Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed mighty miracles, and that he is now alive. We believe that he was the Messiah, a prophet of God, and his righteous Servant.
But we also disagree on some things. Can a historical study help us to decide who has the true account of Jesus? I believe so.
Christians believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, that he is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and that he is our personal savior who died for the sins of the world. On these points Christianity diverges from Islam. But on these points Christianity also diverges from the true historical Jesus, as I will now demonstrate.
The four gospels in the Christian Bible are the primary materials available for a historical study of Jesus. When we compare the gospels one to another we can see how the stories about Jesus were changed to reflect a higher view of Jesus. You can conduct this type of study yourself if you have a cross-reference Bible. Refer to an episode in one gospel, then cross-reference it to another gospel where you will find the same episode. Note the similarities and the dissimilarities.
When we compare Mark to Matthew, we can see how the later gospel changed individual reports to raise the view of Jesus in the following ways:
1. To have people call Jesus “Lord.” For example, on the occasion when Jesus was transfigured, in Mark Peter called him “Rabbi”; in Matthew Peter called him “Lord.” (Mark 9:5 cf. Matthew 17:4)
2. To have Jesus refer to himself as Lord. When Jesus directed his disciples to wait and watch for his imminent return, in Mark he called himself “the master of the house”; in Matthew he called himself “your Lord”. (Mark 13:35 cf. Matthew 24:42)
3. To have Jesus called “the Son of God”. At a place called Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was. In Mark Peter replied: “You are the Messiah.” But in Matthew Peter replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Matthew has added the title “the Son of the Living God.” (Mark 8:27-29 cf. Matthew 16:13-16)
4. To have Jesus refer to God as his Father. When Jesus’s mother and siblings came looking for him, in Mark he said: “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister”. But in Matthew he said: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and brother and sister.” In Mark he called God God. But in Matthew he called God his father. (Mark 3:35 cf. Matthew 12:50)
5. To have people pray to Jesus. While Jesus was asleep in a boat a storm rocked the boat. In Mark the disciples awoke Jesus with this mild rebuke: “Teacher, do you not care if we drown?” But in Matthew they pray to him: “Lord, save us! We are perishing.” The rebuke was changed to a prayer. (Mark 6:51-52 cf. 14:32-33)
Comparing Mark to Matthew in this way, we have seen how Matthew has reworked the material to bring out later Christian teachings.
The difference is further pronounced as we go from Mark, the first gospel, to John, the last gospel. The image of Jesus in John is much larger than in Mark. Here Jesus takes on cosmic dimensions. In John’s gospel Jesus makes the most significant and far-reaching claims about himself. There are many statements in this Gospel where Jesus asserts his own identity. He says:
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I and the Father are one.
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
If Jesus had said these things, the other gospels would have surely recorded them. But they did not, because he did not say these things. John recorded them because this was part of the later evolved story about Jesus.
Later Christians would focus more on the Gospel of John, and less on the Gospel of Mark. It is often the Gospel of John that is quoted as proof of Jesus’s divine sonship. Although Mark also calls Jesus the son of God, the title here can be understood as meaning a righteous servant. But in John Jesus is the “only-begotten son” (John 3:16).
The manner in which Jesus approaches death has also been reworked in John. In Mark Jesus begs God to save him from the cross, though he submits to God’s decision. In John Jesus declares that he will not pray to be saved (12:27). On the contrary, he asks God to go ahead according to plan. Jesus in John obviously came to die for the sins of the world. Hence he declares that no one can take his life away from him since he has authority to lay down his own life and take it up again (10:18).
Jesus declared in John that no one can take his life from him. Since he gives it up of his own accord, even the scene of his arrest has been modified to reflect this. In Mark Judas the betrayer had arranged to mark Jesus out with a kiss. But in John Judas dares not draw close to the cosmic Jesus whose very breath blows the crowd away. Unless Jesus gives himself up he cannot be arrested (John 18:3-12).
We can in this way multiply the examples of how one after another the gospels went about modifying the image of Jesus for later readers. The writers did not intend for us to make these comparisons. Each gospel was initially circulated independently. Eventually, however, they were collected together and passed down to us in a single book, the Holy Bible.
Today in studying the gospels we can notice the trend to represent him as Lord and Savior. To find the real historical Jesus we have to retrace the trend from John back to Mark. But how about beyond Mark? When we compare Mark with the later gospels we notice the modifications in the later ones. If we could compare Mark with its predecessors we would find that Mark has also modified his story. But that has to remain for another study.
In the meantime, how can we find the real historical Jesus? I believe we can find him in the Qur’an. Since the Qur’an is demonstrably the word of God, what it reports about Jesus is true as told by God himself.