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.
October 16, 2013