A cross is made of two upright pieces of wood, joined somewhere in the middle. While one part goes from east to west, the other goes from north to south. The short depiction of what the cross is, points to how the two major religions of the world view this iconic and historical point of reference. Where one sees it as an icon of salvation the other speaks unequivocally about it as something that should have no iconic place in the sphere of history. Why this disjunction?
In your Christian journey if you are someone who goes around witnessing a lot you might have come across one person who went about objecting the crucifixion of Jesus. If you have that should not be so much of a surprise as the second largest religion, Islam, do believe that Jesus was never crucified or died (Quran 4:157). The fact that this is the central claim of Christianity could make you startle for a while. How can you preach Christ when someone else believes He never died or was crucified. Could this really be true? How can you answer this question? How can you explain your belief to your Muslim friends in an objective and non-offensive manner?
I will like to start from the definition of crucifixion. What is crucifixion?
According to the web dictionary; crucifixion is a historical method of capital punishment in which the victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang for several days until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. It is principally known from classical antiquity but remains in occasional use in some countries.
The Roman Crucifixion
In Nabeel Qureshi’s book, No God but One. He describes the cross as one of the most vicious, torturous and effective methods of execution that human depravity has ever devised. Cicero the Roman orator, describes the crucifixion as, “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” and “the worst extremes of torture.” He also said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his ears and eyes.”
Seneca the Younger said this about Crucifixion, “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb or letting his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and draw the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? I think he should have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.”
Whipping before Crucifixion.
Very often during crucifixion, the victim is whipped. The whip was designed to rip into the skin and turn muscles to pulp, making victims blood flow in streams. Josephus said, “victims were whipped to their bones and their intestines were at times exposed by flogging alone” This is why Seneca describes a victim as a “battered and ineffective Carcass.”
Once the individual is dead or presumed dead the knee of the individual is broken or pierced in the heart. Other methods included; feeding their bodies to wild animals or lighting people’s body to fire. This Historical report of crucifixion is accurate to the depicted crucifixion of Jesus.
Other facts about Crucifixion
- It was an execution reserved for the most criminally of people.
- It was a swear word used by people in the lower Roman society.
A Dead Messiah or A Heroic Messiah?
The question then should be asked, if the aim of crucifixion was to kill an individual then how come Jesus somehow survived this act and if He survived crucifixion wouldn’t it be better to say that He was the only one to survive the deadly Roman crucifixion than to be tagged a dead king or Messiah. Alexamenos among other Christians were ridiculed because of their worship of a dead messiah. Alexamenos was mocked with the depiction of Jesus on the cross with the head of a donkey. To be crucified was shameful but worshipping a crucified God would have been more shameful and one who does that could only be doing that based on truth and not to brag. How could someone brag about the fact that His God was hung on a cross? In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he said in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.” In verse 20 of the same verse, it asks and answers this question, “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.” In verse 23, it says, “So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it is all nonsense.” The Jews are offended because of Deuteronomy 21:23. If Christianity did not stand for the truth it would have been easier to take the cross out of the equation, it was extremely humiliating. However, because it was truth and the disciples stood for the truth of which they were willing to die for that is why they continued to preach the message of the cross regardless of the humiliation and shame that this message would have brought.
Muslim Response to Historical Data.
As you have seen if one goes outside the realms of the bible it is easy to see through the lens of history that Jesus died on the cross. There are two theories recited by most Muslim scholars around the world. One of which is the Swoon theory. The swoon theory states that Jesus somehow survived crucifixion. Some of the arguments you might come across includes:
- Jesus who had been doing miracles all along could have equally healed himself.
- Pilate did not want to kill Jesus. Pilate could then have colluded with the centurion to ensure Jesus body was neither killed nor hung on the cross for the usual length of time
- Joseph of Arimathea may have also conspired with Pilate as evidence with Joseph’s of Arimathea’s request to have the body of Jesus.
- The woman who came to the tomb must have brought in some spices and herbs to treat Jesus.
- The holes in His hands signifies He was not raised from the dead.
- Jesus did not want to die on the cross and so on. Often times Muslims make reference to Hebrews 5:7, which says, “While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God.” Forgetting that in the context of the entire Hebrew it talks about the importance of the death of Jesus in Hebrews 2:14-15 among others.
The Substitution Theory
This is more common and used by much more Muslim apologetics around the world. This is the belief that Jesus’ face was placed on someone else. The two individuals usually used are; Simon of Cyrene or Judas Iscariot.
Often times these two theories are matched together in a statements such as: God performed the miracle of preserving Jesus’ life, and ultimately it appeared as if Jesus had died, whereas He did not.
What should be Your Response?
Food for Thought
No objective observer should conclude that God conducted a miracle when an obvious explanation is available. Why should anyone argue that Jesus did not die and that God instead transposed Jesus’ image into another. The basis for the Islamic belief is simply because the Quran said so.
However, why should the testimony that is 600 years late and more than 600 miles removed be more accurate than the gospel. Whose accounts comes from witnesses who were in the same community as He lived.
However, the Quran’s teachings about Jesus can be traced to earlier times. For example, Quran 5:110: “[The Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, remember My favor upon you and upon your mother when I supported you with the Pure Spirit and you spoke to the people in the cradle and in maturity; and [remember] when I taught you writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and when you designed from clay [what was] like the form of a bird with My permission, then you breathed into it, and it became a bird with My permission; and you healed the blind and the leper with My permission; and when you brought forth the dead with My permission; and when I restrained the Children of Israel from [killing] you when you came to them with clear proofs and those who disbelieved among them said, “This is not but obvious magic.”
These teachings are not recorded in the bible but we see it in the Quran, the question is where did they come from? They came from the Apocryphal Gospels.
Some of the Apocryphal Gospels included the infancy gospels which talks about the infant life of Jesus and were written in the middle of the second century. Among such gospels were the Gospel of Thomas. In the infancy gospel of Thomas, Jesus is seen as being mischievous and was often found bullying his peers. In one particular occasion by the mountain stream making puddles, another boy came and released the puddles, and so Jesus cursed him and straight away the boy withered. In another occasion a boy ran past Jesus and bumped into his shoulder, the boy was then cursed by Jesus and died immediately. The parent of this boy came to Joseph and then asked that Jesus be controlled and they too were struck dead. Other very unrealistic and untrue stories were found in this Apocryphal book of Thomas and it is from this source that we have the story of Jesus giving life to a clay bird. In fact, the Quran only captures some part of the story. This full story goes thus, some Jews saw Jesus making clay birds on a Sabbath, when they saw him they went to Joseph to ask why he was performing this unlawful thing during the Sabbath. Jesus knowing that making clay birds is unlawful during the Sabbath mischievous Jesus turns them into real birds by blowing air into them.
This is not the only sura (chapter) and ayah (verse) that has a striking resemblance. Another is sura 19:23. This talks about Jesus talking in the cradle, you can do a quick search on google it to find out more about what it says. This verse is also similar to the Arabic Gospels.
The most important verse that has brought us to this long journey of explanations is sura 4 Ayah 157. This ayah was found in the Gospel of Basilides a Gnostic teacher whose school of thought lasted centuries after his death. Ireaneus records some of Basilides teachings. He taught about the death of Jesus on the cross, “He Christ did not suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified through ignorance and in error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and standing by laughed at them.” So Jesus was never killed or crucified as well according to the teachings of Basilides.
Why did Basilides teach this?
Gnostics had a wide range of beliefs, but one of the most common was that there are many gods that have emanated from the Father, the unborn god. Basilides subscribes to this belief, teaching that the first emanation of the father is nous, or mind of the Father. Then there is Jesus the firstborn god. After other emanations producing lower gods, it was the lowest god who created the material world.
Since the material world is evil, Basilides teaches Jesus must not have had a material body, and therefore He could not have been crucified. We find this stated in the passage below;
“For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not to be laid hold of, and was invisible to all. Those then. Who know these things have been freed from the principalities who formed this world; so that it is not incumbent on us to confess him who was crucified, but him who came in the form of a man and was thought to be crucified, and was called Jesus, and was sent by the father, that by this dispensation he might destroy the works of the makers of the world.”
- Gerd Ludemann, a famous bible critic concludes in his book, what really happened to Jesus, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypothesis of a pseudo-death or deception which is sometimes put forward. It need not put forward here.”
- Paula Fredriksen, another Christian critic said, “The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: He was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around the Passover, in the manner, Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionist namely, crucifixion.”
- John Dominic another critic states, “There is not the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.” “That He was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
- A Muslim scholar Reza Aslan, in his book Zealot, said: “Jesus was most definitely crucified.”
Personally, I see the bible as a historical, prophetic and revealed book from God. The bible is a report of history. Just look at the beginning of Luke 1:1-4, “many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness report circulating among us from disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honourable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.” Some of us might not have been aware that they were more gospels than we know but believe me you have the truth. Like I said earlier, it would have been easier to preach a non-crucified Jesus, because a non-crucified Jesus is not as shameful as one who was crucified. You can clearly see that this non-crucified Jesus was what Basilides taught in His gospel, a Jesus far from history and therefore far from the truth. Ask yourself this question, what would the disciples have gained from living a shameful life, professing a messiah and a God that was false and then dying for this falsehood. It must have taken extreme lunatism to first think this way and then die for this. Alright, maybe there was one lunatic among them but not the countless amount who died for the sake of the gospel. What will you say about Paul a one-time persecutor who died persecuted from the same thing he persecuted people for? If this wasn’t and isn’t truth I do not know what else is.
- Cicero (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicero)
- Alexamenos https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito
- Swoon Theory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_hypothesis
- Apocrypha Gospels https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament_apocrypha
- Gospel of Basilides https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Basilides
- No God but One (Nabeel Qureshi)
- Seeking Allah Finding Jesus (Nabeel Qureshi)