After the deity of Jesus, the crucifixion is perhaps the most contested issue about the life of Jesus between Christians and Muslims. One of the most common arguments put forward in support of the crucifixion is that it is a divinely ordained sacrifice foretold in the Old Testament over a thousand years before Jesus.
In this article we are going to analyze the most popular prophecy used by Christians to propagate this idea, and how biblical prophecy in fact supports the Qur’anic perspective on the crucifixion.
THE MISINTERPRETATION OF ISAIAH 53
An argument commonly put forward to provide divine backing for the crucifixion is that it is foretold of in the Old Testament. The 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah is the most popular proof text put forward.
Here is the chapter in full:
“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:1-12)
Statements like “for the transgression of my people he was punished” and “he bore the sin of many” do, at face value, seem to bear a striking resemblance to the theology of the crucifixion. However when we analyze the entirety of this chapter, we will see that it cannot be a prophecy about Jesus.
When it comes to prophecies in Scripture, you can think of each detail that the prophecy provides as a criterion that must be satisfied. So if we consider Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy about the future, then in order for it to be fulfilled by Jesus, every detail provided in the prophecy has to be satisfied by the life of Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. If not, then Jesus fails as a candidate and the prophecy remains unfulfilled.
We also find mention of the following in verse 10:
“…he will see his offspring and prolong his days”
The Hebrew word used for offspring, “zera”, carries the meaning of progeny and semen according to Hebrew lexicons. So in the context of this verse it means he will see his children. This can’t be a reference to Jesus as nowhere does the New Testament state that Jesus had children.
Trinitarians might want to think twice before trying to argue that silence on this matter leaves the possibility that it could be true, as from their perspective, any children of Jesus may also be God-men and we’d have the troubling prospect of grandchildren of the Father.
The verse above also mentions that his days will be prolonged. This statement makes no sense in light of the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is God. A mortal man’s days can be prolonged, but God is eternal. A being that is eternal cannot have their lives prolonged.
Now those who consider Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy about Jesus tend to interpret these verses metaphorically as it prevents Jesus from being ruled out as a candidate. The problem with this approach is one of inconsistency. Why interpret the mention of those things that support the crucifixion, such as suffering, literally, whereas those things that go against Jesus, such as having children and a prolonged life, are interpreted metaphorically?
The suffering, offspring and prolonged days are all mentioned together within verse 10, and yet there is nothing within the context of the verse which indicates a mixture of literal and metaphorical interpretation:
“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.”
So to be consistent we should either interpret all the statements literally or metaphorically, rather than picking and choosing according to our desires.
So if Isaiah 53 is not talking about Jesus, then who or what is it referring to?
Jewish people have historically associated the chapter with the suffering of Israel. There are even prominent Christian sources which agree with the common Jewish perspective. For example, the Harper Collins Study Bible says:
“The early church identified the servant in this passage (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) with Jesus, and Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission may have been shaped by this figure. In the original historical context, however, the servant appears to have been exiled Israel.”
The commentary found in the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible associates Isaiah’s mention of death with the destruction and exile of Israel:
“The crowds, pagan nations, among whom the servant (Israel) lived, speak here (through v. 9), saying that the significance of Israel’s humiliation and exaltation is hard to believe… The death probably refers to the destruction and Exile of Israel.”
In fact, Isaiah 53 can be applied to any people of God that suffer. We find support for this interpretation in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. Prophet Jeremiah faithfully communicated God’s words to the people of Israel, warning them about the impending Babylonian captivity that was sure to come unless they repented.
But no one listened to him; he was rejected even by his own family:
“Your relatives, members of your own family— even they have betrayed you” (Jeremiah 12:6)
Jeremiah suffered more than perhaps any other prophet in the Old Testament, as he was whipped and imprisoned:
“They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison.” (Jeremiah 37:15)
Jeremiah seems to quote Isaiah 53 and applies it to himself:
JESUS WOULD BE SAVED FROM THE CROSS ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE
There are verses in the Old Testament which specifically relate to the Messiah, and these explicitly rule out any possibility of the Messiah being crucified. In the New Testament, Jesus affirms an Old Testament prophecy about himself:
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels oncerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)
We can see that Satan challenged Jesus by applying an Old Testament prophecy to him. Jesus responds by affirming the prophecy (“It is also written…”).
The prophecy being quoted can be found in Psalm 91:
We can see that the verses of Psalm 91 mention that no harm will come to Jesus (“no harm will overtake you”), the angels will guard him (“they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone”), that God will rescue and protect him (“I will rescue him; I will protect him”), and that God will deliver him from all trouble (“will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him”).
Clearly, this prophecy eliminates any possibility of a crucified Messiah. If we are going to be objective in our interpretation of Scripture, then surely the explicit words of Jesus that confirm Psalm 91 as a prophecy about himself, override the comparatively speculative Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53. So, far from there being Old Testament prophecies about the crucifixion of Jesus, there are in fact prophecies which explicitly state that the Messiah would not be harmed in any way.
The only way you can arrive at a crucified Messiah in the Old Testament is to ignore explicit verses like those found in Psalm 91, and instead interpret comparatively ambiguous verses like Isaiah 53 through the Gospel claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
THE QUR’AN REVEALS THE FULFILMENT OF MESSIANIC PROPHECY
This is what the Qur’an says about the crucifixion of Jesus:
“They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him. God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.” (Qur’an 4:157-158)
We can see that the Qur’an states that Jesus was not crucified; rather it was made to appear so. What “though it was made to appear like that to them” means it is a topic of discussion among scholars. Regardless of these finer details, the key point is crystal clear: God saved His beloved messenger from the humiliation, torture and death of the cross. Jesus was raised up to God, alive and unharmed, where he remains until this day.
When we analyze these claims of the Qur’an in light of Old Testament prophecy, we find that the Old Testament in fact supports the Qur’anic narrative. Recall that Psalm 91, which the New Testament endorses as a prophecy about Jesus, states that God would save the Messiah from all harm:
“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12)
This prophecy that the angels would “lift him up” matches the Qur’an which states that “God raised him up”:
So we can see that the Old Testament goes against the Christian understanding and backs up the theology of the Qur’an on the Messiah not being crucified. What the Qur’an reports about Jesus is in fact the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would not be harmed.
Today churches teach that Jesus was condemned to a humiliating death on the cross. Paul even wrote that Jesus was made a curse for the crucifixion:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” (Galatians 3:13)
As we’ve seen, the concept of a crucified Messiah is at odds with the Old Testament. As a consequence, Jesus has long been a stumbling block to Jewish people recognizing him as the Messiah. God, out of His mercy, did not leave mankind in a state of confusion.
The Qur’an was revealed and unravels centuries of myth-making around Jesus and in the process bridges this millennia-old Judeo-Christian divide. Muslims love Jesus too much to believe that he was made a curse. The Qur’an says that Jesus was a blessed man:
“And He has made me [Jesus] blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I remain alive” (Qur’an 19:31)