The Arabic original of this article, by Fr. Georges Massouh, professor of Islamic Studies at Balamand University, appeared in today's issue of an-Nahar. It can be found here.
The Cross as a Subject of Debate
The Cross as a Subject of Debate
Christianity is based on faith in the resurrection of Christ from the dead after his crucifixion. Someone who denies the Cross or the Resurrection removes himself from Christianity. For this reason, the Cross is considered to be the sign and symbol of Christianity. In contrast, Islam, on the basis of the Quran denies the crucifixion of Christ and adopts an opinion that had spread among certain Christian sects that Christ was not crucified but that it seemed to the Jews that they crucified him. These two beliefs, the Christian and the Islamic, will not and debate among the two sides is useless for changing perspectives or for bringing them closer together.
The “Gospel of Barnabas” will not change the certitude of faithful Christians in Christ’s crucifixion, especially given the consensus of experts that this so-called “Gospel of Barnabas” was written some time during the 14th and 16th centuries, that is centuries after the spread of Islam, and that the book has no connection to the apocryphal books which appeared in the first two centuries of Christianity. Thus it seems bizarre that some Muslims rely on this counterfeit gospel in order to support their belief that Christ was not crucified, when the history of Christian apocryphal literature has many accounts resembling the Quranic account. It is also known that the “Gospel of Barnabas” contradicts certain basic Islamic beliefs, since it says that “the Prophet Muhammad is the awaited Christ,” which contradicts the Islamic account of the Prophet of Islam.
In the first centuries of Christianity, certain Gnostic sects appears which believed that the world of matter and the body is a corrupt world, and so they denied the belief that Christ had a real body, only having “the resemblance of a body.” The most important of these sects was that of the Docetists, or “Resemblancists” who were refuted by St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) who affirmed the reality of the Incarnation when he said, “If Christ only had an apparent body, then he only apparently suffered and so we only apparently received redemption.”
Likewise St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) combated the heresy of Basilides who said that Christ was not crucified, but rather Simon of Cyrene who bore the Cross of Christ on the path to Golgotha was the one who was crucified. Basilides said, “Simon was the one who was crucified, unknowingly and erroneously, after his form was changed to resemble that of Jesus, while Jesus’ form was changed to that of Simon and he mocked the leaders.” In the apocryphal book called “the Acts of John”, which was written in the end of the 2nd century, the statement “I am not the one who was hung upon the cross” is attributed to Jesus.
There is also the sect of Cerinthians who followed Cerinthus and believed in the existence of two persons in Jesus Christ: the first person whose name is Jesus who was born of Joseph and Mary like all humans and suffered and died and rose from the dead, while the second person whose name is Christ is a spiritual being who cannot suffer and so Christ was freed of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion and ascended into heaven. So Jesus alone was crucified while Christ was saved from torment.
In contrast, the Quran only treats the question of Christ’s crucifixion in a single verse (al-Nisa 157) where it affirms that the Jews did not kill Christ but rather that this was made to seem to happen to them. In the same verse, it talks about his being raised to heaven. The Quran does not provide information or details about this event, leaving the door open to two readings: either the Jews crucified another person upon whom the image of Jesus had been cast or that the entire event of the crucifixion was made to seem to them to have happened. For this reason there is a large number of differing Islamic accounts about what happened to Christ in the period of time between his being saved from the cross and his ascension to heaven and his second coming.
As for the person who took the place of Christ on the Cross, his name differs according to the account. Al-Razi in his commentary provides five accounts about this person who was made to look like Christ for them: 1- “They took a man and killed him and crucified him and dressed him like Christ for the people.” 2-“Titayus”, one of the companions of Judas. 3- They assigned a man to guard Jesus and God cast his resemblance upon that guard, and they killed him while he said “I am not Jesus.” 4- “When the Jews planned to take him, Jesus had ten of his companions with him. He said to them: Who wishes to purchase heaven by having my resemblance cast upon him? One of them said: I. So God cast Jesus’ image upon him and he was brought out and killed.” 5- A man from among the companions of Jesus was a hypocrite, so God “cast Jesus’ resemblance upon him and he was killed and crucified.” Al-Razi admits that “these accounts are contradictory and confused, and God knows best the truth of the matter.”
Despite the heresies and sects which denied the crucifixion of Christ, Christianity continued to hold fast to the Cross as a basic belief for salvation. And despite the proliferation of Islamic tales about the end of Christ’s life on earth, the Islamic belief remains deeply rooted that Christ was not crucified. However, all this does not prevent Christians and Muslims from working together for the good of humanity.