The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus in medieval Christian anti-Muslim religious polemics
By Steven J. McMichael
Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, Volume 21, Issue 2 (2010)
Abstract: The focus of this article is on the treatment of the resurrection of Jesus in medieval Christian anti-Muslim polemical literature. It will also provide a glimpse of the Muslim perception of Jesus’s resurrection or, actually, the ‘ascension’ of Jesus and the denial by Muslims of the resurrection of Jesus as Christians have understood it. The article will offer a brief review of the issue of the general resurrection of the dead and then focus on how the death and resurrection of Jesus are treated in the Qur’an. Especially important in this article is the presentation of Muslim belief with regard to the resurrection of Jesus in the thought of Pope Pius II, Nicholas of Cusa and Alonso de Espina, all significant Christian writers of the fifteenth century.
Introduction: The twelfth-century monk Peter the Venerable (d. 1156) stated in his anti-Islamic text, the Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum, that Muslims
… do not believe that Christ, though conceived of the Holy Spirit, is the son of God, or God, but [only that he is] a good prophet, most true, free from all falsehood and sin, the Son of Mary, born without a father, [and] never having died, because it was not fitting that he should die. On the contrary, [they believe that] when the Jews wanted to kill him, he ascended to the heavens, having escaped out of their hands, and [that] he lives there now in the flesh in the presence of the creator until the coming of the Antichrist.
Here Peter lists Muslim beliefs that differed from the Christian understanding of the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. Muslims held that Jesus was a prophet; he did not die a shameful death on the cross; he ascended into God’s presence; and he will come again at the end times. At the centre of the Christian–Muslim debate about Jesus were questions about the reality of his death and whether he was resurrected, or ascended into heaven without passing through death. Concerning his ascension into heaven, Peter tells his readers that Muslims believe that Jesus will stay there until the arrival of the Antichrist, at which time he
… will come and kill the faithless with the power of his sword; he will convert the remainder of the Jews and restore the Christians, who, after the death of the apostles, turned aside from the teaching of the Gospels. Like all creatures, Jesus is destined to die and then be resurrected. At the Last Judgment, he is to assist God in his work, though he himself will not judge.
Peter the Venerable, therefore, was quite aware of the essential elements of Muslim belief concerning Jesus’s alleged crucifixion and death and his ultimate role on the Day of Judgment. It is these elements of Muslim understanding that medieval Christians like Peter had to address in their polemical works.