All messengers called people to the way of God, carrying the same divine message. Each also confirmed the verity of the messengers sent before him. Naturally, Jesus was also given these responsibilities, confirming the verity of Moses’ book, the Torah, and reminding people of their duties to God:
I have come to confirm that which was revealed before me of the Torah, and to make lawful some of that which was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so keep your duty to Allah and obey me. (3.50)
Certain prophets were also given other, specific duties. For instance, Abraham was commanded to build the Ka‘ba and establish the ritual of pilgrimage (2.127-128, 22.26-27). Moses was charged with the responsibility of taking the Israelites out of Egypt (e.g. 20.47). In the case of Jesus, one such responsibility was to modify the Mosaic law by legalizing some things that had been unlawful to the Jews. The divine law may be divided into two parts that may be described as doctrinal and behavioural. The doctrinal law covers various fundamental beliefs, such as the oneness of God, the worship-worthiness of God only, and the necessity of belief in all of His messengers and their divine books. This part of the law never changed. Conversely, the behavioural part of the law, which covers various practices, rituals, and codes of conduct, may be changed.
Verse 3.50 does not detail what unlawful things Jesus made lawful. These most probably included foods, but they are also likely to have included other things. Had it been food or any one type of thing only, the verse would probably have named it. The wording of the verse suggests that Jesus was commanded to relax the law of the Torah on a number of different things. This relaxation of the Mosaic law is likely to have been included in Jesus’ book, the Injīl, as shown in this verse that states that, like the Torah, the Injīl had to be observed:
If they (the People of the Book) had observed the Torah, the Injīl, and that which was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have been nourished from above them and from beneath their feet. There is a moderate nation among them, but many of them follow an evil course. (5.66)
Jesus’ book complemented the book that the Jews already had. Interestingly, the Gospel of Matthew also confirms that Jesus’ message was a continuation of the law, as seen in this passage and the six “antitheses” that follow it in his sermon to his disciples on the mountain:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)
Jesus’ position toward the law is discussed in more detail in my book The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources (pp. 377-388).
God assigned another specific task to Jesus. He charged him with delivering the good news about the coming of a future prophet:
When Jesus son of Mary said: “O Children of Israel! I am a messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was revealed before me of the Torah, and bringing good news about a messenger who will come after me, whose name is Aḥmad.” But when he came to them with clear proofs, they said: “This is clear magic.” (61.6)
The name of the promised Prophet, “Aḥmad,” shares the root ḥamd (praise) with “Muḥammad.” Muḥammad means “highly praised” or “highly celebrated.” Aḥmad is a comparative which some suggest means “more praised” and others “more praising.” This Prophet was mentioned in both the Torah of Moses and the Injīl of Jesus:
Those (the believers) who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Injīl which they have: He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is evil; he will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the yokes that are upon them. Those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light that is sent down with him — those are the successful. (7.157)
As Jesus lived about 6 centuries before Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE), his foretelling of the coming of Muhammad and confirmation of his prophethood were particularly important for two main reasons. First, by the time Prophet Muhammad appeared, there were millions of Christians in various countries, including a small minority in Arabia. Jesus had to tell those Christians to accept the new prophet whose message continued his original teachings. By the time of Muhammad’s appearance, Christianity had become fundamentally different from the religion that Jesus taught, so the coming of the new prophet gave Christians an opportunity to drop those false doctrines and follow Jesus’ authentic teachings that the preaching of the new Prophet reflected. But only some Christians followed the new prophet, as most did not. Obeying Jesus’ command by most or many of his followers would have resulted in a very different history from the one we know today — the history that should have been, rather than the history that is.
Second, the Qur’an tells us that every prophet testified to the verity of the prophets who preceded him and confirmed their messages. For instance, Muhammad confirmed the messages of Jesus, Moses, Aaron, and the other prophets who came before him; Jesus confirmed the messages of Moses, Aaron, and the earlier prophets; and so on. However, Muhammad was destined to be the last of God’s prophets:
Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Last of the prophets; and Allah has full knowledge of all things. (33.40)
Muhammad’s prophethood was not going to be confirmed by a later prophet, so it was confirmed in advance by the prophet who came before him, Jesus, as well as by other earlier prophets.
The description of Jesus’ mission in the Qur’an is very different from how many modern scholars of the historical Jesus see it. They fundamentally view him as a “Jew,” even though they may have differences about what he said and did. What they mean by that is that Jesus grew up among the Jews, believed in what they believed in, and did what he tried to do while acting as a Jew. This image, however, reflects a misunderstanding of what the term “Jew” means.
The Biblical term “Jew” came to denote all adherents of Judaism, but the Qur’an gives a completely different meaning for the term. The Qur’an implies that this term did not exist before Moses or, more accurately, the Torah. In other words, it was coined by God Himself, as He coined the term “Muslim” (22.78). It is a name for those who believed in Moses’ message and embraced his religion, regardless of their ethnic origin. Naturally, it is not a name that applies to their leader, Moses. Similarly, the name of Jesus’ followers in the Qur’an, Naṣārā, is not applied to Jesus.
Calling Jesus a “Jew” is the result of misunderstanding what this term originally meant. But it also reflects the attempt by scholars to minimize the scale of Jesus’ mission and role. I think the attempt to present Jesus as no more than a Jew is partly influenced by the fact that he did not become a major character in Jewish Palestine at the time. He managed to get only a very small minority of Jews to accept that he was a legitimate successor of Moses who came to reform his message that has long been corrupted by various religious authorities. But this very limited success should not distract from what he tried to do. Jesus’ role as a “prophet” in the Qur’an makes him a major spiritual leader like Moses and Muhammad, even though his message was more local.
The attempt to present Jesus as a Jew is probably also partly influenced by the attempt of modern scholars to bring Christians and Jews closer and further expose the unwarranted nature of the hostility and persecution that Christians subjected the Jews to for centuries. As one scholar has noted, “Conceiving of Jesus as a ‘Jew’ in the modern era and especially since the Second World War and the Holocaust, has had the merit of locating him, his family, his initial followers, and his world of vision and memory properly within the House of Israel, rather than imagining them, as did German National Socialist exegetes and anti-Semites, as some kind of ‘Aryans’ or non-Semites” (Elliot, 2007: 151).
Some scholars have argued that Jesus should be called “Israelite” not “Jew.” They argue that the latter is a late misnomer that did not exist in Jesus’ days. The Jews used to refer to themselves as “Israelites” or “Hebrews” and other people used to call them a term that is better translated as “Judeans” rather than “Jews,” as it is derived from Judea, where the Israelites lived after coming back from exile in Babylon (Elliot, 2007). But these scholars share with others their keenness for not differentiating Jesus from other people as they see his mission much smaller than it was as they measure its scope in terms of its very limited success rather than in terms of what it really aimed to achieve.
For more details about the origin and etymology of the term “Jew” in the Bible and the Qur’an, the reader may consult our book The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt (2008b, 184-187).