Many fine scholars are currently publishing books and articles about Qur'anic Text and Commentary. This Fall and Winter I would like to describe some of the articles I am reading, and to focus particular issues for discussion. I invite you to interact with these articles as well, and to freely post your thoughts below each blog. If you wish to subscribe to these weblogs and access all archived weblobs, select the following RSS feed:

The Muslim Jesus: Dead or Alive?

The lead article in the latest Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies is by Gabriel Said Reynolds, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Notre Dame University. Gabriel addresses the controversy surrounding the Qur'anic verses related to the death of Jesus. He provocatively titles his article "The Muslim Jesus: Dead or alive?"

Many things in this interesting article are worth describing. Gabriel provides strong background on both the Qur'anic material and the interpretation of this material by classical Muslim commentators. His comments on the verb 'tawaffa' (at 3.55) and its interpretation are helpful. He shows how the Muslim interpretive tradition narrated many contradictory "haggadic" tales about how someone was transformed to look like Jesus and died in his place. I will focus what I understand to be Gabriel's central argument.

Gabriel writes something which will be very familiar to students of the Gospel: if you want to understand the Qur'anic text of 4.157, you need to look at the Qur'anic context. The context is a series of examples of "Israelite infidelity," including worshipping the golden calf and slandering Mary, which need to be read as a single "pericope" (4.153-159). Gabriel argues that if approached in this way, 4.157 will be seen as "a carefully measured example intended to illustrate two themes": Jewish perfidy, and divine control over life and death.

These are also Gospel themes, Gabriel continues. "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," meant for early Christians that Jesus had triumphed over the evil intentions of the Jews who had schemed against him. Gabriel finds the Qur'an "in conversation" with the Gospel about the death of Jesus. There is no reason to understand from the Qur'an alone that Jesus did not die, Gabriel concludes. "The Jews boast of killing Jesus when the event was in fact determined by God (Q 4.157), who raised Jesus in triumph (Q 4.158)." (p. 256).

Try to get a copy of the entire article (BSOAS 72/2 (2009), 237-258). Do you agree with Gabriel's argument that the Qur'an can be shown to "mean" that Jesus died? To what extent can we say that we know what the Qur'an "means" apart from commentary?

One more question: If the Qur'an alone does not deny the death of Jesus, what motivated the classical Muslim exegetes to interpret 4.157 as a denial of his death? Gabriel suggests that Muslim exegetes wanted to align with Muslim traditions about the role of Jesus in End-time events. These eschatological traditions were useful to them for anti-Christian polemic. What do you think?

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