Jesus, the Gospels and the Synoptic Qur’ans

Jan 16 2014

Anthony Rogers has recently posted several excellent articles 12, in reply to Paul Williams’ article in which Paul claims that the synoptic Gospels portray a different and developing view of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus.

I wish to engage with one point that Paul raised in his article:

As we have seen there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching.

Firstly I want to consider how the four Gospels portray Jesus. Secondly I want to suggest that there were synoptic Qur’ans and that these synoptic Qur’ans functioned in a similar way to the synoptic Gospels and that this needs to be taken into account in Christian-Muslim discussions of textual integrity.

The Portrayal of Jesus in the Four Gospels

Paul’s comments about the four Gospels having a different picture of Jesus is one that I have heard from a number of Muslims. The conclusion that is intended by such a statement is that these different portrayals of Jesus are in fact different and not consistent, thus the witness of the NT cannot be trusted because it does not have a consistent message about Jesus. The proof for this claim is to compare similar passages in the Gospels and focus on any differences and from these differences conclude a different Jesus.

The problem I have with this approach is that it ignores the overwhelming majority of Gospel material, instead focusing on small sections. Consider the following table: 

  Matthew Mark Luke John
Jesus is God coming to us in fulfilment of Isaiah 40:2-3. 3:3 1:1-3 3:4-6 1:23
Jesus was crucified, died & raised. 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19, 27:45-28:10 8:31, 10:32-34, 15:1-16:8 9:20-22, 18:31-34, 23:44-24:12 3:14, 10:11-18, 12:24, 19:17-20:23
Son of God 3:17, 4:3-6, 8:29, 11:27, 14:33, 16:16, 17:5, 21:37, 22:2, 24:36, 26:63-64, 27:40, 43, 54, 28:19. 1:1? 1:11, 3:11, 5:7, 9:7, 12:6, 13:32, 14:60-62, 15:39 1:32, 1:35, 3:22, 4:3-9, 4:41, 8:28, 9:35, 20:13, 22:70-71 1:34, 1:49, 3:16-18, 3:35-36, 5:16-30, 6:40, 8:35-36, 10:36, 11:4, 11:27, 13:32, 14:13, 17:1, 19:7, 20:31
Son of Man 8:20, 9:6, 10:23, 11:19, 12:8, 12:32, 12:40, 13:37, 13:41, 16:13, 16:27-28, 17:9, 17:12-14, 17:22, 19:22, 20:18, 20:28, 24:27, 24:30, 24:37-39, 24:44, 25:31, 26:2, 26:24, 26:45, 26:64 2:10, 2:28, 8:31, 8:38, 9:9, 9:12, 9:31, 10:33, 10:45, 13:26, 14:21, 14:41, 14:62 5:24, 6:5, 6:22, 7:34, 9:22, 9:26, 9:44, 9:58, 11:30, 12:8-10, 12:40, 17:22-30, 18:8, 18:31, 19:10, 21:27, 21:36, 22:22, 22:48, 22:69, 24:7 1:51, 3:13-14, 5:16-30, 6:27, 6:53, 6:62, 8:28, 9:35, 12:23, 12:34, 13:31
Son of David 1:1, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9-15, 22:41-46 10:47-48, 11:10, 12:35-37 1:27, 1:32, 1:69, 2:4, 2:11, 3:31, 18:38-39, 20:41-44 7:42
Teacher 8:19, 9:11, 10:24-25, 12:38, 17:24, 19:16, 22:16, 22:24, 22:36, 26:18 4:38, 5:35, 9:17, 9:38, 10:17, 10:20, 10:35, 12:14, 12:19, 12:32, 13:1, 14:14 6:40, 7:40, 8:49, 9:38, 10:25, 11:45, 12:13, 18:18, 19:39, 20:21, 20:28, 21:7, 22:11 1:38, 3:2, 8:4, 11:28, 13:13-14, 20:16
Rabbi 26:25, 26:49 9:5, 11:21, 14:45   1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8
Lord 3:3, 7:21-22, 8:2, 8:6, 8:21, 8:25, 9:28, 12:8, 14:28-30, 15:22, 15:25-27, 16:22, 17:4, 17:15, 18:21, 20:30-33, 21:3, 22:43-45, 24:42, 25:37, 25:44, 26:22 1:3, 2:28, 5:19, 7:28, 11:3, 12:36-37 2:11, 3:4, 5:8, 5:12, 6:5, 6:46, 7:6, 7:13, 7:19, 9:54, 9:59-61, 10:1-2, 10:17, 10:39-41, 11:1, 11:39, 12:41-42, 13:15, 13:23-25, 17:5-6, 17:37, 18:6, 18:41, 19:8, 19:31, 19:34, 20:42-44, 22:33, 22:38, 22:49, 22:61, 24:3, 24:34 1:23, 6:23, 6:68, 8:11, 9:38, 11:2-3, 11:12, 11:21, 11:27, 11:32-34, 11:39, 13:6, 13:9, 13:13-14, 13:25, 13:36-37, 14:5-8, 14:22, 20:2, 20:13, 20:18-20, 20:25-28, 21:7, 21:12, 21:15-21
Messiah/Christ 1:1, 1:16-18, 11:2, 16:16, 16:20, 22:42, 23:10, 26:63, 27:17, 27:22 1:1, 8:29, 9:41, 12:35, 14:61, 15:32 2:11, 2:26, 4:41, 9:20, 20:41, 22:67, 23:2, 23:35, 23:39, 24:26, 24:46 1:17, 1:41, 3:28, 4:25-26, 7:25-44, 9:22, 10:24-25, 11:27, 17:3, 20:31
A Sacrifice 20:26-28, 26:26-28 10:45, 14:22-24 22:17-20 1:29, 1:35-36


As you can see all four Gospels proclaim that Jesus is the coming of God foretold in Isaiah 40:2-3, he is the Christ/Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, he lived, died and was raised again, his death was a sacrifice for salvation, and in all the Gospels he is called teacher and lord. You could also consider the fact that in all four Gospels Jesus did miracles which showed he had authority over all things, called God Father, John the Baptist prepared the way for him, he had disciples who are named, his area of activity, and more could be said.

This overwhelming agreement shows that all four Gospels are presenting the same Jesus. This overwhelming agreement is the context for any discussion about the differences in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels; yet this agreement and context are commonly ignored by those who want to focus on the differences. If this is done then the differences between the Gospels are being examined out of context and a new meaning is being imposed upon them that is not intended by that Gospel.

The four Gospels are not simply repeats. Each presents Jesus with its own emphasis. Matthew emphasizes certain things in a way that Mark does not and the same can be said between all the Gospels.

Paul says: “As we have seen there are four gospels” as if it is a bad thing. Having four Gospel accounts is not a problem but an advantage; it provides multiple testimonies and a richness and depth to our understanding of Jesus; they are all authentic. Imagine for a moment if the church had only kept the Gospel according to Matthew? This situation would be adequate but we would be poorer for it. It may make things simpler, and Paul Williams would not have the material to compare and contrast, but we would be poorer for it. The church never did this, but Islam did with the Qur’an.

The Synoptic Qur’ans

The Hadith is clear that Muhammad never made a collection of the Qur’an himself but it was his companions who did this. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61, no. 509)

And Muhammad allowed variation in the way the Qur’an was recited.

Narrated Ibn Mas’ud: I heard a person reciting a (Quranic) verse in a certain way, and I had heard the Prophet reciting the same Verse in a different way. So I took him to the Prophet and informed him of that but I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face, and then he said, “Both of you are correct, so don’t differ, for the nations before you differed, so they were destroyed.” (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 682)

Muhammad’s companions made their different collections from their own material and by gathering together material from others sources which were preserved on pages, bones, leaves, stones and the memories of men. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61, no. 509)

These Qur’ans were highly similar yet different. For instance the Qur’an according to Abdullah ibn Mas’ud had 111 suras, the Qur’an according to Ubayy ibn Ka’b had 116 and the Qur’an according to Zayd bin Thabit 114. And the suras were also arranged differently within these collections. (al-Nadim, The Fihrist of al-Nadim – A Tenth Century survey of Muslim Culture, New York: Columbia University Press. 1970, pp. 53, 58-61)

There were also differences between the words in the same verse. The follow hadith shows how the Muslims who had learned the Qur’an from Abdullah ibn Mas’ud recited it differently to other Muslims:

Narrated Ibrahim: The companions of ‘Abdullah (bin Mas’ud) came to Abu Darda’, (and before they arrived at his home), he looked for them and found them. Then he asked them,: “Who among you can recite (Qur’an) as ‘Abdullah recites it?” They replied, “All of us.” He asked, “Who among you knows it by heart?” They pointed at ‘Alqama. Then he asked Alqama. “How did you hear ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud reciting Surat Al-Lail (The Night)?“ Alqama recited:
‘By the male and the female.’ (Qur’an 92:3) 
Abu Darda said, “I testify that I heard the Prophet reciting it likewise, but these people want me to recite it:-
‘And by Him Who created male and female.‘ (Qur’an 92:3) 
But by Allah, I will not follow them.” (Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 60, no. 468; also narrated Alqama vol. 6, bk. 60, no. 467, Khan. Agreed Muslim: bk. 4, no. 1799-1802, Siddique)

As this hadith shows, these different collections of the Qur’an were not for private use but were used by Muhammad’s companions to teach their students.

What is the effect of such differences?

1. Different Number of Suras. The Qur’an according to Abdullah did not have sura 1, 113 and 114, that is the du’a/prayers were not included. This leads to quite a different experience of reading the Qur’an. In the Qur’an according to Zayd bin Thabit (the modern Qur’an) the Muslim begins and ends with prayer as directed by God but in the Qur’an according to Abdullah this was not the case; it was simply hearing from God.

2. Sura Order. Firstly, changing the sura order changes how the Qur’an is presented. Secondly, each sura has its own theme, topics and questions and these are what a reader has in mind when they proceed from one sura to the next. Changing the sura order changes this context. Thus changing the sura order changes your experience of the Qur’an.

3. Different Words. As we have seen Abdullah said 92:3 as: By the male and the female.’ (Qur’an 92:3) But in the Qur’an according to Zayd it is recorded as: ‘And by Him Who created male and female.‘ (Qur’an 92:3) Abdullah’s version is shorter while Zayd’s version is more explicitly monotheistic, not having the animistic connotations of Allah swearing by his creation. We can see a theological development here.

These three types of differences are significant and make each of these Qur’ans unique and with its own emphasis. These different Qur’ans would still be consistent but each would have its own unique character. In the early history of Islam there were synoptic Qur’ans.

If the Qur’an according to Abdullah and the Qur’an according to Ubayy and the several other collections that we are told about had been preserved they would have provided us with a wealth of material for the study of the Qur’an. The different sura orders would have shown how each of these companions understood how the Qur’an was to be ordered and presented. The parallel passages could have been compared to see what emphasis each had. The parallel passages would also have provided the grounds for better understanding the original sources and how they were shared by the different companions. There would be a whole area of study with these authentic synoptic Qur’ans.

However, these synoptic Qur’ans were not preserved. Uthman made the Qur’an according to Zayd and his committee the standard version (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, bk. 61., no. 510). It is as if the church got rid of Mark, Luke and John and just kept Matthew.

Abdullah and other companions did not accept this action of Uthman but maintained that their collections were authentic. (Sahih Muslim: bk. 31, no. 6022; Tirmidhi: 3104; Ibn sa’d vol. 2 p. 444)

Zayd’s version of the Qur’an did not somehow include all the other versions which is why Abdullah protested. Zayd’s version was the collection he had supervised and not an Islamic form of the Diateserron. Uthman’s actions were to remove these other synoptic Qur’ans and not to preserve and consolidate them but to remove them and just have one text, and this is the Qur’an we have today.

Some Reflections

1. Muslims accept this concept of the synoptic Qur’ans when they say that the variants from the different companions are authentic. When Christians quote a hadith, as I have done, which shows a variant in the Qur’an between two companions, Muslim leaders say that both of these variants are authentic because Muhammad allowed the Qur’an to be recited in different ways (ahurf). It is like saying there is a difference between the way Matthew and Mark record the same event, for the Christian both Matthew and Mark are authentic, so it is for the Muslim; Abdullah’s reading and Zayd’s reading are both authentic. However, Muslim leaders need to acknowledge that they are using this synoptic reasoning as a defence. The question to then ask is why were these authentic synoptic Qur’ans not preserved?

2. If Christians want to show variants in transmission then they must be variants within a Qur’an according to one companion. For example, variants within the Qur’an according to Zayd are not synoptic variants but variants in transmission. The differences between the Samarqand manuscript and the modern Qur’an are an example of this.

3. Uthman’s actions may have made Islam simpler, one Qur’an, but it has made it all the poorer. Not preserving all these other authentic synoptic Qur’ans removes the testimony of significant companions and how they understood the content and presentation of the Qur’an. Again, imagine how much poorer Christianity would be if it had only preserved the Gospel according to Matthew? The whole area of synoptic studies that exists within Christianity and is so helpful and enriching can never exist in Islam because these authentic synoptic Qur’ans were destroyed.

4. The more evidence you destroy the less confident you can be. Removing the testimony of the other authentic synoptic Qur’ans means we have less material to work with and this can only lead to less confidence. Uthman’s actions were catastrophic for the preservation of the Qur’an.

5. Muslims have said to me, “There were 30 Gospels and Christians only kept four. What about the others?” Leaving the numbers aside for now, Christians had good reasons for keeping the Gospels they did; these were the authentic Gospels, but this question can equally be asked of Muslims. There are over a dozen different Qur’ans from which only one was selected; what about the others? But the situation is actually worse for Islam. Christians preserved what was authentic, four Gospels, while Muslims destroyed what was authentic and just kept one version of the Qur’an.

6. Finally, speaking about the Qur’an in these synoptic categories is advantageous because it provides a common category that Christians and Muslims can use in dialogue.