Ali Ataie of the Muslim Interfaith Council has posted an article titled, “Can Paul Be Trusted?” I provided his conclusions in the previous article. I now begin the process of reviewing his arguments and what leads him to his radical conclusions. Mr. Ataie begins:
The apostle Paul is the single most influential person in all of Christian history. Many scholars have even gone so far as to say that HE is the true founder of the religion that bears the title of Jesus. In fact, Paul freely admits this when he says: “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the FOUNDATION, and another buildeth thereon” (1 Cor. 3:10). Many scholars will surely agree that if it weren’t for Paul, Christianity would still have been a sect of Judaism today.
Mr. Ataie’s second sentence begins with one of the most abused phrases in the world today, “many scholars.” This term is equivalent to “this is a point I believe, and I’m going to assert this without actually providing you with any substantive factual basis outside of my claim that certain unnamed people hold a particular opinion that may or may not have anything at all to do with serious scholarly research.” The phrase “many scholars” can be used in a meaningful fashion, such as, “Many scholars have come to the conclusion that the text of the New Testament demonstrates the characteristic of tenacity, and this is demonstrated by the Alands when they examine the text in Matthew….” But it can likewise be used to hide gross inconsistencies on the part of the person using it, and I believe that is the case here.
Mr. Ataie’s work suffers from the same inconsistency as that of his predecessors in the Islamic apologetics field: he is more than willing to embrace both the methodology and conclusions of secular scholarship that rejects, as a presupposition of its study, the very possibility of the supernatural, of revelation, of God speaking, when that scholarship is attacking Christianity. But he rejects, a priori, the same scholarship when it is applied to Islam and the Qur’an. Hence, he can refer to Bart Ehrman as an “objective” scholar, but when Ehrman’s theory that divine revelation would result in no textual variants in manuscripts is applied to the Qur’an, he will reject Ehrman’s objectivity. So, Ehrman is only “objective” when he is seeking to undermine the claim of divine inspiration of the Bible, but when he turns his guns upon the Qur’an, Ehrman is no longer objective.
This kind of inconsistency is the hallmark of the modern Islamic apologist. I would like to think there are some Muslim apologists in the West who are consistent at this point, and who self-consciously hold themselves to a single set of standards, using the same standards for their study of the Qur’an that they use for the study of the New Testament, but I will be perfectly honest: I have yet to run into such a person. But I hope that will change, someday.
Returning to Mr. Ataie’s claims: yes, the Apostle Paul is without doubt one of the most important persons in Christian history. Christians believe he is so by divine appointment and providence, not by personal ambition or dishonesty. It should be pointed out that Mr. Ataie is adopting a very anti-Christian stance in his article. He is accusing the Apostle Paul of serious crimes against God and God’s truth. Indeed, if Mr. Ataie is correct, Paul is guilty of leading literally millions to commit the sin of shirk over the centuries. But if Mr. Ataie is wrong, then it follows that he is guity of attacking an apostle of Jesus Christ, a man who served God faithfully.
The claim that Paul founded Christianity flies in the face of all available documentation from the first century. It would require us to believe that the original followers of Jesus were cowardly men who were incapable, even with a “head start,” so to speak, to preach and proclaim the true message of Christ before a usurper, a man with evil motives, a gross and dishonest opportunist, managed to somehow wrest the control of the Christian faith from them and completely altar the faith they had learned from Jesus. This theory is not only completely without any basis in the earliest documents, but it isn’t even consistent with the Qur’an, which tells us,
Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject Faith to the Day of Resurrection; then shall ye all return unto Me and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (Surah 3, Al-i’Imran, 55)
If Paul “rejected faith,” then the Qur’anic promise is that those who follow Jesus (the true, Qur’anic Jesus) would be made “superior to those who reject Faith.” Yet, if Paul took over Christianity and fundamentally altered its teaching and nature, turning it into a religion promoting idolatry, then clearly the followers of Jesus failed.
The fact is, however, that there is no reason to accept the claim that Paul took over Christianity. Even the common assertion that James and Paul were promoting a different gospel requires a re-writing of history and a rejection of the earliest documentation to find acceptance. But Mr. Ataie does not just make this assertion, he seeks to prove it by citation of Paul directly. While this is always the best approach, it likewise requires the Islamic interpreter to seek to fairly handle the text being cited, just as I have sought to handle Surah 3:55 correctly above. Unfortunately, Mr. Ataie’s first attempt falters. He cites Paul’s words to the Corinthians as if this is an admission on Paul’s part that he is the actual founder of Christianity. Is this what Paul actually said? Most assuredly not.
The context of the citation from 1 Corinthians 3 has to do with the ministry of Paul, Apollos, and others, at Corinth. The church was suffering from schisms, with some claiming to follow Paul, some Cephas, some Apollos, and some Christ. Paul is rebuking their sectarianism, and demonstrating that in the founding of the church at Corinth God used a number of servants, himself included. Since he was the first apostle to visit Corinth and preach the gospel, he laid the foundation of the church in that city. Others came and labored as well, building up the edifice of the body there in Corinth. This is his point. The idea that Paul was here making reference to the entire church is simply without the slightest merit. Churches existed prior to Paul in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Damascus. He did not claim to be the foundation of those, nor could he. His comments are restricted by the context to Corinth itself, and are likewise only about the fact that Apollos and the others were his fellow workers, all together serving Christ in the building up of the church in that particular location.
Next, unnamed scholars are said to assert that if it were not for Paul, Christianity would still be a Jewish sect today. Well, I’m sure I could write, “Many scholars recognize that were it not for the decay of old political structures in the Arabian Peninsula and Palestine, the rise of Islam would have taken a very different course.” So? Muslims see the hand of Allah in the rise of Islam, and Christians confess that God chooses those whom He will use to bring about His purposes. Saul of Tarsus was chosen to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and it was his unique make-up that allowed him to fulfill the task assigned to him by Christ. As we will see, Ataie imputes evil, unrighteous motives to Paul in this matter. I assert he has not the slightest basis for so doing—outside of one over-riding truth. The teachings of Muhammad conflict with the teachings of Paul. Muhammad did not have first-hand access to Paul’s writings. He was ignorant of them. I believe he thought he was being consistent with the original followers of Jesus. Indeed, it took quite some time for Islamic theologians and apologists to discover the fundamental contradictions between the Christian Scriptures and the Qur’an, so that many in the early years of Islam did not hesitate to refer to Paul as one of the “messengers of the Messiah.” And so the modern Muslim is faced with the source of all of his inconsistencies: he starts with Muhammad, defines his words as true, and then has to reason backwards to keep his conclusion on track. The result is truly a mess. The truth is that Muhammad was ignorant of the Bible, its context, and its teachings, and if the honest-hearted person will but see Muhammad for who he was, there will be no reason to flip-flop back and forth between accepting and rejecting secular worldviews, as we will see Mr. Ataie doing over and over in our review.