Mike Licona’s “Islamic Catch-22” – a refutation

mike-licona-420blazeit

Christian apologist and resurrection scholar Mike Licona has penned an argument against the Qur’an that seems, on the surface, quite solid. I was introduced to it during his debate with Ali Ataei on the resurrection of Jesus [1]. Ali did not attempt to counter it, and I think a response from the Muslim side is long overdue.

The premises of the argument go something like this [2]:

  1. The Qur’an states that Jesus was not crucified on the cross and did not die but it was only made to seem so [3].
  2. It is well attested in many historical sources that Jesus died.
  3. It is also well attested that Jesus predicted that he would die.

According to Mr. Licona, this leaves Muslims in a dilemma. Historical sources attest that Jesus died on the cross. This by itself is not problematic- after all, the Qur’an does say “it was made to appear to them that this was so”. This explains why there is eyewitness evidence for the death of Jesus (ع).

So where is the problem? It is in the [alleged] historical fact that Jesus (ع) predicted his death. The Qur’an states that Jesus (ع) is a Prophet- and Prophets can only predict truth (or else they won’t be prophets!). So, according to Mike Licona, the historical evidence leaves us with no favourable option (a “Catch-22”): Either we say that Jesus died, or Jesus was not a Prophet: both falsify the Qur’an, or as Licona calls it, leads to the “Defeat of Islam”.

I believe that the answer to this lies in a closer evaluation of point 3 above. There is a fundamental problem with using the New Testament to prove that Jesus (ع) predicted his own death.

Licona’s methodology

Licona’s proof for the death predictions of Jesus (ع) is primarily multiple attestation. Multiple attestation means that there are many sources that are independent to each other that say the same thing. This is a powerful historical proof and one that Muhaddithiin[4] focus on when validating hadith. An example of this is a tutor that teaches three students at different times of the day who do not know each other. Say for example you cannot contact the tutor, but you want to know his education. You call each of the three students seperately and ask what education he has- to which they all reply that he is an engineering student. This fact is now considered to be multiply attested and is considered reliable information.

Licona does something like this with the New Testament literature. What he does is take all the isolated traditions in the N.T. and points out that all the different sources of the bible tell us that Jesus(ع) predicted his own death. From his own website:

Mark

  • Related to Peter’s rebuke: Mark 8:31; Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22
  • After Jesus’ Transfiguration: Mark 9:9; Matt. 17:9
  • Passing through Galilee: Mark 9:30-31; Matt. 17:22-23
  • Going up to Jerusalem: Mark 10:33-34; Matt. 20:18-19
  • Last Supper: Mark 14:18-28; Matt. 26:21-32; Luke 22:15-20

M

  • Sign of Jonah: Matt. 12:38-40 (cf. Luke 11:29-30); 16:2-4 (cf. Luke 12:54-56)[28]

John

  • Related to Destruction of Temple: John 2:18-22 (cf. Mark 14:58; 15:29; Matt. 26:61-62)

Jesus’ Predicting His Death Only: Mark, L, John

Mark

  • Ransom for Many: Mark 10:45
  • Vineyard and Wicked Tenants: Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46; Luke 20:9-19
  • Garden: Mark 14:32-40; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46

L

  • Prophet Cannot Die Outside of Jerusalem: Luke 13:32-33

John

  • Jesus Lifted Up: John 3:13-14; 8:28; 12:32-34

Even more importantly, the passion predictions appear in multiple literary forms, being found in logia involving parable (Mark 12:1-12) and simple didactic.

That’s all fine – nobody denies that these passages really do appear in the New Testament, and that those who penned them down really are drawing from oral tradition floating around during early Christianity.

If you look at the table above carefully though, you will note that not a single one of these predictions by itself is multiply attested. For us to concede that a historical event happened, that single historical event needs to be multiply attested. Yet here, we don’t see that- the only time something is repeated in more than one source is when Matthew or Luke are copying directly from Mark (therefore it’s only considered one source). Each purported historical event is not supported by any degree of corroboration.

The obvious retort is that, well, that might be true- but what we still have is multiple individual traditions each telling us that Jesus, some time or another, predicted his own death. If we take all the traditions together, we see a common trend: that Jesus prophesied his demise.

But this can also be easily explained without having to appeal to Licona’s conclusion. By simply looking at the historical context of the formation of the Gospels and the oral tradition that preceded them, we can easily understand why such traditions appear in the new testament in the first place. We see that there was a clear motive for early Christians to put these spurious traditions into circulation or write them down into gospels.

During the life of Jesus(ع) there was some expectation by his followers that he was the Messiah[5], and he was most definitely believed to be an apocalyptic Prophet[6]. What is certain is that during the first century, Christians were claiming that he was indeed the Messiah. This is indeed problematic for anyone familiar with the Jewish idea of the messianic figure. The Jewish Bible tells us that the Messiah will be a powerful king that will rule over the world[7]. More telling is the “Psalms of Solomon” written only decades before the life of Jesus (ع), that supports the idea of a wrathful and militant messiah that will purge Jerusalem of the Gentiles.

Jesus, on the other hand, appeared to have been crucified and died. He didn’t purge any gentiles and certainly didn’t rule the world. His followers had to deal with his apparent failure[8]. So how could early Christians vindicate his messiahship after his death? The answer is easy: “Well, yes, he died… but don’t you see? He knew it all along! He’s a Prophet and the proof is this Prophecy!” This is such an obvious source of all these traditions of prophesy that I am surprised that Licona has overlooked it. Now, I’m not saying that it’s completely certain that these are forged. I’m just saying it’s plausible if not likely that they were, to serve as early Christian apologetic by some of the more dubious characters of early Christianity. These oral traditions then got written down by the gospel writers to serve their own ends.

What does that leave us with? I think there is good reason to cast considerable doubt over Jesus having predicted anything about his death. In summary of my post:

  1. Not a single one of these traditions is multiply attested.
  2. There is a clear motive by early Christians to invent such traditions in order to convince their Jewish and pagan neighbours that Jesus was someone special even though he died- that he was the messiah.
  3. The conclusion is that not only is the attribution of the prophecies to Jesus spurious (1) but there is a clear motive behind forging such traditions (2).

Follow up

Mike Licona has several other points he uses to substantiate his argument but I think they are, in comparison to the criterion of multiple attestation, quite poor. I will probably do a follow up having a look at all of these later on, but for now, I’ll probably have to hit the books for a while.

Bibliography and citations

[1] The debate may be viewed here.

[2] This can be accessed on Mr. Licona’s website Risen Jesus.

[3] Qur’an 4:157 – “…they did not kill him, nor did the crucify him, but it was made to appear to them…”

[4] A Muhaddith is a critical scholar that criticises the historicity of Prophetic traditions. For more information see Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy to the Medieval and Modern World by Jonathan Brown.

[5] How Jesus Became God. Bart. D. Ehrman. P.44

[6] Ibid. P. 6

[7] Psalms 2:1-9

[8] For more information see Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection by Kris Komarnitsky. He explains why Jesus’s followers simply didn’t just abandon their belief in the messiahship of Jesus. As a Muslim however, I affirm that Jesus was a Prophet, and that he did not teach the old testament to be the word of God, since it is not. 

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17 thoughts on “Mike Licona’s “Islamic Catch-22” – a refutation

  1. I have asked a few people about Jesus predicting his own death, here are the responses :

    Have you counted jesus predictions of his death in each gospel starting with mark, then Matthew, luke and John? I think you will find that the number of predictions increased and also start to begin sooner in his ministry, very soon indeed in the fourth gospel john, with the baptist in the first chapter declaring jesus to be the lamb of god, a sacrificial lamb. Mark has no such early prediction. Let me know what you find when you study the gospels in the chronological order I suggested. The tell me how you see the story growing over time.

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  2. And

    Well the Gospels are apologetics for the crucifixion, so they do not, in themselves, have overt clues that Jesus did *not* predict his own death. They are attempts at explanations after the fact. The reasons it is thought to be unlikely that Jesus predicted his own death nd resurrection (aside from the fact that most sane people do not intentionally seek out one of the most brutal and agonizing forms of execution in history) is that there was no pre-Christian expectation that the Messiah was supposed to do that. It would have made no sense within the religious or historical context of Jesus and the disciples for a Messianic aspirant to say he would die. The notion of a Messiah dying for people’s sins was a Christian redefinition of the Messiah built around a need to explain the crucifixion.

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    • Yes you’re quite right. There have been some creative reinterpretations by our christian brothers over messianic prophecy, but I just dont think it’s that convincing.

      Btw. We see no prediction in Q it seems.

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  3. His first premise is wrong – a straw man
    “The Qur’an states that Jesus was not crucified on the cross and did not die but it was only made to seem so [3].”

    The Quran states Jesus’ jewish enemies did not kill him, they did not succeed in finishing him off. True also from a Christian perspective.

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  4. quote from matthews version :

    3When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

    14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

    15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

    16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

    17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter,b and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hadesc will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will bed bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will bee loosed in heaven.” 20Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

    21From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

    22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

    23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

    end quote

    do you see something strange with this exchange? remember that ehrman does not think that this exchange is historical. matthew’s version of this exchange adds PRAISES to peter and “the rock upon which i will build my church” then poor old peter gets REBUKED for having the WRONG understanding of messiah. notice the “who do you say i am?” indicates that matthew has his jesus ask peter a question about himself for the first time.

    scholars and christian apologists acknowledge that

    i quote:

    Mark writes that Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (8:29) yet almost immediately, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him the equivalent of Satan. (8:32). At the transfiguration, Peter is described as afraid and makes a suggestion Jesus politely ignores. (9:5-6) Jesus asks Peter, James and John to be with him when he prays in the Garden before his crucifixion, and the three fall asleep. Who does Mark indicate Jesus rebukes for it? Peter (14:37)

    Given the choice between whether this is a polemic for or against Peter, a straight-forward reading would be it does not paint a favorable picture of Peter. Even Christians recognize how badly the disciples are portrayed and fashion defenses to explain it.

    If we are looking for the simplest explanation, here is the situation:
    1) There were factions within the church prior to Mark being written.
    2) Mark displays characteristics indicating other influences besides Peter.
    3) The disciples—especially Peter—are portrayed extremely poorly
    *************************************************************************************
    The expedient conclusion is that this is written AGAINST Peter—not in support of Peter. Therefore having someone other than the disciples discover the empty tomb supports the theme of writing against the disciples. It fails the first requirement in that Mark is not supporting the Disciples’ self-interest.
    **************************************************************************************

    end quote

    so why did matthew add praises to peter ?

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    • Well, not exactly. I am saying we need multiple attestation of any single one historical event. As this is not found, we can open the door to possibilities of wholesale forgery.

      By looking at the historical context, we see that such a notion is supported. In this light, licona’s argument is not as sound as it first seems.

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      • What one historical event do you want multiple attestation for? The historical event under discussion is Jesus’ prophetic office, specifically his prediction of his death. In this historical event we do have multiple attestation. I don’t see the problem?

        Unless you reject the multiple witnesses because each is not identical. Is that you point?

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      • bro you said ,

        “If you look at the table above carefully though, you will note that not a single one of these predictions by itself is multiply attested. For us to concede that a historical event happened, that single historical event needs to be multiply attested. ”

        but even if they ARE multiply attested, according to P Fredriksen it only proves earliest BELIEF of the
        community.

        Paula Fredriksen
        “Multiple attestation of itself demonstrates not authenticity, but antiquity: a given tradition predates its various manifestations in different witnesses, if those witnesses are independent. What is attested still needs to be critically assessed. Most scholars see traditions about Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception, for example, attested independently in both M and L, as evidence for the ways in which early Christians had begun reading the LXX, not evidence for knowing anything about the actual sexual status of Jesus’ mother. Jesus raises the dead both in the Synoptics and in John. Scholars usually do not infer, on the strength of this independent attestation, that such traditions preserve historically true reminiscences of what Jesus of Nazareth actually did, but of what he was thought to have done — a big difference.”

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      • Hi Paulus,

        Not sure why I can’t reply to your comment directly.

        Think of it like this.

        Christian: Jesus predicted his own death.
        Skeptic: When and where?
        Christian: Several times. (gives list of historical events)
        Skeptic: But none of these are concrete evidences…

        The death prediction is not an event in itself, since it doesn’t have a time and place, rather it is a category of events which include things like the sign of jonah, etc.

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      • But that is not how historical research works. You are asking for multiple attestation ad infinitum which is an absurd requirement. You are rejecting the multiple attestation of Jesus’ prophecies unless each prophetic occurence has multiple witness. Any skeptic could regress that argument indefinately.

        And if you approached the Islamic tradition with the same criteria, you would effectively dismantle the whole religion. I don’t think you are making any reasonable rebuttal to Licona, but merely relying upon an irrational presupposition that historians and historiography reject

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      • Paulus, as I have said before, each of these reports refer to a DIFFERENT historical event, and not a single one is multiply attested. As we have reason to believe that there is wholesale forgery, we can dismiss them.

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      • I was hoping you blog and reasoning would be a welcome change from other Islamic sites. Not only are you requesting multiple attestation ad infinitum as a refutation to Licona, a fallacious demand, but you don’t see the irony in that your argument is self refuting. For example, you hypothesise that the prophetic passages are forgeries based on this evidence,

        “So how could early Christians vindicate his messiahship after his death? The answer is easy: “Well, yes, he died… but don’t you see? He knew it all along! He’s a Prophet and the proof is this Prophecy!”

        But where is this evidence found? Where is any multiple witness for this position? By your reasoning, I should reject your hypothesis since it is not based on multiple attestation. And even if it were, I could demand multiple witness of each individual attestation. But on the contrary, it is not based on any sort of evidence. Not an iota. It is mere speculation.

        So the way I see it, you are demanding multiple attestation of the multiple attestation from Licona, despite the fallaciousness and sheer lunacy of that type of requirement, and instead proffer an alternative based on not a single witness or testimony. Can you not see the irrationality of this post?

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      • Sure, but you need to be able to defend your position. On a related but different note, can you please provide your source from antiquity that demonstrates there was clear motive for Christians to fabricate the prophetic traditions about Jesus’ crucifixion?

        “We see that there was a clear motive for early Christians to put these spurious traditions into circulation or write them down into gospels.”

        That would help concrete your argument. At this stage, you haven’t provided any citation for your hypothesis.

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  5. “So how could early Christians vindicate his messiahship after his death? The answer is easy: “Well, yes, he died… but don’t you see? He knew it all along! He’s a Prophet and the proof is this Prophecy!”

    i was wondering how much this “proof” would have worked with the jews who were familiar with

    Deuteronomy 21:23

    (“For anyone hung (Heb, ‘talah ‘) is accursed of Elohim: “)

    explaining “talah”

    quote:

    The clause states that to be ‘hung’ is to be under the curse of Elohim.

    The clause of the curse does not specify where, how, or upon what the victim must be ‘hung’ in order to be subject to the curse.

    To be ‘hung’ is in Torah usage the equivalent of ‘stauroō’ (‘impaled’) of the Greek, and ‘crucifigatur’ of the Latin. (but forget the Latin’s falsely implied required ‘cross’ form, as such a Tform is not ay all implied by, nor required by the Hebrew and Greek that the Latin incorrectly “translates”.)

    ‘hanging’ or being ‘hung’ – upon anything at all- is the Scriptural equivalent of ‘crucifixion’ (which did not and does not in Hebrew or Greek require that a ‘cross’ form need be employed for it to be a ‘crucifixion’).
    A meat hook would serve.

    end quote

    so this acCURSED “messiah” did not come back to the pharisees after three days in the grave and show himself to them. in the jewish mind he would be ACCURSED.
    to the jews jesus knew it all along that he was accursed

    and to confirm he was ACCURSED they heard him say ” my god, my god, why have you FORSAKEN me ?”

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