My father worked for the Bible Society in Lebanon for most of his life, serving as its general secretary for more than 25 years.
Growing up, several of my summers were spent in the distribution of biblical literature and in organizing viewings of the Jesus Film in Christian, Muslim and Druze villages.
As the various teams gathered back together in the evening, one group that had been involved in showing the Jesus Film recounted a striking anecdote.
As the story of Jesus unfolded on the screen and came to the scene of the crucifixion, silent sobbing could be heard from some sections of the audience.
But suddenly, a group of young men stood up and started shooting their AK-47s in the air. These were the years of the Lebanese civil war, when light and heavy weapons were normative in most village homes.
The religious affiliation of those passionate youth did not matter. As they watched the film, whether Christian, Muslim or Druze, their sympathy for Jesus had grown, and they could not accept the tale of betrayal and injustice that ensued.
Just as Peter had sworn allegiance to Jesus’ protection, those young men exclaimed that if they had been Jesus’ companions, they would never have allowed anyone to lay hands on him and put him to death.
Peter swore, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). He pledged, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37).
But Jesus knew about human weakness. “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” was his response (Luke 22:34; John 13:38).
Elsewhere, having just confirmed to his disciples that he was “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus had to readjust their expectations; he went on to reveal to them that this same Son was to go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of religious people and leaders, be killed and rise back to life after three days (Mark 8:27-38; Matthew 16:13-28).
At this paradox of the suffering of God’s chosen one, Peter has the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him for his statements.
It is this same gut reaction that grabbed the young men watching the Jesus Film in that village of Lebanon.
I am currently writing a book, and in the process I have been spending hours with the text of the Quran. I am again deeply impressed at how it exudes with passionate love for Jesus.
I wish every Christian would spend more time reading the Quran. It reports his miraculous birth, his incredible ministry of healing and of raising people from the dead.
It despairs at the evil of those who misunderstood him, rejected him and gathered all their powers to get rid of him.
And at what it sees as the arrogant claims of his contemporaries that they had managed to kill him, the Quran in its fourth “sura” (chapter) retorts in rebuke in verse 157:
“And (they) said, ‘We have killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ However, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear as if it had been so … They certainly did not kill him.”
In the immediate as well as broader canonical contexts of the Quran, if it were not for the extensive exegetical tradition of Islam, the verse would be understood simply as another piece of polemic against the Jews who, in verse 155, were being accused of breaking their covenant with God and killing his prophets.
In that context, the denial of their achievement in killing Jesus two verses later would make sense, but not to the extent of affirming that Jesus had not died at all.
Verse 157 would then be arguing that the Jews did not succeed in killing Jesus, and it could be conjectured from the immediate literary context itself that this was so because God “raised him up to Himself,” as in verse 158.
This would be a convenient affirmation of the biblical narrative that confirms that the Jews had not actually succeeded in killing Jesus because he had risen from the dead three days later.
But the extensive exegetical material of the Muslim tradition does not allow for such a straightforward alignment of the Quranic and biblical texts.
What remains notoriously hard to grasp, not just in the interfaith context, but also for Christians, Muslims, Jews and other human beings, is how life and salvation can actually emerge from death and apparent failure.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow.