The Quran claims that Jesus is a prophet, much-beloved by God. According to the Quran, which mentions him more often than it does the prophet Muhammad, “Isa” was a prophet, was the messiah, performed miraculous healings, is filled with the Holy Spirit, is alive in heaven now, and will come again in the end times. Muslims say he will come again during the end-times battle between Islam’s mahdi (“the rightly guided one”) and the Antichrist, whom Isa will slay. After he kills the Antichrist, as a Muslim, all the “People of the Book” (Jews, Christians, and Sabians) will come to Islam.
None of those are claims are subject to independent historical analysis. The one claim the Quran makes that is subject to independent historical inquiry is that Jesus was not crucified, and that he did not die on the cross.
“That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, 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 killed him not:-
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself”
Wikipedia has a good description from the Encyclopaedia of Islam of why this must be in Islam:
“The denial …] is in perfect agreement with the logic of the Quran. The Biblical stories reproduced in it (e.g., Job, Moses, Joseph etc.) and the episodes relating to the history of the beginning of Islam demonstrate that it is ‘God’s practice’ (sunnat Allah) to make faith triumph finally over the forces of evil and adversity. “So truly with hardship comes ease”, (XCIV, 5, 6). For Jesus to die on the cross would have meant the triumph of his executioners; but the Quran asserts that they undoubtedly failed: “Assuredly God will defend those who believe”; (XXII, 49). He confounds the plots of the enemies of Christ (III, 54).”
This notion in Islam that “God must conquer” is critical.
However, outside the Bible, writers attest to the death of Jesus
In 93 AD, Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian wrote:
“About this time there was Jesus, a wise man, [if indeed one ought to call him a man]. For he was one who performed surprising works, and) a teacher of people who with pleasure received the unusual. He stirred up both many Jews and also many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, since he was accused by the first-rate men among us, those who had been loving (him from) the first did not cease (to cause trouble), [for he appeared to them on the third day, having life again, as the prophets of God had foretold these and countless other marvelous things about him]. And until now the tribe of Christians, so named from him, is not (yet?) extinct.”
Most scholars believe that the text in bold is an interpolation by Christian scribes from a later date. They don’t doubt that “Pilate condemned him to the cross.”
We know that Pilate was a vicious, mediocre tyrant of a Roman administrator, serving 10 years when most provincial governors would serve 2-3 years before returning in honor to Rome. Pilate got stuck in the backwater of Palestine, and seemed to take out his frustration on his charges. The Jewish writer Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, wrote that when peaceful protestors came to protest his actions, he responded with force.
Given historical corroboration from non-Christian sources, we can be pretty sure that Jesus was executed on a cross.
To this evidence, a Muslim has an easy reply: they can say that God made a lookalike of Jesus, which is why everyone around him thought he actually died. This response fails for several reasons. It seems very much like what I try to avoid in all of my life: using faith to wash away reason. In reality there are no contradictions, and it seems like for Muslims, the contradiction of the death of Christ was solved through an assertion that he didn’t really die.
That takes me to the main reason why the argument fails: every piece of historical documentation available from the 1st-2nd century, including every book of the New Testament outside the Gospels.
First, if Jesus didn’t die and was taken up to heaven instead, why is there a total lack of that occurrence in any early Christian writing? The very earliest Christian writings, the epistles of Paul (who some Muslims say corrupted the Islam preached by Jesus and produced the modern Christianity). They date to roughly 48-60 AD. Without resorting to any theological claim whatsoever, we have Paul in Galatians 1 saying that after his “experience,” he went “to Arabia” and then to Damascus. After 3 years he says he went to Jerusalem to consult with Cephas for 15 days, where he also saw James “the brother of the Lord.” He then says that he spent 14 years preaching in Syria, after which he went back to Jerusalem for a meeting with other Christians. The dating from this documentation is pretty interesting. Galatians was written between 48 AD (N.T. Wright) and 55 AD (New American Bible). If you subtract the 14 years of Paul preaching between his visits to Jerusalem from that date range, he was in Jerusalem the first time between 34-41 AD. Pontius Pilate ruled in Palestine from 26-36 AD. Most scholars think the crucifixion of “someone looking like Jesus” took place around 33 AD (oddly enough, the same year that geological records attest to an earthquake on the actual day of Passover, and that astronomical records suggest was the time of a partial lunar eclipse on the same day). If we take the dating of Paul’s first meeting with Peter in Jerusalem as 44-41 AD, we can point to the time in which a Muslim might allege that Paul corrupted the Islam preached by Jesus, and invented the story of the Resurrection. However, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Namely, Paul speaks almost nothing about the life of Jesus. The Gospels, written 1-4 decades after Paul wrote his letters, barely speak of the message of atonement on which Paul spends much time. The Gospel of John discusses salvation through belief in Christ, but in a totally different way from Paul. If Paul set the whole agenda for Christianity, as Muslims allege, why is there so little mention of atonement and Paul’s theology in the Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke? Not to mention Paul’s talk about an argument he had with Peter (Galatians 2), and in 2 Peter 3:16, Paul’s letters are described as “hard to understand.” Lastly, the Gospels are embarrassingly inconsistent at times in describing the life of Jesus. As just one example, in Mattew, Mark and Luke, Jesus only goes to Jerusalem in his last days. However, in John, he spends the bulk of his ministry in Jerusalem. If “Christianity” was an invention of Christians, why isn’t there more agreement about what actually happened in Jesus life?
Second, if Jesus was proclaiming Islam, his second coming to fight a battle against the Antichrist, why did Christians go out of their way to avoid military conflict? There’s good evidence that the Christians in Jerusalem left the city prior to 66 AD, when Jewish nationalists occupied the city. The Christians there fled to Pella, on the far side of the Jordan River. Later, another man claimed to be a Jewish messiah, Simon bar Kokhba (“son of a star”)? Bar Kokhba set up a kingdom in Roman Palestine. Archaeologists have found coins his kingdom minted, proclaiming “Year 1”, “Year 2,” and “Year 3.” Year 4 didn’t get made because the Romans crushed the rebellion. But this illustrates the kind of messiah that “Second Temple” Jews who rejected Jesus envisioned: a physical messiah who would establish a Jewish kingdom, as David and Solomon did a thousand years earlier, and as Judas Maccabeus had just 200 years previously. Yet nowhere in any historical record do we have evidence of the Christians taking up arms to bring the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke into reality. Instead, they lived a relatively quiet life, and the earliest historical records suggest that, other than their refusal to worship Roman gods, they were not troubling to the Roman authorities. I won’t go into the Biblical details here, but the first Christians already believed that Jesus was king, though of a different sort.
Third, from a strictly political perspective, it was monumentally stupid for early Christians to go around proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” or to say that he was the son of God for one simple reason: Jews were recognized as a protected religious minority in the Roman empire, and early Christians’ split from Judaism resulted in their immediate persecution. Roman emperors increasingly styled themselves as gods, and even sons of the Divine. The emperor during the crucifixion of Jesus was Tiberius, and pennies minted during his reign bore the inscription, "Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” (though it’s unclear if they were in Palestine, they were well-known to early Christians elsewhere). Furthermore, Roman emperors didn’t use the title “Lord” during the first century, because that language was viewed in the early imperial period as contrasting them with the era of the Roman Republic. It was politically dangerous to say that Jesus is Lord Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus was not just political suicide, it was almost physical suicide in many places. Yet for some reason, they continued to separate themselves from Second Temple Judaism and got persecuted in the process.
In conclusion, the notion that Jesus did not die is contradicted by non-Christian witness, political realism, and good sense. Don’t let a Muslim convince you otherwise!
Also see this post.