Friday, August 13, 2010

Islam's Jesus: "The Gospel of Barnabas" on Lebanese TV

Reports out today from the BBC note that protests by Lebanese Christians have led to the cancellation of a television series based on the life of Jesus. What? Shouldn't Christians be excited about a TV show starring Christ, you ask?

Not if its hero is more Muslim than Christian.

Believers are upset because the series's narrative relies heavily on the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas, a late retelling of Jesus's life that is ascribed to Paul's traveling companion in Acts. (Scholars note that Barnabas directly quotes Dante's Inferno, so most argue that it was composed between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, hundreds of years after Jesus's death.) The earliest manuscripts are in Spanish and Italian, but they borrow huge chunks of the Vulgate Bible--Saint Jerome's fourth-century Latin translation of holy writ.

However, this "new" gospel isn't controversial for what it borrows from previous texts, but for what it leaves out--specifically, Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. In the book, Jesus teaches, does miracles, and speaks with God, but he is neither killed by Romans nor brought back to life by the deity. Given these deletions, Barnabas's Jesus closely resembles Islam's depiction of the Christian savior.

Muslims believe that Jesus, like the prophet Muhammed, is a rasul: a "messenger" of God even cooler than a run-of-the-mill prophet, or nabi. (According to the Qur'an, other Biblical heroes, like Moses and Noah, also earn the title rasul.) For Muslims, Jesus has a direct line to the divine, but he is not God's son. Nor is he raised from the dead. He is a holy man and an influential teacher, but he is not the atoning sacrifice he is for Christians.

Because of such similarities, many see Islam's version of Jesus in Barnabas. For years, some Muslim scholars have contended that Barnabas is an authentic gospel that corrects the mistakes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and of Christianity, for that matter.

Of course, Muslims are welcome to their views--both on the putative divinity of Jesus and on the authenticity of this late gospel. But Lebanese television producers' decision to broadcast a Barnabas-based TV show during Ramadan--Islam's holiest month--was unnecessarily provocative to the region's Christians. And authorities' decision to cancel it is a smart move toward inter-religious reconciliation in the hotbed that is the Middle East.

Nonetheless, I admit that I'd like to see the series, if someone would care to subtitle it for me. Its cancellation, while advisable, reinforces the perception that there is one "correct" understanding of the Christian savior--the Bible's. Indeed, there are literally dozens of other gospels, all of which deliver different perspectives on the life and death of Jesus. And while none is so early or influential as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all can provide valuable insights into the ways new generations of believers--and non-believers--understand and interpret the man who Christians say died for their sins. Even the Gospel of Barnabas.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Josh, this is worthy of an in-person discussion. I'm really surprised at the stand you're taking.


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