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NON-FICTION: THE ROOTS OF THE MESSIAH

Published Jun 18, 2017 07:23am
A depiction of James the Just — his followers espoused a ‘Jewish Christianity’ that is strongly resonant with Islam’s concept of Jesus | Wikimedia Commons
A depiction of James the Just — his followers espoused a ‘Jewish Christianity’ that is strongly resonant with Islam’s concept of Jesus | Wikimedia Commons

It is best to start by specifying what this book is not: it most certainly does not belong to the mini-industry out there dedicated to ‘debunking’ Christianity. This is, after all, the same man who penned the book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. There is no polemic or moralisation here, only a respectful and considered dialogue with history. In The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and journalist, asks three fundamental questions: first, is there a historical case for the Islamic understanding of Christ? Second, how does this case square up with the traditional Western conception? And, third, why does any of this matter to Muslims today?

This book is, therefore, a sophisticated attempt to explore a forgotten episode in Christian history. It reads like a cross between a scholarly investigation and a detective story; Akyol sifts through historical texts, archaeological evidence and scholarly literature to painstakingly draw forth a sensitive and compelling portrait of the most enigmatic of prophets, an alternative Christ — a wholly ‘Islamic’ Jesus.

Akyol describes how his interest was sparked several years ago when Christian missionaries in Istanbul handed him a copy of the New Testament. It was fascinating reading. At one point he started underlining — blue ink for passages that appealed to and inspired him, red ink for those that clashed with his own Islamic faith. And while he used quite a bit of blue in the gospels, the epistles — or letters — of Paul were largely marked in red.

An exploration of how ‘Jewish Christianity’ bypassed Roman Christianity to link with Islam

Paul’s theology can be quite jarring for Muslims reading the Bible for the first time, and Akyol struggled until he came to the Epistle of James. This particular letter was an eye-opener — not only was it a sea of uninterrupted blue, but there were passages that had a distinct Quranic resonance. Akyol shared the passages with some friends who were similarly struck: “Are you sure this is from the Christian Bible?” they asked. “James? Who is James?”

Akyol spent years following up on this burning question. According to the Bible, James the Just was Jesus’s own brother, head of the legendary Jerusalem church, and leader of Jesus’s original followers. Historians have since come to believe that James and his party espoused a ‘Jewish Christianity,’ which was radically different from, and later suppressed by, the apostle Paul’s ‘Roman Christianity.’

Historically, it is well known that Christianity was far from monolithic in those early days. Heresies were exceedingly common. There were innumerable gospels and sacred texts, and the most fundamental issues, cornerstones of the faith, concepts such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, even the crucifixion itself — everything was up in the air.

Jewish Christianity was advocated by several sects, the most visible being the Ebionites, the Nazareans and the Elkesaites. They had three main points of contention with Pauline Christianity: God was one and not three; Jesus was the Messiah and he was not divine; and salvation rested in faith and good deeds. This is exactly what Muslims hold to be true. Akyol provides vivid testimony about this movement from the historical record: prominent church fathers over the centuries describe the Ebionites disparagingly as wholesale Jews who acknowledged Jesus as the mortal Christ, venerated James and rejected Paul and his doctrines. Interestingly, they also upheld Jewish law (ie, they practiced circumcision, avoided pork and performed ritual ablutions before prayer, etc). This group possessed their own scripture, the Gospel of the Hebrews. Some of their surviving documents (such as the Didache and the Pseudo-Clementine writings) are very reminiscent of the Epistle of James and the Quran in that they focus on personal morality and not on ideology regarding Jesus.

So what happened to these people? Repudiated by their fellow Jews for celebrating Jesus and persecuted by the Pauline clan for not worshipping him, this community silently disappeared from history some time during the 5th century AD.

But then the plot thickens: the core tenets of this forgotten faith mysteriously re-emerge in 7th century Arabia in the teachings of Islam. Given that there is no evidence of Jewish-Christian communities or influences, Biblical scholars find this correspondence baffling. “Here is a paradox of world-historical proportions,” Akyol quotes religious historian Hans-Joachim Schoeps. “Jewish Christianity indeed disappeared within the Christian church, but was preserved in Islam.”

Things grow even more complex: these lost Jewish Christian ideas are at the very heart of this vibrant new faith. “From the Ebionite standpoint,” writes scholar Martiniano Pellegrino Roncaglia, “the dialectical movement that goes from Adam, Abraham and Moses up to Jesus then found in [Prophet] Muhammad [(PBUH)] its culmination, historically and theologically.” In short, these Ebionites might very well be the missing link, binding together Judaism, Christianity and Islam into a single, seamless continuity.

From our new vantage point, it is actually not surprising at all that the Quran accords Jesus and Mary (and Christians in general) the most profound esteem. Here we encounter another twist: the Quran recounts stories of Mary’s unwavering devotion to God, of Zechariah and John, of Jesus’s birth, his childhood and his miracles, and other stories that are foreign to the Bible and therefore have generally been dismissed by Biblical scholars. But Akyol walks us through a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries — from lost gospels to rock inscriptions and ancient churches — that corroborate and contextualise some of the Quranic accounts.

With claims so explosive, one may wonder why the entire field of scholarship itself has not been upended entirely. The reasons may be trivial — eminent theologian Hans Küng believes it is simply the unwillingness of scholars to address facts “inconvenient” to their worldviews.

Fascinating as this historical quest is, the most vital part of the book is arguably the last section where Akyol spells out why Jesus is indispensable today. The modern Muslim predicament, utterly dominated by the West, is remarkably similar to how Jews once contended with an all-powerful Roman empire. Jesus is, therefore, an ideal “prophetic example” for our situation. And therefore, Jesus’s key message, “Be better Jews!” holds special resonance.

This message is by no means an exhortation to puritanism — as Jesus himself constantly repeats, observance of the law divorced from spirit is a sure way to disaster. The teaching is nothing novel, but Jesus emphasised this point more vividly than any other rabbi or teacher before him, thereby triggering a veritable spiritual revolution that changed the world. What we Muslims suffer from most urgently today is not a lack of ritual or zeal, but simply, in the words of F.E. Peters, professor emeritus of Islamic studies at New York University, “a more individual, more internal, conscience-driven mentality.”

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the
Jews became a Prophet of the Muslims
By Mustafa Akyol
St. Martin’s Press, US
ISBN: 978-1250088697
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2017