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

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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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