Quran & History: Did Isa al Masih die on the cross?

We examine this question in detail, using the Black Stone’s disappearance from the Kaaba (in 318 AH) to illustrate this issue. 

Those who deny that Isa al Masih PBUH died on the cross usually reference Ayah An-Nisa 157.

That they (Jews) said in boast, “We killed Christ Isa al Masih the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah” – but they did not kill him, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no certain knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they did not kill him

Surah An-Nisa 4:157

Was Isa al Masih killed?

Notice this does not say that Isa al Masih did not die.  It says the Jews ‘did not kill him…’ which is different.  The Injil records the Jews arresting the Prophet, and Caiaphas the High Priest interrogating him but

Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.

John 18:28

Pilate was the Roman governor.  Being under Roman occupation, the Jews did not have authority to execute.  Pilate then gave the prophet to his Roman soldiers.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.

John 19:16

So the Roman government and the Roman soldiers were the ones who crucified him – not the Jews.  The accusation of the prophet’s disciples to the Jewish leaders was that

You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.

Acts 3:13

The Jews handed him over to the Romans and they crucified him.  After he died on the cross, his body was placed in a tomb

At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:41-42

An-Nisa 157 states that the Jews did not crucify Isa al Masih.  That is correct.  The Romans did. 

Surah Maryam and the death of the prophet

Surah Maryam clarifies whether Isa al Masih died or not.

“So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)”!

Such (was) Isa al Masih the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.

Surah Maryam 19:33-34

This clearly states that Isa al Masih foresaw and spoke of his coming death, as the Injil records.

The ‘Judas killed instead’ Theory

But there is a widespread theory that Judas was transformed to look like Isa al Masih. Then the Jews arrested Judas (who now looked like Isa), the Romans crucified Judas (still resembling Isa), and finally Judas was buried (still looking like Isa).  In this theory Isa al Masih went directly to heaven without dieing.  Though neither the Quran nor the Injil anywhere describes such an elaborate scheme, it is widely promoted.  So let’s examine this theory.

Isa al Masih in historical records

Secular history records several references to Isa al Masih and his death. Let’s look at two. The Roman historian Tacitus referenced Isa al Masih when recording how the Roman Emperor Nero persecuted the first followers of the prophet in AD 65. Tacitus wrote:

‘Nero.. punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also’

Tacitus. Annals XV. 44

Tacitus confirms that Isa al Masih was:

  • 1) a historical person;
  • 2) executed by Pontius Pilate;
  • 3) his followers began their movement in Judea (Jerusalem) after the death of the prophet Isa al Masih,
  • 4) by 65 AD (the time of Nero) they had spread from Judea to Rome so that the Roman Emperor felt he had to stop it.

Josephus was a Jewish military leader/historian writing about Jewish history in the first century.  In so doing he covered the life of Isa al Masih with these words:

‘At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive’

Josephus. 90 AD. Antiquities xviii. 33

Josephus confirms that:

  • 1) Isa al Masih existed,
  • 2) He was a religious teacher,
  • 3) Pilate the Roman governor executed him,
  • 4) His disciples publicly proclaimed the resurrection of Isa al Masih right afterwards. 

It seems from these historical records that the death of the prophet was a well-known, undisputed event, with his resurrection proclaimed to the Roman world by his disciples.

Historical Background – from the Bible

Here is how the book of Acts in the Bible records what happened when the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Isa al Masih in Jerusalem, at the Temple, a few weeks after his crucifixion

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is

“‘the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.’

12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”

Acts 4:1-17 

17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”

21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.

When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.

25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 5:17-41

Notice how the Jewish leaders took great effort to stop their message.  Like governments today who are afraid of new movements they arrested, threatened, beat and then finally killed (some) disciples to try to stop them.  These disciples proclaimed their message in Jerusalem – the same city where only a few weeks earlier someone with the appearance of Isa al Masih had been publicly executed and buried.  But who was executed? The prophet? Or Judas made to look like him?

Let us look at the alternatives and see what makes sense.

The body of Isa al Masih and the tomb

There are only two options regarding the tomb. Either the tomb was empty or it still contained a body that looked like the prophet.  There are no other options.

Let’s assume the theory that Judas was made to look like the prophet, had been crucified instead of him, and then his body (resembling the prophet) was placed in the tomb.  Now think about the next events that we know happened from history.  Josephus, Tacitus and Acts all tell us that the disciples began their messages in Jerusalem and the governing authorities there took strong action to oppose the disciples’ message shortly after the crucifixion (of Judas who looked like the prophet – since we are assuming this theory).  But this theory accepts that Judas stayed dead.  In this theory, the body remained in the tomb (but still transformed to look like the prophet).  The disciples, the government, Tacitus, Josephus – everyone – would mistakenly think the body was that of the prophet but it really was the dead body of Judas (looking like the prophet). 

This raises a question.  Why would the Roman and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem have to take such strong measures to stop stories of a resurrection if this body was still in the tomb, right beside the disciples’ public messages of the prophet’s rising from the dead?  If the body of Judas (looking like Isa al Masih) was still in the tomb it would have been a simple matter for the authorities to show this body to everyone and thus refute the disciples (who said he had risen) without having to imprison, torture and finally martyr them.  The reason they did not do so was because there was no body to show – the tomb was empty.

The Black Stone, Kaaba and the Mosques of Mecca and Medina as illustrations

In 930 CE (318 AH) the Black Stone (al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad) was stolen and removed from the Kaaba in Mecca by a Shiite group opposed to the Abbasid rulers of that time.  It was held for 23 years before returned to the Kaaba.  The Black Stone can go missing. 

Imagine a situation like that where a group publicly proclaims to the crowds at the Great Mosque of Mecca (al-Masjid al-Ḥarām) that the Black Stone is no longer in the Eastern corner of the Kaaba.  Their message is so convincing that the pilgrims at the Mosque start to believe that the Black Stone is gone.  How could the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques (Khādim al-Ḥaramayn aš-Šarīfayn) combat such a message?  If the message was false and the Black Stone was still in the Kaaba the best way for the Custodians to stop this message would be to show publicly that the Black Stone was still at the Kaaba as it has been for centuries.  Then this idea would be discredited instantly.  The nearness of the Black Stone to the Mosque in Mecca makes this possible.  Conversely, if the Custodians cannot show the Black Stone to refute this idea, then this show it really has gone missing as in 318 AH.

However, if this group is at the Prophetic Mosque in Medina (Al-Masjid an-Nabawī) announcing that the Black Stone has been removed from the Kaaba in Mecca (450 km away) then it is more difficult for the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques to disprove their story since it is harder to show people in Medina the Black Stone that is so far away.

The closeness of a sacred object to where the dispute about it is happening makes it easy to refute or verify claims about it since it is nearby to examine. 

Jewish Leaders opposed to the resurrection message did not refute it with a body

This principle applies to the body of Judas/Isa in Jerusalem.  The tomb where the apparent body of Judas (looking like Jesus) lay was only a short walk from the Temple where the disciples of Isa al Masih were shouting to the crowds that the prophet had risen from the dead.  It should have been easy for the Jewish leaders to discredit their resurrection message simply by showing the body (looking like Jesus) in the tomb.  It is a fact that the message of the resurrection (which is disproven with a body still in the tomb) began near the tomb itself, where the evidence could be seen by everyone.  Since the Jewish leaders did not refute their message by showing a body there was no body to show.

Thousands believed the resurrection message in Jerusalem

Thousands were converted to believe in the physical resurrection of Isa al Masih in Jerusalem at this time. If you had been one of those in the crowds listening to Peter, wondering if his message was true,  would you not have at least taken a lunch break to go to the tomb and take a look for yourself to see if there was still a body there?  If the body of Judas (looking like the prophet Isa al Masih) was still in the tomb no one would have believed the message of the apostles.  But history records that they gained thousands of followers starting in Jerusalem.  That would have been impossible with a body that looked like that of the prophet still around in Jerusalem.  Judas’ body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities. It does not make sense.

Judas body theory cannot explain the empty tomb.  

The problem with this theory of Judas being transformed to look like Isa al Masih and then being crucified and buried in his place, is that it ends with an occupied tomb.  But the empty tomb is the only explanation for the disciples being able to start, just weeks later on Pentecost, a movement based on the resurrection of the prophet in the same city as the execution. 

There were only two options, one with Judas’ body looking like the prophet remaining in the tomb, and the resurrection of Isa al Masih with an empty tomb.  Since the body remaining in the tomb leads to absurdities, then Isa al Masih must have died at the hands of the Romans and risen from the tomb as clearly stated, offering us his gift of life.

Further exploring this question, researcher Cumming reviews Sunni literature interpretations by clerics and scholars.

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