Aleteia has published an extraordinarily irresponsible piece by Philip Jenkins, entitled “The Muslim Jesus.” Jenkins is the politically correct professor who has claimed to have found that “the Islamic scriptures in the Quran were actually far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible.” In this new piece he claims that the Islamic tradition has preserved some sayings of Jesus that could be authentic — basing his argument on the fact that they sound rather like other sayings attributed to Jesus, particularly in their exhortation not to value this passing world. He produces six sayings to support this, three from Islamic tradition and three from Christian non-canonical sources, claiming that the impossibility of distinguishing them from each other supports the authenticity of the Islamic sayings.
This is, of course, palpably absurd. Otherworldly sayings can be found in all manner of non-Christian traditions. The fact that they’re otherworldly doesn’t mean that Jesus said them. What’s more, his own argument cuts against itself, for he says: “Such words would have been treasured by Eastern Christian monks and hermits, in lands like Syria and Mesopotamia. We also know that from earliest times, some Christian monks and clergy accepted Islam. The Koran reports how their eyes filled with tears, as they prayed, ‘We do believe; make us one, then, with all who bear witness to the truth!'” If such words were treasured by Eastern Christian monks and hermits, and only some but presumably not all Christian monks and clergy accepted Islam, why is there no trace of these sayings in Eastern Christian traditions? It just happened that all the Christians who had preserved these sayings converted to Islam?
And even if these are authentic sayings of Jesus that have been preserved only in Islamic tradition, what are we supposed to get from that? What is Jenkins’ point? There is nothing in the supposed Islamic sayings of Jesus that he quotes that adds anything to our understanding of Jesus, or to the font of the world’s wisdom. Also, significantly, Jenkins does not bother to inform his readers that the Qur’an says that those who believe in the divinity of Christ are unbelievers (5:17, 5:72), or that Jesus was not actually crucified (4:157), or that those who say Jesus is the Son of God are accursed (9:30), or that Muslims should wage war against Christians until they submit to Islamic hegemony (9:29). He makes no mention of this notable hadith:
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “By Him in Whose Hands my soul is, son of Mary (Jesus) will shortly descend amongst you people (Muslims) as a just ruler and will break the Cross and kill the pig and abolish the Jizya (a tax taken from the non-Muslims, who are in the protection, of the Muslim government). Then there will be abundance of money and no-body will accept charitable gifts. (Bukhari 3.34.425)
Breaking the cross and killing the pig signifies abolishing the false Christianity, the Christianity that holds that Jesus was crucified and does not keep food laws. By abolishing the jizya, this Muslim Jesus is destroying the dhimma, the “protection” that Christians have when they submit to Islamic rule, thus leaving them with the choices only of converting to Islam or being killed.
This supremacist and violent vision is at the heart of the Islamic idea that Christianity in all its forms, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, is a twisting and hijacking of the original religion of Jesus, which was and is Islam. This is replacement theology par excellence, and renders all current forms of Christianity renegade and illegitimate. This idea is at the core of the Muslim persecution of Christians worldwide, from Nigeria to Libya to Egypt to Syria to Iraq to Pakistan to Indonesia. But Jenkins makes no mention of that escalating persecution, either. The thrust of his piece appears to be that sure, they’re killing Christians and dismissing Christianity as a mutant version of the teachings of Jesus, but look, they have some of Jesus’ original sayings! It thus appears as if his article is designed to render Christians uncritical and complacent in the face of the advancing jihad.
“The Muslim Jesus: Jesus sayings we never thought we had,” by Philip Jenkins, Aleteia, June 30, 2014:
Around the year 1600, the Indian emperor Akbar built a splendid ceremonial gate at Fatehpur Sikri, and on it he inscribed words attributed to Jesus, son of Mary: “The world is a bridge: pass over it, but do not build your house upon it.”
It’s an evocative saying, one of many attributed to Jesus in the Islamic tradition. But is there any chance that such words might have any authenticity, any connection with the historical Jesus? Actually, the chances are greater than you might think, and like a good professor, I am going to illustrate that with a short quiz.
The Koran includes a good deal of material about Jesus. More relevant for present purposes are the many stories and saying gathered by Muslim sages over the following centuries, which have been collected by modern scholar Tarif Khalidi in his book The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Khalidi argues that together, these constitute a whole Muslim Gospel.
Often, the Muslim Jesus closely recalls the language and thought of early Christian scripture, with only the slightest modifications from the familiar gospels. This is particularly true in the oldest layer of sayings and stories, from the 9th century. Jesus points to the birds of the sky and how God cares for them; he urges his followers to lay up treasures for themselves in heaven; they should not cast pearls before swine. In perhaps 30 cases, the resemblances to the Synoptic gospels are overwhelming. Also, very few of these “Muslim Jesus” sayings include any distinctively Islamic ideas.
These texts seem to take us back to an authentically primitive stage in the formation of the New Testament. Scholars agree that the earliest records of Jesus took the form of sayings, or sequences of sayings, with very little of the narrative that we know from the canonical gospels. One such (hypothetical) sayings collection was “Q,” which was a critical source for both Matthew and Luke. Christians remembered Jesus’s words, and only later did authors come along and sew those isolated fragments into more complete units, which were then written down. Sayings that did not find their way into the canonical text continued to float free as agrapha, “unwritten,” or unrecorded. We know them because they appear frequently in quotations by early Church leaders, or in alternate manuscript readings of the New Testament.
And that takes us back to the Jesus sayings recorded by early Muslim commentators, which in their style and format bear a surprising resemblance not to the canonical gospels, but to a sayings source like “Q.” It looks almost as if those scholars had access to sayings and constructed a plausible narrative around them, but that was not necessarily the same framework provided by the Christian evangelists. Might they have used something like “Q,” perhaps even a now-lost Jewish-Christian sayings source?
To illustrate the “early Christian” feel of these sayings from the Muslim Gospel, I offer a random mix of sayings credited to Jesus, with some taken from the early Christian agrapha (non-canonical writings), and the rest from the Muslim Gospel. Which Jesus said what?
1. Be in the middle, but walk to the side.
2. Become passers by.
3. Those who are with me have not understood me.
4. Blessed is he who sees with his heart, but whose heart is not in what he sees.
5. I am near you, like the garment of your body.
6. Satan accompanies the world.
Here are the answers: 1, 4 and 6 are Muslim; 2, 3 and 5 are Christian. If I had not supplied that information, it would be very difficult to tell the two categories apart. Apart from New Testament textual specialists, I doubt that even most scholars of early or medieval Christianity could get a perfect score on deciding which was which.
This degree of similarity is amazing given the chronology. All the Christian examples date from the second or third centuries, none of the Muslim examples is recorded before the ninth century. Yet they breathe exactly the same atmosphere.
It’s actually not too hard to see how such early sayings would have been preserved and transmitted, and the clue might be in the world-denying quality of many sayings — the world is a bridge! Such words would have been treasured by Eastern Christian monks and hermits, in lands like Syria and Mesopotamia. We also know that from earliest times, some Christian monks and clergy accepted Islam. The Koran reports how their eyes filled with tears, as they prayed, “We do believe; make us one, then, with all who bear witness to the truth!”
But however it happened, here is a startling thought: perhaps the Muslim tradition gives us several dozen more plausible Jesus sayings than we ever thought we had.