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:

Folly to the Hunafa'

After the Muslim Conquest of the 7th century, Middle Eastern Christians who had been quietly and consistently affirming the redemptive death of Jesus for six centuries were suddenly faced with an aggressive denial of their faith from their new overlords.

Muslims linked their denial of the death of Jesus to their understanding of Q4.157, but made other arguments from Islamic theology and anthropology. One scholar who has focused his research on Christian-Muslim controversy over this point is Mark Swanson, director of the Islamic Studies program at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mark titled his doctoral dissertation "Folly to the Hunafa'," because he found an early Arabic translation of 1 Corinthians 1:22-5 in which "hunafa'" is used to translate the Greek word translated as "Greeks" in English translations. Hunafa' is the plural of hanif; it comes from a Syriac word meaning "Gentiles" or "Greeks"; but in Islamic usage hanif quickly came to mean "Muslim."

In an article using the same title*, Mark describes three Christian responses to the Qur'anic denial of the crucifixion from the second half of the 8th century. I would like to focus his presentation of the arguments of the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy, mentioned briefly in last week's blog.

Timothy argued that the sequence of the verbs in both Q19.33 and 3.55 reflects the order of their occurrence, thereby affirming the Gospel witness of Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension. He also disputed the Caliph al-Mahdi's understanding of the mysterious phrase "shubbiha lahum" in Q4.157. It is entirely inappropriate for God to deceive people, Timothy argued, by showing one thing in place of another.

However, Timothy did not rest his case on the interpretation of the Qur'an alone. He offered prophecies of the crucifixion from many parts the Old Testament, including from two "Songs of the Servant" at Isaiah 50:6 and 53:5. And Mark finds that Timothy broke new ground in one part of his case: his stress on the freedom with which Jesus went to his crucifixion.

Jesus had the power to escape his captors, but by submitting to death he brought hope to humanity. The death of Jesus was "fitting," Timothy argued, because through the death and resurrection of Jesus people were given a tangible sign of the hope of eternal life. Without Jesus' death, no resurrection; without Jesus' resurrection, no hope. Therefore, asserted Timothy, "it was right first that his death--as also his resurrection--be witnessed by all."

Marks finds Timothy to be at the head of those Christian apologists who affirmed the reality of Christ's death on the cross from within the Muslim Empire. Interestingly, Mark suggests that Timothy's greatest contribution was not his argument against the Muslim denial from the Qur'an, but rather his indirect response of putting the death of Jesus at the very centre of the story of God's plan of salvation--for the Jew first, but also for the hunafa'!

*in "The Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam" (Leiden: Brill, 2006)