UNDERSTANDING THE CLAIM
4:157 And their saying (In Boast): “Indeed (Inna) We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, messenger of God!” And they had not killed him, nor crucified him (Salabu+hu), but it appeared to them (Shubbiha) as if they had. And those who dispute are in doubt (Shakkin) regarding him, they have no knowledge (Ilmin) except to follow assumptions (Zani); for they certainly did not kill him.
The verse will be discussed in two main parts:
(1) The claim of the Jews
(2) God’s response to the claim of the Jews by analyzing some key Arabic terms.
(1) THE CLAIM OF THE JEWS
Two further points are key to note:
(a) The usage of the Arabic term ‘inna’
(b) The claim of the Jews that they killed Jesus, the Messenger of God
With regards (a) the use of the Arabic word ‘inna’ is intended to denote a certainty. This is usually translated into English as ‘verily’, ‘indeed’ or ‘surely’. It is clear therefore that the Jewish claim is made with conviction.
The latter part of the claim that they killed ‘the messenger of God is clearly imbued with sarcasm. There is no doubt that those involved in the indictment of Jesus would never have believed him to be a messenger of God. Therefore, the claim that they killed Jesus ‘the messenger of God served no other purpose but to be sarcastic, to prop up an arrogant boast and to form part of the rebuke of the claim of Jesus and his followers (i.e. that Jesus was sent as a messenger of God).
In other parts of the Quran, we note similar rebukes involving the term ‘messenger’ as used by the disbelievers:
25:7 “And they say: What sort of a messenger is this, who eats food and walks through the streets? Why has not an angel been sent down to him to be a warner with him?”
(2) GOD’S RESPONSE TO THE CLAIM OF THE JEWS BY ANALYSING SOME KEY ARABIC TERMS
God’s initial response is two-fold.
(a) They did not kill him
(b) They did not cause Jesus to die ‘in a well known manner’ (Arabic: Salabuhu)
The Arabic word that is commonly translated as crucify is ‘Salabahu’
The word ‘Salabahu’ is formed from the Arabic root word: Sad-Lam-Ba which means:
To put to death by crucifixion, to extract marrow from bones, to put to death in any well known manner of killing
To be crucified one would need to ‘die’ on the cross / pole or stake. Death by this manner can range from a few hours to days and can be a result of blood loss, hypovolemic shock, infection related sepsis or by dehydration. However, for crucifixion to be complete, death would be necessary.
Therefore, the primary significance of the word ‘Salabahu’ means to put to death in a well known manner. This may mean by a process of crucifixion, but is not restricted to it.
For example we note the threat of Pharaoh in the following verse:
7:124 “I will certainly cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, then will I will crucify you all together (Arabic: uSALIBANNAkum)”
A popular translation above renders the word ‘Salibanna’ as crucify when all the Arabic implies is a ‘well known manner of death’ at the time of Pharaoh’s reign which may or may not imply crucifixion on a cross.
WHAT IS AND IS NOT CONFIRMED BY VERSE 4:157
(1) Those asserting to have killed Jesus in boast possibly implying indictment of Jesus as a false messenger, did not kill him.
(2) Nor did they cause Jesus to die by a well known manner of death.
(3) A re-confirmation at the end of the verse again – that they certainly did not kill him. Making this point twice also strongly rebukes the conviction of the false claims imparted by the Jews.
(1) Whether or not Jesus was in fact indicted and put on the cross, as there is nothing in the Arabic to deny that Jesus may have actually been put on the cross. All the verse states is that Jesus did not die in the manner claimed by the Jews (i.e. by crucifixion and as a false messenger of God).
(2) Whether someone else took the place of Jesus, or someone who resembled him. These Muslim interpretations are supported by Islamic secondary sources. This is not a claim made by the Quran.
Furthermore, if we read the following verse (4:158) we obtain further context.
4:158 ‘Nay, he was raised/ elevated (Arabic: rafa’ahu) by God towards him (Arabic: ilayhi)’
The same term ‘rafa’ has been used for Prophet Idris.
19:57 “And we raised him (Arabic: waRAFA’nahu) to a position high”
The Arabic word ‘Rafa’ in this context is a term consistently used in the Quran to denote ‘elevation’ (in degrees) or raising one to God’s special grace. 43:32, 94:4, 6:83, 19:57, 6:165, 7:176, 56:3, 35:10, 24:36.
SO WHAT COULD HAVE ‘POSSIBLY’ HAPPENED?
The following verse gives us further insights:
3:55 when God said, “O Isa, indeed I will Cause you to die (mutawaffeeka) and raise/exalt you (rafiAAuka) to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve and make those who follow you [in submission to God alone] above to those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return, and I will judge between you concerning that in which you used to differ.
Keeping consistent with the Quranic verses, it is quite plausible that Jesus was indicted unjustly as a false Messiah and put on the cross with the intention of killing him (note the reference in the above verse of God cleansing Jesus of those that are bent on denying him). However, his death (which is confirmed by the above verse) may not have been caused as a direct result of the crucifixion process, rather it came as a result of God ending his life very quickly by other natural causes.
In the end, only God knows best.