Comments on the Dividing Line of Oct. 23, 2007

Shabir Ally and James White Seattle, October 19, 2007

Topic: Was Jesus Christ Crucified as a Willing Sacrifice for the Sins of God’s People?

In the Dividing Line of Oct. 13, 2007, Dr. James R. White made several comments on our debate. I would like here to respond to his most important points.

Luke 13:33 as evidence that Jesus did not die on the cross

I will not belabor the point here. But James asserts that this point was only marginally related to the Atonement. I would have expected him to comment on the point I was making. I was using this verse as evidence that Jesus did not die on the cross. In fairness, I did explain in my earlier report that James has an explanation with which he may be satisfied that my point does not hold. Yet I press forward with the point here as being at least a piece of evidence that points to a reality other than that to which the Gospels wish to convey. They assure us that Jesus died on the cross. But this verse has Jesus saying that it is impossible for a prophet to die outside of Jerusalem. And John's Gospel does say that the crucifixion took place outside of Jerusalem. James agrees that Jesus said this in self-reference. This means that Jesus himself is the prophet who cannot die outside of that city. It follows logically that Jesus did not die on the cross. James dismisses this implication with the assumption that Jesus did not mean to speak strictly of Jerusalem but to allow for Jerusalem and its immediate environs to be included in the mention of Jerusalem. Yet it remains that this is a verse that should be placed on the side of the evidence that supports the view that Jesus did not die on the cross.

Did Jesus Die for Everyone?

James wonders if I was aware of the differences among Christians on the question of whether Jesus died for everyone or just for those whom God decided in advance to save. He is surprised that neither I nor anyone else brought this up. I chose not to raise this question, as it may have proved a distraction from the main matter at hand. In arguing that Jesus died for no one, I was by implication arguing that Jesus did not die for God's people. I could, of course point to various Bible verses to show that various authors seemed to have different opinions about this. Some thought that Jesus died for everyone; others thought that Jesus died only for the pre-selected few. This difference among the writers of the New Testament and the differences among later Christians highlight a problematic question with regards to the atoning value of Jesus' death. If his blood was sufficient to wash away the sins of everyone, why are only a limited number saved as in the Calvinist view? I chose, however, not to raise this problem at the time as there were other larger problems with the Atonement to deal with.

What Is the Purpose of Debate?

James and I both believe strongly in our own respective religions and in the importance of sharing the faith with others. We seem, however, to have two slightly different approaches to debating as expressed in my opening comments and his comments on DL. I can agree with him that we each have a case that we want to prove. However, I believe that I should temper my desire to prove my case with my need to learn and to adjust my thoughts and conclusions in the light of what transpires during the debate. I hope that debates will help participants to learn from each other. This can only happen if we have some openness to such learning, and the humility that this must entail.

James' Belittling of the Scholars whom I cite.

Where I refer to recent research James claims that I am referring to the work of Naturalistic Scholars or Liberal Christians. My counter during the debate was to say that if these designations fit these scholars then we must ask why the scholars become this way. I asserted that while there may be certain persons who start out with the desire to disprove Christianity, the scholars I have been citing are people who have generally given their lives to Christianity. They start out going to Bible colleges until they eventually become the teachers at such colleges and in other academic institutions. They are the writers of many works on the Bible including detailed commentaries. These scholars have, however, found problems that they cannot but deal with. Eventually they do admit the sort of problems I refer to. Some even become atheists or agnostics. Such dissatisfaction with the faith will continue to plague scholars unless Christians are willing to rethink some of the items they have traditionally taken to be essential to Christianity but which Christianity may do better without. Stephen Finlan has said something along the same lines in his book: Problems with Atonement, as I mentioned in the debate. I also mentioned that Hugh Ross in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos noted that most atheists were once Christians.

After listening to this episode of DL I must agree with James that I had misunderstood the purpose of his recommended reading list. I cited the scholars therein as reputable Christian Scholars, whereas James did not intend for them to be taken as such. But I would still like to know why scholars such as Raymond Brown and N.T. Wright should not be cited as reputable authorities regarding the doubtful historicity of some aspects of the Bible. I would understand that Father Brown's Catholicism would be treated with caution by Protestants. But, as a New Testament scholar dealing with issues that are not specifically Catholic, he remains unparalleled. His volumes that are included in the Anchor Bible series and his two volume work The Death of the Messiah have received wide acclaim. James should cite specific deficiencies in Revered Brown's scholarship rather than simply dismiss him as unworthy.

As for N.T. Wright, he is well known as a conservative scholar standing against the general trend of critical scholars. I cited him because of his wide recognition among conservatives whom I have debated over time, and because of the prestige I thought he held with James as well. But again I stand corrected. James explains that he and Wright would be at loggerheads and disagreement over a number of issues. My misunderstanding resulted from the fact that in the Biola Debate James made a citation from this scholar in favor of his own case. As James explains, however, he did not intend by his citation to endorse the scholar, but merely to establish from his words that we do not know when the gospels were written, and hence we cannot know, as I was claiming, that Matthew and Luke copied Mark while changing the stories as they did. I was encouraged by James' use of this scholar's words, for I found that a fuller citation of his views on this question would prove extremely helpful to my own case. In The Original Jesus Tom Wright writes that not only do we not know when the Gospels were written, we do not even know who wrote them (pp. 126-27). I would have liked to hear James' response to this statement instead of a mere disclaimer about his own past use of the scholar's words.

Can Someone Die for the Sins of Another?

James' answer to this is that whereas a sinner cannot die for other sinners a sinless person can die for sinners. One who is under the curse is not capable of dying for those who are likewise under the curse. But Jesus had the required ability and character and he was willing to die on behalf of sinners. James is satisfied with this explanation, but I am sorry to say that it does not really answer my objections. Why would God want to do it this way? Why does he not merely forgive the sinners? Is it justice to crucify an innocent person in order to let the guilty go free? If Jesus dies as a sacrifice, who is offering him up to whom? In the Old Testament believers were instructed to offer sacrifices to God and God would forgive them. Are we then to conceive of ourselves as offering up Jesus as a sacrifice to God instead of sacrificing animals? Or is God offering the sacrifice to himself? We can explore all the variations and show major problems to attach to each possibility.

I never asked how one sinner could die for other sinners. I was objecting to the view that a sinless person died for sinners. I was asking how this could be right. James simply ignored the objections and restated the view to which the objections apply. How does this constitute an answer to the objections?

Did the Torah Evolve?

James made brief mention of my chain that the. Torah was not all written by Moses. It seems that from his brief notes James could not recall what the objection to Mosaic authorship was, so he left that alone and went on to another subject. My point was that the last chapter of the book of Deuteronomy mentions the death of Moses and describes the mourning of the people for him as a past event. This proves that Moses did not write this part, and we must therefore wonder how many other parts were added by a later hand.

Does the Quran Deny the Crucifixion?

James agrees with me that the Quran in 4:157 does not have to be understood as denying that Jesus was ever put on the cross. What, then, is the problem? This is why I find James' opening presentation to be very strange. He was debating scholars who were not scheduled to speak that night. He had listened to and publicly analyzed my view on the crucifixion and on the meaning of the relevant verses as expressed in some of my recent debates. Yet he spent the greater part of his opening presentation deconstructing not my view but that of the classical tradition.

If this were not enough, his summary statement, also a written speech planned in advance, continued to drum the same message which is essentially in agreement with mine. Even now in the DL broadcast he is still debunking the classical view using a variety of arguments. This is in a program in which he set out to refute me. Yes, he would like to debate someone who holds the classical view. But I think he first needs to deal with my objections to his view. If he is unable to answer the serious objections to the view that Jesus actually died on the cross as opposed to dying later in the tomb, for example, which no historian could deny as a possibility, what does this do for his view of the Atonement? I have shown that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke changed the basic narrative that is found in Mark to the effect that Jesus had died so soon. What is James's response to this? Where is his proof that Jesus actually died on the cross apart from the assertion of the New Testament writers and the later historians?

As for the New Testament writers, they have a vested interest in proving to us that Jesus died for others. Hence we cannot take their word for it if we wish to approach the matter according to the demands of a neutral approach to the subject which the setting of a debate necessitates. As for the historians, they are working with the commonsense presumption that a man who lived some time ago and is no longer around must be presumed dead even if the cause of his death was unknown. Even if the person was simply missing for a period of time long enough to have used up the years of life mortal man is usually known to have been granted, we would declare him dead.

Moreover, historians as a matter of principle take the ostensible record of an event as being factual unless there is some reasonable ground to reject such a record. In declaring Jesus to be dead, the historians are simply taking the commonly known naturalistic explanation for what happened to Jesus. They think that Jesus died as a common criminal under the aegis of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and that he remained dead. I believe that if these very historians were debating in my place they should suspend their own declaration that Jesus was dead and ask James to prove that he was really dead before he began appearing again to his disciples. They must have known at the time they were writing that Christians were claiming that Jesus had come back to life. But obviously they did not, as historians of the period, take this seriously. In short, such historians hold that Jesus was dead only on condition that death kept its hold on him.

James must recall my point, made with support from E. P. Sanders, that if a person once presumed dead is said to have appeared again to his disciples we are within our rights to wonder if he was dead in the first place (Paul: A Short Introduction, p. 29). None of the historians James cited had first-hand information about the Crucifixion event. Neither did any of the second-century Christian witnesses he cites. As for the Gospels, even if we accept that they were written by eyewitnesses, they do not give us any reason to believe that anyone applied even the simplest test to determine the death of Jesus while he was on the cross or ever thereafter. The Gospel of John mentions the spear-thrust into the side of Jesus which many would now take as the wound that killed him. Others dispute the efficacy of such a spear-thrust as a definite cause of death.

More important, however, is the point I have made: the spear thrust is not to be taken as historical. Many Christian scholars believe that this did not actually occur, but that John mentioned it in his Gospel for theological reasons. Leaving aside this spear-thrust, then, what would have killed Jesus? We must ask the same question along with Raymond Brown. Instead of answering this question and proving that Jesus was verified to be dead beyond the mere appearance to be dead, James concentrated on attacking the scholars I cited. But since crucifixion pierces no vital organ I may still ask, along with Father Brown, about the actual cause of the death of Jesus.

James continues to claim that I did not respond to his presentation of such overwhelming evidence from the period. But the single response to this, which I did give, was to say that once it is claimed about any man who lived some time ago that he appeared alive to his friends after he was once dead we should ask how we can be sure that he was really dead in the first place. It was James' turn to provide reasonable evidence to prove this. But he simply kept appealing to the writers whose presumption that Jesus was dead is now under question.

Sunnites, Ahmadis, and the Crucifixion

James made a passing reference to the view of the Ahmadiyyah with regards to the crucifixion. I should clarify here the differences between the classical Islamic view, a Sunnite view that is becoming increasingly popular, and the Ahmadiyyah view.

The view found in all the classical commentaries I have checked is that someone else was made to look like Jesus and that this someone else was put on the cross whereas Jesus was taken up to heaven.

In modern times several writers have adopted the view that the Quran is not denying that Jesus was put on the cross, but is only denying that he died on the cross. The details of this position have yet to be fully articulated with all its nuances and support from classical Islamic sources. Tarif Khalidi made a brief remark showing that he has this view in his introduction to The Muslim Jesus. Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood gave this a more detailed treatment in The Mysteries of Jesus. It is this view with which I align myself.

The Ahmadiyyah view is that Jesus was put on the cross, but he did not die on the cross. Instead, he recovered of his wounds and walked all the way to Kashmir in India where he eventually died and remains buried. This view coincides with the previous one only insofar as holding that Jesus survived the crucifixion. Generally, Muslims do not subscribe to the Ahmadiyyah view that Jesus died in Kashmir. Neither do I.

Does the Quran Require Christians to engage in Redaction Criticism?

James finds it incredible that the Quran would tell Christians to judge by the Gospel if indeed the Gospel is corrupted. The verse he refers to is as follows in the Yusuf Ali translation:
Let the people of the Gospel Judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed they are (no better than) those who rebel. (Quran 5:47)

From this verse James argues as follows:
1. This verse approves of the Gospels as they are;
2. Muhammad who authored the Quran did not know the contents of the Gospels to realize that his own teachings contradict the Gospels; and
3. Muslims now seeing the contradiction between the Quran and the Gospels defend their faith by inventing the doctrine of biblical corruption.

In the first place, however, this verse does not approve of the Gospels as they are. It calls on Christians to judge not ‘by the Gospels’ but ‘by what God has revealed in the Gospel’. There is a difference between Gospel and Gospels. One is singular; the other plural. God taught the Gospel to Jesus, and we may presume that this is the Gospel that Jesus preached. Now in the Bible there are four Gospels which contradict each other on essential points. Obviously God did not reveal such contradictory statements in the Gospels.

Second, it is no secret now, nor was it a secret in the time of the Prophet, that the Gospels teach that Jesus is the Son of God. Yet the Quran says that this is an invented claim matching that of those who disbelieved of old:

The Jews call Uzair a son of Allah and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouths; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah's curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the truth! (Quran 9:30)

Hence it is incorrect to say that Muhammad did not realize that the Quran contradicts the Gospels on this point.

Third, Muslims did not need to invent a doctrine of biblical corruption, because the errors in the Bible were already plain for everyone to see. Some early Church Fathers did acknowledge that the Bible contained errors. But later, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible became generally accepted after the Quranic revelation was already established. Therefore at the time of the Quranic revelation it was not necessary to go to great lengths to debunk the doctrine. The Quran mostly took a passive stance of merely correcting the narratives that are known from the Bible. On occasion, however, the Quran does make statements about the invention of scripture such as in the verse already cited, and in 2:79:
Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say: "This is from Allah" to traffic with it for a miserable price! Woe to them for what their hands do write and for the gain they make thereby. (Quran 2:79)

Redaction criticism is of course a highly developed aspect of modern Biblical studies. It would seem ridiculous to assert that the Quran was asking Christians in the seventh century to engage in an activity which will not become known until the twentieth century. But this does not mean that people at the time were naïve. Even at the time people could differentiate between what God revealed in the Scripture and what people invented without sanction from God.

At the time people could see that what Jesus preached was in many respects different from the later claims made about him. It was already obvious that the Gospel of John presented a highly developed Christology, for example, that could not be credited to the historical Jesus. People at the time could ask themselves, even if they did not do so before: Is not everything in the Scripture inspired by God? Why would anyone say, “Judge by what God has revealed therein”?

We should recall that at the time the Canon of the Eastern Syriac Christians was still being worked out. For a long time they had accepted only twenty-two of the now twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament. Hence it would still be fresh in the minds of Christians that the inspiration of Bible is not self-evident, and needs some human judgment to accept or reject certain books.

At the time the Quran did charge believers with the responsibility of verifying news that came to them. Based on this principle Muslims soon developed elaborate measures to sift conflicting claims about what our prophet said, and did. This was their version of Redaction Criticism, even though they did not use this term. There is no reason to suppose that Christians were not capable of doing something similar which would eventually develop into full-blown redaction criticism.

But the fact that the Quran did not require seventh-century Christians to engage in Redaction Criticism with all its modern apparatuses does not mean that the Quran would excuse present-day folks from exercising their mental faculties. The Quran requires us to use our faculty of reason, and God will hold us responsible for that which we are capable. If the tools and thinking were not developed at the time people would not be responsible for applying it, but now that they are available we would be held responsible if we reject their use.

James’ Mention of Bart Ehrman

It is already evident to me from the Biola debate that mention of Bart Ehrman will not help to advance my point with James. In the Seattle Debate, therefore, I did not appeal to Bart Ehrman, proving my case instead either by (a) presenting the actual proof that leads to my conclusions, by (b) citing scholars other than Bart Ehrman, or by doing both (a) and (b).

But the fact of Bart Ehrman’s importance in modern discourse on the Bible is also evident from the fact that James himself cannot seem to avoid mentioning him.

Aside from the recognition that this scholar must receive, however, James’ mention of him creates the very distraction I wished to avoid. If I had cited him James would have attacked him. I did not mention him and James is still attacking him while attempting to refute me. Why?

James needs to deal with the scholars whom I did cite in specific reference to Redaction Criticism, such as Scott McKnight, James Dunn, and Raymond Brown. But it seems that he is unable to attack these scholars, and he picks on Ehrman instead. Even if we do not like the man, is it fair to keep criticizing him like this? Moreover, even if this scholar is the worst devil around, how does James’ attack on him disprove my points which I supported with reference to McKnight, Dunn, and Brown whom James evidently does not dare attack in a similar fashion?

James’ Understanding of Redaction Criticism

James expresses the view that Bart Ehrman starts with the assumption that the synoptic Gospels are giving different views of Jesus. He asks why it should be necessary to assume that, whereas a more reasonable hypothesis would be that the various writers were addressing different audiences.

I am sorry to say that this manner of putting the matter does not demonstrate adequate knowledge of Redaction Criticism. The ‘assumption’ that the Gospels give different views of Jesus is not an assumption with which scholars such as Ehrman, McKnight and Dunn begin. Rather, it is the conclusion that comes from a careful examination of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course this is now an inherited conclusion from previous generations of scholars who, having conducted such investigations found this conclusion unavoidable.

But even if one starts with the assumption that the writers were addressing different readers, a fair mind will be compelled, on examining the evidence, to conclude, all over again, that Matthew and Luke in using Mark have each in their own way modified the information about Jesus to make him conform to the writer’s own view of Jesus. In our debates I have shown clear evidence of an author modifying the facts of the story about Jesus, such as in the story of Jairus’ daughter. In this particular case James admitted that Matthew has telescoped the story; and I as I have pointed out, this gave Matthew the license to take what one man said and put in into the mouth of another man at a different point in the story.