Shabbir Akhtar, Associate Member, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford UK
Christians engaged in mission to Muslims are often so frustrated by what they see as an attenuated Quranic Christology that they are tempted to exaggerate the alleged extent of this attenuation. They perhaps forget that Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus as an itinerant teacher of Torah and wisdom, a rejected Jewish prophet with nowhere to lay his head.
Luke’s gospel mattered a lot to the heretic Marcion who rejected the Old Testament patriarchs but respected the authority of Paul. Marcion saw Luke as a disciple of Paul and therefore the only reliable evangelist. Marcion used Galatians to prove that there was only one true gospel - an edited version of Luke. By virtually expunging the first four chapters of Luke, Marcion produced his only gospel (Evangelicon). We can see in Marcion the climax of the Pauline rejection of the Torah and the Hebrew conception of God as the stern and just law-giver. Indeed the arch-heretic worshipped only a supreme god of goodness and rejected an inferior god of justice - a very un-Islamic choice.1
One strand in Luke is a relatively low Christology, compared with John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles. It is compatible with the Quran’s portrait, provided that we exclude parts of Luke’s nativity narrative and some of its wilder prophecies, one parable (20.9-18), and, from Acts, some sermons about Jesus and salvation. A minor stumbling block is the use of ‘the son of God’ at Luke 3.38. This usage carries none of the weight it acquired in later dogmatics. Indeed, the word ‘son’ is not used at all in the Greek, being merely understood. It is used only at 3.23 at the start of the genealogy. Although it is used literally there, the devout reader is cautioned, by the wider devotional context, against such an understanding since Jesus was not born by the normal methods of reproduction, a view also affirmed in the Quran.
Two other obstacles remain. Jesus is shown as predicting how he must die, suffer and rise again. The Quran denies that the crucifixion was successfully executed and thus obviates the need to accept the resurrection. In this way, it denies the core Christian message of forgiveness of sins – atonement - and the attainment of salvation. But, according to Islam, such Christian goals can be detached from the accepted Christian means of attaining them and therefore do not require Christ to suffer in this way, let alone be divine or the only begotten Son of God.
In Luke-Acts, Jesus is awarded many Jewish titles. This does not amount to a high enough Christology to distinguish it from the Quran – although ‘author of life’ (archegon tes zoes; Acts 3.15) is unacceptable to Muslims since that is a divine prerogative. There remain only two decisive and indeed divisive issues: the attribution of divinity to Jesus and the affirmation of any relationship to God that would move beyond that of the honoured servant (see Q43.59), no matter how close a spiritual relationship is otherwise claimed for him. Luke sees Christ primarily as a servant. This is implied if not emphasized by his citation from Isaiah 53, the locus of the servant traditions inherited and then audaciously re-interpreted and incorrectly appropriated by Christians. This has deracinated Christianity from its parent faith. And I would defend the idea that Christianity is indeed a child, if a misguided one, of Judaism, in terms of its messianic ideals. It is not an independent faith emerging in parallel with first Christian century rabbinic post-Temple Judaism of the 70s.
The New Testament scholar Heikki Raisanen has, in the context of an attack on Kenneth Cragg’s evangelical conservatism in biblical studies, made the case that, notwithstanding Cragg, one canonical gospel, that of Luke, is largely compatible with the Quran.2 My own view is that the proposed compatibility of a putatively low Quran-compatible Lukan Christology would carry more weight if Luke were the first Gospel to be composed. But at this hour the grounds for Markan priority are conclusive. Moreover, unlike the author of Mark, Luke admits in the much-quoted prologue to his gospel (1.1-4) that he writes his gospel and his history book only as a compiler of existing materials rather than as a direct witness. This weakens the case for compatibility of the most esteemed normative traditions of early primitive Christianity with the Quran’s account.
Leaving that aside, I am interested in Luke’s gospel as the only canonical gospel composed by someone living and thinking in the Pauline circle. Admittedly, Mark and Luke had both been Paul’s companions on missionary journeys but we are not sure if this Mark can be identified with the (second) evangelist, allegedly the author of Mark’s gospel. Moreover, the third evangelist (Luke) also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, in large part a history of Paul’s role in the spread of Christianity. It is hard not be moved by the stirring story of the early church as it marches from captivity and persecution to recognition at the heart of the Roman empire. Assuming that Luke is the only Gentile author in the New Testament - the grounds for this standard claim are unclear - he wrote a gospel for the Gentiles. He would be delighted to know that this includes today’s Muslim audiences.
In Luke’s history of the primitive Jesus movement, in Peter’s speeches, Jesus is called God’s servant, holy servant and anointed one (Acts 3.25-6, 4.27, 30). This resembles the Quran’s description of Jesus as ‘abd allah and al-masih, a servant who is, furthermore, raised up to become close to God. The Quran cautions Christians from saying anything more than this (4.171) although some Christians argue, erroneously, that the Quran itself (3.42-59) implies that Jesus is a lot more than a mere servant of God. In any case, Petrine Christianity, as discernible from the Gospels and Acts and to a lesser extent in the Petrine epistles, is compatible with the message of Islam - in regard to Jesus as eminent servant of God and in its respect for Torah observance.
As for Luke himself, while many verses speak of salvation in the name of Jesus, repudiating reliance on the law as saviour (Luke 24.46-49; Acts 4.12, 8.31-35, 13.32-39), only one mentions his blood. We can find no evidence of a sufficiently developed doctrine of atonement in Luke-Acts except at Acts20.28, during Paul’s sentimental farewell address to the Ephesian elders. In this sudden reference, Paul recalls how God bought the church ‘with his own (idiou) blood - God’s blood or perhaps God’s Son’s (Christ’s) blood. Paul adds that he himself is innocent of any-one’s blood.
Luke does not emphasize the Parousia. His Gospel has little eschatology but he mentions the Ascension of the risen Christ (24.50-51) after his resurrection and adds in Acts (1.1-3) that this event took place forty days after his resurrection. He is the only evangelist to note the Ascension. In the case of Mark’s gospel, the ascension is mentioned (16.19) but absent from the most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses. The Quran attests to Jesus’ ascension. This may be interpreted as his miraculous translation into heaven - bodily entry into paradise without prior physical death - through God’s direct intervention (see Q3.55; 4.157-8; 5.116-117). It is unclear, however, from the Quran alone, whether this ascension is after death or without death.
All in all, were it not for the resurrection of Jesus, the Quran would be more or less able to accommodate the Lukan account. Even the Holy Spirit, understood in Christian terms as the gift of divine presence from and through Jesus (Acts 1.5), can perhaps find a niche in Islam as the divine spiritual presence (sakinah; Q9.26, 40), a notion also celebrated by Jews (Hebrew: shekhinah). If my arguments are near to the mark, Luke’s gospel provides a bridge to travel to the Quran. What direction the travellers, in both directions, take after they have crossed the bridge, is another matter.
1 Marcion was the catalyst for the canonization process which might never have happened without the accident of his appearance. Marcion’s work The Antitheses is no longer extant but we can reconstruct it from Tertullian’s hostile Adversus Marcionem. The abolition of the Old Testament, a chronic intellectual temptation for Christians, was first advertised by Marcion. Is Islam, in its view of Christian scriptures, a Marcionite heresy?
2 Heikki Raisanen, ‘The portrait of Jesus in the Quran: Reflections of a biblical scholar’ in The Muslim World 70:2 (April 1980), p.122.