Introduction: The Challenge of Jesus 

The Quest for the Lost Jesus, Whether one is Christian or Muslim, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is undeniably challenging. However, beyond recognizing his significance, Christians and Muslims diverge in their beliefs about Jesus. Christians hold that Jesus is the complete revelation of God to humanity, while Muslims regard him as an important prophet, but not as significant as Muhammad.

The Quest for the Lost Jesus

The issue lies in the fact that most Muslims know very little about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The Qur’an contains minimal information about him, primarily focusing on extended birth narratives. Although it mentions that he taught large crowds, it provides scant details about the content of his teachings. The Qur’an does not include his sermons, parables, compassionate words to the poor and dispossessed, or his challenges to the religious authorities of his time. For these details, one must turn to the New Testament and the Gospels. The Quest for the Lost Jesus

When the topic of Jesus arises, Muslims often ask, “We honor Jesus Christ, why do you not honor Muhammad?” I would challenge my Muslim friends and readers with this: if I were to say, “Oh, I honor Muhammad, he was a great racing car driver!” you would think I was crazy. The key concern is not merely about claiming to honor someone, but about understanding what they stood for. Until Muslims know what Jesus said, did, and claimed to be, their claim to honor him is, at best, misleading. The goal of this series is to help Muslims rediscover their lost Jesus by exploring what he did, said, and taught.

The Quest for the Lost Jesus: Five Questions

N.T. Wright, one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, has authored significant works such as The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God, which are essential for anyone serious about academic study. Wright suggests that there are five key questions that anyone wishing to form an informed opinion about Jesus must seriously consider and be able to answer:

  1. How did Jesus fit into the Judaism of his day?
    • Did his beliefs align with those of his contemporaries, or did he stand out? If he stood out, how?
  2. What were the aims of Jesus?
    • What was he trying to achieve within the context of first-century Judaism?
  3. Why did Jesus die?
    • Why did the Jewish leadership seek his execution, and how did they convince the Romans to carry it out?
  4. How and why did the early church begin?
    • What transformed a group of frightened followers, after losing their leader, into fearless preachers willing to face martyrdom? Why did they begin to preach that Israel’s history had reached its promised climax in Jesus?
  5. Why are the gospels the way they are?
    • The gospels are distinct from both the Jewish background of first-century Palestine and the early church’s later concerns (such as speaking in tongues, circumcision, and the debate concerning Gentiles).


The Quest for the Lost Jesus

To simplistically state, as some Muslim polemicists do, that “Jesus was merely a prophet” or that “the gospels have been corrupted” is to miss the broader context — akin to visiting Disneyland, taking a photo of the ticket booth, and then returning home. Understanding Jesus fully requires explaining him in terms of his historical background, understanding his motivations and actions, and recognizing how this led to the birth of a new movement called “Christianity.” Without this understanding, it’s necessary to reconsider one’s conclusions.

Muslims have lost their connection to the historical Jesus, and the goal of this mini-series is to help them rediscover him by examining what he taught, did, and said, while consistently keeping Wright’s five questions in mind as we seek to formulate informed answers


The Quest for the Lost Jesus: Rediscovering the Power of Story

A cursory glance through the gospels reveals that Jesus was a man who loved stories. He communicated through parables and metaphors, a stark contrast to the Qur’anic presentation of him. The Qur’an does not really utilize the genre of “story,” and as a result, Muslims often miss the fact that Jesus in the New Testament is a great storyteller—something lost when one reduces their engagement with him to mere proof-texting.

If storytelling is a major aspect of Jesus’s ministry, there are two others that are equally important when reading the New Testament. The first is action. Jesus was a man of action; the gospels recount his arguments with the Pharisees, miracles, prophetic acts, and various other deeds. These actions cannot be separated from what Jesus said and taught. For instance, consider the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem in Mark 11. To understand why Jesus cleared the Temple, one must read this incident in its immediate context, alongside the prophetic cursing of the fig tree. The actions and statements together reveal the true meaning, calling for a unified view of Jesus rather than a fragmented one.

The third aspect of Jesus’s ministry requires understanding the Judaism of his day. In first-century Judaism, symbols were of great importance. Three major symbols were the Temple, the Torah, and the Spirit, each representing different aspects of God’s relationship with Israel:

  • The Temple represented God’s presence with his people. Through its system of priests and sacrifices, one gained forgiveness and righteousness with the God of Israel.
  • The Torah embodied the way God wanted his people to live. It was seen as divine Wisdom itself. To live rightly as a first-century Jew meant following the Torah.
  • The Spirit represented God’s way of working in history. Like Islam today, first-century Judaism believed in an almighty and transcendent God. To maintain this transcendence, the Old Testament speaks of ‘God’s Spirit,’ which was how God accomplished things on earth. To speak of God’s Spirit was to speak of God himself, as seen in passages such as Genesis 1:2, 1 Samuel 19:23, and Job 33:4.

Why is this important? Because, as we will explore later in this series, Jesus was a strong advocate of symbols. His actions towards these significant Jewish symbols of his day, and the creation of his own powerful symbols, will help us better understand him. This will allow us to delve deeper into Jesus’s life and teachings and address Wright’s five questions introduced earlier


The Quest for the Lost Jesus: A Story from Jesus

As we have seen, Jesus was a master storyteller, often using stories that connected deeply with the religious symbols of his time. His stories were filled with language, images, and metaphors that his contemporaries could easily understand. One of the most significant stories he told, which provides insight into his mindset, can be found in Mark chapter 12. This story was told in a highly charged context: Jesus had just caused a commotion in the Jerusalem Temple by driving out traders and prophesying its destruction. When the religious leaders questioned his authority, Jesus responded with this story:

“A man planted a vineyard, set a hedge around it, dug a pit for the wine press, built a tower, and leased it to tenants. Then he went to another country. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants seized him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.

The owner sent another servant to them, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent another, whom they killed. He sent many others; some they beat, and others they killed.

Finally, he had one left, a beloved son. He sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11, RSV)

The Quest for the Lost Jesus

In this parable, Jesus not only tells a compelling story but also uses it to convey profound truths about rejection and redemption. The vineyard symbolizes Israel, the tenants are the religious leaders, and the servants represent the prophets sent by God, many of whom were mistreated or killed. The beloved son signifies Jesus himself, foretelling his own fate at the hands of those who should have recognized and respected him. The story ends with a warning: the unfaithful tenants will be replaced, a reference to the inclusion of the Gentiles and the new direction of God’s work in the world.

Through this story, Jesus communicates his message of judgment and hope, highlighting the importance of recognizing and honoring God’s messengers and ultimately, God’s son

The audience who first heard this story would have easily grasped its meaning from Jesus’ words. Even after two millennia, its significance remains clear. However, what requires elucidation is the symbolic context within Judaism during Jesus’ time, particularly regarding the metaphor of the “vineyard,” which represented Israel itself in various Old Testament passages, including Isaiah 5:1. Jesus’ narrative cleverly echoes this imagery, drawing parallels with God’s judgment on Israel for their disobedience.

In this allegory, the vineyard symbolizes Israel, the owner represents God, and the tenants depict the people of Israel to whom God entrusted the land. The servants represent the prophets sent by God to guide and admonish the people. Yet, despite their efforts, they were mistreated and ignored. Then comes the pivotal figure—the son of the vineyard owner.

The significance lies in Jesus’ self-perception as distinct from the prophets who came before him. While they were messengers sent by God, Jesus sees himself as the obedient son, embodying a unique relationship with the owner of the vineyard. This has profound implications, especially concerning Islamic views of Jesus, as he does not consider himself merely a part of the prophetic lineage, but as the culmination of it.

This distinction becomes evident when examining Jesus’ teachings and actions regarding key symbols of Judaism, such as the Temple, Torah, and Spirit. Unlike other prophets, Jesus challenges traditional interpretations and claims authority over these symbols, signifying his unique position as the obedient son of God

Regarding the Temple, Jesus criticizes its significance, actively opposing it. His journey to Jerusalem, particularly at the pinnacle of his ministry, appears centered on challenging the Temple and the religious establishment associated with it.

Concerning the Torah, Jesus appears to assert authority to amend or supplement various aspects of the Old Testament. Notably, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), he delivers profound ethical teachings, modifying laws on divorce, revenge, murder, adultery, and love for enemies, all under his own authority.

In regard to the Spirit of God, Jesus makes claims that would have been considered blasphemous by first-century Jews. For instance, in John 15:26, he pledges to send the Spirit of truth, asserting authority over God’s Spirit. This assertion would have been akin to claiming control over divine attributes, which was deemed blasphemous.

N. T. Wright suggests that Jesus aimed to overshadow traditional symbols of Judaism, particularly the Temple and Torah, with his own presence and teachings. He essentially presents himself as a solitary challenger to the established religious order, akin to a counter-temple movement

Jesus clearly viewed himself as more than just an ordinary prophet. In the Parable of the Vineyard, he distinguishes himself from previous prophets, indicating that no more prophets would come after him because he represented the obedient son of the vineyard owner, with whom God would intervene in a unique way. This fundamental distinction is evident in Jesus’ attitude towards key symbols of Judaism—the Torah, Temple, and Spirit—over which he believed he had authority as the obedient son.

This perspective poses significant questions for the Muslim understanding of Jesus, as it challenges the notion of Muhammad standing in a prophetic lineage that extends through Jesus. Jesus did not perceive himself as merely one among many prophets, nor did he anticipate successors after him.

Jesus’ understanding of his role was deeply rooted in the fulfillment of God’s promised Kingdom, as anticipated by the Old Testament prophets. His teachings on the Kingdom of God underscore his unique mission and relationship with the God of the Old Testament. While further exploration of this topic is warranted, it highlights the central theme in Jesus’ message and its profound implications for understanding his identity


In conclusion,

it’s imperative to understand Jesus within the context of first-century Judaism. Attempts to portray him as a seventh-century Muslim akin to Muhammad are historically inaccurate and fail to grasp the complexity of Jesus’ identity. Jesus cannot be confined to modern categories like 21st-century American Protestantism either. To truly understand him, one must delve into the New Testament gospels.

Furthermore, this discussion underscores the importance of approaching Jesus’ message holistically. Quoting isolated verses out of context distorts the true essence of his teachings. Just as a comprehensive understanding of Islam requires consideration of the entire Qur’an, grasping Jesus’ message necessitates examining all aspects of his life, including his parables, miracles, and actions.

In conclusion, The Quest for the Lost Jesus Jesus’ self-understanding as the obedient son of the vineyard owner distinguishes him from other prophets. He perceived himself as the fulfillment of God’s plan, marking The Quest for the Lost Jesus culmination of the prophetic tradition. To liken him to Muhammad as just another prophet overlooks The Quest for the Lost Jesus profound singularity of Jesus’ mission and teachings. Truly comprehending The Quest for the Lost Jesus means acknowledging his unparalleled significance and The Quest for the Lost Jesus incomparable uniqueness that defines his identity and purpose.


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