Around the year 1600, the Indian emperor Akbar built a splendid ceremonial gate at Fatehpur Sikri, and on it he inscribed words attributed to Jesus, son of Mary: “The world is a bridge: pass over it, but do not build your house upon it.”
It’s an evocative saying, one of many attributed to Jesus in the Islamic tradition. But is there any chance that such words might have any authenticity, any connection with the historical Jesus? Actually, the chances are greater than you might think, and like a good professor, I am going to illustrate that with a short quiz.
The Koran includes a good deal of material about Jesus. More relevant for present purposes are the many stories and saying gathered by Muslim sages over the following centuries, which have been collected by modern scholar Tarif Khalidi in his book The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Khalidi argues that together, these constitute a whole Muslim Gospel.
Often, the Muslim Jesus closely recalls the language and thought of early Christian scripture, with only the slightest modifications from the familiar gospels. This is particularly true in the oldest layer of sayings and stories, from the 9th century. Jesus points to the birds of the sky and how God cares for them; he urges his followers to lay up treasures for themselves in heaven; they should not cast pearls before swine. In perhaps 30 cases, the resemblances to the Synoptic gospels are overwhelming. Also, very few of these “Muslim Jesus” sayings include any distinctively Islamic ideas.
These texts seem to take us back to an authentically primitive stage in the formation of the New Testament. Scholars agree that the earliest records of Jesus took the form of sayings, or sequences of sayings, with very little of the narrative that we know from the canonical gospels. One such (hypothetical) sayings collection was "Q," which was a critical source for both Matthew and Luke. Christians remembered Jesus’s words, and only later did authors come along and sew those isolated fragments into more complete units, which were then written down. Sayings that did not find their way into the canonical text continued to float free as agrapha, “unwritten,” or unrecorded. We know them because they appear frequently in quotations by early Church leaders, or in alternate manuscript readings of the New Testament.
And that takes us back to the Jesus sayings recorded by early Muslim commentators, which in their style and format bear a surprising resemblance not to the canonical gospels, but to a sayings source like "Q." It looks almost as if those scholars had access to sayings and constructed a plausible narrative around them, but that was not necessarily the same framework provided by the Christian evangelists. Might they have used something like "Q," perhaps even a now-lost Jewish-Christian sayings source?
To illustrate the “early Christian” feel of these sayings from the Muslim Gospel, I offer a random mix of sayings credited to Jesus, with some taken from the early Christian agrapha (non-canonical writings), and the rest from the Muslim Gospel. Which Jesus said what?
1. Be in the middle, but walk to the side.
2. Become passers by.
3. Those who are with me have not understood me.
4. Blessed is he who sees with his heart, but whose heart is not in what he sees.
5. I am near you, like the garment of your body.
6. Satan accompanies the world.
Here are the answers: 1, 4 and 6 are Muslim; 2, 3 and 5 are Christian. If I had not supplied that information, it would be very difficult to tell the two categories apart. Apart from New Testament textual specialists, I doubt that even most scholars of early or medieval Christianity could get a perfect score on deciding which was which.