When sharing the gospel with Muslims, it is not uncommon to hear the objection: “Where did Jesus say, ‘I am God; worship me’?” This is because many Muslims have been trained (by Muslim apologists) to ask this question of Christians and demand that the answer must be in those exact words. Of course, this is an inconsistent and irrational demand. As, if we applied the same criteria, then we could ask them to show us in the Qur’an where it says that to become a Muslim you have to use the exact words of the shahada (1st pillar of Islam): “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Although both statements in the shahada are in the Qur’an (Surah 37:35 and 48:29), they are not found in those exact words in that order as a formula for someone to become a Muslim. Nevertheless, often when Christians do show Muslims that Jesus claimed to be divine, their response is to argue that the Gospels have been corrupted and therefore we cannot trust what they say about Jesus.1 This is a strange claim since the Qur’an does not teach that the Gospels have been corrupted, but rather commands Christians and Muslims to judge by what is written in the Gospels:
And let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed - then it is those who are the defiantly disobedient. (Surah 5:47)
There are numerous reasons to believe that the Gospels are reliable and that what we are now reading in them is what the apostles wrote down
The Qur’an also talks about the truthfulness of the Gospels (Surah 3:3–4). If the Gospels have been corrupted, then why would the Qur’an tell Christians to judge by them? Today, Muslim arguments against the reliability of the message of the Gospels are significantly more advanced than that of the Qur’an. If the Qur’an was written six hundred years after the writing of the Gospels, did Allah not know it was corrupted in 632 AD? How can Muslims living in the 21st century produce a better argument against the Gospels than the author of the Qur’an if the author of the Qur’an is believed to be Allah? This means that Muslims should not reject what the Gospels say about the identity of Jesus.2 Contrary to the claim of Muslims today, there are numerous reasons to believe that the Gospels are reliable and that what we are now reading in them is what the apostles wrote down:
- The four canonical Gospels are the earliest we have and the only ones that can be dated to the first century.
- The four canonical Gospels were written at a time when there were still eyewitnesses alive who had seen these things happen (written by the apostles or a companion who had access to the information – cf., Luke 1:1–4; John 21:24).
- The canonical Gospels were recognized as authoritative Scripture (cf., 1 Timothy 5:18) within the first century, and the testimony of the patristic authors (e.g., Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria) bears this out.3
Muslims may object to these reasons by stating, “You no longer have the original manuscripts!” But even though we do not have the original manuscripts, we do have the original text of Scripture, which is important as it is the text that is inspired and not the ink on the parchment. The original text can exist without the original manuscripts it can be preserved and rendered from the multitude of manuscripts we do have (through the process of textual criticism).4 If you want to know about the historical Jesus, then the places to look are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. God has preserved the text of the Gospels in such a way that we can have confidence that what we are reading is what was written by the original authors.
Did Jesus Claim to Be God?
It is clear that the gospel writers and the authors of the epistles believed Jesus was God (Matthew 1:23, 28:20; Luke 1:32, 2:11; John 1:1–3, 18; 1 Corinthians 2:8, 8:6; Colossians 1:16, 2:9; Hebrews 1:1–3; James 2:1; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Peter 1:1, 11). The question that we need to ask, however, is this: Did Jesus claim to be divine? By this, we do not mean that Jesus went around Israel saying: “Hi, I am Jesus, and I am God.” The reason Jesus did not do this is that he came to reveal the Father (cf., Matthew 11:27; John 1:18, 14:9), and, in a monotheistic culture (Mark 12:29), he would not want people to think that he was saying he was the Father. Another question that needs to be asked is, “What would represent a claim to being divine?” For Jesus to view himself as divine would be to attribute to himself words, actions, names, offices, and functions from the Old Testament that would be blasphemous if he were not truly divine.
It is important to realise that often in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), early on in his ministry, Jesus chose to show who he is rather than proclaim who he is.
It is important to realise that often in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), early on in his ministry, Jesus chose to show who he is rather than proclaim who he is. In other words, Jesus does the things that only God can do, which are implicit claims to his divinity, such as forgive sins (Mark 2:5–12; cf. Psalm 32:1–5, 103:2–3), claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27–28), have authority over creation in stilling a storm (Mark 4:35–41; cf. Psalm 65:7, 106:9), take control of the temple (Mark 11:15–19, 27–32), claim his ability to give rest to people who are heavy laden (Matthew 11:28), or even place himself as the “Son” alongside the Father (Mark 13:32).5 A clear example of Jesus choosing to show who he is rather than proclaiming who he is comes after John the Baptist was put into prison and his disciples came to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). The reason John’s disciples ask this question is that they, like many of their contemporary Jews, were expecting a royal, conquering Messiah and not someone who, in their eyes, had come to preach and work miracles. How did Jesus answer John’s disciples’ question? Did he just come out and say who he was? No, Jesus didn’t come out and give a simple answer to who he was, but he does it in an implicit way by telling John’s disciples that they would know who he is by the things that he was doing:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4–6).
The things that Jesus mentioned should have been evident to the disciples of John that the Messianic era was underway (see Isaiah 35:5–6; cf. 26:19, 61:1). Jesus answered this way to show who he was rather than explicitly state it.
It is in the last week of Jesus’ life where we see him make what is probably the most explicit claim of his own divinity, using texts from the Old Testament to show this.
It is in the last week of Jesus’ life where we see him make what is probably the most explicit claim of his own divinity, using texts from the Old Testament to show this. The gospel of Mark is seen by some critical scholars as presenting Jesus as an “idealized human figure,”6 but interestingly it begins and ends with a charge of blasphemy by the religious leaders against Jesus’ own claim of divinity (cf. Mark 2:7). After Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, he is brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin for examination to face the high priest along with the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes.7 The Jewish high priest asks Jesus the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61).8 The title “The Blessed One” was a common paraphrase for God.”9 It is Jesus’ reply to the high priest’s question that causes controversy:
“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death (Mark 14:62–64).
Why did the high priest tear his garment and the Sanhedrin condemn Jesus to death over what he said? Jesus’ reference to himself as being “seated at the right hand of Power” is most likely a reference to Psalm 110:1 where King David speaks about the Messiah in an exalted fashion calling him “Lord”:
“The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Jesus had argued previously, based on this Psalm, that the Messiah was greater than David (Mark 12:35–36). In order to appreciate the reaction of the Jewish leaders, we must keep in mind the court scene as the Sanhedrin believed it was their right to judge the claims of Jesus. However, to be seated at the right hand of the Lord was to take a position above David and wait while God justifies the one who has been wronged by his accusers. In other words, those who are judging Jesus will one day be judged by him. Other New Testament authors also take Psalm 110 to be speaking of Jesus who is not only greater than David but also than the angels (Acts 2:34; Hebrews 1:13). This shows that Jesus is not just a created being. Jesus’ claim to be “seated at the right hand of Power” is also an allusion to his resurrection from the dead. Jesus then quotes alongside Psalm 110 a text referring to “the Son of Man” who is “coming with the clouds of heaven.” There is no evidence at the time of Jesus that “the Son of Man” was used as a Messianic title.10 It seems Jesus “used the term publicly in reference to himself because it was sufficiently vague that he could fill it with his own meaning.”11 The title “the Son of Man” originates from Daniel’s night vision where he appears before the Ancient of Days:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13–14).
It is clear here that “Son of Man” is an exalted human figure who has divine characteristics.12 Importantly, the “Son of Man” is given a kingdom and all peoples, nations, and languages come and serve him. The Hebrew term for serve פְּלַח (pĕlaḥ) is used elsewhere in Daniel in the context of worship (Daniel 3:28, 7:27). What is interesting is that the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), translates the Hebrew word pĕlaḥ in Daniel 7:14 as λατρεύουσα (from λατρεύω - latreuo), which refers to the highest form of religious worship (see Matthew 4:10; Luke 1:74; Acts 24:14; Revelation 7:15). Jesus is saying he is the glorious figure in Daniel’s vision who is worthy of eternal worship. The religious leaders understand exactly what Jesus is saying in his use of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13–14, and that is why they cry “blasphemy”—because the claim to divinity brings with it the death penalty (see Leviticus 24:16). The irony of Jesus’ examination before the Jewish Sanhedrin is that the person whose testimony is responsible for his crucifixion is Jesus himself when he utters the words from Psalm 110 and Daniel 7. This contradicts another objection that Muslims have to Jesus being divine: “God would not allow himself to be beaten, mocked and die upon a cross.” The cross was not a surprise to Jesus as the Son of Man willingly came to give his life as a ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45).
After the deadly decision of the Sanhedrin, “some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received him with blows.” (Mark 14:65) Prophesy was seen as a gift given to the Messiah (Isaiah 11:2–4). It is ironic that Jesus being mocked, spat upon, as well as Peter denying him at that very moment were all evidence that his prophecies were already coming true (see Mark 10:33–34, cf. Mark 14:30, 66–72). The fact that Jesus’ prophecies came true is evidence that the prophecy of “the Son of Man . . . coming in the clouds of heaven” will also one day be fulfilled.
Muslims may ask the question, “How would people know that Jesus said these things since there were no disciples around at this examination before the Sanhedrin?” Well, there would have been witnesses present at the Jewish Sanhedrin, such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (Mark 15:43; John 19:38–39, cf. 3:1) who were members of this council and part of the early church. Therefore, these men would provide the valid eyewitness testimonies that were necessary. It is clear that in Mark 14:62 Jesus’ own words are testimony that he claimed not only to be God but that he is worthy of worship.