Before flying to Vancouver over the weekend I began responding to an article posted by Dr. Shabir Ally relating to the substance of our debate at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, which took place on Tuesday, October 8th. I had come to the fourth point in Dr. Ally’s presentation:
My fourth reason for thinking that the original disciples did not consider Jesus God is that Paul’s writings bear evidence that he was in conflict with the original disciples not only over questions of law but also over the question of monotheism. In 2 Corinthians 11:4, it is clear that Paul’s opponents were preaching what Paul calls ‘another Jesus.’ Elsewhere in Paul’s writings it becomes clear that his opponents are the original disciples of Jesus and close followers of the disciples. Now, as Bruce Chilton mentioned, the original disciples’ response to Paul’s accusations are not found in the New Testament. Given the chance, the disciples can be expected to say that their Jesus was the original Jesus, and Paul’s Jesus was the ‘other Jesus.’
I wanted to spend a little time on this claim because it will probably not make much sense to most in our audience. Christians who hear sound, consistent, believing teaching will have no basis upon which to even understand the allegation being made. So I wanted to make sure it was clear so that its refutation can be understood as well.
Today it is very popular in skeptical scholarship to begin with the most egregiously indefensible presuppositions and then force them upon the text. Clearly, the scholars Dr. Ally looks to begin not with the assumption of the unity of the New Testament, but its disunity. They feel free to theorize about “earlier forms” of books, cut and edit as they see fit, introduce contradiction, etc. Nowhere is this seen with more clarity than in this particular assertion which has become very popular today, at least amongst the radical skeptics.
What lies behind Dr. Ally’s argument is the idea that there was a massive rift between Paul and the other Apostles, such as Peter. Note his words, “Elsewhere in Paul’s writings it becomes clear that his opponents are the original disciples of Jesus.” It is being argued today that the people Paul referred to as the “super Apostles” were, in fact, Peter and James and the rest of the Jerusalem leadership, and that there was a great schism between Paul and these original disciples of Jesus. So, then, Dr. Ally hopes to insert a rift into the text of the Bible, turning Paul into an opposer of the “true disciples of Jesus.”
How should we respond to such an assertion? Well, first, let’s address the text cited, that being 2 Corinthians 11. The primary interpretive issue is the identity of the τῶν ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων, “the foremost” or “super” apostles (depending on how we understand the phrase to be used here). Two primary possibilities exist, as laid out in the following citations from recognized commentators:
5. The superlative apostles (Gk hyperlian apostoloi) to whom, according to Paul’s opponents, he himself was so inferior ( cf. 12.11), can scarcely be other than the Jerusalem apostles, including James (as in Gal. 1.19). Such language, by whomsoever used, could not well be applied to men of lower apostolic status than theirs. By this time, perhaps, none of the Twelve was actually resident in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem would still be regarded as their home base. Their designation as superlative apostles might conceivably go back to the intruders in Corinth, who by this phrase, invoked the authority of men whose commission and status were so incomparably superior, by their account, to anything that Paul could justly claim; but there is a strong flavour of irony about the expression, and it is more likely that it is Paul’s way of summing up his opponents’ portrayal of the Jerusalem leaders. We may compare his reference in Gal. 2.9 to ‘James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars’; it may indeed be these three who are primarily in view here. Paul has no thought of depreciating their apostolic status; he is at pains to emphasize that his is not in the least inferior to theirs. He had received his commission from the risen Christ (I C. 9.1; 15.8; Gal. 1.12), and, by his own account, so had they (1 C. 15.5-7). Even if he permits himself a measure of irony, it is rather at the expense of his opponents’ portrayal of the Jerusalem apostles than at the expense of the apostles themselves; in fact, whatever he may have thought or felt about the failure to observe the delimitation of mission fields agreed upon at Jerusalem, he is studiously careful to avoid any overt criticism of the Jerusalem apostles, while he is unsparing in his denunciation of the intruders who invoked their authority ( cf. verses 13-I 5). F.F. Bruce, The New Century Bible Commentary, I&II Corinthians, (Eerdmans, 1971, pp. 236-237)
Paul continues to use the first person singular (see vv. 1, 2, 3) and states his own opinion about the infiltrators. He compares himself with them and facetiously calls them superapostles. He repeats this name in the next chapter, where he again states that he is not inferior to these people (12:11; see also 11:23). By resorting to derision, Paul implicitly indicates that the Corinthians already should have evaluated the intruders as impostors. Indeed, they needed to come to Paul’s defense and dismiss his rivals.
Who are these so-called superapostles? Are they Jesus’ twelve disciples and others who followed him from the time of his baptism to that of his ascension (Acts 1 :21-22)? This interpretation fails to do justice to the immediate context, in which Paul speaks of an opponent who preaches a different Jesus (see v. 4). Moreover, the three pillars of the church (Peter, James, and John) had come to an agreement with Paul on a division of labors between Peter and Paul (Gal. 2:6-9). Apart from a confrontation at Antioch, we do not read of any tension between these two apostles (Gal. 2:11-14) or the rest of them. Hence, we cannot infer that Paul considers himself inferior to the Jerusalem apostles. Rather, he employs irony when he labels the Judaizing interlopers as superapostles.
The expression superapostles “even linguistically brings out the impossible nature of such apostles,” because being an apostle of Jesus is in itself incomparable. The list of spiritual gifts indicates no higher position than that of apostle (I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11).
If the superapostles are not identified with the apostles in Jerusalem, we must associate them with the false apostles whom Paul mentions in verse 13. These men came to Corinth on their own accord, adopted the name apostles to gain entry into the church, and gave the impression of possessing more authority than Paul. Simon Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, 2 Corinthians, (Baker, 1997), p. 365.
The sense here again depends on the connection. If the γὰρ refers to v. 4, the reference must be (as so often occurs in Paul’s writings) to a thought omitted. ‘Ye are wrong in thus bearing with the false teachers, for I am equal to the chief apostles.’ This, however, is not in harmony with the context. Paul’s design is not so much to reprove the Corinthians for tolerating the folly of the false teachers as to induce them to bear with his. He felt it to be necessary to vindicate himself, and he therefore prays them to bear with him a little in his folly. To this point every thing here refers. They should thus bear with him, I. Because he was jealous over them with a godly jealousy. 2. Because they would bear with any who really preached another gospel, were that possible. 3. Because he was on a par with the chief apostles. The connection, therefore, is not with v. 4, but with the main subject as presented in v. 1. This also determines the question, Who are meant by the chiefest apostles? If the connection is with v. 4, then the expression is to be understood ironically in reference to the false teachers. ‘Ye do wrong to tolerate them, for I am in no respect behind those superlative apostles.’ So Beza, Billroth, Olshausen, Meyer, and the majority of the moderns. The reason given for this is, that there is no controversy with the true apostles in this connection, and therefore nothing to call for such an assertion of his equality with them as we find in Gal. 2, 6-11. There is, however, no force in this reason if the connection is with v. I. ‘Bear with me in my boasting, for I am not behind the chiefest apostles.’ In this view the reference to the true apostles is pertinent and natural. Paul says, μηδὲν ὑστερηκέναι, that as to nothing, in no one respect, had he fallen short, or was he left behind by the chiefest apostles; neither in gifts, nor in labours, nor in success had any one of them been more highly favoured, nor more clearly authenticated as the messenger of Christ. He was therefore fully entitled to all the deference and obedience which were due to the chiefest apostles. The expression τῶν ὑpερλίαν ἀpοστόλων, is not in itself bitter or ironical. This is a force which must be given by the connection; it does not lie in the words themselves. It is not equivalent to the ψευδαpόστολοι of v. 13, and therefore there is no more reason why the true apostles should not be called οι ὑpερλίαν ἀpόστολοι than οἱ δοκοῦντες εἶναί τι in Gal. 2, 6. The argument, therefore, which the Reformers derived from this passage against the primacy of Peter is perfectly legitimate. Paul was Peter’s equal in every respect, and so far from being under his authority, he not only refused to follow his example but reproved him to his face. Gal. 2, 11. Charles Hodge, I&II Corinthians (1859) pp. 631-632.
He then proceeds to refute the two reasons which were assigned for the disparagement of his apostolic authority, viz., (a) he had none of the arts of a trained rhetorician, (b) he had not claimed maintenance from the Church of Corinth, which he had a right to do, if of genuine “apostolic” rank. οἱ ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι, “these superfine Apostles” is thus, as at 12:11, an ironical description of the ψευδαπόστολοι (ver. 13) against whom he is contending. The A.V. and R.V. render “the very chiefest Apostles,” i.e., the original Twelve, who received their commission directly from Christ, and especially Peter, James and John; but to introduce any mention of them here would be irrelevant, and would interrupt the argument (they were ἰδιῶται ἐν λόγῳ), not to speak of the fact that ὑπερλίαν seems always in Greek literature to be used in an ironical sense. Benard, J. H. (n.d.). The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. The Expositor’s Greek Testament: Commentary. New York: George H. Doran Company.
1. If οἱ ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι are (οἱ) ψευδαπόστολοι (11:13), that is, Paul’s rivals at Corinth, then the expression “the superlative apostles” is either the self-description of “the false apostles” or the Corinthians’ appraisal of “the false apostles” or Paul’s sarcastic/ironical description of “the false apostles” or of their own opinion of themselves.
2. If οἱ ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι are not (οἱ) ψευδαπόστολοι, then the expression “the superlative apostles” is either “the false apostles’ ” description of the Twelve or the so-called three “pillars” (στῦλοι, Gal. 2:9, namely James, Cephas, and John) in the church of Jerusalem or Paul’s own commendatory or derogatory description of the Twelve or the Three or his parodying of the Corinthian view of “the false apostles” or his own ironical description of the exalted view of the Twelve held by “the false apostles.”
In the Introduction I have endeavored to defend this last position. The most compelling arguments in favor of drawing a distinction between “the superlative apostles” and “the false apostles” (#2 above) are these. First, it is difficult to imagine that Paul would refer to himself as “in no way inferior” to false teachers whom he describes as “deceitful workmen” (11:13) and servants of Satan (11:15). It would be very appropriate for him to claim equality with the Twelve or the Three, but wholly incongruous to claim to be not a whit behind “false apostles.” Second, when Paul compares himself with the “false apostles” he speaks boldly and positively and claims superiority (“… so am I [11:22, three times] … I am more … much harder … more frequently … more severely,” 11:23 [NIV]), but when he compares himself with “the superlative apostles” he speaks mildly and negatively and implies equality (“I am not at all inferior,” 11:5; 12:11). Third, the apostles who are “false” provoke Paul’s forthright and direct denunciation (11:13, 15), even if he takes their allegations and claims seriously, whereas he treats the apostles who are “superlative” indirectly (11:5; 12:11) and with a gentle irony that is comparable to his depiction of the Three as “those who were reputed (οἱ δοκοῦντες) to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9; cf. Gal. 2:6). Fourth, whatever the source of the expression οἱ ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι, would Paul himself have applied the term ἀπόστολοι, however understood, to those he describes as ψευδαπόστολοι? This phrase, “by whomsoever used, could not well be applied to men of lower apostolic status than theirs,” namely “the Jerusalem apostles, including James” (Bruce 236–37).
In 10:12 Paul disavows comparison between himself and his rivals, although he engages in such in 11:22–29 as part of his κατὰ σάρκα boasting (11:18). Here in 11:5, on our view, he resorts to comparison between himself and the Jerusalem leaders, claiming that he is “in no respect” (μηδέν) inferior to them. μηδέν is surprising, since Paul was not a Judean Jew, was not a member of the mother church in Jerusalem, and was without a personal acquaintance with Jesus. But a rigorist understanding of μηδέν is inappropriate in the context. μηδὲν ὑστερηκέναι, “to be in no way inferior,” is litotes for εἶναι ἴσα ἐν παντί (cf. Phil. 2:6), “to be equal in every way,” and Paul has in mind his parity of status as an apostle (as in 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:5, 8–11) (note τῶν … ἀποστόλων) and as a person competent in knowledge of the faith (γνῶσις, 11:6). This assertion of equality is a response to unfavorable comparisons between Paul and the original apostles being made by his rivals who were illegitimately invoking the authority of the Twelve (and James) in support of their own Judaizing program at Corinth. Paul’s overall point in v. 5 is that if the Corinthians tolerated intruders who brought a counterfeit gospel (v. 4) and made inflated claims concerning the Jerusalem leadership (cf. v. 5), they ought also to bear with him in his “bit of foolishness” (v. 1). Murray J. Harris (2005). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 746–748). Grand Rapids, MI; Milton Keynes, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Paternoster Press.
Let me summarize. If οἱ ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι refers to Peter, James, and John, it would be referring to the interloper’s use of their names as a means of denigrating Paul’s authority in the church in Corinth. It would not be a slight upon his fellow Apostles themselves. If the phrase does not refer to them (depending on whether you take v. 5 as being connected directly to v. 1 or v. 4) then it would be a direct reference to the interlopers and their pretended authority, paralleling v. 13. In either case, there is nothing in the context to even begin to insinuate that Paul is saying the original disciples of Jesus are preaching a different Jesus than he is preaching.
So how can modern hyper-skeptics come to the conclusion that there was this huge rift between Paul and Peter when the text nowhere even hints at such a thing? The starting assumption must be recognized. There is one assumption that must be made right at the start, though it is rarely stated as openly as it should be. The Apostle Paul was a liar. Simple, yes? There is no way to sugar-coat it. You have to start out with the simple belief that what Paul wrote in his epistles is dishonest, misleading, erroneous, and purposefully so. Paul was a liar. And Luke, to quote one recent popular writer (Reza Aslan), was Paul’s “sycophant,” so, he, too, is to be dismissed as a liar. So you begin with the assumption that nothing Paul or Luke says is true, and then you have an open door through which to drive a semi tractor worth of theories and speculations, unhindered by the actual historical documents you are pretending to interpret all along. Guilty until proven innocent, but, of course, there really is no mechanism allowed for proving Paul innocent since the starting point of the entire process is his own guilt!
Hence, if Paul says he and Peter agreed on the gospel—well, Paul is a liar. No evidence of a division between them about who Jesus was? Paul was a liar. Luke records the Acts 15 council and there is no division over who Jesus was or what He did? Luke was a liar, too. See how easy this is? Find evidence in the Petrine epistles that he taught what Paul taught? Peter didn’t write any of that anyway! So, once you say you don’t have anything that actually reflects Peter’s views, and Paul is a liar, and now you have the stuff of modern radical skepticism.
Of course, Dr. Ally would never, ever allow us to do this with Muhammad, or Abu Bakr, or Aisha, or any of the other early Muslim figures or writers. But he does so with Paul. In fact, this kind of anti-Paulinism is not only popular amongst liberal writers today, it is simply epidemic amongst Muslim apologists. It is easy to see why, for Dr. Ally admitted in our debate that Paul taught that Jesus was Yahweh in human flesh, and though Shabir still does not understand how that can be (he does not seem to comprehend the distinction between being and person, nor allow for such distinctions in his thought, though, again, he makes similar distinctions in his own theological concepts regarding Allah, Allah’s attributes, and the eternality of the Qur’an as uncreated), the fact remains that there is a fundamental, unalterable, and irreconcilable difference of thought and teaching between the epistles of Paul (and I would argue, all the New Testament writings) and the understanding of the Qur’an. Of course, I do not believe the author of the Qur’an was at all aware of this (if he was, why is there no warning against Paul? Why no refutation of Paul’s Christology and a vindication of Peter’s, for example?), but that is the problem: Dr. Ally’s view of the NT is forged by his understanding of a later work, a work that is fundamentally flawed in its understanding of the New Testament.
Dr. Ally’s fifth point he expressed this way:
Fifth, Jesus himself is known to have taught that he is a man and not God. But the Gospels distorted the image of Jesus transforming him from a man to something greater. This can be seen as we compare Mark, the first Gospel, to Matthew and Luke. But this evolution can be seen even more as we compare Mark with John, the last of the four Gospels to be written.
Briefly, once again, Shabir insists upon an anachronistic redefinition of Christian belief. Yes, Jesus taught He was a man. Well, He did not have to do that, everyone could see that. But Christians affirm the humanity of Jesus. Any orthodox confession speaks of this truth. But it is a presupposition that we have already challenged repeatedly that there is any such distortion of Jesus’ image, and repeating the same old “I can read the mind of Matthew and based upon my theories of gospel originations and assuming the gospel writers simply edited the earlier versions in a blind fashion I can come up with this theoretical conclusion” arguments will not do in this debate. The whole point of the debate was to get beyond the repetition of that old argument and ask the most basic question—is there any strata of the earliest tradition that is devoid of an exalted view of Jesus, and my answer was, no, there is not. And that is why the first part of this response was so important, because Dr. Ally conceded the point! By abandoning the New Testament evidence and going to the Old Testament Shabir was admitting the whole point of the thesis of the debate!
There is yet some more to respond to, which I hope to get to very quickly in the next portion of my reply.