Muslims do not believe Jesus died as the Bible claims He did. The Qur’an explicitly states (4:157-159): “And for their saying, ‘Verily we have slain the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, an Apostle of God.’ Yet they slew him not, and they crucified him not, but they had only his likeness.”
In commenting of this text, Baidawi, a highly esteemed thirteenth-century Muslim jurist and exegete said: “It is related that a group of Jews reviled Isa [Jesus]...then the Jews gathered to kill him. Whereupon Allah informed him [Jesus] that he would take him up to heaven. Then Isa said to his disciples, ‘which one of you is willing to have my likeness cast upon him, and be killed and crucified and enter Paradise?’”
This claim of the non-death of Jesus is an argument of history, not only theology. The claim is alleging that the New Testament is wrong to state that Jesus was killed by means of crucifixion – Jesus did not die on the cross. Muslims believe someone else died in His place. Among other things, the Islamic claim is a challenge to the accuracy and credibility of the New Testament record.
The implications of this no-death claim is too serious to go unnoticed. Apart from challenging the credibility of the New Testament, the view is suggesting that all Christian doctrines that are based on Christ’s death on the cross are false, in that there was no death on the cross. In addition, the Christian claim of the resurrection is a hoax, in that there can be no resurrection if there were no death.
Furthermore, all the Old Testament references to the death of Jesus were misinterpreted. Added to these would be all the references to the death of Jesus, following the death of Jesus. In essence, the Christian Bible is unreliable, in that it records an event that did not take place. Some Muslims explain this dilemma by suggesting that the Early Church adjusted the records to fit their theology.
However, other than Christian writers, non-religious historians reported on the death of Jesus. Housed in the British Museum is a document entitled, “the letter of Mara Bar Serapion.” In this letter, written about thirty years after the death of Jesus, Mara asks, “what advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?”
Even the Jewish Babylonian Talmud states, “On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth), let everyone knowing aught in his defense come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defense and hanged him on the eve of Passover.”
In spite of the overwhelming evidence to support the death of Jesus, Islam is not the only ones supporting the non-death theory. As early as the second century, Gnostic Basilides denied the death of Jesus. He taught that at the crucifixion, Jesus changed form with Simon of Cyrene who had carried the cross. The Jews, mistaking Simon for Jesus, nailed him [Simon] to the cross. Basilides contended that Jesus stood by deriding their error before ascending to heaven.
In the third century, Mani of Persia taught that the son of the widow of Nain, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was put to death in Jesus’ place.
Many Muslim scholars cite the Gospel of Barnabas to support the Qur’anic teaching that Jesus did not die as told in the New Testament. Ironically, those who cite this sixteenth-century source, think they are quoting from the Letter of Barnabas, written in the first half of the second century. Whereas the Letter of Barnabas affirmed the death of Jesus and was considered to be among the most important post-New Testament writings, the same cannot be said of The Gospel of Barnabas.
The Gospel of Barnabas contends that Judas Iscariot was substituted for Jesus (Section 217). This view has been adopted by many Muslims, since so many of them believe that someone else was substituted on the cross for Jesus. Interestingly, most religious scholars will concur that The Gospel of Barnabas is a fake.
From my research, no credible historical source would challenge the crucifixion of Jesus. Many would debate the significance of His death – but not the fact of His dying on a cross.
Apart from the clear and frequent references to the death of Jesus in the New Testament, extra-biblical Jewish and Roman testimonies affirm that Jesus died. For instance, Tacitus’ Annals speak of “Christ, who was executed under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”
In the second century Justin Martyr referred to the “Acts of Pontius Pilate” under whom “nails were fixed in Jesus’ hands and feet on the cross...” Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote that “there was a wise man who was called Jesus ...Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die.”
We need not deny the death of Jesus – to do so would be to deny what actually happened. Unlike other deaths, the death of Jesus does not mean defeat. Rather, the death of Jesus means victory. That is why He gave a shout of victory from the cross. And that is why we designate the memory of His death as Good Friday, not Sad Friday!