1. The Koran’s position on the death of Jesus:
The Koran clearly denies the 1st century death of Jesus on the cross. We read:
“And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger – they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise.” (4:157-58, Pickthall’s translation)
Keep this in mind as we move on to our next points. Also keep each point in mind until we see the catch 22 explained further down. For now, let’s look at the historicity of the death of Jesus.
2. The historicity of Jesus’ death and crucifixion:
As a fact of history Jesus’ death is a well-established fact. We find it all throughout our New Testament literature. All four independent canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) attest to this basic fact. Alongside the Gospel of Luke, we also find the crucifixion mentioned in the book of Acts. It is also mentioned in Q source, and we also find that Mark, our earliest Gospel, utilized a Pre-Markan passion narrative source about Jesus’ last week, and his crucifixion. Paul’s epistles are chockablock with references to Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Paul also knew Jesus’ brother and his closest disciple Peter who would have been familiar with these basic facts. There is also a creed in 1 Corinthians 15 that dates to within five years of Jesus’ death that tells us about his burial, among other important details. On top of our early Christian sources we find that the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius refers to Jesus’ crucifixion, and that he records this information independent of the New Testament writings (Antiquities 18:3). Cornelius Tacitus also corroborates what we have in our New Testament by also recording Jesus’ death (Annals 15.44). Our earliest non-New Testament Christian writings by the early Church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and Clement show knowledge that Jesus was crucified on a cross. Ignatius and Clement provide independent attestation. These three early church fathers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries had ties to the original apostles of Jesus, and their companions of whom testified to Jesus’ death. Serapion in a letter also tells us of Jesus death (although most scholars agree that his words “king of the Jews” refers to Jesus, it is not direct). Later sources also attest to Jesus’ death and crucifixion such as Lucian and the Jewish Talmud. As one leading scholar comments:
“Strange as it may sound, the most certain thing about the life of Jesus of Nazareth is his death. Even the Roman historian, Tacitus, writing in the early second century, observed that Christians received their name from “Christ who had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius” (Annals 15.44). The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, agreed, remarking that “when Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him” (Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64). Several hundred years later, the Jewish (Babylonian) Talmud reflected a garbled memory of the Jewish leaders’ involvement in Jesus’ death. It declared that Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover and that ‘for forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy'” (b. Sanhedrin 43a).” (Blomberg, Craig. ‘Passion Problems.’)
“In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. It is attested to by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and, thus, not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.”
-Mike Licona (‘Can We Be Certain that Jesus Died On A Cross? A Look at the Ancient Practice of Crucifixion’)
“Jesus death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”
-Gerd Ludemann (‘The Resurrection of Christ’)
So, on this very issue the Koran is mistaken. Historically Jesus really died via crucifixion, something the Koran tries to negate for theological, not historical, reasons. But there is another issue at play here for Islam as we shall see in point 3.
3. Jesus predicted his own death:
From the gospel narratives themselves, Jesus predicted his imminent death and resurrection multiple times as seen in Mark (8:31, 9:9, 9:30-31, 10:33-34, 10:45, 12:1-12 14:18-28), M (Sign of Jonah: Matt. 12:38-40), L (Prophet Cannot Die Outside of Jerusalem: Luke 13:32-33) John (2:18-22, 3:13-14; 8:28; 12:32-34), and possibly even within Q source. This is well established in multiple, and independent sources.
Furthermore, Jesus’ passion and resurrection predictions fulfill the criterion of embarrassment. We read that in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays as if wants to escape the inevitable event of his death (Mark 14:32-40; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46). On top of this there is the rather embarrassing portrayal of the disciples who do not understand Jesus’ passion predictions or simply did not believe him (Mark 8:31-33; 9:31-32; 14:27-31; Luke 24:11, 21). This, in turn, shows us that twice Jesus, and his disciples, are portrayed in a negative light. On this very issue the ancient historian Maier comments:
“If the story of Holy Week were a pious invention of writers who wanted to portray a superhero, this scene would never have been included.” (Maier, Paul. ‘On the Fullness of Time.’)
Subsequently, the criterion of plausibility also applies to Jesus’ prediction of his death. In other words his death comes as no surprise within Jesus’ Jewish context precisely because he had made enemies with the prominent Jewish leaders. Jesus also considered himself a prophet, hence he would naturally share the fate of a prophet with regards to the Jewish traditions describing martyrdom and vindication by God (2 Maccabees 7). This is likely since John the Baptist himself had been recently murdered for similar activities. Evans, arguably the world’s leading historical Jesus scholar, comments:
“In view of the evidence of the Gospels, which is clarified in important ways by the religious context in which Jesus lived and ministered, it is quite probable that Jesus at some point spoke of his violent death and tried to explain its significance.” (Evans, Craig. ‘Did Jesus Predict His Violent Death and Resurrection?’)
Lastly, Jesus’ favourite self-designation was that of the Son of Man, a title he applied to himself throughout his ministry. This title is widely attested to in Mark 2:10,28; 10:45; Matthew 13:37; in his suffering and resurrection (Mark 8:31;9:31;10:33); and in his eschatological function (Mark 8:38;13:26;14:62; Matthew 10:23;13:41;19:28:24:39;25:31). It is also additionally attested to in Q source, as Ben Witherington III illustrates:
“Almost all scholars, of whatever affiliation or persuasion are utterly convinced that Jesus used the phrase “Son of man” to refer to Himself. This phrase is found in all the source layers of the Gospels whether we think of distinctively Markan, Lukan, Matthean, or Johannine material, or even in the sayings source that Luke and Matthew seem to have both drawn upon. By the criteria of multiple attestations this phrase has the highest claims to have been spoken by Jesus of Himself and used frequently.” (‘Did Jesus Believe He Was the Son of Man?’)
What is particularly important here is that the “Son of Man” title appears in every Gospel layer and in multiple literary forms, and was never applied to Jesus by the later church. This is particularly important since many of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings involve his predictions of the death he would soon face. This gives us additional reason for accepting that he really predicted his imminent death since it is interlinked with his authentic self-title.
4. The Islamic catch 22 situation:
But now arises the issue for Islam. If Jesus actually predicted his violent and imminent death, which we have seen is historically certainly, and God rescued him from such a death, he is a false prophet. He is a false prophet because his predictions failed to come true. However, this would then contradict the Koran because it refers to Jesus as a true prophet (2:87, 136, 253; 3:45; 4:171; 5:75; 57:27; 61:6).
Furthermore, the only other option is that Jesus died a violent and imminent death as he had predicted. However, this would also contradict the Koran which asserts that he was rescued from death in the 1st century (4:157-58).
So, whichever way we have it the Koran gets it wrong. This is detrimental to the truth claims of Islam.