Did Jesus Claim Deity?
My Reflections on the Ally-White Debate
March 24, 2012
Christians and Muslims have been debating this question for centuries: “Did Jesus Claim to be God?” I would like to share some of my reflections on my March 22, 2012 debate with James White on the question. I noted in my opening remarks that in such debates both Muslims and Christians often focus on some selected key biblical passages which they cite in favour of their relative positions. Muslims would focus on those gospel passages which show the limitations of Jesus, and Christians would focus on passages in which Jesus makes claims that Muslims would not accept. Usually, both sides leave the debate claiming that they have won. Yet both sides distrust the other for failing to pay sufficient attention to the Bible’s verses which count against their claims.
For my contribution to this ongoing dialogue, I tried to make sense of the fact that the Bible contains both types of statements: passages that prove Jesus’ human limitations, and passages that prove a high Christology. Basically, I explained that Jesus was a man. This accounts for his human limitations. But over time, as the gospels were written one after another, the image of Jesus was transformed—especially so in the last of the four gospels. Jesus the man was made into a divine being. Thus in the gospels we have the surviving memory of Jesus as a man, and also the developed image of him as the divine Son of God.
I have just read Dr. White’s comments on the debate as they appear on his blog. I find his comments fascinating and, as usual, one-sided. Hence I am prompted to share another side to the story. After all our discussion over the years, I am surprised that Dr. White still holds to positions which I have already refuted. For example, he holds to his standard argument that whereas I rely on liberal scholars to deconstruct the Bible, I do not rely on such scholars to deconstruct the Quran. But I answered him in writing about this in 2008. My article “On Consistency in Muslim-Christian Debates” can be read here http://shabirally.wordpress.com/2008/12/29/on-consistency-in-muslim-christian-debates-3/.
Similarly, a lot of our discussion over the years has focused on the more specific question of which Christian scholars I should cite in my debates. In 2006, I had appealed for Dr. White’s understanding on this matter in my article: “Understanding the Rules Regarding the Use of Scholarly Citations.” The article can be read here: http://answeringmissionaries.wordpress.com/?s=citation+of+scholars. I would have hoped that by now, after all my explanations both in writing and in person, I could get through to Dr. White. Yet it seems that in each encounter we are starting again from the beginning. Dr. White would not accept the facts to which I appeal, nor would he accept the statements of the Christian scholars I cite—even conservative Christian scholars.
Obviously, I will have to try again both in listening to Dr. White on this question and in expressing my own view on the matter in the hope of overcoming this impasse. Meanwhile, I took Dr. White’s silence on my previous articles as his acceptance of what I have written. Obviously, this was an incorrect assumption. My request to Dr. White, therefore, is that he should kindly respond in writing to the two articles mentioned above, and also to my present reflection on the recent debate.
As I explained again in the recent debate, I do use all kinds of scholarship in my study of both Islam and Christianity. Naturally, I would be biased in favour of what I already believe. However, I try to put aside what I think I know so as to approach my studies with a neutral stance. I then explore a wide variety of writings on the subjects, and try to assimilate all of this information in a meaningful way. I do that for both Islam and Christianity. I do not accept everything said in favour of Islam. Nor do I reject everything said in disfavour of Christianity. In the end, I must weigh the evidence and form a consistent holistic view that incorporates all of the available evidence.
In my opening presentation, I tried to explain two different approaches to the question. In an academic setting, we would be expected to use approaches that are religiously neutral. Obviously, however, the demand of the debate was that I represent a Muslim perspective. Hence I explained how the fact that I am a Muslim can affect which conclusions of historical scholars on Jesus I accept or reject. Obviously, to reject a historical conclusion simply because I am a Muslim would be academically irresponsible. However, historical conclusions do contain a certain subjective element. Where I recognise such a subjective element I have to ask if I have stronger reasons from my faith perspective for rejecting the subjective element in historical studies. In particular, since our topic was on the question of Jesus, I pointed out that I do not, as a Muslim, accept the conclusion of those historians who claim that Jesus uttered failed prophecies. To Muslims, Jesus was a true prophet. If I were dealing with the subject from a purely historical point of view, suspending my Muslim faith for the exercise, that would be a different matter. But, as long as I am speaking as a Muslim, I have to reject the historians’ conclusion that Jesus uttered certain failed prophecies.
White’s claim that I build my case on the findings of liberal scholars is not correct. It is true that as a Muslim I would naturally tend to accept critical judgements on matters of the Christian faith and resist such judgements on matters of the Muslim faith. But the matter does not end there. In the end, my acceptance or rejection of what scholars say is based on my evaluation of the facts of the matters at hand. I have tried always to find out what some of the most conservative of Christian scholars say on issues. As much as I read material that is critical of Christianity, I also read defences of the Christian faith. Much of what I argue for are conclusions that are so clear that even conservative Christian scholars accept the basic facts even if my way of connecting the dots between those facts is unique.
Over the years, I have attempted to find a way of conveying these facts to Dr. White. In view of his rejection of the scholars I have cited in my favour, I have tried to ascertain from him which scholars he would accept. During the recent debate I asked White if Richard Bauckham is a conservative scholar. He gave a non-verbal response which indicated that he is not sure what to say of Bauckham. I was surprised at his hesitation, since Bauckham is widely regarded as a conservative scholar. I then asked White if F.F. Bruce was a conservative scholar. His answer was a definite affirmative. I was thrilled by his answer. I proceeded to present the position of Bruce and Bauckham. Both Bruce and Bauckham hold that Matthew and Luke based their gospels on that of Mark. Moreover, Bruce holds that Matthew and Luke made stylistic improvements to the narratives which they found in Mark’s Gospel.
I then argued that Matthew and Luke made more than just stylistic improvements to the narratives. I claimed that Matthew made eight sorts of changes to the story, and I supported each claim with an example, as follows:
- Matthew made people call Jesus Lord. For example, in Mark 9:5, Peter called Jesus “Rabbi.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 17:4, Peter called Jesus “Lord.”
- Matthew made Jesus describe himself as Lord. For example, in Mark 13:35, Jesus referred to himself as “the master of the house.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 24:42, Jesus referred to himself as “your Lord.”
- Matthew made people call Jesus “Son of God.” For example, in Mark 8:29, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 16:16, Peter called Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
- Matthew made Jesus call God “my Father.” For example, in Mark 3:31, Jesus referred to God as “God.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 12:46, Jesus referred to God as “my Father.”
- Matthew made people pray to Jesus. For example, in Mark 4:38, the disciples, concerned about the storm at sea, awaken Jesus as he lay asleep in the stern. They say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” But, in the same episode in Matthew 8:25, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, save us! We are perishing.”
- Matthew reduced Jesus’ emphasis on One God. For example, in Mark 12:29, Jesus, being asked what was the greatest commandment, replied as is known from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 22:37-38, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Hence Matthew has omitted the words, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
- Matthew reduced the distinction between Jesus and his God. For example, in Mark 10:18, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” But, in the same episode in Matthew 19:17, Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” Hence in Matthew Jesus did not repudiate the attribution of goodness to himself as he did in Mark.
- Matthew covered the human limitations of Jesus. For example, in Mark 11:12-14, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And the tree withered by next morning. But, in the same episode in Matthew 21:18, Jesus was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing but leaves. Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And the tree withered at once. Hence Matthew did not mention that it was not the season for figs. Some Christians focus on Matthew’s depiction of this event, and use the narrative as a parable showing how those who refuse to bear fruit will be dealt with. However, by mentioning the fact that it was not the season for figs, Mark has shown that Jesus’ knowledge was limited.
Hence I have shown that the image of Jesus was being improved from one Gospel to another over time. I then added that the improvements which John’s Gospel made to the image of Jesus are even greater than those made by Matthew. For example, Mark shows that on the night before the crucifixion Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane saying that his soul is troubled. Jesus asks his Father to let this cup pass away from him. Nevertheless, he submits to the will of the Father. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus is not shown to be praying in this way on that occasion. In fact, even before that event, Jesus had already declared that he will not pray like that. Moreover, already at the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist had declared that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Hence this is a very different portrayal of Jesus than that which we have seen in Mark’s Gospel.
Furthermore, in Mark’s Gospel Judas’ kiss was necessary for identifying Jesus so that he would be arrested. But in John’s Gospel Judas’ kiss is not necessary, since Jesus comes forward to hand himself over. In fact, no one can arrest him against his will, since his very voice blows them over. He deliberately gives himself up because he has been given the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.
In this way, as we move from Mark to the later gospels of Matthew and Luke we find the image of Jesus being gradually improved. And as we move from Mark to John, we find the image of Jesus drastically improved. The Quran calls Christians back to the real Jesus as he was prior to such improvements which were made to his image.
It is thus clear that my conclusion was built on two major arguments. The first argument simply reproduces the finding of F.F. Bruce that Matthew and Luke rewrote the narratives of Mark with stylistic changes. The second argument is based on my comparison of the gospels to show that the changes were more than just stylistic—that they involved a major theological shift transforming Jesus from a man into God. To refute my position, it was necessary for White to dismantle my two arguments.
During the cross-examination, White surprisingly claimed that my theory is based on the claims of anti-supernaturalist scholars. I then had to ask him if F.F. Bruce is an anti-supernaturalist scholar. He said, “No.” What then is the problem?
Perhaps the problem is that the examples I have given to show the types of changes occurring in the gospels are not convincing. But, as far as I can recall without going over the recording of the debate, White only challenged two of my eight claims, the ones numbered 2 and 8 above. As for the first challenge, White asserted that the two gospels Matthew and Mark both use the term kyrios (Lord). I am surprised that White still makes this weak point after I had answered him in my 2006 article “A Reassertion that Matthew 24:42 Improves the Image Of Jesus Over that of Mark 13:35: A Commentary on a Point Discussed During the Biola Debate.” The article may be read here: http://answeringmissionaries.wordpress.com/2006/05/25/a-reassertion-that-matthew-2442-improves-the-image-of-jesus-over-that-of-mark-1335/
In that article, and again during the recent debate, I conceded that the term kyrios (Lord) occurs in both gospels. But, as I explained, Mark and Matthew use the term differently. Mark used it in construct with house to mean “Lord of the House,” or, better, “master of the house.” But Matthew changed that to “your Lord.” In my closing statement, I supported my position by showing that the same claim was made by Robert Stein in his The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction.
I am bewildered by White’s refusal to concede the point.
The second challenge came from White with regards to my eighth example. In his attempt to refute the point, White did precisely what I had said that some Christians do. White ignored Mark, focused on Matthew, and argued that Jesus surely knew the seasons. But, as I pointed out again during my rebuttal, Mark made it clear that it was not the season for figs. Hence Jesus’ limitation was clear in Mark, but covered up in Matthew.
A third challenge arose during the Q&A. A Christian cited a counter-example to the trend I have shown to exist in the comparisons between Mark and Matthew. In Mark 14:61-62, Jesus was asked by the high priest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus answered, “I am.” Mark here seems to be an improvement over Matthew. In Matthew 26:64 Jesus’ answer is ambiguous, “You have said so,” whereas in Mark the answer was definitely positive.
In comparison with the question in Mark, Luke has split the question into two parts, thus eliciting from Jesus two separate answers. First, in Luke 22: 67 the chief priests and the scribes and other members of the council make a simple request to Jesus, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Jesus replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer. Jesus continues with a statement that is present in Matthew and Mark as well. I give Luke’s version here: “But you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the power of God.” It was at this point in Luke that they all asked Jesus, “Are you the Son of God, then? (Luke 22:70).” Jesus answered here in Luke as he did to the single question in Matthew, “You say that I am (Luke 22:71).” In Luke, as in Matthew, the answer is ambiguous. Hence, in comparison with both Matthew and Luke, it would seem that Mark improved Jesus’ reply—that Mark turned the ambiguous reply to a positive one.
My answer to this challenge was twofold, though it had to be extremely brief given the one-minute limitation. The first aspect of my twofold answer is as follows. This episode in Marks’ Gospel is an example pointing to the existence of the hypothetical Ur-Marcus, a previous version of Mark, as the source of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As I had explained to White during the cross-examination, scholars had arrived at the hypothetical Ur-Marcus in their reconstruction of the common source of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But since the differences between Ur-Marcus and the present version of Mark is so relatively minimal, scholars found it unnecessary to keep mentioning Ur-Marcus. Rather, they found it more convenient to simply refer to Mark as the source of Matthew and Luke. However, in so referring to Mark, scholars would clarify, if necessary, that Ur-Marcus is the actual source. With this explanation already given, I do not see the question raised by the Christian gentleman as a refutation of my basic position that Matthew and Luke used Ur-Marcus.
The second aspect of my twofold answer is as follows. The two halves of the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?” are obviously meant as synonyms of each other. Hence, according to the high priest, “the Messiah,” means “the Son of the Blessed.” In that case, “the Son of the Blessed” does not mean “literally the Son of God,” as in “the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.” Thus, even in Mark, Jesus’ positive answer to the question does not constitute a claim to be God.
In short, two of my eight examples were challenged by White, and I answered both challenges. In response to his first challenge I showed that Matthew did change ‘Master of the House’ to ‘your Lord.’ In response to White’s second challenge, I showed that Jesus’ limited knowledge was clear in Mark but covered up in Matthew. Mark mentioned that the reason for the absence of fruit on the tree was that it was not the season for figs. By omitting mention of the season as the reason, Matthew thus avoided the problem. The third challenge to my examples, this coming in the form of a counter-example, does not hold up in view of my nuanced view which involves Ur-Marcus.
In conclusion, how did my above position hold up in the debate? It rested on two foundations. The first foundation is that Mark was used by Matthew and Luke, as is acknowledged by F.F. Bruce. The second foundation is that a comparison of the gospels shows that the image of Jesus was enhanced from one Gospel to another. Both of these continue to hold. As for the first, White could not show that Mark was not the source of the other two synoptic gospels. Nor is it fair that White would continue to charge me with depending on liberal scholars for this point after I have cited F.F. Bruce, the very scholar whom White recommended as a conservative scholar. As for the second point, that changes occurred from Mark to Matthew, the three challenges to my eight examples of do not hold up. And White made no attempt to challenge the examples I showed of changes occurring as we move from Mark to John.
As I pointed out in my closing statement, one does not need to be an anti-supernaturalist to see that these changes have occurred. One only needs to have a rational mind and be willing to look at the problem. I believe that many Christians saw the point, even if for some it will not be easy to accept this immediately.
Meanwhile, I hope that the approach I have adopted will lead both Muslims and Christians to a better understanding of the gospels and of Jesus. If my approach is valid, then there is no need for Muslims and Christians to walk away from the debate both claiming that they have won the debate while each remains suspicious of the other for having ignored key verses of the Bible. My approach is more sophisticated than the simple citation of proof texts. And it will take time for Muslims who have not studied the gospels in detail to master this approach. But when they do, they will find, God willing, that this approach builds better trust between Muslims and Christians. It also improves our mutual understanding of how Jesus was transformed by early Christian writings from a man to a divine being. This explains why it became necessary for the Quran and Muslims to reaffirm faith in the original Jesus.
I am sure that as soon as White is freed up from the demands of the conference he is busy with this weekend he will have more to say about our debate. I have mainly represented my side of the debate above. I expect that White will soon elaborate on his side as well. I look forward to reading his further comments. White suggested during the course of our debate that we should soon have another one on the question of salvation. I agree. And I look forward to that. Meanwhile, I await his written responses to the articles I mentioned above, and to the present reflection.