Pheme Perkins is a Harvard trained Roman Catholic scholar from Boston College. Her special interests, like so many today, include all things gnostic. Under current research projects is included, “Gnostic revealers and their discourses as evidence for emergence of Johannine traditions.” To say Dr. Perkins represents the left side of the theological and scholarly spectrum is to engage in a small bit of understatement.
So why do I mention this? Those who have listened to the Shabir Ally debate know that my primary emphasis in the encounter was to assert that if Muslims are going to deny the inspiration of the New Testament as it exists today (notice I purposefully allowed for the opening up of the textual critical issue) they need to do so on consistent grounds. Using one form of argumentation to attack the New Testament while rejecting that same kind of argumentation when it is applied to the Qur’an is inconsistent, and inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument. Allowing liberal theologians and historians to run amok in New Testament studies while demanding the most conservative viewpoints possible in defending the Qur’an would involve fallacious argumentation, and I asserted that this is what I have heard, consistently, from Islamic apologists in my studies of their arguments.
Most in attendance (I heard audience reaction) found Shabir Ally’s claim that the Gospel of Thomas is earlier than the Gospel of Mark incredible. I found the claim incredible as well, as this screen capture of my handwritten notes on my tablet pc prove:
So, when we got into cross-examination, I asked Shabir about this. I got what I would call a classic answer, at least as far as my study has revealed to me the argumenation of Islam’s defenders. Islamic apologists will cite a single source as if this is sufficient to establish a point. While in a debate that might be acceptable for time’s sake, when the vast majority of published material contradicts your position, you need to give more than a single work. In this case, Shabir first said,
This has been claimed by many scholars, including Pheme Perkins in her book, Reading the New Testament. It is generally believed that the Gospel according to Mark was written somewhere between 66 to 75, AD, and that the Gospel of Thomas was written somewhere in the 50s. So it was definitely earlier than Mark, although, the manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas that we do have are from the second century, there is no doubt about that.
Now, when I then asked how the Gospel of Thomas, which clearly presents an identifiable form of gnosticism that does not predate the middle of the second century, could have been written one hundred years prior to the development of that form of gnosticism, he replied,
Well, the current Gospel of Thomas that we do have does in fact contain some of these teachings to which you are referring, gnostic teachings in general. However, where the gospel of Thomas touches upon information that is contained within the Synoptic Gospels, it has been found, where this is compared with the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel of Thomas preserves an earlier form of some of the sayings and parables which are found in the Gospel according to Mark.
Now, immediately, we note that claiming that, given a particular theory of redaction criticism, the Gospel of Thomas contains elements that you claim are earlier than Mark (even here this is highly selective and easily challenged) is not the same thing as saying that the Gospel of Thomas itself is earlier than Mark, which was the original claim. The vast majority of scholarship that does not suffer from that very common ailment in the academy today known as GnosticusExalticusGetsMePublishedus dates Thomas to a century after Mark; it is clearly a gnostic production that well knows the canonical gospels (and is hence dependent upon them). But beyond this, my real intention here is to look at the one source Mr. Ally cited: Pheme Perkins, noted above. What did she exactly say about the Gospel of Thomas in her book, Reading the New Testament? And isn’t citing a liberal Roman Catholic scholar from Boston College illustrative of the very kind of reliance upon scholarship that would reject the inspiration of the Qur’an, embrace redaction criticism of it, etc., that I was pointing out is a form of faulty argumentation for Islamic apologists?
Perkins, like so many writing today, seeks to bring Thomas into her discussions of synoptic texts (despite the chasm of meaning that separates it from the true gospels). Here are her comments in the book Shabir Ally cited:
A version of this parable has come down to us in a second century collection of sayings of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas….Such shifts easily can occur in a story as it is handed down in the tradition. But whatever the shifts, the Gospel of Thomas version confirms the view that the story originally had a simple structure of seeking the sheep, finding and reaction. (59-60)
Naturally, as the early Christians handed down the various sayings and parables of Jesus, they also made collections of them just as they did of the miracles of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, which in its present form stems from a second century gnostic sect, seems to be based on just such a collection of sayings. It’s not even a gospel in the way we think of a gospel because it does not narrate the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, the concluding days in Jerusalem and the death and resurrection as the gospels in the canon do. Gos. Thom. appears to preserve a collection of sayings that circulated in the eastern part of the church in Syria, which was an area of strong Christian churches in the early centuries. (62-63)
That’s pretty much all Perkins says. Evidently, Mr. Ally assumes that since Thomas, according to Perkins, “appears” to preserve a collection of sayings from the eastern part of the church, somehow, that collection must have predated Mark itself. But in any case, she surely does not say “The Gospel of Thomas is earlier than Mark” in any fashion.
And so once again I come back to a question that was never answered in the debate. Surah 5:46-47 says,
And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary confirming the law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light and confirmation of the law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah. Let the people of the Gospel Judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed they are (no better than) those who rebel.
If modern Islamic apologists are correct in embracing the most destructive forms of “higher” criticism so that the New Testament is believed to be corrupted in its earliest form, then one is forced to conclude that these ayahs are false. Why? Because, how could the “people of the Gospel” judge if the New Testament was already corrupted by the seventh century when these words were first uttered? We know what the text of the New Testament was in the days of Mohammed. There is no question about that. And if that text was sufficient to be used as a basis of judgment then, how can the modern attack upon the New Testament be true? I think it has been well said that to be consistent, the Muslim would have to disavow his or her belief in the inspiration of the Qur’an to substantiate the rejection of the New Testament’s inspiration. But that is a catch-22 as well: for the Qur’an assuredly contradicts the central teachings of the New Testament. I offered my explanation in the debate: the reason the Qur’an can both present the inspiration of the New Testament and contradict it in its teachings can be explained by recognizing that the New Testament had yet to be translated into Arabic; and even if it had been, Mohammed would not have had access to it even in translation (let alone in the original language). So he was going on second-hand information, things he had heard, most often from many, many years earlier. This is why the Qur’an gives credence to such a wide variety of sources, including works like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that are clearly a-historical and unreliable. Quite simply, Mohammed did not know any better. That is why the Qur’an can both speak of using the New Testament to judge while at the same time teaching in contradiction to it. Its author simply did not know any better.
But we know better today, and hence we find Islamic apologists drawing from the most destructive forms of liberal criticism to attack the New Testament while eschewing those same forms of scholarship when it comes to the Qur’an. As I said, inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.