Jan 092011

This article is adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

All four Gospels agree that after his trial or interrogation by the Sanhedrin and high priest, Jesus was brought before Pilate to be punished. According to Mark and Matthew, Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of Jews, to which Jesus answered vaguely “you say so” (Mark 15:2; Matt. 27:11). Pilate’s question implies that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews, which is how they perceived their awaited Messiah. This highly charged political accusation was bound to raise the interest of the Roman governor. The chief priests and the elders then brought many unspecified charges against Jesus, but he did not respond to any of them.

Luke elaborates more on the accusation:

“We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).

He then reports the same question and answer between Pilate and Jesus about the kingship of the Jews that Mark and Matthew have. Later passages assert that Jesus was accused of “inciting” and “misleading” people:

They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:5)

[Pilate said to them:] “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. When I examined him before you, I did not find this man guilty of anything you accused him of doing.” (Luke 23:14)

John’s account differs yet further. When Pilate asks the people about Jesus’ charge, their reply was simply to stress his guilt:

If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you. (John 18:30)

Upon the Jews’ insistence that Jesus must be killed, Pilate asked him whether he was the king of the Jews. Unlike in the Synoptics, Jesus replies by explaining that his kingdom is heavenly and not from this world:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (John 18:36)

This should have allied Pilate’s concerns. John also states that the Jews told Pilate that Jesus had to die because of his claim to the sonship of God:

The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!” (John 19:7)

However, I have explained in my article The Unhistorical Meaning of “Son of God” in the Gospels, claiming to be a the son of God was not a religious crime in Judaism.

Despite their differences about what charges were brought against Jesus before Pilate, all four Gospels agree that at the crucified Jesus was mocked by having a titulus with the inscription “the king of the Jews” put on his cross. This agreement highlights the charge that was of significance for the Roman governor, which is the claim to kingship. Since the Jews believed that the Christ would become their king, this mocking of Jesus ridiculed his claim to messiahship.

The titulus is one example that shows that even when the Gospels are consistent, they do not completely agree with each other. This is the inscription according to the four Evangelists:

  • Mark (15:26): “The king of the Jews.”
  • Matthew (27:37): “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”
  • Luke (23:38): “This is the king of the Jews.”
  • John (19:19): “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”

Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

May 032010

Adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

Comparing what the Gospels say about any episode of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus reveals many differences and contradictions. The significance of these differences is that they undermine the historical reliability of the main sources on the alleged crucifixion. This article deals with one of these contradictions.

The contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion start as early as their specification of the date on which Jesus was arrested. All four Gospels state that Jesus was arrested and later crucified on the day of preparation: 

Now when evening had already come, since it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath). (Mark 15:42)

The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate. (Matt. 27:62)

It was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. (Luke 23:54)

 Then, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the victims’ legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19:31)

This designates Friday, on which all preparations for the Sabbath had to be done as no work could be done on the holy day. But John disagrees with the Synoptic assertion that this Friday was the first day of the Jewish festival of the Passover, suggesting that it was the day of rest of the Passover, i.e. one day earlier.

According to Jewish law, the lamb of the Passover is slaughtered in the evening of the 14th of Nisan, which is the first month in the Jewish calendar, and it is then eaten in that night (Exo. 12:1-8). As the Jewish day is reckoned from sunset to sunset, this night represents the start of the 15th of Nisan. The Synoptics claim that after having the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested later in that night, i.e. the night of the first day of the Passover (Mark 14:12-46; Matt. 26:19-50; Luke 22:7-54), and was crucified in the morning, that is on the morning of 15th Nisan.

John states that after being arrested and questioned by the high priest, Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate very early in the morning on the day of rest of the Passover, clearly implying that he was arrested on the previous night: “Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (John 18:28). The crucifixion happened hours later, so it must have taken place on the 14th of Nisan. So John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels, placing the arrest and crucifixion one day earlier. According to John, the Friday of the crucifixion was the day of rest of the Passover, whereas the other three Evangelists make it the first day of the feast. So the agreement of the four that it was on a Friday hides a disagreement on when that Friday fell with respect to the Passover.

John’s timeline of the crucifixion makes Jesus die at the same time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs. This works very well for his description of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” in the opening chapter of his Gospel, which he attributes to John the Baptist: 

On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)

John also applies to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the form of a prophecy, a description that the Old Testament applies to the Passover lamb: “For these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of his will be broken’” (John 19:36). John, thus, suggests that in his crucifixion Jesus played the role of the true Passover lamb. The fact that John’s dating of the crucifixion is in such agreement with his theology has made some scholars reject the historicity of his dating as deliberately manipulated and favor the Synoptic date: 

In John 1.36 Jesus is called the “the lamb of God,” and the equation Jesus = lamb has determined John’s dating of the crucifixion. At the very time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, the true lamb of God was dying outside the walls of the city. Once we see that the date in John agrees so strongly with its theology, we are inclined to prefer the Synoptics and conclude that Jesus was executed on Friday, 15 Nissan. (Sanders, 1995: 72)

Interestingly, while Mark makes it clear that Jesus was crucified on the first day of the Passover, it also states earlier that when, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and the experts in the law were conspiring to kill Jesus they did not want to kill him “during the feast, so there won’t be a riot among the people” (Mark 14:2). This passage may belong to a different tradition which is in line with the Johannine chronology of the crucifixion.

Not surprising, there have been attempts to harmonize the contradictory Gospel accounts. One popular attempt suggests that John used a different calendar from that used by the other three Evangelists. There is no evidence to support this suggestion, and there are strong arguments against it (Theissen & Merz, 1999: 159; also Vermes, 2005: 97-98).

This article has discussed only one of the contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, but there are many more. Furthermore, the Gospel stories contradict established historical facts also, including Jewish trial law. The Gospels are the main sources on the supposed crucifixion of Jesus. In fact, they are the only sources that discuss this alleged incident in detail. Therefore, their numerous internal contradictions and disagreements with history, both of which undermine the Gospels’ value as historical sources, must also equally undermine their claim that Jesus was crucified.

Sanders, E. P. (1995). The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Books: England.

Theissen, G. & Merz, A. (1999). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, SCM Press: London.

Vermes, G. (2005). The Passion, Penguin Books: London.

Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Nov 112008

This is the “Introduction” to the book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with about two billion people describing themselves as Christians. For these followers, Jesus is the most important character in history. He is the focus of their devotion and the means of their salvation. He is both god and man.
In Islam, the second major religion of the world with about one billion claiming to follow it, Jesus is also highly honored and venerated. But Muslims consider Jesus only as a prophet, albeit a special one. He is only a man.
Reverence for Jesus brings together these two great religions, but significant differences about his nature and message set them apart. The crucifixion of Jesus, which is given so much importance in the Gospels but whose historicity is denied by the Qur’an, is at the heart of the differences between how Christianity and Islam view Jesus and ultimately their respective teachings. The crucifixion is therefore a highly interesting subject for about a third of the world population.
Christianity treats the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection as the most important events in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ very mission is understood in terms of these events. The apostle Paul, to whom Christianity owes its development to what it came to be, summarized this theology, which he promoted, as follows: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).
Historians also have shown a great interest in studying all records of Jesus’ crucifixion and trying to reconstruct the events leading to and following it. While there are no historical records from Jesus’ days about the crucifixion, there are quick references to this event in reports from the late 1st century and second century. Christian writings, and more specifically the four Gospels, remain the main sources on the crucifixion. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John are dated to 70, 80-90, 70-100, and early 2nd century CE, respectively.
The fact that the Qur’an rejects the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion is well known. But the Qur’an’s version of events has not been studied seriously by historians. The general reason for this attitude is the view that the Qur’an has little historical value because it is thought to be based on Jewish and Christian sources. The specific reason behind ignoring what the Qur’an says about the crucifixion is the strong belief in the historicity of this incident, so the Qur’an’s rejection of its historicity is seen as a confirmation of its unreliability.
One aim of this book is to show that accepting the historicity of the crucifixion can only stem from a degree of faith in the Gospel narratives, as there are no reliable, independent historical sources to establish the historicity of this event. The book will also show that the Christian accounts of the crucifixion are contradictory, make many unhistorical claims, and are riddled with inaccurate information. This is how this book will argue that the historicity of the crucifixion is more of an unjustified assumption than a proved conclusion; a perception that cannot be substantiated by facts. It will then study in detail the Qur’anic version of events and show its plausibility.
The book makes a number of stylistic choices. Each Qur’anic verse has been followed by a combination of two numbers identifying its sura or “chapter” and its position in that chapter. For instance, the combination 4.158 refers to the 158th verse of the 4th chapter.
I have consulted some English translations of the Qur’an, but the translations used are mine. I always use my own translations of the Qur’an because translation is an act of interpretation, reflecting the translator’s understanding of the text.
Square brackets have been used to enclose explanatory texts that are needed to clarify the translation. Alternative texts, such as the English meaning of a term that is cited in its Arabic origin, are enclosed in round brackets.
A number of different printing styles are used in the book. A special font has been used for the Qur’anic text and another for Biblical passages. Roman transliterations of Arabic terms are in italics.
Let’s now take a quick look at the contents of the book. The book consists of three parts. Part I focuses on the crucifixion in the New Testament and consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 examines in detail the main differences and contradictions between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Historical problems in these narratives are studied in Chapter 2.
Chapter 3 discusses what the New Testament says about the roles of the Jews and the Romans in the crucifixion. It also examines modern attempts to shift the blame for executing Jesus from the Jews to the Romans. The possible range of dates of the crucifixion is discussed in Chapter 4. This part then concludes with Chapter 5 which focuses on the theology that Paul developed and based on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The conflict of the theology of the cross with the Gospels is also discussed.
Part II, which consists of two chapters, examines the crucifixion in non-scriptural sources. Chapter 6 presents the earlier historical records in which the crucifixion is mentioned and discusses their unreliability and likely influence by Christian sources. Those who do not believe the story of the resurrection have proposed alternative scenarios to explain Jesus’ empty tomb and his appearances after the crucifixion. These theories are the focus of Chapter 7.
Part III consists of five chapters and deals with the Qur’anic account of the crucifixion and related events. Chapter 8 explains the Qur’an’s assertion that Jesus was never crucified. The Qur’an’s explanation that there was a crucifixion but of someone who was mistaken for Jesus is discussed in Chapter 9. Early Christian sources that, like the Qur’an, have advocated the substitute theory are also introduced.
Chapter 10 focuses on what happened to Jesus’ after the crucifixion. Having examined in chapter 5 the theology of the cross and its conflict with the Gospels, Chapter 11 discusses problems in Paul’s theology from the Qur’an’s point of view. The part concludes with Chapter 12 which summarizes the findings of the book about the crucifixion and what really happened to Jesus.
For the reader’s convenience, the book has three indexes for the Qur’anic verses, Biblical passages, and general names and subjects.


Copyright © 2008 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Nov 082008

This is the “Preface” to the book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

 In 2007 the first edition of my book The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources was published. That comprehensive study covered all aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings. It was always my intention to use parts of that work as the basis to publish smaller, more focused books each of which covers certain aspects of the life of Jesus.This book is based mainly on the two chapters on the crucifixion in my book on the historical Jesus. Content from other chapters in that book has also been used. The study has also been expanded with new material.

Numerous books and articles have been published about the crucifixion, studying in detail the Christian narratives and any historical sources. Most of these publications completely ignore the Qur’an’s account, with a small number of works referring to it in passing and only to dismiss it.

Muslim scholars have studied the Qur’an’s story of the crucifixion, but mostly in exegetical works that focused on the Qur’anic account, with some comparative references to the Gospel accounts. Furthermore, most of these are general works that do not focus on Jesus, so they are even less focused on the crucifixion.

This book takes a new approach by considering the Qur’anic account of the crucifixion, the Christian narratives, and the early historical sources that mention this event. The book does not only discuss the serious flaws in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, but it also examines the Qur’anic account in the light of history. It shows how the Christian story of the crucifixion developed, and it also challenges the common alternative readings of the history of that event, which are based on some faith in the Christian sources, even if the adherents of these views are not religious themselves.

Like all of my works, this book has benefited greatly from the extensive comments of my wife Shetha Al-Dargazelli on earlier drafts and the many discussions that I have had with her about the topic of the study. Shetha’s contribution to this book, as it is to all of my books, is invaluable.

I would also like to thank my close friend Tariq Chaudhry for his many comments that helped me improve the book.


 Copyright © 2008 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved