Author Archives: Ijaz Ahmad

Was Christ Crucified? – Historiographic Study and the Aftermath

A few months ago I had a wonderful debate with Mr. Stephen Atkins of Toronto on the historicity of the crucifixion of Christ Jesus. The results of this discussion have been quite meaningful for me and I want to expand on this some more.

Typically, Muslim and Christian debates on the crucifixion have tended to focus on what the Bible or the Qur’ān say about the event itself. This almost always leads into the question of the Qur’ān denying a fact of history. Rather than repeating a debate that has been done ad nauseum, I wanted to do something a little different. It started with an innocent but yet a very foundational question. What does it mean when something is determined to be historic (this is different to an event being historical)? This question spawned other questions. What is the historical method, what counts as a fact of history, what is the role of evidence in determining something to be historic, etc? Muslim-Christian dialogues on the topic had previously presupposed to some degree that we can take the conclusions of some historians and then argue based on their conclusions. It had occurred to me that after twenty-something years of being told that there were mountains of evidence for the crucifixion that I had not actually seen these mountains at all. I surveyed Christian apologetic works against Islām to compile a list of these evidences. I then surveyed Christian apologetic works in response to mythicists (those who claim that Christ Jesus never existed) and compared the evidences they listed. The result was that the lists generally overlapped but they were quite short, in fact, this result bothered me. I assumed at that point that perhaps there was a flaw in the works I had chosen to survey and so I reached out to several Christian colleagues (many of whom were in academia or seminarians) to assist me with my lists. Most produced shorter lists than what I had produced myself.

Knowing then that my lists were more expansive, I then set out to analyse the provenance, datings, and other relevant information about each evidence listed. Most, if not all were from non-contemporaneous sources that provided less information than the Gospels collectively. Knowing already the historical problems with the Gospels (along with the New Testament in general), alongside the various preservation and textual-critical issues, I eventually concluded that our Christian colleagues had exaggerated their claim and in fact, that the emperor wore no clothes; there were no mountains of evidence. There were also no hills, no slopes, not even a slight incline, but rather a singular mole-hill. The stage was set, now I would proceed to examine the other half of the equation, the historical method itself. Reading book after book on historiography, works on historiographic criteria, and works by Christian historians, I began to feel quite underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed. I had assumed that there was some technical detail that held everything together or that there was something more elaborate and demonstrative other than assumptions that had little to no bases. One of the things which became plainly obvious was that from the secular historians I had read from, while they acknowledged the New Testament in and of itself as a complete work of literature was largely ahistorical in its claims, these same historians had viewed the individual event of the crucifixion as historic. The dichotomy was somewhat astounding. Eventually the overarching reason that this dichotomy existed was down to the view that no one else within the 1st century CE had claimed the crucifixion of Christ Jesus did not happen.

In historiography there are two terms that everyone should become familiar with.

  • Methodical credulity – where you presuppose that something is true and wait for evidence to the contrary
  • Methodical skepticism – where you presuppose that something is not true and wait for evidence to the contrary

In the case of the New Testament, academic historians generally apply methodical skepticism but in the case of the crucifixion they applied methodical credulity. What then, explained this dichotomy? It comes down to another facet of historiography known as continuities. See, continuities are generalisations which allow for assumptions of truth (credulity). For example, if I were to make the claim that President Trump owned a smartphone, no one would generally doubt this because in today’s world almost everyone has a smartphone. A historian 200, 300 years from now who examines his presidency, or even his personal life can generally assume that he did own a smartphone because it was common at our present time. It is commonly understood that the Romans regularly crucified Jews at the time of Jesus and so it can be reasonably assumed that because it was so frequent an event, that he was indeed crucified. He just happened to be one of many. Yet, this is just an assumption. For people who aren’t Christians or Muslims, accepting this as a fact bears no consequence on their worldview or their salvation. However, both Muslims and Christians have consequences to bear regarding the crucifixion or the lack of the crucifixion of Christ Jesus. It now becomes more important to have more than mere assumptions based on generalisations and arguments from silence. The stakes are quite literally raised at this point (please forgive the pun).

This is why the debate and the subsequent EFDawah livestreams on this topic became of note.

Rather than arguing based on an assumption, now we were arguing on foundational claims, principles, and evidences. The debate and the streams became somewhat of a testing ground to see just how well prominent debaters, clergymen, and apologists would do in a serious discussion on these matters. The results proved to be quite successful. I’ve had Muslims who have left Islām, return to Islām out of Christianity. Folks who had become agnostic due to this “error in the Qur’ān” returned to Islām. My friends and colleagues have reported using these very arguments successfully in their day to day interfaith conversations. Yet there is perhaps a caveat to all this which most people have yet to recognise. All of my research and all of the arguments which followed from it, have not been made public. In fact, privately with my friends and colleagues, and in a few Masjid lectures I’ve gone into a considerably greater amount of detail. What I’ve presented in the debate itself and in some of the historicity streams are generally the less technical points, summarised arguments, etc. There is so much more to unpack and I hope to do so in a comprehensive, yet brief introductory book on the crucifixion.

and Allāh knows best.

Missionary Mishap: Name of Allah in the Qur’ān

Appealing to the Qur’an’s Arabic in order to dismiss the truth of Islam often produces comedic results. Today we look at one such case which I came across on Facebook.

Screenshot_20200901-173003__01.jpg

I decided to help this young missionary with an explanation of why they were wrong (i.e. their claim was false), followed by an argument by analogy based on a language they already knew, and finally an argument via proof by contradiction in using his same argument against the New Testament.

Screenshot_20200901-175115__01.jpg

There are of course multiple incidents like this from other missionary polemicists. This example is worth a good laugh.

and Allāh knows best.

Easter Livestreams (2020)

On this special Easter Sunday, please see the following two videos. The first, from SCDawah where the panel featured Ustadh Adnan Rashid, Br. Hashim, Br. Mansur, Br. Zakir Hussain and yours truly (don’t forget to like and subscribe to SCDawah). We had a splendid time answering questions and giving our various perspectives on the crucifixion and resurrection, as well as our unified understanding on Christ Jesus in Islam.

 

CallingChristians also did a livestream on Facebook on Easter as well.

Do not hesitate to reach out and ask us questions, we’re excited to share the truth of Islam with one and all.

Yours in Islam,
Br. Ijaz.

Coronavirus: The Death of Religion?

Amidst a global pandemic some sectors of society have found themselves ecstatically celebrating the “death” of religion as many religious institutions find themselves closed or in the process of closing in order to stop the spread of the virus. Masajid, Churches, Synagogues, and Temples are all taking steps to stop the spread of the virus. CNN reports:

First, many religious leaders modified their rituals, hoping to contain the spread of coronavirus. Now, some are taking more drastic measures, canceling worship services, closing religious schools and shuttering holy sites.

Like sports leagues, museums and other cultural institutions, millions of churches and mosques, synagogues and sanghas, temples and gurdwaras are temporarily closing to guard against spreading the virus.

For many spiritual leaders, the decision to shut their doors is difficult. Religious rituals are meant to be enacted, soul and body, traditionally alongside other believers.
But the present dangers of the deadly virus are too great to ignore, many religious groups have decided, leading to a cascade of cancellations worldwide in the last 48 hours.

What these groups (mainly atheists) seem to be misunderstanding is that while some faith-healing Churches are indeed shutting down, this polemic can generally only be applied to a few religious groups that do preach that they perform miracles regularly. This polemic however is highly ineffective against mainstream Sunni Islam where we do not teach that as Muslims we are magically protected against any and all types of disease. In fact, Allah specifically mentions the opposite in the Qur’ān:

Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test? – 29:2 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Qur’ān).

Indeed, the word ‘test’ (يفتنون) encompasses the additional meanings of harm, trials, and tribulations. One form of these tests are in the form of viral diseases in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) advised us to practise quarantining:

Sa’d reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “If you hear of a plague in a land, then do not go into it. If it happens in land where you are, then do not go out of it.”

This narration is found in both Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī  and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim. One may even say that this is a form of social distancing. Within Islamic legal jurisprudence there are also two main foundational principles:

  1. المشقة تجلب التيسير – al Mashaqqa Tajlib at-Taysīr (Hardship begets ease).
  2. لا ضرر و لا ضرار في الاسلام – La Ḍarar wa La Ḍirar fī al-Islām (In Islam we do not cause harm to ourselves or others).

It is due to these two considerations (the latter of which is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him as recorded by both Imām adh-Dhahabī and by Imām al Hākim) that many Muslim-majority countries and many Muslim communities throughout the world began suspending prayer in congregations, as well as all activities at their Masajid:

  1. Saudi Arabia suspended visiting religious sites, especially with regard to Makkah and Madinah.
  2. Kuwait suspended Friday prayers at Masajid throughout the country.
  3. The UAE prohibited the sick, the elderly and those at risk of infection from attending Friday congregational prayers.
  4. In Egypt they have stated it is permissible to ban the Friday congregational prayers due to viruses like the coronavirus.
  5. In Canada, the Canadian Council of Imams and the Muslim Medical Association of Canada jointly suspended all Masjid activities.

This is therefore an evidence that we are not a people lacking the faculty of reason, or that we have abandoned hope in our faith, or that science has won against religion (this in itself is a false dichotomy), but rather it is an evidence for the truth of Islam that despite such difficult circumstances our faith has a means by which we can accommodate and manage public health issues. In Islam, we do not have this distinction between faith and science, both work in congruence with each other and are not apart from the other. Had that been the case, then we should not find any statement from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) advising us on the plague or on diseases in general.

Indeed, we also find a narration from the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) that cleanliness (purity) is half of faith:

Abu Malik al-Ashari reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Purity is half of faith, and the praise of Allah fills the scale. Glorification and praise fill up what is between the heavens and the earth. Prayer is a light, charity is proof, and patience is illumination. The Quran is a proof for you or against you. All people go out early in the morning and sell themselves, either setting themselves free or ruining themselves.”

Keeping ourselves, our clothing, and our belongings clean in general is a great way at combatting the spread of the virus. Therefore this polemic is only effective against pockets of Muslims who are ignorant of their Islam and of religious groups who do not adhere to the truth of Islam, but it is not a polemic against Islam in and of itself. Therefore, this current crisis does not affect the truth of Islam, but rather demonstrates the perpetual reality and authenticity of the message from Allah and from His messenger.

and Allah knows best.

Free Ebook: A Beginner’s Companion to Arabic Manuscripts

For students unaccustomed to classical handwriting, the thought of consulting Arabic manuscripts can be daunting. However, anyone in the field of Islamic studies will testify that at times research requires that a student refer to these sources; it is, therefore, inescapable. This treatise hopes to serve as a companion for students who aspire to learn the fundamentals of this field. It explores scribal terminology, sources of manuscripts, dealing with catalogs, etc. It is adapted from an intensive on Arabic manuscripts by Shaykh Salih al-Azhari, an experienced curator at the Egyptian National Library.

abeginnerscompaniontoarabicmanuscripts-muntasirzaman

See the original download link here: Qalam Foundation

The Significance of the Salām

Both Muslims and Jews greet each other with prayers of peace, yet we must ask, what is the significance of the salām and what does it mean?

“And if you are faithful and mindful ˹of Allah˺, you will receive a great reward.” – Qurʾān 3:279d (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

“Is there any reward for goodness except goodness?” – Qurʾān 55:60 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

These āyāt teach a profound lesson that many miss. When we give the Salām (i.e. when you greet with “as-salāmu ‘alaykum [may the peace of God be upon you], and reply with “wa ‘alaykumus salām/ wa ‘alaykum as-salām [the greeting of prayer is returned; meaning: and upon you the peace of God]) you’re doing several things at once:

1. Making a du‘a for someone (that Allāh, who is As-Salām from Qurʾān 59:23 grants them peace).

2. Fulfilling the command of Allāh to make du‘a:

“Your Lord has proclaimed, “Call upon Me, I will respond to you.” – Qurʾān 40:60 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

3. Obeying the command of Allāh to give the Salām:

“However, when you enter houses, greet one another with a greeting ˹of peace˺ from Allah, blessed and good. This is how Allah makes His revelations clear to you, so perhaps you will understand.” – Qurʾān 24:61 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

4. When you reply to the Salām you get the reward of also praying for the other person.

5. When you reply you fulfilll the command of Allāh:

“And when you are greeted, respond with a better greeting or at least similarly. Surely Allah is a ˹vigilant˺ Reckoner of all things.” – Qurʾān 4:86 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

6. You’re making dhikr (remembrance of God) of Allāh, reminding others to remember Allāh, and obeying the command to remember Allāh from the Qurʾān:

“˹Always˺ remember the Name of your Lord, and devote yourself to Him wholeheartedly.” – Qurʾān 73:8 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

Imagine just by giving (or returning) something as simple as the Salām that you are fulfilling 7-8 commands of Allāh that are worthy of reward from Him.

Hence, Allāh declares:

“And We have certainly made the Quran easy to remember. So is there anyone who will be mindful?” – Qurʾān 54:17 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

And:

“So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it.” – Qurʾān 99:7 (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

This is the beauty and depth of our Islām as found in something so simple as the Islamic greeting, yet it is so rewarding! Such a teaching can also be found in Judaism and Christianity. Jews traditionally greet each other with “shalom aleichem” (which means ‘peace unto you‘), even God in Judges 6:23 is said to have used a form of it as well. In Christianity it seems to have certainly been a greeting which Jesus the son of Mary is said to have used:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” – Luke 24:36 (NIV).

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” – John 20:19 (NIV).

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  John 20:21 (NIV).

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” – John 20:26 (NIV).

There is even a command from Jesus to his disciples, which is very similar to the command the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave to his companions:

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ – Luke 10:5 (NIV).

While this practise is preserved by Muslims and Jews, most evangelical Christians do not keep this practise, though the Catholic Church keeps some form of this tradition in the rite of peace, but usually this specific phrase is not used and the rite involves shaking of the hands or hugging. The Salām then, is something beautiful, rewarding and meaningful, it is a simple practise but one which invokes the peace of God upon all of His creation.

And Allāh knows best.

Debate Review: “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” – Dr. Shabir Ally & Mr. John Tors

About a week ago I attended a debate between Dr. Shabir Ally and Mr. John Tors on the topic of, “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” (click the link to see the debate).

To begin with, I need to say that the church which hosted the event did an amazing job. The congregation at the North York Chinese Baptist Church were helpful, accommodating and very pleasant. The event was well-managed and I think all attendees would agree with me on this.

The topic itself is a little unusual (which is a good thing) as to debate if Jesus rose from the dead, one has to first grant the argument that he did die. In other words, we can’t debate this specific topic if we say he never died. This point seems to have been missed by both Muslim and Christian debate enthusiasts, it should also be noted that granting an argument for the sake of the argument, is not the same as accepting that argument. One may well wonder why a Muslim debater would put themselves in such a contentious position in the first place. The answer for this question was provided in the debate itself in which the question was asked, “what does it mean for Jesus to have died?” Christians answer this question differently and so the “type” of “death” was a focus of this debate. An easier way to have framed the debate would have been to make a minor change to the title to emphasise that the topic was about death:

Did Jesus Rise From “The Dead”?

Before the debate I read through most of the relevant articles on Mr. Tors’ website and while at the debate, I found myself a bit confused after his opening statement. Practically his entire opening statement is what I had read the night before and it can be found on his website in the form of two articles:

  • THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER AND THE EVANGELICAL BETRAYAL OF THE BIBLE: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied Against the Trustworthiness of the Bible
  • THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS: “Incompatible Contradictions” or Coherent History?

In fact, during the debate I was sharing these articles with both Christians and Muslims, most of whom expressed surprise at what seemed to be general confusion as to why Mr. Tors would prepare in such a way for a debate. That is to say that he largely used articles from 2015 and 2018 with no new research being presented or accounted for. The attendees had no need for Mr. Tors’ opening statement, just granting us 10 minutes to do some quick reading would’ve sufficed. Mr. Tors began the debate with two important points:

  1. We shouldn’t base our views on assumptions,
  2. We shouldn’t base our views on presuppositions.

Rather, he argued, we should look at the evidence itself first and if needed, then at works of scholarship. The problem he quickly found himself in was then ironic, as he seemingly argued that he had evidence that Jesus died and was resurrected. This evidence turned out to be Mr. Tors just quoting the Bible. It was then I realised that had he believed in what he said at the start of the debate then he wouldn’t have assumed that the Bible was true or presupposed it as being factual. Indeed, it’s a tall order to hold him to his own words, but if someone lays out a specific methodology at the start of a debate then I largely hope that they would at the very least be superficially consistent but even this was not afforded to us (the audience).

This point did not seem to strike Mr. Tors at all and it left me completely bewildered at what he had hoped to achieve. Muslims don’t accept the Bible as a valid source for theology, and Christians don’t accept the Qur’an as a valid source for their theology, so what is achieved in ministering to Muslims in using a text we don’t accept? Dr. Ally at least attempted to reference both the Bible and the Qur’an throughout the debate. Mr. Tors or someone who works for his ministry later argued in the comments section (of the re-upload) of the debate video on YouTube that while the New Testament is a historical work, the Qur’an was not (in regards to Jesus) and so he did not consider any appeals to it as sufficient for the topic. This is despite the fact that he himself holds to a form of the New Testament text which is not wholly extant in any manuscript before the mid-medieval period (roughly from the 10th to 15th century CE). He holds to the Byzantine Priority position, a minority view in the world of Christendom.

Edit: 22.01.2020, Mr. Tors mentioned to me that he does not hold to the Byzantine Priority position but rather a Majority Text position. The difference is negligible but I thought it best to use the phrase he uses to describe his beliefs.

Oddly enough, Mr. Tors later argued that it didn’t matter what date the earliest extant (still surviving) manuscripts of the crucifixion and resurrection accounts came from. At that point in the debate I lost any hope in Mr. Tors advancing any form of a consistent argument. Either it is the dates do matter or they don’t, either it is the gospel narratives do have contradictions because the gospel authors focused on different elements of the story by design or there are no contradictions and they give the exact same narratives, either it is he is arguing for the New Testament to be a theologically preserved version of the best witness testimony or he is willing to apply historical standards to the gospels. It just seemed like he was willing to flip-flop on his positions without care for consistency, reasonableness or intellectual humility.

As a Muslim who is invested in these kinds of debates, I look forward to them with a great deal of anticipation. Some times that anticipation pays off in the form of the robust debates between Dr. Shabir Ally and Dr. James White and some times they clearly don’t, as in this case. Mr. Tors’ primary (and seemingly only) argument for this debate therefore can be summarised as, “the Bible teaches that Jesus died and was resurrected, and this is true because the Bible teaches it”. While that may strike a chord with Christians, it doesn’t with the Muslims and it’s such an obvious point that I wonder if Mr. Tors cared for Muslims to even attend this debate in the first place. If one were to watch his opening statement, you would find him preaching directly to the Christians in the audience, word after word of caution about not allowing scholars and liberals to change their beliefs, to change how Christians should understand the Bible. Yet, I struggled to find an instance where he addresses the crowd as if there were Muslims in it, people who plainly do not accept the Bible as scripture. After all, he gave no reasons as to why Muslims should begin believing in the Bible, rather his focus seemed to be on keeping Christians Christian.

That is where a marked difference can be seen between Dr. Ally and Mr. Tors. Dr. Ally spent a few minutes at the start of his opening statement engaging with the crowd directly, he explained why he was there, what he hoped to achieve, what Muslims, Christians and those from other faiths can gain by being at the debate event. His words acknowledged the presence of other faiths in the audience, it provided a reason for us to pay more attention to what he said. Another point of note was the difference in composure and demeanour. While Dr. Ally was generally congenial and jovial, Mr. Tors at times appeared dismayed, upset or aggravated. This led to the second half of the debate being more contentious (which is not in itself a negative thing), giving rise to many instances of riposte between the speakers.

I’ve sat through classes by Dr. Licona and Dr. Habermas, evangelical scholars who are well renowned for their arguments regarding the positive evidence for the crucifixion and the resurrection. I’m writing a book myself on the topic of the resurrection, so I attended this debate to gain some knowledge that I could have hoped to engage with on multiple levels, but I left the debate event empty handed, there simply was not much presented on the Christian side of the topic that would allow me to analyze or engage with Mr. Tors’ arguments. In the end I had hoped for more substance but it was nonetheless a good event otherwise. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Tors in person, he was kind, shook my hands and engaged in brief but meaningful conversation, and for that I sincerely thank him.

and Allah knows best.

Debate: “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” – Dr. Shabir Ally & John Tors

The debate is at the North York Chinese Baptist Church located at #685 Sheppard Avenue East in Toronto, Canada.

Topic: Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?

Date: Saturday 11th January 2020.

Debaters: Dr. Shabir Ally and Mr. John Tors.

The livestream is available at this link (YouTube) and this link (Church Website).

You can also stream the debate below:


Yours in Islam,
Br. Ijaz.

 

The Birth Narratives of Jesus in the New Testament – Part 2

Last week, we took a cursory look at the birth narratives (of Jesus, otherwise known as the infancy narratives) in the New Testament. Not everything is as it seems though. I had published that article as an introduction to the subject, today however we will look at a story (infancy narrative) present only in the gospel attributed to Matthew.
Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

If you read closely, within the first verse we are told that wise men come to visit baby Jesus. Next to the phrase “wise men” we find a citation, citation “[a]”. What does this citation read?

Matthew 2:1 Greek magi; also verses 7, 16

So who were the Magi (image taken from my debate slides, direct link to Strong’s Concordance here)?

Magi Meaning in Strong's Lexicon

Depending on the translation you read, these wise men came either to worship him or to pay homage to him. Let’s accept the Christian claim that these black magic practitioners (hereafter I refer to them as ‘black magicians’) came to worship Jesus. What then? They decide not to return to Herod and tell him where Jesus is located. You might think to yourself then, well if they decided not to harm Jesus then they must be good black magic sorcerers. Yet, can there be one who uses black magic for good? The use of black magic is in and of itself a form of pagan worship, to the point that the God of the Bible expressly calls for the removal of such people from Israel in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (emphasis mines):

There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.

Isaiah 47:12-15 says (emphasis mines):

“Keep on, then, with your magic spells
and with your many sorceries,
which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
perhaps you will cause terror.
13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
let them save you from what is coming upon you.
14 Surely they are like stubble;
the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
from the power of the flame.
These are not coals for warmth;
this is not a fire to sit by.
15 That is all they are to you—
these you have dealt with
and labored with since childhood.
All of them go on in their error;
there is not one that can save you.

Right, so it’s not a few generic wise people from the East, but a few black magicians, a few sorcerers, a few diviners. That changes the immediate context of the story. Why would these people be coming to see Jesus? We are not given a reason, though it can be surmised that they did so to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of which, including the Magi, play no role in the story thereafter. What is perhaps most concerning is if this story is accurate, a lot of important questions arise. Why would Mary or Joseph allow black magicians/ sorcerers to come near their infant child? Did Mary or Joseph join these people in worship? The story is silent on these issues, but the visit of these black magicians does play a central role in how Jesus is perceived among his own people within the New Testament narratives.

If the infancy narratives in the Gospels are true, then the later reactions of Mary the mother of Jesus do not truly make sense, but ironically the actions of the Jews of Jesus’ day (as the New Testament presents them) do seem to be reasonable. To set the stage, Jesus has healed people and is also doing exorcisms (driving out evil spirits), some people complain about what Jesus is doing, they complain to his family members:

Mark 3:21-31

Roughly ten passages later we learn that the family members who said, “he is out of his mind,” also includes his mother Mary. Yet, if the infancy narratives as presented in the New Testament are true, then Mary no doubt had to know that Jesus was God and would be doing miracles. That her immediate reaction is to refer to him as being “out of his mind” does not seem in the least bit reasonable. What then did the Jews of that time within that same story (after the words of his family) say? We read from Mark 3:22 the following:

Mark 3:22

The Jews were not referring to him as a demonic agent for the fun of it, it is quite clear that from the New Testament’s narrative that throughout Jesus’ time, there was an association with him and demons/ black magic and things of this nature which had been readily condemned in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) in very harsh terms (as mentioned, in part, above).

This brings us back to the Magi. They were following a star which had apparently risen at the time of Jesus’ birth and they followed it to the place where the infant Jesus was located (Matthew 2:9):

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.

There are a few things to consider here. There is no consensus in Christian scholarship regarding the time frame of the visit of the black magicians. There are generally two main options:

  • It could be within weeks of Jesus’ birth
  • Up to two years after Jesus’ birth

It cannot be two years after Jesus’ birth as that would mean the star was in the sky for two years. Considering that King Herod was actively hunting for Jesus, in order to execute him (Matthew 2:13) and that he was consulting astrologists/ black magicians (Matthew 2:7), then how is it possible that no one in those two years accounts for this star in the sky? More so, it is not any kind of star, but one which was different enough that they could tell when it was over a person or not. So it would mean all the astrologists in the ancient world, missed a special star over a possible two year period (using the meaning of the word παιδιον, at least one Christian apologist argued to me that the visit could have been up to 7 years after the birth of Jesus, that makes the issue worse, not better).

One could conjecture and say that perhaps the star was only visible to the very people that the God of the Bible condemns (as quoted above). This would then mean, that the only people to see this star (which announced the birth of allegedly, God himself) were the one group of people that God has confirmed are in error such that they were to be driven out of Israel (as referenced in Deuteronomy 18:10-12). We never hear about or from the astrologists/ black magicians again, which is peculiar. For if this is from eyewitness testimony, then how did an eyewitness know what the Magi dreamt after having met Jesus in Matthew 2:12?

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

We also know that after this dream, they were not the ones to tell Joseph and Mary about being in immediate danger, but rather an angel of the Lord did so in Matthew 2:13 via a dream:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

This therefore rules out the possibility that the Magi ever returned to tell anyone about their dream, so where exactly did this story come from? As with most things for the New Testament, it is silent on this and these passages only serve to promote doubt about the New Testament’s authenticity and reliability. One can also rule out that the black magicians/ astrologers were there to warn Joseph and Mary about King Herod, as they never did so and it takes an angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph in a dream to deliver this information. As a side note, multiple Christians have confused astrology and the science of astronomy in response to what I’ve written (and said in my debate), though these were not apologists in a career sense. That they cannot tell the difference between the two is not surprising but it does explain why they did not notice the impact that the Magi had on the infancy narratives of the New Testament.

Part 3 will be out soon…

As an addendum, to explain the significance of as astrology and why the Magi were watching the skies for signs, we read (it is attributed to the Biblical Solomon but there is no data which indicates this is true, just like the New Testament it is likely a work of homonymous/ pseudepigraphic authorship):

The zodiacal astrology, combined here with demonological perspectives, is further attested by the seven constellations that appear through the power of Solomon’s evocation:

(8:1) There came seven spirits bound up together hand and foot, fair of form
and graceful. When I, Solomon, saw them, I was amazed and asked them, “Who
are you?” (2) They replied, “We are heavenly bodies [esmen stoicheia], rulers
of this world of darkness [kosmokratores tou skotous].” (3) The first said, “I am Deception.” The second said, “I am Strife.” The third said, “I am Fate.”
The fourth said, “I am Distress.” The fifth said, “I am Error.” The sixth said, “I am Power.” (4) The seventh said, “I am The Worst. Our stars in heaven look
small, but we are named like gods. We change our position together and we live
together, sometimes in Lydia, sometimes in Olympus, sometimes on the great
mountain.”

Source: Von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Jewish and Christian Astrology in Late Antiquity: A New Approach.” Numen 47, no. 1 (2000): 1-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270359.


Update: 30th December, 2019

Following the publication of this article, Dr. Ehrman also published a similar article which overlaps with and confirms the arguments I’ve presented here. The following except is taking from this blog post by him, for full access a subscription is needed to his blog:

Here is what I say about it in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. (This is a college-level textbook: but if you are interested in basic knowledge about everything connected with the New Testament, it would be a great place to start: it includes discussion of every book of the NT and has suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter)

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The story of the visit of the Magi (2:1–12), found only in Matthew, is one of the most interesting tales of the New Testament. Here we are less interested in the historical problems that the story raises (e.g., how can a star stand over a particular house?) than in the point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel. Ancient readers would have recognized the Magi as astrologers from the East (perhaps Assyria) who could read the course of human events from the movements of the stars. These wise men are pagans, of course, whose astral observations have led them to recognize that a spectacular event has transpired on earth, the birth of a child who will be king.

and Allah knows best.

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