The earliest Muslims such as Ibn Abbas used the sources at their disposal. They looked at the literal text of a part of that verse, but only a part, and concluded that two things were being denied: first, that Jesus was killed by his enemies; and second, that he was hung on a cross.
We can see that Shabir’s position requires us to believe that you could be crucified, but not killed, and that this is the specific meaning of the text. One cannot simply make such an assertion as this without providing some substantiation. Where does he get the idea that salaba means merely to hang upon a cross without the attendant and obvious component of being a means of execution? Salaba is defined as “To put to death by crucifixion.” The massive Lane Arabic Lexicon has as one definition, “he put him to death in a certain well-known manner.” Wehr as well as Penrice simply has “to crucify.” One interesting, and seemingly conflicted, source is ‘Omar’s Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an. It has, “To put to death by crucifixion, extract marrow from the bones.” Then, “A well known way of killing: Crucifying.” Then the source seems to try to work with the obscure problems raised by Surah 4:157, but in a very confusing, and self-contradictory, fashion: “Put to death in a certain well known manner. It is not mere hanging on a cross. Jesus was hanged on a cross but not put to death, in other words his death did not occur while he was hanging on the cross.” Then when specific forms used in the Qur’an are mentioned, each is defined “till death,” except for the negation of the term, as found in 4:157, “They did not cause (his) death by crucification.”
Assuming that crucified means merely being hung on a cross, they then enquired of Jews and Christians as to what scenario could possibly explain the Quran’s statement that Jesus was neither killed nor crucified. Eventually they arrived at the basic interpretation that someone else was made to look like Jesus and that that person was crucified instead, whereas God raised Jesus into heaven. On all other aspects of the scenario that would get this other person onto the cross, even who this other person was, the commentators differed widely, revealing the paucity of their sources and the degree of speculation that went into the commentary.
Once again, “they did not kill him, they did not crucify him” does not mean “they did not kill him, they did, however, crucify him, sorta.” Mr. Ally’s explanation, while interesting, does not take into account the fact that if it were not for Surah 4:157, other texts, such as Surah 3:55 and 19:33, would be plainly understandable as referring to the death of Jesus. All of this proves another point I made: for all the claims of Muslims regarding the clarity and perspecuity of the Qur’an, Surah 4:157 is not clear, it is not perspicuous. And yet, since it is the only text in the Qur’an on this subject, it’s lack of clarity is foundational to the incoherence of the Islamic position on the death of Jesus.
The best reconstruction of the meaning is what has been mentioned by Tarif Khalidi in the introduction to his book: The Muslim Jesus. The Quran seems to mean no more than to deny that the Jews killed Jesus.
They did not kill him, they did not crucify him. This is the literal reading of the text, given in the previous entry. It is the hardest reading to break these two statements apart and assign completely different meanings: they did not kill him goes with the boast mentioned in the previous verse (same terminology as well); so how can the second statement, “they did not crucify him” take on a different meaning, almost a concessive meaning, “they did not kill but, and they did not crucify him to death (but they did, in fact, crucify him)”?
I fully sympathize with the attempt to make Surah 4:157 say as little as is humanly possible. Given that it is not clear, but confusing, muddled, and without context, it is far easier to defend a minimalist view than the view dogmatically expounded in much of Islam today. But if that is all the text is saying, then would Shabir agree that in fact the text might simply mean that the Jews did not kill Jesus, instead, the Romans did? It is hard to say (he has mentioned this possibility in the past).
I explained all of this in the debate, adding that the Indian scholar Abdul Majid Daryabadi in his four-volume exegesis: Tafsir-ul-Quran, while following the classical interpretation of the verse in his translation nevertheless in his notes defined crucifixion in a way that supports Khalidi’s interpretation. Daryabadi defined crucifixion as ‘the act of putting to death by nailing to a cross’. Keeping this definition in mind, we notice that the verse says: “They killed him not, nor crucified him.” Substituting Daryabadi’s definition of crucifixion, the verse would mean: “They killed him not, nor put him to death by nailing him to a cross.” I argued that this means in essence that the Quran is first denying in a general manner that they killed Jesus, and immediately following up with a parallel denial that they killed Jesus by the specific means of crucifixion.
James in his presentation allowed that the Quran could mean that the Jews did not kill Jesus, since the Romans did. Therefore James did not really have a problem with the Quran as such, but only with the classical interpretation. And since I was not determined to defend the classical interpretation in this debate he was really barking up the wrong tree. Much of what he said in this respect was irrelevant as far as proving his case goes. He had to prove, in response to my specific objections, that Jesus actually died on the cross. This he failed to do.
This is one of the reasons I would like to debate an Islamic apologist who would defend the classical, and mainline view of Surah 4:157, for it would be rare for Christians to encounter someone holding Shabir’s position. But in any case, if Shabir Ally allows for Surah 4:157 to carry a very non-classical meaning, then one wonders why he does not go the rest of the way and accept the normative translations of 3:55 and 19:33 and hence accept that Jesus did in fact die at the hands of the Romans in the first century, as he agreed that all the historical sources with any meaningful claim to originating in the first century assert? We are still left with no reason why Shabir applies a very odd, unusual set of criteria to all of those historical sources and hence denies the crucifixion of Jesus.
As to my failing to prove that Jesus died on the cross, I was the one who gave all the unanimous first century testimony. Shabir gave none. I was the one who gave materials that were all far closer to the events of Jesus’ life than anything Shabir Ally can provide for anything in Muhammad’s life. If Shabir Ally were consistent, he would have to either throw out all similar evidence related to Muhammad (resulting in his throwing out the vast majority of Islamic piety and practice), or, he would have to admit that the evidence in support of the crucifixion of Jesus is overwhelmingly superior to anything he has for Muhammad, hence, he would have to accept the thesis. No matter which way he goes, Shabir is left without a way of establishing his position.
I made reference to Raymond Brown who, in his two-volume work: The Death of the Messiah, writes that since crucifixion pierces no vital organ, we must therefore wonder: what was the physiological cause of the death of Jesus? Moreover, Brown notes that Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four, indicated that there was some doubt on the part of the Roman Governor Pilate that Jesus could have died at the time when the Gospels indicate to be his time of death. Brown points out that Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode in their own Gospels in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt. The obvious reason for this rewriting, according to Brown, is that readers of Mark’s Gospel would start entertaining the same doubt which Pilate had. Matthew and Luke wanted that their own Gospels should not encourage such doubts.
And as I pointed out in my rebuttal, none of these observations carry any weight against the thesis. Asking for Gill Grissom to be cross-side to provide a medical examination before accepting the rather obvious fact that Jesus was dead is hardly cogent, and again, is not a standard Ally would ever demand for anything in his own religious faith. Jesus gave up His life: does Ally deny Jesus would have had the power and authority to do so? Ally takes Markan priority not as the current majority theory but instead as a given fact despite how often he has been corrected on the topic. Note the commitment to a slavish “copying” mode on the part of Matthew and Luke, along with the implicit insinuation of dishonesty on their parts. There is also a rather expansive use of Brown’s own words here (The Death of the Messiah I: 1219-1222). Brown’s comments are far more nuanced than “Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode…in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt.” This is going well beyond even Brown’s comments (p. 1222). Brown does not make the case Ally does here at all. In fact, some of his comments are:
Overall, then, it was not impossible that Jesus died relatively quickly, and there is nothing egregiously unlikely about Pilate’s reaction to Jesus’ reported death in 15:44-45. (1222)
In fact, when he then raises the question of what the “later Evangelists” thought of Mark’s inclusion of this material, he refers to the idea that they had concerns about the apologetic impact of its inclusion as “not a perfect solution.” Again, I refer the reader to Brown’s own words, for Ally is putting far too much weight upon these comments.
But may I likewise point out another problem here. Look at the text:
Mark 15:44-45 44 Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. 45 And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.
First, there is every reason for Pilate to make this inquiry, for Joseph of Arimathea had made request for it. Evidently, Pilate had not yet received word from the crucifixion site of the death of Jesus (possibly because the other two who were crucified were not yet dead). Secondly, though Shabir does not mention it, if he is going to put weight upon this text to use against the crucifixion, he can’t pick and choose: Pilate calls a centurion to verify that Jesus is dead. Pilate does not merely get a second-hand answer. He calls an expert. An eye witness. The centurion, not just any centurion, but the one, evidently, who was in charge of the crucifixions themselves. This only makes the chances that Jesus was not, in fact, dead, drop off the probability scale. This man is not going to risk his life letting a man who was condemned by the governor fake death! He had seen many men die. He knew what a corpse looked like. Pilate specifically questions this expert eye witness. He does not just casually inquire, he demands an answer (evphrw,thsen). He is specific in asking if Jesus was already dead. Verse 45 gives us the answer: the phrase “and ascertaining from the centurion” can only mean the centurion provided a positive response to Pilate’s question. The expert eye witness, whose life depended upon giving Pilate an accurate response, said “Yes, he’s dead.” So what do we have here? Shabir Ally has brought this text into play. Evidently he accepts it as a historically valid text. So he can hardly complain that we allow it to speak, and when we do, we see it is a devastatingly strong testimony. The only way out of this is to argue that Mark is lying, and, of course, we have seen many times that any text that opposes Mr. Ally’s thesis will in fact be dismissed as erroneous or a late redaction or something. But most of my readers have already come to recognize that this is not a valid form of argumentation.