Beyond Mere Christianity


  • bookcover

  • Beyond Mere Christianity





  • Two:

    What is ‘Q’?

     

    (Jesus)
    spoke out: ‘I am indeed a servant of God. He has given to me the Book and made
    me a Prophet. Wherever I go, His blessings follow me.’
    (Qur’an 19:30)

    There is, in
    terms of literal content
    , little for a mainstream Christian to
    object to in the passage from the Qur’an you just read. Virtually all Christian
    theologies accept Jesus’ role as Prophet, or Messenger of God. If ‘Book’ means
    an authentic Divine Revelation, surely no Christian would dispute that Jesus
    received this.

    But that is the content. The context is a
    different matter. The very fact that the words in question appear in the
    Qur’an, rather than in the Gospels, is enough to give many people pause.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Most contemporary Christians simply do
    not believe that Jesus was a practitioner of the same religion practiced by
    Muslims. To be more specific: Most Christians do not believe that Jesus’ actual
    mission and teachings, by whatever name we may choose to call them, would be
    recognizable to a contemporary Christian, or even to a fair-minded neutral
    observer, as those of the Prophet Muhammad.

    If you were to switch on a time machine
    and set out to test the matter, ninety-nine out of a hundred Christians would
    probably predict that your journey back through time would prove definitively
    that Jesus was not, in fact, a Muslim.

    The problem is
    that most of those ninety-nine people would have a hard time describing, in
    even the vaguest terms, what a Muslim actually believes.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    We don’t have a time
    machine, of course, and perhaps it would be better for us not to wish for one.
    How many of us would actually risk making such a trip for the first time,
    risking the possibility that we might never return to the certainties of our present
    lives?

    It might be
    safer and more practical to plan a different kind of journey. It might be better
    at
    least for those of us who are not particularly brave about journeys
    if
    Jesus could gain access to the time
    machine and approach us.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Fortunately, we are in a position to ask Jesus to make just
    that kind of journey through time for us.

    We can appeal
    to a kind of ‘hard evidence’
    evidence, at any rate, that should be of
    interest to thoughtful Christians. The evidence to which we can appeal, the journey
    Jesus makes on our behalf, resides in the Gospels, in words attributed to Jesus
    himself. We can evaluate these words on their own merits. Then we can compare
    these words to the core principles of Islam.

    You will be
    reading, in this book, a number of New Testament scriptures. When a passage
    like this comes up, it will appear in this
    kind of bold type,
    and indented.
    Quotes of prominent Christians are in bold type, italics and
    indented, while passages from the Qur’an are in italics style and
    indented.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Now, it is a common, and probably a fair,
    complaint from Christians that Muslims sometimes ‘pick and choose’ their way
    through the New Testament in discussions about Jesus. Some Muslims cite the
    Gospel of John one moment to prove some prophecy or other, and then, the next
    moment, dismiss the sixteenth verse of the third chapter in that same Gospel,
    which describes Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. Similarly, some Muslims
    appeal with great enthusiasm to St. Paul’s advice to women to cover their heads
    in public, but ignore the portions of his epistles that emphasize Jesus’ role
    as the sacrificial Savior of humanity.

    This kind of
    flip-flopping exasperates the Christians and embarrasses Muslims, or ought to.
    Selective criticisms like these ignore the question ‘How did you come to prefer
    that passage over this one?’ They are demeaning to people of any faith or
    tradition, because they suggest that religion is little more than a rhetorical
    game in which an opponent’s fundamental beliefs can be uprooted easily
    if
    only one knows what to ignore. No one, I think, is convinced by these kinds of
    arguments.

    Of course, this book relies to a certain extent on my own Biblical
    interpretation and arguments. But you
    should understand
    that, for the purposes of consistency, historical authenticity, and clarity,
    this book is different from other
    Islamic assessments of the Gospels. This book relies primarily on a very
    narrowly defined group of verses, verses that are not to be found in the Gospel
    of John or in any of the Epistles. So when a thoughtful Christian asks, ‘Why do
    you prefer verse X over verse Y?’ the answer can be a clear one: ‘Because
    responsible scholars believe verse X to be older in derivation, and therefore
    more likely to be authentic.’

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    The verses in question, known as Q
    verses, are the passages many of today’s scholars believe to be the earliest surviving expression of the
    oral tradition of sayings attributed to Jesus.

    Make no mistake: This is your father’s (and grand-father’s, and great-grandfather’s) New
    Testament.
    Yet the focus here is on Gospel verses that were, in all probability,
    compiled long before the text surrounding them was.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    The remnants of
    a lost, but identifiable, ‘sayings gospel’ called Q (from the German Quelle,
    or ‘source’) do appear in Matthew and Luke.

    What, you may
    ask, was a ‘sayings gospel’? This was, scholars believe, an ancient document
    consisting of instructions attributed to Jesus, ‘sayings’ that generally lack narrative material.

    A sayings
    gospel would have carried material that eventually found its way into the
    Gospels we are familiar with
    but a sayings gospel would have made no attempt
    to tell the life story of Jesus.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    A little background is in order. The
    Gospel of Mark, most scholars believe, is the oldest extant Gospel. Intriguingly,
    Matthew and Luke depend on Mark for much, but not all, of their material. (The
    Gospel of John does not depend on any other Gospel in a textual sense; it is independent
    in a way that the other three Gospels are not. It is also compiled later.)

    When we remove
    the influence of Mark and look at what Matthew and Luke still have in
    common
    , we find dozens of obviously parallel verses in Matthew and Luke
    verses
    that often give us nearly verbatim expressions of the same saying.

    Many scholars
    feel these parallel verses constitute clear evidence of a sayings gospel that
    supplies Matthew and Luke with a substantial amount of their content. These parallel
    verses, known as the Q verses, appear to reflect a lost manuscript that is almost
    certainly older than even Mark’s Gospel.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    This all sounds, perhaps, more complex
    than it actually is. The simplest explanation for the situation we are examining
    is known as the Two Source Theory. This theory holds that the authors of
    Matthew and Luke made use of two important written sources
    Mark
    and the lost gospel we now call Q
    in developing their
    own accounts of the life of Jesus.

    Here is a
    simple visual summary of the Two Source Theory on the next page, which is not
    my creation; this theory is familiar to virtually all responsible contemporary
    Gospel textual scholars, and has been a topic of scholarly discussion for many
    years.

    Now, even this
    brief summary of Q is enough to stir up any number of intricate scholarly
    debates, and this book is not meant to be about scholarly debates. You should
    know, however, that the analysis of the development of the Gospels you have
    just read reflects the findings of some of the most accomplished researchers
    and scholars working in the field of New Testament textual studies. See The Complete Gospels, edited by Robert
    J. Miller, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

     

    = influence

     

     

    ‘Traditionalist’
    Christian clergy and theologians are
    generally hostile to the whole idea of Q. They claim that students of Q are somehow eager to diminish the status of Jesus.
    (Actually
    , we are only eager to learn what he is most likely to have
    said.)

    The hostility of these preachers and
    theologians to the proposition that Q was a source for Matthew and Luke is
    often palpable. Such a response may have something to do with the many
    challenges that the reconstructed text reflecting the (lost) Q manuscript
    represents to accepted Christian theology.

    One part of this
    challenge that has been little noticed by lay Christians up to this point—but
    feared, I suspect, by
    orthodox Christian theologianshas to
    do with Islam.

    It is the observation, difficult to avoid
    for any attentive student of comparative religion that Q tends to support the
    most important elements of Islam’s conception of Jesus.

    Ó Ó Ó

    The Q scholarship suggests that the ways most Muslims have,
    down the centuries, envisioned the message, identity, and priorities of Jesus
    are, broadly speaking, historically correct.

    Specifically, Q
    tends to confirm Islam’s image of Jesus as a distinctly human Prophet.

    It tends to confirm Islam’s depiction of
    the mission of Jesus as following the
    theological principles of the Qur’an.

    It tends to confirm Islam’s rejection
    of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    And it tends to
    confirm Islam’s claim that the surviving
    scriptures of Christianity have been tampered
    with in a way meant to dilute an uncompromisingly rigorous monotheism.

    This particular variety of monotheism,
    Is
    lam has always
    insisted, was the driving force of all the great prophetic missions, including
    that of Jesus.

    This
    particular variety of monotheism allows for no such formulation as ‘Father,
    Son, and Holy Spirit’.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    These connections between the message of Islam and the
    message of Q are my observations, not the observations of the textual scholars
    who have done such meticulous work over the years identifying the early Gospel
    verses. Those scholars are writing about textual research. This book is about
    Jesus and Islam.

    You may agree with the evidence offered
    in the pages that follow. You may disagree. In the end, it doesn’t really
    matter how popular or unpopular the analysis offered here proves to be. What
    matters is that thoughtful Christians have the opportunity to evaluate it
    fairly and make their own decisions.

    Ó Ó Ó

    What exactly do I mean when I maintain that Jesus called his
    people ‘to Islam’?

    Let me put it as clearly as I can. I believe
    that Jesus was, as a matter of historical probability, calling his listeners to
    a faith system whose guiding principle is that the Creator, not the created,
    must be worshipped and obeyed. It is a corollary of this belief that God’s
    will, not human will, should be done on earth.

    I believe later manipulations subverted
    that teaching and pointed the religion of Jesus toward the principle of
    sacrificial atonement for the sins of mankind. I believe that the Q verses of
    the Gospels tend to confirm these beliefs of mine.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Occasionally, people wonder if it is
    possible to ‘boil down’ the complex textual issues raised by Q scholarship to a
    single sentence. Here is the sentence I’ve come up with:

    Today’s best New Testament experts believe that
    some Gospel verses appear to present a more historically accurate picture of
    Jesus than other Gospel verses do.

    That is to say,
    today’s scholarship identifies certain passages
    the Q passagesas
    not only instructive, but historically is
    more relevant
    than other passages. Yet most Christians are totally unaware
    of this research, or of its momentous implications.

    If you were to
    tell the members of any Christian congregation of the existence of such verses
    … and then ask them what they believe the earliest layer of Gospel verses
    teaches … most of them would answer that the earliest verses must somehow
    emphasize Jesus’ status as the only begotten Son of God.

    And yet they would be mistaken.

    Of course,
    reasonable people may disagree on the age and authenticity of the sayings that
    form the centerpiece of this book.

    Everyone must agree, though, that the words in question do appear in the
    Gospels found in every Bible, and are binding on every Christian.
    And
    for anyone who is truly committed to the task of following the words of Jesus,
    that should be enough.

    To learn more
    about why so many scholars are so insistent now about the early dating of the
    passages in question, see Appendix A.
    For now, please understand that this book puts forward a very narrow ‘slice’ of
    the New Testament, and emphasizes the sayings that appear within that slice. As
    you evaluate that ‘slice’, bear in mind that the most accomplished Biblical scholars of our day
    none of them Muslims, by the way—regard the Q verses
    in Matthew and Luke as the closest we are ever going to get to the teachings of
    the historical Jesus, barring the discovery of some previously unknown ancient
    text.

    Ó
    Ó Ó

    Some people who hear my reasons for believing as I do react
    with great anger, and many of these angry people attempt to discredit the
    scholarship behind Q. They are missing the point.

    Whether the Q theory is persuasive to you
    depends on your interpretation of the evidence. Yet even if you reject all
    the work of all the Q scholars, this book may nevertheless be of interest to
    you, assuming two and only two facts:

    First, that you are
    a thoughtful Christian capable
    of making decisions for
    yourself about important matters
    (such
    as whether or not Jesus preached publicly
    about his own sacrifice for
    the sins of mankind).

    And second, that you do not reject the Gospel verses in
    question.

    This second point is extremely important,
    and worth emphasizing. Even if one were to disagree vehemently with the scholars
    on the dating of the Q verses, one would have a very hard time indeed disputing
    their presence in the New Testament.

    They are there, whether or not one
    accepts Q as a source for the Gospels, and whether or not they are convenient
    to contemporary Christian theology.

    It is possible,
    of course, that some people may feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of
    certain Gospel passages being older or more authoritative than other Gospel
    passages. If it is easier to think of the verses that appear in the pages that
    follow as simply coming from certain portions of the Bible
    portions
    that the author happens to prefer over other portions
    that
    is just as well.

    There is
    nothing ‘new’ here. There is only an attempt to refocus, or perhaps focus for
    the first time, on something very old, on some vitally important parts of
    Jesus’ message.

    If you consider
    the study of the Gospels to be an important part of your spiritual life, I hope
    you will consider continuing on to the next chapter. If, on the other hand, you
    believe that what we find in the Gospels does not have any bearing on your spiritual
    life, you may want to stop here.

     

     

    For
    most of my adolescence I studied the Christian scriptures on
    my own, and I did so obsessively.
     

    When I say I read the scriptures obsessively,
    I mean that I was drawn to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John like a
    magnet.

     

    There are plenty of notes and highlights
    in that old Bible of mine in Psalms, in Ecclesiastes,
    in Proverbs
    but most of the notes and
    underlining are in the Gospels. But I sensed,
    even at an early age, that there were some internal problems with the texts I
    loved so dearly.

     

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