Let’s look at how Muslims can understand the Gospel depiction of Jesus as the Son of God, and that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The question is often put to Muslims like this: Since you believe that Jesus is a true prophet of God, why do you not accept his words in the Gospels wherein he claims to be the Son of God and to die for the sins of the world? This can easily lend itself to a discussion of three distinct subject areas:
1. How should Muslims understand the Gospels?
2. What about the passages wherein Jesus appears to be much more than a prophet of God?
3. What about the passages wherein Jesus appears to be the saviour of world?
These can be developed on this blog in detail later, but for now we can treat these three subject together in brief.
As for how to understand the Gospels, I will say something about the history of the composition of the Gospels and the literary relationships among them.
According to most scholars today, the Gospels which are now found in the Bible were written during the years 66-100. Given that Jesus was raised to heaven around the year 30, there followed a period of about three decades before the composition of the first of these Gospels. During that period, Jesus’ teachings were circulating orally and in other documents which did not survive. During that same period, ideas about Jesus developed within the church, and these ideas affected the church’s memory of Jesus. His teachings were presented in the Gospels largely as a reflection of the way in which the church wanted to remember Jesus. Hence the Gospel are not entirely depictions of the actual Jesus.
There are four Gospels. The last of the four, the Gospel of John, shows to the greatest degree how the later memories of Jesus reshaped the tradition about him. It is in this Gospel that Jesus becomes the only begotten Son of God, and the agent through whom God created everything else.
The other three Gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning that they can be viewed together. Yet among them scholars detect a literary relationship. Scholars generally say that Matthew and Luke copied Mark. But in doing so, they also modified the presentation of Jesus such that Jesus appears in these later gospels as being far greater than he appears in Mark. Hence we can see a clear trend toward increasing the greatness of Jesus as we move from the first Gospel, Mark, to the last Gospel, John.
Muslims need to be aware of this development. The true Jesus of history has to be sought mainly in the earliest layers of the tradition. One has to trace the trajectory of development back to where Jesus was a man and a prophet of God before he was eventually taken to be the Son of God and the saviour of the world.