Lord! Relieve my mind, and make my task easy for me, and untie my tongue, that
they may understand what I say.’ (Qur’an 20:25-28)
‘You have not,’ it may be
objected, ‘given us the context
of all these sayings. You have only quoted very short passages of scripture.
You are deliberately omitting key portions of the Gospel message in order to
This is another common reaction from Christians
to the points I have raised here.
In fact, it may be the most common
justification for turning away from the approach discussed in this book. The
argument is that one Gospel verse is simply not complete without connection to,
or comparison with, another Gospel verse.
It is extremely important for us to understand,
then, that this argument arises from a deeply flawed understanding of the way
the Gospels were written.
The best (non-Muslim!) Biblical scholars in the world now
agree: Before there was a story of Jesus,
there were Gospels.
(non-Muslim!) Biblical scholars in the world now agree that the individual Gospel
sayings I am citing here must stand, and be interpreted, independently.
The original sayings of Jesus were not
‘hard-wired’ to other verses, as we may have been taught, and they are
certainly not ‘hard-wired’ to the later writings of the Apostle Paul.
It is not
necessary for you to take my word on the matter to resolve this extremely
important issue for yourself.
We are talking
about a central finding of modern New Testament research. We are talking about
a finding that is quite clear for anyone willing to take a moment appeal to the
scholarship … and not even recent scholarship, but the scholarship of six or
seven decades ago. We are talking, at this point, not about whether Islam
agrees with Christianity, but about the objective facts of contemporary textual
analysis of the Gospels.
Here is the proof.
- ‘It is one
of the points made by recent criticism that the characteristic method of
Gospel compilation was just this artless collocation of originally
independent units, and that the more effort after continuity there is, the
more advanced is the stage of development from the original tradition.’—’A New Gospel,’ C.H. Dodd, Bulletin of the John
Rylands Library (1936), reprinted in New Testament Studies,
(Scribners, New York, 1956), p. 12-52.
comprehensible the narrative is—the further removed the Gospel passage in
question is from the original tradition, from the ‘originally independent’
units. The more artful the narrative is, the less authentic a given account is likely to be.
So if someone
insists that we must ‘interpret’ (for instance) Jesus’ description of the
requirements of salvation in Matthew 5:25-26 by first reminding ourselves that
such a verse cannot be ‘understood properly’ without recourse to some other
Gospel verse or story …
… that person is—from the viewpoint
of modern scholarship—simply mistaken.
Actually, we must begin by asking ourselves
what such a passage means when viewed as
a single unit. We cannot assume that it was originally composed as part of some larger narrative whole. It was
To make this point in public is to be considered, in some
quarters, a ‘bad Christian’.
Yet is it really ‘good Christianity’ to ignore
the painstaking Biblical scholarship of the past century? Surely one does not
become a ‘better’ Christian by obediently closing one’s eyes to facts when ordered
to do so.
We now know that we draw closer to the historical Jesus when we evaluate
ancient Gospel sayings independently, without the benefit of narrative
continuity … because that is how they were originally collected. Rather
than pretend this important fact does not exist, we must use this fact to gain a greater understanding of the original
Whether it is popular for us to say so or
not, whether our priest or pastor wants to admit it in front of the
congregation or not, whether raising the fact is convenient to our loved ones
or not, the very first Gospels were collections of Jesus’ sayings. They were
Gospels largely avoided storytelling.
They simply reported what Jesus said at various points during his ministry.
Early believers remembered individual sayings of or brief exchanges with Jesus,
and shared them with each other in conversation, then memorized them. This oral
tradition eventually became a written tradition.
As thoughtful Christians, we should, of
course, be interested in what Jesus actually said. I hope you will agree that
if someone claims to be a Christian, but is not
interested in what Jesus said, that is a very strange variety of Christianity
And so we should be interested in
determining which sayings were in fact
contained in those earliest Gospels.
The creation of the later Gospels—including Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—was
not, as we may have been taught, a matter of someone ‘starting from scratch’ or
writing under the spontaneous ‘inspiration’ of God. Rather, these traditional
Gospels came about through the careful drawing together and amplifying of
various existing traditions. The individual sayings were gathered into
discourses, and, eventually, surrounded by narrative material—by
This means that, when we consider the
authenticity of the various Gospel sayings in Q, the smallest possible unit of the text is often the most important. The
‘explanatory’ or ‘story’ material that may surround that small unit of text,
when it shows up in the traditional Gospels we have today, is, by definition,
somewhat suspicious. Why? Because all
the narrative material within the Gospels is, by definition, of later origin
than the brief sayings that were memorized and transmitted orally by the first
Even if it is difficult to do, we must
learn to look past the ‘story’ of the
Gospels, and focus intently on the individual sayings themselves, if we wish to
understand Jesus’ actual mission.
however, been taught by religious authorities for most of our lives to accept the narrative material that
surrounds a Gospel saying as undisputable truth, or even as historical reality.
If a certain passage says that Jesus said such and such in order to explain
thus and so, then that (we have been taught) is how it must have taken place.
But if God gave us the Gospels, as He did, He also gave us minds—and
we should hold as self-evident that He wants us to use both of them.
Once we look past the narratives, we may
focus directly on what remains of the memorized versions of the early
individual sayings of Jesus. Refusing to do this is not a sign of faith, but
rather a sign of obedience, and the two are not identical.
the earliest versions of these sayings appear to have been preserved for us in
Q. How accurately they have been preserved, we will never know. But they are
there. And they are earlier than what surrounds them.
That is why I have only quoted very short
Gospel passages in this book, and avoided cross-referencing them to other
At this point, I often hear the following: ‘What you say
about the scholarship and the textual development of the Gospels seems
interesting. But still somehow, I cannot escape the feeling that the texts in
questions have been manhandled.’
And this is true. They do appear to have been manhandled. But
it is not modern scholars who have been doing the manhandling.
To explain what
I mean, I must give you some background information … and apologize in advance
to you. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity in my life to
study the world’s religions fairly closely. Some historical patterns in the
development of religious culture are impossible to ignore, and I am about to
share a few of them with you now—but I want to say
ahead of my time that it is not my intention to denigrate anyone’s faith or to
attack any person’s conception of God. My intent is only to call attention to
the simple facts of history, facts that may be confirmed by consulting any good
encyclopedia or responsible textbook on comparative religion. If we study these
facts, we may be able to come to some conclusions about how the real
manhandling of the message of Jesus took place.
Consider that …
faith movements from before Christianity promoted the idea that the suffering and death of someone else makes
· Long before Jesus, the god Attis, in Phrygia (contemporary
Turkey) was regarded as the only begotten son of God and the savior of mankind.
On March 24th of each year, he supposedly bled to death at the foot of a pine
tree. His blood was believed to bring forth new life from the earth. Each spring, his worshippers celebrated his
triumphant rising from the dead.
· Long before Jesus, the god Abonis of Syria was
regarded by his followers as having died
to attain redemption for all mankind. Each spring, his worshippers celebrated
his triumphant rising from the dead.
- Long before Jesus, followers of the
Egyptian god Osiris celebrated,
each spring, his triumphant rising from the dead. They also
celebrated his birthday—on December 29th.
· Long before Jesus, the Greek
demigod Dionysius was regarded as the son of Zeus. His followers
celebrated his triumphant rising
from the dead at the spring equinox. His Roman incarnation, Bacchus, had a
familiar birthday: December 25th.
· Long before Jesus, followers of Mithra, the
Persian sun-god, celebrated his birthday
on December 25th. Their religious rituals included a Eucharistic supper at which believers participated
in Mithra’s divine nature by means
of a holy meal of bread and wine.
C.S. Lewis makes (understandably) brief reference
to these traditions in Mere Christianity.
He does so as part of a sweeping historical survey of human religious experience.
Rather than offer his readers the specifics of these faith systems—specifics
that I have just shared with you—Lewis tells us that
these movements were precursor faiths to Christianity: rough drafts, if you
will, of humanity’s eventual attempt to bring itself closer to the
(as-yet-unborn) Jesus Christ.
This is either
supreme intellectual laziness or deliberate deception. And Lewis’s was not a
So let us
acknowledge the facts. The pagan
constituencies played a major role not only in the development of the Gospels,
but also in the later theological doctrines, rituals, and sensibilities of the
Christian Church. These influences betrayed the original message of Jesus.
of those pagan groups, fortunately, appear to be entirely absent from the early Gospel passages we find in Q. And
that is why I pay such close attention to them, and to the rigorously monotheistic
pattern of worship they outline—and why I believe you
We have been looking at the ‘context’
supplied by human religious history before
Jesus. Religious history after Jesus’
ministry, however, is just as revealing. This, too, is a source of ‘context’.
Of particular importance is this fact:
The doctrine of the Trinity was formally imposed upon Christianity over
three centuries after the birth of Jesus, by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
At the Council
of Nicea in 325 came the first formal approval of the doctrine that God was
‘triune’ in nature, a move that paved the way for the ruthless persecution of
those who rejected this doctrine. The Council was summoned by the Emperor, and
not by any religious figure within the Christian community, a fact that sheds
some insight on the political importance of this event.
Constantine did not invent the Trinity,
but he had some distinctly earthbound reasons for backing the three-in-one
formulation, chief among them unity in his kingdom. As one resource puts it:
‘As it exists today the doctrine (of the Trinity) developed over the
centuries as a result of many controversies
… These controversies were for most purposes settled at the Ecumenical
Councils, whose creeds affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Constantine the
Great, (who called) the first council in 325 AD, arguably had political motives
for settling the issue, rather than religious reasons.’
[Source: Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org)]
who dared to disagree with the emperor’s formulation were quickly labeled
heretics and, eventually, exiled or eradicated.
What kind of man was this Constantine,
this ruler who played such a fateful role in the global development of
Christianity? I am afraid the image he presents in history is not a
particularly flattering one … if we are willing to look beyond the careful
euphemisms of his traditional biographers.
a genocidal tyrant who used violence on the large and small scale to pursue his
(sometimes mysterious) objectives. He murdered his own son and wife for reasons
no one has been able to piece together; he slaughtered literally thousands of
political opponents; he was known to be an enthusiastic fire worshipper. And he
was baptized as a Christian only on his deathbed. And yet, regardless of how
deeply his own personal commitment to the faith went (or didn’t), this
ruthless, pragmatic, and possibly sociopathic head of state was, after Christ
himself and the Apostle Paul, probably the most influential man in the history of
This fact is
worthy of close consideration by every follower of Jesus.
The case can be made, in fact, that Constantine outranks both Jesus and
Paul in influence. It is Constantine’s Nicene formulation of the Trinity that
has governed, in a determining way, most Christian theology for the past seventeen
centuries. Many people today act as though this historical reality is as
natural an outgrowth of the mission of Jesus as the rain falling and the grass
growing. It is not.
maintains that the Gospels themselves support Constantine’s brand of orthodoxy
must confront an awkward question: How are we to account for the fact that no
one preached the Nicene formulation before the time of Constantine?
historian of Christianity disputes the stark and enduring changes in Christian
theology that took place in the centuries following Jesus.
did not spring from thin air. Rather, they culminated in Constantine’s council.
They carried distinct political benefits for the Emperor‘s regime. And they are
simply impossible for a modern, thoughtful Christian to come to terms with
without accepting at least the possibility of apostasy—that is, formal betrayal of the theology Jesus
himself followed, the theology of total submission to the One Creator God.
The remarkable thing is that so
much of that original theology is still evident in the earliest Gospel verses.
Look at the teachings we find in Q ... and ask yourself how closely they match
the ‘context’ of Constantine.
In Q, Jesus
warns us to fear only the judgment of a single God:
I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after
that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear:
Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say
unto you, Fear him.’ (Luke 12:4-5)
identical to the Islamic principle known as Taqwa. Compare:
‘To Him belongs
all that is in the heavens and the earth. God’s retribution is severe. Should
you then have fear of anyone other than God?’ (Qur’an
In Q, Jesus
warns humanity plainly that earthly advantages and pleasures should not be the
goal of our lives:
woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you
that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall
mourn and weep.’ (Luke 6:24-5)
identical to Islam’s warning that we must not be fooled by the allures of Dunya,
or earthly life. Compare:
‘The desire to
have increase of worldly gains has preoccupied you so much (that you have neglected the obligation of remembering God)—until you come to your graves! You shall know. You
shall certainly know (about the consequences of your deeds). You will certainly
have the knowledge of your deeds beyond all doubt. You will be shown hell, and
you will see it with your own eyes. Then, on that day, you shall be questioned
about the bounties (of God).’ (Qur’an
Perhaps just as
revealing, Q teaches nothing whatsoever of the Crucifixion, or of the
sacrificial nature of the mission of Jesus ... an intriguing omission indeed!
the following chilling words:
I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down
with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But those who
believe they own the kingdom of heaven shall be cast out into the outer
darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 8:11-12)
There is context … and there is betrayal. Each of us must decide
for ourselves which is which.
Those of us who are unwilling to accept
the pagan remnants of Constantine as the permanent foundation of our religious
faith may, as our detractors claim, not be ‘real Christians’.
Then again … one never knows. We may be.
The more I looked at the Q
sayings, the more
impossible it became for me to reconcile the notion
of the Trinity with that which seemed most authentic
to me in the Gospels. I found myself face-to-face
with some very difficult questions:
· Where in the Gospels did Jesus use the word
· If Jesus was God, as the doctrine of the Trinity claims, why did he
· If Jesus was God, as the doctrine of the Trinity claims, to whom
was he praying, and why?
The more I tried to ignore these questions,
the more they haunted me.
In November of 2002,
I began to read a translation of the Qur’an.
I had never read an English translation of the entire
text of the Qur’an before. I had only read summaries
of the Qur’an written by non-Muslims.
(And very misleading summaries at that.)
Words do not adequately describe the
extraordinary effect that this book had on me.
Suffice to say that the very same magnetism
that had drawn me to the Gospels
at the age of eleven was present in a new and
deeply imperative form. This book was telling me,
just as I could tell Jesus had been telling me,
about matters of ultimate concern.
The Qur’an was offering authoritative guidance and
compelling responses to the questions I had been asking
for years about the Gospels.
The Qur’an drew me to its message
because it powerfully and relentlessly confirmed
the sayings of Jesus that I felt in my heart had to be
authentic. I knew as a fact that something
had been changed in the Gospels.
I knew too that that something had been left
intact in the text of the Qur’an.