Report on the Seattle Debate

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?

The recordings of the debate will soon be available for those who are interested to give it a full review. In the meantime, James has already published some comments on what he feels to be the outcome of the debate (www.aomin.org, “A Stormy Night in Seattle,” October 20, 2007). I feel that it is necessary to balance the picture he has presented by offering some comments of my own.

James had to prove three things. First, that Jesus was crucified. Second, that he was crucified as a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. Third, that he was willing to be this sacrifice. As for the term ‘crucified’, it is clear that in this context it does not mean merely to be hung on a cross, but actually to die on the cross. This is because no Christian doctrine of the cross allows for Jesus to come down from the cross alive and still be a sacrifice for anyone’s sins. It is only by proving all three of these points that James can come out successful.

As for the first point, James in his report simply concentrates on what he presented in his opening statement and follows that with the incredible assertion that I did not respond to his points. I hope that reviewers will find that I did in fact respond as follows. I explained that the Quranic verse 4:157 does not require the interpretation that someone else was put on the cross instead of Jesus. Although this has been a widely circulated classical interpretation, I agreed with James that there is no report attributed to the Prophet, on whom be peace, to verify this. In sum, although this is an early interpretation it is not binding on Muslims to hold it. What precisely happened at the cross is not spelled out in the Quran, and it is up to Muslims to investigate the question using credible or available historical sources.

The earliest Muslims such as Ibn Abbas used the sources at their disposal. They looked at the literal text of a part of that verse, but only a part, and concluded that two things were being denied: first, that Jesus was killed by his enemies; and second, that he was hung on a cross. Assuming that crucified means merely being hung on a cross, they then enquired of Jews and Christians as to what scenario could possibly explain the Quran’s statement that Jesus was neither killed nor crucified. Eventually they arrived at the basic interpretation that someone else was made to look like Jesus and that that person was crucified instead, whereas God raised Jesus into heaven. On all other aspects of the scenario that would get this other person onto the cross, even who this other person was, the commentators differed widely, revealing the paucity of their sources and the degree of speculation that went into the commentary.

The best reconstruction of the meaning is what has been mentioned by Tarif Khalidi in the introduction to his book: The Muslim Jesus. The Quran seems to mean no more than to deny that the Jews killed Jesus.

I explained all of this in the debate, adding that the Indian scholar Abdul Majid Daryabadi in his four-volume exegesis: Tafsir-ul-Quran, while following the classical interpretation of the verse in his translation nevertheless in his notes defined crucifixion in a way that supports Khalidi’s interpretation. Daryabadi defined crucifixion as ‘the act of putting to death by nailing to a cross’. Keeping this definition in mind, we notice that the verse says: “They killed him not, nor crucified him.” Substituting Daryabadi’s definition of crucifixion, the verse would mean: “They killed him not, nor put him to death by nailing him to a cross.” I argued that this means in essence that the Quran is first denying in a general manner that they killed Jesus, and immediately following up with a parallel denial that they killed Jesus by the specific means of crucifixion.

James in his presentation allowed that the Quran could mean that the Jews did not kill Jesus, since the Romans did. Therefore James did not really have a problem with the Quran as such, but only with the classical interpretation. And since I was not determined to defend the classical interpretation in this debate he was really barking up the wrong tree. Much of what he said in this respect was irrelevant as far as proving his case goes. He had to prove, in response to my specific objections, that Jesus actually died on the cross. This he failed to do.

I made reference to Raymond Brown who, in his two-volume work: The Death of the Messiah, writes that since crucifixion pierces no vital organ, we must therefore wonder: what was the physiological cause of the death of Jesus? Moreover, Brown notes that Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four, indicated that there was some doubt on the part of the Roman Governor Pilate that Jesus could have died at the time when the Gospels indicate to be his time of death. Brown points out that Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode in their own Gospels in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt. The obvious reason for this rewriting, according to Brown, is that readers of Mark’s Gospel would start entertaining the same doubt which Pilate had. Matthew and Luke wanted that their own Gospels should not encourage such doubts.

But now, of course, we know that such doubts once existed. James seems satisfied that when he had asked me if the New Testament writings had asserted that Jesus actually died on the cross I answered in the affirmative. He is working with only a partial recall, for my presentation and arguments throughout show that there were tell-tale signs that Jesus had not died on the cross despite this assertion.

I added further that the Jews, according to Matthew’s Gospel, felt deceived. In keeping with the requirements of their Sabbath observance, they had left the crucifixion scene on that Friday evening with the assurance that the legs of the crucified victims would be broken. But they must have found out by morning that the legs of Jesus were not broken. They hurried into Pilate’s court to request that the tomb of Jesus should be sealed up. They were apprehensive lest the disciples of Jesus should steal his body and then proclaim that he had risen from the dead. According to Matthew’s Gospel, they claimed that in case “the second deception would be worse than the first.” I asked what the first deception was, and suggested that they felt deceived in the first place because while they had the reasonable assurance that the legs of the victims would be broken, those of all the victims were broken except those of Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel shows that Pilate granted their request to have the tomb sealed up. But there is a lapse in the logic of the report. Matthew does not say that they actually checked to see if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb before they sealed it up.

I believe that reviewers of the debate will find that James did not answer these points. His numerous citations of historians who asserted that Jesus had died by crucifixion do not answer the specific point I am making. In response to these citations, I explained that from the point of view of history Jesus died by crucifixion on the assumption that he did not again appear alive to his disciples. The moment anyone begins claiming that he appeared alive again we would have to ask, as E. P. Sanders in his book Paul: A Very Short Introduction suggests that we would naturally ask: “How do you know he was really dead?”

My presentation on this question shows that there was considerable doubt as to whether Jesus really died on the cross. And this, I maintained, is what the Quran meant when it said:

    And those who differ about the matter are in doubt concerning it. They have no knowledge of the matter, but follow only a conjecture. They killed him not for certain. But God raised him to himself. And God is Mighty, Wise. (4:157)

In the cross examination, I pointed to another piece of evidence to indicate that Jesus did not die on the cross. According to John’s Gospel, the crucifixion occurred outside of Jerusalem. But Luke’s Gospel has a remarkable episode in which Jesus says he must press on to Jerusalem, because “it is impossible for a prophet to die outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). I asked James if there were not prophets who did in fact die outside of Jerusalem. He answered that indeed there were. But he added that Jesus meant only himself as the prophet who could not die outside of Jerusalem. Now, logically, if Jesus cannot die outside of Jerusalem, and the cross was outside of Jerusalem, then Jesus did not die on the cross. James explained that when Jesus mentioned Jerusalem he did not mean strictly Jerusalem. In that case, he claims, it does not matter that he actually was crucified and died just outside the city gates. I leave it to reviewers of the debate to comment on this part of our discussion.

On the whole, I do not believe that James came anywhere near to proving the first part of the topic: that Jesus died on a cross. I will have much more to say on the other parts of the topic, especially about the difficulty James had in dealing with the logic of God killing his son. But I really think that this sort of analysis should be done independently of James or me. I only felt it necessary to respond to James’s incredible claim that I did not in fact respond to his points about the Quran’s denial of the crucifixion. I hope that reviewers will find that the response I have given here corresponds roughly to what happened in the debate itself.

Shabir Ally
October 21, 2007