their disbelief, so they do not believe, except for a few.
And for their faithlessness, and their saying against Mary a monstrous slander.
And for their saying, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” In fact, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them as if they did. Indeed, those who differ about him are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it, except the following of assumptions. Certainly, they did not kill him. Rather, God raised him up to Himself. God is Mighty and Wise.
There is none from the People of the Scripture however surely believing in him before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.
The main subject of the passage is the compilation of sins of the Jews, rejection of the Messengers by a part of the Jewish people. According to the own Jewish scriptures, the prophet Zechariah (not the father of the Prophet John) had been murdered by Jewish authorities. This and other transgressions were deemed unrighteous by other Jews. The covenant of the Jews with God was finally broken by them for they tried to kill the Messiah. The passage protects Mary against the vilification of non-Christian Jews (accusing her of fornication) and confirms that the action taken against Jesus was unrighteous. It essentially confirms the accounts of the Jews who believed against the Jews who did not believe in Jesus. The statement that they did not actually kill Jesus is an important side aspect under this subject. It states that Jesus was not actually killed – although it seemed alike – but God saved him from death and raised him up, and it confirms the coming of the Messiah in the Day of Resurrection.
The common Christian understanding is that Jesus really died but God made him alive again on Easter. The Quran says that Jesus did not really die. Instead of the “Resurrection” of Jesus (described in the following accounts), we may more properly speak of the “Reappearance” of Jesus to his disciples after the crucification. This discrepancy can be resolved: Jesus was not really dead but it seemed alike. God, All-Knowing, knew that he was not dead, and He revealed this to Muhammad. The accounts of the Gospel describe the perspective of the humans who saw that Jesus seemed to be dead but three days later met him alive.
So far, we have no difference between the Quran and the Gospel accounts. But it is written “وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ” word-by-word “and not they killed him and not they crucified him”. The wording of the Quran indicates that not only Jesus did not really die but that he was not crucified, either – which does not go along with the accounts of the Gospel writers.
Tafsir writers report narrations, how it may have happened instead. One of many:
Jesus came with seventeen disciples to a house and surrounded them. And when they entered upon him, God, the Mighty and Sublime, made them all in the image of Jesus, and they said to them, “You have enchanted us so that Jesus may stand out for us, or we will kill you all.” Then Jesus said to his companions, “Who of you would buy himself today in heaven?” One of them said, “I will”. So he went out to them and said, “I am Jesus, and God made him in the image of Jesus.” So they took him, killed him, and crucified him, then he was likened to them. They thought that they had killed Jesus, and the Christians thought the same that it was Jesus. And God raised Jesus from that day – this this is a very strange account.
(Tafsir al-Tabari 4/315)
The discrepancy between the Gospel writings and this phrase in the Quran was observed early, but not early enough to get an explanation from Muhammad who might have asked for explanation. We lack any Hadith going back to Muhammad explaining it. The first who tried to explain how it may have happened may have been Ibn Abbas (full name: ʿAbd Allāh ibn Abbās ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib; c. -3-68 AH / 619– 687 CE), who was a companion of Muhammad. Many variants of the same story have been developed thereafter among Muslim scholars.
But if these stories do not go back to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, where do they come from?
A similar account has been found among the Nag-Hammadi scriptures:
I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it first, and I went in. And the whole multitude of the archons became troubled. And all the matter of the archons, as well as all the begotten powers of the earth, were shaken when it saw the likeness of the Image, since it was mixed. And I am the one who was in it, not resembling him who was in it first. For he was an earthly man, but I, I am from above the heavens. I did not refuse them even to become a Christ, but I did not reveal myself to them in the love which was coming forth from me. I revealed that I am a stranger to the regions below ... For Adonaios knows me because of hope. And I was in the mouths of lions. And the plan which they devised about me to release their Error and their senselessness – I did not succumb to them as they had planned. But I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I <suffered> according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.
The author is from the Gnostic sect following Bardesanes and Valentian (see introduction). His belief contradicts the Quran and Islamic teachings (as well as Orthodox and Unitarian Christian teachings) in the following points:
- God is not the creator of this world. This world has been created by a “Cosmocreator” who is an inferior, bad spirit, and the world is bad.
- Jesus is not a real man. He is not a Messenger of God. Jesus is an appearance of God, put into an arbitrary human body.
- As Jesus is God in a human body, he could leave this body. God did not save Jesus from death and take him to Himself but rather God just left the apparent body, letting the humans crucify an (innocent) human and God was laughing at it.
They have created their own religion mixing Christian elements with (pagan) Greek myths. It is evident that those teachings are to be refused on the background or our knowledge of the Quran and all other teachings that came unto us; it need not even be mentioned that all this is also firmly refused by the message according to the best reliable Gospel accounts and all scholars whose authority is recognised in present Christianity. The Gnostic sect in which this writing has been fabricated was founded in the second century CE, and it had almost disappeared in the time of Muhammed ﷺ. The sects that were still present in this time and partly shared some traditions of the Gnostic sect of Bardesanes and Valentian, the Manicheans, and – to a very little amount – the Mandeans, did not share the aforementioned teachings. So, in the time of early Islam, those traditions had not entirely been abandoned and extinct, but it was a very marginal group who still held to this belief. Nevertheless, Islamic scholars seemed to have had access to those teachings and very punctually adopted the account of this tradition because it happens to fit the verse 4:157 of the Quran, in spite of the fact that the general teachings of this sect contradict the Quran.
An other problem with this interpretation of 4:155 is that it also contradicts the two other passages of the Quran:
According to the Quran, Jesus said those words as a child from the cradle:
So Peace is upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the Day I get resurrected alive.
They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.
God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection.
Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing.
Ibn Kathir reports:
- Ibn Abbas said that the word “Mutawfeka” means Allah has killed him.
- Mohamed Ibn Ishaq from La Yethm from Wahab Bin Munabah said that he killed him for 3 hours and raised him.
- Ibn Ishaq said: Christians claim that Jesus was dead for 7 hours then Allah revived him.
- Ishaq Bin Bishir said that Allah killed him for 3 days, revived him, and raised him to him.
and we read in Uyun Akhbar Al-Rida:
Indeed, there is none of equal order among the Prophets of God and in the reasoning of the people but Jesus alone, because he was raised from the earth alive and caught his soul between heaven and earth, then he was raised to heaven, and his spirit was restored to him. And that is the saying of the Mighty and Sublime: When God said, “O Jesus, I will make you die and raise you up to me and purify you.” And God Almighty said an account of the words of Jesus on the Day of Resurrection: “And you were a witness against them, as long as you were in them, you killed me, you were the one who controlled them, and you are a witness for everything
Imam Ibn Kathir reports four scholars who say that It was God who killed him. They agree that He killed him for a certain lapse of time before he raised him, what is again fully in line with the Gospel accounts. Indeed, Ishaq Bin Bishir’s version conforms the Gospel according to Matthew who also says that he will disappear for three days (the origin of the two other times is unclear; the 3 hours may be a corruption of 3 days, whereas it is unclear which Christian Ibn Ishaq asked and from where he took that Jesus was dead for 7 hours).
Imam Al-Ridha presents a more differentiated interpretation, also saying that it was finally God who killed him and resurrected him, describing the state of Jesus as “between heaven and earth”, not really dead.
All those interpretations stay to the text that actually God let him die, not the Jews, and he held the events in His hand until resurrection. We would then read 4:155 “not they
(the Jews, but God
) killed him – it only seemed like (the Jews had put him to death)...
But nobody ever claimed that it was also God who crucified him. The problem with the crucification stays unresolved.
The following suggestion is not based on scolarly traditions but a try to resolve the last problem. The word “صَلَبُوهُ” is correctly translated as “they crucified him”. In other passages of the Quran, it also refers to similar but different ways to torture somebody to death. In fact, crucification was a Roman way to stake/impale people. We also find it in passages far before the Roman time, where Pharao said:
I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides; then I will crucify you all.
The passage goes parallel with with Quran 20:71 and 26:49.
Likewise, we find this verse
“O my fellow inmates! One of you will serve his master wine; while the other will be crucified, and the birds will eat from his head. Thus the matter you are inquiring about is settled.”
parallel with the Torah
Within three days Pharaoh will lift your head from you and hang you on a tree; and the birds will eat the flesh from you.
A person whose hand and foot are cut cannot be crucified on a Roman cross. In the Torah text, we find a peculiar formulation, with two methods to put the person to death: Cutting off his head and hanging (or impaling) him on a tree. Or is “lift your head” a general expression for “kill”, and hanging or impaling the concrete method to put him to death?
May we understand the expression of the Quran in a similar sense, that it means: “They did not kill him” and “They did not crucify him” both mean the same, namely, that they did not succeed to put him to death on the cross?
Arabic grammar does not support a construction like English “I do not drink and drive”. In the Arabic of the Quran, it might have been expressed as
“ أنا لا أشرب الخمر ولا أقود ”, which would usually be understood as “I neither drink alcohol nor do I drive” in modern Arabic. However the English sentence means «I do not do both, drink and drive.», e. g. this is also correct if I never drink but I do drive.
We find an example where the negation of the whole is expressed as a negation of each verb in the following sentence:
قَاتِلُوا الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَلَا بِالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَلَا يُحَرِّمُونَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَلَا يَدِينُونَ دِينَ الْحَقِّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ حَتَّىٰ يُعْطُوا الْجِزْيَةَ عَن يَدٍ وَهُمْ صَاغِرُونَ
The word-by-word translation into English would be:
«Kill those who do not believe in God and not in the last day and not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden and not acknowledge the religion of truth from those who were given the book until they pay the jizya willingly while they are subdued.»
If we would translate this as it is written, one could understand «Kill those who do neither
believe in God nor
in the last day nor
forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden nor
acknowledge the religion of truth… », which would be an atheist rather than a Christian or a Jew.
The actual meaning is however
Fight the Christians and Jews that are subdued who do not (follow Islam which is: ) believe in God and the Last day and follow the rules of His Messenger and acknowledge the true religion, until they pay the jizya tax willingly.
Alike, the passage « وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ » may also be understood as a collective negation, translated «They haven't killed and crucified him», meaning, they did not succeed to kill him on the cross.
This is also compatible with what the Quran says about itself:
If Jesus had not been pinned to the cross, although all gospels confirm it, shouldn't we expect something like «… correcting what had been written before»? Is it realistic that such a fundamental contradiction to the teaching of the four Gospels is hidden in a minor phrase and never ever treated elsewhere in the Quran?
Nay – the real message is: They did not succeed to kill Jesus on the cross; so «not crucified» has to be understood in the sense that their plot to murder him by crucifixion did not succeed.
And, the main subject was to mention that the Jews failed to follow the prophets before, and they failed to follow Jesus ﷺ. The Sentence “Indeed, those who differ about him are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it, only following of assumptions” can hardly refer to a difference between a remaining Gnostic splinter group that had almost disappeared in the time of the prophet and the main stream Christianity; rather “They” refers to the Jews who had no “knowledge” about the resurrection, but who agreed in that Jesus has been crucified.
It is true that Islam has turned to sticking to each word of this passage saying that the Prophet ﷺ told that God revealed that Jesus had not been crucified. But on the background of the other two passages of the Quran, the Gospel accounts and other early Christian sources, the interpretation of this passage should rather be:
And for their saying, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” In fact, they did not kill him on the cross, but it only appeared to them as if they had killed him. Indeed, those who differ about him are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it, only following assumptions. They did not really kill him; rather, God raised him up to Himself. God is Mighty and Wise.
I would be interested to discuss this thesis.