A Review of the Shamoun/Zaatari Debate


Some weeks ago, Sami Zaatari of answering-christianity.com debated our own Sam Shamoun on the divinity (or lack thereof) of Jesus Christ. I listened to the debate in whole (it was roughly about 2.5 hours in length) two times - the first within a day or two after it occurred, after I saw it posted on Osama Abdallah's site, and the second just recently in order to refresh my memory for the purposes of writing this review. First off, let me say that I'm not crazy about live, oral debates because I think it is much too easy to get away with unsubstantiated soundbites and wow the audience with fallacies like appeals to emotion, red herrings, and so on. Additionally, arguments made by one side often go unaddressed due to time constraints (and this debate was no exception), which can be frustrating to the attentive listener. Also, in contrast to written debates, the debaters have no time to do any research in order to rebut an argument that his or her opponent utilizes that he or she may not be familiar with. These are some of the reasons why I think that written debates are far superior to live, oral ones. Nevertheless, the latter sort can still provide the audience with at least some proverbial "food for thought" or some ideas that can serve as templates for further study. Then, of course, there is always the entertainment-value, which is the main reason I still like to listen to or watch them, as the case may be.

The format of this debate was established so that each participant had two minutes to give an opening statement on what essentially he would be arguing. Afterwards, each opponent took turns speaking in four minute intervals. There were a total of 17 rounds before the debate was finally concluded. I took notes on what was said by both debaters as I listened to the debate, listing the arguments that each side used and on the flipside marking down whether or not the other side tried to refute given arguments, and, if he tried, whether or not he did so adequately, in my opinion. I scored the debate by first listing the arguments that each participant made that I thought were not adequately refuted by his opponent. I then assigned a numerical value (on a scale of 1 to 5) for each argument where I thought one side or the other was victorious, and tallied up the numbers at the end. If I felt that neither side won on a given point of argument, then I didn't assign any points for that particular argument one way or the next. The same is the case for arguments made that I thought were not significant, even if they were not adequately refuted. The obvious limitation to such a system is, of course, that it is subjective. Different point-values and winners of a given argument will be assigned differently depending on who is doing the actual scoring. It is for this reason that I highly encourage everybody to listen to the debate for themselves, and not to automatically take any reviewer's take on it as Gospel (pun intended), including my own. Below I give my brief summary of what I thought were significant points of dispute and what, in my opinion, were the best defenses given on the relevant topics by each debater. I don't necessarily list every argument made by each debater on each point of dispute that I discuss mainly for purposes of brevity. However, I tried to include all of the best arguments the debaters made in response to each other.

Before getting to the actual summary, however, I wish to comment on the insults that the debaters threw at each other throughout the debate. Unfortunately, each debater's respect for the other one was essentially nil throughout the debate. It began in the first round when Shamoun charged Zaatari with inconsistency and using deceptive methodology. Shamoun made this charge in regards to Zaatari’s comments in the opening statement that he would be proving from the Gospels that Jesus did not exhibit beliefs in his own divinity, but later also said that this applied to the "New Testament". Shamoun pointed out to the listening audience that Zaatari made the jump from the Gospels to the New Testament as a whole, but afterwards in the first round of the actual debate Zaatari said that he meant only the Gospels by this comment. This is what prompted Shamoun’s initial charges. Zaatari responded by accusing Shamoun of evasion tactics and later of playing "childish games". And so on such comments by both Shamoun and Zaatari continued fairly consistently throughout the course of the debate. Shamoun made several references to Zaatari's "need" for Osama to help him out, and Zaatari responded by saying that Shamoun should call the Holy Spirit for help, as each participant regularly expressed his confidence that he was soundly winning the debate. It should also be added that in the 14th round, Shamoun called Allah "brainless". But, the worst was yet to come. Almost at the very end of the debate (in the16th round), Zaatari made a comment in reference to the Holy Spirit being drunk, and in the 17th and final round, even said that the Holy Spirit (according to the Christian understanding) is Satan. Shamoun responded with a series of insults to Muhammad (i.e. "demon-possessed prophet"), Muhammad's parents (i.e. "Mo's father is Satan" and his "mother is a child of Satan"), Zaatari (i.e. filthy demon), and even Osama Abdallah (i.e. snake, liar, and coward). Some of these comments were in between the insults Zaatari made regarding the Holy Spirit, and some afterwards. Obviously, Shamoun was far from innocent, but it is important to point out that Zaatari was far from being completely magnanimous himself. With that in mind, let's consider the actual substance of the debate.

Arguments on which Zaatari Scored

Overall, I thought that Zaatari won on 4 main arguments in the debate. First, he issued a challenge to Shamoun to bring a verse from the Bible where Jesus stated that he was God. I thought this was unnecessary for Shamoun's case, as in fact he demonstrated within the debate why it is unreasonable to expect Jesus to have done so. Shamoun alluded to the fact that Jesus couldn't simply say "I am God" or else it would cause confusion in that his audience may take his claims to mean that he is the Father. Also, Shamoun pointed out that Jesus had to first prove that he was divine by his actions in order for anyone to take seriously such claims to divinity. In response to Zaatari's arguments that Jesus could have said he was God on the cross while dying, Shamoun pointed out the obvious fact that such a claim while on the cross definitely wouldn't have been taken seriously. Also, that Jesus is never reported to have made claims to his disciples in secret is an argument from silence, since the Bible only records comparatively very few of the sayings that Jesus would have made during the course of a three year ministry. Nevertheless, Shamoun did say that he would answer Zaatari's challenge to bring forth an explicit reference of Jesus, but never got around to it. Thus I gave Zaatari a pearl for that. Second, Zaatari argued from e.g. Mark 8:27-28 that none of the speculations of the masses as to who Jesus was (e.g. Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets) included an implication of his divinity. Shamoun responded that this cannot help Zaatari's case as a Muslim since accepting their testimony on it (i.e. that Jesus was one of the OT prophets or John the Baptist) means to also accept testimony that is contradictory to the Islamic understanding of Jesus. Zaatari responded back by noting that this was beside the point, and that the key point to be taken here is that they did not view Jesus as divine, not that they had to be correct about who he truly was. This counts as testimony by some that Jesus was not divine, according to Zaatari. Zaatari also claims that since they did not accuse Jesus of being a false prophet or a blasphemer, they were followers of Jesus, which would serve to add weight to their testimony. So, while the testimony of the masses (if correct) would be deleterious to Islamic theology regarding the identity of Jesus, it must be remembered that Zaatari is utilizing this argument merely to demonstrate that many were speculating about who Jesus was, and none of the speculations appeared to carry with it a belief in his divinity. This, along with the fact that Shamoun did not try to cast doubt upon the validity of the masses’ testimony (other than to point out that it does not comport with Islamic theology), is why I found it only fair to extend Zaatari some points within a debate that is about the divinity of Jesus, even if it is not consistent with Zaatari’s own worldview. Third, Zaatari pointed out that in Matthew 24:36 Jesus did not know the time of the parousia, which brings Jesus' omniscience into question. Since Shamoun didn't get to answer that point, it must be chalked up as a victorious argument for Zaatari within the context of the debate. Finally, Zaatari pointed out that people bowed down to Daniel in Daniel 2:46-49 without rebuke, which compromises the quality of arguments for Christ's divinity on that basis.

Arguments on which Shamoun Scored

I thought Sam Shamoun won on a total of 14 arguments. Two of these regarded Shamoun's premise that Jesus was claiming divinity based on his claim to be "Lord of the Sabbath" and "greater than the Temple." On the latter, Shamoun argued that because the Temple housed God's glory, for Jesus to claim to be greater than the Temple implies a very high Christology. On the former, Zaatari stated that Jesus did not have to be God for God to make Jesus Lord over the Sabbath. However, Shamoun pointed out that the Sabbath belongs only to God according to Leviticus 23:3. This clearly implies that Jesus did in fact have to be divine in some sense for the title to be bestowed upon him. Zaatari pointed out that this was merely an honorary title for Jesus, just as "Gabriel" means "strong God". However, Shamoun successfully refuted that by showing that people were often given names which described characteristics of the God that they were serving. The interpretation of a name is clearly different from a title given which itself implied divinity, as per Lev. 23:3.

Shamoun also won, in my opinion, on the argument over Thomas' confession, "My Lord and my God", uttered after he saw the resurrected Jesus. Zaatari stated that Thomas' opinion isn't what mattered, but rather what Jesus himself says. Shamoun countered by pointing out that Jesus did bless Thomas' confession, which means that he approved of what Thomas said. Zaatari suggested, however, that only the reference to "my Lord" was referring to Jesus (and not "my God"), but Shamoun showed via a similar reference of "my Lord and my God" in Psalm 35:23 (both titles which were addressed to God Himself) that this was likely not the case, and that moreover, the New Testament Greek indicates that Thomas was addressing only Jesus. Similarly, Shamoun demonstrated that John (in 1:1-4, 16) and the author of Hebrews (in Hebrews 1:1-3) state that everything was created through Jesus. Since Jesus was present at creation, according to the testimony of John and Hebrews, this represents important testimony to his divinity by his early followers. Zaatari argues, similar to other Muslim polemicists, that he's only interested in what Jesus says himself, not what the NT authors say. Again, Shamoun also points out that Peter's claim that Jesus is the "Author of life" in Acts 3:15 is significant, since it implies divinity, and Zaatari counters by pointing out that it wasn't Jesus speaking and is therefore not significant. But, the testimony of these authors, particularly that of John, Thomas, and Peter, must be deemed significant. If there were ever anybody outside of Jesus himself that can be deemed as reliable interpreters of Christology, it would surely be the disciples themselves. Given that those three listed were apostles of Jesus for more than three years, and as a result would have known Jesus much better than we can today, and would have heard more (probably far more) teachings and sayings of Jesus than what we find preserved in the NT, and who were furthermore entrenched within the milieu of 1st-century Judaism (which means that they were believers in only the true God of Israel, and thus highly unlikely candidates to attribute divinity to somebody that didn't even claim it), it would be hazardous simply to brush aside their testimony. To put this in its proper perspective, we who debate these issues today are viewing the Gospels through the lens of a completely different culture, nearly 2,000 years removed from the events, and are dealing with comparatively very limited sources to what the earliest Christian believers had. It is, therefore, imperative to render substantial weight to the earliest followers' testimony about Jesus (and, as Larry Hurtado shows in his magisterial work on the Christology of the earliest Christians, the belief in Christ's divinity was a constant; see also here). Thus I think Shamoun scored some points in establishing that several of the earliest followers (including two or three disciples) apparently believed in Jesus' divinity.

Going from Jesus' friends to his enemies, Shamoun points out that in John 5:16-18 the Jews thought that Jesus was claiming divinity since he called God his Father and claimed that it was okay for him to work on the Sabbath since God also works then. This is once again significant for some of the same reasons we pointed out above regarding Jesus' followers' beliefs in his divinity. The Jews were in an excellent position (living when and where they did) to know what Jesus was claiming. Zaatari did make a valid point in response that in at least one case the Jews did misunderstand Jesus (i.e. in John 2:18-22 where Jesus said to "Destroy this Temple and in 3 days I will raise it up"). But, I don't think the significance of the Jews' understanding in John 5:18 is diminished too much by this since the saying in John 2 is cryptic. John admits that even the disciples didn't understand this saying until after the resurrection, and it makes sense for there to have been such a misunderstanding since Jesus had just expressed his disdain for the current Temple establishment by performing the Temple-cleansing. While on the episode of John 5:16-18, there is also the matter that Jesus referred to God as his "Father". Zaatari argued against the significance of this since Jesus also taught the disciples to call God "Father" when he taught them the Lord’s prayer. However, Shamoun responded that it was not Jesus’ use of "Father" (or the related use of "Son of God" elsewhere) that was as significant as the context in which he used it. In this episode, Jesus used it as an indication that he could work on the Sabbath since God also was at work on the Sabbath. Jesus was thus clearly implying that he, unlike other humans, was on a level equal to that of God in regards to his sovereignty over the Sabbath (and this episode in fact corroborates Jesus’ usage of the title "Lord of the Sabbath" elsewhere).

Moving on to other points, from John 14:13-14, Shamoun demonstrated that Jesus claimed that he can answer prayers, something that only God can do. Zaatari's counter that this means that Jesus would ask the Father on our behalf is simply not what the text says. Zaatari uses John 11 to show that Jesus must pray to the Father, proving that he must rely on the Father for all of his miracles. Shamoun points out correctly that Jesus prayed in this case for the benefit of those watching (so they'd realize Jesus' unity with the Father; 11:42), and in other points of the debate that Jesus' praying and being given all things by the Father isn't troubling to Christian theology. There was much debate about whether or not Jesus' complete reliance on the Father for doctrine, miracles, etc. implied an inferiority in essence or one of position. Shamoun made an analogy that if Shamoun's father gives him something, this doesn't prove his father is greater in essence, but obviously since he is Shamoun's father he is superior in position. Even if Jesus was given "everything" by God, this does not refute Shamoun's argument of "positional superiority" over and against that of essence. In fact, it is perfectly consistent with what Shamoun pointed out elsewhere about Jesus' saying in Mark 12:6-7 about being the "heir" as well as with the author of Hebrews' similar comment about Jesus being the "heir of all things" (Heb. 1:1-3). Zaatari referred to John 14:28 to show that Jesus said that the Father was greater than him. Shamoun responded once again by saying that this was referring to position, and not essence, and furthermore pointed out that in John 17:5 Jesus longed to once again have the glory that he once had with the Father in heaven before he came to earth (implying that he did not have this glory at this point). Zaatari then went to Revelation 3:12 to show that even after Jesus' exaltation he didn't share in the Father's essence since he referred to God as "my God". But, Shamoun pointed out that this did not prove that Jesus had not returned to the same glory as God has, but merely that the positional difference remained, again not in conflict with Christian theology. Shamoun even went one step further in showing the high Christology of Rev. 5:9-14 and 22:6-17. The former passage shows where Jesus was being worshipped by all creation(!), and that furthermore Jesus must be divine, according to the author of Revelations, since he himself was not worshipping God like all the other creatures. The latter demonstrates that both God and Jesus had the similar power of being able to send angels. This again represents the testimony of an early follower of Jesus that was received within a vision he had of Jesus and the impending apocalypse.

Shamoun argued that Jesus' statement that he is "the resurrection and the life" in John 11 implies a high Christology. Zaatari countered by saying that this just means that resurrection comes in believing in God's prophets, just like it comes through belief in e.g. Moses. But, Shamoun made an unanswered challenge for Zaatari to show in the OT where any prophet displayed such a self-understanding. Furthermore, Jesus' claim within the context of John's whole Gospel is significant. Given John 1:1-4,14 where it is stated that Jesus is the source of life, the statement in John 11 must mean that Jesus is also the source of "renewed life", in that he will resurrect all of his saints. Shamoun points out that Jesus came from heaven (as per John 6:38), but Zaatari states in response that this was merely metaphorical in nature (as per e.g. the Father in heaven and his sending the angel to Mary to announce Jesus' birth). Shamoun points out Jesus' claim to omnipresence, since in John 14:23 the reference is made to Jesus and the Father coming to make their abode with those that keep Jesus' words. Zaatari states that this logic would entail the absurdity of the angels being divine since Matthew 16:27 makes it clear that they would be accompanying Jesus in the 2nd coming. But, Shamoun correctly points out in response that the two references are pointing to different events, as the former is referring to Jesus' and the Father's dwelling within the Christian community, and the latter to the visible second coming of Jesus to bring judgment to the world. Zaatari again counters by saying that this is referring to the saints dwelling with God and his prophets in heaven after death. However, again, Shamoun points out that this can't be the proper interpretation since the text in John refers to Jesus and the Father coming to believers, not vice versa.

And so these are my comments on the debate. Below is how I scored the various points of argument on which I thought the two debaters were victorious. The reader is encouraged to read Zaatari's comments on the debate and Shamoun's brief paragraph on it as well (1, 2), the latter of which is reproduced in the second link. Once again, however, I highly encourage all that are interested in this debate to listen to it for themselves objectively and make their own decisions on who made the best overall case.

Shamoun    Zaatari
Topic Points    Topic Points
  1. Lord of Sabbath   3        1. Unanswered challenge   3
  2. Greater than Temple   3 2. Crowds' opinion   3
  3. Thomas' confession   5 3. Mt. 24:36   5
  4. Jews' charge of blasphemy   3 4. People bowed to Daniel      3
  5. Jesus’ use of "Father" in John 5:16-18   3
  6. John's Christology   4
  7. Author of Hebrews' Christology   2
  8. Jesus came from heaven   5
  9. Jesus answers prayer   5
10. Jesus resurrects   5
11. Peter and "Author of Life" comment   4
12. Jesus Omnipresence in John 17   5
13. Jesus' belief in return to divine glory (17:5)      5
14. Christology of Rev. 5 and 22   4
TOTAL:    56 TOTAL:    14


Some of the points which Sam Shamoun didn't address due to time constraints are carefully discussed elsewhere. Is the Prophet Daniel Worshiped as God? deals with the issue of King Nebuchadnezzar bowing to Daniel, and the so-called "unanswered challenge" is answered in an endnote of the article Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.

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