“They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him”— A Qur’anic response to Jewish tradition on Jesus

Here is another interesting observation about how the Qurʾān responds to Jewish and Christian tradition. This time, I’ll be looking at the alleged killing of Jesus – and the subsequent ‘boast’ by the Jews which the Qurʾān so vehemently condemns in sūrah al-Nisāʾ, verse 157:

وَقَوْلِهِمْ إِنَّا قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ وَلَٰكِنْ شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ ۚ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِنْهُ ۚ مَا لَهُمْ بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلَّا اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ ۚ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا

And for their saying, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary!” They killed him not, and they did not crucify him — it appeared to them as if it were so. Indeed, those that differ over it are in doubt – They know nothing except the following of speculation. They assuredly did not kill him.”

This verse is interesting, particularly the line, “they killed him not, and they did not crucify him” (wa mā qatalūhu wa mā ṣalabūhu). Of course, anyone who is familiar with the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion may wonder about this apparent redundancy— The killing of Jesus is the same event as the crucifixion. So why does the verse treat them separately here?

One answer becomes obvious when we consider Jewish tradition on the matter. Peter Schafer, in his book “Jesus in the Talmud”, provides an interesting discussion on the manner in which Jesus was killed according to Jewish tradition. He notes the following:

It is clear for the authors of our Bavli narrative that Jesus was first stoned and then hanged. This is fully concurrent with the mishnaic Halakha. The same is true of the reason for his stoning and hanging: he was a sorcerer and enticed Israel into idolatry.(Schafer, p. 68)

The evidence for this found in Sanhedrin 43a (source text here; https://www.mechon-mamre.org/b/l/l4406.htm – translation from Schafer, p. 64):

  וכרוז יוצא לפניולפניו אין מעיקרא לא:  {והתניא בערב הפסח תלאוהו לישו הנוצרי והכרוז יוצא לפניו מיום קודם שהוא יוצא ליסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבא וילמד עליו ולא מצאו לו זכות ותלאוהו בערב הפסח

Translation by Schafer:

And a herald goes before him etc.: indeed before him, but not beforehand!

However, (in contradiction to this) it was taught (tanya): On (Sabbath eve and) the eve of Passover Jesus the Nazarene (Yeshu ha-noṣrī) was hanged (telaʾuhu). And a herald went forth before him 40 days (heralding): Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery (kishshef ) and instigated (hissit) and seduced (hiddiah) Israel (to idolatry). Whoever knows anything in his defense, may come and state it. But since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged him on (Sabbath eve and) the eve of Passover.

Here in the Talmid Bavli, the killing of Jesus (by stoning) and his subsequent ‘hanging’ (i.e. crucifixion) are separate events. Firstly, an announcer had to declare that Jesus was to be stoned – then the text gives the time of his hanging. Both the stoning to death and the crucifixion occurred according to the Rabbis — This is consistent with rabbinic law where blasphemers and idolators were to be stoned and then hanged (see relevant passages in Schafer, p. 66). Schafer (p. 67) also provides the biblical precedent:

Both R. Eliezer and the Sages, however, presuppose that “hanging” is a postmortem punishment (after the convicted criminal has been stoned to death), following the biblical instruction, which, after relating the stoning of the rebellious son, continues: “If someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed (namely by stoning), and you hang him on a tree” (Deut. 21:22, continuing with v. 23: “you must not leave his corpse on the tree”)

Thus, the Qurʾānic account is replying to this Jewish tradition with precision: The Jews say (qawlihim) that they have killed and crucified Jesus. The details of how the Jews had believed to have done so is in the Talmud: They first stoned him to death, then they crucified his corpse. Thus, the Qurʾān responds to this claim by denying both events in order of chronology— that firstly, ‘They did not kill him’ and secondly, ‘nor did they crucify him!’

Of course, this passage may still be read without the Talmudic background. Without presupposing any knowledge of Jewish tradition, one may read the Qurʾānic verses as a sort of emphatic denial: That is, the reason for mentioning both the ‘killing’ and ‘crucifying’ separately is for rhetorical effect, such as to say “you really did not kill him – you did not even come close”. However, given that the Qurʾān is responding to Jewish claims here, the interpretation that is supported by the Talmudic ‘intertext’ seems to make more sense, especially given that the Qurʾān typically dialogues with Jewish and Christian tradition in rather specific ways.

Bibliography

Jesus in the Talmud, by Peter Schafer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

9 thoughts on ““They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him”— A Qur’anic response to Jewish tradition on Jesus

    • Salam alaikum, your comment reminded me of surah Yasin (which according to some refers to disciples of Jesus pbuh) and the verse :
      قِيلَ ادْخُلِ الْجَنَّةَ ۖ قَالَ يَا لَيْتَ قَوْمِي يَعْلَمُونَ ﴿٢٦﴾ بِمَا غَفَرَ لِي رَبِّي وَجَعَلَنِي مِنَ الْمُكْرَمِينَ ﴿٢٧﴾

      Isn’t also “Luke” the author of the Book of Acts, where similar narrative to the one in Surah Yasin is found?

      Sorry I am new to these type of studies and English is not my native language so I apologise if this is not something new or if expressed myself incorrectly

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Assalamualaikum, I need help responding to the two verses below :

    In a Tablet, Guarded. (85:22)

    and

    In a Book well-guarded, (56:78)

    Is the Qur’an inscribed in the Preserved Tablet or Book?

    Like

  2. I wonder what you make of Ali Ataie’s theory that JC may have been crucified after all but that Allah took his soul before natural death on the cross set in, thus potentially even accommodating the resurrection? I find the latter part pretty neat, as it would shoe that the “historicity of the resurrection” would only amount to proof of Christianity in the absence of evidence for the truth of Islam!!

    Like

    • I’m not sure what to think about the theory. I was initially hesitant to the idea. At the moment, I’m neutral, I think it could go either way to be honest.

      Like

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