A Rejoinder to James

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?

Rejoinder to White (Part 2A)

 This is a rejoinder to Dr. James R. White’s “Further Response to Shabir Ally (Part 2)” except for the question James has raised therein about my appeal to Raymond Brown. I deal with that specific question in Part 2B of this series of rejoinders.

Remaining Questions on the Meaning of salaba (to crucify)

 Dr. White asks where I get the idea that salaba means merely to hang upon a cross without this being a means of execution. I think I have already explained that it was the classical Quran commentators who treated the verb with this meaning. For my part, I have used the verb to indicate the act of killing by means of hanging on a cross. As far as I can tell, James is not disputing but rather supporting the meaning I have applied. His quarrel on this score seems to be not with me, but with those who hold to the classical view that someone else was put on the cross instead of Jesus. 

Hence my thanks are due to James for providing dictionary support for the meaning of the verb salaba as indicating a method of execution. He is puzzled, however, by the Omar’s Dictionary of the Holy Quran. I confess that I am not familiar with this dictionary, and from James’ description of its contents I fail to see what is puzzling about it. It seems that the dictionary consistently applies the meaning of ‘hanging on a cross till death’ in all the Quranic uses of the verb. It appears that James’s puzzle is over the fact that the dictionary translates Quran 4:157 as, “They did not cause (his) death by crucifixion.” But the negation of ‘till death’ here is due to the fact that in this verse the action of the verb is negated. Hence the dictionary remains consistent. 

Meanwhile, I have clarified, in earlier responses to James, how salaba ‘to crucify’ may be used generally, and the specific meaning it takes on in the Quran. I trust that it will be clear from what I wrote, especially in Part One of this rejoinder, that there are two meanings of ‘to crucify’. Mark’s Gospel says that it was the third hour when they crucified Jesus (Mark 15:24). But Jesus did not expire until about the ninth hour. ‘They crucified Jesus’ here does not mean ‘they killed Jesus’, but merely ‘they hanged Jesus on the cross’. The classical Muslim exegetes would deny that ‘they hung Jesus on the cross’. But I do not deny this. Hence I do not deny that ‘they crucified Jesus’ in the meaning with which Mark used the term in this instance. But I do deny that they killed Jesus by crucifixion. Hence I maintain with Mark that they hung him on the cross in the hope that he would die on the cross; and I maintain with the Quran that their hope did not materialize. 

James denies that the second denial in the verse, ‘they did not crucify him’, takes on a concessive meaning. I agree. As I have explained, in the verse the verb qatala means ‘to kill by means other than crucifixion’; and salaba means ‘to kill by crucifixion’. Both acts of killing are denied. The second denial does not make a concession to the first. It simply means in sum that the Jewish opponents of Jesus killed him neither by their usual means of stoning nor by the Roman means of crucifixion. This meaning was not clear to early exegetes of the Quran. But nothing should prevent us from seeing its clarity now. 

My exposition, according to James, is a minimalist view, an attempt to make the verse say as little as possible. According to him my view has the advantage of being “far easier to defend” than “the view dogmatically expounded in much of Islam today.” But to him my view became necessary because the verse is “not clear, but confusing, muddled, and without context.” In response, I have shown that the confusion is not due to the text, but to the expositions of it which failed to consider the meaning of the verb salaba as it occurs in the Quran. Once the meaning of the verb as it occurs everywhere else in the Quran is applied also in 4:157, the said verse becomes clear. It also seems that a part of the confusion James is experiencing is due to that fact that the exposition I have advanced is true to the Quran and yet it does not deny anything that is reasonably established in any historical reminiscence regarding Jesus. Against the classical Muslim view James has a ready defense; against mine he has no reasonable defense. 

Some Christian scholars who seek rapprochement between Islam and Christianity have suggested that the Quran does not deny that Jesus was crucified, but only that the Jews crucified him. They point out that the fact is that crucifixion was a Roman form of execution, and this is proof enough that it was the Romans, and not the Jews, who killed him. In that case, they grant that the Quranic statement is true. I do not deny the possibility that this interpretation could be correct. However, I believe that the interpretation I have advanced has much more in its favour, and it remains my preference.

Is there a normative translation of Quran 3:55 and of 19:33 that I refuse to accept?

 To answer this question, I would have to first know what the “normative” translations of these verses are. As for 3:55, the use of the verb tawaffa is ambiguous. The verb technically means to 'receive' or 'to take hold of'. But it is commonly used as a euphemism to signify a person 'being taken in death' or more simply 'to die'. Hence it is possible to find a translation that says here that God took Jesus and raised him to himself, and another that says that God caused Jesus to die and then raised him to himself. Which is the normative translation that James is asking about? There is no normative translation of this verse as far as I can tell. 

Quran 19:33 has Jesus speaking early in life, when he says, "Peace be on me the day I was born, the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised alive." There is hardly any dispute over the translation of this verse. The translation remains the same whether one accepts the view that Jesus died, or that Jesus was raised to heaven without having died. The difference in this case is over the interpretation of the verse, or for that matter, over its common translation. Does it mean that Jesus already died as did John the Baptist (Yahya) who made a similar declaration about himself? Or does it mean that when he returns to earth he will eventually die and subsequently be raised on the Day of Judgment as will John the Baptist whose declaration about himself could only refer to this last day? Hence it turns out that what James really wants me to accept here is not merely the normative translation, which I already accept, but one of the two varied interpretations

James is, nevertheless, correct in his assessment that had it not been for Quran 4:157 it would not have become a part of Muslim dogma to deny that Jesus was killed by his enemies. We may have had other reasons for denying that Jesus died on the cross, but such a denial would not have been seen as a requirement of our faith. James further objects elsewhere that it is unreasonable to build such a doctrine on a single verse of the Quran. He compares the Christian approach which does not rest a significant point of doctrine on a single verse of the Bible. I believe, however, that James is incorrect here both about Christian doctrine and about his comparison of the Bible with the Quran.  

First, an important Christian doctrine may, in principle, rest on a single Bible verse. How many times does God have to say something for it to be taken as true? It so happens, however, that once a doctrine is settled numerous verses of the Bible may be cited in its support regardless of the reasons that led to its initial acceptance. If the supporting verses are then examined closely, it will sometimes be found that they do not quite support the said doctrine. 

Second, the comparison between the two books is not valid in this one respect. For Muslims every verse of the Quran is absolutely the Word of God. For Christians, a verse of the Bible is not necessarily the Word of God. Many verses which are included in the Bible are considered by James, for example, to be later additions into the Bible. Hence it would be reasonably cautious of Christians not to depend on a single verse for an important doctrine. On the other hand, Muslims, given their uncompromising belief in every verse of the Quran, will continue to accept in principle that the Quran only has to say something once for it to be taken seriously. We do grant, however, that those statements which are repeated in the Quran probably state beliefs which are to be taken as relatively more important than statements which are made only once. Since the denial that Jesus was killed by his enemies was made only once, this belief is relatively less important than the belief that there is only one God, a belief which is stated repeatedly. 

The main question in this context is the relationship between this set of verses and how they may be read in the light of each other. As we have shown, a reasonable interpretation of Quran 4:157 yields the belief that Jesus was not killed by his enemies and that he did not die on the cross. Moreover, the following verse (4:158) says that God raised Jesus to himself, and this statement is presented as the alternative to Jesus being killed or crucified. 

We have already mentioned that 3:55 has an ambiguous meaning as reflected in various translations. The ambiguity is due to the use of the verb tawaffa which has a technical meaning, ‘to receive’; and a popular use, ‘to receive in death’. Reading this in conjunction with 4:157, the reason for the use of this ambiguous term becomes clear. In 4:157 we learn that Jesus appeared to be dead. Hence for the populace Jesus was dead. But for the select few Jesus was alive. The use of the term tawaffa which has a dual interpretation is due to the two ways in which Jesus’ exit from the world may be perceived. For those who evaluate the story from the point of view of naturalism, Jesus died. But from the point of view of the faith of Muslims and Christians, he is alive.

Quran 19:33 announces in advance that he will die some time between the announcement and the Day of Judgment, but does not specify at what point in this long interval the death will occur. One may presume on the basis of this verse alone that Jesus died as humans usually do. And there is nothing in 3:55 to count against this natural presumption. On the contrary, it will find support in one interpretation of 3:55 which takes tawaffa with its popular meaning.  

But the combination of 4:157 and 158 does seem to count against the view that Jesus died a natural death, although this too does not preclude such an event. One may assume that after Jesus survived the cross, as seems to be indicated by 4:157, Jesus eventually died and was raised by God to heaven. But a Muslim who does not balk at the miraculous sees little reason to posit the death of Jesus prior to the heavenly ascension. Hence the common interpretation that holds off on Jesus’ death as a future event is not totally unfounded, and does not fail to consider the verses cited by James.

The Quran’s Combination of Clear and Unclear Verses?

 The Quran's repeated assertion is about its own clarity. Yet, as even Muslims can attest, the Quran is often far from clear. This appears to be a contradiction which James naturally exploits. But in his repeated emphasis on this point he fails to take account of my answer to this as already given in the debate. I am not demanding that he agrees with my answer, for his agreement can only be assured based on the persuasiveness of my case. And it is up to me to work at clarifying what remains unpersuasive. That, however, would be greatly facilitated if James would acknowledge my answer and show what parts of it fails to make the grade.  

As I have explained, the Quran, in addition to saying that it is a clear book also says that it contains a combination of clear and unclear verses (Quran 3:7). Moreover, we are to follow the clear verses and guard against those of evil intent who may use the unclear verses to cause dissention. Hence the presence of ambiguous verses in the Quran is no surprise to the Quran itself. 

We may add that the Quran accomplishes its objectives through this combination of clear and unclear verses. There are some aspects of Muslim belief which must be made extremely clear. And there are other aspects of faith and practice which may be left to be worked out either in the life and teachings of the prophet, or in the thinking of exegetes, theologians, and other Muslims. As a general rule, it seems that the more clarity the Quran gives to a question, the more important it is for Muslims; whereas the more ambiguous the more accommodated are a variety of views. 

There are three main beliefs hammered out in the Quran:

  1. that there is no god but God:
  2. that God has communicated to humans through human prophets, and now again through the prophet Muhammad; and
  3. that God will hold humans responsible for their deeds which will be judged on the Last Day, following which rewards and punishments will be meted out.
 These are the cornerstones of the Muslim faith, and there can be no doubt about their clarity in the Quran. This does not mean that the details of these beliefs are all spelled out. But we can be sure that God does not hold us responsible for more than we can reasonably know. Hence that which is not clarified is not accountable for. This combination creates a unity within a diversity. Muslims are free to hold a variety of views while remaining united on the basic beliefs which are so well documented in the sacred text.  

One can describe more of the benefits of this duality in the Quran, but enough has been said here in the context of the present discussion between James and me. My purpose here is to establish that the presence of some ambiguity about the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is precisely because it is not necessary for all Muslims to hold to a singular view of what happened. The second of the three beliefs listed above implies the belief in prophets, but it does not require Muslims to hold a particular view of how each prophet died.

Do I Apply Dual Standards of Evidence?

 One of James’ main concerns is that I apply a higher standard of evidence when evaluating Christianity than when I evaluate Islam. His case in point this time is that I am demanding proof that Jesus actually died at the time when the Gospels say he died. James asserts that if I were to demand the same level of evidence for the Prophet Muhammad’s observance of the practices of Islam as I now observe them I will find such evidence lacking. In that case, he adds, such an enquiry will result in my “throwing out the vast majority of Islamic piety and practice.” On the other hand, James seems to be hoping that if I keep to such Islamic piety and practice then I will “have to admit that the evidence in support of the crucifixion of Jesus is overwhelmingly superior.” 

To begin with, this argument falls under the fallacy known as ad hominem. If James is successful in showing that I apply two standards in demanding evidence he does not thereby supply the demanded evidence. The discussion in fact points to his failure to supply the evidence. He detracts from this failure by arguing, in essence, that the person who made the demand for evidence normally accepts poor evidence, and therefore he ought not to raise his standard of evidence in this case. As I have explained in a paper following the Biola debate, James cannot hope to prove his case using a known fallacy. 

It is important, however, to take note of the evidence by which Islamic piety and practice is linked to the prophet. First, there are many grades of actions included under this broad rubric of Islamic piety and practice. Some actions are ‘obligatory’ on one end of the spectrum; others are ‘neutral’ at the other end. The term ‘neutral’ here is at the point where negative acts begin. For positive acts, then, above ‘neutral acts’ there are ‘recommended acts’, ‘prophetic acts’, ‘essential acts’, and finally, ‘obligatory acts’. A major determinant of where in this classification system an act falls is the quality of the evidence that links the act to the practice of the prophet. Hence some acts are neutral because there is no evidence linking it to the prophet, or else the evidence is ambiguous; hence it does not matter if the acts are done or omitted. Other acts are merely recommended because the evidence that links them to the prophet is slightly better than that for neutral acts. Yet other acts are ‘prophetic acts’ because they are based on clear evidence of the Prophet’s practice. Above these are ‘essential acts’ which are so well attested that a Muslim cannot omit them without negative consequences. Highest on the scale are the ‘obligatory acts’ for which the highest level of evidence is demanded. 

This classification system alone is evidence that as a Muslim I should care a lot for the manner in which a matter is established on evidence. But if those are the categories of positive acts, there are also categories of evidence. The Quran is the strongest evidence. Close to that are those hadiths which are so multiply attested as to make their falsity unreasonable to assert. Next are the hadiths which are not as multiply attested as the former group. In this latter group, the hadiths have to be each tested for their chain of narrators as well as their narrative content. The chain of narrators of each hadith must be continuous from the prophet to the final narrator or compiler. This means that the life-spans of each person in the chain must be known to have overlapped with the adjacent person on either side. A broken link renders the chain void. A weak link renders it questionable. A person in such a chain would be declared weak if a comparison of his narratives with those of others reveals that his narratives tend to vary from what is otherwise well attested without him.  

The system is not foolproof, but that it is so elaborate is evidence of a high level of concern for evidence. Hence there is no reason for me to throw out the vast majority of Islamic piety and practice. On the other hand, suppose we were to approach the materials about Jesus with demands for the same level of evidence to establish what Jesus said and did. Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four found in the New Testament, is composed of 105 sections. Each of these may be considered as a hadith. If we were to apply the same level of scrutiny as we do for hadith, we would demand of Mark to name the person from whom he received each of these 105 sections, and to name also the persons from whom they in turn received the information all the way back to Jesus. If Mark is an unknown person, as many scholars think he is, then the test fails immediately even before we begin to ask for his informers. In any event, he does not name his informers. 

Most scholars today hold that the Gospel of Mark was not written by a disciple of Jesus; and would doubt the claim that this Gospel was written from the memories of Peter who was a disciple. They would also hold that Matthew and Luke based their narratives on Mark’s Gospel. For such scholars, this is an indication that Matthew likewise is not a disciple of Jesus, for a disciple would not have depended on a non-eyewitness instead of giving his very own testimony of what he saw and heard. Luke’s Gospel has never been credited to a disciple of Jesus, but to the physician of Paul. Neither Paul nor his physician has been established as eyewitnesses of Jesus. John’s Gospel is regarded by its most recent premier scholar as combining historical recollections about Jesus as well as later material so interwoven that one cannot with certainty extract the actual sayings of Jesus from it. From this brief description it becomes obvious that the links from Jesus to the Gospels are either broken or weak. If as a Muslim I am even going to give the Gospels a fair reading I must begin by lowering my standards of evidence in their case while maintaining the usual standard in dealing with Islamic piety and practice. 

Is this a job for the CSI team?

 

I welcome the humorous touch in James’ characterization of my position as a demand for Gill Grissom to have been at the side of the cross “to provide a medical examination before accepting the rather obvious fact that Jesus was dead.” I agree that it would be nonsensical to demand a fictional character to conduct a real medical examination. But my contention remains that a medical examination properly conducted would have given us reasonable assurance that Jesus was truly dead before he appeared alive again in flesh and bone. Given the Gospel records, it does not seem that such a medical examination was conducted. On the other hand, the centurion who assured the Governor of the death of Jesus did so while Jesus was still hanging on the cross, while the others who were crucified with him were still alive, and prior to his receiving the spear thrust. Hence the assurance of Jesus’ death which the Governor received from the centurion was not, as far as we can tell, based on any reasonable ground. Since no vital organ of Jesus was pierced by prior to this, we are left with no assurance that the centurion had good indicators of Jesus’ death. Nor is the spear thrust, which John’s Gospel alone reports, considered by most scholars to be historical. Hence it still is the case that no vital organ of Jesus was pierced.  

We may ask what the centurion may have witnessed. According to Mark’s Gospel Jesus was hung on the cross at the third hour (Mark 15:24). Then there was darkness over the entire land for three hours from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus shouted: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Some of the bystanders thought he was calling on Elijah to come and take him down. They ran and gave him a drink of sour wine from a sponge which they raised to his mouth on a lance. Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and expired (Mark 15:37). The veil of the temple tore in two. The centurion had been standing there opposite Jesus, and, “having seen that he thus expired, said, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). The narrative then shifts away from the centurion, and the next we hear from him is when Joseph of Arimathea requested Pilate to grant him the body of Jesus for burial. Mark reads: 

    But Pilate was amazed that he had already died; and having called over the centurion, he questioned him if [Jesus] was dead for some time And having come to know from the centurion, [Pilate] granted the corpse to Joseph (15:44-45). 

We do not have the actual words in which the centurion responded. Nor can we know if he even used words, or whether Pilate drew the conclusion from the centurion’s non-verbal clues. James has shown that the Governor here used a solemn demand for an answer, and I must defer to his knowledge of the Greek text. Yet I believe that James goes too far in attributing to the centurion these words: “Yes, he’s dead.” The statement is not unreasonable to imagine of the centurion. Yet, under the circumstances, this is not the only possible response imaginable. 

We may still, therefore, go over the records to ascertain what the centurion actually saw. If this is not a Crime Scene Investigation where we get down and dirty with chemical tests, I would suggest that this is a sort of Cold Case Investigation where we go over the past records of a crime. What did the centurion see? We can recount the events from Mark’s brief narrative above. First, there was darkness for three hours. Jesus shouted the famous cry of dereliction. He is given a drink. He screams again. He expires. The veil of the temple was torn in two. The centurion saw that he had thus expired. Which of these events killed Jesus? 

Unless the drink was poisoned, there is nothing in the narrative to show that anything the centurion saw could have been the cause of Jesus’ death. Nor does the text say that the centurion or any Roman representative gave the body a post-mortem examination of even the most rudimentary sort. At the time of the centurion’s testimony, Jesus was still affixed to the cross. Hence his pulse could not have been felt without special effort, and none is reported. Presumably, he was out of reach, as Jesus’ last drink had to be raised up to his mouth on a soaked sponge fixed to the end of a lance. What, then, did the centurion see that would have been taken as a definite sign that Jesus was already dead? Jesus was only recently screaming something meaningful, and bystanders offered him a drink. Obviously he was very much alive. We can only suggest that after the final scream, or in mid-scream, Jesus suddenly collapsed. And the centurion thought he died. But this is hardly an unmistakable sign of his death. Can we therefore rely on the testimony of the centurion which was apparently based on no more than the outward appearance of Jesus’ body?

How did crucified victims usually die?

 

To know what sort of evidence we are looking for to verify the death of Jesus, we must first gain some understanding of the process of crucifixion, and how it causes death. It is not clear to us now what precisely the physiological causes of death by crucifixion were. But we may delineate two distinct views: 

  1. Some scholars believe that after hanging for long enough the victim dies from dehydration and shock.
  2. Others believe that the victim finds it difficult to exhale when his body sags. When he is no longer able to straighten out his body, he is no longer able to exhale much, and his lungs eventually fill up with carbon dioxide leading to asphyxiation.
 

In either case, the victim must hang for some considerable time. Usually the victim would remain on the cross for a couple of days until he dies. 

Sometimes the legs of the crucified victims would be broken. The purpose of this is likewise not clear. On the first view above, this would serve to cripple the individual to prevent his eventual crawling out of his tomb in case he were buried. On the second view, crurifragium would prevent the person from straightening out his body on the cross, as his knees would no longer support him. Hence he asphyxiates more quickly. 

Usually, crucified victims were not buried. They were left on the cross to be eaten by dogs and vultures. Sometimes, however, they may be given a burial. 

It is a reasonable assumption that, regardless of the specific cause of death, crucified victims usually died. They either died on the cross from dehydration or from asphyxiation. Moreover, judging from John’s Gospel and from a historian, the crucified victim may also be speared in the side. Such a thrust could penetrate a vital organ thus leading to death. 

Given the experience of the Romans in applying this horrible method of execution, victims can hardly expect to survive. And anyone hearing that a certain person was crucified would naturally conclude, without needing to be told, that the person died. There were of course exceptions. But the unusual nature of such exceptions meant that it would be unreasonable to assume that a victim survived, and it demanded that if a person did survive this would have to be stated explicitly. 

As James is never tired of reminding us, the plain statement in the New Testament and in the writings of historians from the period is that Jesus died by crucifixion. Hence anyone claiming that he survived the cross would have to show why this unanimous testimony is not reliable, and how it might have been possible for Jesus to beat the odds. 

We may begin by summarizing how the odds are usually stacked up against the victim to show why it was not stacked up in the same way against Jesus. If the victim was left to hang for a several days he would certainly die. According to the Gospels, Jesus was on the cross for only a few hours. If the legs of the victims were broken, this would either hasten death or prevent a person who survived the cross from crawling out of his tomb. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ legs were not broken. If the victim were speared, a vital organ may be pierced, thus leading to his death. But Jesus, pace John’s Gospel, was not speared. If the victim were left on the cross long enough the birds and beasts would devour his body thus guaranteeing his death. But Jesus’ body was not left on the cross to be devoured; it was given a burial. If a victim was buried in a shallow grave the dogs will dig him up and devour him; if in a deep grave the dirt piled upon him would stifle him. In either case he definitely dies. Instead, Jesus was entombed in a chamber that was large enough for several persons to go inside, apparently all at once (see Luke 24:3, 10). It does not seem likely that one would quickly suffocate in such a chamber. Moreover, we may note that even though the entrance of the tomb was initially blocked by a large stone, the stone was soon discovered removed (Matthew 28:2; Mark 16:3; and Luke 24:2).  

It is clear from the preceding that there was not a single definite cause of death in every case of crucifixion. There were multiple causes of death. The victim usually died one way or another. He either suffocated or went into shock following dehydration. If he was left hanging he would be ingested by birds and beasts; if buried in a shallow grave, then by the dogs alone. If he was buried in a deep grave the weight of the soil will crush him. Hence if we hear of a person being crucified we can safely assume that he died from one or more of these causes. What is remarkable, however, is that the Gospel records show that none of these causes of death apply to Jesus. 

I do not propose to know what happened, but usually on CSI and in real life we would assume that the time of a person’s death is some time after he was last seen alive. The Gospels report that Jesus was seen alive after the crucifixion. Luke informs us that he still had flesh and bone. If it could be proven that he really died before this, and that these reports of his reappearance from the dead are reliable, then we should conclude that a genuine miracle occurred. Otherwise, we should either conclude that Jesus did not die on the cross, or that the reports of his post-mortem appearances are mistaken. It is not up to Muslims to construct an alternative scenario that would account for all the Gospel narratives, for Muslims do not have any reason to press the case any more than this. On the other hand, I have already explained the logic that demands that Christian Apologists prove that Jesus really rose from the dead. And this necessitates a proof that he really died in the first place. To construct such a proof, they have to discount every reasonable alternative scenario as possible explanations for the facts of the case.