The following is excerpted from Jesus of Arabia: Understanding the Teachings of Christ through the Culture of the Arabian Gulf, a pioneering work in the field of Islamic-Christian relations that highlights the connections between the cultural world of Jesus Christ and the Islamic cultural world of the Arabian Gulf. The book takes a look at the bridges between Islam and Christianity and how the two religions mirror each other, despite their differences. The Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson uses his experience as a priest in the Church of England and his many years living in the Middle East to analyse the often conflicting roles and loyalties concerning family, culture and God.




Where do we begin an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians about Jesus?

I believe an important place to start is with the Gospels found in the New Testament. This is because the Christian values the Gospels as the authoritative source of information about Jesus, his words, and his works. There are also Islamic sources which speak of Jesus, not least the Holy Qur’an itself. These sources combined lead to a consensus between the faiths that Jesus was a historical figure who was defined as a prophet and teacher sent by God. Beyond that, however, is a sharp division of opinion about Jesus. I want to look at some of the teachings and events of Jesus as outlined in the Gospels and explore how Middle Easterners and Arabs would have potentially interpreted them.

We start with an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel between Jesus and a tax collector called Zaccheus.


An Encounter with Jesus

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zaccheus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.

– Luke 19:1–5


This story in the Gospel of Luke goes on to record how Zaccheus took Jesus home and demonstrated his repentance by returning ill-gotten excess taxes to the people he had cheated. Meanwhile, the crowds muttered about the poor choice of company Jesus was keeping.

The scandal of the story of Zaccheus, at least in the mind of Western Christian readers, is that Jesus condescended to spend time with a corrupt tax collector. As a tax collector, Zaccheus was seen as a collaborator with the Roman forces which occupied his community. As such, he would have been regarded as a despicable traitor. This is a very familiar story in the Western church, and the main point, as taught by centuries of theologians, is that Jesus came to save sinners. There is really no other lesson which can be drawn from this story. Or is there?

For a group of Omani readers encountering this story for the first time, the story excited comments on other grounds. ‘This is absolutely outrageous behaviour,’ said one Omani to the agreement of the others. ‘How could Jesus be so impudent to invite himself to another man’s house! In our culture, we would not dream of inviting ourselves into a neighbour’s house unless we were explicitly invited by the host. Not even the Sultan of Oman has the right to walk into the most humble citizen’s home – he must wait to be invited. The only person who would have that privilege would be God himself.’ His comments trailed off as he realized the import of what he had just said.

Witnessing this dialogue was an American Christian scholar. Although he was an accomplished theologian, he had never before encountered such a novel interpretation of the story of Zaccheus. His encounter with the Omanis provoked a number of tantalizing questions regarding the meaning of this well-known Gospel story.

Steven Caton, an American anthropologist, records in his Yemen Chronicle a similar Arabian aversion to the idea of inviting oneself. He was told that it was considered ‘aib’ (shameful) to visit the tribes uninvited.’


Some Questions

Has the Western Church missed the real point of the story all these centuries?

If the culture of Jesus resembles Gulf Arabian culture rather than that of the West, would Arabs have a better understanding of his message?

Would an Omani interpret this story differently from a Kuwaiti or a Bahraini?

The only way to find out would be to hear the reflections of Gulf Arabs as they read the Gospels and respond with their thoughts on how they interpret the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions through the prism of their own culture.

Therein lies the rub. We will not find out what an authentic Gulf Arab interpretation of these stories might be unless they get the opportunity to encounter the teachings of Jesus. Traditionally this has been discouraged on the grounds that Orthodox Islam teaches that the Holy Qur’an should remain the only source of understanding the person of Jesus. Yet the Holy Qur’an itself advises Muslims to turn to the books of the Jews and Christians in order to confirm the truth.


If you doubt what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures before you. The truth has come to you from your Lord: therefore do not doubt it.

– Sura 10:94


The most important question should be, ‘What did Jesus actually say?’

Of all the questions that lie at the heart of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims, perhaps this is the most essential one.

Muslims are convinced that the original message of Jesus has been changed or lost. They have come to this conclusion for a number of reasons. Firstly, the idea of a prophet claiming divine status is anathema to Islam.

Secondly, Muslims point to textual studies as evidence that the contents of the Gospels have not been preserved faithfully, and so consequently there is little confidence that we do have access to what Jesus actually said. They highlight that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, yet the earliest records we have of his teachings are in Greek. Has anything been lost in translation?

The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) contain a lot of teachings of Jesus which are similar to each other. However, each Gospel also contains stories which are unique to the author of that particular gospel. They also have omissions or variations of the same stories which are found in the other Gospels. These observations have led Muslims to ask, ‘How reliable are the Gospels in preserving the original message of Jesus?’

Then there is the question of interpretation.

Has the message of Jesus, as originally understood by a Middle Eastern audience, been changed as a result of having been filtered through a Western culture? As we have already seen before, Arabs had a very different take on a Gospel story compared to the interpretation provided by the Western Church.

In order to understand Christian beliefs, it is essential that we get back to the question of what Jesus actually said.

Christians believe that there are grounds for having confidence in the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The reasons for their confidence will be highlighted throughout this book. This confidence is based not on a forced or false article of faith but on a reasonable and empirical approach to the text of the Gospels as historical documents. At the end of the book, I document more fully some of the reasons why Christians have confidence in the veracity of the Gospel accounts and why Muslims can also have confidence in them too.

Next, if it is taken that the Gospels are a reliable account of Jesus’ teachings and actions, how were they interpreted by his original audience in a Middle Eastern setting?

Exegesis is the discipline of ‘reading out’ of the sacred text the behaviour, culture, religion, and meanings of the world that Jesus inhabited at the time. Good exegesis, therefore, should lead to a reasonably accurate understanding of what Jesus was trying to communicate to his audience.

It is in this area of exegesis that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims might yield fruitful insights. This is because the traditional cultural world of the Arab is much more in sync with the mindset of Jesus than a typical Western Christian.

In summary then, this book seeks to highlight those connections between the cultural world of Jesus with the Islamic cultural world of the Arabian Gulf. It takes as a starting point some selected teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels and explores how they might have been interpreted in an Arabian context.


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Jesus of Arabia is priced at AED 100.