Thank you and good evening!
Jesus of Nazareth is the most influential person who has ever lived. Twenty centuries after his death he continues to exert his power of fascination over the minds of thinking men and women. But who was Jesus, really? Is he, as the Bible says, the divine Son of God, or was he merely a human prophet as Muslims have been taught to believe? Who is the real Jesus?
Well, I propose to answer that question tonight as an historian. I shall look at the New Testament and the Qur'an as an historian looks at any other sources for ancient history. I shall not treat them as inspired or holy books. Accordingly, I shall not require them to be inerrant or infallible in order to be valuable historical sources. By taking this historical approach we prevent this debate from degenerating into arguments over Bible difficulties or Qur'anic inconsistencies. The question is not whether the sources are inerrant but whether they allow us to discover who the historical Jesus really was.
Now, in order to determine who the historical Jesus really was we need to have some objective criteria for assessing our sources. Professor John Meyer, an eminent New Testament historian, lists the following four criteria.
1. Multiple independent sources: Events which are reported by independent and especially early sources are likely to be historical.
2. Dissimilarity: If a saying or event is different from prior Judaism and also from later Christianity then it probably doesn’t derive from either one and so belongs to the historical Jesus.
3. Embarrassment: Sayings or events that would have been embarrassing or difficult for the Christian Church are unlikely to have been invented and so are likely historical.
4. Rejection and execution: Jesus’ crucifixion is so indisputably established as an anchor point in history that words and deeds of Jesus must be assessed in terms of their likelihood of leading to his execution as the King of the Jews. A bland Jesus who just preached monotheism would never have provoked such opposition.
When we apply such criteria to the New Testament we’re able to establish a good deal about the historical Jesus. Let me discuss just three facts that emerge about this remarkable man.
Number one: Jesus’ radical self-concept. The Qur'an says that Jesus thought of himself as no more than a human prophet who told people to worship the one true God. However, on the basis of our criteria, it can be shown that among the historically authentic words of Jesus are claims that reveal his divine self-understanding.
Take, for example, Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man. The criteria of multiple sources and dissimilarity shows it to belong to the historical Jesus. Now, most laymen probably think that this title refers to Jesus’ humanity just as the title ‘Son of God’ refers to his deity. But that’s a mistake. It fails to take into account the Jewish background of this expression. In the Old Testament book of Daniel chapter seven, Daniel sees a vision of a divine human figure coming on the clouds of heaven to whom God will give everlasting authority, glory, and dominion. No mere human being could be accorded such status for this would be to commit the sin which Muslims call shirk. That is giving something which properly belongs to God alone to someone else. Yet this is the status which Jesus claimed for himself.
Probably the most famous Son of Man saying by Jesus comes at his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. I quote from the Gospel of Mark,
Then the High Priest stood up and asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus, “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The High Priest tore his clothes. “You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?” They all condemned him as being worthy of death.
Every Muslim would have to agree with the High Priest and the Council that Jesus had committed blasphemy worthy of death in that he had made himself equal with God.
Not only did Jesus claim to be the Son of Man, but he also thought of himself as the unique Son of God. Jesus’ self-understanding as God’s special Son comes to expression in his parable of the tenants of the vineyard, which even the radical skeptical critics like those in the so-called Jesus Seminar recognize as authentic. In this parable the vineyard symbolizes Israel. The owner of the vineyard is God. The tenants are the Jewish religious leaders, and the servants are the prophets sent by God. In Mark 12.1-9 we read,
A man planted a vineyard and rented it to some farmers. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard but they seized him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them. They struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another and that one they killed. He sent many others, some of them they beat, others they killed. Finally, he had one left to send, a son whom he loved. He sent him last of all saying, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants said to one another, “This is the heir, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!” And so they took him and killed him.
Now, what does this parable tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding? It tells us that he thought of himself as God’s only beloved Son, distinct from all the prophets, God’s final messenger and even the heir to Israel. He did not think of himself as merely another human prophet.
Jesus’ self-concept as God’s special Son comes to explicit expression Matthew 11:27. He said,
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” It’s unlikely that the Church invented this saying because it says that the Son is unknowable. No one knows the Son except the Father. But for the post-Easter Church we can know the Son. So by the criterion of dissimilarity this saying is authentic. But what then does this saying tell us about Jesus’ self-consciousness? It tells us that he thought of himself as the exclusive Son of God and the only revelation of God to mankind. Think of it. This is really incredible stuff, and yet this is what the historical Jesus believed.
C.S. Lewis was right when he said,
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would either be a lunatic on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. You can shut him up for a fool. You can spit at him and kill him as a demon. Or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.
Number two: Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. According to the gospels, Jesus was condemned by the Jewish High Court on the charge of blasphemy and then delivered to the Romans for execution for treason for claiming to be the King of the Jews.
Not only are these facts confirmed by independent biblical sources like Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, but they are also confirmed by extra-biblical sources. From the Jewish historian Josephus and the Syrian writer Mara bar Serapion we learned that the Jewish leaders made a formal accusation against Jesus and participated in the events leading up to his crucifixion. From the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a we learn the Jewish involvement in the trial was explained as a proper undertaking against a heretic. And from Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus we learn that Jesus was crucified by Roman authority under the sentence of Pontius Pilate.
According to L. T. Johnson, a New Testament historian at Emory University, the support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps co-agents, is overwhelming. Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned, and executed by crucifixion.
Perhaps the single most egregious historical error found in the Qur'an is its claim that Jesus was not in fact crucified. Not only is there not a single shred of historical evidence for this remarkable hypothesis, but the evidence supporting Jesus’ crucifixion is, as Johnson says, overwhelming! Those of you who are Muslims here tonight need to appreciate that no one who is not already a committed Muslim believes that the historical Jesus was not crucified. The crucifixion of Jesus is recognized even by the skeptical critics and the Jesus Seminar as (to quote Robert Funk) “one indisputable fact.” In fact, Paula Frederiksen, whose book From Jesus to Christ inspired the PBS documentary by the same name, declares flatly the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus.
Number three: Jesus’ resurrection: What happened to Jesus after his crucifixion? The majority of scholars who have written on this subject agree that three things happened.
1. On the Sunday after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following. 1) The old information handed on by Paul in First Corinthians 15 implies the fact of the empty tomb. 2) The empty tomb story is part of the very old source material used by Mark in writing his Gospel and is thus a very reliable source. 3) The empty tomb enjoys multiple independent attestation in the sources used by Matthew, Luke, and John. 4) The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. Since given the low credibility given to women in that society, any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples, like Peter and John, discover the empty tomb. And 5) the earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body itself presupposes that the body was missing and the tomb was empty. Now, I could go on but I think enough has been said to indicate why, in the words of Jacob Kremer (an Austrian specialist on the resurrection), “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”
2. On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. This is a fact which is virtually universally agreed upon by New Testament scholars for the following reasons. First, the list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, which is quoted by Paul, guarantees that such appearances occurred. These included appearances to Peter, the twelve disciples, five hundred Christians at one time, James the younger brother of Jesus, and Paul himself who had been a persecutor of the early Christian Church. Secondly, the appearance narratives in the gospels provide multiple independent attestation of these appearances.
At this point I’d like to pause to issue a corrective on something that Shabir Ally said in our debate Monday night on the resurrection of Jesus. He asserted (according to the great late New Testament scholar Raymond Brown) that there was only one original resurrection appearance, not a multiplicity of them. I knew that Brown was too intelligent a scholar to have held such an opinion so I went and checked out the source myself, and as I suspected Shabir has misunderstood what Professor Brown says. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, what Brown in fact says is that a more biblical approach is to suppose that one basic appearance underlines all the main gospel accounts of the appearances to the twelve regardless of whether this is located in Galilee or Jerusalem. But Brown does not affirm the absurd conclusion that Jesus never appeared to Paul, for example, or to James, or the five hundred brethren, or to Mary Magdalene. On the contrary, even the skeptical German New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann concludes that it may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.
3. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary. Think of the situation the disciples faced following Jesus’ crucifixion. 1) Their leader was dead, and Jews had no expectation of a Messiah who instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies would be shamefully executed as a criminal. 2) According to Old Testament Law, Jesus’ execution exposed him as a heretic, a man literally accursed by God. 3) Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world. Nevertheless, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief.
Luke Johnson states, “Some sort of powerful transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.” N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, concludes, “That is why as a historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb behind him.”
So, in summary, there are three facts agreed upon by the majority of scholars who have written on this subject. The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief. I think that the best explanation of these three facts is that the disciples were right! God had raised Jesus from the dead.
This has enormous theological significance. As the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg explains,
The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead but because it is Jesus of Nazareth whose execution was instigated because he had blasphemed against God. If this man was raised from the dead then that plainly means that the God whom he supposedly blasphemed has committed himself to him.
In summary, on purely historical grounds we’ve seen:
1. Jesus of Nazareth possessed a radical self-concept as the unique Son of God and the Son of Man
2. He was tried, condemned, and crucified for his allegedly blasphemous claims.
3. God raised him from the dead in vindication of those claims.
All of this is in contradiction to the Qur'an’s claims that Jesus thought of himself as a mere prophet preaching a blasé monotheism, that he was not crucified, and that he did not rise from the dead. When you think about it, though, this isn’t really surprising. Which would you trust? A collection of documents written during the first generation after the events while the eyewitnesses were still alive, or a book written six hundred years later by a man who had no independent source of historical information? Why, to even ask the question is to answer it. The New Testament is clearly the reliable source for the biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
Thank you, everyone. Thank you Dr. Craig. I begin by praising God and I ask him to guide us to know the truth, to show us the truth as truth, and help us to accept that, and to show us falsehood in its true colors and help us also to stay away from that.
It is my commitment to you tonight that if I understand what Dr. Craig is presenting to be the truth, then I will accept that. I hope that we’re all listening and learning with an open-minded attitude, that the truth is the truth wherever it comes from, and that we should accept it no matter what.
We want to understand, then, who really was Jesus. Is Jesus properly represented in the Qur'an or is he properly represented in the Bible? To a certain extent, the Muslim will answer, “Both.” The Jesus of the Qur'an and the Jesus of the Bible is one Jesus that both Muslims and Christians should believe in. Muslims believe from the Qur'an that Jesus was a mighty prophet. He came among the Jewish people and that his disciples were also from among the Jewish people. Some of the Jewish people believed in him, some disbelieved him. For Jesus to be properly understood, Jesus has to be seen against the background of the revelations that came before him—to prophets like Moses, who came before him. So his teachings had to be in accord with the teachings which were left by Moses and others. In other words, then, Jesus could not have preached a faith which is radically different from the faith which was taught by God’s prophets prior to Jesus. In fact, when we look around at historical reconstructions of who Jesus was, we find very much among historians that Jesus is to be understood as a Jewish prophet. In fact, some have suggested some way-out things like Burton Mack talks about Jesus being a cynic, sage, something like that. But his position has not won widespread acceptance in scholarly circles; such as, for example, the position of E. P. Sanders, which holds that Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet.
So, the Qur'an, by presenting Jesus in this way, is in fact presenting us with that real historical Jesus. I want to ask a further question as to whether or not the Jesus of the Qur'an is entirely believable. Now, historians will look at historical figures and they will tell us where this person went, where he came from, where he lived, and where died, and so on. Historians tell us where things fall, but not why things fall. Historians can only tell us where Jesus lived and walked but historians cannot tell us that Jesus was the Son of God or that he was not the Son of God. This is a theological question.
I’ll approach our study today not only as an historian but also as a student of religion. I want to know what should I believe about Jesus? Now, the Qur'anic Jesus is one whom I find to be entirely believable. I do not have any difficulty with believing in the Jesus of the Qur'an. The Qur'an tells me that Jesus was born of a virgin. I believe that. An historian might say, “Well, wait a minute. You cannot believe that because nobody else has been born of a virgin. We don’t see that happening around us.” And I say I have faith in God. I believe that with God anything is possible. God could cause Jesus to be born of a virgin. The Qur'an also affirms many miraculous deeds of Jesus - that he would raise the dead, that he cured the leper, that he healed the blind. The Qur'an tells us something interesting regarding the end of Jesus. Without going into details, the Qur'an tells us that God rescued Jesus from the plot of his enemies and raised him to himself. This raising here seems to resemble the Christian belief that Jesus ascended into heaven and so it seems that finally we’re both asserting that Jesus remains alive. Muslims and Christians also believe that Jesus will be coming again.
It seems, then, that on some very crucial points concerning Jesus our faiths intersect. Where we differ, however, is on the Christian claim that Jesus, on whom be peace, said that he was the Son of God. In a sense that makes him a divine person—the second person of the Holy Trinity. The Jews would have seen this as blasphemy if the Christ had actually claimed this, and in fact I understand from Dr. Craig’s apologetic that, in fact, this is how the Jews had understood it. It’s not that the Jews misunderstood. According to Dr. Craig this was according to the Old Testament Law. And who gave them that Law? God himself.
Muslims would say, no, Jesus never committed blasphemy. He was a righteous servant of God, a prophet, true from beginning to end and everywhere in the middle. Now I find then that believing in the Jesus of the Qur'an is not entirely difficult. I do not have to prove to a skeptic that the Jesus of the Qur'an was true. After all, we cannot prove our faith, can we? We have faith. I can only say to the skeptic that the main representation of Jesus, the portrait of him as Jewish prophet that emerges out of the Qur'an, is believable and that there is nothing in history that actually contradicts this main portrait of Jesus. So, there are no rational grounds on why I should refuse to believe in this Jesus.
Now, let’s look at the Jesus of the Bible. As I studied the apologetic of Dr. Craig and some other apologists for the Christian faith, I found that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is presented as a solution to a problem. I want to understand the problem a little bit more with you. Recall what Dr. Craig said - that Jesus made all of these radical claims. He claimed to be the Son of Man. He claimed to be the Son of God. He claimed to have this intimate knowledge of the Father such that C. S. Lewis could say that you have to choose between either declaring Jesus to be the Son of God or to declare him to be a liar—nothing in between. Following those claims, Jesus was crucified as a blasphemer. Now, it seems to me that if we come this far without assuming that Jesus resurrected from the dead, all we would have at this moment until we experience the resurrection or proofs for the resurrection is a Jesus who died as a blasphemer. In that case, nobody should believe in him up to this point. We will continue to the resurrection. But in fact this idea that the crucifixion is such a strong disproof of Jesus has been pounded so hard by the apologists that I started to believe it. In fact, it is even emphasized to the point of saying that the disciples themselves who lived and walked with Jesus could not believe in Jesus at this point. They had to forsake him as a false pretender to Messiahship. They had to denounce him as a false prophet. But the only reason they could turn around and finally believe in Jesus is because Jesus eventually reappeared to them from the dead.
So now I’m thinking from where I stand it seems to me like I am in the same position as the disciples of Jesus were on that Friday night following the crucifixion. Until Jesus reappears to me I would have no reason for believing in him but every reason for thinking that he’s a false prophet and a false Messiah. Mind you I don’t think so because, remember, I’m a Muslim and I just explained that I believe in Jesus but if you trace my line of argument so far it looks like what I’m saying is this: If I believe in the Qur'an then I believe in Jesus as a mighty prophet and messenger of God, the Messiah who was born of a virgin, who performed many miraculous deeds. But if I put away the Qur'an and if I turn to the Bible for that information about Jesus then I will come to his crucifixion which would prove to me, and should prove to me, that Jesus was a false pretender in whom nobody should believe - until we see some good reasons for believing that Jesus actually resurrected from the dead.
Do we have good reasons for believing that Jesus resurrected from the dead? One of the chief reasons for believing this is the multiple reports of appearances of Jesus to his disciples and friends. But as I’ve pointed out previously, according to Dr. Raymond Brown the reports of Jesus appearing on multiple occasions to his disciples are actually reports that evolved from a single report. In other words, there was a single report about a single incident of Jesus appearing to his twelve disciples, rather eleven, and then that one report emerged into a variety of reports.
Dr. Craig issues a corrective and I’d like to look at that and I did a little bit of homework too after Dr. Craig and I talked about this. Dr. Raymond Brown in his book The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus on page 101 (I’m sorry, Dr. Craig, I would have shared this before but I didn’t realize it was going to come up), he says in note 170,
I do not intend to discuss at any length the problem of the minor appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and other women and to the disciples on the road to Emmaus for the recipients of these appearances were not official witnesses and so apparently did not shape the resurrection faith of the early community. For instance, the Markan appendix in 16:11 reports that no credence was given to Mary Magdalene. The omission of these minor appearances in Paul’s Corinthian list does not necessarily imply that the tradition of such appearances was not historical or was a late development as some scholars would argue. The claim that the risen Jesus appeared first to Cephas means that among those who would testify publicly, Peter was the first to see Jesus. It would not exclude an earlier appearance to the Magdalene.
So Raymond Brown in that discussion was not concerned with the minor appearances that were not formative in the development or the origin of that idea that Jesus had resurrected. Recall that our discussion, and for those of you who were there on Monday night, was on the question of “What caused the development and origin of this belief among the disciples?” And it was not the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene or to anyone else; it was the appearance to the disciples themselves. How many appearances were there? Dr. Craig will want to argue that there were multiple appearances and I find support from Raymond Brown that in fact there was only one appearance. There is a crucial problem regarding this appearance report. Where exactly did Jesus appear to his disciples? Was it in Galilee or was it in Jerusalem? If it were in Jerusalem then Jesus, when he appeared to his disciples, specifically said, “Do not leave the city until the power comes to you from on high”, which we know came at Pentecost fifty days later. So there was no chance for the disciples to have gone to Galilee unless they disobeyed Jesus’ instruction. If Jesus had first appeared to them in Galilee as would be reported in Matthew 28, then in that appearance we see the disciples doubting that this was actually Jesus who appeared to them but nevertheless Jesus gives them the Great Commission and it would seem then this is the end of the appearances and there would be no room for a Jerusalem appearance. In fact, this is the interpretation and commentary that has been given by Raymond Brown.
Now, Dr. Craig and others try to give a sequence of these narratives to try and bind them all together in a coherent sequence. But Dr. Brown says that such a sequence does too much violence to the gospel narratives and the same reference that Dr. Craig gave earlier on the Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John.
So then where we are is here: the Qur'an does not deny that Jesus appeared to be crucified. In fact, this is what the Qur'an says, [Arabic] “They killed him not, nor did they crucify him but it was made so to appear to them.” [Arabic] “As for those who differ concerning him, they are in doubt concerning him (or concerning it, concerning the matter of crucifixion).” [Arabic] “They have no knowledge concerning it except that they follow a conjecture.” [Arabic] “They did not definitely kill him.” [Arabic] “On the other hand, God raised him to himself.” [Arabic] “And surely God is mighty, he is wise.”
There have been many interpretations of this passage in the Qur'an from Surah 4:157. Some commentators have held that someone else was made to look like Jesus and that someone else was crucified. Another interpretation that is gaining plausibility among Muslim scholars in modern times is the interpretation that in fact while it appeared that Jesus was being crucified, in fact they did not succeed in killing him by crucifixion and hence under definition that crucifixion means “killing by hanging on a cross” in fact, while it appeared to the opponents of Jesus that they were doing exactly that, they had not succeeded in doing it.
Now, I present this as a plausible hypothesis which would take into consideration the fact of the trial and the execution by hanging him on the cross, and the discovery of the empty tomb. And I would like to present that if we take the earliest narratives, like, for example, the Markan narrative, especially in its pre-Markan form, then that narrative would be in harmony with this plausible interpretation of the Qur'an. And in that case what we would have is the Jesus of the Qur'an that is believable from beginning to end, a Jesus in the Qur'an that does not contradict the historical findings. On the other hand, we would have the Jesus of the Bible who cannot be believed in unless it can be proved that he actually resurrected from the dead. To prove that he is resurrected from the dead one has to have reliable reports but we’ve already seen that first the reports are so contradictory that if one were to read them and carefully study them it becomes difficult to believe in these reports. Second, even though the reports tell you that Jesus appeared to his disciples, notice something that I said before. In Matthew 28.17 it says that when Jesus appeared to his disciples on that mountain in Galilee they saw him and they worshipped him but some doubted. One Bible translations says, “Some were not sure it really was Jesus.” Another translations says, “They doubted”, which I take to mean that they all doubted. If we study all of the reports carefully we see that the doubt was a persistent one that seems to survive in many of these reports, even in the Gospel According to John where it appears that John is covering up that doubt, nevertheless, we can read between the lines and we find that the doubt still remains.
So if we have a variety of reports that tell us that Jesus rose from the dead, they cannot agree with each other rendering them difficult to believe, and even if we were to take the narratives at face value (they’re telling us that Jesus appeared but he could not be positively identified) then how could we then be certain that we have proof that Jesus resurrected from the dead?
So, recall where we came so far. If I believe in the Qur'an, I would believe that Jesus is believable. Jesus is a prophet, a messenger of the mighty God. If I were to put the Qur'an away and examine the Bible and try to believe in Jesus, I would come to a point where I understand that Jesus is a false prophet, he is a blasphemer, a false Messiah. Only if someone can show me that Jesus actually resurrected from the dead can I believe in the biblical Jesus.
So I put before you that the Qur'anic Jesus is believable and the biblical Jesus has this problem that I hope Dr. Craig will shed some light upon. Thank you.
Before I review those three facts about the historical Jesus that I attempted to establish in my opening speech, let me respond to Shabir Ally’s general remark that the Jesus in the Qur'an is easy to believe in as opposed to the Jesus in the New Testament who appears to be a blasphemer.
Well, I certainly agree with that, the intrinsic probability of believing in someone who is merely a human being is much easier than believing in someone who is the divine Son of God and whose followers claim he rose from the dead. But notice in assessing historical hypotheses we must not consider merely the intrinsic probability of a hypothesis but you also consider the conditional probability of that hypothesis on the evidence and is that which is crucial in my argument tonight. I’m arguing that when you consider the evidence then conditional or relative to the evidence the portrait of Jesus painted in the New Testament is of a much higher probability than the probability that the Qur'anic portrait of Jesus is correct.
Now, I agree with Shabir that if Jesus did die as a blasphemer and didn’t rise from the dead then we should reject him. That’s absolutely correct and that’s what the New Testament says. Paul wrote that Jesus Christ preached as the crucified Messiah is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to pagans but the reason that the early Church believed in this despite that intrinsic difficulty is his resurrection from the dead—and that’s why my case hinges tonight on the evidence of his resurrection.
You’ll remember I argued three things. First, that Jesus thought of himself as the unique Son of God and the divine Son of Man and I looked at three specific claims in attestation for this. I was shocked that Shabir never contested this point in his opening speech. He never denied that Jesus of Nazareth in fact made those claims and that is crucial because if he made those claims then as a Muslim you’ve got to believe them. Because the Qur'an says that Jesus is a prophet and therefore you must believe what he says. But what he said is that he is the Son of Man and the divine Son of God and therefore you must believe in him. So, that’s critical. Let me just emphasize from his saying in Mark 14.62 at his trial where he claimed to be the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God.
Robert Gundry, in his commentary on Mark, asks, “What did Jesus say that was blasphemous?” and this is what he responds:
We may best think that the High Priest and the rest of the Sanhedrin judged Jesus to have verbally robbed God of incommensurateness and unity by escalating himself to a superhuman level by portraying himself to sit at God’s right hand and come with the clouds of heaven.
In other words, incredibly, what Gundry is saying without any consciousness of Islam is that Jesus committed the very sins that Islam says are unforgivable. He robbed God of incommensurateness and unity. He committed shirk, in effect, if the claims were not true. But if they were true then he was who he said he was and we should believe in him.
Second, I argued that Jesus suffered death by crucifixion, and here Shabir agrees that Jesus was crucified. Now I find this remarkable and testimony to Shabir’s genuine openness to the truth because the Qur'an says “they did not slay him neither did they crucify him” but Shabir’s willing now to say, Yes, they did crucify him but he didn’t quite die—he was taken down from the cross still alive, barely, and they thought he was dead. Then they put him in the tomb and God assumed him into heaven before he could pass away. Well, this is a hypothesis of desperation, folks. This is to resuscitate the old apparent death theory of 18th century German theology, and the reason that no contemporary historian holds to that any more is that Jesus, as a result of what he suffered (his scourging, his crucifixion), in no way was he still alive when he was taken down from the cross. These Romans were professional executioners. The Jews had asked that the crucified men have their legs broken so that they would die quickly and be taken away. They came to Jesus, they saw he was already dead and therefore they didn’t break his legs but a soldier took his spear and thrust it in his side to see whether he was alive or not and he was dead. The idea that Jesus was still alive is a hypothesis of enormous improbability on the evidence and I think a hypothesis of desperation.
Thirdly, I argued then that there’s good reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, and I looked at the evidence for his empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus after his death, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief that he was risen. Now, here Shabir says in general the gospel accounts are contradictory. Not at all! Remember we’re not arguing about biblical inerrancy tonight. We’re treating these as ordinary historical documents, and there is a historical core that emerges from all four of these gospels. Any discrepancies or differences are in the secondary, circumstantial details, and these are to be found in any collection of independent historical accounts of an event. The gospels all agree that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin, and then slandered before the Roman governor, Pilate, on charges of treason. He died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb which was sealed with a rock. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, observed his interment, visited the tomb early Sunday morning only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples including Peter, who then proclaimed the message of his resurrection. All four gospels attest to these central facts and those are enough to provide warrant for belief in his resurrection. Many, many more details could be added by including details attested by three out of the four gospels but this historical core is sufficient.
First of all, I looked at five lines of evidence for the empty tomb, and again Shabir doesn’t deny the empty tomb because he thinks that God miraculously took the body of Jesus into heaven before Jesus could die in the empty tomb. So, we agree with that.
Second, we talked about the appearances of Jesus. Here I think our differences are just academic. He points out from Raymond Brown, a good scholar, that there was a single appearance to the twelve that was located in various ways in the gospels—Jerusalem or Galilee. But notice the quotation he read from Brown supported my view that there were recipients of resurrection appearances who were not among the official witnesses and this is not a later development so that actually proves my point—there were a multiplicity of witnesses, but of course they didn’t name the women in official witness lists because women in that society were not very credible. Shabir says but if there were many then why does it say in Luke to remain in Jerusalem? As I. H. Marshall, New Testament commentator on Luke, points out Luke offers a telescoped narrative where it makes it look like it all happened on Easter, even the ascension! But when you read the book of Acts, which is Luke’s sequel to his gospel, you find that in fact these appearances occurred over a forty-day period of time. There’s no reason to think that the disciples hadn’t gone back to Galilee in the interim just as is multiply attested in the other gospels. In any case, as I say, these are quibbling—this is academic. The point remains that wherever they were located there was a multiplicity of appearances of Jesus alive after his death and you’ve got to explain those.
Thirdly was the very origin of the disciples’ belief. How did they come to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead, which contradicts all Jewish beliefs about the afterlife? You can’t explain that, I think, in the absence of the resurrection! Kenneth Cragg, the great Islamist, has written,
Muslim writers confront a deep historical problem since they are obliged to explain the impact of Jesus in terms of his teachings only. The place where the resurrection stands is, for Islam, a blank. Yet its sequel cannot be ignored. Even if, on the Muslim view, it has to be a sequel without a properly total source.
N. T. Wright says the same thing, “Without the resurrection there is a gaping hole in the middle of first century history that nothing else can plug.”
I think that the best explanation of these facts is that the disciples were right—that Jesus had raised from the dead. But Shabir offers an alternative explanation. He says that God assumed Jesus immediately into heaven. Let me quickly mention some objections to this view.
1. Merely visionary appearances cannot explain the origin of belief in Jesus’ resurrection. As the German theologian Hans Kessler said, “The idea of an isolated resurrection prior to the end of the world goes against all Jewish modes of thought.” So, why, if they had visions of Jesus, as Shabir imagines, would they proclaim his resurrection rather than his assumption into heaven? He hasn’t been able to show his hypothesis can explain the origin of their belief in the resurrection contrary to Jewish beliefs.
2. The New Testament consistently draws a distinction between resurrection appearances of Christ and mere visions of Christ. The appearances of Christ ceased after a brief period of time but visions of Christ continued on in the early Church and in Muslim nations many people still have visions of Christ today through which they’ve come to believe in him! But these aren’t resurrection appearances. How can you explain the difference unless the appearances were in fact bodily, physical appearances and not mere visions.
3. Finally, two theological objections to Shabir’s point: Number one, it comes too late to assume Jesus into heaven when he’s already in the tomb. He’s already suffered humiliation, suffering, and shame and there is no point now in rescuing the prophet when he’s laid in the tomb more than half dead. It’s too little too late. But secondly, his hypothesis turns God into a deceiver who fooled the disciples into believing Jesus was risen from the dead! So they went out and preached his resurrection thus foisting Christianity upon the world and fostering this deception that has led to a third of the world’s population being Christian. So his hypothesis turns God into a deceiver which is theologically objectionable.
For these four reasons I don’t think that Shabir’s hypothesis works; on the contrary, I really believe it’s a hypothesis of desperation. And if he is open to the truth I think he will come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Hello again! Yes, Dr. Craig, I am still open to the truth and I am listening. Let me see what you have said about the Jesus of the Qur'an. Basically, you said, “Yeah, the Jesus of the Qur'an is not difficult to believe in because, in any case, he’s so bland that anyone can believe in him.” Okay. So, I believe in a bland Jesus but at least I believe in him. But I believe that Jesus is more than just a bland Jesus. He is a prophet, a messenger, one of the mighty messengers of God, and I believe that he’s God’s Messiah. He’s not the Davidic Messiah—if he were the Davidic Messiah he couldn’t die—but he was a prophet Messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls, as reported in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary on page 1323 affirm that the Jewish expectation had a looking forward to three different Messiahs: a prophet Messiah, a priestly Messiah, and a Davidic Messiah. Notice that the gospels have Jesus representing all three somehow but if you were that Davidic Messiah he could not die. If he were the Davidic Messiah he had to sit in the throne and rule over Israel. This we know he has not done.
So, Jesus in the Qur'an, to me, is a great Jesus and I believe in him and I love him.
Now, are there any objections to my proposal that Jesus did not die on the cross? Dr. Craig said things that there are some objections. Why would the disciples proclaim the resurrection of Jesus? In answer to that, I say that we do not in fact know what exactly the disciples preached even though many people may be confident already that we do know. But recall what we read about the disciples is in the Acts of the Apostles—a document, which according to Raymond Brown, was written around the year 85. In fact, there is a widespread scholarly consensus of a date somewhere between 80-90. This would make it about fifty-five years after the crucifixion. And it is said that the author of Acts of the Apostles wrote down not historically what the disciples actually preached but what Luke, in his day, thought that the disciples would have preached. Naturally, the preaching is stylized according to the later Christian belief that has evolved towards the end of the first Christian century.
When we study these reports we look for things which rub against the grain and we think that the writer did not have a personal interest in reporting that. If we look at these reports we see that the preaching of the earliest disciples used as a core a reference to the 16th Psalm. When you go to that psalm we see that this psalm actually speaks about somebody who had a close brush with death but didn’t die. For example, the New Jerusalem Bible, in a footnote on page 827, says that his lively faith and total commitment to God called for a union that defies dissolution, hence, he must pray to escape death, which would break that union. Moreover, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains the meanings of the key Hebrew words there and further on we read in the Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible (this is important), speaking about the psalmist here it says, “After a close brush with death, the poet rejoices (and so on).” I take it that the earliest belief was that, in fact, Jesus did escape death—no, he did not die. We cannot say that we know that the disciples proclaimed the resurrection from the dead. What is more likely is that the disciples proclaimed that after Jesus had been put on the cross, Jesus is now alive again.
Now, Dr. Craig says these were not mere visions. Well, whatever they were, whatever the disciples experienced on that one occasion that Raymond Brown talks about, it is possible that the disciples saw a vision which was so strong, which was so convincing, which was so assuring that Jesus is alive, that they were able to go forward and proclaim their faith in the Christ. Most commentators on the Qur'an in Surah 3:55 where it says, [Arabic] “When God said, ‘Oh Jesus, I’m going to take you and raise you to myself.’” Muslim commentators have said that this refers to God raising Jesus into heaven after which God granted a vision to the disciples because they were saddened at the parting of the Messiah and they wanted to be satisfied—God satisfied them by showing them a vision of the Messiah. So with that vision they were not deceived. We do not believe that God deceived the disciples, but we believe that God rescued Jesus from the plots of the enemies. If anyone failed or if anyone had their plots turned against them, it is the enemy and they just simply got what they deserved. But on the other hand, the disciples of Jesus had the satisfaction that they needed.
Dr. Craig says, “Well, wait a minute. There would be no point to letting Jesus suffer a part of the way on the cross and then saving him.” Notice in Christian theology Jesus suffered all of the way and then God saved him. So, I do not feel that there is any rational objection here to the Muslim understanding that God rescued Jesus and saved him from his enemies.
Now Dr. Craig says that he put out three facts and to his fact number one he was surprised that I did not reply. He said, “Jesus made all these claims which amount to blasphemy in the Old Testament Law.” But notice that I did reply to that in two ways. First, in presenting the Muslim understanding, I presented Jesus who has to be understood as a historical person who lived in Palestine and who was well within the Jewish tradition. He could not have preached something which is radically different from the faith, which was represented by the prophet Moses before him. So, Jesus could not have made these radical claims. It would just be theologically impossible from that point of view.
Second, if Jesus had actually made these claims then we’re starting with a Christ who blasphemed and once he died the death of a blasphemer there would be no reason to believe in him. The only reason we can believe in Jesus is because we know that Jesus is true and he did not blaspheme. Notice that if you take the view that he had blasphemed and he died as a blasphemer there is no reason for thinking that God would want to raise him from the dead and yet in Dr. Craig’s best apology for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he admits that the weakest part of his hypothesis is that it is ad hoc in that it assumes that God exists. It is not a historical hypothesis. It is not a naturalistic hypothesis. He says that it would be so impossible for Jesus to just simply spontaneously come back to life that you may as well suppose that E. T. came away and stole his body. But only on the hypothesis that God exists can you assert now that God raised Jesus back to life. It is a theological hypothesis. But I would like to add and clarify, not only do we need God to exist but we have to have a God who wants to raise Jesus back from the dead. If you have a man who died as a blasphemer according to your explanation then on what theological basis should we assert that God would want to raise this person back to life? Notice what Dr. Craig had said: by raising Jesus back to life God had actually vindicated all of the claims of this man. God is showing that what he said was actually true. But if God gave a law which says if a man comes and makes these claims he’s a blasphemer and then a man comes and makes those claims then according to God’s laws he’s a blasphemer and there would be no reason for God to come to the defense of this man who is a blasphemer according to God’s own law.
You might say, “Well, wait a minute. God did resurrect him from the dead and that proves that he was not a blasphemer.” But notice that we cannot reverse the logic. We cannot assume the very point which is at question. If we ask, how do we know that Jesus is true? Dr. Craig and others say, Because God raised him from the dead, and if God did not raise him from the dead we should conclude that he was a blasphemer. The only reason we could know he was true was because God raised him from the dead. You cannot assume that God raised him from the dead before proving it and in order to prove it you have to assume it. So, there is no way of getting out of this circular lock and we are left with Jesus who died in that particular way and in that case, nobody should believe in him.
But in that case, why did the disciples believe in him? This is Dr. Craig’s question to me. I say the disciples believed in Jesus because they believed in him before the crucifixion. He had made such a strong impact in their lives that they should never stop believing in him, and in fact they didn’t stop. The Gospel according to Luke 24:19 shows that even after the crucifixion, the disciples continued to believe in Jesus as a great prophet. They lost hope that he was the Messiah who would sit on the throne of David, of course, but they still continued to believe that he was a great prophet. Notice that the crucifixion scene itself inspired faith because at the crucifixion scene the Roman centurion announced faith and the Gospel according to Luke adds that the multitudes went away beating their breasts. You can just imagine these people going away saying, “What have we done here?” They were convinced about Jesus even at the crucifixion scene. These were not people who thought Jesus was a blasphemer.
So, to sum up then, the Jesus of the Qur'an is entirely believable, he’s not a bland Jesus, he’s a marvelous Jesus, and that Jesus who is presented in the Qur'an in its main outline fits naturally with historical studies on Jesus. The best reconstructions of Jesus show that he was a Jewish prophet speaking about the end times, calling people back to faith in God, and this is indeed what Muslims believe him to be. If I am to leave the Qur'an aside and turn to the Bible I see that there is an inherent problem that is irresolvable and in that case there is no reason for believing in Jesus. Dr. Craig himself has written more than once that if Jesus did not rise then Christianity is a fairytale that no rational person should believe. In that case, one has to present very strong evidence to prove that Jesus did rise from the dead and I do not believe that we have seen that reasonable evidence tonight. Thank you very much.
I have enjoyed tremendously the debates that Shabir Ally and I have had this week and on this, the last night of our week of debating, I must say I’m stunned at the weakness of his response to the arguments that I’ve given. Consider the first one, that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Son of God and the Son of Man. Shabir hasn’t disputed this historically at all! He’s not tried to dispute the authenticity of any of those sayings of Jesus that I offered you tonight. Instead, he gives a priori theological arguments saying that you can’t accept these because it’s theologically impossible. Well, Shabir, you may have to change your theology in light of these events! That’s the whole point! He says, but if Jesus died as a blasphemer God would have no reason to raise him from the dead. But the point is, of course, that he’s not a blasphemer if he’s telling the truth! And that’s what the resurrection shows.
Shabir says, “But he blasphemed against God and therefore by Jewish law he was a blasphemer!” No, what the Jewish law says is that any man who made these claims is blaspheming, but, of course, the whole point is this shows he wasn’t merely a man—just as C. S. Lewis said. Instead, he doesn’t fit the category of the blasphemer, he falls into the category of the Jewish martyr and God has vindicated the Jewish martyr by raising him from the dead, revealing that those allegedly blasphemous claims were not blasphemous at all. Remember, Shabir has never denied that he made those claims tonight and you, as a Muslim, if you are a Muslim, must believe what Jesus of Nazareth said because he was a prophet.
Now, the second point I made is that Jesus died by crucifixion. And here Shabir did not attempt to re-defend his hypothesis of Jesus being taken down still barely alive. I pointed out that this is theologically equivalent of the flat-earth theory - no historian defends the apparent death theory anymore because the professional executioners who were the Roman soldiers certainly could ensure the death of Jesus. And if he weren’t dead he would have died almost immediately when taken down without immediate and drastic medical attention. So, this apparent death theory, I think, is just desperate.
Now what about the resurrection? Shabir dropped his point about the accounts being contradictory as I showed the historical core attested in all four Gospels. The empty tomb has never been disputed tonight, that the tomb was found empty. The appearances—he dropped his point there about the multiplicity of the appearances. Even his own scholars that he’s quoted agree in a multiplicity of appearances after Jesus’ death. What about the origin of the disciples’ belief that he was risen? I showed there is a great hole in history on the Islamic view. Shabir responds, Well, there were three kinds of messiahs. Not all were a Davidic Messiah. He must understand the argument here. Even if the disciples didn’t stop believing in Jesus, say, as a prophet, the point is that there’s no anticipation of a dying, much less rising, Davidic Messiah. That’s what they later believed him to be. You’ve got to explain the origin of that belief, and Islam can’t do it because it doesn’t have the historical antecedents to overcome his death as a blasphemer. Moreover, it never is able to explain how they came up with this un-Jewish idea that he was risen from the dead when no one was supposed to rise from the dead until the general resurrection after the end of the world. The hole in history still remains.
I then argued that the best explanation of these events is that Jesus, in fact, rose from the dead. I offered a four point critique of Shabir’s assumption into heaven hypothesis. Number one, I argued, it doesn’t explain the belief of the disciples in the resurrection of Jesus. Why didn’t they just believe, say, in his assumption into heaven? And Shabir says, Well, they didn’t preach the resurrection of Jesus and he bases this on the book of Acts. But that’s not the earliest sources we have. According to Helmut Koester, who is a professor at Harvard University:
It is the creedal formula cited in First Corinthians 15, which goes back to within five years after the crucifixion, that makes it probable that this understanding of the gospel was shared, not only by the Church of Antioch from the very beginning, but by those to whom Jesus appeared, such as Peter and James. What Paul preached was never the subject of controversy. Jesus’ death and resurrection was the event upon which their common proclamation was based.
In fact, James D. G. Dunn says, “It remains an indisputable fact that the earliest believers were absolutely convinced that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.” That was the message they preached. But you can’t explain why they would preach that if they simply saw visions of Jesus.
Now, my second point was that the New Testament consistently draws a difference between an appearance of Christ and a vision of Christ. We still have visions of Christ in the Church today but they’re not resurrection appearances. Again, Shabir merely responded, Maybe they had visions so strong that they continued to believe in him. But, again, here he doesn’t get the argument. The argument is even the greatest visionary experience would, at most, lead the disciples in line with Jewish beliefs to think that God had assumed Jesus into heaven. But they didn’t preach that! Instead they preached his resurrection contrary to Jewish modes of thought and Jewish expectations. How do you explain that if all they had was mere visionary appearances rather than genuine resurrection appearances? In other words, what I’m asking is if God did to Jesus what Shabir claims then why wasn’t that proclaimed by the disciples? Instead, they proclaimed something radically different, his resurrection, and that needs to be explained.
My third argument was a theological argument: it’s too little too late to rescue Jesus once he’s already in the tomb because he’s already suffered humiliation, shame, and persecution at the hands of his enemies. That’s what the whole motive of assuming him into heaven is supposed to rescue him from, but it doesn’t do it. You might as well let him die and raise him from the dead, which is what the Jewish Christian belief is—that resurrection entails the prior death of the person, otherwise it’s not a genuine resurrection. So, it’s a part of the theory.
Finally, my fourth objection was never answered by Shabir, and that is that on his view it turns Allah into a deceiver because Allah deceived the disciples into believing that Jesus was risen from the dead and foisted this delusion called Christianity upon the waiting world to its detriment, according to Islamic belief.
So, again, these arguments by Shabir are so weak - if he is open to truth, as he claims that he is, I want to invite Shabir tonight to think about becoming a Christian. Honestly, this is where the evidence lies and so I want him to think about that for himself in tonight’s debate.
Thank you, Dr. Craig, for that engaging response, and thank you all for being so lively. I really appreciate that. It’s fun!
Actually, in some ways I feel that I am already a Christian. If being a Christian means an imitator of Christ, which is what the word really means, then every Muslim prides himself or herself in being an imitator of Christ. We believe that we have the same beliefs that Christ had, we believe in the same God he believed in, we worship the same God, and in some ways we also worship in the way that he worshipped - in Matthew 26:39 Jesus fell on his face and worshipped God. Muslims do that even today.
Now, more to the point, Dr. Craig says that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. I didn’t answer the point, he says, because I have a certain theology, and I should change my theology. But notice it is not a Muslim theology that says it is impossible for Jesus to have claimed this; it is the logic of Christian theology. Because Christian theology, or more to the point, Christian apologetics has it that Jesus made these claims which were blasphemous claims at the time because nobody could have known at the time that he was the Son of God and that he deserved to make these claims. Judging by the Old Testament law, as Dr. Craig said right at the beginning, when Jesus made these claims, these claims could only have been judged to be blasphemous claims. And when he died, he died the death of an obvious blasphemer. If anyone is deceiving anyone now, if Jesus was not a blasphemer, everyone must have been deceived at this moment in thinking that he is a blasphemer. But they would be deceived based on the Old Testament law itself.
Let’s say they wouldn’t be deceived. Jesus did not make blasphemous claims and no one was deceived into thinking he was a blasphemer—he was not. But if you follow Christian apologetics, if you take that line of argument, then when he died he must be judged as a blasphemer and his own disciples who lived and walked with him made this conclusion at that point. The only reason they could reverse that conclusion is because they saw Jesus reappear from the dead—this is the Christian logic. Now, it means that we have to have a proof that is so overwhelming, so strong, strong enough to make us reverse that judgment, and if we don’t then there’s no rational reason for reversing that judgment.
Now, Dr. Craig says that I did not try to explain my hypothesis of Jesus remaining alive. He says, further, that no historian holds to that hypothesis and I agree with that. No historian, today, says that we have found out that Jesus survived crucifixion. As far as historical inquiry is concerned, Jesus was killed on the cross, and he remains dead. It is not a historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead or that God raised him alive into heaven, this is a theological conclusion. So, my conclusion is theological, Dr. Craig’s conclusion is also theological. Neither is strictly historical as Dr. Craig himself admits about his own conclusion. But then, is my conclusion plausible knowing what crucifixion is all about? First, as Dr. Craig himself admitted on Monday night, unless Jesus was speared in the side, you could not be sure he was actually dead. Now, this spearing of Jesus is mentioned only in John’s gospel, which is the least historical of the four and many scholars think that John, in fact, introduced this idea for his own theological purpose—to match with a previous prediction from Zechariah, which says, “They will look upon the one whom they have pierced.” Other interpreters have come to the rescue. Dr. Raymond Brown, for example, thinks that this spearing is actually historical. However, he does not think it is a spearing that would have pierced Jesus to bring out blood and water as John’s gospel seems to indicate. He thinks the verb that is used there indicates a kind of prodding that one would give to a sleeping person to make sure that he is not just simply sleeping, to wake him up, if he were indeed sleeping. Raymond Brown is puzzled by this because he wonders why the centurion would want to do this knowing that Jesus was already dead. This just simply indicates that it was not quite certain that Jesus had died on the cross. So when the Qur'an says [Arabic], “When those who differ concerning it are in doubt concerning the matter” it seems that the Qur'an is absolutely right. Recall, from Mark’s gospel, which is the earliest of the four, that Pilate had wondered if Jesus had died so soon and he asked the centurion and the centurion said, “Yes, he had died” and then Pilate gave permission to take his body down. Notice, however, that Pilate was interested, not in killing Jesus, but in letting him go free. Notice that the centurion had faith in Jesus. Would he be interested in killing Jesus or letting Jesus go free? Notice, also, that Jesus was given a drink when he was on the cross and according to Mark’s gospel, the first time that drink was offered to him it was mixed with myrrh. According to Raymond Brown, herbalists in the ancient days noticed that myrrh can be used as an anesthetic. If we put all of the pieces together, these and more, I think it is very historically plausible that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.
Now, historians don’t have to say, “Okay, but God raised him into life” because historians would think, “Okay, if he didn’t die on the cross, surely when they buried him under three feet of dirt he would be certainly dead. Or, if you put him in a tomb and roll a great stone against the tomb and you lay him there for seven days he would definitely be dead.” But the circumstances were not such because he was taken by a person who was one of his sympathizers. He was put in an airy chamber and then eventually this chamber is found to be empty. Is it not possible that where history stops God took over and God raised Jesus alive into heaven? I think that’s quite plausible and that would account for the empty tomb. It would account for the appearances according to the commentary that has been given by Muslim commentators, that Jesus was shown to his disciples so they believed in him and they proclaimed that Jesus was alive. That would explain all of that and the Jesus of the Qur'an is the believable Jesus. But if we reject that then we’re left with a Jesus of the Bible who died as a blasphemer and nobody could actually prove that he resurrected from the dead because in the first place, you couldn’t even prove that he were dead.
Thank you very much.
In my closing statement I’d like to draw together some of the threads of the debate and see what conclusions we might draw.
First of all, I think we can conclude that Jesus of Nazareth did claim to be the Son of Man, predicted by Daniel, and the unique and beloved Son of God. We’ve seen no evidence on the other side of the debate tonight. All of the evidence that’s been offered is that Jesus of Nazareth made these claims. Shabir has only responded that we would then need an overwhelming proof to show that he was not, in fact, a blasphemer, and I agree with that. In the absence of the resurrection we would say this man was a blasphemer. Now, what that means is that you can’t be a Muslim because the Muslim wants to say he was a good man, he was a prophet, but a prophet is not a blasphemer. So, if you believe what Jesus said, you can’t be a Muslim. If he said these things and wasn’t who he said he was, he wasn’t a prophet, he was a blasphemer. So, I think we’re agreed, and we can draw that conclusion, first of all, tonight.
Second, I think we can draw the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth suffered death by crucifixion. Shabir, in his last speech, admits that the historical evidence supports his death on the cross but for theological reasons he adopts this theological flat-earth theory of the apparent death theory. Now, again, if you’re a Muslim tonight, I would be shaken to the soles of my feet by this! If in order to maintain Muslim belief in Jesus you’ve got to adopt the apparent death theory, which has been dead since 1835 among historians, you’re in real trouble! So, I think this is really a desperation move. Shabir says, “We can’t be sure Jesus was dead.” But look, the spear thrust in the side is attested by classical authors like Quintilian as a method of assuring death by crucifixion. And, in any case, the way you died by crucifixion is not by bleeding, you died by asphyxiation. In order to breathe you have to pull yourself up to breathe, and if you collapse back down again you strangled to death because the lung cavity collapses. And Jesus just hanging there in a dead position would be dead after a couple of minutes because he would’ve been strangled. He couldn’t breathe. He was clearly dead when he was taken down from the cross.
Now what about the resurrection? We’ve agreed tonight that the tomb was found empty. We agreed that after that the disciples saw multiple appearances of Jesus. And we saw that the disciples then came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and that was the message they proclaimed. So the issue then is what is the best explanation? Shabir says, What happened is God miraculously assumed him into heaven out of the tomb. But he hasn’t answered my four objections to that. 1) It does not explain then why the disciples began to preach the resurrection rather than just his assumption into heaven. Visionary experiences wouldn’t lead alone to belief in his resurrection. 2) It doesn’t explain the New Testament distinction between a vision of Jesus and an appearance of Jesus. In order to do that there has to be something different about the resurrection appearances. I think it was their physicality and corporeality. 3) It comes too little too late because Jesus has already suffered the shame and humiliation of being defeated by his enemies. It’s pointless to assume him into heaven at that point, but resurrection of the dead requires that he be actually killed before God miraculously raises him. Finally, 4) Shabir’s hypothesis turns Allah into a deceiver who tricked the world into believing Jesus was risen from the dead and thus into believing in Christianity.
So, again, I think that the evidence is so clear in tonight’s debate I want to close my speech by inviting you, if you’re not already a Christian, to think about becoming a Christian. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home or even a church-going family, but when someone shared with me the Gospel of Christ as a sixteen year-old, I began to read the New Testament. And as I did so I was captivated by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He had a wisdom about his teachings that I had never read before. He had an authenticity about his life that I had never seen in people who claimed to be his followers in the Christian churches I had visited, and I couldn’t throw him out. I couldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. After a period of the most intense soul-searching, about six months of this praying and seeking God, I came to experience a spiritual rebirth as I asked Christ into my life, and God, for the first time that night, became a living reality in my life - a reality that I’ve walked with now day by day, year by year, for the last thirty years.
Tonight, they’re going to be giving away some New Testaments after this debate. I want to encourage you, if you haven’t found Christ in that personal way, that you do what I did. Pick up a New Testament, begin to read it, and ask yourself, “Could this really be the truth?” I believe it could change your life in the same way that it changed mine.
As we come to the final segment of my talk for tonight I’d like to respond again to some of the points which I’ve already responded to several times before. It seems somehow that we’re repeating ourselves and in dialogue we do need to listen to each other.
Dr. Craig thinks I did not reply to his point about multiple appearances, but recall that I referred to a scholar, Raymond Brown, according to whom there was only one appearance to the twelve disciples. And according to Dr. Craig himself, Raymond Brown is one of the greatest New Testament scholars of our present time. So, I’m quoting from a scholar of no mean reputation, and he has answered that point.
Now, why would the disciples of Jesus have preached the resurrection? I’ve said that what the disciples would have preached was that Jesus is alive and that would accord with the plausible hypothesis that I put forward.
What about the vision versus appearances? Well, the disciples would have seen a vision of Jesus that is so strong and so different from what later people would report that the disciples were so filled with faith they were ready to go about and preach that Jesus was alive again. They always had faith in Jesus and now they had the additional confirmation that the Messiah is alive.
What about his suffering on the cross? Why would God rescue him after a little bit of suffering? Well, I’ve already said that is, in fact, better than rescuing him after a whole lot of suffering—if you feel that suffering is a problem. So, I do not see that there is a point here.
Finally, I maintain that God did not deceive the disciples because, according to Muslim commentators, God showed the disciples a vision of Jesus and hence the disciples were not deceived. When they went about preaching that Jesus was alive that was a true preaching and it was not a deception.
Dr. Craig says that he maintains that Jesus said that he is the Son of God and I did not respond to that. But folks, I think that I’ve responded more than once by saying, first of all, it is historically implausible that Jesus would have preached a faith which is radically different from the faith of Moses, for example. Jesus lived within Jewish history and he must have abided by the Jewish law. He could not have preached a faith which, according to Old Testament law, would make him out to be a blasphemer. It is just implausible. Theologically, I have shown, not according to Muslim theology, but according to Christian theology, and more to the point, according to Christian apologetics championed by Dr. Craig, Josh McDowell, Norman Geisler, and others, if we understand it properly, Jesus (on whom be peace), after making these claims died the death of a blasphemer. If he died the death of a blasphemer, I maintain that we have no good reasons for thinking that God would want to raise him from the dead. And yet, in order to maintain that God raised him from the dead, you can only assume it, you cannot prove it. So we are in a circular bit of reasoning there in order to prove that Jesus resurrected from the dead. We could only know that he was true if God raised him from the dead and God would only raise him from the dead if he were true but you tell me he died as a blasphemer. In that case, why would God want to raise him from the dead? Thus, vindicating the claims of a blasphemer? That would be theologically just impossible. Not according to Muslim theology but Christian theology. So, I think that that apologetic fails rather badly.
Dr. Craig says that it is historically known that crucified victims used to get a spear thrust. But the Roman authorities had a number of things they could do to a crucified victim: they could spear him or spare him the spearing. Recall that Pilate was sympathetic towards Jesus. He, in fact, did not want to crucify Jesus but was pressed into doing that. If Pilate could omit one of the usual tortures, why not? Possibly, he did omit that; that is why it is not reported in the earliest of the four gospels and only in the last of the four. Dr. Craig says the crucified victim would have died after a couple of minutes. Is that what you said, Dr. Craig?
DR CRAIG’S ANSWER: Yes, after hanging.
SHABIR ALLY RESUMES CLOSING SPEECH: After hanging a couple of minutes, yeah. I was surprised because what I actually read was quite different. John J. Rousseau writes, “Death was not always quick and the victim might agonize for several days before dying.” I think that settles the matter for the time that I have. That’s from Jesus and His World: A Cultural and Archaeological Dictionary.
So, I think, finally, folks, we have a choice between two Jesuses: the Jesus of the Qur'an and the Jesus of the Bible. In some sense we can believe in them both, and we do, but in one sense it is only the Jesus of the Qur'an that is really rationally commendable and that is the one I commend to you tonight.
QUESTION 1: My interpretation of the Bible is this: how the apostles realized everything that Christ was talking about when he went out to preach was through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that was at Pentecost. I have been touched by the Holy Spirit and I understand that part very well, and when you’re touched by it you know the difference between a belief and that which is a truth, which is actually true. How do you explain that when he says, “I will send you this Advocate” and that was the Holy Spirit?
MODERATOR: How do you explain when Jesus says, “I will send you the Advocate” and that is the Holy Spirit? What did he mean by that?
SHABIR ALLY: This has been discussed a lot in scholarly circles. Muslims have a particular slant on this but I don't want to share that slant at this time. What I want to deal with is the way Raymond Brown has commented upon this. Raymond Brown, as you know, is one of the premier scholars on the Gospel According to John, and what he thinks is that eventually when the second coming of Jesus did not materialize within the lifetime of the disciples, as they had hoped would occur, eventually the idea that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, a kind of representative of Jesus, in due time emerged within the early Christian community. So that the disciples who were disappointed and the early Christians who were disappointed that Jesus did not return as promised within their lifetimes eventually came to believe that Jesus made a promise that this Paraclete would come and would indwell believers. So the presence of Jesus that was expected, the parousia, or the second coming, that was expected is replaced now by the idea that the Holy Spirit lives within the hearts of Christian believers. I know this may sound very strange but this is not something I have invented. This is something that Raymond Brown, the premier commentator on the Gospel According to John, in the same reference that Dr. Craig referred to, explains as to the origin of the belief in the Paraclete. Now, you will naturally believe, as you say, that you have this faith that is privileged inside of you, and if you have that faith I cannot ask you not to believe in that but we can only explore the historical development of such an idea and ask whether or not it is rational to believe in that and if at the end of the day you feel this is what you believe, well then, you have your faith and I have mine.
DR. CRAIG: Well, obviously the references to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament aren’t limited to the Gospel of John; in fact, a fine study of this is done by James D. G. Dunn in his book Jesus and the Spirit where he shows that Jesus himself was charismatic. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, guided in his ministry by the Holy Spirit, and there’s no reason to think that as a charismatic spirit-filled person he would not promise this same spirit of power and guidance to rest upon his disciples. So I see no reason to think that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not something that Christians shouldn’t enjoy and that Jesus didn’t give. By contrast, the Muslim view that these prophecies of the coming of the Spirit refer to Muhammad is really fantastic because it’s incompatible with what he says about the Holy Spirit—that he will be in you, that the Father will send him in the name of Jesus Christ, that he will bear witness to Jesus Christ. That’s clearly not talking about Mohammad; that’s talking about the Holy Spirit.
QUESTION 2: In your presentation you had alluded to the Gospel of Mark calling John and Peter - is there any reference from the Gospel According to Barnabas and if not I would like to know, as a person who likes to read history books, do any of these four people have last names where I can find out more about them?
MODERATOR: Dr. Craig has alluded to the four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - but is there any reference from the Gospel According to Barnabas. He is also interested in the authors’ last names.
DR. CRAIG: A very fine book on the historical sources for Jesus is by R. T. France called The Evidence for Jesus. This is a really balanced treatment, he’s not on the one conservative extreme saying there’s more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than that Julius Caesar ever existed or something, but on the other hand he’s not on the Jesus Seminar list either claiming that you can’t know anything about the historical Jesus. You’ll find discussion in there of the Gospel of Barnabas and why historians don’t think this is an authentic document but rather represents a later writing that is secondary and derivative and therefore not as valuable as a primary source as the four gospels and other sources.
Some of these people did have last names. For example, Mark is to referred to as John Mark and Peter is sometimes called Simon Peter, but I don’t know if you could really call those last names or just double names because people back then typically had the name of their father. For example, John the Son of Zebedee or were named by the location where they were birthed like Saul of Tarsus. So it wasn’t exactly the same as today where you have family names, at least in the Anglo-American realm. But that’s what we do know about some of the names of the figures you mention.
SHABIR ALLY: The questioner has alerted us here to the question of the authorship of the four gospels that we have in our canonical texts. The authors are identified by single names and these identifications themselves came very late. So it is widely accepted now in biblical circles to think of these gospels as being written, not by the persons whose names appear at the top, but to who would nevertheless be referred to by these names for the sake of convenience. Mark is some unknown person. Matthew and Luke, again, we don’t know exactly who these persons are. Luke was said to be a physician of Paul but nobody can be certain that is the same Luke who wrote Luke and Acts. John Son of Zebedee may have had something to do with the initiation of the Gospel According to John but Raymond Brown thinks the Gospel of John went through five stages of editing and three persons worked on it starting with John Son of Zebedee, followed by an evangelist, and then finally [inaudible due to crosstalk].
QUESTION 3: The first thing I noticed is that during your arguments you cited Dr. Brown more than the Qur'an, which I find really interesting. The second thing I noticed is that in terms of blasphemy, you’re a blasphemer until you prove yourself right. I can say that I can fly, but until I fly I’m a liar. Or I can say I can run 1,000 miles an hour but I’m a blasphemer until I actually do it. Sure he died his death as a blasphemer but once he was resurrected he was true and his claims of being the Son of God . . .
MODERATOR: He noted first of all that Mr. Ally quoted from Brown more than the Qur’an which he thought was interesting. Secondly, you are a blasphemer until you are proven true. That was the whole purpose of his resurrection, to prove that he actually wasn’t a blasphemer.
SHABIR ALLY: As for the first question, yes, I did quote from Raymond Brown more than I quoted from the Qur'an and the reason for this is that in a discussion such as this, if I quote from the Qur'an my Christian friends will ask me, “Well, why should I believe what you’re quoting from the Qur'an? That’s not an authority for me.” But since Dr. Craig has said Raymond Brown is one of the greatest New Testament scholars of our time and Bruce Metzger, whom you all recognize and respect, says that if you can only have one book on the New Testament let it be Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament. So, I feel that by quoting from this authority the points would carry more weight and they would have to be believable, otherwise you would have to reject all of these scholarly attestations for this great scholar of the New Testament.
Second, I don’t think it is true to say that we are all blasphemers until we are proven innocent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, in the apologetics that has been presented for the resurrection of Jesus, what Dr. Craig and others tell us is that Jesus died the death of a blasphemer and nobody could believe in him until they experienced the resurrection. Even his disciples who lived and walked with him, they had to know that he is a blasphemer, and the only thing that could reverse that judgment is the resurrection from the dead. And I’m saying that our position now is just the same as the disciples’ who were on the Friday night following the crucifixion. We should make the same judgment until someone proves to us that Jesus is actually resurrected from the dead. When we see that the reports about his reappearance are so self-contradictory and mutually contradictory, and when we see that the reports cannot positively identify Jesus, and in the first place we cannot really be assured that he had actually died, I say that the case for the resurrection is really weak and we can only believe in Jesus if we believe the Qur'an, that he was not a blasphemer, that he was righteous from beginning to end and all the way in between.
DR. CRAIG: That is not the voice of someone who is looking at the evidence objectively. If we look at the evidence objectively we will say, “Yes, Jesus was a blasphemer for claiming these things if he didn’t rise from the dead.” That puts the Muslim in a very awkward position because the Qur'an says you must believe what Jesus said because he was a prophet. Jamal Badawi says, “Muslims are warned that anyone who accepts some prophets and rejects others in fact rejects them all. For a Muslim to believe in Muhammad and reject Jesus is to violate his own holy book.” But if Jesus then claimed to be the Son of Man and Son of God you’ve got to believe in him. Now, how can you do that if he was crucified? Well, by the resurrection of the dead which showed that he wasn’t a blasphemer after all; rather, he falls into the category of the Jewish martyr. Someone who was wrongfully executed by the authorities but vindicated by God and thereby shown to be innocent and true.
QUESTION 4: [inaudible]
MODERATOR: He read from Matthew 12:38-40 which says he will be dead for three days but unfortunately when you tally up the time it doesn’t seem to work out to three days and three nights.
DR. CRAIG: Scholars who deal with Jewish ways of reckoning time have shown that these are idioms that all basically come to the same thing. Sometimes the gospels say that he was raised on the third day, sometimes it says he was raised after the third day. In the Jonah prophecy it’s picking up on the words of Jonah - “Three days and three nights he shall be in the belly of the whale” - and so it’s picking up on that. But what these idioms all come to is that on the third day after his death, he will be raised and vindicated by God. On Jewish reckoning a day begins at sunset and a part of the day counts as a whole day. So, Jesus was in the tomb on Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and then Sunday morning. Therefore on the third day he was raised from the dead. In fact, as wild as it sounds, if Jesus were interred Friday afternoon and raised Saturday night after six o’clock, when the Sabbath was over, then the Jew would say he was raised on the third day because by Jewish reckoning that was on the third day after the crucifixion. So you should not try to press the gospels for chronological precision as though this was a police report. These are Jewish or Semitic idioms which simply indicate that it was on the third day after the death of Christ that he would be vindicated and the Jonah prophecy is a useful type or anticipation of this that can be quoted as a proof text.
SHABIR ALLY: Yeah, I’m sorry that I cannot agree with Dr. Craig that this is just simply a Jewish idiom. The Abingdon Bible Commentary actually notes in Matthew 12:40 that this is a gloss that some later copyist must have put this in. Because no matter how you tally it up, obviously it does not work out to three days and three nights and it is obvious that some later error has crept into it here. According to Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus’ body was requested to be taken down from the cross it had already been evening, which would only indicate that Saturday had already started and so we cannot get three days and three nights. But notice something interesting that Jonah was alive in the belly of the whale and the prophecy here would have it that the Son of Man should be alive in the belly of the earth as an argument that has been nicely advanced by Sheik Ahmed Didat and it ties in with what I’ve been trying to present tonight. As Jonah was alive, the Son of Man would also be alive. He was not dead.
QUESTION 5: If Jesus didn’t claim to be God what was he on trial for? Because it would just make sense to me that he didn’t claim that he would . . . it would be easily excused by Pilate if he wanted to excuse Jesus and . . .
MODERATOR: If Jesus didn’t claim to be God then what was he on trial for?
SHABIR ALLY: First, why was Jesus on trial before the Jewish authorities? The Gospel of Mark, which is the best of the four in terms of the historical accuracy, shows us that when Jesus began his preaching and healing he already fell into disfavor with the Jews very quickly because he did not subscribe to their extremist interpretations of the law. They prescribed that nobody could heal on the Sabbath and Jesus demonstrated before them that you could actually heal on the Sabbath. A man with a withered hand stood forward and Jesus healed him. According to Mark 3 the Scribes and Pharisees immediately took counsel with the Herodians to put Jesus to death. Why? Because he was healing on the Sabbath; although he explained to them, Look the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. You could actually do good work on the Sabbath. But because they had this idea that anyone who even gathered sticks on the Sabbath as prescribed in the book of Numbers should be put to death they wanted to put Jesus to death for violating the Sabbath rules. When they put Jesus on trial they brought false witnesses against him. This is the whole point - Jesus was not justly condemned in the Jewish court. They brought false witnesses against him. In the Gospel According to Mark it is said that they asked him a question and Jesus replied, “Yes, I am.” But comparing that with Matthew and Luke, scholars think that this form in Mark is, in fact, a later redaction in Mark’s gospel itself and Jesus had given a non-committal answer at most. He did not admit to being the Son of God or the Son of Man on this occasion. Nevertheless, they took him before Pilate claiming that he claimed to be the King of the Jews, and Pilate said “I find no crime in this man” after Pilate examined Jesus. Pilate realized that Jesus was not making the kinds of claims that they claimed but then they pressed Pilate saying that Jesus did in fact claim this and if you won’t crucify you him we will report you to Caesar. And under this pressure, Pilate eventually relented, according to these gospels, and eventually agreed to have Jesus crucified.
DR. CRAIG: If you look at Robert Gundry’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark, he has a lengthy discussion of the trial scene of Jesus, and what he points out is that in the Old Testament God is portrayed as the destroyer of the Temple, he’s also portrayed as the builder of the Temple, the accusations brought against Jesus. So Gundry says on page 900: “Saying that Jesus predicted both his destruction of the Temple and his building of another brings to virtual certainty the entailment of a charge that he arrogated to himself divine roles.” He also shows why it is an authentic saying that Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, thereby making himself equal to God as I explained in my opening speech. So, Jesus is making claims that were blasphemous and merely healing on the Sabbath wouldn’t have led to his crucifixion as King of the Jews. That can only be explained by his making Messianic pretensions which got him into trouble with Jewish authorities.
QUESTION 6: I believe Jesus is God because I pray to him. I worship him. I wouldn’t do that for a prophet. My question is: did the early church also believe that Jesus was God or was that something that happened later on?
MODERATOR: Did the early church also believe that Jesus was God, or is that something that happened later on?
DR. CRAIG: Yes. Now, Shabir will tell you this happened later on but that’s not correct, in fact. You can show that among the earliest portions of the New Testament documents are materials that refer to Jesus as God and pray to him as God and they use Old Testament prooftexts about Yahweh and apply them to Jesus. For example, in 1 Corinthians 16 you find the oldest recorded prayer of the earlier Church—maranatha, “our Lord come”—and this is directed to Jesus in which he is called Lord. Moreover, they apply Old Testament prooftexts to Jesus. For example, I think it’s in the book of…well I can’t remember the exact prophet so I shouldn’t say, but in the Old Testament it says whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord will be saved and Paul, in Romans 10, picks up this Old Testament citation and applies it to Jesus! This word Lord is the name for Yahweh, for Jehovah in the Old Testament. It says if you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead then you shall be saved and then comes the Old Testament prooftext for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Other examples would be in Colossians 1, in Hebrews 1, in John 1. All of these refer to Jesus as God or as Lord. They also offer worship to Jesus, regarding him as forgiving sins. You can go on and on. An excellent book on this is by Murray Harris called Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus, if you’re interested in that. This is a very, very fine treatment of this subject so that your worship of Jesus as God is right in line with the worship of the early Church.
SHABIR ALLY: Dr. Craig already indicated what my answer would be but I’d like to give some more details on that. Actually, what he said would lead in to my answer. Notice that the quotations he gave were all from the writings of Paul and one from the Gospel According to John. And my contention would be that Paul was a very important catalyst for this later developing idea. The Gospel According to John, recall, was the last of the four to be written, and according to Raymond Brown, where the beginning says there, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God” that is said by Raymond Brown to be added by the redactor at the last stage, probably around 100 C. E., seventy years after Jesus had left the scene. So, yes, I would confirm that this is a later development. If you read Acts of the Apostles, look at what the disciples were said to be preaching early on. They were referring in Acts 3:13 to God as the God of our Fathers and saying that he had raised Jesus. So, it was the God of our Fathers that raised Jesus. They were clearly distinguishing Jesus and God.