The Quran, the Crucifixion, and the Gnostics

One of the most distinctive Muslim doctrines is their denial that Jesus was ever actually crucified. They teach that Jesus did not, in fact, die on the cross on Calvary. It only "appeared" to the onlooking crowd that He had been crucified. This doctrine comes from one small passage of just two verses in the Quran, which state:

"That they said (in boast), 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah' - but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not - Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise," (Surah 4:157-158).

The Hilali-Khan translation offers a bit more interpretation, representing how many Muslims have historically understood this passage:

 "And because of their saying (in boast), 'We killed Messiah 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), the Messenger of Allah,' - but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of 'Iesa (Jesus) was put over another man (and they killed that man), and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not [i.e. 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)]. But Allah raised him ['Iesa (Jesus)] up (with his body and soul) unto Himself (and he is in the heavens). And Allah is Ever All-Powerful, All-Wise," (Surah 4:157-158).

Thus, the Quran teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross, but that it was made to appear that He did. While the Quran does not say exactly how this happened, many Muslims have understood it to mean that another man was made to look like Jesus. This other man was then crucified in Jesus' place. As with many other passages in the Quran, this idea did not appear out of thin air. It actually comes from earlier sources, in this case, Gnostic myths.

The late 2nd-century Christian writer Irenaeus wrote about the teachings of a Gnostic leader of his time named Basilides, who claimed:

"He did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all," (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 24, Section 40).

The similarities are striking, and this is not the only example. The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of Gnostic documents that was preserved in a jar in Egypt from the 4th century AD.1 These documents contain a variety of references to this teaching. One, for example, has Jesus saying:

"I was not afflicted at all, yet I did not die in solid reality but in what appears, in order that I not be put to shame by them," (The Second Treatise of Great Seth).2

It then goes on to say

"Another, their father, was the one who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. Another was the one who lifted up the cross on his shoulder, who was Simon. Another was the one on whom they put the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the riches of the archons and the offspring of their error and their conceit, and I was laughing at their ignorance," (The Second Treatise of Great Seth).3

Another document from Nag Hammadi recounts:

"I saw him (Jesus) seemingly being seized by them. And I said 'What do I see, O Lord? That it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?' The Savior said to me, 'He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me.' But I, when I had looked, said 'Lord, no one is looking at you. Let us flee this place.' But he said to me, 'I have told you, 'Leave the blind alone!'. And you, see how they do not know what they are saying. For the son of their glory instead of my servant, they have put to shame.' And I saw someone about to approach us resembling him, even him who was laughing on the tree. And he was with a Holy Spirit, and he is the Savior. And there was a great, ineffable light around them, and the multitude of ineffable and invisible angels blessing them. And when I looked at him, the one who gives praise was revealed," (The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter)4

In this last version, the "substitute" seems perhaps to be Jesus' own physical body which He left behind before they crucified it while His true, spiritual self laughed invisibly outside the whole affair. This gets us to the crux of the matter. Obviously, the Muslim tempted to say these documents are the ones that preserve the real history of Jesus would not be doing themselves any favors. As can be seen even in a careful reading of the quotes above, these documents are arguing that Jesus was not crucified because he was not actually a physical being at all. He only appeared to be human and so he only appeared to be crucified. They believe He was a purely spiritual, supernatural being that could not suffer as a mere man of flesh does. Basilides, for example, explains elsewhere in the same passage quoted from above:

"But the father without birth and without name, perceiving that they would be destroyed, sent his own first-begotten Nous (he it is who is called Christ) to bestow deliverance on them that believe in him, from the power of those who made the world. He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death," (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 24, Section 40).

One of the Nag Hammadi documents likewise begins with Jesus professing:

"I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it previously, and I went in. And the whole multitude of the archons was disturbed. And all the physical matter of the archons along with the powers born of the earth began to tremble when it saw the likeness of the image, since it was mixed. and I was the one who was in it, not resembling the one who was in it previously. For he was a worldly man, but I, I am from above the heavens. I did not refuse them, on the one hand, and I became the Christ," (The Second Treatise of Great Seth).5

Even worse, these Gnostic documents claim that Adam, Abraham, David, and the prophets and patriarchs were "laughingstocks" and blindly deceived by a false god.6 For example it is stated:

"Moses was a laughingstock, a 'faithful servant,' being named 'the friend,'; they bore witness of him in iniquity since in fact he never knew Me. Neither he nor those before him, from Adam to Moses and John the Baptist, none of them knew me," (The Second Treatise of Great Seth).7

It then goes on to describe Jesus saying of the God who these prophets served and who created the physical universe:

"The Archon was a laughingstock because he said, 'I am God, and there is none greater than I. I alone am the Father, the Lord, and there is no other besides Me. I am a jealous God, bringing the sins of the fathers upon the children for three and four generations,' as though he had become stronger than I and My brethren," (The Second Treatise of Great Seth).8

Notice that not only is the Creator here slandered by the Gnostic Jesus, but the Gnostic Jesus regards himself as one of multiple deities that are greater than the God who created the world.

These Gnostic documents also root their knowledge of these "truths" in visions and secret mystical knowledge, claiming to be nothing less than divine revelation. The Muslim, like the Christian, must reject these documents as the late and non-historical myths that they are. These stories, which come well before the time of Muhammad, persisted on in gnostic texts long after his death. One gnostic document, for example, called the "Acts of John," was clearly still in circulation during and after the time of Muhammad as it was condemned by a church council in 787 AD.9 In fact, we have manuscripts of it from on into the Middle Ages. In this document, John is reported to have said while describing the time of the crucifixion:

"Even I, when I saw Him suffer, did not abide His passion but fled to the Mount of Olives, weeping over what had taken place. And when he had hung on the cross on Friday, at the sixth hour of the day, there came darkness over all the earth. And my Lord stood in the middle of the cave and lit it up, and said, 'John, to the multitude down below in Jerusalem I am being crucified, and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar is given me to drink. But to you I am speaking, and pay attention to what I say," (Acts of John, Chapter 97)10

Jesus goes on to use the symbol of a cross of light to teach John a variety of spiritual lessons. He then goes on to say:

"This, then, is the cross that has united all things by the Word, and marked off the transient and inferior, and then compacted all into one. But this is not the cross of wood which you will see when you go down here, neither am I he who is upon the cross," (Acts of John, Chapter 99)11

Chapter 101 of this same work continues with phrases like "Therefore I have suffered none of the things which they will say of me", "You hear that I have suffered, yet I have suffered not," and "(they say) that I was pierced, but I was not wounded; that I was hanged, but I was not hanged; that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow; and, in a word, those things that they say of me I did not endure."12

Plainly, there was a widespread, mythical notion that Jesus had not been crucified but was instead somehow made to appear so. In most versions, this was due to someone else being substituted in Jesus' place, though sometimes it was not so clear on this. Either way, he was preserved in heavenly glory. This story is rooted deeply in gnostic teachings that Jesus is a purely spiritual being that did not ever actually become human but merely inhabited the human realm for a time, and therefore could not actually die a human death. While obviously not embracing anything like the Gnostic theology behind the story, the Qur'an has included this legend as a fact.

There are two central doctrines of Islam at stake here. One, of course, is the teaching that Jesus was not crucified. This was obviously a story drawn from a non-historical Gnostic myth, and therefore is not true. The second implication has to do with the Qur'an itself. If the author of the Qur'an mistook such a myth for a historical fact, then the Qur'an clearly cannot be the word of God. An all-knowing God would know the origins of this story. An all-knowing God would know that the story was not only false but also rooted in a theology utterly antithetical to Islam. A mere man, however, hearing oral stories about Jesus in 6th-century Arabia would not easily be able to tell the difference between these stories and true, biblical stories of Jesus. The author of the Qur'an was not an all-knowing God but a mere man.

  • 1. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 19
  • 2. ibid, 84
  • 3. ibid, 84
  • 4. ibid, 80-81
  • 5. ibid, 84
  • 6. ibid, 86
  • 7. ibid, 86
  • 8. ibid, 86
  • 9. Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities (Oxford University Press, 2003) 42
  • 10. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2003) 106
  • 11. ibid, 107
  • 12. ibid, 107