Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Addressing Paul Williams’ False Accusations Pt. 5

Sam Shamoun

We continue our discussion.

What Williams does next is absolutely astounding. He tries to call into question the Eucharistic passages found in the Gospels by claiming that Paul may have influenced them!

He writes:

1) Let us look at the earliest account we have in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11)

‘For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

A close examination of Paul’s phrase ‘For I received from the Lord...’ suggests to me that he meant to say something original and not just to reproduce an often repeated story. When handing down church tradition transmitted to him by unknown people, such as Jesus’ alleged death, burial and later apparitions (1Cor 15:3-5), he prefaces his statement with ‘I deliver to you…. what I also received’. In the case of the eucharist, however, his source is said to be Jesus, which suggests that it was directly revealed to him. ‘I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you’. If I am correct in interpreting this passage, an account that is many years prior to the synoptic gospels, it may be the case that Paul’s wording may be the primary source for the NT formulation of the establishment of the Eucharist.

Put another way, there is a good chance that the eucharistic interpretation of the communal meal of the church was due to Paul, and that the authors of Mark, Matthew and especially Luke (who follows Paul most closely), introduced it into their respective accounts in the synoptic gospels.

There are several problems with these claims.

First, if Williams is correct that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels introduced Paul’s instruction of the Eucharist into their accounts then this means that they were obviously influenced by the teachings of this blessed Apostle. Yet earlier he tried to argue that the message of Jesus that is found in these Gospels conflicts with Paul’s teachings on Christ.

If this is really the case then why would these Gospels preserve and pass on the instructions of a man who contradicted the teachings of Jesus? Doesn’t their use of Pauline traditions actually indicate that these writers felt that Paul’s teachings were perfectly compatible with the message of Christ?

Moreover, if Williams can appeal to Paul to explain away statements that are found in the Gospels then he has no basis to object to our use of this blessed Apostle’s writings to better understand what we find in these same writings. After all, what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

Second, just because Paul may have received this information concerning the Eucharist directly from the risen Lord Jesus, this still wouldn't make the information any less reliable. Paul had access to the very eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus, such as the Apostles, who would have been more than happy to correct anything which did not line up with the teachings of Christ.

In fact, Paul himself mentions that he personally met with these eyewitnesses to make sure that the revelations he received were truly from the risen Lord and in perfect agreement with what the Apostles themselves received and passed on:

“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with (historesai) Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; but only, they kept hearing, ‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.’ And they were glorifying God because of me.” Galatians 1:11-24

Here we find Paul stating that although he received the Gospel which he preached by way of revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ, he still went ahead to verify it with the Apostles and the Lord’s brother. Paul again made sure to confirm his Gospel with the eyewitnesses some years later:

“Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me. But on the contrary, seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised (for He who effectually worked for Peter in his apostleship to the circumcised effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles), and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, JAMES AND CEPHAS AND JOHN, who were reputed to be pillars, GAVE TO ME AND BARNABAS THE RIGHT HAND OF FELLOWSHIP, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.” Galatians 2:1-10

Thus, Paul could have easily verified the revelation which Jesus gave him concerning the Eucharist with the eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus who were still alive at that time.

However, it gets a lot worse for Williams. Paul also passed on a tradition which he received from the disciples of Christ that ends up further proving that Islam is false and that Muhammad was a false prophet:

“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to MORE THAN FIVE HUNDRED BRETHREN AT ONE TIME, MOST OF WHOM REMAIN UNTIL NOW, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

Paul is passing on a tradition which the majority of scholars believe was formulated within the first 2-3 years after Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection.

Although somewhat lengthy, the comments of Evangelical NT scholar Gary R. Habermas on this issue are worth repeating:

2. Beyond Paul's own experience, this apostle presents plenty of additional evidence for the claim that Jesus had appeared to his early followers. Essentially all critical scholars today agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records an ancient oral tradition(s) that summarizes the content of the Christian gospel. Jesus the Christ died for human sin, was buried and raised from the dead, afterwards appearing to both individuals as well as groups of witnesses. While Paul penned the words, he is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to his listeners years before (1 Cor 15:1-2) what he had received from other, as the very heart of his message (1 Cor 15:3). If he were writing today, he might have footnoted his source! Thus this testimony is actually years earlier than the book of 1 Corinthians. Reginald Fuller indicates the scholarly agreement here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.”

So Paul provides a straight forward explanation that he delivered to his audience what he had first received from others (1 Cor 15:3), which are the equivalent terms for passing rabbinic tradition to others (cf. 1 Cor 11:23). Besides this clear declaration of his actions, there are many other indications that this is exactly what happened. The sentence structure, diction, verbal parallelism, the threefold sequence of “and that,” as well as the presence of several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk 24:34) and James, and indications that there may have been an Aramaic original all point clearly to this tradition being pre-Pauline. Critical scholars agree that Paul received it from others.

The most popular view among scholars is that Paul first received this very early material when he visited Jerusalem just three years after his conversion. He visited Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:18-19), both of whom are listed as having seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:5, 7).

Stronger evidence to support this conclusion comes from Paul’s use of the verb historesai in Galatians 1:18, which is usually not very helpfully translated into English. The Greek term indicates that Paul visited Peter for the purpose of investigating a particular subject. The immediate context reveals the subject: Paul's topic for discussion was ascertaining the nature of the gospel message (Gal 1:11-2:10). And Jesus' resurrection was the focus of the gospel message (1 Cor 15:3-4; Gal 1:11, 16). Without it, faith is vain (1 Cor 15:14, 17).

Critical scholars usually concede that this pre-Pauline tradition(s) originated at an exceptionally early date. For Ulrich Wilckens, this content “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” Walter Kasper even thinks that this ‘ancient text’ was possibly “in use by the end of 30 A.D.”

Perhaps surprisingly, skeptics frequently even agree. Skeptic Gerd Ludemann asserts that “the elements in the traditions are to be dated to THE FIRST TWO YEARS after the crucifixion of Jesus… NOT LATER THAN THREE YEARSThe formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor. 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” Philosopher Thomas Sheehan thinks that this pre-Pauline formula ‘probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to WITHIN TWO TO FOUR YEARS of the crucifixion. Michael Goulder holds that this resurrection report “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”

Other skeptics are often not shy about expressing their agreement. In fact, most of the critical scholars who date these events conclude that Paul received this material within just a few years after Jesus’ death, in the early or mid 30s. We will see how the existence and circumstances at such an early date translate to additional eyewitness testimony besides Paul’s.

3. Paul was exceptionally careful to ascertain the content of the gospel message, which centered on the resurrection. To do so, he made a second trip to Jerusalem specifically for the purpose of checking out his gospel preaching (Gal 2:1-10). Amazingly, he states his fear that perhaps he had been teaching the wrong message (Gal 2:2). Some think that Acts 15:1-35 describes an amazing third trip to Jerusalem to do the same. Paul obviously desired to be absolutely positive of the gospel truth! Further, Paul was careful to ask his questions of the proper authorities– the chief apostles. In his initial trip, he met with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:18-20). On the second occasion, he met with these same two men, plus the apostle John (Gal 2:9). Martin Hengel points out that “evidently the tradition of I Cor 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.

It is easy to overlook the significance of these meetings. The four men who met together on the latter occasion were certainly the chief apostles in the early church, and each one had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:5-7). Therefore, when Paul received their confirmation that his gospel was correct (Gal 2:9; cf. Acts 15:23-35), we have their assurance that Paul's message of Jesus' resurrection appearances agreed with their own experiences. Certainly, if they thought that Paul erred on the central fact of the gospel, this would have created grave problems, especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church.

So Paul provides more than his own eyewitness testimony, as in (1) above. During his trips to inquire of the three senior apostles in Jerusalem, Paul passed their examination regarding his gospel proclamation. Their blessings assume their own eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus' resurrection appearances, since they had also experienced the risen Jesus. Here we are but one step removed from additional eyewitness testimony.

4. Not only did the other apostles confirm Paul's gospel message, but we also have the reverse testimony. After reporting a list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul explains that he knew what the other apostles were preaching on this subject and that it was the same as his teaching about Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor 15:11). Together, they proclaimed the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:12, 15). So we have both the previous, more indirect apostolic confirmation of Paul's gospel message provided by the apostolic leadership, as well as Paul's firsthand, more direct approval of their resurrection message. (Habermas, To Everyone An Answer, eds. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland [InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2004], Part 3: Christ And Miracles, Chapter 11: The Case For Christ’s Resurrection, pp. 183-186; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Since Habermas may be too conservative for Williams, here is what one of his favorite NT scholars says concerning the tradition found in 1 Corinthians 15:

“Whatever we can or should say about Jesus and his mission there can be little or no question that what the FIRST CHRISTIANS believed had happened to Jesus after his death transformed their appreciation of him completely. FOR THEY WERE CONVINCED THAT GOD HAD RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD. This is the core affirmation of Christian faith, and it can be traced back FIRMLY TO THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE MOVEMENT THAT STEMMED FROM JESUS, and in particular to the visionary experiences that the FIRST CHRISTIANS had of Jesus as risen from the dead and exalted to heaven. Such belief was already a confession by the time Paul was himself converted, WHICH WAS PROBABLY LESS THAN TWO YEARS AFTER JESUS’ CRUCIFIXION (1 Cor. 15.3-7). And Paul was probably converted to beliefs that he had persecuted, BELIEFS ALREADY WELL ESTABLISHED AMONG THE FIRST MEMBERS OF THE SECT OF THE NAZARENES. THEIRS WAS AN ASTONISHING BELIEF IN ITSELF. Many Jews believed that there would be a resurrection at the end of time and before the day of last judgment; that is, a general resurrection of the dead. But the thought of one person being resurrected (not simply revived to his previous life) WAS UNHEARD OF. SOMETHING OF MIND-BLOWING SIGNIFICANCE HAD HAPPENED, AND JESUS WAS AT THE CENTRE.” (James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? [Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2010], 4. The Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 101-102; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Also notice that Paul says here that the majority of the 500 witnesses who personally saw Christ after his resurrection were still alive at the time of his writing (i.e. approximately 55 AD.). This means that Paul wasn't appealing to information that could not be verified, but was actually appealing to living eyewitnesses who had seen and heard the risen Lord firsthand. This allowed Paul’s readers to go and personally interrogate the eyewitnesses, which in turn allowed them to either personally verify Paul's claims or to expose him as a liar. Therefore, in light of Paul’s appeal to nearly 500 living eyewitnesses, Paul's information couldn't have been any more certain!

Finally, as we noted in the previous rebuttal, Williams inconsistently accepts the testimony of the Quran regarding Christ, even though it was composed nearly 600 years after the life of the historical Jesus by a man who never met the eyewitnesses!

Therefore, if Paul quoting a tradition which comes within a few years after Jesus’ resurrection or appealing to approximately 500 living eyewitnesses in 55 AD is not good enough to convince Williams, then how much more unreliable is the Quran’s assertions concerning Jesus seeing that it was composed nearly 600 hundred years after these events took place?

Williams may argue that the Quran is a revelation from God and therefore the time factor is irrelevant. We too would respond that Paul was an Apostle commissioned by God personally, who received instructions from the risen Lord and from those who were eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. Therefore, the traditions that Paul passed on can be completely trusted beyond any reasonable doubt. This is quite unlike the Quran which is based on the testimony of a man who didn't even live at the time these events took place.

In fact, as we also mentioned in the previous rebuttal, even Williams’ earliest Islamic sources confirm that Paul was a true follower whom God used to spread Jesus’ message! Notice, for instance, what the renowned Muslim historian and Quranic commentator al-Tabari wrote concerning Paul:

“Among the apostles, and the followers who came after them were the Apostle Peter and Paul who was a follower and not an apostle; they went to Rome. Andrew and Matthew were sent to the country whose people are man-eaters, a land of blacks, we think; Thomas was sent to Babylonia in the east, Philip to Qayrawan (and) Carthage, that is, North Africa. John went to Ephesus, the city of the youths of the cave, and James to Jerusalem, that is, Aelia. Bartholomew was sent to Arabia, namely, the Hijaz; Simeon to the land of the Berbers in Africa. Judas was not then an apostle, so his place was taken by Ariobus. He filled in for Judas Iscariot after the latter had perpetrated his deed.” (The History of Al-Tabari: The Ancient Kingdoms, translated by Moshe Perlmann [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1987], Volume IV, p. 123; bold emphasis ours)

The translator explains al-Tabari’s statement that Paul was not an apostle:

317. In Islamic terms the messengers or apostles pave the new path. Their work is continued by the tabi'un, the followers, members of the next generations, who lead the Faithful. (Ibid.)

Hence, according to al-Tabari Paul was a faithful follower of the Apostles, especially the Apostle Peter. In fact, al-Tabari lists Paul as one of those martyred for the faith:

“Abu Ja'far says: They assert that after Tiberius, Palestine and other parts of Syria were ruled by Gaius, son of Tiberius, for four years. He was succeeded by another son, Claudius, for fourteen years, following which Nero ruled for fourteen years. He slew Peter and crucified Paul head down. For four months Botlaius [Vittelius] ruled thereafter. Then Vespasian, father of Titus whom he sent to Jerusalem, ruled for ten years. Three years after his rise to power, forty years after the ascension of Jesus, Vespasian sent Titus to Jerusalem. Titus destroyed it and slew numerous Israelites in his wrath over the fate of Christ…” (Ibid., p. 126; bold emphasis ours)

Thus, whereas there is plenty of evidence supporting Paul, there is no comparably good evidence confirming that Muhammad was a prophet. All the data that we do have actually prove that Muhammad, unlike Paul, was a false apostle and an antichrist that perverted the true message of the historical Jesus.

It is now time to move on to the final part of our discussion.