Monday, October 8, 2012

Reading the Quran: Encountering Jesus

In the checkout line at the supermarket yesterday, the bagger was a kid, likely a north African immigrant.   On his nametag was the name "Issa."  It was a familiar name, because I've been encountering it frequently in the Quran.

It's the name the Quran uses for Jesus of Nazareth.   Jesus is a regularly occurring feature of the Quran, popping up on and off throughout the suras.    As a Christian, I find the representation of him to be fascinating.  It blends the understanding of Jesus a Christian learns from the Gospels with some...well...different ways of looking at him.

Obviously, even though the Quran is not a short book, the point is not to talk about and present the life of Jesus.  It has other fish to fry.  Still, we get references to Jesus here and there.  There are 72 references (both direct and indirect) to be found in 59 verses of the Quran, and they tend to fall into several categories.

There are consistent statements of respect for Jesus as a man who genuinely articulates the will of God. The Quran offers only high praise for Jesus, pitching out all manner of superlatives.  He is given clear signs and filled with the Spirit of God (Al Baraqa, 87).   He is noble and among the righteous (Aal-e-Imran, 39).   He is the Messiah (Aal-e-Imran 45, An Nisa 157), which would a pretty impressive statement, were that term to mean the same thing Meschiach means.

So there's a baseline of honor and respect there, impressively so for a tradition that is in direct competition for pledge units.

But there are also some major differences.   Although Jesus appears throughout Quran, what does not appear is any reference to his teachings.  We hear that he taught rightly, and that he was a servant of Allah.   But there's not a peep about what he actually said when defining our relationship with God, or when describing the nature of the Kingdom.

What we get instead are several stories of miracles.  There's passing reference to a few generic healings.   Jesus takes a clay bird and makes it live.  After the disciples ask, Jesus orders angelic takeout, with a brimming table of food arriving from heaven.

We also get, in a fascinating verse, the intimation that Jesus did not die on the cross, but someone else who looked like Jesus died there instead, while Jesus remained alive and teaching.  (An Nisa 157)

These Jesus datapoints are particularly intriguing.  Why?  Because while they are not in any way representative of orthodox Christian faith and the narratives in the Gospels, they are familiar.  They are familiar because they occur in the non-canonical Gospels.  

The story of the clay bird, for example, is found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a pop-Gnostic bit of fanciful storytelling about Jesus as a young demigod.  This is Kid SuperJesus, who goes around his neighborhood randomly healing kids, bringing inanimate objects to life, and smiting those who disrespect him.  He raises them again, of course, just to show he can.

The "Jesus Didn't Die on the Cross" bit also draws from the Pseudo-Thomistic Gnostic tradition, as Jesus was understood among the Gnostics to have been a being of Spirit who could not suffer.   The Gospel of Thomas presents Jesus exactly that way.

What is clear so far in my reading is that both the Jesus and the Christianity described in the Quran bears little resemblance to orthodox Christianity.   What it resembles, quite frankly, is the Christianity that probably existed in and around Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries.   Far from the intellectual centers of the faith, Christianity there would have been a mess of different teachings, popular sayings, and wild stories about Jesus, passed along by a mostly illiterate laity and a semi-literate priestly/monastic class.  The complex, nuanced teachings by and about Jesus that define the heart of Christian faith would have been nowhere to be found.

So in the Quran we have a Jesus, but one without both 1) the Cross and 2) the ethical/moral/spiritual teaching.

That' different.

But what about that most central and challenging assertion of Christian faith?  How is Jesus connected to God?   Here, the Quran has something to say, but for that, I'll need another post.