Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan claimed recently, during remarks in Islamabad celebrating Mawlid, the birthday of Islam’s prophet, that “Moses is mentioned, but there is no mention of Jesus in history.”
This extraordinary remark ignores, in the first place, the texts of Islam itself. In the Qur’an, Jesus is mentioned 25 times by the name Isa, 48 times in the third person, 35 times in the first person, and the rest through his titles and attributes. He is the person most mentioned, after Muhammad (who is only mentioned by name four times, although there are numerous other references to him as “the messenger” and other titles) in the Qur’an. If Jesus did not exist, then what, Imran Khan needs to explain, are we to make of all those times he is mentioned in the Qur’an? Was Allah mistaken? Was Muhammad? And what shall we make of Sura 19, named for Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus, who is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than in the New Testament?
Jesus is not to be found just in the Qur’an. There are several references to him by Muhammad himself, to be found in the most reliable (Sahih) collections of Bukhari and Muslim. Is Imran Khan unaware of the more than 100 mentions of Jesus in the Qur’an and in the Hadith? If so, is he not demonstrating to the very Muslims whom he is trying to court with his astonishing claim that there is “no mention of Jesus in history,” that he is not well acquainted with the Qur’an and hadith?
What of non-Muslim texts? Jesus began to be mentioned, within 20 years of his death in 30-33 A.D., in the Epistles of St. Paul, and within 40 years, in the New Testament Gospels. There were many eyewitnesses still alive when these accounts in St. Paul and the Gospels appeared. The descriptions given in the accounts of Jesus about the culture and geography of first-century Palestine match what we know from other sources.
Simon Gathercole, a Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, offers a good reason for suspecting that Jesus was not invented: “It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish savior figure in a time and place – under the aegis of the Roman empire – where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.” If you’re going to invent such a figure, why make him Jewish at all?
As far as we know, the first author outside the church to mention Jesus is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote a history of Judaism around AD93. He has two references to Jesus. One of these is controversial because it is thought to be corrupted by Christian scribes (probably turning Josephus’s negative account into a more positive one), but the other is not suspicious – a reference to James, the brother of “Jesus, the so-called Christ.”
About 20 years after Josephus we have the Roman politicians Pliny and Tacitus, who held some of the highest offices of state at the beginning of the second century AD. From Tacitus we learn that Jesus was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea (AD26-36) and Tiberius was emperor (AD14-37) – reports that fit with the time-frame of the gospels. Pliny contributes the information that, where he was governor in northern Turkey, Christians worshipped Christ as a god. Neither of them liked Christians – Pliny writes of their “pig-headed obstinacy” and Tacitus calls their religion a destructive superstition.
Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.
Imran Khan is not an ignoramus. He attended the Royal Grammar School in Worcester, England and Keble College, Oxford, where he received his degree in Economics and Politics with honors. He ought to have known that there is great deal of written evidence, from Roman, Christian, and later, Islamic sources, for the existence of Israel. In making his astonishing remark, Khan looks foolish to the outside world, and to educated Pakistanis, too. But he doesn’t care. His intended audience are the Pakistani masses, eager to hear anyone call Christianity, or the existence of Christ himself, into question.
Imran Khan thinks he needs to curry favor these Muslim masses by denigrating Christianity. He is regarded by many Pakistani Muslims with suspicion. Some believe he studied in the United Kingdom for far too long, acquiring all sorts of dangerous non-Muslim ideas. Still more disturbing to these masses, his first wife was Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of a billionaire businessman, Sir James Goldsmith, who, though a Christian, came from a long line of Jewish bankers. Imran Khan has repeatedly noted that Jemima was raised as a Christian, and when she married Khan, converted to Islam. But after divorcing her, he still supported her brother Frank Zacharias Goldsmith, whom Pakistanis regard as “a Jew,” when he stood for Parliament. Finally, Imran Khan had a few conversations, nothing more, with an Israeli-American celebrity journalist, Daphne Barak (in the Pakistani press, she was continually, and wrongly, identified as a relative of Ehud Barak). His political opponents in Pakistan have taken to calling him a “Zionist agent.”
Still another concern for Imran Khan is the tell-all book written by his second wife, Reham Khan — he is now on his third — that just appeared this past summer, and in which she tells about his heavy use — six grams a night — of cocaine.
Imran Khan is currently conducting a campaign to improve relations with India. He has promised, for example, to create a corridor that will allow Sikhs in India to have visa-free access from India to the Sikh temple in the Pakistani village of Kartarpur. This Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is one of the holiest places in Sikhism. It’s believed to have been built on the site where Guru Nanak, the founder of the religion, died in the 16th century. Khan’s outreach to Sikhs and Hindus in India, at this point, keeps him from India-bashing.
As for Israel and Jews, he has offered the standard Pakistani hard line, and his country’s policies could hardly be made even more anti-Israel than they have been.
What’s left for Imran Khan to attack in order to shore up Muslim support? It’s to undermine or attack the other historic enemy of Islam — Christianity, the religion of the West. And what better way to do this than to call into question the very existence “in history” of Jesus Christ himself?
Judging by the response on social media to his remarks so far, the Pakistani public seems equally divided. Some are all for denying any evidence for the existence of Jesus, and applaud Imran Khan. Others, however, are embarrassed at Khan’s display of ignorance, and especially at his failing to note the frequent mention of Jesus in the Qur’an.
One final thought. Right now, the Pakistani government is holding Asia Bibi, the Christian woman recently acquitted of charges of blasphemy, after she had been held for eight years in solitary confinement, in protective custody. She remains a prisoner of the state which now protects her, because of the mobs which would kill her if they could. One assumes Imran Khan’s government is now seeking a country, likely the United States, willing to take in Asia Bibi. Given the fury of the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis currently engaged in a search to find, and punish, Asia Bibi, no matter what the Pakistani Supreme Court decided, and given the rage that will erupt if, and when, she is safely transferred to another country, Imran Khan’s remark about Jesus might also have been prompted by a desire to reassure Pakistanis that even if he allows Asia Bibi to leave the country, no one should underestimate his contempt for Christianity, as he hoped to show in declaring there to be no evidence “in history” of Jesus having existed.
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