A Critical Review of Sayed Modarresi's Book
by Scott Cherry—
Is the Islamic Jesus the Authentic Jesus?
Modaressi's Jesus is the Islamic Jesus, not the biblical Jesus. His book is a polemic against the Bible and the gospels' Jesus, and for that he must be challenged. What's more, The Lost Testament is an attempt to argue that Islam's reservoir of Jesus's teaching is superior to the Bible's. I argue otherwise.
If the source of the gushing quote about Jesus in the summary is unidentified, this one is clearly attributed—to the prophet of Islam, no less.
Prophet Mohammed: Jesus said, ‘Woe to you, Oh servants of evil! For the sake of this lowly world and base desire you relinquish the kingdom of Paradise and forget the terror of the resurrection!’ (p. 46)
For the record, I have no objection to this quote. Then again, what is "the terror of the resurrection"? Actually, the Bible never puts those two words together, yet the statement still resembles something Jesus might have said. But the really important question is, Where did Mohammed get it?
I have a similar curiosity about each of the purported sayings of Jesus in this book. Although they are assigned to someone by name, such as Imam Sadeq or Prophet Mohammed, in English, their citations are not provided in English, only in Arabic or not at all. Since the book was obviously produced for an English-speaking audience, I would think the citations should have also been provided in English. Although the whole quote appears first in Arabic followed by what appears to be a citation in Arabic, it is not translated into English so unfortunately I cannot read it. That's disappointing. Again, I am very curious about the source for each quote. …The Qur’an? …The hadith? …Other writings? (Are they apparent to you?)
As for the saying itself, I like it and agree with it (I think); I cannot tell what is meant by the “terror of the resurrection.” Jesus and his apostles are well-known for having warned against valuing the things of the “lowly world” over eternal things. It immediately reminds me of this saying of Jesus:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19–21)
This authentic saying of Jesus comes from the gospel of Matthew, from his famous sermon on the mount. In it the words of Jesus have been beloved for two millennia for their wisdom and ethical purity. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of sermon that is celebrated in the first quote at top, yet none of it is included in Modarresi’s “Lost Testament”. The next quote assigned to Prophet Mohammed is obviously not from the Bible—any one of the four gospels nor any other part of the New Testament. It is equally obvious that the Bible is not one of the sources of any of these Jesus sayings? But why not? For much of the world over the centuries, Christians or otherwise, haven’t the Bible’s four gospels been the most well-known sources for the teachings and deeds of Jesus? Yes. By contrast, that no other single source has the wealth of material about him and by him is indisputable; certainly not the Qur’an.
As a thought exercise, even if the book’s title were taped over and the reader were to skip the introduction, he or she could infer the message of the book: “We don’t need the Bible to tell us the wisdom of Jesus. The Islamic literature contains it all. In fact, if you are a Christian who has only read the gospels you are missing out. The Islamic writings have material that is not found in the gospels, so you need not bother with them.”
When you ‘pull the tape off’ the cover and read the introduction, of course, this thesis becomes all the more blatant when he says, “What is missing from the Christian narrative, particularly the New Testament Bible [sic; should contain “of the…”], are incredibly insightful words uttered by Jesus during his years as a wayfarer. Mesmerizing gems of wisdom that have been left undiscovered by Christendom, until now.” Aha, herein lies the claim. I have already highlighted one problem with it.
Quite unimpressively, the author goes on in the next paragraph to use the so-called Jefferson Bible as an example. When compiling it, he said, “America’s first president Thomas Jefferson cut out the ‘red letters’ or words of Christ (written in red in the King James Bibles) for easier reference.” Not that this is the point, but it is probably indicative of other things: 1) Jefferson was America’s second president, not the first. 2) Jefferson did not cut out the words of Christ, he cut out his miracles, something which most Muslims would not celebrate. The fact is just the opposite to the point the author is trying to make, that Jefferson prized the wise and moral teachings of Jesus contained in the gospels above all! 3) No, not all King James Bibles have red letters for the words of Christ, only some do, and historically most have not. And some other versions also have them, not only the KJV.
In the next paragraph Modarresi lays out his argument:
“Herein lies the basic problem: If Jesus lived among his disciples for thirty three years, preaching to the masses as well as an entourage of twelve companions who followed every move, should we not have more than a four-hundred page book that chronicles his life and teachings. Far from being a recluse, Jesus’ teachings were taught far and wide, so does it make sense that the existing Bible would contain such a small number of statements attributed to him? A measly two thousand single words is all he uttered throughout his life? …leaving reform movements like the so-called Red Letter Christians desperate for more of what Jesus actually said. Something is most certainly amiss.” (p. 17-18, bold mine)
It will take a little doing to untangle this knot, but let me begin. The author’s fundamental problem is his assumption that 33 years of living should produce more than the amount of teaching material that we have in the New Testament; or does he mean just the four gospels? (i.e. 400 pages or 2000 words.) First of all, what do these numbers refer to? The first figure must refer to the whole New Testament, and the second to the “red letters”, i.e. the words of Jesus only. But first, Modarresi is mixing ‘apples and oranges’ because the New Testament is a sacred library of revelation. It contains the words of Jesus but not only his words, his deeds also compiled in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Plus there are 23 other sacred books and letters of the Apostles and their companions (the Acts of the Apostles through the Book of Revelation) which represent the period after the departure of Jesus from the earth. Therefore we should not expect to find any words of Jesus in those 23 books and letters. Second, on what basis can Modarresi say how many pages or words of scripture there should be, or the words of Jesus in particular? How many should we have exactly? By comparison, at 77,934 words the whole Qur’an is less than half as long as the New Testament of the Bible (181,253 words). Also, the words of Jesus come to over 30,000 even after the exact duplications are omitted (about 16% of the total content of the four gospels, and 38% of the length of the Qur’an); not a mere 2000 words. (And his deeds are equally important.) In the same vein shall I ask how many words of Muhammad there are in the Qur’an? Very few. (But I realize that would not be a fair question, because the Qur’an is not supposed to be his words. So asking it would be similar to asking why only the four gospels contain the words of Jesus, and not the rest of the New Testament. They are both based on false assumptions.)
For the words of Muhammad himself we must turn to the sayings attributed to him in the hadith which number over 600,000 in total. The trouble with that is that so many non-authentic sayings have been attributed to him, which most Muslims admit; so many that of that 600,000+ hadith only about 1% are considered authentic (sahih), and Muslims do not all agree on exactly which are sahih. But dare I resubmit the question? How many undisputed, authentic words of Muhammad are there in the hadith? Since Modarresi did not offer that information I shall also let it go unanswered at this time. (If he, or you, give me a number we can analyze it.) No doubt some of the sayings of Jesus contained in The Lost Testament come from the hadith. So the same process of authentication that is applied to Muhammad’s purported sayings must also be applied to those of Jesus.
In addition to these considerations I add these:
· Jesus did not live among his disciples for 33 years. His whole life span was 33 years, and he did not collect his disciples until he started his ministry at age 30. Modarresi is way off on this.
· Except for one episode when he was 12, Jesus lived a mostly normal life according to the four gospels. He did not start teaching and preaching and having important revelatory conversations until after his baptism and subsequent ‘fastathon’ around age 30. Therefore, from the Christian perspective there were only about 3+ years of Jesus’s important (revelatory) words to be had, and they are contained in the four gospels (much more than Modarresi asserts, as we have seen).
· By comparison, Muhammad did not start his ministry until age 40 and lived to age 63.
· That means that Jesus’s remarkable ministry was super-concentrated into only 3 years, which was about 9% of his total lifespan. By contrast, Muhammad’s ministry years comes to about 36% of his lifespan, a difference of 27%. So shouldn’t there be about 27% more authentic (sahih) teachings attributed to Muhammad than to Jesus? (It’s simple math and logic.) But there isn’t. Again, I ask for you or someone to put forth a number of Muhammad’s words (sahih only please).
· As I said above, the deeds of Jesus were equally important to his words. So if 16% of the four gospels consist of the words of Jesus, the remaining 84% consists of his deeds (though in truth we could subdivide this further into 1) narrations about his deeds and behaviors; 2) the speech of other people talking to Jesus or about him, or to each other; 3) quotes from the Old Testament, and still a few others.) But a very high percentage would be category 1—Jesus’s deeds.
So one question I have to ask Modarresi is, why does he not include any of Jesus’s deeds in his book? Both the Qur’an and the hadith contain narratives about his deeds (e.g. the time when Jesus made live birds out of clay), so they seem significant. For example, the Qur’an contains this verse that is in the words of Jesus but is all about the things that he did:
“I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of dust the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission, and I heal the blind and the leprous, and bring the dead to life with Allah’s permission; and I inform you of what you should eat and what you should store in your houses. Surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers. (3:49)
It reminds me of a similar passage found in two of the gospels as follows:
In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:21-23, and also in Matthew 11:4-6)
But by their absence in The Lost Testament are we to conclude that he thinks the deeds of Jesus are irrelevant? It’s also possible that he dismisses the supernatural as Bart Ehrman does, but I suspect that is not the case (I could be wrong). In any case, from the Christian perspective the deeds of Jesus are HUGELY significant. Consider even the second of the two examples that I mentioned above—Jesus’s ‘fastathon’ found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and which most Bibles’ headings call “The Temptation of Jesus” because it was the only time Satan tried to throw Jesus off track by three temptations because he believed Jesus was the “Son of God”, or was worried that he was at least. I like to call it his fastathon because, well, he fasted for a really long time before the temptation started. For the sake of brevity, here’s the most condensed passage narrated in the gospel of Mark chapter 1 verses 12-13:
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. (See the longer passages in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.)
This version doesn’t even say Jesus fasted, but the others both do—for 40 days. To Muslims, how could this deed be laudable?(But it was apparently the only time he fasted. He also said a few things about fasting in other situations, but not much. He never commanded people to fast, for example, and in the other instances he issued warnings for fasting. So with respect to fasting, his deed was more pronounced than his words on the subject.
But this passage is impressive in a few other ways. First, almost all of it is narrative. Of the 252 words in Luke’s version, 212 words are the combined narration and the words of Satan numbering 66. Jesus’s words number 40 comprising three rebuttals to the devil. But guess what? All three rebuttals were quotations from the Tawrat (Torah), the words of Moses. That means that Jesus said none of his own words in the narrative. Shall we conclude that it has nothing of value, or that the words of Satan are more important than Jesus’s? Of course not. Indeed, this is one of the most unique and profound accounts in all four of the gospels that embeds Jesus’s wisdom and authority within the deeds and the dialogue of the narrative and draws upon the highly esteemed revelations to Moses. And even though Satan’s words are more than Jesus’s, Satan is still the arch-enemy of Jesus and everyone. Further, on an occasion when some other prophets would have succumbed to such severe temptations, Jesus was invincible. He could not be tempted or tricked. And there was never a time when Satan commanded Jesus, not even for “good”. Impossible.
On page 18 of The Lost Testament Modarresi mounts his frontal attack on the New Testament as a whole and the history of its canonization. First he says, “…The Bible itself cannot be empirically traced back to Jesus or his direct disciples.” By this he cannot really be talking about the whole Bible, because, as I explained before, much of the Bible (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh) was penned before the life of Jesus, so it could never be attributed to Jesus in any sense, and it isn’t. Only the New Testament is explicitly related to Jesus per se. Then, as I have already explained, only the content of the four gospels through Acts 1:11 could be attributed to Jesus, because the rest of the New Testament follows the four gospels in sequence and in time—after the life of Jesus. Therefore, everything starting with the Acts 1:12 through the end of the Book of Revelation is also not attributable to Jesus while he was on earth. With this clarification in mind, it is true that skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman question or challenge the authenticity of Jesus’s words and deeds as found in the four gospels (although they do not question his crucifixion). But by the same criteria used to challenge the content of the gospels they would certainly also challenge or reject the sayings attributed to Jesus in The Lost Testament. All Islamic sources are subject to the same forms of scrutiny and skepticism, which sources would fail the test. To be sure, there is much debate between conservative and more liberal scholars, but expecting “empirical” evidence is a ‘red herring’, a distraction. It simply is an unattainable standard for ancient literature of any kind, and for all religious texts including the Qur’an. (Is there empirical proof that Muhammad received bonafide revelations, or if he did that he received them from Almighty God? No.) No empirical evidence can be had for most religious claims (although the crucifixion of Jesus is as close as it gets.) Therefore, “empirical” evidence is an unreasonable criterion for both the gospels and the Qur’an. But that does not mean there is no evidence at all, or no strong evidence. There is. So scholars and average people alike must weigh the available evidence and measure the strength of it. The evidence for the authenticity of Jesus’s words and deeds is ample and strong. According to many scholars, and to me, the four gospels are by far the most historically reliable, beautiful, ethically sound, coherent and trustworthy sources for what Jesus really said and did, and therefore of divine revelation.
Further, Muslims readily affirm that the true gospel (Injeel) was delivered to Jesus who proclaimed it faithfully and which was put into writing accurately as Holy Scripture. But then they believe that it was altered and corrupted over the six centuries before the rise of Islam. Since the Qur’an does not say that precisely it is fair to question the origin of this belief, and also to challenge the evidence for the Islamic claim of corruption. That is to ask, since in the Muslim view the gospel was originally pure and accurate, what exactly was altered? When were the manuscripts altered? Who altered them? How were they altered uniformly in all manuscripts? And for that matter, why would God allow it? (The Qur’an states explicitly that this is impossible) There are multiple thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts alone (over 5600), and thousands in other languages too. Minor variants notwithstanding (which exist abundantly in Qur’anic manuscripts too), their enormous uniformity of around 99.5% shows that the gospels we have today are the same as when they were first put to writing by the Apostles and their companions. Contrary to the author’s claim (page 18), there are many celebrated scholars that do not “struggle” over the veracity of the gospel narratives as we now have them. They are authentic and uncorrupted.
Next Modarresi says,
To this day biblical scholars struggle with the notion of why two centuries would pass before any of Jesus’s words or teachings are canonized—officially included in the body of Christian scripture. Some books were disputed during this time… It wasn’t until 400 AD under Roman emperor Theodusius, that it was decided which texts to include and which to scrap, declare heretical, and ultimately destroy. Resolutions at the 7th Ecumenical Council literally rewrote the Bible [and] …giant gaps were left in the doctrine and practice of Jesus. This forced the church to fill those doctrinal apertures through some thirteen Pauline Epistles… (underscore mine)
Except for the second sentence this passage is false. But they are hardly new claims, they are old and worn out. In particular, the underlined segment is patently false: No such state-authorized “scrapping”, rewriting and/or destruction of the New Testament occurred, ever. But there is also a ruse in play here. For in asserting all this Modarresi wishes his readers to suppose that the Qur’an has no such problems of its own, which it certainly does. With a brevity equal to that of the author’s claims I will continue to explain why the gospels deserve utmost confidence.
The Bible’s New Testament and the Qur’an both have a history. They each underwent a canonization process which were vastly different. The Bible’s canonization was not protracted and late as the author claims, but was essentially immediate as each part emerged. Its process was non-centralized and organic, while the Qur’an’s was centralized and government-sponsored under the first three Islamic emperors (caliphs). What’s more, according to new historical studies of the Qur’an, this canonization continued up until 1924 when the final ‘Hafs’ text was chosen. Most of the books of the New Testament were informally canonized immediately by virtue of their acceptance, circulation and usage by the Christian community. It’s true that some books were disputed for periods of time, as Modarresi said, but that is not the same as rejected. Even while they were in dispute they were widely recognized as canonical because they were in use and in circulation among the churches which is the ultimate criterion for canonicity, not whether they were included on a list. Another important criterion was whether they were regarded as holy scripture by various church fathers who readily quoted from them in their 2nd-century writings (think of them as post-Apostolic ‘founding fathers’ of the church). Finally, there were lists. *Footnote 9 contains a useful table of the various lists of the New Testament canon, the books and letters that were regarded by those church fathers as Holy Scripture, or divine revelation. It is noteworthy that 20 of the 27 books of the Bible’s New Testament were never in dispute. These include the four gospels that contain the words and deeds of Jesus and were universally accepted as holy scripture by the church fathers who abundantly quoted from them. They also included the book of Acts, and all the letters of Paul the Apostle, plus others. They were immediately regarded as divine revelation from the time of their publication. And contrary to Modarresi’s assertion that the letters of Paul were simply ‘fillers’, they were actually the first parts of the New Testament to be published (50-63 AD) which went immediately into duplication and ‘canon circulation’; parts of them known as creeds are assigned even earlier dates (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 = 30-35 AD). Next, during the tail end of this period proceeded the Gospel of Mark or Matthew, depending on which really came first. In any case, besides the 27 books of today’s New Testament, including the four gospels in particular, no other sources of the teachings and deeds of Jesus have EVER been included in the canon. None. In other words, the four gospels and Acts, plus the letters of Apostles Paul, Peter and John (etc.) have always been the primary sources of divine information about Christ—who was himself the revelation of God. They were all 1st-century writings, and no 2nd-century writings have ever been considered canonical. The gnostic gospels for example, were all 2nd or 3rd-century writings about Jesus or attributed to Jesus, and have never been considered canonical by any early Christians. None of them have ever been on any list of writings included in the New Testament. Now, at least one good reason why they should not have been included is because 1) They did not exist until the late 2nd-century and so could not be considered when the authentic gospels and other inspired writings were emerging; 2) They were much too late to be considered authentic and reliable sources by those who valued true history. And if those were too late to be authentic, why should anybody consider sayings attributed to Jesus which appeared after that, especially Islamic ones that emerged no less than SIX centuries after Jesus. Why would the All-Perfect Creator allow eye-witness narratives of Jesus’s words to be corrupted only to mystically ‘reveal’ them again centuries later? As many Muslim have said to me in these very words: It doesn’t make sense.
Unlike Islam, the Christian community did not depend on the state to perform its canonization, as happened in 7th century Arabia (650 AD). The various parts of the New Testament were written as complete books and letters each with a coherent narrative, and could be read and considered as literary wholes. By contrast, the Qur’an was understood, up until the death of Muhammad, as oral by nature and largely unwritten except in scattered and piecemeal fragments (bones, scraps of leather, etc.) and also memorized. Under state decree and management, the fragments had to be collected (willingly or forcibly), sorted, sifted, authenticated, rated, merged, collated, standardized, and codified. And all this happened twice because the third emperor (Uthman) was dissatisfied with the first edition of Abu Bakr. But even then there remained other non-standard, non-Uthmanic versions of the Qur’an that were destroyed by fire (see al Bukhari, vol 6, hadith numbers 509-510). None of this had to happen with the parts of the New Testament because they had actual authors of divinely revealed material. Indeed, there was a ‘ratification’ of the NT canon in the 4th century, i.e. a communal recognition of the already functioning canon by a council of bishops. By contrast, the Uthmanic version of the Qur’an was canonized and institutionalized as the one-and-only true version of the Qur’an by the power of one man: Uthman.
As I said in the beginning, I do not object to many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in The Lost Testament because they are positive and similar to those found in the Bible. But I found that the author has a faulty understanding of the New Testament on a number of counts. I hope I have clarified and corrected at least some of the issues for him, for my Muslim neighbor and for you—whether or not you’ve read the book. I’m grateful to her for loaning it to me, which gave me the opportunity to read and think through it slowly.
In closing, it is fitting to include a passage from the New Testament that is unique to it. It is the words of Jesus (with narrative), and it is neither in the Qur’an nor the hadith. This particular one comes from the Gospel of Matthew 16:24–28 and it is only one of hundreds that I could have chosen from the four Gospels. If it were copied from a red-letter edition of the New Testament it would appear like this:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Perhaps I’ll write a part 2 with more examples. For now I ask you, what do you take from this passage?
 Much of the material Jefferson elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings, such as the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The Jefferson Bible, as it’s known, is “scripture by subtraction,” writes Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/
 This number varies among Muslim scholars but presumably represents the 1924 Hafs version, the primary one in the West, but not everywhere. There are others such as the Warsh version that has a different number of words (used in North Africa) partly due to how they are counted.
 A Muslim said this: “In principle, if you take out the repeated words, the total number of words in Qur'an may well be less than 2000. Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) has revealed His book which contains so few words. This is another miracle of the Qur'an. (underscore mine) https://yhoo.it/30Y6kMb So at least this Muslim person believes that the fewest number of words can be evidence of a miracle.
This number varies depending on the specific manuscripts used and other factors.
 Gospels of Matthew 6:16-18 and 9:14-15; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:34-35 and 18:9-14
 Tawrat (Torah), Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:13 and 6:16
 There are a few exceptions such as the passage in Acts 9:3-6 when Apostle Paul received his encounter with Jesus from heaven on the road to Damascus, and in the Book of Revelation chapters 1-4 when John received his vision of Jesus in heaven.
 Surah 3:3, 5:46-47 and 68; 10:94, and 18:27
 Seven of the most prominent ones were Clement of Rome (A.D. 97), Ignatius (110), Polycarp (155), Justin Martyr (165), Irenaeus (202), Cyprian (258), Athanasius (373). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Fathers. Except for 11 verses, the entire New Testament can be reassembled from the quotations in the writings of the church fathers.
 Canon inclusion by virtue of copying, circulation and usage in the churches.
 There is debate about this. The church fathers say it was Matthew, but a current consensus says Mark.
 The ‘gnostic gospels’ are writings that include the gospels of Peter, Judas, Mary, and many others.