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.