The Koran denies that Jesus was crucified and killed. Jesus’ execution is one of the best evidenced events of ancient history and is accepted by all serious historians, whether Christian or non-Christian. The Koran’s depiction of Jesus is historically inaccurate on this point.
Summary of the Evidence for Jesus’ Execution
Let me summarize the evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion before moving on to the passages in the Koran that deal with this event. The first piece of evidence is that Jesus’ crucifixion and death is attested in multiple early sources. His execution is a central theme of nearly all of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark provides the earliest narrative of the event:
The soldiers forced a passerby to carry his cross, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country (he was the father of Alexander and Rufus). They brought Jesus to a place called Golgotha (which is translated, “Place of the Skull”). They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him and divided his clothes, throwing dice for them, to decide what each would take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The king of the Jews.” And they crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!” In the same way even the chief priests – together with the experts in the law – were mocking him among themselves: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, that we may see and believe!” Those who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.
Now when it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. Around three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah!” Then someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down!” But Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last. And the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw how he died, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” There were also women, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they had followed him and given him support. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were there too. (Mark 15:21-41 NET)
But the record of Jesus’ death is not confined to the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities 18.3.3)
Now it must be noted that this passage contains Christian interpolations. However, the majority of scholars agree that Josephus did mention Jesus’ crucifixion.
The final source, for our purposes here, is the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote:
Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Annals 15.44)
The second piece of evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is the fact that it scandalized the early Christians. It was not something that they would make up. The apostle Paul wrote: “we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NET). If a Muslim suggests that Paul (or some other person) invented the story of Jesus’ death by crucifixion we must realize that they are, in effect, asserting that the missionary Paul created a fictional story he knew would hinder his missionary activity. Such a suggestion shows the desperation Muslims must resort to in order to defend the Koran. On that note we turn to the statements in the Koran.
The first reference in the Koran is a bit cryptic:
Remember ye [Jews] slew a man and fell into a dispute among yourselves as to the crime: But Allah was to bring forth what ye did hide. So We said: “Strike the (body) with a piece of the (heifer).” Thus Allah bringeth the dead to life and showeth you His Signs: Perchance ye may understand. (Yusuf Ali)
M. M Ali believes this refers to Jesus for the following reasons (pp. 36-37): (1) the indefiniteness of the wording suggests this was a well-known event such as Jesus’ crucifixion; (2) this passage is similar to 4:153-157 which clearly refers to Jesus; (3) he believes that verse 72 refers to Allah bringing forth the fact that Jesus did not die, a fact the Jews tried to hide; (4) he takes the Arabic behind “Strike the (body) with a piece of the (heifer)” to mean “Smite him with it partially” to convey the meaning that Jesus did not fully die; and (5) he believes Jesus was brought back to life figuratively because he nearly died. This is not a universal view among Muslim commentators but is included here for completeness.
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah. Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (Yusuf Ali)
A. Y. Ali takes the phrase “those who blaspheme” to refer to the Jews who brought false charges against Jesus (p. 32). Most Koranic commentators believe the Koran states that Allah raised Jesus up to heaven before he could be killed on the cross, but Muhammad al-Ghazali believes Jesus died a natural death (p. 43).
That they [the Jews] 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; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise; (Yusuf Ali)
This passage clearly denies Jesus’ death by crucifixion. But the problems in this passage are not restricted to an historical error concerning Jesus’ death. Note that the Koran claims that those who believe Jesus was killed on the cross are full of doubts and are following conjecture. Both assertions are factually wrong. The belief that Jesus was killed on the cross is supported by standard historical methodology, not conjecture. Historians are very confident that Jesus was killed on the cross, they are not full of doubts.
The great irony is that Muslims are full of doubts about what happened to Jesus and resort to conjecture. M. M. Ali believes Jesus was crucified but that he survived the ordeal. He believes the words of the Koran do not allow for the belief that another man was made to resemble Jesus and took Jesus’ place on the cross (pp. 237-238). Muhammad Asad admits that, among Muslims, there are many “fanciful legends” about Jesus’ crucifixion. He believes the legends should be rejected as confused attempts at harmonizing the Koran and the Bible. He takes the Arabic translated “it was made to appear to them” to imply that the account of Jesus’ crucifixion was a later legend. He takes the phrase “Allah raised him up unto Himself” to mean Jesus was given an elevated standing with Allah, not that he physically ascended to heaven (p. 154). A. Y. Ali admits that there are many doubts and conjectures among Muslim theologians. He believes that Jesus was neither crucified nor killed, but that an illusion was placed in the mind of Christ’s enemies. He also notes that most Muslims hold that Jesus did not die a natural death but was bodily raised into heaven (p. 54). Yahiya Emerick agress with A. Y. Ali concerning the majority account among Muslims: Jesus avoided both the crucifixion and death and was bodily raised into heaven (p. 173).
al-Ghazaalai, Muhammad. A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an. Translated by Ashur A. Shamis. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2000.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. CreateSpace, 2010.
Ali, Maulana Muhammad. The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary. Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc. U.S.A., 2002.
Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Second edition. The Book Foundation, 2008.
Emerick, Yahiya. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an in Today’s English. CreateSpace, 2010.