I 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:
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)
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.”
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 James’s incredible claim that I did not in fact respond to his points about the Quran’s 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.