Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Two

John the Baptist

Verifying a Word from Allah


John the Baptist’s Ministry in the Gospels

After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me. John 1:30

John the Baptist is the key figure at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and all four canonical gospels see John as his anointed forerunner, sent to reveal him to Israel. John’s ministry began sometime before Jesus also became a public figure even though they were the same age. Right at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the first one written, John takes centre stage. Mark defines his ministry: ‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). Right from the start he gained the title he is best known by: John the Baptist. Large numbers from Jerusalem and other towns throughout Judea went out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Mark then discloses the second well-known fact about John – he had come to announce the coming of one far greater than himself. He declared ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:7-8). Matthew adds further details to these early days of John’s ministry as a prophet of God, but tells the same story. Luke does much the same, adding that it wasn’t long before Herod, the King of Judea, imprisoned John for condemning his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife (Luke 3:19-20).

The apostle John adds an interesting interlude in his gospel. When John was baptizing in Judea, Jews from the Pharisees in Jerusalem sent their priests to him, asking him to declare who he was. He denied that he was Messiah, Elijah, or the promised prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), adding that he was ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’ (John 1:23).

John is famous for baptizing Jesus, his cousin from Nazareth in Galilee. When Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by him, John said to him ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matthew 3:14). In John’s gospel we read that John the Baptist made this declaration after his baptism: ‘I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’ (John 1:32-34). He had a unique privilege: he actually heard the Father speak from heaven (confirmed in the other three gospels), he handled the Son when he baptized him, and he saw with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove on Jesus. He was given tangible proof of the triune God!

In John’s gospel we read that some of John the Baptist’s disciples were concerned that, when they heard that Jesus was also baptizing, many were going away to him. John immediately told them ‘He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:29-30).

In the historical records of Jesus’ life we see a very clear picture of John’s ministry – he was sent to baptize and to call people to repentance, his call was to reveal one greater than himself who would open the door for God’s people to receive his own Spirit, and he knew he had to recede into the shadows as Jesus took centre stage. One of the few things the Jesus questers seem to unanimously agree on is that John the Baptist preceded Jesus and that he baptized him. John, after seeing the heavens opened and hearing the Father’s voice declare: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ knew Jesus had undergone baptism to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of all who were willing to acknowledge them before God, and that his Father in heaven had accepted his offering. When John saw Jesus coming toward him the following day, he cried out ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

Not much else is said about John in the gospels until his untimely death. On one occasion Jesus declared that John was more than a prophet and that no one greater than John had arisen before him (Matthew 11:9,11). While in prison, however, Herod the king foolishly offered, during the levity accompanying his birthday celebrations, to give his step-daughter whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother Herodias, she asked for John’s head on a platter. Reluctantly Herod ordered John’s execution.

These are the historical records of John’s short life and ministry. Even Josephus, the famous Jewish historian who wrote a history of the Jews around the year 94, mentioned him. But whenever he was discussed after his death, it was always in the context of his baptizing ministry. At Corinth some decades later, when Paul met some  believers who were not fully instructed in the Christian way but had only known John’s baptism, he summed up John’s ministry as follows: ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus’ (Acts 19:4).

Yahya alayhis-salam: John in the Qur’an

The Qur’an freely acknowledges that John was a true prophet of God, naming him among many of the other well-known prophets the Qur’an recognizes, in particular Zechariah, Jesus and Elijah with whom it groups John (Surah 6:85). In a brief description of his birth it says: ‘And Zakariya (Zechariah), when he cried to his Lord; “O my Lord! Leave me not without offspring, for you are the best of inheritors.” So we listened to him and granted to him Yahya (John)’ (Surah 21:89-90). There are only two occasions, however, when the Qur’an deals with John in any detail and both of these are in passages before its narratives about the virgin-birth of Jesus.

In the first passage it repeats Zechariah’s prayer to Allah for a child as his wife was barren before adding that a group of angels cried out to him: ‘Allah announces to you Yahya, attesting a Word from Allah, noble, chaste, a prophet from the righteous’ (Surah 3:39). When Zechariah asked how this could be because he was old and his wife was barren (exactly what Abraham had said centuries earlier in the same situation – Genesis 15:2), he also asked for a sign to confirm this. The answer was that he would speak to no man for three days (Surah 3:40-42).

In the second passage which largely repeats the first, the Qur’an adds that his Lord told him his son would be named Yahya, adding ‘on none by that name have We defined anyone before him’ (Surah 19:7). Speaking of John himself the Qur’an only defines his character: he was given wisdom as a youth, he was kindhearted, sympathetic and dutiful, he was not overbearing or rebellious (Surah 19:12-14).

The Qur’an never mentions his baptizing ministry, it never discusses any event during his prophethood, and it does not discuss his untimely death. It actually says very little about him after his unique Isaac-like birth other than to commend his personality and his good works and humility before Allah (Surah 21:90). It does very significantly state, however, that John would verify and witness to a ‘Word from Allah’ without giving any indication as to how he would do this or what (or who) the ‘Word from Allah’ would be. No identification of this special Word is given and one has to look elsewhere to see if a parallel can be found to shed some light on this almost cryptic statement. We will return to this subject.

Firstly, however, we need to look for any connection between Jesus and John in the Qur’an. The Christian scriptures make it clear that Jesus and John were closely related and were the same age (Luke 1:36). According to the Qur’an they were both upright prophets of Allah. The question has to be asked – why did no prophets appear in Israel for five hundred years before their births and why have none been sent to Israel in the two thousand years since then? Why would Allah send two prophets simultaneously to the nation, closely related and the same age as each other, living in the same area and proclaiming the same message? Was the Qur’an aware that they were connected to each other?

The Qur’an does acknowledge a family connection between Jesus and John. It states that, when Mary the mother of Jesus was born, she was placed in the care of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Surah 3:37). There is no equivalent for this in the canonical gospels, but it has a parallel in the well-known apocryphal work, the Proto-Gospel of James, a fictive book of Christian folklore written about two centuries after Christ although some of the details differ (a common feature when the Qur’an repeats stories found in apocryphal texts).

Here Mary was totally devoted to God, living in a chamber in the Temple night and day, being fed daily by an angel from heaven. When she turned twelve, however, the Temple priests discussed her future and prayed in the Holy of Holies for her. An angel of the Lord appeared and spoke to the chief priest, Zacharias, telling him to go out and gather the widowers among the people, telling them that they were each to bring a rod and, whichever one the Lord chose to become Mary’s husband, would be known by a sign from the Lord. When Joseph drew the last rod a dove flew out of it and rested on his head. Despite his protests, he duly took her to be his wife, especially when Zacharias warned him that, if he didn’t, he might be swallowed up in the anger of the Lord as Dathan and others had been (AG, p.49-51).

The Qur’an mentions this incident, saying to Muhammad: ‘And you were not with them when they threw in their rods (to determine) which of them would take custody of Mary’ (Surah 3:44). It says nothing more than this, but repeats the casting of rods mentioned in the Proto-Gospel of James as a means of settling who would look after Mary. The Quranic text lacks further detail, but it is quite clear that the Qur’an is dependent here on an inauthentic apocryphal gospel composed around 150 years after Jesus as the false Gnostic gospels had been.

Of even greater significance is the fact that, of the different languages in which the Proto-Gospel of James survives, (Syriac, Armenian, etc.), one of them is Arabic. The pseudo-gospel is only mentioned in the writings of the Church fathers from the third century onward, Origen being one of them. We will see as we progress just how dependent the Qur’an was on this book for much of its teaching about John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The Qur’an’s only other link between John and Jesus is to say the same thing about them both in two related texts. Of John it says ‘So peace be upon him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life’ (Surah 19:15). Later on Jesus himself says the same: ‘So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised to life’ (Surah 19:33). Of no one else are these words said, nor does anyone else declare them.

The Qur’an misses most of the connections between Jesus and John, knowing nothing of John’s baptizing ministry, the most significant detail of his life which gave him his title, the Baptist. Although both Jesus and John were executed while innocent of any crimes, the Qur’an never mentions their actual deaths. It knows only the infancy details surrounding John’s birth, virtually nothing more. Nonetheless the Qur’an does make that unqualified but crucial statement that John was sent as a witness to vindicate and attest kalimatim-minallah, ‘a Word from Allah’ (Surah 3:39).

The only way to determine who (or what) this Word might be is to ask if the Qur’an uses the expression elsewhere to define it. One does not have to look too far. Just a few verses further down we read that the angels who appeared to Mary told her that Allah was announcing to her kalimatim-minhu, ‘a Word from Him’ (Surah 3:45), namely al-Masihu ‘Isa, ‘the Messiah Jesus.’ We will return to this title and examine it in more detail in the last chapter, but at this point it gives us our identification of the ‘Word from Allah’ – no one less than Jesus Christ, the son of Mary. The Qur’an nowhere calls anyone else ‘a Word from Him’ and the expression cannot be taken to mean any form of scripture, because the word always used for ‘scripture’ (or written text) in the Qur’an is kitab. It is quite clear that John was sent, according to the Qur’an, as a witness to attest the one to follow him, Jesus, the Word from God.

This explains why two prophets, born in the same year, appeared simultaneously in Israel. The second was not just a prophet, he was the long awaited Messiah of Israel (Al-Masih); he himself was a Word (kalima) who had come down from the presence of God himself; he was one far greater than all the prophets who had preceded him. Once again we find that a very limited statement in the Qur’an has immense implications, and one has to look to the Christian scriptures to get the full impact of its significance.

As we have already seen, the canonical gospels show very clearly that John came as the one appointed to reveal the promised Messiah, the one greater than himself, to Israel and the world. At Jesus’ baptism John was given tangible proof – hearing with his ears the Father speak, touching with his hands the Son as he baptized him, and seeing with his eyes the Holy Spirit in bodily form as a dove – that God is triune. The revelation came as Jesus’ new covenant ministry was about to begin, and as he successfully offered himself up for the salvation of the world.

The Qur’an says no more of John’s mission than that it was to attest ‘a Word from Allah.’ One has to turn to the apostle John’s famous prologue to get the fuller picture. He began: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (John 1:1,4). He immediately introduced John the Baptist’s role in the revelation of Jesus, the Word from God: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light’ (John 1:6-8).

These passages are not only supported by the Qur’an’s admission that John was sent to ‘testify to a Word from Allah,’ they explain how Jesus was the Word who came from God and how John testified to him. John knew that although he was a prophet, he was no more than a witness to a far greater messenger whom he was sent to introduce and reveal.

The Qur’an and the Apocryphal Gospels

The Proto-Gospel of James was one of the most popular legendary compositions in the Christian world from the 3rd century onwards, particularly in its eastern part. It is the product of typical Middle-eastern folklore of that time, similar to the Jewish apocryphal legends of its patriarchs found in the Midrash and the Islamic legends that surrounded Muhammad in hadith records from the second century of Islam onwards. Religious historical sources show consistently that, from this time – a century or more after the time of the religion’s founder – the ground is more fertile for the invention and dissemination of apocryphal legendary material.

Just as many Gnostic texts focused on imaginary visions of the Saviour to the disciples of Jesus after his resurrection, and forged Islamic hadith records elevated Muhammad and constructed a catalogue of unhistorical miracles around him, so this apocryphal work concentrated on infancy legendary narratives surrounding Mary’s own birth, while embellishing those of Jesus and John the Baptist as well. All three filled gaps in the original stories – the realms where later legends are frequently invented.

The problem with the Quranic records here is that they repeat these legends alongside historical material and claim that the finished product is divine truth, the revelation of Allah himself. Many of the Qur’an’s narratives about Abraham and other Old Testament prophets and patriarchs also mix up biblical material with folklore and legendary myths found in the Midrash – material known to the Jewish world throughout the past two millennia to be imaginary and fictitious.

Much of the Qur’an’s material for its infancy narratives is based on the Proto-Gospel of James. We have already mentioned the passage in the Qur’an where Mary was entrusted to the care of Zechariah when she was born (Surah 3:36 – ‘she was accepted by her Lord with a gracious acceptance, making her grow in purity, and was assigned to Zakariya’). Here we have an obvious example of how the Qur’an repeats a legendary tale in a secondary manner. The story is very similar in the Proto-Gospel, but there Zechariah is the chief priest who delivers her to Joseph as the one chosen to protect and look after her.

The story in the Proto-Gospel is far more detailed and includes the drawing of rods and Joseph’s reluctance to take her into his care. As with so many of the Qur’an’s repetitions of prior material, its own narrative is truncated and so lacking in detail that you have to resort to its source material (the Proto-Gospel of James) to get the whole picture.

What is most interesting here is to discover the other source for the Quranic material about the birth of the prophet Yahya. This time it is actually from the canonical gospels, but it is confined to a singular source from these texts, the only one with which the Qur’an shows any familiarity in describing events affecting John the Baptist’s life and ministry.

The Gospel of Luke – the Qur’an’s Canonical Source

The canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John have nothing to say about the unique conception and birth of John the Baptist. All three introduce him at the age of thirty years, proclaiming that he is the one who was appointed to reveal the Messiah to Israel. This is interesting – because the birth of John the Baptist is just about all the Qur’an has to say about him in any kind of detail! What was the Qur’an’s origin for the other records it has of him? It is the Gospel of Luke.

This canonical gospel goes into considerable detail to describe how Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were visited by an angel of the Lord who announced to them the birth of a son whose name would be John, a prophet who would be great before the Lord, who would turn many of the sons of Israel towards him, and who would go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:13-17). So much of the Quranic material surrounding John’s birth comes from this gospel. Some examples follow.

1.    The Prayer of Zechariah

The Qur’an describes the prayer of Zechariah for offspring: ‘My wife is barren, so grant me an heir from yourself. Who should inherit me, and inherit from the (offspring) of Jacob? And make him, Lord, acceptable!’ (Surah 19:6). Luke’s Gospel describes the response. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and said ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son’ (Luke 1:13). The Qur’an also describes the reply: ‘So the angels called to him as he stood praying in the sanctuary: ‘Truly Allah announces to you Yahya, attesting a word from Allah’ (Surah 3:39).

2.    Zechariah’s Doubtful Response

In reply to the annunciation Zechariah answered ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?’ (Luke 1:18). The Qur’an contains much the same response: ‘My Lord! How shall I have a son, and in my old age, and my wife is barren?’ (Surah 3:40).

3.    The Angel’s Answer to Zechariah

Because he lacked faith to believe what the angel Gabriel had promised him the angel added: ‘And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time’ (Luke 1:20). According to the Qur’an, Zakariya asked for a sign that this would happen (another gesture of unbelief) to which the angel responded: ‘Your sign is that you will not be able to speak to men for three days except by gestures’ (Surah 3:41).

Another detail here in the Qur’an has its source in Luke alone. As we have seen, the angel, after saying to Zakariya ‘his name is John,’ added: ‘on none by that name have We defined anyone before him’ (Surah 19:7). The canonical parallel, typically in a different context, follows: ‘And they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, ‘not so; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your kindred is called by this name’ (Luke 1:61).

4.    Zechariah Blessed and Glorified God

The Qur’an says of Zakariya: ‘He went out to his people from the sanctuary and declared to them: “Verily give praise morning and evening”’ (Surah 19:11). The canonical equivalent, again in a somewhat different context, reads: ‘And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God’ (Luke 1:64).

5.    John was Given Special Wisdom

The Qur’an says of Yahya: ‘And we granted him wisdom as a child’ (Surah 19:12). The equivalent reads: ‘And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel’ (Luke 1:80).

6.    Elizabeth was Specially Equipped to Conceive

The Qur’an says of Zechariah’s spouse: ‘So we responded to him and gave him Yahya, and made his wife fertile for him’ (Surah 21:90). The parallel texts read: ‘But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. ... But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John”’ (Luke 1:7,13).

The Qur’an has nothing to say about the events in the life of John the Baptist that are found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or John, and are not found in the Gospel of Luke. It is entirely dependent on the third gospel for its biographical material common to both the Qur’an and the canonical gospels. The other three gospels have substantial material on John’s baptizing ministry, his premature death, and other facets of his life, but none of these are known to the Qur’an. In the Muslim scripture the emphasis is almost entirely on John’s unique birth, very similar to Isaac’s birth before him. The only exception is its statement that John would testify to a Word of Allah following him.

In the Gnostic texts it is interesting to find this passage in the Gospel of Thomas: ‘Jesus said, “From Adam to John the Baptizer, among those born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptizer, so that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will know the kingdom and will become greater than John”’ (NHS, p.145). Even the Gnostic authors knew John as ‘the Baptist’, an indication of how significant his baptizing ministry was. But the Qur’an misses the whole impact of this text because it is derived solely from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 11:11) and has no equivalent in Luke’s gospel.

The Testimony of Truth, another Gnostic text, mentions John’s witness to Jesus at his baptism and how he ‘saw the power that came down upon the Jordan River’ (NHS, p.617). The descent of the Holy Spirit, who anointed Jesus, is the ‘power’ mentioned in the text. The Valentinian Exposition also mentions John and his ministry at the Jordan River (NHS, p.675). Finally, the Second Discourse of the Great Seth also calls him ‘John the Baptizer’ (NHS, p.483).

Other Gnostic texts knew the essence of John’s ministry. In the Exegesis of the Soul we read: ‘Before Jesus appeared John came and preached the baptism of repentance’ (NHS, p.232). This text has Lukan parallels. John preached: ‘Bear fruits that befit repentance’ (Luke 3:8) and, in Luke’s other work, we read that Paul said: ‘Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel’ (Acts 13:24). The Qur’an does not mention this definition of his primary message even though these texts both come from Luke’s works, simply because it only knew the nativity and infancy narratives recorded in Luke’s gospel.

Why is it that even the Gnostic texts knew more about John the Baptist and his ministry than the Qur’an does? There’s a very interesting reason – virtually all of the canonical material repeated in the infancy narratives in the Proto-Gospel of James (the Quranic source) is also derived from the Gospel of Luke alone! Only a few texts in this apocryphal work allude to sources from Matthew’s gospel and only one has a nativity quote from this source (‘he will save his people from their sins’ – Matthew 1:21, AG, p.57). Significantly the Qur’an completely overlooks this quote, solely because it is derived from Matthew’s Gospel with which the Qur’an shows no familiarity. Unlike the Gnostic texts, the Qur’an here discloses no knowledge of any other canonical gospel than the Gospel of Luke.

The whole setting of the infancy stories of both Jesus and John in the Proto-Gospel of James is the nativity story found in Luke’s gospel, and nothing further is said about John thereafter. The Qur’an parallels the apocryphal text in confining its teaching about the events in John’s life to his birth and nativity. As we move on to study the Qur’an’s treatment of Mary the mother of Jesus, we will find much the same phenomenon again – she too, like John, is mentioned primarily in infancy settings (her own and the birth of her son Jesus) and the canonical source of the Qur’an’s material is invariably the Gospel of Luke alone.