Evaluating the Debate Between Jay Smith and Shabir Ally

       On the topic:
The Bible or the Quran—Which is the Word of God?

Shabir Ally

Oct. 5, 2014

Is the Bible the Word of God? Is the Quran the Word of God? How can we approach these questions in an objective manner and prevent our own biases from deciding the questions in advance? I argued in the debate that we need to start with neutral criteria based on which to evaluate both books.

The need for criteria

The need for criteria should be evident to everyone. Suppose we are debating whether an object is or is not a fish. It will help to first agree on the essential and exclusive characteristics of fishes. For example, fishes have gills. Now we can look at the object in question and see whether or not it has gills.

What if someone says that fishes stink, and this thing stinks, therefore this thing is a fish? He would be wrong if the thing he is looking at is a rotten egg. The error in his reasoning is that he started with a characteristic which is not exclusive to fish.

Suppose someone argues that fishes stink, and this thing does not stink, therefore this thing is not a fish? He would be wrong if the object he is looking at happens to be a sort of fish that does not stink. The obvious problem in his reasoning here is that he started with a non-essential characteristic of fishes. It is not necessary for all fish to stink.

Moreover, whether or not a thing stinks is subjective. Some things may stink to everyone. Some other things may stink to some people but not to others. It turns out, then, that we may need neutral and objective criteria to decide on questions as simple as the question of whether or not something is a fish.

The criteria for classification are even more necessary when we attempt to classify a book as the Word of God. Hence it is important for Jay and me to start with neutral and objective criteria if we are going to decide fairly on the question of whether or not the Bible and the Quran are divine Scriptures.

It is elementary that whatever criteria we introduce, we should be willing to apply them to both books. For example, if I say that the Bible cannot be the Word of God because it has red letters, this is clearly an arbitrary criterion, and hence unacceptable from the start. More to my point here, however, is that once I have introduced this criterion, I have to apply the same criterion against the Quran as well. What will I say when someone shows me a Quran containing red letters? I cannot reply that this criterion applies to the Bible while the Quran is spared the enquiry. These principles of fairness and balance should be second-nature to Muslims and Christians. Hence it is fair to expect that Jay and I must measure both books against whatever criterion we propose.

Five Criteria

In the debate, I proposed five criteria, drawn from the Bible, for evaluating both books. Here are the criteria together with the locations in the Bible from where each criterion is derived:

  1. The book should be divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21);
  2. The book’s contents should be beneficial for teaching (2 Timothy 3: 16);
  3. The book should not contain a false prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:22);
  4. The book should not invite people to worship a god other than the God of the Israelite forefathers (Deuteronomy 13:3); and
  5. The book should not contain a major internal contradiction (Mark 3:25 and 1 Corinthians 14:33).

How did the two books measure up against these fair criteria? I have shown that the Bible failed on all of these criteria, whereas the Quran passed. Meanwhile, the Bible’s defender abandoned his defense of the Bible and said openly that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God. So, we started out with two books, and our question was, “Which of the two is the Word of God?” After Jay’s declaration that the Bible is not the Word of God, we were down to one book.

It was only in Jay’s closing remarks, when I had no opportunity to respond, that he changed his tune and said that the Bible is “a word of God.” To be sure, he kept holding up the Bible and the Quran to emphasize that it is the Bible that should be followed rather than the Quran. But his earlier declaration that the Bible is not the Word of God essentially was a cop out of any responsibility to defend the Bible.

Jay’s Implicit Criteria

On the other hand, Jay attacked the Quran mainly on two grounds. First, ancient manuscripts of the Quran vary from each other, and also from the 1924 Egyptian edition of the Quran that we now hold in our hands. Second, the Quran contains borrowed tales from other sources.

Here I’ll deal with the second claim first. I mentioned during the debate Sidney Griffith’s view that the Quran was not merely repeating these stories but was using the stories to draw out its own teaching.[1] Moreover, I referred to the view of Fred Donner who said that even if we find the prophet copying from other books this would not count against the belief that the prophet was inspired by God to do so.[2]

In view of my discussion above regarding criteria, however, we can see that Jay’s implicit criterion which he is using to measure the Quran is that if a book copies from other sources then it cannot be an inspired book. Now, if he applies the same criterion to the Bible, then the Bible will fail on this criterion, since it is notorious that the Bible’s 2 Peter and Jude contain material drawn from apocryphal sources. Hence Jay is not using his criteria consistently.

Jay argued that this criterion applies only against the Quran since Muslims believe that the Quran came down from heaven. And, to Jay this means that the Quran cannot contain material that seems to have been copied from books on earth. There are many ways of answering this claim against the Quran, and such answers are already being commonly given by other Muslims in defense of the Quran.

But here I want to draw attention to a major flaw in Jay’s approach. When Jay argues as he does above, he is speaking off topic. The topic is not, “Is the Muslim view of the Quran right or wrong?” The topic is, “The Bible or the Quran—Which is the Word of God?” The difference between the actual topic and Jay’s presumed topic is significant because, logically, it is possible that the Quran is the Word of God, but not in the way in which most Muslims think. Hence Jay has to start with neutral criteria not for assessing whether the specific Muslim idea of the Quran is correct, but whether or not the Quran is the Word of God more generally. In sum, it is not enough for him to argue that the Quran did not come down from heaven. It is necessary for him to show that the Quran does not fit his criteria which he is also willing to apply to the Bible.

The same flaw will now be seen in his first objection to the Quran, his finding that manuscripts vary from each other and from today’s popular Quran. Here too, he is arguing that the Muslim idea that the Quran is eternal and unchanged is wrong. But he excludes the Bible from being measured against this criterion, because Christians do not hold that the Bible is eternal and unchanged. Here too, he is arguing off topic. The topic is not, “Is the Christian idea of the Bible as the Word of God correct; and is the Muslim idea of the Quran as the Word of God correct?” The actual topic is more general than that. To properly address the actual topic, Jay needs to use neutral criteria for a book to be the Word of God and then apply those criteria to both books. Of course if his presumed criterion is that a book cannot be the Word of God if its manuscripts vary from each other and from today’s copies of that book, then the Bible will fail on this criterion.

Define Your Terms!

In a debate, it sometimes becomes necessary for the parties to define the subject they are discussing. It is enough for two parties to have two different views on the same subject. But a failure to define the subject sometimes results in confusion because one party is discussing one subject and the other party is discussing another subject. The fact that they are using the same name for the two subjects gives the impression that they disagree about that subject. But if they take the time to clarify what specifically they are talking about the confusion will be alleviated.

Now let’s clarify two apparently similar concepts of the Quran. For Muslims generally, there is no difference between the Quran promulgated by the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace and the Quran we hold in our hands today. But Jay is arguing that there is a difference. So, to avoid prejudging the issue, let’s speak here of two Qurans which may be identical in the final conclusion, but which we treat as separate for the purpose of our discussion. I will thus refer to the Prophet’s Quran and the present Quran as two distinct concepts.

It is clear that usually Muslim apologists will argue that the Prophet’s Quran is miraculous, and that the present Quran is also miraculous by virtue of being identical to the Prophet’s Quran. And now Jay’s challenge to Muslims is to prove that the present Quran is the same as the Prophet’s Quran. Jay’s implicit reasoning here is as follows. If I cannot prove that the present Quran is the same as the Prophet’s Quran, then even if the Prophet’s Quran was miraculous, we do not have that miracle today. In other words, even if the Prophet’s Quran was the Word of God, today’s Quran cannot claim to be the Word of God since it is not an exact copy of the original.

This was Jay’s implicit argument from the beginning to the end of the debate. But in arguing in this way, Jay has missed the essential distinction I have made in the debate. I have taken pains to specify that what I am talking about is what I am calling here the present Quran: the 1924 Egyptian edition which is now everywhere among Muslims. I said this not only once but numerous times throughout the debate. I was not arguing that the present Quran is the Word of God by virtue of its being an identical copy of the Prophet’s Quran. Whether or not it is an identical copy is besides the point that I was arguing. I was arguing that the present Quran is the Word of God by virtue of the evidence of mathematical patterns in the present Quran.

Two Distinct Paradigms

This distinction makes a significant difference. On the standard Muslim presentation, the Muslim has to prove that the present Quran is basically what the Prophet promulgated. In that case, the question being addressed is, “How do we know that the present Quran is miraculous?” And the Muslim answer is that we know this because the present Quran is basically the miraculous Quran promulgated by the Prophet 1,400 years ago. And the Christian debater then asks the Muslim debater to deal with all the manuscript evidence. The onus here is on the Muslim to prove that the present Quran is basically the same as the Prophet’s Quran.

On my presentation, however, the situation is reversed. My argument is not seriously challenged by the manuscript evidence. I argue as follows:

Muslims and Christians agree against Atheists that patterns in nature, especially mathematical patterns, point to a designer—God. Hence if we find mathematical patterns in the present Quran, this would point to a designer. This designer could be either a human or God. But it is not any human, as Jay and I both know. Therefore God is the designer of the present Quran. In short, the present Quran is the inspired Word of God.

Attempts at Falsification

Anyone can attempt to disprove my argument in one of the following two ways. First, one can look back in history along the lines leading to the production of the present Quran to see if someone, somewhere, deliberately and calculatedly created the patterns that we now observe. Since Jay had so much to say about the history of the Quran, during the debate I challenged him to tell us who put these mathematical patterns in the Quran. Was it a caliph? A king? Someone else? Who? Jay did not attempt to name anyone, or even to suggest that someone put these patterns in there deliberately and calculatedly. The reason for Jay’s silence is understandable. Although we do not know everything about the Quran, we know enough about its history to be assured that no human did this. No one meddled with it so as to arrange its letters, words, verses and chapters to form the mathematical patterns which we now discover.

The second way in which anyone can attempt to disprove my argument is to show that the patterns I mentioned are nothing more than mere coincidence. For example, if it can be shown that similar patterns exist in other books, then no special claim can be made for the Quran on the basis of these patterns. I anticipated this objection, and during the debate I mentioned that in the case of one of the patterns, I had checked the results against ten books of the Bible. I checked the five books of the Torah, the Psalms, and the four Gospels. My objective was to see if the mathematical relationship which exists in the Quran between the chapter numbers and the number of verses within those chapters also exists in those books. The result was negative in the case of each of the ten books of the Bible which I examined. This, as I pointed out, does not mean that there is anything wrong with those books, since there is no reason why a book must have such a hidden pattern. But the search supports my conclusion that the pattern which exists in the Quran is unlikely to have arisen by pure chance.

Jay understood this second way of challenging my presentation. During the debate he said that the mathematician Martin Gardner had found that similar patterns exist also in the book Moby Dick. However, I rebutted Jay by saying that Martin Gardner was not speaking of the sort of pattern I presented. Gardner was responding to some other sorts of patterns which some researchers claimed to find in the Bible. Those are the sorts of patterns which Gardner and others have found to exist also in Moby Dick. In sum, Jay did not succeed in challenging my presentation based on this second possible way of disproof.

If I had cited only a few examples showing that things in the Quran are arranged mathematically, it would have been possible for someone to argue that the patterns I cited are not statistically significant. However, I forestalled this objection by citing many examples. Jay remarked that I had spent twenty-five minutes of my presentation dealing the subject. I expressed my doubt that I had spoken on the subject for that length of time. However, let’s suppose that I did. Speaking at a normal rate, I must have presented many examples showing the occurrence of that phenomenon in the Quran. Could Jay speak for just ten minutes, even going slowly, on the mathematical patterns which he found in Moby Dick?

In any case, the numerous examples I cited can be seen from a review of the debate. The two papers I handed out during the debate, and which should be used in conjunction with watching the debate, can now be seen here: http://www.islaminfo.com/3/73/the-number-19-in-the-quran-a-sign-of-the-quran-s-divine-origin and here: http://www.islaminfo.com/3/74/the-quran-as-a-mathematical-miracle.

Moreover, God willing, I will soon publish another paper showing examples of another category of mathematical patterns in the Quran. We will see that this new category intertwines with the other categories outlined in my previous papers. Hence with the introduction of this new category we will see that the mathematical patterns in the Quran interlock in highly complex relationships. Thus the possibility of these interlocking patterns arising by mere coincidence is much more difficult to imagine.

In sum, those are the two ways in which anyone can attempt to disprove my argument based on the mathematical patterns in the Quran. Either they can argue that some human being deliberately and calculatedly put the patterns in the Quran, or they can argue that the examples I cited are not enough to amount to anything more than sheer coincidence.

Why Manuscripts do not Disprove my Claim

Arguing about the manuscripts is not a third way of disproving my argument. However, one can try to tie in the manuscripts with one of the above two ways. The manuscripts would tie in with the first way if one can show evidence from the manuscripts that someone was deliberately and calculatedly putting the patterns in the Quran. Jay did not attempt to show such evidence, and I do not believe that such evidence exists.

Or, the manuscripts would tie in with the second way if someone argues that the patterns I presented are found also in some ancient manuscripts of the Quran which differ from our present Quran. But this would not rebut my presentation, because I do not argue that the present Quran (which I specified above as the 1924 Egyptian edition) is the only acceptable Quran. In other words, let us suppose that similar mathematical patterns can be found in an ancient manuscript of the Quran or in another reading of the Quran. I would argue the case in the same manner as I have done with the present Quran. I would say that the pattern is a sign of the divine origin of the Quran in that manuscript as well, or in that other reading. As I mentioned in the debate, Muslims accept multiple authoritative readings of the Quran.

However, Jay did not tie in his discussion of manuscripts with any of the two possible ways in which one may attempt to dispel my argument. It is clear that his discussion of manuscripts was meant to refute the traditional presentation of the Quran wherein the onus would have been on the Muslim to show that the present Quran is a reproduction of the Prophet’s Quran. In arguing thus about the manuscripts, Jay was not refuting my presentation. He was arguing against some other presentation.

Despite my numerous appeals to Jay and to the audience throughout the debate to understand that I was arguing from evidence that the present Quran is the Word of God, Jay did not get the point. Rather, he kept discussing the manuscripts. His discussion would have been relevant if I was presenting the common argument that the Prophet’s Quran was inspired, and the present Quran is also inspired by virtue of being a reliable copy of the Prophet’s Quran. But that is not what I was arguing. I was not arguing in favour of every aspect of Muslim belief related to the Quran. I kept my focus on what mattered most: my fair set of criteria for judging a book to be the Word of God, and the task of evaluating the Quran and the Bible based on that fair set of criteria.

Red Herring Argument

From the above, it should be clear why I see Jay’s discussion on manuscripts as a red herring in this debate. No one knows how the fallacy of red herring arguments came to be called by that name. But one theory is that when robbers were being chased by cops they would drag a smelly red herring across the path to distract the sniffing dogs. The dogs thus pursued the smelly red herring, and the robbers got away free.

In citing manuscript evidence Jay risked distracting us from what was important in the debate, though I am not suggesting that he deliberately tried to misdirect us. I am saying that Jay simply did not see the logic that followed from my argument. It often happens that when people are accustomed to seeing a thing from one direction they find it difficult to now see it from another direction. It will take time for someone to see the argument from another direction.

Jay has been accustomed to hearing Muslim apologists starting with the claim that the Prophet’s Quran was inspired and then trying to trace the Prophet’s Quran to our present Quran.  I turned the sequence around with good reason. I argued that our present Quran was inspired, as is evident from its newly discovered mathematical patterns. Now our task is to find out the details of how the Quran came to be this way. In this case, we are starting from the vantage point that the Quran we hold in our hands is the Word of God. And we did not simply assume that. Rather, we gave good evidence to support that belief. Though Jay was listening to me, he was not hearing me. He did not realize that the direction of my approach was from the opposite direction to that which he was accustomed to.

The manuscript evidence he discussed needs to be dealt with. But the debate was not primarily about that. A book with an excellent manuscript history is not necessarily the Word of God. Nor is a book with a bad manuscript history necessarily not the Word of God. It is possible that God’s providence ensured that we have his Word with us despite the changing circumstances of history. We can now look at the manuscripts from the vantage point of knowing that God wanted us to have and hold the 1924 Egyptian edition of the Quran. It will take time for Jay to see that, with this new mathematical evidence, a paradigm shift has occurred.

The real question, then, is what evidence is there that the books we now hold in our hands are the Word of God? The topic of our debate was not about who has the better manuscripts. The topic is bigger than that. Thus it is clear that Jay’s discussion of the manuscripts was largely irrelevant to my argument. So, let’s not follow the red herring. Let’s evaluate the two books based on neutral criteria.

What Difference do the Manuscripts Make?

The problem of criteria confronts us here again as we consider Jay’s argument regarding the manuscripts of the Quran. Jay’s argument may be summarized as follows. Christians have nothing to fear from manuscripts of the Bible because Christians do not hold that the Bible is unchanged. Rather, Christians are satisfied that no cardinal doctrine of Christianity is overturned by the discovery of ancient manuscripts. On the other hand, Muslims believe that the Quran is unchanged. Therefore they have to deal with discrepancies in the manuscripts.

It is true that Muslims will have to deal with the manuscripts even though, as I have explained above, the manuscripts were largely irrelevant to our recent debate.  I expect that some Muslim students who are pursuing studies in the manuscripts will soon put out responses to Jay’s specific claims. Here I want to reflect on Jay’s criteria for deciding which book is the Word of God. As I explained above, Jay needs to apply the same criterion to both books. If he allows that the Bible is still the word of God despite changes made to it, provided that no cardinal doctrine rests on the changes, he has to allow the same for the Quran.

To disprove the Quran as the word of God on the basis of the manuscript evidence, therefore, Jay would have to show that the Quran has been changed to the extent that the cardinal doctrines of Islam rest on the changes. But this is not what Jay was arguing. Jay was simply trying to prove that the Muslim belief that the Quran is unchanged is not true. But that is not the same as proving that the Quran is not the Word of God. Theoretically, it is possible that the Quran is mainly the Word of God except for some changes that do not stand as the basis for any cardinal doctrine of Islam.

Now, the cardinal doctrines of Islam are well known. There is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger. Or, we can consider a more detailed list of the pillars of Muslim belief: Belief in God, his angels, his books, his messengers, in the last day and resurrection, and in God’s foreknowledge and control of all affairs while giving humans limited free will. Which of these cardinal doctrines of Islam does the manuscript evidence undermine? Jay could not show that any of these doctrines rests on a change that someone made to the Quran.

Rather, as is well known to students of Quranic manuscripts, the variations which have been found in the manuscripts are mostly minor, and the most major ones reflect basically the same idea expressed in a varied manner.

Who’s Afraid of Manuscripts?

On the other hand, students of the Bible know that in fact the manuscript evidence for the Bible has led to questions about cardinal Christian concepts. Jay mentioned his view that 1 John 5:7 was not original to the Bible. The removal of this verse has an important consequence which Jay simply whitewashed. For three hundred years, Christians read this verse in their King James Bible as saying that there are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and that these three are one. There is no other verse of the Bible with this wording. Now that manuscript evidence has made it necessary for this wording to be removed from the verse, the Bible is left without a verse that specifically says that there are three that bear witness in heaven and that the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are one. This leaves wide open the question of the basis on which Christians can limit the Godhead to three persons.

Therefore, Jay is using two different criteria: a strict criterion applying to the Quran; and a loose criterion applying to the Bible. Moreover, he is trying to deny the obvious fact that the manuscript evidence has necessitated a major correction to the present Bible.

Moreover, Jay showed that he is not willing to remove the forged verse entirely from the Bible. In the debate he expressed his satisfaction that the verse is retained in a footnote for the sake of those who would still like to see it there. What he is referring to is the fact that some Christians are still reading the wording in the footnote and finding solace in the hope that this wording is true. In fact, there are still users of the King James Bible that contains the forged verse. There is even a New King James Version that simply retains the verse as it was since the year 1611. This too is widely used by Christians who find this and other questionable verses too favourable to forego. There are even Christians who insist that the only true Bible is the King James Bible!

To conclude, Jay has a looser criterion for the Bible as the Word of God: The Bible’s status as the Word of God is not affected by manuscript evidence that the only verse therein which explicitly declares the oneness of three persons in heaven has been forged. Meanwhile, in arguing against the Quran by means of citing manuscript evidence, Jay was not refuting the Quran. He was merely attempting to refute the common Muslim belief that the Quran has not been changed in any way. However, it was necessary for Jay to have a single criterion and to apply this equally to both books.


Now what of my five criteria? I have cited mathematical patterns in the Quran as proof that divine providence gave us the Quran as it is in the 1924 Egyptian edition which is now everywhere among Muslims. What evidence is there that the Bible today is the Word of God? Jay did not cite any evidence that the Bible ever was the Word of God. Nor did he respond to my evidence showing that the Bible is not inspired; and that it contains sexually explicit passages; and that it contains a failed prophecy; etc.

I hope that reviewers of the debate will see for themselves that I was working with clear criteria derived from the Bible; that I applied these criteria fairly to both books; and that only the Quran passed these criteria while the Bible failed to meet its own criteria for being the Word of God. On the other hand, Jay did not seem to start with fair and balanced criteria that he was willing to apply to both books. The debate can be viewed here:


[1] Sidney Griffith, The Bible in Arabic (Princeton: Princeton University, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Fred Donner, “The historian, the believer and the Quran,” in New Perspectives on the Quran: the Quran in its historical context 2, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 35.

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


In Dialogues Concerning Jesus Christ the Messiah


by Shabir Ally


The Similarities

Jesus is one of the greatest persons ever to have walked the earth. Two world faiths hold him in high regard. Islam holds him to be God’s Messiah, Prophet, and Righteous Servant. Christianity holds him to be all of the above and even more. Some Christians believe that Jesus is God the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Some believe that he is the Son of God. Some take this title to mean the Divine Son of God. Others think that ‘Son of God’ is a title that can refer to a person who is especially favoured by God; and that it refers to Jesus more so because he was favoured by God to a remarkable degree.

Hence belief in Jesus is an element of faith that is common to Christianity and Islam even though the two faiths believe in him differently. Both faiths hold Jesus in high esteem. Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus entered the world in a miraculous manner; that he worked mighty deeds on earth; that his exit was mysterious; and that his second coming will be spectacular. His miraculous entrance is hailed by Christians as the virginal conception, as is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Quranic story of Jesus as found in chapters 3 and 19 has many elements in common with Luke’s Gospel, leading to the common interpretation and belief among Muslims in the virginal conception as well.

Jesus’ powerful deeds, especially during the last few years of his ministry, are detailed in the four Gospels in the New Testament. Likewise the Quran informs us that God supported Jesus with the Holy Spirit and that Jesus healed the leper, cured the blind, and even raised the dead back to life, all with God’s permission.

According to the Gospels, Jesus’ exit from the world was at first a mystery to his disciples. But the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John show that Jesus later appeared to his disciples and confirmed for them that God had raised him alive to heaven. The Quran, without describing the event in any detail, confirms for Muslims that “God raised Jesus to Himself” (Quran 4:157). The belief that Jesus is alive with God, then, is common to Muslims and Christians.

Muslims also generally believe that Jesus will return to earth before the Day of Judgment. This belief is not clearly stated in the Quran although two verses (4:158 and 43:61) have been interpreted as possible references to this event. This belief is, however, stated in many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and found in the most authentic collections of his sayings.

In short, Muslims and Christians share a common reverence for Jesus, and this can serve as a starting-point for dialogue leading to greater levels of mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect.

The Differences

Focusing on our commonalities, however, should not prevent us from being honest about our differences, for only in understanding our differences as well can we truly understand each other.

One area of difference is on the scriptural authority that settles questions for Muslims and Christians. For Christians the Bible is the Word of God. Some Christians add that the Bible is the Word of God and the word of man—that it is through the word of man that the Word of God is mediated. Many Christians believe that the authors of the Bible were basically free to write according to their knowledge and experiences, and that God controlled the process such that the result is in fact His Word without ceasing to be the words of the human authors. Some Christians believe that the process by which God inspired the writings that make up the Bible guarantees their inerrancy. Others believe that the Bible is free of error only in those matters on which human salvation depends.

Muslims believe in principle that any revelation from God must be accepted. Thus they believe in the Biblical prophets, especially as they are presented in the Quran. The Quran itself mentions some parts of the Bible as being based on scriptural revelations from God. In this way the Quran mentions the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus. But Muslims see no reason to believe that the Bible is the final revelation from God. They believe that after the Old and New Testaments God revealed a final testament: the Quran. For Muslims, therefore, the ultimate authority is the Quran itself. They believe it to be the final revelation from God confirming the truth of the previous scriptures and yet acting as a quality control on the previous scriptures (Quran 5:48).

Hence in principle Muslims accept as Divine revelation those parts of the Bible which are in agreement with the Quran. They hesitate, however about those parts which are in disagreement. For them, if the disagreeable part refers to the practices of the faith then the Quranic practices abrogate the old, and they follow the new. If the differences are matters of history or theology Muslims may consider these due to something lost in the translation or transmission of the Bible over the ages. Often in dialogue Muslims point to some passages which are noted in many modern Bibles as having been changed over time. An example of this is The First Letter of John, chapter 5, verse 7 which used to say, “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and that these three are one” (1John 5:7). These words, however, have been removed from the verse in most modern versions because Biblical scholars have discovered that it is absent from the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John’s first letter.

Because Muslims and Christians accept different scriptural authorities, they may be expected to arrive at different conclusions about what to believe. This is why Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross as depicted in the Gospels. The Quran does not describe in detail what happened, but insists that Jesus’ enemies did not manage to kill him. In response to those who said, “We killed the messiah, Jesus Son of Mary, the Messenger of God,” the Quran says:
They killed him not, nor crucified him, but it was made so to appear to them. And those who differ about him are in doubt about him. They have no knowledge of him except the pursuit of a conjecture. They killed him not for certain. But God raised him to himself. And God is Mighty, Wise” (Quran 4:157).

The Quran does not say specifically how Jesus managed to escape the plot of his opponents. But Muslims believe that the Quran, though very brief, gives God’s viewpoint on the story of Jesus.

But the main point of difference on the question of Jesus’ crucifixion is about the purpose of his purported death. For Christians, his death was not merely caused by sinful people, but was for the cause of sinful people. Jesus laid down his life for the sins of many, or, in an alternative view, for all people. There are various ways of explaining the efficacy of Jesus’ death. Some believe that God accepts the death of Jesus as a substitute for sinful people who are henceforth spared their deserved penalties. Others believe that the death of Jesus appeased the wrath of God and made it possible for people to be forgiven.

Muslims, however, believe that the matter is simple. God is Gracious. He can forgive his servants if he chooses; nothing impedes him. His promise is that he will forgive those who turn to him in repentance. If we sincerely repent of our sins against him, and do our best to repair the harm we have done to his creatures, his forgiveness is assured. On this point Muslims and Christians seem to agree. For even on the view that Jesus died for our sins Christians also insist on the need for repentance and a return from sinful ways. Moreover, Muslims find it difficult to understand how a just God can punish an innocent person in order to free the guilty.

Finally, despite their agreement about Jesus, Muslims and Christians also disagree about him. Muslims find it puzzling to think of Jesus as God and man at the same time, for this seems to combine two contrary features in the same person. If he was God he only appeared to be a man. And if he was really a man with some of the imperfections this entails then he was not the perfect God in whom Muslims and Christians believe.

Even more perplexing for Muslims is the doctrine that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. For Muslims, there is only one God, and Jesus is one of his greatest creatures. Christians agree that there is only one God. But they add that the one God subsists in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To Muslims, however, the Holy Spirit is the angel Gabriel; and of the three persons only The Father, whom Muslims call Allah, can be truly God. Hence the simple Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God.”

The dialogue between Christians and Muslims must continue, and this will, we hope, lead to a greater level of understanding, tolerance and mutual respect. We have only sketched here some of the main issues that need to be discussed as starting points for the achievement of such mutual appreciation. These two world faiths together are followed by half of the world’s population. If they work together they can combat many of the ills that plague our world at present.

Confessions of the New American Bible

new american

By Shabir Ally


The New American Bible is an official Christian Bible. Yet it contains many points of interest and value to the Muslim caller to Islam. Every caller who intends to use the Bible for Dawah should get a copy of this Bible. Get especially (if you can) the St. Joseph Medium Size Edition.

The introduction to this Bible includes an article entitled: How to Read Your Bible. This article makes a lot of valuable points. I reproduce for your edification some of the main points offered in that introduction. Everything listed in the points below is directly asserted in the article itself or implied therein. I have only summarized. I did not improvise. Where I use my own words I still represent the ideas of the authors. Often, you will notice the presence of quotations marks. These mark off the included words as the words actually used by the editors of the New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium Size Edition. The article from which the points are drawn is found on pages 17 to 35 of the introduction. Consider these points; use them politely and wisely.

What the Scholars confess about the Bible in General

The Bible is not necessarily the most read book or the best understood book.

The Bible was inspired by God. But “This does not mean that God dictated His message as a businessman dictates a letter to a secretary. God takes the author as he is and leaves him free to choose his own means of communication.”

“Some authors chose existing folk tales and even beast fables to bring out their point.”

There is a difference between INSPIRATION and REVELATION. The entire Bible is inspiration but not the whole Bible is revelation. The authors of the Bible were inspired to search for meaning in life and in the events of history. The search for answers was inspired, but the answers found were not necessary revealed by God. But some of those answers are written in the Bible by the human authors. Some of what they wrote clearly cannot be attributed to God. “Think of the ‘holy wars’ of total destruction, fought by the Hebrews when they invaded Palestine. The search for meaning in those wars centuries later was inspired, but the conclusions which attributed all those atrocities to the command of God were imperfect and provisional.”

An example of such atrocities is in Judges1:1-18. Read it for yourself.

The Bible is a collection of many books of different kinds. “A major disadvantage is that these books are not put together systematically as the books of a modern library.”

“Edifying interpretation of events” is “often intermingled” with history.

“The Bible is God’s word and man’s word. One must understand man’s word first in order to understand the word of God.”

The Bible contains “Beast Fables.” Examples: Genesis; Numbers 22, 22-35.

Speeches of persons in the Bible are not necessarily what the persons said. “It is the inspired author who wants to state something by putting these words into the mouth of a person with authority.”

The book known as Acts of the Apostles in the Bible often puts words into the mouths of its characters.

The description of the heavens and the earth in Genesis, chapter 1, is not necessarily a true description. That description is conditioned by the time and culture in which it was written. “Do not be shocked about this!”

“The sacred writers attribute quite a number of human characteristics to God.” This too is “conditioned by time and culture.”

The Psalms are a collection of poems full of feeling. Psalm 137, verses 8 and 9 pronounces a blessing on one who grabs a Babylonian baby and dashes it against a rock. In this psalm “The feeling, the thought, the total poem is inspired (guided) by God, though it is not necessarily revealed truth!” But this is not the only Psalm which is not necessarily revealed truth. To find out for yourself, “Read some psalms!”

What the scholars confess about the Gospels in particular

“What did the authors of the Gospels do? In the congregations, mainly in the cities around the Mediterranean, they found scores of narratives about Jesus, the beloved Founder of the Christian faith. The writers took those narratives and frequently even remolded and refashioned them to bring out the lesson they wanted to teach.”

Therefore the four Gospels are not really biographies of Jesus. They are “digests of Christian teaching concerning the risen Lord Jesus.”

“A remarkable fact is that for a long time Christians misunderstood” this truth about the Gospels.

The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 1, verses 1-17, is not an absolutely true genealogy. First, Matthew took it perhaps from the family of Joseph. Second, “the sacred writer refashioned this document to a list of three times fourteen ancestors.”

“Reading the Gospels, one should distinguish historical facts from theological elaboration.”

The Gospels often represent Jesus in controversy and conversation. “One may ask: Was Jesus involved in these conversations? Did He answer exactly as related in the Bible? It is not certain.”

There may be some true events and “controversies which supplied the background materials for the conflict stories of the Gospels. But as these accounts now stand, they are literary forms used by the Gospel writers in their catechisms to bring out what they had to tell the opponents of early Christianity.”

Matthew tells us that baby Jesus was taken to Egypt. This is not necessarily true. But since Israel had been in Egypt, and since Israel was God’s chosen one, Matthew placed Jesus in Egypt to convince his readers that Jesus was the real Israel. “This is a strange literary device, but the ancient writers loved to work with this kind of figurative speech.”

“It is difficult to know whether the words or sayings attributed to [Jesus] are written exactly as He spoke them.”

“True, the Gospels are based on sound historical facts as related by eye-witnesses, but both deeds and words of Jesus are offered to us in the framework or theological interpretation.”

Did Jesus say the things which the Gospels report? “The Church was so firmly convinced that the risen Lord who is the Jesus of history lived in her, and taught through her, that she expressed her teaching in the form of Jesus’ sayings.” The words are not Jesus but from the Church.

“Can we discover at least some words of Jesus that have escaped such elaboration? Bible scholars point to the very short sayings of Jesus, as for example those put together by Matthew in chapter 5, 1-12”

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapters 5 to 7, was delivered by Jesus while he was on a mount – or was he? Matthew only represented the matter such in order to show that Jesus was like Moses who received the law on Mount Sinai. Jesus was not really on a mountain. This is only a figurative device used by Matthew.

“Walk into a modern library, you will find all the books neatly arranged under fiction and non-fiction. It is not that simple in the library called the Bible. How does one know whether one deals with history or some form of figurative speech?” To begin with you should always be disposed to follow the teaching authority of the Church.”

“The signature of a bishop in your Bible assures you that opinions, expressed in footnotes and introductions, reflect what is generally accepted as sound doctrine in the Catholic tradition.”

“Knowing that early Christians mistakenly expected Christ’s second coming during their own lifetime, helps you to understand 1 and 2 Thessalonians.” The first of these two books in the Bible is written under the said mistaken expectation.

“The Hebrews [who wrote the Bible] were restless searchers for meaning in our human condition. Reading their inspired literature should challenge you to go on with a faithful search for meaning in your own situation.”

There you have it folks. A collection of confessions of the scholars who edited the New American Bible. The words within quotation marks are their own. All the ideas are their own. Some of the said ideas they have explicitly stated; others they clearly imply. Words within square brackets were inserted where necessary to make the points clear. Use these points to help convince Catholics.

The title page of this Bible shows that the book is “authorized by the Board of Trustees of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine” and “approved by the Administrative Committee/Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops” and the “United States Catholic Conference.” It is published by the Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1986. The Bible contains all the necessary Catholic certification: the Nihil Obstat, and the Imprimatur from the Archbishop of Washington. And, oh, yes! A letter from the Vatican, including the signature of the Pope, appears in the preface to guarantee the reliability of this Bible for Catholics.

Protestants and others may not be convinced by the confessions. They may object that these are not their own scholars. Yet many Protestant scholars have reached the very same conclusions. But that is the subject for another article. Notice, however, that you can always argue that the points above are admitted by friends of the Bible. Even one who does not recognise the authority of Catholic Bishops will have to admit that they are nevertheless friends of the Bible. Their testimony above cannot be discounted so easily.

Muslim callers to Allah will find it advantageous to obtain a copy of the said Bible and use it wisely. Always present your points with respect and love. Do not seek to defeat the other person with clever arguments, but seek to win him over with courtesy and persuasive speech.

Quick Question Regarding “Thus We Have Made You a Middle Nation” Verse


“And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people
and the Messenger will be a witness over you.” 
The Noble Quran 2:143




As you know Surah 2:143 happens to be the middle verse of Surah Baqarah (Chapter 2 of the Quran) which states, “And thus have made you a middle nation”.

What if someone were to object and say that you can find other different numbering schemes of the Quarn, for example what, if Basmala is counted as a verse? 



We can reply that we are simply going by the numbering which just so happens (we would say by the will of Allah) to be most widespread. On this basis the verse number is half the number of verses in the chapter.

But if, for argument’s sake one started numbering from the ‘Basmala’ then each verse number will be increased by one, and the chapter would have a total of 287 verses. That would also mean that the verse in question will now be numbered 144, and in that case there will be 143 verses before it and 143 verses after it. Even then it would be in the middle of the Surah.



-For further clarification to this question please see;-

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A Response to James White’s “Some Brief Thoughts Regarding Liberal Scholarship, Redaction Criticism, and Islam (Part 1)”

Shabir Ally

April 5, 2012

I was delighted to see that Dr. James White took the time to respond to my written “My Reflections on the Ally-White Debate” which can be read here: http://thedebateinitiative.com/2012/03/25/shabir-ally-my-reflections-on-the-ally-white-debate/.

As I read through James’ “Brief Thoughts Regarding Liberal Scholarship, Redaction Criticism, and Islam (Part 1),” several questions arise which I hope he will answer. His “Brief Thoughts” can be read here: http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=5034.

Due to the nature of the issues, we may continue to disagree. This is natural. We are two different individuals each with a distinctive set of experiences. In our past debates, James had criticized me a lot on the basis of his perception that my position depends on the findings of liberal Christian scholars. That is a useful criticism. We all need to be aware of the presuppositions that lay behind views lest we unwittingly contradict ourselves by accepting views with presuppositions contrary to our basic beliefs. However, in response to his criticisms, I have always explained that my perception of the matter was contrary to that of James, and that I really was coherent in my approach. My ideas were quite reasonable on their own. Moreover, I supported my ideas with citations from conservative Christian scholars. Nonetheless, I continued to take James’ criticism seriously. But it is now clear to me that I have effectively answered James’ criticism. Hence James’ repetition of the same criticism is quite puzzling. In this paper I attempt to make sense of James’ criticism, and I point out what I see as flaws in his reasoning.


1.     The Incoherence of James’ Approach. 

2.     How James Ignores My Points. 

3.     The Conservative Scholars Whom I Cited. 

4.     James’ Misunderstanding of Redaction Criticism.. 

5.     James’ View on the Authorship of the Gospels. 

6.     What Convinces Scholars of a Literary Relationship Among the Gospels. 

7.     Did I Respond Effectively to James’ Points?. 

8.     James’ Refusal to Admit his Error Regarding my Second Example. 

9.     How We Know that Matthew Used Mark. 

10.   James’ Misunderstanding of the World of Biblical Scholarship. 

11.   The Coherence of My Approach to the Muslim and Christian Scriptures. 



1.     The Incoherence of James’ Approach

I find James to be inconsistent, for he deals with the Quran in a critical manner, but he argues that it is illegitimate for me to deal with the Bible in a critical manner. For example, in the recent Toronto debate, during his opening presentation, James attempted to show that the Quran contradicts itself. Now, let me ask him. Is he relying on the view of conservative Muslim scholars in arguing that the Quran is self-contradictory? Obviously not! No conservative Muslim scholar will say that the Quran is self-contradictory. In fact, James did not cite an authority for his claim, as far as I can recall. Therefore, James proceeds as if it is legitimate for him to criticize the Quran in a way contrary to the views of conservative Muslims. Yet he calls foul if cite the ideas of conservative Christian scholars insofar as those ideas are contrary to what James accepts. Is this not a major inconsistency on his part?

James does not see the logical flaws in his arguments. For example, he argues that since I am a not a naturalist I have no right to hold the same ideas as do liberal Christian scholars whose ideas are based on naturalism. James’ manner of putting the matter is fallacious for three reasons. First, as I will show below, the ideas I am advancing are not contrary to my Muslim views of God and his action in the world. The fact that I believe in God does not entail that I believe every claim that people have made on behalf of God. As we will see in the case of the Gospels, the claim that they are all from God is difficult to maintain in light of the evidence available to all persons whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Second, as I will show below, the Muslim believer is not required by his Muslim faith to believe that the existing Gospels in their totality are the Words of God. Third, James is calling on me to accept that the Quran is self-contradictory. As I explained to him during our London debate in 2008, however, if I accept his call then I will have to abandon my Muslim faith altogether. In that case I will not have my super-naturalistic presuppositions to rely on. Obviously, I cannot abandon my faith and also keep my faith presuppositions. Now James is requiring me to do two mutually contradictory things. First, he wants me to believe that the Quran is self-contradictory, and that entails abandoning my faith. Second, he wants me to keep my super-naturalist presuppositions, and that entails keeping my faith. James cannot have his cake and also eat it. He has to decide what he wants. Does he want me to keep my faith or lose it?

Moreover, the principle which James espouses is a non-starter as far as debates go. If each side in this debate refuses to look carefully and critically at the evidence advanced by the other side, then what’s the point of the encounter? I prefer to build understanding. I feel that I understand Islam more than I understand Christianity; and that James understands Christianity more than he understands Islam. By listening to each other, we both come away better informed than we were before we started. This way I learn more about Christians and what they believe; and James learns more about Muslims and what Muslims believe.

On the other hand, if I mirror James’ principle by not listening to any but conservative Muslim scholars, what will I do? I will say that Muslim scholars believe that Jesus is not God, and that the Bible has been changed, and that is the end of the matter. Instead of mirroring James’ principle, I realize that I have to deal with the evidence for the claims at hand. I cannot just appeal to Muslim tradition, or Muslim scholars. I would hope that James will come to a similar understanding, and that our dialogue will progress. We need to listen to the evidence, regardless of where and from whom it comes. Then we need to critique such evidence using acceptable critical tools and methods.

Despite James’ demonstrable inconsistency, James has invested a lot of time trying to show that I am the one who is inconsistent. I will explain again why I feel that my approach is reasonable and justified. I expect that, as a non-Muslim, James will have ideas which are foreign to mine, and that he will appeal to scholars who share his views. It is in the nature of such engagements that I should listen attentively to James’ ideas, to the evidence he offers in support of those ideas, and any sound logic he employs in reasoning with those ideas. It will then be my task to evaluate the evidence presented by James. I will then accept good evidence and sound arguments regardless of the fact that this was being presented to me by a non-Muslim.

This I believe to be demanded of me not only by the rules of reasonable discourse but also by the dictates of the Islamic tradition. According to a Muslim tradition, wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Following that tradition, I must accept a reasonable saying regardless of where and with whom it is found.

As for the rules of reasonable discourse, if I were to reject James’ ideas simply because they come from a non-Muslim source then I would commit a logical fallacy. If I argue that an idea is incorrect because it comes from the wrong source then I commit the genetic fallacy. The fact is that good ideas can sometimes come from unexpected sources. If I reject James’ ideas simply because he or his scholars are the wrong persons to be voicing the right ideas, then I commit the ad hominem (against the man) fallacy. This is a fallacy committed when a disputant ignores the evidence but argues that the idea must be wrong because his opponent is the wrong person to advance such evidence. To avoid these and other such logical fallacies, I must think straight about the reason, evidence and proof presented in support of James’ ideas. And, in order to think straight about the ideas, I have to disregard the question of whether or not I or James or my scholars or his scholars like the ideas. Such are the principles to which I commit myself. And I expect James to commit himself to similar principles.

On the other hand, when I cite evidence in support of my views, James either ignores the evidence or demeans the evidence as coming from liberal scholars. Instead of showing that the views are incorrect, or that the evidence in favor of such views is weak, James argues that the people who hold those views are not worth listening to. By arguing in that manner, James commits the logical fallacies which I have described above. Moreover, James ignores my evidence by simply arguing that I am inconsistent. Here again he commits the ad hominem fallacy. He is arguing, in effect, that since he thinks that I am inconsistent, he does not have to deal with my evidence. If he wants to avoid committing such fallacies, he will have to show that my evidence does not hold up. Even if I am inconsistent, that does not prove that all of my evidence is false. If I point to a feature of the Bible and James thinks that I ignore a similar feature of the Quran that still does not stop the feature from being a feature of the Bible. His argument takes the form of saying, in effect, “Shabir, your book has that problem too.” This type of argument is the fallacy known as tu quoque (you too). However, as mama always said, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” James has to answer the point rather than simply pointing to me.


2.     How James Ignores My Points

James writes:

Assuming a particular schema for dating the gospels, Shabir assumes that Matthew and Luke both possessed the text of Mark, and were editing the text to suit their own purposes. I would ask him how that would work, for, of course, if they possessed Mark, so did others, and, if they changed Mark’s wording, wouldn’t that cause obvious problems when they sought to make their resultant literary works available to the very same community?

There are three problems with what James said there. First, I did not assume a schema for dating the Gospels. I did not assume that Matthew and Luke possessed the text of Mark. To begin with, I cited conservative Christian scholars who hold to the dates I mentioned for the composition of the Gospels. To be fair, James should have written that Shabir cited conservative Christian scholars who held to relatively late dates for the composition of the Gospels. Then James should proceed to give good reasons for not agreeing with those Christian scholars. However, he speaks as if I provided no supporting expert testimony, and as if my argument is based only on my assumption. It is easier for him to claim that I am wrong about this than it is to claim that the conservative Christian scholars are wrong about this. By thus recasting my argument in a form that is easier for him to refute than was my original argument, James has committed what is called the straw man fallacy in argumentation. The fallacy is so named because it is typically easier to knock down a straw man than it is to deal with the real man.

Second, I did not assume that Matthew and Luke used Mark. I cited the conservative Christian scholars F.F. Bruce and Richard Bauckham as holding to the same view. I did not assume that Matthew and Luke were editing the texts of Mark to suit their own purposes. I proved that this was being done in the case of Matthew by providing eight examples complete with chapter and verse numbers locating the comparable episodes in both Matthew and Mark.

Third, James’ writing is now in some tension with what he said during the debate. During the cross-examination section of the debate, I asked James about his view that Mark’s Gospel ends at 16:8. According to James, and to many other scholars, Mark 16:9-20 was appended to Mark’s Gospel by someone other than the writer of the remainder of that Gospel. Whoever appended that longer ending to Mark’s Gospel obviously thought that he was improving upon Mark’s Gospel. Based on this observation, I suggested to James that it is more likely that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke likewise improved on it by each supplying a desirable ending in their versions of the Gospel. Moreover, if Matthew was written first, what then would be the need for Mark to be written? In his reply, James said that we should not assume that if Matthew was written first everyone would know of it. He reminds us that when the Gospels were written people had neither telephones nor PDAs nor access to the internet. At that time a person may not have travelled as much as seven miles from his or her birthplace. Mark may have lived in a place where people had never heard of any such thing as a written Gospel of Matthew. That is what James said during the debate. His point was clear. Now he writes:

I would ask [Shabir] how that would work, for, of course, if [Matthew and Luke] possessed Mark, so did others, and, if they changed Mark’s wording, wouldn’t that cause obvious problems when they sought to make their resultant literary works available to the very same community?

Now James assumes that either everyone in a community possessed the earlier Gospel or nobody did. But the fact is that some persons may have possessed copies of the earlier Gospel before it went into more complete circulation. True, some people may not have travelled far from their birthplaces. But some people did. There were missionaries, for example. A missionary could have possessed a copy of the earlier Gospel and used that as a source in composing a Gospel of his own for a community that did not yet hear of the earlier Gospel. Hence it is quite possible that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s Gospel even if their communities at large did not have access to it.

Moreover, James has heard me over and over explaining the development of Christology among the Gospels. My very point has always been that the Gospels were written and circulated initially in different communities such that those who were reading one Gospel did not necessarily know the other. My view is supported by Christian tradition which associated Mark with Rome, Luke with Caesarea, Matthew with Antioch, and John with Ephesus. Since I have already said this many times, and James has heard it many times, why does he still write that he would ask me: “Wouldn’t that cause obvious problems when [Matthew and Luke] sought to make their resultant literary works available to the very same community?” As I have always explained, the writers were not seeking to make their resultant works available to the same community. They were writing for different communities. The masses in one community did not necessarily know what the masses in another community were reading. The writers knew. But the common people would not generally find out until the Gospels were collected together and compared. And, by this time, the four Gospels were already too well entrenched in Christian communities to be contested.

Below, under the caption “How we know that Mark used Matthew” I will return to the question of how Christians who knew one of the Gospels, either Matthew or Mark, would have reacted when they came to read the other of the two. There I will show that if Matthew had already been popularized in a region Mark stood no chance there of gaining ground. The problem which James asked about would only have occurred if Mark attempted to introduce his Gospel in a region in which people were already reading Matthew. For, in that case, people would have objected to Mark’s Gospel. To them, it would have seemed that Mark’s Gospel belittles Jesus. On the other hand, if Mark was already being read in a region, people would have welcomed Matthew’s Gospel as a vast improvement over Mark.

My main argument that Matthew used Mark may find some support in James’ statements if the implications of his statements are pursued. James said during the debate that he would have no problem believing that Luke used written sources, since Luke admitted this fact. I now ask: What if Mark was one of Luke’s written sources? I will return to this point momentarily. James also said during the debate that he would suggest the following dates for the composition of the Gospels:

Mark: late 50s at the latest.

Luke and Matthew: in the 60s.

As for John’s Gospel, James said that some people have made strong arguments for it being written before the year 70 A.D. I should point out that my case does not depend entirely on the late date of the Gospels. Even James’ proposed earlier dates will do for the purpose of supporting the view that Matthew and Luke used Mark. All that is necessary for the main thrust of the position I have advanced is the recognition that Matthew and Luke used Mark. And that entails that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark. Given the dates which James has suggested for the composition of the Gospels, it follows that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark.

In that case, I would ask James his own question, but now with reference to Luke: What if Luke used Mark? Wouldn’t that cause obvious problems when Luke sought to make his resultant literary work available to the very same community? James may reply that Luke did not change the story. If so, then I can supply evidence of Luke’s modification of the material as well. However, in my view, readers would have welcomed Matthew and Luke as improvements over Mark. I will show why this is the case below.

Furthermore, I will now show that, on the basis of James’ ordering of the Gospels, even Matthew could have used Mark. James accepts that Luke used written sources because Luke said so. Now, it stands to reason that a writer may have used sources but did not say so. Matthew could have used Mark without saying that this is what he did. In fact, some conservative Christian scholars think, contrary to my view, that Mark used both Matthew and Luke. But Mark nowhere states this fact. It follows from that conservative Christian view that a Gospel writer used two other Gospels without acknowledgement. In a similar way, Matthew could have used Mark without acknowledgement.

In the final analysis, however, I fail to understand why James is contesting this point by asking me about the obvious problems that will arise when Matthew made his version of the Gospel available to the same community that was already using Mark. I am puzzled here because in the same “Brief Thoughts” James also wrote that Matthew and Mark were “both seeking to communicate the same concept, though to two different audiences.” Hence James suggests to me in one breath that problems would arise from the two Gospels being read in the same community. Then James asserts in another breath that the two Gospels were communicating to two different audiences.


3.     The Conservative Scholars Whom I Cited

In his “Brief Thoughts (Parts 1 and 2)” James did not once refer to my citation of F.F. Bruce. Instead, James proceeded to characterize my position on the Gospels as being that of liberal Christian scholars. Is F.F. Bruce a liberal scholar? Did not James himself acknowledge during the debate that Bruce is a conservative scholar? What of Richard Bauckham? At first James was hesitant to acknowledge him as a conservative scholar. But during the cross-examination James explained that Bauckham is a conservative scholar although James differs with him in some aspects. Well, then, James should at least acknowledge that the ideas which I supported are not entirely based on liberal scholarship. Rather, James mentions Bauckham to support his own view that “the eyewitnesses to the events of the gospel continued in the church for many decades, forming a very important core element of the continuation of the gospel message.” Bauckham’s view, as stated, does not controvert my citation of specific cases of modification of some Gospel narratives. Such modifications could have occurred both in the oral traditions and in the written texts. Let’s read what else Bauckham has to say about this:

So, when it comes to the discourses of Jesus in John, I have been more cautious. Whereas the Synoptics usually preserve the sayings of Jesus as his disciples learned and remembered them, varying and expanding them for interpretative purposes only to a quite limited degree, John seems to avail himself of the permission generally allowed ancient historians to put into his own words the sort of thing Jesus would have said. So the discourses of Jesus in John are peppered with traditional sayings on which John has expanded with his own reflective interpretation. The more interpretative nature of John’s Gospel makes it appropriate, on occasion, to treat this Gospel’s handling of a topic separately from that of the Synoptics.[1]

Hence, according to Bauckham, all the Gospels, the Synoptics (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and John, have varied and expanded the sayings of Jesus for interpretative purposes. The synoptic Gospels did this to quite a limited degree. But John did this to a greater degree. According to Bauckham, John “put into his own words the sort of thing Jesus would have said.” What I have done is to concentrate on Matthew’s handling of Mark’s account. Matthew has mostly stayed close to Mark’s wording, but enacted skilful changes in the record. Thus he has made slight verbal alterations, but with significant theological implications. Though he has modified the wording of the statements to quite a limited degree, Matthew has vastly improved the image of Jesus in his Gospel.


4.     James’ Misunderstanding of Redaction Criticism

James disparaged redaction criticism a lot in his “Brief Thoughts.” Seeing that James did not define redaction criticism in his paper, I will offer here a simple definition as it relates to the composition of the Gospels. Redaction criticism of the Gospels is the careful study of the Gospels to discover the trends that characterize each author’s selection, modification, and composition of the material that comprise his Gospel.[2] In other words, redaction critics recognize that each Gospel writer has an agenda, and a careful examination of the Gospels will reveal some of the writers’ agendas.

Christian scholars widely recognize that there is a need for this sort of study. Since James thinks that redaction criticism is characteristic of liberal scholarship, I cite here in this regard Tom Wright who is widely regarded as a conservative scholar. Without naming the exercise as redaction criticism, Wright wrote of its usefulness as follows:

To read the Gospels … we must continually be alert both for the question ‘what is this telling us about Jesus?’ and for the question ‘what is the evangelist trying to say, through this story about Jesus, to his own contemporaries?’ This means working out why the evangelist has selected and arranged his material in the way he has, and seeing whether that forms something of a pattern which tells us about his own agenda, the points he wanted to emphasize.[3]

Hence, according to Wright, the evangelists (the Gospel writers) had their own agendas, and by studying the comparative use of materials in the Gospels we can discover some of the writers’ agendas. That is precisely what redaction criticism is. I have shown that, compared with Mark, a pattern of handling the tradition is discovered in Matthew: Matthew has improved the image of Jesus in eight different ways.

James oversimplifies the history of Christian scholarship on the question. To him, redaction criticism comes from liberal scholars. However, a review of the literature shows a very complex history in which Christian scholars had to wrestle with real problems over the centuries. For example, Christians in the middle ages had held that at least two Gospels were written by Jesus’ disciples: the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John. At the same time, Christians held that Mark’s Gospel was written by a disciple of Peter, and that the Gospel of Luke was written by Paul’s physician.

But what do we really know about the authorship of the Gospels? During the debate James cited Tom Wright who said that we do not know when the Gospels were written. What else did Tom Wright say? In his book The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary, Tom Wright wrote:

What do we know about how the Gospels got written? Frustratingly little. We don’t have Matthew’s diaries of how he went about collecting and arranging his material. We don’t know where Mark was written. We don’t know whether Luke really was, as is often thought, the companion of Paul. We don’t know whether the ‘Beloved Disciple’ to whom the Fourth Gospel is ascribed (John 21:24), was really ‘John’ (in which case, which ‘John’?) or someone else. None of the books name their authors . . . .[4]

Hence it is clear that, according to Tom Wright, we do not know which Luke wrote Luke’s Gospel, and we do not know who wrote John’s Gospel. We do not even know if his first name was really John. When Christian scholars began to propose these revisions to the traditional view regarding the Gospels they were met with ridicule by those who preferred to stick to traditions. But, little by little, the weak foundations on which the traditions rested became more and more apparent. Eventually, the newly proposed views became widely accepted, to the extent that many conservative Christian scholars now accept the revised view.

Since we do not have Matthew’s diaries to know how he collected his material, what prevents us from thinking that he got his materials from Mark’s Gospel? If Matthew was a disciple of Jesus, we would expect that he should not rely on Mark. We would expect the disciple of Jesus to compose a Gospel from his memory of Jesus. James writes that Matthew was drawing from the same oral tradition from which Mark drew. But we will see below that there is sufficient evidence to show that there is a literary relationship among the synoptic Gospels. By positing the idea that the similarity among these Gospels is due entirely to their reliance on a common stock of oral tradition, some conservative scholars are trying to avoid the negative implications that stem from the fact that Matthew copied Mark with modification. We will see evidence below that Matthew was not only drawing on oral traditions. Rather, he was also copying Mark. The evidence for this is so overwhelming that even some of the most conservative scholars have had to adjust under the weight of the evidence. It is precisely because of such evidence that redaction criticism became a widely accepted method of enquiry.


5.     James’ View on the Authorship of the Gospels

We have seen above that during the debate James suggested some early dates for the composition of the Gospels. Similarly, in his “Brief Thoughts” James suggests that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written between 35 A.D. and 65 A.D. But he is not certain of this range of dates for, he writes, “Let’s admit something: We do not know when any of the gospels were written. They have no date stamps on them.” James believes that if we examine the internal material of these three Gospels without naturalistic biases we would have to conclude that they were written after the crucifixion and “prior to the opening of the hostilities leading to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70.”

My next question arises from James’ mention of naturalistic biases. Is he saying that F.F. Bruce and Richard Bauckham arrived at later dates for the Gospels due to their naturalistic biases? It is clear from a survey of the literature that only some of the most conservative scholars will agree to James’ early dates for the Gospels. Nonetheless, as I have mentioned above, the dating of the Gospels is not crucial for my argument. What matters is that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark.

James acknowledged, during the cross-examination, that the early church believed that Matthew was written first. But then James added: “I do not know which was written first. Mark may have been written first.” James then proceeded to give dates for the composition of the Gospels which show that Mark was indeed written first. As I have shown above, James suggested that Mark was written in the 50s; Luke and Matthew in the 60s; and John possibly before the year 70 A.D. What is most significant here is that James not only accepts the possibility that Mark was written first, but he also furnishes dates to show that Matthew and Luke were written a decade after Mark. The decade that followed the writing of Mark and before the writing of Matthew and Luke would have been sufficient for Mark to become well accepted in the community for which it was first intended. Matthew and Luke could not take away Mark’s Gospel from the community that first read it. Matthew and Luke could only rewrite Mark’s Gospel with improvements for readers in other communities. The manner in which Matthew changed the information as contained in Mark is problematic for the belief in the inspiration of the Gospels. For, why would the same Holy Spirit inspire Mark to write one thing, and then inspire Matthew to change it in the theologically significant ways we have demonstrated above?  Due to that and other such implications, it is understandable why James and other conservative scholars would resist the suggestion that Mark wrote first. But the evidence for Markan priority is now weighs so heavily that James finds himself accepting it even if only as a possibility.

Those who think that Matthew used Mark usually think that Matthew also used Q which was probably a written source, and that Matthew also used M, another putative source which may or may not have been written. Hence this is a comprehensive view that takes into consideration all the evidence. According to this view, Matthew used both written and oral sources. By way of contrast, James’ view is a limited one that excludes a priori the evidence that Matthew used Mark. Now my question to James is this: You suggest that Mark was written in the 50s and Matthew was written in the 60s; and Wright wrote that we do not have Matthew’s diaries to know how he collected his materials. How can you be so sure that Matthew did not use Mark in addition to oral tradition?


6.     What Convinces Scholars of a Literary Relationship Among the Gospels

James argues that there is a reprehensible anti-supernatural bias that is at the foundation of the view that the Gospels are copied one from another. He is incorrect. The view that there is a literary relationship among the Gospels is necessitated by several observations regarding the actual content of the Gospels. Such observations can be made by anyone regardless of their commitment to either liberalism or conservatism. It would be beyond the scope of this brief article to give a full account of the phenomenon here. But a brief treatment will suffice.

I will explain one of these observations here. There are identical or near-identical parenthetical statements in parallel episodes in the Gospels that show that either one Gospel was copied from the other or both were copied from another written source. Robert Stein in his The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction mentions several examples of such parenthetical statements.[5] I will just mention the first of Stein’s examples. That example involves Mark 13:14-16 in which Jesus says as follows:

“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle.” (Mark 13:14-16 RSV parentheses original)

The comparable saying is found in Matthew 24:15-18 and Luke 21:20-22. Now consider the statement in parentheses as it occurs above in Mark 13:14: “Let the reader understand.” It is clear that that statement breaks the flow of Jesus’ speech. It is as if Jesus in mid-sentence stopped to tell his listeners, “Let the reader understand.” Even if Jesus did break his address to mention such a remark, which is not unusual for a speaker, it is more likely that he would have said, “Let the hearers understand.” It is thus more likely that someone inserted the statement “Let the readers understand” after the above saying of Jesus was already put into writing.

Moreover, in the comparable saying of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the same parenthetical remark is there at the same juncture. Hence either it is the case that Matthew and Mark both copied this from another written source, or it is the case that one of them copied it from the other. If it is said that the Gospel writers were just faithfully recording the sayings of Jesus exactly as he spoke them, and that they are identical because they are both accurate, then this does not explain why the parallel sayings do contain differences. And it does not explain why Luke omitted the parenthetical remark.

Furthermore, Jesus spoke Aramaic. But the Gospels are written in Greek. Hence the saying was translated from Aramaic into Greek. Are we to think that the saying of Jesus was independently translated by both Matthew and Mark in the identical manner with the parenthetical statement in the same spot? If someone should say that this proves that the Gospel writers were translating Jesus’ speech accurately, we should ask what would explain the numerous instances when Jesus’ speech was obviously not translated uniformly across the Gospels. Rather, the following sequence of events is far more likely. First, an Aramaic statement, thought to be Jesus’ speech, was translated into Greek. Second, the Greek translation of that speech was put into writing. Third, someone before Mark, or Mark himself, added to the written speech the parenthetical comment, “Let the reader understand.” Third, Matthew copied the statement from Mark together with the parenthetical comment. This scenario makes best sense of the evidence. On the other hand, it makes no sense to say that Matthew and Mark are similar here due to their common reliance on oral tradition.

Again, this example was not invented by me. This is what Robert Stein offered. Hence nothing will be gained in a reply that begins by saying that Shabir is misunderstanding the Bible. Replies to this should address Robert Stein and his knowledge of the Bible. By the way, is Stein a conservative or a liberal Christian scholar? Moreover, the above is only one example of the presence of parallel parenthetical comments in the Gospels. Anyone attempting to prove that this phenomenon does not exist will have to propose a competing theory that makes good sense of the examples offered by Stein.

I have thus demonstrated that the parenthetical comments betray a literary relationship among the Gospels. But the parenthetical comments do not by themselves show whether Matthew copied Mark or Mark copied Matthew. To decide the direction of copying, there are other factors which I will address under the appropriate heading below.


7.     Did I Respond Effectively to James’ Points?

James writes that I did not respond to his presentation “to any depth at all.” This statement of his prompted me to watch the YouTube video of his opening presentation to see what I may have missed the first time. I will summarize here what I believe to be his main arguments. I number the paragraphs below in order to link James’ arguments to my responses which I will present below after I first give his case a fair and uninterrupted hearing:

  1. In his presentation James showed that, in the generation immediately after that of the disciples, Ignatius asserted the divinity of Christ. On that basis, James argued that Jesus must have claimed deity. Moreover, Paul in his writings asserted the divinity of Christ. To James, Paul’s assertion, coming so soon after Christ’s ascension, proves that Jesus must have claimed divinity.
  2.  James then cited passages from Mark, Matthew, and Luke showing that on various occasions Jesus made claims that place him at a higher level than that of the Muslim conception of a Messenger of God. In Mark, for example, Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic. And who can forgive sins but God? Jesus affirmed that he is the Son of the Blessed. In Matthew, Jesus asserted his intimate knowledge of God, this being something that the Quran does not accept. James argued on the basis of Matthew 7:21 that it is necessary for people to call Jesus Lord in order to enter the Kingdom of God. In Luke Jesus is shown to have fulfilled everything written of him in the Old Testament. Moreover, in Matthew 28 Jesus says that he is given all authority, and that he will always remain with his disciples. To James, the above sort of evidence proves that Jesus claimed deity. And such evidence, James reminds us, comes from the Synoptic Gospels, for he had not cited John’s Gospel thus far.
  3. Then James argued that the Quran contradicts itself. For, on the one hand, the Quran tells Christians to judge by what Allah has revealed in the Gospel (Quran 5:47); and, on the other hand, the Quran denies the deity of Christ. To James, this contradiction in the Quran resulted from Muhammad’s ignorance of the Gospels. According to James, Muhammad vainly imagined that contents of the Gospels are in accord with his own teachings in the Quran. Thus James asserted that Muslims are now in a quandary. To escape from this problem, Muslims would assert that the Gospels were already corrupted before Muhammad’s time. But that solution, according to James, will not work, since the Quran (5:47) clearly commands the Christians to judge by the Gospel. This means that the Christians at the time must have possessed the true Gospel. Moreover, the Quran asserts that in the Gospels are guidance and light (Quran 5:46).
  4. Then James criticized my approach to the Bible in general and to the Gospels in particular. He argued that I love the liberals who use redaction criticism to cut apart the Bible. But if those same scholars were let loose to apply their methods to the Quran they would equally cut apart the Quran. Obviously, Muslims would not follow such liberal scholars. James urges us to recognize that such scholars are not the friends of Muslims. James argues that I am therefore inconsistent in applying such scholarship to the Bible but not to the Quran. Muslims should, however, apply just balance as the Quran itself (55:9) directs us. This entails that just as we would not apply such destructive methods to the Quran we should not apply them to the Bible.
  5. James ended his speech by quoting the incident from John’s Gospel where Thomas refers to Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” James concludes by saying that in terms of both history and theology the answer to the question of our debate is positive: Jesus claimed deity.

Those are the main points which James raised during his opening presentation. The responses I offered to these points during the course of the debate are as follows:

  1. The fact that Paul asserted the divinity of Jesus does not prove that Jesus claimed it for himself. In the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament it is clear that the original disciples of Jesus continued to preach that Jesus was a servant of God and that Jesus was the Messiah—and that is precisely what Muslims believe. Acts of the Apostles also shows that it was Paul who began to preach that Jesus is the Son of God. Moreover, in Acts of the Apostles it was Stephen who first prayed to Jesus. But Stephen was not one of Jesus’ disciples.
  2. The fact that Mark, Matthew and Luke show that Jesus claimed to be of a higher status than the Muslim conception of a Messenger of God cannot be taken as proof that Jesus himself made that claim. This is evident from the manner in which Matthew and Luke composed their Gospels. One of their sources is Mark’s Gospel. And we can see that in rewriting the stories about Jesus Matthew and Luke, as compared with Mark, improved the image of Jesus. I provided eight examples to show that Matthew in particular (i) made people call Jesus Lord, (ii) made Jesus describe himself as Lord, (iii) made people call Jesus “Son of God,” (iv) made Jesus call God “my Father,” (v) made people pray to Jesus, (vi) reduced Jesus’ emphasis on One God, (vii) reduced the distinction between Jesus and his God, and (viii) covered the human limitations of Jesus. These eight examples were detailed in my earlier reflections on the debate (cited above). Moreover, I showed that whereas Mark’s Gospel ends at chapter 16, verse 8, scribes who found that ending problematic appended other endings. I argued that since a written tradition is fixed, and yet Christian scribes took the liberty of changing Mark’s ending, Christians must have made many more modifications to the oral tradition before the Gospels were composed.
  3. The Quran does not, in fact, approve of the Gospels in their totality as they are. The Quran says that when Christians claim that Jesus is the Son of God they are following the claim of earlier disbelievers (9:30). And it is not that the Quran is unaware of what the Gospels contain. Rather, the Quran shows deep knowledge of the Gospels. Moreover, the verse to which James referred (Quran 5:47) does not mean that the Gospels in their entirety are the Word of God. That verse means that the People of the Gospel are to judge not by everything the Gospels say, but by what God has revealed therein. Quran 5:46 says that in the Gospel are guidance and light. However, the fact that something contains an ingredient does not mean that all of that something is that ingredient. Hence the fact that the Gospels contain guidance and light does not mean that everything in the Gospels is guidance and light.
  4. I have shown that it is not just liberal scholars, but even conservative ones who hold that Matthew and Luke copied Mark. The nature of the modifications they made to the Markan episodes are clear for everyone to see. One does not need to be a liberal scholar to see these changes. The conclusion that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source in composing their Gospels was accepted by F.F. Bruce whom James himself recommended to me as a conservative scholar. The same conclusion is also accepted by Richard Bauckham whom, after some hesitation, James accepted as a conservative scholar. Hence James is incorrect in saying that my criticism of the Gospel is based on liberal scholarship. I read all kinds of scholarship on both the Bible and the Quran. But then, based on the available evidence, I make up my own mind about what is true.
  5. I have shown that John’s Gospel enhances the image of Jesus much more than did Matthew. For example, according to Mark, Jesus prayed to be saved from crucifixion. But, according to John’s Gospel Jesus said that he will not utter such a prayer. This is because right from the start of John’s Gospel Jesus is declared to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In John’s Gospel Jesus came into the world precisely for the purpose of dying on the cross. This is why he will not pray to be saved from it. Whereas in Mark’s Gospel it was necessary for Judas to identify Jesus so that he could be arrested, in John’s Gospel this was entirely unnecessary. Rather, in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives himself up. No one dares to arrest him against his will. At the mere sound of Jesus’ voice the soldiers who were about to arrest Jesus fell to the ground.

Those five points were my responses to James during the debate. From the above, it is clear that I have dealt effectively with all of the main points which James made. Yet James wrote that I did not respond to his presentation “to any depth at all.” It will be helpful if James could specify where he thinks my answers fell short of effectively dealing with his points.


8.     James’ Error Regarding My Second Example

During the debate, I had shown eight examples where Matthew modified the story as compared with Mark. In my previous writing, I mentioned that three of those examples were challenged during the debate, and I explained again how I answered the three challenges. One of these challenges pertained to my second example. I feel that I have successfully countered that challenge. However, in his “Brief Thoughts,” James still holds on to his challenge to that very example. Since James and I cannot seem to agree on this point despite many attempts at explaining it to each other, I can only hope that readers will decide the issue and advise us appropriately. I will presently evaluate James’ response after restating the claim to which he is responding, as follows.

In both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus speaks of the sudden occurrence of the Hour. In Mark’s Gospel the sudden nature of the apocalypse is compared with the situation wherein the master of a house goes away for awhile and, leaving his servants in charge, he specifically instructs the doorkeeper to be on the lookout (Mark 13:34). Jesus continues:

Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (Mark 13:35-37 RSV).

In that parable, Jesus uses the term ‘master of the house’ to refer to a human being—a homeowner who leaves his servants in charge. By means of this parable, Jesus is calling on his disciples to be on guard for they do not know when the ‘master of the house’ will return. This parable is generally interpreted as a reference to Jesus’ return. On that interpretation, Jesus gets the same title, ‘master of the house’—a title which referred to a human homeowner in the cited words of Jesus.

However, Matthew’s comparable verse reads:

Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)

Thus I had argued that Matthew’s Gospel substitutes ‘your Lord’ in place of Mark’s less theological term ‘master of the house.’

Responding to my above claim, in his “Brief Thoughts” James has taken the trouble to cite for us the Greek texts of the relevant New Testament passages. James did not state what he expected the Greek texts will prove. However, as we will now see, the Greek texts actually vindicate my claim. The texts are as follows (I have emboldened the phrases which are most crucial to our discussion):

γρηγορεῖτε οὖν· οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἔρχεται, ἢ ὀψὲ ἢ μεσονύκτιον ἢ ἀλεκτοροφωνίας ἢ πρωΐ . . . .

(Mark 13:35)

Γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε ποίᾳ ἡμέρᾳ ὁ κύριος ὑμῶν ἔρχεται.

(Matthew 24:42)

The significant portions, which I have highlighted above, show the following:

In Mark, Jesus refers to himself as ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας (ho kyrios tēs oikias).

In Matthew, Jesus refers to himself as ὁ κύριος ὑμῶν (ho kyrios hymōn).

It is also clear from the RSV, shown above, and from the New American Standard Bible, the very Bible which James recommended that I use, that the statements should be translated as follows:

In Mark, Jesus refers to himself as ‘the master of the house’ (ho kyrios tēs oikias).

In Matthew, Jesus refers to himself as ‘your Lord’ (ho kyrios hymōn).

In my previous paper, I argued that although the word kyrios (lord) appears in both Gospels, Mark used it to mean ‘master of the house’ but Matthew used it to mean ‘your Lord.’ The Greek texts which James cites actually prove that this difference exists between the texts. But, instead of acknowledging that fact, James delights in pointing out that prior to the year 2006 when I argued that Mark and Matthew were different at this point I did not know that the term kyrios (lord) occurred in both Gospels. I am actually glad to be reminded of my ignorance for, as the Apostle Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1Corinthians 8:1).

But my ignorance of Greek is not the issue here. The fact of the matter is that the two texts are significantly different both in English and in Greek. In Mark, Jesus told a parable in which the title ‘the master of the house’ (ho kyrios tēs oikias) refers not only to Jesus but also to the householder to whom Jesus compares himself. In Matthew, however, Jesus does not compare himself to anyone. He just refers to himself as ‘your Lord’ (ho kyrios hymōn).

James is aware of what the issue is. He wrote:

But still, in our debate in Toronto, [Shabir] argued that in fact this is still an example supportive of his thesis, no matter what his understanding had been before, for “lord of the house” is still different from “Lord.” He likewise cited a scholar who, writing on the “synoptic problem,” likewise mentions this “change.”

My difficulty is that James did not even acknowledge the simple fact that the terms in Matthew and Luke are different. I have admitted that both Gospels contain the term kyrios (lord). I understand that James does not believe that Matthew used Mark. But what prevents James from agreeing that whereas Mark compares Jesus to a human homeowner, Matthew makes Jesus our Lord? Here is what James wrote:

Instead, we can see that both [Matthew and Mark] are giving us perfectly proper renditions of the same incident and the same words, one in fuller form than the other, both seeking to communicate the same concept, though to two different audiences.

Now, let’s be fair. Did Matthew and Mark really use the same words? And did they really communicate the same concept? Is the following string of words: ‘the master of the house’ (ho kyrios tēs oikias) the same as the following string of words: ‘your Lord’ (ho kyrios hymōn)? And, is the concept of ‘the master of the house’ (which in the Markan passage can refer to an ordinary homeowner) the same as the concept of ‘your Lord’ (as the term appears in the Matthean passage)? According to James, Matthew was merely abbreviating the discussion. Again, let’s be fair. Is ‘your Lord’ as it occurs in Matthew an abbreviation of ‘the master of the house’ as it occurs in Mark? So, the question I come away with after reading James’ “Brief Thoughts” is this: Why does James make our conversation so difficult by refusing to admit the simple fact of the case?

We can differ about the implications of this fact. We can argue about whether Matthew used Mark, and whether he was trying to change the story to improve the image of Jesus. But I expect James to admit the simple fact that ‘master of the house’ is significantly different from ‘your Lord.’ If we can agree that the two texts are significantly different, then we can ask why they are different. But if we cannot even agree that the two texts are significantly different then how could our dialogue bear fruit?

In any case, even if James does not admit that the two texts are different, they are still different. And, as I cited Robert Stein to show, the reason for that difference is that Matthew made the change from ‘master of the house’ to ‘your Lord.’

In short, as I see it, my eight examples are valid, and, as shown above, it is difficult to understand James’ attempt to hold on to his objection to my second example. It may be that James finds it necessary to defend a statement he made during the Biola debate in 2006. During the cross-examination of the Biola debate, James suggested to me that the texts of Matthew and Mark both contain the word kyrios. Trusting James’ assertion, I immediately relinquished that as an example of Matthew’s modification of the comparable Markan episode. However, I found out later that James’ assertion was not the complete truth. The truth is that the two texts are substantially different—despite the fact that they both contain the word kyrios, as I have shown above. I then wrote a paper reclaiming that example as being genuine. That paper can be read here: http://answeringmissionaries.wordpress.com/2006/05/25/a-reassertion-that-matthew-2442-improves-the-image-of-jesus-over-that-of-mark-1335/.

In the light of the above detailed treatment of the two passages in question, I am now convinced that James misled me about these passages during the Biola debate, though of course he did not do that deliberately. James erroneously claimed during that debate that since the word kyrios is used in both passages one passage does not represent an improvement over the other. At the time, James failed to see that the word was used differently in the two Gospels. That was his error then. I do not wish to dwell on past errors. I just do not see why James holds on tenaciously to his past error. I think he should simply let go.


9.     How We Know that Matthew Used Mark

James wrote:

You can theorize all you want, but it is just as easy to theorize that Mark was written after Matthew and he is filling out Matthew’s all too brief description! Theories work that way.

I will now show that theories do not work that way, and that the most viable theory is that Matthew used Mark. James’ understanding of how theories work is incorrect. The way theories work is as follows. Some initial observations give rise to a question. A scholar proposes a hypothesis to answer that question. The hypothesis is tested by other scholars attempting to disprove it or to dislodge it by proposing rival hypotheses. Some hypotheses fail. Eventually, a hypothesis is seen to have withstood many falsification tests, and is supported by other corroborating evidence. Such a hypothesis rises to the level of a theory. Further attempts are made to dislodge or disprove the theory. Some theories fail. Others succeed. Some theories become widely accepted by the scholars in the relevant field. Some competing theories are nonetheless accepted by a fringe element of scholarship. That is how theories work in general. The specific theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source is widely accepted by scholars in the field. A few scholars nonetheless hold on to competing theories on the Gospels’ literary relationship. I am not saying that the majority is always correct. I intend in this paragraph merely to show that theories do not work in the way James claimed.

There are many reasons for believing that Matthew and Luke used Mark. One reason is that, compared with Mark, Matthew and Luke show many improvements. Such improvements include the more accurate citation of historical facts, and, from a Christian point of view, the more accurate reflection of theology. In a previous debate with James, I mentioned several such features as were explained by Bruce Metzger in his book The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content.[6] Again, the difficulty we are having is that James ignores these points and proceeds as if they were never mentioned.

It is easy to see why Matthew and Luke would want to improve the narratives. It is not easy to see why Mark would want to ruin them. For example, in terms of history, Metzger points to Jesus’ speech in Mark 2:26. There Jesus stated that Abiathar was the high priest at the time when David entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread. According to Metzger, the mention of Abiathar in Mark’s statement is contrary to another account in the Bible—the account in 1 Samuel 21:1-7. Matthew and Luke omitted the mention of Abiathar in their accounts of Jesus’ speech about David’s deed (see Matthew 12:3 and Luke 6:3). Now, if Matthew and Luke were copying the episode from Mark, it is easy to see why they would want to omit the mention of the problematic name Abiathar. They were simply correcting the narrative so as to have it agree with 1 Samuel 21:1-7 in the Old Testament. But, if Mark was summarizing Matthew and Luke, it is not easy to see why Mark would go out of his way to mention Abiathar and thus to introduce a historical error into Jesus’ speech. These and other such improvements in Matthew and Luke show that they copied the episodes from Mark, not the other way around. Hence James is wrong to suggest that the theory that Mark used Matthew is just as viable as the theory that Matthew used Mark. Matthew’s modification of Mark makes sense. But Mark’s modification of Matthew makes no sense.

As I promised above, I now return to the question of how Christians would have reacted if they were already familiar with one of the two Gospels, either Matthew or Mark, and then they happened to read the other of the two. Due to the improvements that we have seen in Matthew’s Gospel, and other important features of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel eventually gained popularity over Mark’s Gospel. It is easy to see which of the two Gospels Christians would prefer—not the one that shows Jesus committing a historical error. Now, if Matthew was written first, and Mark attempted to introduce another version of the story in which Jesus commits a historical error, how would Mark convince Christians to take his Gospel as Gospel truth? On the other hand, those who already knew Mark’s Gospel would welcome Matthew’s Gospel as being a more accurate version from their point of view. To them, this is how the story of Jesus should be told. This explains how Mark gained popularity such that it was eventually included in the canon. It was written earlier. Hence it gained popularity before Matthew’s Gospel arrived on the scene. If Mark’s Gospel was written after Matthew’s Gospel had become popular, Mark’s Gospel would have soon been discarded and forgotten. James’ rationale for the value of Mark’s Gospel is that it is more concise and vivid. But what would Christians have preferred to read—a short Gospel that showed Jesus committing errors, or a longer Gospel that shows Jesus conforming to the Christian view of Jesus?

Think again about the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. During the debate I focused on the mistake of not knowing that it was not the season for figs. I excused the error from a Muslim point of view as a simple mistake that a human could make. But there is another problem with the story as it appears in Mark. Jesus appears to have cursed the tree out of his own anger and frustration due to no fault of the tree. If it was a bad tree, not bearing fruit when it should, we can understand James’ sermonizing about it as James did based on Matthew’s account. But when we focus on Mark’s plain statement that the tree had no fruit because it was not the season for figs, we realize that there was no problem with the tree. The problem was that Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance that the tree had leaves, he went up to the tree hoping that he would find fruit on it. But when he found no fruit he cursed the tree. This is not a simple human mistake. It is a moral problem. Of course a Muslim should not accept that Jesus made such a moral mistake without sufficient historical evidence. Nothing in our traditions prepares us to think that Jesus made such a mistake. He is always represented in the Quran and in the authentic hadiths in the most respectable manner possible given the obvious difference that in Islamic theology God has no co-sharer in his divinity. But, again, I ask, which Gospel would Christians have preferred to read—Mark’s shorter Gospel which shows Jesus committing a moral error, or Matthew’s longer Gospel which turns that mistake into the basis of a good Christian sermon? The answer is clear.

As for theological improvements in the stories, Metzger has also given several examples. In my own presentation, I have given eight examples, and we have seen above that they hold up despite the challenges presented to three of these examples during the debate. Now let us consider my eight examples in the light of our present question: Is it more reasonable to suggest that Mark was copying Matthew in these instances, or is it more reasonable to suggest that Matthew was copying Mark?

  1. In Mark 9:5, Peter called Jesus “Rabbi.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 17:4, Peter called Jesus “Lord.” It is easy to see why Matthew would change Rabbi to Lord. It is not so easy to see why Mark would change Lord to Rabbi.
  2. In Mark 13:35, Jesus referred to himself as “the master of the house.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 24:42, Jesus referred to himself as “your Lord.” It is easy to see why Matthew would change ‘master of the house’ to ‘your Lord.’ The reverse is not easy to envisage.
  3. In Mark 8:29, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 16:16, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” It is easy to see that Matthew inserted “Son of the Living God.” It is not easy to see why Mark would omit that designation for Jesus. Moreover, this example goes clearly against James’ suggestion that Matthew was abbreviating Mark. Here it is clear that Matthew expanded the address to include a significant title for Jesus.
  4. In Mark 3:31, Jesus referred to God as “God.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 12:46, Jesus referred to God as “my Father.” It is easy to see why Matthew would change “God” to “my Father” in Jesus’ speech. It is not easy to see why Mark would change Jesus’ speech the other way around.
  5. In Mark 4:38, the disciples, concerned about the storm at sea, awaken Jesus as he lay asleep in the stern. They say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” But, in the same episode in Matthew 8:25, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, save us! We are perishing.” Thus in Mark the disciples rebuked Jesus. But in Matthew the disciples prayed to Jesus. Several scholars acknowledge that Matthew has improved this story from the point of view of later Christians. For example, in the Pelican New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel of St. Matthew, J. C. Fenton, writes: “Matthew has changed the form of address from Teacher (Mark 4:38) to Lord; and the words do you not care of we perish? to we are perishing, perhaps to remove the rebuke of Jesus by the disciples.”[7] Similarly, Robert H. Gundry in his Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art writes that Matthew has substituted his favorite “Lord” for “Teacher” in that episode.[8] Moreover, Gundry points out that whereas in Mark the disciples suggest that Jesus does not care that they are perishing, Matthew substituted the address “save [us]!”; then Matthew transformed the disciples’ question “do you not care that we are perishing” into their declaration “we are perishing.”
  6. In Mark 12:29, Jesus, being asked what was the greatest commandment, replied as is known from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 22:37-38, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” I used this example to show that Matthew has omitted the words, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” While it is possible that Mark went to the trouble of inserting the text of Deuteronomy 6:4 into Jesus’ speech, it seems more likely that Matthew’s Gospel omitted Deuteronomy 6:4 from Jesus’ speech. Matthew’s modification thus reflects the tendency among Christians at the time to deemphasize the Old Testament’s insistence on Yahweh as the only God.
  7. In Mark 10:11-18, as Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But, in the same episode, in Matthew 19:17-18, the man came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good.” As James Dunn has pointed out, it is easy to see the change going from Mark to Matthew; and it is difficult to see the change going from Matthew to Mark.[9] Matthew modified both the man’s question and Jesus’ answer. In Matthew, the man does not call Jesus good, and therefore Jesus does not rebuke the man for calling him good as Jesus did in Mark’s Gospel. But now, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ reply to the man’s question is difficult to appreciate. Why would Jesus say to the man, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Was Jesus not a teacher of goodness? He would be expected to welcome anyone asking him, as the man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do ….” Moreover, why would Jesus at this point add, “There is only one who is good”? The man had not asked Jesus how many are there who are good. According to Dunn, the reason for the incoherence in Matthew’s Gospel at this point is that Matthew, while modifying the account is nevertheless trying to stay as close as he can to the Markan account. Hence, by making patchwork changes, Matthew has produced an incoherent account.
  8. In Mark 11:12-14, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And the tree withered by next morning. But, in the same episode in Matthew 21:18, Jesus was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing but leaves. Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And the tree withered at once. There are three major differences between the two episodes. First, Mark said that Jesus went to the tree “to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.” Matthew did not mention the reason for Jesus going to the tree. Hence the fact that Jesus was disappointed is not as clear in Matthew as it is in Mark. Matthew did not mention that it was not the season for figs. Mark mentions that Jesus found nothing but leaves “for it was not the season for figs.” Hence from Mark’s Gospel the impression is clear that there was no problem with the tree. The problem was that it was not the season for figs. The episode in Mark thus highlights Jesus’ limited knowledge. It is easy to see that Matthew modified the narrative to avoid this implication about Jesus’ limited knowledge. It is difficult to see why Mark would take Matthew’s account and so change it as to make it appear that Jesus made such a mistake and then cursed the fig tree apparently due of his own frustration. The third major difference is as follows. In Mark’s account the tree was discovered withered as the disciples passed by it the following morning. But Matthew specifically says that the tree withered to its roots as soon as Jesus cursed it. Again, it is easy to see that Matthew has magnified the power of Jesus, and there is no reason for thinking that Mark would want to minimize Jesus’ power.

From the above eight examples, therefore, the direction of development is clear. Matthew is not simply summarizing the episodes. He is modifying them to suit his theological purposes.

In response to James’ suggestion that Matthew and Mark were both drawing on oral tradition, I have shown that there is a literary relationship among the Gospels. And, in response to James’ suggestion that it is just as viable to theorize that Mark may have used Matthew, I have given two responses. First, theories do not really work in such a simplistic fashion as James suggests. There has been a long history of scholars attempting to disprove or dislodge the theory that Matthew used Mark. But in the final analysis this theory has become widely accepted. Many conservative scholars now openly embrace that view. My second response was to revisit my eight examples to look at them in light of James’ suggestion that the theory that Mark used Matthew is just as viable as the theory that Matthew used Mark. I have thus shown that the two theories are not equally viable. In fact, the theory that Mark used Matthew leaves too much unexplained, whereas the theory that Matthew used Mark is quite comprehensive.


10.     James’ Misunderstanding of the World of Biblical Scholarship

Redaction criticism in general has a long history spanning hundreds of years of scholarship. The application of redaction criticism in studying the Gospels in particular also has a history spanning a century of scholarship. James oversimplifies this history by attributing the enterprise to liberal scholarship. James writes:

I can tell you, without hesitation, that the vast majority of those who embrace form and redaction criticism in all of its flavors and kinds do so out of tradition, not out of having examined the case set forth in defense of these methods.

Here James lumps form criticism and redaction criticism “in all its flavors and kinds.” By lumping together related but separable issues, James thus muddies the clear thinking we need to employ here. I will thus focus on redaction criticism of a specific kind, the study of how Matthew reworked the Markan episodes to emphasize a higher Christology. Even if it is true that most people who embrace the use of redaction criticism do so out of tradition, that does not prove that the tradition is invalid. By the same token, many people who reject the use of redaction criticism do so out of tradition. But that by itself does not show that their tradition is wrong. And here it is those who reject redaction criticism who are at fault. For, the field is built on the sort of firm evidence I intimated above.

James blames redaction criticism on academia and its supposed anti-supernaturalism. But we should ask James what prevents conservative scholars from writing treatises that show the invalidity of redaction criticism. On the contrary, what happens in practice is that conservative scholars who have taken the time to examine the arguments gradually begin to accept redaction criticism. This results in a gradual shrinking of the world of conservative scholarship. It is not that conservative scholarship is being deprived of the opportunity for self-expression. There are seminaries which are geared towards producing conservative scholarship. And there are publishers interested in publishing conservative materials. The real problem is that conservative scholarship cannot fully engage with redaction criticism and remain completely conservative. Hence James’ reaction to redaction criticism is to view it with prejudicial disdain.

James describes some scholars as schizophrenics, for they preach the word of God on Sunday and apply critical methods in studying the same scripture on Monday. James informs us that over the last decade more and more such scholars have been solving their schizophrenia by giving up their religious presuppositions and adopting critical presuppositions entirely. James mentioned some of the major issues which those whom he dubs schizophrenics had to struggle with. They think that Paul contradicted himself. They cannot be sure that Moses existed. And they think that Christians “have little more than a theoretical basis for knowing what Jesus actually said.”

The trend which James described is noteworthy. People have been leaving not only Christianity but also Islam and other faiths. But the departure of scholars from their conservative Christian foundations is, according to James, a major phenomenon in Christianity. We can understand the argument that if ordinary people leave their faiths this is due to their lack of understanding of their faiths. But what are we to say of scholars? They are leaving conservative Christianity after understanding it!

But James does not see clearly where the problem lies. He thinks that the problem is entirely with the individuals, whereas part of the problem is that the faith propositions they have struggled to hold on to are difficult to maintain in the face of the available evidence. What is needed is for theologians to work out a viable synthesis of traditional faith and modern discoveries. This has to be done both for Islam and Christianity. Of course neither I nor James would want people to turn away from religion to atheism, to agnosticism, or to other forms of irreligiousness. It is my observation, however, that such a synthesis has proved difficult for Christian theologians. On the other hand, I believe that a true synthesis of faith and reason is viable when it comes to Islam. It is, however, beyond the scope of the present paper to elucidate that latter claim.

James thinks that liberal scholars posit late dates for the Gospels because they cannot accept that true prophesies can be uttered. Such scholars say that the prophecies which the Gospels contain, and which were apparently fulfilled, were written after the fact. In James’ view, since the Gospels prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was actually destroyed in 70 A.D., such scholars imagine that the Gospels were written after 70 A.D. Again, James is giving only a part of the story. As a Muslim, I believe in the occurrence of true prophecy. But that does not mean that I should accept every claim that a certain prophecy was fulfilled. In the case of the Gospels, it is well known that prophecies were written after the fact. The case in point is the detailed prophecy in the first three Gospels that Jesus will be arrested, and crucified, and that he will rise from the dead. This is contradicted by the Gospel of John and, indeed, by the tenor of the stories even in the synoptic Gospels. For, these stories show that the disciples had no idea that Jesus would rise from the dead until they discovered his tomb empty, and he appeared to them alive again. The prophecy that Jesus will be crucified and that he will rise from the dead, therefore, is widely regarded as having been put into the mouth of Jesus by early Christians after they had already arrived at the belief that Jesus had resurrected from the dead. Knowing this, can we really be blamed for thinking that some of the other Gospel prophecies were also written after the fact?

And what are we to make of the two false prophesies which, as I mentioned in the debate, historians generally credit to Jesus on the basis of the Gospel testimonies? As I pointed out, scholars apply the criterion of embarrassment to evaluate these testimonies. The scholars say that Christians would not have credited those prophecies to Jesus if he had not said them. But a Muslim would say that the historians have made an incorrect judgment in this regard. To be sure, Christians would not have willfully credited to Jesus such prophecies as they knew to be false. But if Christians thought that a certain prophecy was true they could have mistakenly thought that such a true prophecy must have been uttered by Jesus. Nonetheless, since the Gospels do credit such false prophesies to Jesus, we can be excused for studying them as if they are human documents. To Muslims, these are human documents that contain some elements of the divine revelation that was once given to Jesus. If we are to accept all the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, we would also have to accept the false prophesies as being his. Then we would have to conclude that Jesus was a false prophet. But, of course, a Muslim will not accept that Jesus was anything less than a true prophet of God. To be sure, the fact that two prophecies now turn out to be false does not constitute sufficient proof that all of the prophecies are false. Yet the two false prophecies, and the discovery that prophecies have been put into the mouth of Jesus after the fact, prove how human are the Gospels. Knowing this, the scholars rightly treat the remaining prophecies with some reservation.

Attempting to prove the shallowness of liberal scholarship, and the anti-supernaturalism that undergirds such scholarship, James recounts his experience with his professors at Fuller Theological Seminary. James’ manner of argumentation here amounts to the fallacy of hasty generalization. This occurs when someone makes sweeping conclusions based on an unrepresentative sample. For example, you arrive in a country and the first person you meet has blond hair. You conclude from this that everyone in the country has blond hair. Such stereotyping, in logical terms, is called the fallacy of hasty generalization. In order to understand a field of scholarship one has to survey the scholarly literature in the field. You cannot consider your experience with a few professors at one seminary as being representative of every professor at every academic institution in the world.

Nonetheless, James has presented an unflattering report about his professors. Apparently some of them could not explain to James why Matthew’s Gospel was not written by a disciple of Jesus, though the reader of even the present humble paper should have no difficulty offering some good reasons for that view. Moreover, those professors apparently did not know enough about redaction criticism to give James anything but the impression that the field rests on anti-supernatural presuppositions.

Finally, I should say something about the false dilemma which James presents between supernaturalism and anti-supernaturalism. James wants Muslims and Christians to choose between being either super-naturalists or anti-super-naturalists. But there are other nuanced choices. For example, one could be a supernaturalist in the face of strong evidence of supernatural activity and yet be skeptical about claims of the supernatural which are not supported by strong evidence. Moreover, one can proceed on the basis of methodological naturalism and accept that something supernatural is at work when natural reasons are insufficient. Or, one can accept that God is continually working in the world through what most people would regard as natural causes.

Muslims and Christians are like most other rational people. If I return to where I thought I parked my car only to find that it is not there, I do not immediately conclude that something supernatural suddenly occurred. I begin to think of the obvious natural reasons why my car is not there. The following questions will probably occur to me. Am I mistaken about where I parked my car? Did I park in a prohibited spot in which case the car has been towed? Is my car stolen—not by some extraterrestrials, but by some fellow earthlings? After exhausting all natural possibilities, I may conclude that something inexplicable has happened. I may describe the whole thing as being quite weird. Even then, I may have the feeling that I have not exhausted all the natural possibilities. I may think that perhaps I have overlooked something. However, as a believer in God, I will be open at this point to an understanding that God had something to do with the disappearance of my car.

I intimated above that a supernaturalist may fully embrace natural causes and still think of God as working through natural causes. For example, when I fail to find my car where I thought I parked it, I may think from the start that God is testing my reaction to adverse circumstance. Will I remain patient with God? Or, God may be teaching me a lesson that I should not rely on material possessions which are here today and gone tomorrow. Rather, I should rely on Him who is everlasting. Yet my belief in God would not stop me from reporting that the car was stolen. Even when it is known that the car was stolen, I can still think that God is teaching me a lesson. In that case, I would think that God’s purposes in the world are carried out through the actions of his creatures, even actions, such as theft, which God does not sanction.

Hence the simple dichotomy which James presents is misleading. Supernaturalism and anti-supernaturalism are not the only two choices. By offering that stark choice between only two alternatives, James attempts to dissuade Muslims and Christians from investigating the natural reasons for the discrepancies among the Gospels. If we start thinking about what Matthew did to the story, James associates us with anti-super-naturalists. To avoid such guilt-by-association, we are expected to jump to the other extreme and consider ourselves super-naturalists. For James, that entails that we close our eyes to what Matthew has done. Our response is that there are middle alternatives between those two choices. The dilemma which James posed is based on a false dichotomy.

In the case of a scripture that is known to be from God, we would be hesitant to investigate its origins from a naturalistic point of view. But over the last four hundred years, the Gospels have been shown to contain so many errors and contradictions that it was inevitable that they would be viewed as human documents with a divine element even by conservative Christians. Even the dichotomy which James has made between liberal and conservative is not as sharp as James would have us believe. There is a spectrum of scholarship. If a scholar was once considered conservative, he would soon be considered less than conservative if he begins to apply redaction criticism to the Gospels. The difficulty for James is that the boundaries of conservatism have shifted outward to accommodate those scholars who would otherwise have fallen out of the fold of conservatism. James is not comfortable with such movable boundaries.

In short, the validity of redaction criticism does not depend on a liberal worldview or an anti-supernaturalist worldview. Yet James spent a great deal of energy arguing that it does. He has confused correlation with causation—thus committing a common logical fallacy. It is true that liberals are more likely to use redaction criticism, and that conservatives are more likely to resist redaction criticism. And it is also true that liberals are often anti-super-naturalists in their outlook whereas conservatives are undeniably super-naturalists. But this does not mean that the liberal worldview is the cause of redaction criticism in the first place. It may be that redaction criticism itself creates liberal scholars. Of course, the developments could spiral in the following way. First, scholars apply redaction criticism because, as Tom Wright explained, each Gospel writer has a unique agenda that is worth discovering. Second, having applied redaction criticism, scholars see the way in which the Gospel writers reshaped the stories. Third, the scholars become less than conservative as a result of these discoveries. Fourth, the scholars apply the method again, going deeper the second time around. Fifth, they see more results which push them farther away from the conservative core, and so on. Eventually, the liberal camp swells, the conservative camp dwindles, and James remains one of the few who would publicly denounce redaction criticism. Yet James does so not by harnessing evidence against redaction criticism, but by poisoning the well of such knowledge so that his conservative followers would not dare to drink from it.


11.   The Coherence of My Approach to the Muslim and Christian Scriptures

In the last paragraph of part 1 of his “Brief Thoughts,” James attempts to show that I am inconsistent in my approach. He argues that whereas I apply critical methods in dealing with the Bible, I do not apply similar methods in dealing with the Quran. James expands on this claim in part 2 of his “Brief Thoughts.” Hence I will expand on my answer in this regard when I respond to his part 2. For now, however, it should suffice for me to say that consistency requires treating similar things in a similar manner. Consistency does not require that we treat all things in the same way. Hence we should treat all humans the same way, for they share an essential similarity. But we should not treat all books in the same way. Is James asking us regard the Bible in the same way as we regard all other books in the world? If the Quran and the Bible share some essential similarity, they should be treated the same way as far as that similarity is involved. But where they are different their essential difference cannot be ignored.

I will now be more specific as I address James’ specific charge which reads as follows:

When [Shabir] defaults to Brown or others like him, who themselves operate solely in the realm of redaction and simply dismiss as out dated and irrelevant the need to harmonize (not on a surface level, but on a much deeper level that is consistent with meaningful historical inquiry), he is doing the very thing he cannot allow to be done when it comes to the Qur’an.

It is interesting that James would not miss the opportunity to highlight my mention of Raymond Brown. Yet it is important to place the mention of this scholar within the context of our recent debate. In my main presentation I made no mention of Brown. He only came up during the cross-examination when James asked me about my position regarding the Paraclete sayings in John’s Gospel. It was then that I explained that my approach to John’s Gospel largely follows from Brown’s analysis. But, in his “Brief Thoughts” James found space to capitalize on the mention of this scholar whom James feels comfortable in criticizing. My main presentation, however, depended on Markan priority. And, as I asserted, this was the view of both F.F. Bruce and Richard Bauckham. James should give these two scholars the attention they held in the debate. Brown was not a chief player. In fact, James’ mention of Brown makes me feel that the mere fact that Brown was ever mentioned in the debate presents a barrier to James’ thinking.

As he does in much of his paper, James makes many unsubstantiated claims and accusations. I wish he would make fewer claims and give more evidence. Here he makes a sweeping claim about Raymond Brown “and others like him.” In Brown’s defense, I will note that he is one of the most studious New Testament scholars of our recent times. Though a Catholic, his scholarship is widely acknowledged by both Catholics and Protestants. Bruce Metzger, a conservative Protestant scholar praised Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament with these words: “If a person would own only one book on the New Testament, this is the one to have.”[10] We cannot know precisely what James means by “others like him.” But I can say with certitude that, contrary to James’ claim, Brown does not simply dismiss as out dated and irrelevant the need to harmonize. Brown investigates historical questions in great detail. He does try to harmonize the Gospels at a deep level that is consistent with meaningful historical inquiry. If James thinks that this is not so, he should point to a few instances in Brown’s works to substantiate his accusation.

What I find is that Brown carefully examines the data. Where the data is discrepant, he admits that this is so. For example, he undertook a detailed examination of the Gospel stories which show that Jesus appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday and thereafter. Brown then admitted that the various attempts which Christian scholars have made to harmonize the reports do violence to the text. He then offers a harmonization of his own which, admittedly, could not incorporate all the details of the Gospels. In the end, James will not be satisfied with Brown’s harmonization, since Brown admits that the Gospels are not completely reconcilable. But James cannot honestly say that Brown lacks depth in his analysis of the various attempts to harmonize the data. In the end, it has to be admitted that the Gospels contradict each other with regards to the said post-resurrection appearance stories. They do not agree as to when, where, and to whom Jesus appeared.

Hence Brown does not begin with the assumption that the Gospels contradict each other. That is the conclusion he arrives at after a detailed investigation of the Gospels. Likewise, I do not begin with the assumption that the Gospels contradict each other. That is not my beginning assumption but my present conclusion.

If the Quran contains such contradictions as do the Gospels, then I agree that I would be inconsistent if I criticize only the Gospels but not the Quran. But that is not the case. Hence James is incorrect when he characterizes my approach in the following manner:

[Shabir] would not wish us to begin with the assumption of error and inconsistency on the part of the Qur’an, yet his entire argument against the gospels does just that.

Contrary to James’ assertion, I do not wish for Christians to begin with the assumption of error and inconsistency on the part of either the Quran or the Bible. The most responsible approach to books, whether religious or non-religious books, would be for us to assume that the author explains in one part of his work what he means in another part. We thus attempt to harmonize. If some apparent discrepancies appear, we may assume that there is something about the author and his writing that we do not quite understand. But if the errors and discrepancies are many, then such a charitable assumption becomes considerably strained. In the case of the Bible the errors have been found to be so numerous that we can no longer assume that the errors we see are only in our imaginations. If the Quran can be shown to be likewise riddled with errors, then I would readily grant that the Quran should be approached in the same manner as the Bible.

James attempts in part 2 of his “Brief Thoughts” to show that the Quran does contain some discrepancies. I will analyze his claim in my reply to part 2. For now, I will state in brief that James has not shown a real contradiction in the Quran. The Quran’s style is generally not to relate stories in detail. Rather, the Quran would allude to a story by mentioning some parts of it while driving home the lessons of the story. If the same story is alluded to again in the Quran, other details of the same story may be mentioned, and again lessons drawn. Often the detailed story to which the Quran alludes, are found in the Bible. Such is the case with the stories of the Biblical prophets which are alluded to in the Quran. When we keep in mind the complete Biblical story, we can see that the Quran in various places refers to various parts of that story. Whether or not the story is in the Bible, one must attempt in a reasonable way, as we do with other books, to see if the various parts of the story can fit into a reasonably reconciled whole. If such an attempt fails, then we should regard the Quran as a human document as we do the Gospels.

We will see, however, that James has not proved the presence of any discrepancy in the Quran whereas in the present paper we have seen numerous and substantial discrepancies in Gospels. Hence the two documents are sufficiently different to merit two different approaches to them.

Moreover, from the very inception we should see how the Quran is similar to and yet different from the Gospels with regards to the question of redaction criticism. Redaction criticism involves the discovery of an author’s proclivities in the manner in which he handles his sources. In the case of Matthew, we have discovered his source to be Mark’s Gospel. And we can see in detail how Matthew has modified the reports to support his own view of Christ. The problem this poses for Christianity is that both Mark and Matthew are considered divinely inspired documents. Hence the question arises: Why would the same Holy Spirit inspire Mark to write the account showing, for example, that Jesus did not know the season for figs, and then inspire Matthew to rewrite the account to avoid that implication? In the case of the Quran, when historians posit sources for it they are not positing sources which Muslims consider to be, in their present state, divine revelations. Hence the manner in which the Quran apparently modifies the stories in those sources from the perspective of the historians does not pose a problem for believers.

Moreover, in the case of the Quran, Muslims believe that the scripture was all revealed to one individual. Even from a naturalistic point of view, the Quran has only one author. And it is reasonable, as I have shown, to presume that an author does not contradict himself. In the case of the Gospels, however, we are not dealing with one book but four books. We are not dealing with one author, but four authors. It is reasonable to assume that an author means in one part of his work what he has written in another part of the same work. It is less reasonable to assume that one author meant in one book what another author wrote in another book. Even so, if we are dealing with various reports of the same event as given by various authors, we should still attempt to harmonize them. We must consider the possibility that the various authors are offering complementary details of the same event. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that it is more reasonable to reconcile the statements of a single author, than it is to reconcile the statements of various authors. To put that another way, the likelihood that a single author is consistent with himself, is greater than the likelihood that four authors are consistent with each other. Hence, it is more reasonable to assume that the Quran is consistent with itself than it is to assume that the Gospels are consistent with each other. That initial assumption, however, has to be tested by the facts.

But what do the facts prove? In the case of the Gospels, as I have shown above, it is clear that there are too many substantial discrepancies for us to ignore them. In my reply to part 2 of James’ “Brief Thoughts,” I will analyze his claims that there are discrepancies in the Quran. There I will show in detail that the initial assumption that the Quran is consistent with itself is not disproven by the parallel passages presented by James.

In short, I thus have a coherent position. I treat like things alike; and different things differently. I approach books with the assumption that I will learn of an author’s thoughts from various parts of his or her book; and that the various parts are harmonious. If I find what appear to be discrepancies and errors, I will at first suppose that there is something that I do not quite understand. But if I find that there are too many such discrepancies and errors; and that my attempts to harmonize them fail, then I will seriously doubt that the author has it all together. I apply the same measures to both scriptures: the Bible and the Quran.

[1] Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University, 2011) p. 17.

[2] For a more detailed explanation, see Norman Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969 rpt. 1976) p. 1; James Dunn, “The History of the Traditions of the New Testament,” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) p. 968.

[3] Tom Wright, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 106.

[4] Tom Wright, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 126. Parentheses original.

[5] Robert Stein, The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988) pp. 37-43.

[6] Bruce Metzger in his book The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 1965) pp. 81-83.

[7] J. C. Fenton, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel of St. Matthew (London: Penguin, 1963 rpt. 1987) p. 130.

[8] Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) p. 155.

[9] James Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus: The Impact of Scholarship on Our Understanding of How Christianity Began (London: SCM Press, 1985) pp. 20-21.

[10] Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday:1997) rear dust jacket.

Did Jesus Claim Deity?

My Reflections on the Ally-White Debate

Shabir Ally

Christians and Muslims have been debating this question for centuries: “Did Jesus Claim to be God?” I would like to share some of my reflections on my March 22, 2012 debate with James White on the question. I noted in my opening remarks that in such debates both Muslims and Christians often focus on some selected key biblical passages which they cite in favour of their relative positions. Muslims would focus on those gospel passages which show the limitations of Jesus, and Christians would focus on passages in which Jesus makes claims that Muslims would not accept. Usually, both sides leave the debate claiming that they have won. Yet both sides distrust the other for failing to pay sufficient attention to the Bible’s verses which count against their claims.

For my contribution to this ongoing dialogue, I tried to make sense of the fact that the Bible contains both types of statements: passages that prove Jesus’ human limitations, and passages that prove a high Christology. Basically, I explained that Jesus was a man. This accounts for his human limitations. But over time, as the gospels were written one after another, the image of Jesus was transformed—especially so in the last of the four gospels. Jesus the man was made into a divine being. Thus in the gospels we have the surviving memory of Jesus as a man, and also the developed image of him as the divine Son of God.

I have just read Dr. White’s comments on the debate as they appear on his blog. I find his comments fascinating and, as usual, one-sided. Hence I am prompted to share another side to the story. After all our discussion over the years, I am surprised that Dr. White still holds to positions which I have already refuted. For example, he holds to his standard argument that whereas I rely on liberal scholars to deconstruct the Bible, I do not rely on such scholars to deconstruct the Quran. But I answered him in writing about this in 2008. My article “On Consistency in Muslim-Christian Debates” can be read here https://shabirally.wordpress.com/2008/12/29/on-consistency-in-muslim-christian-debates-3/.

Similarly, a lot of our discussion over the years has focused on the more specific question of which Christian scholars I should cite in my debates. In 2006, I had appealed for Dr. White’s understanding on this matter in my article: “Understanding the Rules Regarding the Use of Scholarly Citations.” The article can be read here: http://answeringmissionaries.wordpress.com/?s=citation+of+scholars. I would have hoped that by now, after all my explanations both in writing and in person, I could get through to Dr. White. Yet it seems that in each encounter we are starting again from the beginning. Dr. White would not accept the facts to which I appeal, nor would he accept the statements of the Christian scholars I cite—even conservative Christian scholars.

Obviously, I will have to try again both in listening to Dr. White on this question and in expressing my own view on the matter in the hope of overcoming this impasse. Meanwhile, I took Dr. White’s silence on my previous articles as his acceptance of what I have written. Obviously, this was an incorrect assumption. My request to Dr. White, therefore, is that he should kindly respond in writing to the two articles mentioned above, and also to my present reflection on the recent debate.

As I explained again in the recent debate, I do use all kinds of scholarship in my study of both Islam and Christianity. Naturally, I would be biased in favour of what I already believe. However, I try to put aside what I think I know so as to approach my studies with a neutral stance. I then explore a wide variety of writings on the subjects, and try to assimilate all of this information in a meaningful way. I do that for both Islam and Christianity. I do not accept everything said in favour of Islam. Nor do I reject everything said in disfavour of Christianity. In the end, I must weigh the evidence and form a consistent holistic view that incorporates all of the available evidence.

In my opening presentation, I tried to explain two different approaches to the question. In an academic setting, we would be expected to use approaches that are religiously neutral. Obviously, however, the demand of the debate was that I represent a Muslim perspective. Hence I explained how the fact that I am a Muslim can affect which conclusions of historical scholars on Jesus I accept or reject. Obviously, to reject a historical conclusion simply because I am a Muslim would be academically irresponsible. However, historical conclusions do contain a certain subjective element. Where I recognise such a subjective element I have to ask if I have stronger reasons from my faith perspective for rejecting the subjective element in historical studies. In particular, since our topic was on the question of Jesus, I pointed out that I do not, as a Muslim, accept the conclusion of those historians who claim that Jesus uttered failed prophecies. To Muslims, Jesus was a true prophet. If I were dealing with the subject from a purely historical point of view, suspending my Muslim faith for the exercise, that would be a different matter. But, as long as I am speaking as a Muslim, I have to reject the historians’ conclusion that Jesus uttered certain failed prophecies.

White’s claim that I build my case on the findings of liberal scholars is not correct. It is true that as a Muslim I would naturally tend to accept critical judgements on matters of the Christian faith and resist such judgements on matters of the Muslim faith. But the matter does not end there. In the end, my acceptance or rejection of what scholars say is based on my evaluation of the facts of the matters at hand. I have tried always to find out what some of the most conservative of Christian scholars say on issues. As much as I read material that is critical of Christianity, I also read defences of the Christian faith. Much of what I argue for are conclusions that are so clear that even conservative Christian scholars accept the basic facts even if my way of connecting the dots between those facts is unique.

Over the years, I have attempted to find a way of conveying these facts to Dr. White. In view of his rejection of the scholars I have cited in my favour, I have tried to ascertain from him which scholars he would accept. During the recent debate I asked White if Richard Bauckham is a conservative scholar. He gave a non-verbal response which indicated that he is not sure what to say of Bauckham. I was surprised at his hesitation, since Bauckham is widely regarded as a conservative scholar. I then asked White if F.F. Bruce was a conservative scholar. His answer was a definite affirmative. I was thrilled by his answer. I proceeded to present the position of Bruce and Bauckham. Both Bruce and Bauckham hold that Matthew and Luke based their gospels on that of Mark. Moreover, Bruce holds that Matthew and Luke made stylistic improvements to the narratives which they found in Mark’s Gospel.

I then argued that Matthew and Luke made more than just stylistic improvements to the narratives. I claimed that Matthew made eight sorts of changes to the story, and I supported each claim with an example, as follows:

  1. Matthew made people call Jesus Lord. For example, in Mark 9:5, Peter called Jesus “Rabbi.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 17:4, Peter called Jesus “Lord.”
  2. Matthew made Jesus describe himself as Lord. For example, in Mark 13:35, Jesus referred to himself as “the master of the house.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 24:42, Jesus referred to himself as “your Lord.”
  3. Matthew made people call Jesus “Son of God.” For example, in Mark 8:29, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 16:16, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
  4. Matthew made Jesus call God “my Father.” For example, in Mark 3:31, Jesus referred to God as “God.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 12:46, Jesus referred to God as “my Father.”
  5. Matthew made people pray to Jesus. For example, in Mark 4:38, the disciples, concerned about the storm at sea, awaken Jesus as he lay asleep in the stern. They say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” But, in the same episode in Matthew 8:25, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, save us! We are perishing.”
  6. Matthew reduced Jesus’ emphasis on One God. For example, in Mark 12:29, Jesus, being asked what was the greatest commandment, replied as is known from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 22:37-38, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Hence Matthew has omitted the words, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
  7. Matthew reduced the distinction between Jesus and his God. For example, in Mark 10:18, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 19:17, Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” Hence in Matthew Jesus did not repudiate the attribution of goodness to himself as he did in Mark.
  8. Matthew covered the human limitations of Jesus. For example, in Mark 11:12-14, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And the tree withered by next morning. But, in the same episode in Matthew 21:18, Jesus was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing but leaves. Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And the tree withered at once. Hence Matthew did not mention that it was not the season for figs. Some Christians focus on Matthew’s depiction of this event, and use the narrative as a parable showing how those who refuse to bear fruit will be dealt with.  However, by mentioning the fact that it was not the season for figs, Mark has shown that Jesus’ knowledge was limited.

Hence I have shown that the image of Jesus was being improved from one Gospel to another over time. I then added that the improvements which John’s Gospel made to the image of Jesus are even greater than those made by Matthew. For example, Mark shows that on the night before the crucifixion Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane saying that his soul is troubled. Jesus asks his Father to let this cup pass away from him. Nevertheless, he submits to the will of the Father. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus is not shown to be praying in this way on that occasion. In fact, even before that event, Jesus had already declared that he will not pray like that. Moreover, already at the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist had declared that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Hence this is a very different portrayal of Jesus than that which we have seen in Mark’s Gospel.

Furthermore, in Mark’s Gospel Judas’ kiss was necessary for identifying Jesus so that he would be arrested. But in John’s Gospel Judas’ kiss is not necessary, since Jesus comes forward to hand himself over. In fact, no one can arrest him against his will, since his very voice blows them over. He deliberately gives himself up because he has been given the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In this way, as we move from Mark to the later gospels of Matthew and Luke we find the image of Jesus being gradually improved. And as we move from Mark to John, we find the image of Jesus drastically improved. The Quran calls Christians back to the real Jesus as he was prior to such improvements which were made to his image.

It is thus clear that my conclusion was built on two major arguments. The first argument simply reproduces the finding of F.F. Bruce that Matthew and Luke rewrote the narratives of Mark with stylistic changes. The second argument is based on my comparison of the gospels to show that the changes were more than just stylistic—that they involved a major theological shift transforming Jesus from a man into God. To refute my position, it was necessary for White to dismantle my two arguments.

During the cross-examination, White surprisingly claimed that my theory is based on the claims of anti-supernaturalist scholars. I then had to ask him if F.F. Bruce is an anti-supernaturalist scholar. He said, “No.” What then is the problem?

Perhaps the problem is that the examples I have given to show the types of changes occurring in the gospels are not convincing. But, as far as I can recall without going over the recording of the debate, White only challenged two of my eight claims, the ones numbered 2 and 8 above. As for the first challenge, White asserted that the two gospels Matthew and Mark both use the term kyrios (Lord). I am surprised that White still makes this weak point after I had answered him in my 2006 article “A Reassertion that Matthew 24:42 Improves the Image Of Jesus Over that of Mark 13:35: A Commentary on a Point Discussed During the Biola Debate.” The article may be read


In that article, and again during the recent debate, I conceded that the term kyrios (Lord) occurs in both gospels. But, as I explained, Mark and Matthew use the term differently. Mark used it in construct with house to mean “Lord of the House,” or, better, “master of the house.” But Matthew changed that to “your Lord.” In my closing statement, I supported my position by showing that the same claim was made by Robert Stein in his The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction.

I am bewildered by White’s refusal to concede the point.

The second challenge came from White with regards to my eighth example. In his attempt to refute the point, White did precisely what I had said that some Christians do. White ignored Mark, focused on Matthew, and argued that Jesus surely knew the seasons. But, as I pointed out again during my rebuttal, Mark made it clear that it was not the season for figs. Hence Jesus’ limitation was clear in Mark, but covered up in Matthew.

A third challenge arose during the Q&A. A Christian cited a counter-example to the trend I have shown to exist in the comparisons between Mark and Matthew. In Mark 14:61-62, Jesus was asked by the high priest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus answered, “I am.” Mark here seems to be an improvement over Matthew. In Matthew 26:64 Jesus’ answer is ambiguous, “You have said so,” whereas in Mark the answer was definitely positive.

In comparison with the question in Mark, Luke has split the question into two parts, thus eliciting from Jesus two separate answers. First, in Luke 22: 67 the chief priests and the scribes and other members of the council make a simple request to Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Jesus replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer.”  Jesus continues with a statement that is present in Matthew and Mark as well. I give Luke’s version here: “But you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the power of God.” It was at this point in Luke that they all asked Jesus, “Are you the Son of God, then? (Luke 22:70).” Jesus answered here in Luke as he did to the single question in Matthew, “You say that I am (Luke 22:71).” In Luke, as in Matthew, the answer is ambiguous. Hence, in comparison with both Matthew and Luke, it would seem that Mark improved Jesus’ reply—that Mark turned the ambiguous reply to a positive one.

My answer to this challenge was twofold, though it had to be extremely brief given the one-minute limitation. The first aspect of my twofold answer is as follows. This episode in Marks’ Gospel is an example pointing to the existence of the hypothetical Ur-Marcus, a previous version of Mark, as the source of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As I had explained to White during the cross-examination, scholars had arrived at the hypothetical Ur-Marcus in their reconstruction of the common source of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But since the differences between Ur-Marcus and the present version of Mark is so relatively minimal, scholars found it unnecessary to keep mentioning Ur-Marcus. Rather, they found it more convenient to simply refer to Mark as the source of Matthew and Luke. However, in so referring to Mark, scholars would clarify, if necessary, that Ur-Marcus is the actual source. With this explanation already given, I do not see the question raised by the Christian gentleman as a refutation of my basic position that Matthew and Luke used Ur-Marcus.

The second aspect of my twofold answer is as follows. The two halves of the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” are obviously meant as synonyms of each other. Hence, according to the high priest, “the Messiah,” means “the Son of the Blessed.” In that case, “the Son of the Blessed” does not mean “literally the Son of God,” as in “the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.” Thus, even in Mark, Jesus’ positive answer to the question does not constitute a claim to be God.

In short, two of my eight examples were challenged by White, and I answered both challenges. In response to his first challenge I showed that Matthew did change ‘Master of the House’ to ‘your Lord.’ In response to White’s second challenge, I showed that Jesus’ limited knowledge was clear in Mark but covered up in Matthew. Mark mentioned that the reason for the absence of fruit on the tree was that it was not the season for figs. By omitting mention of the season as the reason, Matthew thus avoided the problem. The third challenge to my examples, this coming in the form of a counter-example, does not hold up in view of my nuanced view which involves Ur-Marcus.

In conclusion, how did my above position hold up in the debate? It rested on two foundations. The first foundation is that Mark was used by Matthew and Luke, as is acknowledged by F.F. Bruce. The second foundation is that a comparison of the gospels shows that the image of Jesus was enhanced from one Gospel to another. Both of these continue to hold. As for the first, White could not show that Mark was not the source of the other two synoptic gospels. Nor is it fair that White would continue to charge me with depending on liberal scholars for this point after I have cited F.F. Bruce, the very scholar whom White recommended as a conservative scholar. As for the second point, that changes occurred from Mark to Matthew, the three challenges to my eight examples of do not hold up. And White made no attempt to challenge the examples I showed of changes occurring as we move from Mark to John.

As I pointed out in my closing statement, one does not need to be an anti-supernaturalist to see that these changes have occurred. One only needs to have a rational mind and be willing to look at the problem. I believe that many Christians saw the point, even if for some it will not be easy to accept this immediately.

Meanwhile, I hope that the approach I have adopted will lead both Muslims and Christians to a better understanding of the gospels and of Jesus. If my approach is valid, then there is no need for Muslims and Christians to walk away from the debate both claiming that they have won the debate while each remains suspicious of the other for having ignored key verses of the Bible. My approach is more sophisticated than the simple citation of proof texts. And it will take time for Muslims who have not studied the gospels in detail to master this approach. But when they do, they will find, God willing, that this approach builds better trust between Muslims and Christians. It also improves our mutual understanding of how Jesus was transformed by early Christian writings from a man to a divine being. This explains why it became necessary for the Quran and Muslims to reaffirm faith in the original Jesus.

I am sure that as soon as White is freed up from the demands of the conference he is busy with this weekend he will have more to say about our debate. I have mainly represented my side of the debate above. I expect that White will soon elaborate on his side as well. I look forward to reading his further comments. White suggested during the course of our debate that we should soon have another one on the question of salvation. I agree. And I look forward to that. Meanwhile, I await his written responses to the articles I mentioned above, and to the present reflection.