Copyright © 1996 by M. Anderson. All rights reserved.
In this fourth part of our book we investigate the controversial subject of Jesus' exit from this earth to be with God. It is a subject which has generated much heat and discussion, not only between Muslims and Christians, but also amongst Muslims themselves across the centuries.
The question is: 'Was Jesus lifted up, body and spirit to be with God, without experiencing death on the over or was he crucified, dead, then raised from the dead and lifted up?'
Here we deal with that old question, firstly by looking at the material presented by commentators of the Qur'an, tracing the thoughts of those of early times through to the present day; and secondly, by examining the contribution some modern thinkers have made on the subject.
Before we begin, however, we must remember that it is the Truth we seek to know, and not merely the traditions handed down by our forefathers. The truth is never afraid of testing, nor does it shy away from scrutiny. The Qur'an states:
2. 'He said: "Isa (Jesus), I am about to cause you to die and lift you up to me. I shall take you away from the unbelievers and exalt your followers above them till the Day of the Resurrection."'  (N.J. Dawood) 'When God said, "Isa, I will take thee to me, and will raise thee to me, and I will purify thee of those who believe not. I will set thy followers above the unbelievers till the resurrection day.'"  (A.J. Arburry)
3. 'They declared: "We have put to death the Messiah Isa son of Mary, the apostle of Allah." They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did. Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning his death, for what they knew about it was sheer conjecture, they were not sure that they had slain him. Allah lifted him up to His presence; He is mighty and wise.'  (N.J. Dawood)
'And for their saying, "We slew the Messiah, Isa son of Mary, the messenger of God"- yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him; only a likeness of that was shown to them. And those who are at variance concerning him are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise; and they slew him not of a certainty - no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is All-mighty and Wise.'  (A.J. Arburry)
4. 'And when God said, 'O Isa son of Mary, didst thou say unto men "take me and my mother as gods, apart from God?". He said "To Thee be Glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to ...I was a witness over them, while I remained among them, but when thou didst take me to Thyself, Thou wast Thyself the watcher over them, Thou Thyself art witness of everything."'  (A.J. Arburry). Dawood's translation is substantially the same.
Tabari records two kinds of reports about what is believed to have happened to Jesus. We will cite the samples that typify each kind, then survey Tabari's analysis of them. Later on we will survey the subsequent interpretations of the Qur'anic passages by other commentators.
Tabari gives the following report which seems to be the earliest report on the belief that someone else was substituted for Jesus and so was killed instead of Jesus.
According to one group of traditions, as a result of Jesus' request for a substitute to be killed in his place, only one person had the likeness of Jesus cast upon him. Tabari records six traditions with this particular feature, of which this is a representative example :
In another tradition all the disciples were turned to the likeness of Jesus. There is only one report with this particular feature.
Tabari relates; on the authority of a Jewish convert called Wahb, the following story:
THE SECOND KIND OF REPORT
Here is the only sample of the second kind of Tabari's reports. This version differs in many ways from the others, the essential difference being that in this one, Jesus does not ask for a volunteer to take his place and so die instead of him, but God cast the likeness of Jesus on some unspecified person. This report is also related on the authority of the same man called Wahb.
But when the disciples stood up to pray, they were overcome by sleep, so they were unable to pray. He began to rouse them, but they were too sleepy ... Then Jesus said, 'The shepherd will be taken away and the sheep will be scattered'. He continued, 'In truth, I say to you, one of you will deny Me three times before the cock crows. And another will sell Me for a few pieces of silver and consume My price'.
After this they left Him and went out, each going his own way. The Jews then came seeking Him, and they seized Sham'un , saying, 'He is one of his companions', but he denied, saying, 'I am not his companion'. Others also seized him and he likewise denied. Then he heard the crowing of a cock, and he wept bitterly.
The next morning, one of His disciples went to the Jews and said, 'What will you give me if I lead you to the Christ?' They gave him thirty pieces of silver, which he took and led them to Him. Before that, however, they became under an illusion [or an apparition appeared to them or they imagined it]. Thus they took Him after ascertaining that it was He, and tied Him with a rope. They dragged Him, saying, 'You raised the dead and cast out Satan, and healed those who were demon possessed, can you not save yourself from this rope?' They also spat on Him and placed thorns upon His head. Then they brought Him to the wood on which they wanted to crucify Him. God, however, took Him up to Himself and they crucified the man who seemed to them to be Jesus.
Then Jesus remained seven days. Then His mother and the woman whom Jesus cured from madness came to weep in the place where the crucified one was. Jesus came to them and said, 'For whom do you weep?' They answered, 'For you' He said, 'God had taken Me up to Himself and no harm befell Me. For this is a thing which only appeared to them. Go now and tell the disciples to meet Me at such and such a place' So eleven disciples went and met Him, but the one who sold Him and led the Jews to Him was missing. Jesus asked His companions about Him and they said, 'He regretted what he did, so he hanged and killed himself.' Jesus said, 'Had he repented, God surely would have pardoned him.' 
Tabari found a problem with all versions of these reports because they included this request, since it would have made the disciples fully aware of what actually happened.  And that, according to Tabari's understanding of the Qur'anic verse (Q. 4:157,158), would make the followers of Jesus certain of what actually happened, not uncertain and confused, following conjecture, as the Qur'anic verse states. The request of Jesus for a volunteer (according to Tabari's understanding of that verse) contradicts the Qur'an.
Tabari believed that neither the disciples nor the Jews knew what actually happened. The disciples of Jesus sincerely believed that Jesus was crucified, and so were not lying. They simply reported what they saw with their eyes, but their eyes deceived them. What they saw was not in reality Jesus dying on the cross. From that time on all the followers of Jesus did not know what actually happened to him, until the time of the Qur'an, when the true story was revealed.
Here, the problem is stated in Tabari's words:
In the second version, where all the disciples had the likeness of Jesus cast upon them, there is an atmosphere of confusion. In this case, everywhere the disciples looked they saw the likeness of Jesus. But the problem of Jesus' request for a volunteer to take his place still remains. Although all had the likeness of Jesus, yet they knew the one who volunteered was the one then killed. This version also would leave only the Jews confused about the true identity of the crucified one, and not the disciples of Jesus. Again, that is contrary to the belief that both the Jews and the disciples did not know what actually happened. For both the Jews and the followers of Jesus say that Jesus was crucified.
It is not only that the above versions pose this problem but it could be argued they also make one of the disciples to be a liar, with the consent of Jesus, for he claimed to be Jesus when he was not.
These stories then have problems. Tabari, however, prefers the two reports given on the authority of Wahb. He prefers the report in which all the disciples were changed to look like Jesus, but with the provision that Jesus' request for a substitute be omitted altogether from the report. 
The alternative acceptable report also given on the authority of Wahb, has Jesus betrayed by one of his disciples. In this report, Jesus does not ask for a substitute to take his place:
Tabari's finding then is this: Jesus did not ask for a volunteer, but somehow the likeness of Jesus was cast on someone who then died on the cross instead of Jesus.
TABARI'S THEORY CHALLENGED
Tabari's theory has been challenged, for without Jesus' request for a volunteer to die on the cross instead of him, God is presented as an unjust God who made an innocent man to suffer for another against his will. Here is what Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub had to say concerning this problem:
So we are back to square one, with a theory retaining the inherent problem of Jesus' request for a volunteer, that was rejected by Tabari. If that substitute voluntarily accepted death in place of Jesus, then we have the inescapable objection which was rightfully and logically raised by Tabari. How can the disciples be confused, having heard the request of Jesus and the answer of his disciple, and having witnessed the transforming of that disciple into the likeness of Jesus?  This being contrary to the Qur'an 4:158.
If, however, we accept Tabari's theory, that would make God to be unjust; for He cast the likeness of Jesus on someone against his will, causing one that was innocent to be killed. This substitution theory, contradicts the Qur'an as well as the character of God!
After Tabari the substitution theory was not totally rejected, but took a new form. In this new form, God is completely clear of the charge of injustice.
Some versions of this theory go like this:
In this version Jesus did not ask for a volunteer, and the one who was killed and crucified was not an innocent man, so he deserved to be killed. In this report neither the Jews nor the disciples knew what actually happened. Indeed they were confused, for the face was that of Jesus but the body was that of Titanus. Here Tabari's lost link is found, and his objection is answered. Also, God is not portrayed as unjust.
This report was related on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas, who was one of the very early companions of the Prophet (he was four years old when the Prophet died). So that tradition must have been known to Tabari. One wonders why, then, Tabari did not use this report. It would have been a perfect one for his understanding of Q. 4:157,158. Indeed this report does not appear at all in Tabari's collection of the reports he mentions in his commentary!
Razi, after surveying all the forms of the substitution theory, said, 'These forms (of the substitution theory) are contradictory and conflicting and God knows the truth of the matter.'  But this contradictory nature did not cause Razi to reject the substitution theory totally, for he understood the Qur'anic verse, 'They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did'  to mean that God did cast the likeness of Jesus upon someone, who was killed instead of Jesus.  Razi, however, admits there are six problems with the theory of substitution.
1. Razi asked the question, 'If it can be claimed that the likeness of one man could be cast on another, this would open the gate of sophistry. For if we see Zayd, maybe he is not Zayd, but it is the likeness of Zayd that was cast on another. Then no marriage or ownership rights could be ascertained. Further, this would lead to doubt concerning historically transmitted reports. This historical transmission provides a sure source of knowledge... If, however, we allow the possibility of the occurrence of such confusion of identity, this would lead to doubt concerning the historically transmitted reports and in turn this would finally lead people to doubt all sacred laws... 'In sum, the opening of such a gate of sophistry necessitates doubting the truthfulness of historical reports, and this in turn leads to doubt in fundamentals, and that leads to doubting the prophethood of all prophets. This is a path leading to doubt in fundamentals, and must therefore be rejected.' 
2. Since 'the Most High God commanded Gabriel to accompany Jesus in most circumstances (for that is what the commentators said of His words 'I confirmed you with the Holy Spirit'), and since the tip of one of the wings of Gabriel is sufficient to destroy the whole world, how then is it that Gabriel was unable to protect him from the Jews? Besides he [Jesus] himself was able to raise the dead and heal the blind and the leper. How is it that he could not destroy those Jews who intended to harm him...?' 
3. If 'God, the Most High, was able to save him from his enemies by lifting him up to Himself, what was the advantage of casting the likeness of Jesus on another, except the charge that the innocent substitute died to no real gain for himself?'
4. 'If the likeness of Jesus was cast on some one else and Jesus was lifted up to heaven, leaving people to believe that the crucified was Jesus when he was not; that amounts to forcing ignorance and deception on people. And that is not worthy of God's wisdom.'
5. 'The Christians in masses, east and west, in spite of their strong love for Jesus, and their exaggeration concerning him, reported that they saw him dying on the cross. If we deny their report, that would be doubting the historically transmitted reports, and such doubt necessitates doubt in the prophethood of Mohammad, and the prophethood of Jesus, even their existence, and the existence of all the prophets.'
6. 'It is historically transmitted that the crucified remained alive for quite a while on the cross, if he was not Jesus he must have expressed his own agony, and said 'I am not Jesus but I am someone else'. He also must have tried very hard to convince people of his case. But since nothing like that was reported, it follows then that the claim of a substitute is not true.' 
The important point drawn from Razi's writings is this: Once we doubt that Zayd is Zayd, but suspect that Zayd might be someone else, what guarantee is there that Jesus was Jesus or Mohammad was Mohammad? And what guarantee is there now that what they said is truly what they said? If divine knowledge or anything is to be reliable, such confusion cannot be admitted, for then how can we be certain of anything at all?
Dr. Ayoub gives a more detailed account of the above story: 'The Jews sought to kill Jesus, but God took him up to Himself. They therefore took another whom they crucified on a high and isolated hill, allowing no one to come near him until his features had changed beyond recognition. They were thus able to conceal the fact of Jesus' Ascension, which they witnessed, and to spread false reports of his death and crucifixion.'  (Emphasis added)
The main idea behind the above story is to remove the problem that God is the author of this deception and the cause of this confusion of identity, because 'for God to allow such confusion of identity for whatever reason would be too irrational and therefore inadmissible.' 
In this solution, it is not God who is the author of this confusion of identity, but the Jews. God is not portrayed here as a deceiver but as helpless against the scheming of the Jews. For the Jews win and God loses control. His purpose has been defeated. For the Jews have managed to conceal the fact of Jesus' Ascension, which is a mighty work of God. The Jews managed to make it void as if God did not do it. In the above solution while God's justice and rationality are met, as far as those who hold this view are concerned, God's purpose in the Ascension of Jesus, is thwarted and the Jews are seen as outsmarting God. This theory makes a mockery of God's sovereignty and greatness. The earliest form of substitution was based on divine deception, but this one is based on human deception which turns the power of God to naught.
Furthermore, according to the above story, if the Jews were eye witnesses of the Ascension, were the disciples also eye witnesses? Would God reveal the Ascension to the unbelieving Jews and hide it from the faithful band of the followers of Jesus, and leave them in darkness, ignorance and grief? And if they were eye witnesses, then the disciples could have told everyone that the crucified one was not Jesus but that it was a lie, and that Jesus was lifted up to be with God.
If this theory were true then the Jews have also succeeded in misleading the followers of Jesus, and thus thwarted God's purpose. These disciples believed in him and the Qur'an called them 'Shuhoud', that is 'eye witnesses' when it said of them: 'Count us amongst the witnesses' 
Razi himself, commenting on the description of the disciples as witnesses said, 'The request of the disciples to be counted amongst the witnesses was answered, and God made them prophets and apostles.' 
Could those disciples whom God made prophets and apostles be so cut off from God that they knew neither what actually happened to Jesus, nor that the Jews were only lying concerning the crucified one?
Razi also said that 'since the disciples were described as witnesses, their testimony was associated with God's mention, and this is a high degree and a great rank.'  If those whose mention is placed along side God's witness were deceived by the Jews, that would make a mockery of the testimony of God to the disciples of Jesus. Besides God could have easily revealed to those disciples of Jesus that he was not crucified, and that the Jews were only telling a lie. Such a theory would run contrary to the purpose of God in establishing His truth, and contrary to the nature of God, who miraculously lifted Jesus up but could do nothing for his followers. If the substitution theory makes a mockery of divine justice this theory would make mockery of God's covenant with the faithful band that followed Jesus.
After so many modifications to the substitution theory, Dr. Ayoub had this to say about the Gospel of Barnabas:
In other words it is most probably a forged work, written under Islamic influence. Because of that influence the author took an obvious Islamic position on many crucial points in the debate between Christians and Muslims. This gospel also contradicts the Qur'an in that it calls Mohammad the 'Christ'. Nowhere in the Qur'an do we find that Mohammad is called the Christ, rather it is Jesus Son of Mary who is called the Christ.
The Gospel of Barnabas, then, teaches a version of the old substitution theory, with Judas as the one who was crucified. But the earliest reports tell us that Judas committed suicide, so the Gospel of Barnabas contradicts the earliest reports collected by Tabari.
Thus we have come back full circle back to the earliest interpretation of the words 'shubbiha lahum' as meaning 'another took his likeness and was substituted for him'. Once more we are back to square one!
Traditional commentators like Sayed Qutb clung to the Gospel of Barnabas as their evidence for the substitution theory, while modern thinkers shy away from it.
So the latest interpretations of the Qur'anic verses on the subject fall into two groups. One group insists on the substitution theory, like that of Sayed Qotb , while others, mainly modern thinkers, refuse the substitution theory totally.
Modern thinkers are aware of the embarrassment caused by this confusion. Here is what Dr. Kamel Hussein had to say:
Dr. Hussein rejects the substitution theory. It so lacked simplicity and the ring of truth that it had to be modified repeatedly to cover all the holes. It is a crude way of explaining the Qur'anic text; the idea of a substitute is not well thought out. Even after almost one thousand years of modifications, thinkers still discard it as a backward thing that belongs to the uncultured, and hopefully to the past. It is an insult to the intelligence of the thinking man.
Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub also said:
The theory of substitution in any form is rooted in and based on divine deception, whether the deception of Jesus' disciples or the deception of the Jews. If it involves the deception of the disciples, then it turns the Merciful God into a monster (God forbid), for how can God deceive the disciples of Jesus, the faithful band that believed His messenger, and after them the followers of Jesus generation after generation? And if it involves the deception of the Jews, that also does not fit the character of God; nor does it confound the arrogance of the Jews, for they still believe that they killed Jesus, and boast about it. What the Jews needed, was to be shown without a shadow of a doubt that they had no power over Jesus.
And if some say that the Jews did see Jesus ascending to heaven, but the disciples did not (hence the report of the Christians that Jesus was crucified) then this amounts to saying that God allowed the infidel Jews to see the Ascension, but the faithful followers were denied this sight and were left in darkness and despair. If this was so, what sort of message would those Hawariyun (the disciples of Jesus) have had for the world, if all they had to say was that Jesus was only crucified and did not ascend? If they claimed he ascended, yet did not see him ascending they would have been the greatest liars in the history of mankind.
How could the prophet to whom God gave the clearest evidence, confuse his disciples and his followers?
The Gospel of Barnabas tells us that although Jesus appeared to the disciples after his Ascension, they all dispersed into the different parts of the world, and kept silent about the true story, which they knew very well. Only the supposed Barnabas had the courage to write the true story and the world had to wait for sixteen centuries after the event to know what actually happened. Is this the way God reveals His truth?
The historically transmitted reports by the followers of Jesus are well known all over the world, as Razi observed: 'The Christians in their masses, east and west, in spite of their strong love for Jesus, and their exaggeration concerning him, reported that they saw him dying on the cross.'
This must have been what the disciples of Jesus taught as they spread east and west.
The substitution theory insults and mocks both man and God, and therefore must be rejected.
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