Did the Original Disciples of Jesus Consider Him God?

shabir         james

A Report on My Debate with Dr. James White at the University of Pretoria


Usually after a debate Dr. James White would quickly post a written report on his blog saying how well he fared during the debate. This time around I did not see such a report. It could be that James was busy, as he had to travel back to Phoenix the following day. During the Oct. 11 episode of The Dividing Line, however, James has given his impressions of the debate. The episode will be found here:


Starting at about 27 minutes into that recording, James speaks about the series of debates he did in South Africa.


To balance the picture, I think it is only fitting that I should also give my impressions although each impression, his and mine, may be somewhat one-sided. I hope that the recordings will be soon available online thus allowing viewers to evaluate both sides of the debate.


The topic was, “Did the Original Disciples of Jesus Consider Him God?”


James had the first 25 minutes to speak. Given the topic, it was necessary for James to show evidence that the original disciples considered Jesus to be God. Instead, he cited one verse from James, several from Paul, and presented a summary of the Gospel of Mark. My response, naturally, was that the original disciples of Jesus should have been his focus. James, the brother of Jesus, was of course an important disciple of Jesus, but he was not one of the twelve, and in any case the letter of James in the Bible is not dependably his. As for Paul, it is universally accepted that he was not a disciple of Jesus, and Mark is traditionally said to be a disciple of Peter and hence not himself a disciple of Jesus. In short, James had spent the bulk of his opening speech speaking off topic. He was merely proving that belief in the divinity of Christ was early. He did not prove that the original disciples considered Jesus God.


For my part, I gave five main reasons for thinking that the original disciples did not consider Jesus God. First, the disciples were Jewish monotheists. They would not have considered anyone but Jehovah as God. Second, the speeches in Acts of the Apostles in the Bible are not entirely dependable. Whereas the disciples can be seen in these speeches to grant some lofty titles to Jesus, these are Luke’s own composition, not the actual speeches of the disciples.


Third, no writings survive from the disciples themselves. The Second Letter of Peter is admitted even by conservative scholars to be written after Peter’s death. The First Letter of Peter is disputed as to whether or not Peter wrote it. Some scholars think he wrote it; others think he did not. Hence we cannot rely on that letter either. The Gospel of Matthew is now thought not to be from the disciple Matthew, since it is widely believed to be copied from Mark. The disciple Matthew is unlikely to have relied on the writing of a non-disciple, Mark, for information about Jesus. As for the Gospel of John, this too cannot in its present form be credited to the disciple John. This Gospel went through stages of editing which I described in summary form as follows. The disciple John, Son of Zebedee preached his memories of Jesus. A disciple of John took John’s preaching and preached on it further. This disciple of the disciple eventually wrote the results of his preaching in the Gospel. As is generally known, preachers in the heat of their sermons tend to mix up the quoted material with their own explanations. This is what happened also when this disciple of the disciple preached. This explains why in John’s Gospel it is often difficult to know where the quoted words of Jesus end and where the commentary of the writer begins. Moreover, a later editor inserted parts into the Gospel, and added the last chapter as well. In sum we have no dependable first-hand writing of the original disciples of Jesus.


My fourth reason for thinking that the original disciples did not consider Jesus God is that Paul’s writings bear evidence that he was in conflict with the original disciples not only over questions of law but also over the question of monotheism. In 2 Corinthians 11:4, it is clear that Paul’s opponents were preaching what Paul calls ‘another Jesus.’ Elsewhere in Paul’s writings it becomes clear that his opponents are the original disciples of Jesus and close followers of the disciples. Now, as Bruce Chilton mentioned, the original disciples’ response to Paul’s accusations are not found in the New Testament. Given the chance, the disciples can be expected to say that their Jesus was the original Jesus, and Paul’s Jesus was the ‘other Jesus.’


Fifth, Jesus himself is known to have taught that he is a man and not God. But the Gospels distorted the image of Jesus transforming him from a man to something greater. This can be seen as we compare Mark, the first Gospel, to Matthew and Luke. But this evolution can be seen even more as we compare Mark with John, the last of the four Gospels to be written.


These five reasons form a strong cumulative argument showing that the original disciples did not consider Jesus God.


James was clearly in a bind. He could not answer my points, and I had answered all of his main points. As I pointed out, James’ thinking was not precise: he had missed the topic. His thinking was not historical: he did not show that the evidence he was adducing really go back to the disciples. And his reasoning was circular: for example, he cited Mark 10:18 to show that Jesus was claiming to be God. But his proof only works if he starts out by assuming that Jesus is God. Thus he argues that when Jesus asked: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus was alerting his listener that he is actually God. But if we do not assume that Jesus was God, which is the disputed point, James’ proof does not work. It is then obvious that Jesus was distinguishing himself from God.


To get out of this bind, James twice claimed that I had handed the debate to him when I admitted that Paul took a reference to Jehovah (in Isaiah 45:23) and applied it to Jesus (in Philippians 2:5-11). This, as I pointed out, does not hand the debate to James, since our topic is not about whether or not Paul considered Jesus God. It was about whether or not the original disciples did so. In response to his repeated claim, I said that I have never seen a man lose a debate so badly while claiming that he has won it. In The Dividing Line James says that such a comment is unworthy of me. I would like some feedback on this. Was I wrong to say what I said?


Something happened during the cross examination which I am still trying to fathom. I asked James if Jesus in Mark’s Gospel clearly says, “I am the Son of Man,” while using the title for the one who was to come in the future. James replied in the affirmative. The passages in question were Mark 13:25-27 and 14:61-63. As I pointed out, anyone reading these passages can see that Jesus did not clearly say, “I am the Son of Man.”


I invited James to correct his statement when he returned to the lectern. But, I do not recall that he did correct his statement. I am still trying to fathom his reticence to admit his error. Is the whole enterprise about winning debates at all costs? Or, are we in this with the expectation to benefit from seeing opposing points of view defended with honest research?


Now in The Dividing Line James twice referred to the topic of our debate as if the topic is about the belief of the ‘earliest followers of Jesus.’ I do not understand why he still thinks of the topic in such a vague manner after so much of the debate hinged on the precise formulation of the topic. The ‘earliest followers of Jesus’ is too vague a designation. How early is early? Paul may be classed as an early follower of Jesus on one interpretation. But our topic was deliberately worded to exclude Paul from the enquiry. The question was about the belief of the original disciples. They were twelve in number. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.


In sum, my impression is that James’ thinking about the topic was imprecise, his treatment of the New Testament was non-historical, his reasoning was imprecise, and he did not answer my five main points. I would like to hear of the impressions of independent reviewers of the debate, especially after the recordings are posted online.


Shabir Ally

October 16, 2013



6 Responses to “Did the Original Disciples of Jesus Consider Him God?”

  1. Jaco van Zyl Says:

    Dr. Ally, thank you for your visiting South Africa. I was at the debate in Pretoria as a non-Muslim and a non-trinitarian Christian. I enjoyed the debate thoroughly and have found myself disagreeing with both of you on various points. Even though I think that both opposing positions were being taken too far, in the end I think I agreed most with your position.
    I agree fully with you on your FIRST point and I think you could have made a stronger point here. You could have pointed out the NON-IDENTITY between Jesus and Yahweh. There is a LOAD of historical evidence on the normality in ancient Judaism of all the uses and descriptions of Jesus which do not imply identity with Yahweh and/or exclude identity with God.
    Even though I’m aware of the dating of Acts by many biblical scholars, there is in my opinion no use in dismissing this book. In fact, it is presented as the kerygma of the apostles and James White accepts it as such. The kerygma of the apostles consistently presents Jesus as someone OTHER than Yahweh (2:22), nothing more than man, even in his exalted state (7:31). Lofty titles are perfectly fine in Second-temple Judaism.
    The same can be said about your THIRD point. James White’s red herring on 2 Peter 1:1 was a cowardly blow. The ambiguity of the Greek and the unreliability of the so-called Granville Sharp Rule cannot conclusively prove that that text intends to show that Jesus is God. Even with the Gospel of John there’s a strong move among emerging scholarship away from the idea that GJohn proclaimed Jesus to be ontologically identical to God. To merely show that these sources were undependable does not by necessarily show that your position is the correct or better position. It simply shows that James’ source material is suspect and that’s all. And again these were pieces of material you could use. Instead, you dismissed them. I don’t think it counted in your favour.
    I saw you entering with a few volumes, the one being James Dunn’s “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus.” Dunn, as well as countless other eminent scholars find Paul to be the least likely candidate to introduce a Christ that was also God Himself. Why didn’t you use that? At one point toward the end of the debate you mention that there was even uncertainty as to whether Paul did believe Jesus to be God. Unfortunately James capitalised on that inconsistency to the detriment of your position.
    I think you make too much of your FIFTH point. Even with the apparent evolution, full Trinitarian apotheosis of Jesus was not achieved – not even in GJohn. I recommend you read James McGrath’s “The Only True God” and JAT Robinson’s “The Human Face of God” and “The Priority of John.”
    I disagree with you that these five points cumulatively show that the disciples did not consider Jesus was God. What follows from your arguments is simply that the current sources on who Jesus was are not reliable to show conclusively who Jesus was. Nothing more, nothing less. But to show that Jesus was not God does not follow from your premises.
    You are correct that you caught him off-guard and he couldn’t answer you reciprocally or convincingly. In fact, he was glaringly inconsistent in his DISMISSING your position, including the ancient existence of Q, for the lack of hard manuscript evidence, while PRESUMING the existence of a pre-Pauline Carmen Cristi for which there is no manuscript evidence either. You are also quite correct in pointing out the weakness of James’ argument on Mark 10:18. Jesus OBJECTED to the acclamation and CORRECTED the one calling him ‘good.’ James’ reinterpretation of the text ignores the blazingly clear nuance of the discourse, hence a distorted application of the text.
    Even though my critique of your side of the debate may appear to be rather harsh, I felt that you were in the lead until after the audience’s Q&A. James couldn’t answer your arguments coherently – even though he attempted to respond. So no, it’s another low blow from his side to claim that you handed the debate over to him.
    You did well with the “Son of Man” inconsistencies in Mark. I would personally not use that argument, as “Son of Man” does not imply identity with Yahweh, as the Daniel 7 vision shows. James White does not strike me as that modest as to admit an obvious error, and yes, it is a pity that a position be defended whatever the cost, but this is an unfortunate tendency almost always seen in Evangelical apologetics.
    Even though the critique above may seem harsh, I won’t even bother writing one on James White’s performance; his arguments were full of logical fallacies and inconsistencies. Not only were his arguments weak, his textual analysis partial and slanted with way too much show and melodrama than would be expected.

  2. Imran Says:

    When will the videos release…. Any Links ??

  3. Steph Says:

    Professor Ali, I don’t understand how people can believe this is what Jesus thought when it is so clear the bible has been corrupted:


  4. iliyasismail Says:

    For everyone’s info, Dr. Shabir Ally does not own this blog, it is just a fan page. You can go to islamifo.com if you wish to contact Dr. Ally.

  5. Dr Shabir Ally: Did the Original Disciples of Jesus Consider Him God? « Blogging theology Says:

    […] Dr Shabir Ally gives his reflections on a debate he had with a Christian apologist.  It is worth reblogging in full. The original article can be read here. […]

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