by Sadat bin Anwar & Imad Ali
The North American Muslim Foundation (NAMF) in Scarborough, Canada, was packed to the gills on March 22nd by an enthusiastic audience ready to watch these two respected debaters tackle the topic of “Did Jesus Claim Deity?” The majority of the audience was Christian, most of whom probably came in from outside of the Toronto area. The Muslim turnout, disappointingly, was quite small. White’s estimate ratio of 70/30 in favour of the Christian attendees is probably accurate, and it speaks to the need for Muslims to involve themselves more in Christian-Muslim apologetics.
As expected, Shabir Ally and James White both carried themselves with dignity and civility, and the arguments and counter-arguments that they presented did not at any time undermine their great admiration for one another, which was evident throughout the debate.
As with some other past debates at NAMF, the moderator was Pastor Neil Bulloch, someone who is respected on both sides and is seen as a very reliable and impartial moderator. Also as in the past, both the Muslim and Christian sides had their information booths with pamphlets and books set up outside the main lecture hall. It would be nice to see this type of open and free debate between a Christian and a Muslim take place in an Evangelical church instead of in a mosque, with both sides being allowed to give out pamphlets and other such information.
Moving on to the debate itself, it is not easy to objectively state which side “won”. We could not help but to feel that this debate was a re-run of Ally and White’s past debates, with White’s familiar complaint about Ally’s use of liberal biblical scholars dominating much of his presentation and rebuttal. Ally responded by explaining that he had gone to great pains to find and cite conservative scholars like F.F. Bruce and Richard Bauckham, scholars that White agrees are conservatives. White however still rejected their authority in certain important areas (like the dating of the gospels) and continued to use the “anti-supernatural bias” argument against any and all biblical scholars who do not conclude that Jesus believed himself to be God. So “stalemate” is perhaps the most realistic description for the outcome of the night.
Ally’s presentation was, as usual, highly articulate and nuanced, but not flawless. In recent years, he has been slow to jump on the PowerPoint presentation wagon. White, on the other hand– despite indicating on his website a couple of days earlier that he might not use a PowerPoint presentation—did in fact do so. Ally had a slide presentation as well, but for some reason it only consisted of three screens. Ally’s presentation of the “improvements” (from the perspective of Christian Christology) made by Matthew to Mark’s text could have been made far more effective if the relevant examples that he quoted had been put up on the screen for all to visually examine. Visual aids would have helped visual learners; for many people, as the saying goes, seeing is believing. When you can actually see the parallel texts and how Matthew has edited Mark’s writing to make Jesus look more powerful and less deficient, the dominant scholarly theory of Markan priority and of Matthean and Lucan literary reliance on Mark suddenly makes perfect sense and becomes a stark reality that is hard to deny. Ally cited several strong examples of this “snowball growth” phenomenon quickly and effortlessly, but we suspect that it may have flown over much of the audience’s heads. What was good was Ally’s attempt to involve the audience by having them repeat the words that Mark had used (eg. “Rabbi”) versus the “improved” and enhanced words (eg. “Lord”) that Matthew used when dealing with the same incident, but the mostly evangelical audience was not in a participatory mood at this particular juncture in Ally’s presentation (unfortunately, some in the Christian audience did not mirror White’s dignified presence and could be heard chuckling during parts of Ally’s talk).
Another small, perhaps superficial, constructive criticism for Ally as well as for other Muslim debaters would be for them to speak louder into the microphones. For some reason, American Christians always sound louder on the mic, and this can have an impact on the audience’s attention level. Just consider and compare the typical panel on a crossfire-type of news program on CNN versus its counterparts on British BBCor Canadian CBC. Americans are loud speakers. In a debate setting where both sides are competing for the audience’s often fleeting attention, one has to not only speak into the mic but also own the mic, so to speak.
Returning to the actual substance of the debate, Ally did not need to spend so much time explaining and justifying his use of critical biblical scholarship. In fact, more time was spent on questions like “Should we use liberal biblical scholarship?”, “What would be the outcome if redaction criticism were to be applied to the Qur’an?”, “Are Shabir’s standards consistent?”, etc. By spending more time on addressing these questions than on the topic itself (“Did Jesus Claim Deity?”), the debate became a bit too academic and abstract for the average person in the audience and Ally basically allowed White to set the direction and course for the debate. Instead of remaining on the defensive, Ally should have turned up the heat and brought out the scholarly arsenal that he spent so much time defending but not actually using in the debate. We have in the past seen him use this arsenal with great effect.
Let us provide a few examples of points on which Ally could have more effectively rebutted White, but did not.
The first opportunity was when Ally mentioned how false prophecies had been inserted into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel writers. He specifically mentioned how Jesus had at various points prophesied that the apocalypse would happen within the lifetime of his disciples. In response to this, White made the rather strained defence that Jesus was actually prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalemin these instances. Ally could have followed up on this and pressed the argument further. A simple perusal of the relevant chapters (for example, Mark 13) would expose the improbability of White’s explanation. There are in these chapters mention of falling stars, darkening of the sun, and the Son of Man coming down in the clouds. These things have absolutely nothing to do with the sack ofJerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Ally did respond to this but he should have spent more time on it. It is a powerful argument and if presented properly by a skilled debater like Ally it cannot fail to impress. Instead, Ally mentioned the failed prophecy of “there shall not remain one stone upon another [in Jerusalem]” which at best is just a subsidiary and secondary point. The main point– that Jesus according to Mark prophesied the end of the world within the lifetime of the disciples– was let go too easily.
Another opportunity for Ally to have more thoroughly disproved one of White’s points was when the issue of Jesus cursing the fig tree came up. (White’s comment about Muslims being “obsessed” with the fig tree was humorous, but it should not discourage or deter Muslims from continuing to ask the difficult questions that emanate from this particular instance in Jesus’ life as per the gospels.) Ally mentioned how, according to the Gospel of Mark, the reason Jesus did not find figs on the tree was because it was not the season for figs. This detail, found only in Mark, would imply Jesus’ ignorance in regards to the proper season of the figs. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, the part about it not being the season of the figs is taken out. White’s only response to this was that Jesus, being a Palestinian Jew, would definitely know when the season of figs is, and therefore neither Mark nor Matthew are implying Jesus’ ignorance in this regard. Ally’s comeback on this was to again emphasize how Matthew has improved the story and removed any implication of Jesus’ ignorance by removing the part about it not being the season of the figs.
Rather than to stress only that particular piece of information, however, Ally could have also stressed the part in the Markan version which states that Jesus “went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it.” (This is the translation taken from the New American Standard Bible, the same version that White was a critical consultant for.) So according to the Gospel of Mark, then, Jesus approaches the tree for the specific purpose to see if perhaps he might find figs on it. This is either a misguided intention based on deficient knowledge on the part of Jesus, or an erroneous interpretation of Jesus’ intention on the part of the gospel writer. This bit of information in typical and predictable fashion is conveniently missing from Matthew, which doubly exposes Matthew’s efforts to conceal Jesus’ ignorance of the season of the figs by way of editing out not only one but two statements containing embarrassing material in relation to the same singular event of Jesus approaching the fig tree. One does not need to cite scholars of any colour or stripe or their commentaries on the Bible to see the obvious facts that are there for everyone to see.
Nonetheless, we do find a number of traditional and conservative Bible commentaries concurring with Muslims on this particular point. In Adam Clarke’s commentary on this passage, he says, “Our Lord with propriety expected to find some [figs]”. Had Ally shared this particular commentary, for example, it would have been interesting to see how White would have written off someone who refers to Jesus as “Our Lord” as a “liberal with an anti-supernatural bias”. In John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, he states, “And when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; no fruit at all upon it, contrary to his expectation as a man, and the promising appearance the tree made.” So again, according to Gill, Jesus was indeed expecting and hoping to find figs on the tree according to the story as it is reported in the Gospel of Mark. Matthew Henry in his commentary also states, “… he hoped to find some fruit.” John Wesley also considers this to be the reason for Jesus going to the tree. The most interesting comment, however, probably comes from the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary in which the writers state:
One thing, however, we are sure of—it was real bodily hunger which He now sought to allay by the fruit of this fig tree… not a mere scene for the purpose of teaching a lesson, as some early heretics maintained, and some still seem virtually to hold.
Had Ally provided any of these commentaries, it is difficult to see how White could have dismissed them as “liberals with an anti-supernatural bias”, or ignoramuses who do not understand the basic realities of Palestinian agricultural life. Considering then that these respected commentaries concur with Muslims on this point, one can perhaps better understand why Muslims are so “obsessed with the fig tree.”
Another issue that was not explored was that of the uncertain authorship of the gospels, and hence the uncertain nature of Jesus’ sayings as reported in those gospels. When questioning the majority of the scholars in regards to the traditional late (ie. post-Temple destruction) dating of the gospels, White stated that it was nothing more than the presuppositional biases of these scholars that led them to date the gospels to after the destruction of the Temple. White said that all dating of the gospels is basically based on conjecture, since we do not have the dated and signed originals. While this may be true, it is also the case that it is conjecture and the presuppositional biases of Christian tradition that attribute the authorship of the four gospels to the apostles of Christ. This is a point that Ally did not mention at all. After all, if the lack of hard physical evidence in regards to the dating of the gospels means that we have nothing else to go on except conjecture, the same logic should hold true for the problem of the authorship of the gospels. Since we do not have any physical autographed originals of the gospels, and since the authors of the gospels do not identify themselves anywhere by name, it must be the case that it is only the conjecture of early Church tradition that attributed these anonymous gospels to the convenient names of “Mark”, “Matthew”, “Luke”, and “John”.
Coming back again to the issue of the use of liberal versus conservative (ie. believing) biblical scholarship, Ally should have explained that even the most hardened atheist scholars should be able to believe that Jesus claimed divinity without this fact necessarily conflicting with their anti-supernatural presuppositions, since there is nothing supernatural about the idea of a man claiming to be God per se; it is rather the conclusion that such a man is right in his claim that would require a belief in God and the supernatural. For example, most of us do not believe that the moon is made of cheese, but we can still very easily accept the fact that a mad man on the street last week taught and claimed that the moon is made of cheese. Why then do these liberal scholars not accept, for example, the “I am” statements found in the Gospel of John? The reason cannot simply be their supposed anti-supernatural biases. There must be other reasons, and it is these other reasons that should have been explored in the debate by Ally.
As for the alleged inconsistency of Muslims in referring to liberal NT scholars on the issue of whether Jesus claimed divinity or not, White should acknowledge that even critical non-Muslim scholars of Islam who want to apply redaction criticism to the Qur’an do not have any problem with the idea that the Prophet Muhammad claimed to be a Prophet of God. “Prophet of God” is a supernatural concept, but a man claiming to be the Prophet of God is not a supernatural concept or event. Atheists cannot accept that Muhammad was a Prophet of God, but they can and do easily accept that Muhammad claimed and believed himself to be a Prophet of God. Similarly, the most liberal, critical, and even unbelieving and atheistic of New Testament scholars generally have no problem with the idea of Jesus having believed himself to be a prophet of God and the Messiah (both of which are supernatural claims for a man to make), but they do have major reservations about the idea of Jesus having claimed himself to be God or part of a Triune Godhead. Why do these liberal and/or unbelieving scholars that White automatically dismisses accept that Jesus made certain types of supernatural claims (ie. claiming to be the Anointed One of God) but not others (ie. claiming to be God Himself)? The answer cannot just be “because they have an anti-supernatural bias”. That answer in itself is inconsistent and highly unacademic.
In summary, there were many interesting arguments and counter-arguments that were brought up in this debate, but time did not allow the two speakers to delve deeper into their arguments and much of the debate got stuck on issues like so-and-so’s naturalistic presuppositions and so-and-so’s anti-supernatural worldview. The very constraining time restrictions and their faithful observation and enforcement by the moderator were in some ways debilitating to both sides, not to mention frustrating to the long line of questioners who had queued up to ask their questions to the speakers (it was quite easily the longest line of questioners we have ever seen at any event, and that itself serves as quite the compliment to the presenters). In a way, it was the debate that never was, since the actual topic was largely sidelined for the purpose of debating other secondary issues. Nonetheless, both speakers are to be congratulated for their work, past and present, and such events should serve as a catalyst for both communities to continue to engage one another in a spirit of friendly and civil dialogue and exchange.