Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Can Paul Be Trusted? Ali Ataie vs.Sound Christian Scholarship (#7)
11/23/2007 - James WhiteA few months ago I began responding to Ali Ataie's attack upon the Apostle Paul. I took a brief break because of the Seattle trip, and since I have returned from Seattle, I have been overwhelmed with upcoming duties, teaching, Arabic and the like. But I have a full list of blog articles that are "in progress" and "still need to be done," so Lord willing, I'll get to them eventually! My last response to Ataie was posted here. I pick up with his words,
Paul's obvious unfamiliarity about the Gospel tradition is further seen when he describes Jesus post-resurrection appearances:I note just in passing that Ataie has provided no foundation for this accusation of ignorance of the "Gospel tradition" as we demonstrated in our previous refutations of his assertions.
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the TWELVE: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time (1 Cor. 15 4:8).Of course, "the Twelve" is a title used to refer to the Apostolic band; the previous appearances were to individuals apart from the disciple band as a group, hence their being noted singularly. Judas' death did not cause the Twelve to become known as the Eleven, of course. And so all we have here is Mr. Ataie's ignorance of simple linguistic usage, not ignorance on Paul's part.
If Cephas (Peter), James, and Judas (since he is dead) are not included in the twelve, then who are the other three disciples that are taking their places amongst the twelve?
After his life-changing vision of Christ while traveling to Damascus, Paul does not go into Jerusalem to consult with the chosen disciples of Jesus, but rather goes to Arabia for about three years (according to the Book of Galatians) to basically formulate his revolutionary doctrine pertaining to the death and resurrection of Jesus.Note the unfounded assertion, "his revolutionary doctrine pertaining to the death and resurrection of Jesus." All of the first century documentation indicates that this was the universal message of the early Christians, and only the anachronistic bias of a particular interpretation of 40 lonely Arabic words written over half a millennium later is responsible for Ataie's comments.
Scholars agree that Paul most likely did not author the book of II Timothy. The pseudonymous author, however, is schooled enough in Pauline doctrine to declare: Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead ACCORDING TO MY GOSPEL (II Timothy 2:8).Another bland use of the wonderful phrase "scholars agree." Some scholars agree. Many others do not. I'm sure Ataie would not accept such argumentation as, "Scholars agree that Muhammad most likely did not author all of the Qur'an." As far as the statement goes, it is likewise true. But serious argumentation goes beyond taking polls of current "scholars" and goes to the actual arguments behind their assertions. When you do this regarding those who restrict the Pauline corpus you find that the foundational arguments always admit of alternative explanations.
Next, evidently, Ataie thinks "according to my gospel" (kata. to. euvagge,lio,n mou) means "according to the gospel that finds its origins solely in me." But such is far from the truth. There were many false gospels being preached, even in the days of the Apostles, as Galatians demonstrates. Even today there are so many contradictory "gospels" that one has to sadly emphasize that one is talking about the gospel that is derived from Scripture alone and all of Scripture. So identifying the gospel is hardly surprising. As an Apostle of Jesus Christ Paul's gospel would be in contrast to the false gospels of the Judaizers, for example. So "his" gospel would be the authoritative one, just as Muhammad's words would be authoritative for the Islamic community. That would not mean that Muhammad was claiming he came up with his message rather than Allah, of course, which is the very sense Ataie assumes for these words of Paul. Again, we see a major amount of prejudice operating in Ataie's misreading of Paul.
A Clear and Perspicuous Book?
11/17/2007 - James WhiteSince the Seattle debate Shabir Ally and I have been posting various commentaries on elements of the debate. Obviously, Shabir has had more time to be doing this than I have, but we have both posted some rather lengthy commentary on particular points. I will continue to comment as time allows, but I am certain I will not be able to match Mr. Ally's literary output. Be that as it may, I do trust the readers to analyze the contributions for themselves.
The Qur'an claims to be a clear, perspicuous book. In Surah 5:15-16 we read,
O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book (مِّنَ اللّهِ نُورٌ وَكِتَابٌ مُّبِينٌ)---wherewith Allah guideth all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leadeth them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light---guideth them to a path that is straight.The people of the Book are Jews and Christians, and hence there is a comparison inherent in these words, one claiming the Qur'an is more clear, more relevant, and simply superior, to the Torah (OT) and Injil (NT). The claim that the Qur'an is "clear" and "plain" and understandable is often repeated by Muslims, mainly because it is found in the Qur'an itself. But if that is the case, why is it that Shabir Ally and I can exchange so many pages of text on what is being said in Surah 4:157-158? Remember what is said:
157. That they said (in boast), We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah---but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not---158. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise---Let's consider this "clear" (مُّبِينٌ) portion of the Qur'an in light of the debate with Shabir Ally in Seattle.
"That they said (in boast)" --- This is spoken of in reference to the Jews. One could argue if this is a fair representation of the Jews as a whole, but it must be granted that in some context some group of Jews could have made such a boast. It is unlikely, but not impossible. But keep in mind who the pronouns in this text are referring to. We start with the Jews, a particular group, evidently, who boasted.
"We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary" (قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ) Obviously, this would extend the accusation to the entirety of the Jewish people, for no one in Muhammad's day was making the claim that they themselves had done so. It is likewise highly doubtful that any Jew of the day would use "Christ" (literally, Messiah, الْمَسِيحَ) of Jesus to begin with. Now, does this mean that the Jews alone killed Jesus, without the assistance of the Romans? Or that they were guilty of instigating the killing of Jesus? We simply are not told.
At this time I need to take a moment to re-emphasize something. Surah 4:157 stands alone in the Qur'an in making this claim. This is an instance where we have a single ayah (verse) that makes this claim, with no other text in all the Qur'an affirming this assertion. In point of fact, at least two texts (Surah 3:55, 19:33) seem to teach the death of Jesus in plain, clear language. So if the text is going to announce something as ground-shaking as the assertion that Jesus did not die upon the cross, it needs to do so with great clarity and precision. Add to this another amazing fact: for two hundred years after Muhammad no one could remember a single comment the Prophet ever made about this text! Not a word! This only increases the need for perfect clarity on the part of the Qur'an at this point.
but they killed him not, nor crucified him (وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ) The only "they" is the Jews, so, what is being said? That the Jews did not kill Jesus, but, the Romans did? Or that He was not killed at all? And the next phrase says they did not crucify Him. Does this simply acknowledge that the Jews did not crucify? Or that the Jews did not instigate the crucifixion of Jesus? The normative use of "crucify" is a means to execution. Is the repetition simply a matter of emphasis, or, as Shabir Ally wishes us to believe, is it possible that the text is saying the Jews did not kill Jesus, but, they did crucify Him, but, He did not die due to crucifixion? (Though it is outside the strict examination of this text, I remind the reader that even hypothetically assuming the Romans failed to make the crucifixion of Jesus a successful execution is betting on the 1 in 10,000 longshot percentage). It is hard to imagine that the text is saying "they did not do this, but, they did do this...just not to the point of execution." As Shabir Ally admits, the classical interpreters of the Qur'an, who were far closer to the time of Muhammad than he, understood this to be a blanket denial that the Jews killed or crucified Jesus. The rasool of Allah would never be subjected to such humiliation! This is surely the majority understanding of Muslims down through the history of Islam, but, evidently, the majority view can be wrong, even though the text is so very clear and perspicuous.
but so it was made to appear to them (وَلَـكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ) If the preceding text allowed for a bevy of interpretations, this one sets a new standard for "lack of clarity." So what was made to appear to them? What is the referent? That Jesus died? It could be "he" was made to appear to them, and that has been the basis of the majority interpretation of the "substitution theory," that someone else was made to look like Jesus and was crucified in His place. Muslims have confidently asserted that Judas, Simon the Cyrene, a Roman soldier, or one of the apostles (as a volunteer) were made to look like Jesus and crucified in His place. But clearly, the text is far too obscure, far too brief, to even begin to provide a foundation for such a far-reaching concept. Indeed, I would suggest that the substitution theory only proves that even the Muslims who developed it could not imagine that someone had not, in fact, died upon the cross of Calvary.
Next, what does "appear" mean? "It was made to appear" would seem to indicate that this is something Allah did. Indeed, it has been observed rightly that if you accept the majority Islamic view that Allah made someone to appear as Jesus, then Allah started Christianity. Whether He did so inadvertently or not doesn't really matter, Allah is still the one who "made it appear."
Further, made it appear to them. To who? The Jews? Romans? Everyone there? Did the disciples know? The text would seem to indicate it was made to appear to the Jews, but, majority Islamic opinion has been that it was made to appear to anyone who was observing, if, in fact, the substitution theory is correct. But again, who can say? The text is not clear, it is not perspicuous. It leaves all sorts of options and, given the unique character of this ayah, leaves room for massive confusion.
and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow (وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُواْ فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلاَّ اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ) To whom does the text refer? Who is "those who differ"? Jews? Christians? Who? What kinds of doubts? Doubts about what? Without any definition these words have no meaning. Who has "no certain knowledge"? Knowledge of the identity of who was made to look like Jesus? No certain knowledge of what "it was made to appear" means? What conjecture are they following? Conjecture about a substitute? Conjecture about what? We simply are not told. Muslims have read this section in light of what they read into the previous portion, normally making some connection to substitution. But the fact is, these words could bear any number of meanings.
for of a surety they killed him not (وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا) It seems that placing this here re-iterates the preceding assertion, which, in most normal situations, would mean the intervening assertions are limited to the Jews as well, but that is hard to understand. We can affirm that this source, written long, long after the New Testament, denies the Jews killed Jesus. What this means we cannot determine: it could be a simple statement that others were responsible for Jesus' death. It could be a denial that Jesus died in any way. It simply isn't clear. This can be seen in the words that follow.
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself (بَل رَّفَعَهُ اللّهُ إِلَيْهِ) Those who hold to the substitution theory take this to mean that Allah raised Jesus up to Himself rather than allowing Him to die on the cross. However, others point out that the verb here, rafa'ahu (رَّفَعَهُ) "has always, whenever the act of raf ("elevating") of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of "honouring" or "exalting." Nowhere in the Qur'an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has "taken up" Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven" (Muhammad Asad, The Meaning of the Qur'an, p. 154). So even here there is confusion as to the meaning of these texts.
So what has just this brief examination of this key text revealed about the Qur'an's own claims about itself? If part of the apologetic argumentation of Islam is that the Qur'an is the final revelation of Allah, superseding all that came before, and that part of its perfection is found in its clarity, that argument simply cannot stand. On one of the most important historical and theological claims the document makes, we can only conclude that it makes the claim in a muddled, unclear fashion. Any number of clearer, better expressions could have been provided. A fuller explanation could have been given, or other texts in the Qur'an could have provided context and clarity. But this is where Surah 4:157-158 stands apart from any possible parallel in the Bible: it stands alone in announcing one of the key denials of Christian believe. While difficult texts exist in the Bible, in that context they never announce a vital, definitional doctrine in only one place, let alone in one place in exceptionally confusing ways. But this is the situation with the Qur'an, and the results have indeed been far reaching.
More Defense of the Cross: Response to Shabir Ally Continued
11/01/2007 - James WhiteI continue with my response to Shabir Ally's post debate writings. I note an even longer response has been posted by Mr. Ally, and since many of these issues are relevant to a wider range of apologetic concerns, I will continue focusing upon these materials before moving back to Steve Ray and Ali Ataie.
Matthew’s Gospel shows that Pilate granted their request to have the tomb sealed up. But there is a lapse in the logic of the report. Matthew does not say that they actually checked to see if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb before they sealed it up.Note the assumption: that there was even the slightest question as to the death of Jesus to begin with. Shabir is completely missing the impact of one term here, as it was heard in those days: crucified. He has created a greatly unrealistic view of this method of execution, and, as a result, has placed the entirety of his argument on the probability that the Romans could fail to execute someone by this means. As I have pointed out, the Romans were experts at death. There was a reason why they were the supreme military power in the world. So I would ask Shabir Ally to give us an estimate of how often the Romans pronounced someone dead by crucifixion, as the centurion himself testified to Pilate, who was then buried and...somehow extricated himself from the grave? I have heard Shabir make reference to people who had been buried being found alive in the grave in ancient times, but none of these referred to death by crucifixion. They seemed to have been related to mistakes being made due to long illnesses, not to the extreme violence of execution by crucifixion.
This reminds me of Shabir's major error in his debate at Regent University when he attempted to establish the point that possibly Jesus had been tied to the cross, not nailed to it. As I have mentioned on The Dividing Line, Shabir's opponent bested him in this discussion, for the single source Shabir noted actually used the more scholarly source Licona was citing on the crucifixion, and Licona was rightly challenging Shabir to go beyond secondary sources and actually provide direct primary sources in defense of his assertion. The fact is, Shabir will find any factoid he can dig out of history to try to prop up what is truly an amazing claim: that the Romans in the first century blew it and failed in their task to crucify Jesus of Nazareth, and it is this fact that accounts for the rise of the Christian religion! While he does not want to embrace the common "substitution theory" that most Muslims promote, is it really any less anachronistic and a-historical to attempt to establish such a theory on the basis of picking at the edifice that is the historical reality of the crucifixion of Jesus? "Well, ancient people did not have the complex medical technology we have, so, maybe Jesus didn't die!" Well, let's be clear: not having complex medical technology did not increase the number of survivors of crucifixion. And people still died, in even greater numbers, without said technology. It is next to impossible to hide the movement of breathing while hanging on a cross, and you still die if you don't breathe. So consider the probability hill Mr. Ally must climb: 1) percentage of folks the Romans messed up killing by crucifixion x 2) the chances all the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus had faked it on the cross could be silenced for, say, at least 600 years x 3) the chance all the apostles were a bunch of deceiving liars or, simple-minded men easily deceived by Jesus (or Paul?). I don't know about you, but the math I would apply to that equation comes out with only one answer, "Desperation."
I believe that reviewers of the debate will find that James did not answer these points. His numerous citations of historians who asserted that Jesus had died by crucifixion do not answer the specific point I am making. In response to these citations, I explained that from the point of view of history Jesus died by crucifixion on the assumption that he did not again appear alive to his disciples. The moment anyone begins claiming that he appeared alive again we would have to ask, as E. P. Sanders in his book Paul: A Very Short Introduction suggests that we would naturally ask: “How do you know he was really dead?”If Mr. Ally's followers can be convinced by an argument with no historical probability behind it, this only proves that the real authority in their thinking is, in fact, those 40 lonely Arabic words written six centuries later. It is surely not the conclusion one will come to by any even semi-unbiased examination of the available information that can be placed in the first century after the events themselves. Further, it is not the case at all that the conclusion of historians is based simply upon the assumption that someone would be dead by now had they lived back then; even critical, skeptical scholars recognize the wide testimony to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pilate. Shabir's dismissal of these sources is gratuitous, inconsistent, and clearly based upon his fidelity to Surah 4:157, even in his minority reading of it.
My presentation on this question shows that there was considerable doubt as to whether Jesus really died on the cross. And this, I maintained, is what the Quran meant when it said:As we have seen, there is no substance to Shabir's assertions. There was no "doubt" at all, let alone "considerable" doubt, and only by a clear misuse of sources, together with a gratuitous dismissal of all counter-evidence, can such an argument be put forward. This was clearly demonstrated in the debate, and is being more clearly demonstrated in the follow up conversation. Remember, in the portion not quoted above it was said, in parallel with "they did not kill him," "they did not crucify him." We need to factor into the micro-sized probability of Mr. Ally's argument the idea that "they did not crucify him" actually means "they did crucify him....just not to death."
And those who differ about the matter are in doubt concerning it. They have no knowledge of the matter, but follow only a conjecture. They killed him not for certain. But God raised him to himself. And God is Mighty, Wise. (4:157)
In the cross examination, I pointed to another piece of evidence to indicate that Jesus did not die on the cross. According to John’s Gospel, the crucifixion occurred outside of Jerusalem. But Luke’s Gospel has a remarkable episode in which Jesus says he must press on to Jerusalem, because “it is impossible for a prophet to die outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). I asked James if there were not prophets who did in fact die outside of Jerusalem. He answered that indeed there were. But he added that Jesus meant only himself as the prophet who could not die outside of Jerusalem. Now, logically, if Jesus cannot die outside of Jerusalem, and the cross was outside of Jerusalem, then Jesus did not die on the cross. James explained that when Jesus mentioned Jerusalem he did not mean strictly Jerusalem. In that case, he claims, it does not matter that he actually was crucified and died just outside the city gates. I leave it to reviewers of the debate to comment on this part of our discussion.At this point, I truly must comment that I find this argument completely without value or weight, on any level, and I believe the majority of readers would have to agree. First, it requires us to believe that though the New Testament writers are all attempting to deceive us into believing in the death of Jesus (which they either knew didn't actually happen, or, they believe happened erroneously due to Paul's lies), yet somehow they "gave evidence" about a conflict they didn't even know about. It is very hard to take this kind of "interpretation" seriously. Next, as I explained in the debate, this is a judgment narrative, as the parallel in Matthew shows. The point is that it is Jerusalem that has killed the prophets, and it will be Jerusalem that once again carries out this task, demonstrating the hard-heartedness of the leadership and the righteousness of God's judgment that is to come upon the city. It is true that Golgotha is technically outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It is just as plain and obvious that the entire environs around Jerusalem can be properly subsumed under the name of the city as well. This is common linguistic convention. If speaker were scheduled to speak at, say, Arizona State University, no one would fault them for saying they were flying to "Phoenix" when, technically, they would be speaking in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix. I say I have lived in Phoenix since 1974 when again, technically, I lived in Glendale a number of those years, another suburb. "Outside of Jerusalem" would first be outside of Jerusalem as defined in this pericope, that is, Jerusalem as the center of Jewish power and authority; secondarily it would be the location of the Temple mount and the capital city, and no one could seriously mount an objection that this would not, for the hearers of Jesus' words, include Golgotha.
Once again, the application of this kind of strained argumentation to anything in the text of the Qur'an would, of course, be immediately dismissed by Mr. Ally. The inconsistency of his position is, therefore, once again illustrated.
On the whole, I do not believe that James came anywhere near to proving the first part of the topic: that Jesus died on a cross. I will have much more to say on the other parts of the topic, especially about the difficulty James had in dealing with the logic of God killing his son. But I really think that this sort of analysis should be done independently of James or me. I only felt it necessary to respond to Jamesís incredible claim that I did not in fact respond to his points about the Quranís denial of the crucifixion. I hope that reviewers will find that the response I have given here corresponds roughly to what happened in the debate itself.Let's put Shabir's claims in context: he admits that all of the first century evidence, as it exists today, says Jesus died upon a cross. This includes not only the New Testament writings, but the early Christian writings, and even the few secular sources that have come down to us. He likewise admits that on the positive side of the equation, he has nothing to present in defense of the claim that Jesus lived after the crucifixion. He has no first century denials. He cannot explain why those who knew the truth, whoever they were, never made their views known. His attempt to say that the original real followers of Jesus were illiterate and hence could not write does not explain why they could not even speak or preach. So we have "all available data says X" versus "no available evidence says Y." But, this is not all: Y, Shabir Ally's theory, requires us to believe an extensive conspiracy theory; it requires us to believe that men who were willing to give their lives for what they wrote and proclaimed were either liars, or deceived; and it likewise requires us to believe that the Romans were lousy executioners. The entire probability of Y involves taking all of these issues together. I do indeed leave it to the reader to determine who has laid out the best case.
Two days after posting this portion, Mr. Ally posted a much longer article, to which I will turn in my next installment.