A new film on Jesus, told from an Islamic perspective, has drawn mixed reactions from the Christian community over its claim that Jesus did not die on the cross but was replaced by Judas Iscariot.
"The Messiah" – written, produced and directed by Iranian filmmaker Nader Talebzadeh - was filmed in the Islamic Republic of Iran with Iranian actors to portray how Muslims understand the life of Jesus based on the teachings of the Qur'an and the Gospel of Barnabas – a book not included in the Christian Bible and in which the Prophet Mohammed appears.
The movie features two endings – the Muslim and Christian version of Jesus and the cross – and has won an award at Rome's Religion Today Film Festival for generating interfaith dialogue.
Dr. Emir Caner, dean of the College at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former devout Muslim, recommends Christians to view both versions of the crucifixion account and ask themselves several questions:
• When was Jesus replaced, according to the Qur'an?
• Why did the disciples not recognize that the man they were following was replaced before the cross
• Why did the mother of Christ not recognize that her son was not present on the Cross
• What was the alleged purpose of Allah in deceiving the crowd, including the disciples and Mary, into thinking Christ was being crucified
Caner, who is also a professor of history, said he believes that in the end the film should be welcomed.
"Perhaps Muslims and Christians will recognize that the Qur'an only offers sparse speculation into one of the most noted events in history while the Bible gives meticulous detail into the historic events of the day," Caner wrote to The Christian Post in an email Thursday. "It is a new day when the public is once again willing to discuss religious issues with eternal significance."
For most of "The Messiah," Jesus is depicted similarly to versions made in the West – light complexion, brown hair and performing miracles, according to Variety magazine. But where the Muslim version diverges is at the end where the disciple Judas Iscariot miraculously transforms into the likeness of Jesus and is crucified in his place.
"He (Jesus) is not the son of God and was never the son of God. He is a prophet and he was not crucified, that somebody was crucified in his stead," Talebzadeh claimed, according to CNN.
The director said his goal in making the film was to show both Muslims and Christians their common and different beliefs in Jesus and to generate conversation between the two groups who in recent years have been pitted against each other.
"When you show this information (Christian view of Jesus) to the common people, they don't know. Ninety percent of the Muslims in Iran don't know about this," Talebzadeh said.
Dr. Gary R. Habermas, distinguished research professor and chair of the department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, said he has not seen the film but commented that Islam is "very respectful" of Jesus. He noted that the Qur'an has almost 100 verses on Jesus.
"The bad news is he is not the son of God, he didn't die on the cross and because he didn't die, he didn't rise from the dead," Habermas said to The Christian Post. "The good news is he is a great prophet, he is sinless, he is virgin born and he did miracles."
Habermas, who recently returned from a debate with a Muslim in England, said the idea that Jesus did not die on the cross for the salvation of mankind is based on surah 4:157-158 that says Jesus was not crucified.
He emphasized that the Qur'an does not say that Judas took Jesus' place but only that he was not crucified. The interpretation of Judas dying in place of Jesus is only one of several popular Muslim explanations for why Jesus did not die on the cross.
But not all Christians are happy with the film. One blogger, who goes by the pen name "Dan Goldfinch" in his web log at WordPress.com, argues that not only the Bible but history also declares that Jesus was crucified.
"Jesus didn't come to earth for mere respect," wrote the Ohio-based preacher. "If Jesus has not been crucified then he has not been resurrected. If Jesus has not been resurrected from the dead, then Christians are without hope. We may as well party it up if Christ has not been Resurrected from the dead."
Goldfinch further said that what the Qur'an does not understand and explain is that man's sin must be dealt with and if it is "not dealt with in the death of Christ then we, and all of humanity from the beginning until the end, are simply obligated to be 100 percent obedient to the law."
"So if there is no death of Christ as this man is purporting in his film, then exactly how will we be saved from our sins?" the Christian blogger asked.
Director Talebzadeh meanwhile sees the film as an Islamic response to "The Passion of the Christ," the 2004 blockbuster of self-professed Catholic Mel Gibson. Although the Iranian filmmaker praised Gibson's movie, he said it was "wrong."
"The Messiah," with over 1,000 actors and extras, was one of the largest film productions in Iran, according to Variety magazine. It is the first movie to portray Jesus both from the Muslim and Christian perspective.
The film has already been released in Iran and will soon be available on the Internet, according to CNN.