"Jesus: Resurrected or Rescued?"
A Review of the Debate Between Mike Licona and Ali Ataie

By Amy Sayers

On November 30, 2006, Mike Licona debated Ali Ataie on the question, "Jesus: Resurrected or Rescued?" at the University of California, Davis. A recording of good audio quality and ample visual quality can be found here. Before the debate, Mike Licona prepared a document for the taking. The document was meant to answer briefly some of the off-topic points he anticipated Ali Ataie would make during the debate. Ataie responded to this document here.

I have a few comments to offer regarding the debate and Ataie’s rebuttal document. My intention is not to respond to every point Mr. Ataie makes in this rebuttal, but only to comment on the portions of that document that bear relevance to the debate. In so doing, I hope to offer a critique that demonstrates the extreme weakness of Ali Ataie’s case regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1. And the topic was?

Ataie writes, "Based upon my experience debating Christians, I somewhat assumed that Mr. Licona would prepare some sort of written rebuttal before-hand or even speak at another event after the debate. This is why I dabbled into areas that seemed to be off-topic" (emphasis mine).

"Dabbled"? Nearly his entire opening statement was a (poorly informed) exposition of the Gnostic gospels and the faults he alleged at the New Testament. This was not "dabbling." This was dodging Licona’s evidence—indeed his entire case—as Ataie continued to do throughout the debate.

The debate’s question was, "Was Jesus Resurrected or Rescued?" Ataie’s responsibility was to present the negative case and rebut the affirmative case that Licona presented. He did neither.

2. Minimal facts exploded?

Ataie writes, "Mr. Licona simply borrowed his ‘4 historical facts’ from Dr. William Craig Lane (sic) when the latter debated and lost to Dr. Ehrman at Holy Cross College. Ehrman exploded these 4 ‘facts’ by simply concluding very much like I did that the Resurrection is the LEAST plausible explanation for the empty tomb. Historians do not presuppose the existence of divine miracles. They look for facts."

A. William Lane Craig argued from a different set of facts. The only one the two scholars used in common was that of the Empty Tomb. (The transcript of the Craig-Ehrman debate is available here.) But it is true that the two scholars take a similar approach. That is, they argue that we must decide which explanation most plausibly explains the facts they present.

B. Ali Ataie did not mention this "explosion" in his debate with Mike Licona. If it was such an effective argument, why not use it to rebut the case that he otherwise did not even attempt to answer?

C. One possible reason is that this answer would fail for Ataie specifically, and in a debate generally (as it did for Ehrman). It doesn’t work for Ataie to argue it because Ataie himself posits that the fate of Jesus that day of crucifixion was miraculous. What can he say? "As an historian, I can not presuppose the existence of divine miracles. By the way, the four facts Mike Licona lays out are easily explained by the belief that Allah performed a miracle on the day of crucifixion by making it appear that Jesus died on the cross."

Nor does the argument work for debates in general because it uses fallacious means to calculate plausibility, as Dr. Craig demonstrates in the debate. Indeed, this was one "explosion" that failed to detonate.

D. It is also notable that Ataie did not conclude anything like this "least plausible explanation" line during the debate. He continually refused to address the question of what history has to say about the facts, and he offered no "more plausible" explanation by way of proof or comparison.

3. History vs. Theology

Ataie writes, "Mr. Licona would not submit that the Resurrection is a faith conviction because his theology would then have been called into question and he would have had a heck of a time trying to convince the audience that 1+1+1 = 1."

There seemed to be some confusion about this among audience members as one of the questions put to Licona was, "If this debate is about the resurrection of Jesus, how can one argue that we should be talking about history and not theology?"

When two parties with competing theological claims are trying to answer the question of what actually happened on a certain day in history, we have no choice but to approach the question as historians. Asking questions like, "How can 1+1+1=1?" of Christian theology is much like asking, "Why did Allah allow 6 centuries of mankind to live with the deception that Jesus died on the cross instead of giving the Qur’an and correcting the record immediately?"

The answers to both questions are found in the theology of either religion. How do we know which theology is correct? If the Qur’an were somehow demonstrated independently of faith convictions to be what it claims to be, then we would have reason to believe whatever answer Islam gives us to the above question.

Likewise, if it can be demonstrated independently of faith convictions that Jesus resurrected from the dead, then two things result: First, we know Islam is false and the Qur’an is not what it claims to be. Second, we are one huge step closer to believing that Christian theology is true (and the argument for the Trinity would follow, theologically, a few steps later).

How can either demonstration be made independently of faith convictions? Not by talking theology! What tools do people use to conclude what happened in the past? Those of history.

At best, Ataie wants to put the cart before the horse by insisting on theological discussion. At worst, Ataie wants to dodge the tough question that Islam and its apologists cannot answer: Without starting with any faith in Islam, how can a person know that the Qur’an is what it claims to be?

4. Of What Use is the New Testament, anyway?

Ataie writes, "Mr. Licona’s reasoning is circular. He says that the accuracy of the New Testament is not the standard by which we know that Christianity is true, but rather the claims of Jesus that he would rise from the dead. But where are these claims recorded? In the New Testament!"

A. Viewers can witness for themselves that Licona answers this very question in his opening statement. He makes this clear: Mike Licona does not use the New Testament as an inspired text. He believes it is, but explains that a responsible scholar in an academic debate cannot argue, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it for me!"

Instead, he draws the comparison to the hadith tradition. Muslims know that the hadith is not inerrant. It is full of legends. Yet Muslim scholars have established criteria for weeding out the legend from the facts found in the hadith. That is, a document need not be 100% historically accurate for it to contain at least some historical truth.

So. What criteria can one use to sort out fact from legend in the New Testament? (If there is indeed legend, which I do not grant.) Licona also explicated these particularly for the question, "Did Jesus claim He would die imminently and violently and then resurrect?" He used the technical terms for them, which may have been confusing for listeners, especially when delivered so quickly. I will formulate them into more popular terms for the sake of clarity. These criteria are those historians use when examining texts:

  1. Does more than one source report the claim? (Yes—it’s found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which, though collected into one book, are, as Ataie himself grants, different texts written by different authors.)
  2. Are these sources early? (Yes, they were all recorded within 35 to 65 years of being spoken. This, in terms of ancient historical documents, is very early.)
  3. Does the claim appear in more than one form? (Yes—it’s told in parables, in prophesies and in plain teaching.)
  4. Does the claim embarrass those the authors respected? (Yes—in that the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ prediction was either disbelief or non-understanding. If the authors were putting words into their Lord’s mouth, they probably wouldn’t have shamed the earliest church leaders, the disciples, in this way.)
  5. Does the context make the claim plausible? (Yes—Jesus knew His right-hand man, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. And there was a long line of Jewish prophets before Him who had met a violent end.)
  6. Is the language of this claim dissimilar from the language used by the early church? (Yes—The prophesy of violent death is often paired with "Son of Man," the title Jesus used for Himself quite often. However, this is not a title the early church used when writing about Jesus. If people later in time were putting words into Jesus’ mouth, the language would probably reflect it and not be dissimilar.)

All of this demonstrates quite simply: Licona is not claiming, "I know Jesus claimed He would die and resurrect because the New Testament tells me so!" Instead, Licona is claiming, "When historians look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as ancient texts, we find that Jesus’ claims of imminent and violent death followed by resurrection pass the tests."

B. What criteria does Ali Ataie use for determining that the verses holding Jesus’ prophesies of death and resurrection should not be accepted? He offered no system for determining what we should take and what we should leave regarding New Testament texts. I suspect that what we should take is that which agrees with the theology of the Qur’an. What we should leave is that which contradicts it. But this, again, is putting the theological cart before the horse of solid reasoning.

C. Let it be clear to readers following this exchange: The question of whether Jesus predicted His death and resurrection was not even part of Licona’s affirmative case. That is, it was not one of his minimal facts. So even if Ataie had attempted to answer this point in the debate, it still would not have constituted an answer to Licona’s case.

5. Still Caught in the Catch-22

Once he saw that Ataie hadn’t presented any evidence to rebut the affirmative case, Licona concluded out loud, basically, "All he has to go on is the Qur’an," and so he offered some food for thought regarding this text. He called it, "The Islamic Catch-22." We know that Jesus predicted His violent and imminent death. Either these things came to pass and the Qur’an is in error for claiming they did not, or they did not come to pass and the Qur’an is in error for treating Jesus as a great Prophet when, in fact, He’d be a false prophet for prophesying incorrectly.

What are Muslims supposed to do with this problem?

Ataie gave them no help in the debate. He simply didn’t answer the question. But he did come up with one for his written rebuttal:

"So what’s the answer to this riddle? Jesus was a true Prophet who taught his followers to pray in the name of GOD, did not utter many of the statements attributed to him in the Gospels, and was not hanged on a tree. Mr. Licona’s Muslim ‘Catch 22’ presupposes a Muslim admission that the Gospels of the NT faithfully and accurately record the words of Jesus. They do not."

Ataie’s job of answering the riddle would be easier if Licona’s argument made this presupposition. But, in fact, as my point #4 reiterates what Licona made clear in the debate, the conclusion that Jesus made these predictions is not a matter of faith. It’s not a conclusion reached based on belief in the Bible as inerrant. It is, in fact, a position supported by even atheist scholars, including the Jesus Seminar. Ali Ataie himself uses this Seminar as a source for his own case!

The riddle stands. Again: What is a faithful Muslim, who truly loves the Almighty and wants to seek Truth, supposed to do with this quandary?

6. All that Stuff About Paul’s Gospel Being Different from that of Jesus…

A. In his rebuttal document, Ataie mostly repeats what he’s written in his book. What is clear is that he hasn’t actually gone to the web site Licona references, a page that contains a lengthy and excellent argument answering every last one of Ataie’s accusations. Ataie makes no effort to address this detailed case. (I don’t fault him for not making a detailed response. I’m impressed, actually, that he made the effort to answer at the length he did. I’m only pointing out that a very weighty and excellent answer exists online. Readers should not assume that Ataie has the last word on the question when they read his response.)

Why didn’t Licona just give the argument himself in his document? Why don’t I? Three reasons: First, a complete answer to Ataie’s many allegations would be very long, and would possibly distract the reader from the rest of the discussion. Second, it’s annoying to answer old objections that have been defunct among scholars for decades. Ataie has suggested nothing new, and nothing that even non-Christian scholars deem plausible. Third, why re-do work that another has already done so well? See for yourself here.

B. Again, a very clear point from the debate that Ataie ignored that night and in his document: Paul and his teaching were certified by the earliest Church leaders (as recorded in Acts 13:2-3). Clement of Rome, the pupil of Peter—one of Jesus’ closest disciples—wrote of Paul in stellar terms, something that would not have happened if Paul were some maverick going about with an invented Gospel different from what Jesus preached in front of Peter.

C. Most relevant of all: The following passage from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 was written 1 to 5 years after the event:

". . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,"

Paul included this early church recitation in his letter, but he wasn’t the author of it.

This means that regardless of whatever else Ataie wants to argue about "Pauline" doctrine, the profession of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and bodily appearances pre-dated all of Paul’s letters by a couple decades. And again, this is evidence Mike Licona presented in the debate that Ataie ignored altogether.

7. Why Does Paul Meet Muhammad?

In his opening statement of the debate, Ataie claims that Christians teach the Gospel of Paul, not Jesus and that one simple indication of this skewed theology is the title of Mike Licona’s own book, Paul Meets Muhammad. Why didn’t Mike write the debate between Jesus and Muhammad?

I would like to believe that Ali Ataie read Mike’s book in preparation for this debate, as doing so would be one way for him to demonstrate that he took the academic mission of the evening to be a serious one. But how, then, could he have not seen the answer to his own question?

To answer it for readers, as this was not a point Licona addressed in the debate, I quote Mike Licona from the very book in question:

Many readers may ask why this is a debate between Muhammad and Paul rather than Muhammad and Jesus. It was a difficult choice. Muslims view Jesus and Muhammad as great prophets and Paul as a false apostle. Christians view Jesus as divine, Paul as one of the greatest apostles, and Muhammad as a false prophet. Thus they can reach no agreement on who is a peer. I have two reasons for casting this debate as I have. First, the claims of both Muhammad and Paul to have experienced supernatural revelation which led to their life of proselytizing others to their religious views makes them natural dialogue partners. Second, while both Christians and Muslims agree that Jesus was a great person who brought a message and authority from God, Muslims reject the authority of Paul, while Christians reject the authority of Muhammad. Thus these would seem again to be a natural match (page 14).

8. What About those Gnostic Gospels?

A. Ali Ataie spoke at length about them in the debate, and he writes a lot about them in his rebuttal document. Here’s my question: To what end?

Asked another way: SO WHAT???

Did people in the second century, over a hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection splinter into sects that believed something other than what is regarded as Orthodox Christianity? Yes! No secret there! Were many of their texts lost or destroyed? Yes! Will we ever know what each specific sect wrote or believed over a hundred years after the fact? Probably not.

Again: SO WHAT???

The only thing Ataie establishes if we are to buy the arguments of Pagels and Ehrman and Chadwick (and this is a big "if"), is that some people of the second century and following believed differently from the original disciples of Jesus Christ. And it’s useful to point out here that Bart Ehrman, the very scholar Ataie cites, in the very debate Ali Ataie cites, says, "The Gospels were written 35 to 65 years after Jesus’ death" (page 10, see above link). That is, even this non-Christian Biblical scholar Ataie is so quick to quote agrees that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written far earlier than the books found at Nag Hammadi.

B. Here’s why Ataie might want to stop bringing up the Gnostic texts:

They all portray Jesus as God, in many cases, as a "Super-God" who was not human at all. In fact, the 325 CE Council of Nicea—now famous for its mention in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code—did not meet to determine whether Jesus was God. This was already a belief held by all representatives present. The Council met to decide whether and in what sense Jesus was Man as well as God. This is a very basic fact of history Bart Ehrman himself explains in another one of his books, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. And in the Ehrman book Ataie does cite, Ehrman is also very clear that the "Lost Christianities" that fell out from the "proto-orthodox" Christians believed Jesus to be God.

It bears repeating: Whatever these texts recorded was recorded over a century after the event in question.

How does any of this help the Muslim case?
How does any of this respond to Mike Licona’s historical 4 facts?

Also, for an excellent argument exposing the myriad problems with Elaine Pagel’s argument in Beyond Belief, (another source Ataie cites), see this article.

9. The True Furqan—Still an Unanswered Challenge

At least, the answers Ali Ataie provides in his rebuttal document don’t work.

First, he argues that the Qur’an is inimitable in Arabic. That is, think what we might about the loveliness of the Qur’an when translated into English, but without reading it in its original Arabic, we cannot appreciate its inimitability.

A. As Licona explained in the debate, he asked an Ivy League scholar of Arabic Dialects to read the True Furqan and to compare it to the Qur’an. This professor, who wished to remain anonymous, stated:

"It seems to me that the Arabic in The True Furqan is good. It does not have any obscure terms like the Qur'an. And in some places it seems more beautiful to me than anything I have seen in the Qur'an."

So how does Ataie’s first response work here? A man fluent in the Arabic of the Qur’an concludes that the True Furqan is "more beautiful to (him) than anything (he has) seen in the Qur’an." What is the Muslim response? "This guy is wrong"? He’s qualified to issue an opinion on the original Arabic of the Qur’an and compare it to that of the True Furqan. And this opinion is that the True Furqan passes the test. If the only response is to discount such a well-informed opinion, then the Qur’an isn’t issuing a very fair test, is it? It might as well simply state, "If you don’t believe the Qur’an is of God, you are wrong."

Second, Ataie argues that the True Furqan plagiarizes the Qur’an. (And if it did, then I grant the rest of the Ataie’s argument—it would indeed fail the challenge that the Qur’an itself poses.)

B. One of the points and value of Licona’s quoting the first surahs of both works is to demonstrate that the True Furqan does not plagiarize the Qur’an. The two quoted surahs bear absolutely zero resemblance to one another in content. And so he has absolutely zero grounds for claiming that it is plagiarized. Of course, the True Furqan is written in poetic and narrative forms similar to the Qur’an. But this isn’t plagiarism any more than is a sonnet written after Shakespeare wrote his.

Third, Ali writes, "Some poor Arab Christian on his last evangelical leg decided to plagiarize many of the chapters of the actual Qur’an and made minor changes in order to ‘Christianize’ the text. The despicability and deception of such a move is surpassed only by its desperation. The Bible isn’t working for them; they have to use OUR scripture in order to convert people to their religion. I’m flattered, but still very offended."

C. I can understand why he’s offended. I don’t blame him for it. But of course, in exchanges between two religions that profess mutually exclusive claims, parties on both sides are bound to be offended. (I wonder whether Ali Ataie would be so understanding of Christians who might be offended by his own "Gospel" in which he chops up the 4 Gospels of the Bible and mashes certain pieces together with certain invention of his own.) Furthermore, I respect Ataie’s approach to handling this offense: he writes online and evangelizes in person, sharing his arguments and reasons for believing as he does.

But this remains to be said: Even as he expresses his offense, Ataie seems to dodge the implications of the True Furqan’s success. People are reading this book. Muslims are reading this book. Muslims who know Arabic are reading it in Arabic. And worldwide, this book is having an un-nerving effect: Muslims often mistake it for the Qur’an itself. If the True Furqan failed the challenge that the Qur’an itself poses, people would not be making this mistake.

D. Again, I ask why Ali Ataie didn’t attempt this rebuttal in the debate itself, where Licona first raises the issue of the True Furqan.

10. A Revealing Remark

Ali writes, "I believe that there are millions of Christians in the world who are good, just, and God-fearing people. They may be more ‘Muslim’ than the Muslims! I am not as eager as Mr. Licona to label people heathens and infidels."

Show me where Mike Licona has ever labeled "people" as "heathens and infidels." Show me! Where is it, Mr. Ataie? It’s not in this document. It’s not in any of Mike Licona’s books. It’s not in any of his web postings. Where is this label? You’ve made the accusation, now prove it!

He can’t.

But making the accusation perhaps scores him points with his Muslim audience. Perhaps it is striking a chord within them that has suffered intolerance, or bigotry or ugliness from the mouths and hearts of non-Muslims. I am not negating nor down-playing this experience.

But it is obnoxious, rude and plain-old below-the-belt punching to malign the character of a man who has not demonstrated such intolerance, bigotry or ugliness. I call this a "revealing remark" because it is reminiscent of the joke Ataie made in the debate. He spiraled into a rant about the spread of Islam (something Licona had not even commented on) and spewed, "People say Islam was spread by the sword. Do you see a sword on me? Maybe I left it outside with my camel!"

Oh, big laughs at this one. Again, Ali Ataie was reaching out to an audience that probably has a pent-up frustration and exasperation at being marginalized and mocked at times. And, again, I am not criticizing those very real feelings. But why does Ali Ataie keep appealing to them? Particularly at the expense of an innocent man? What is revealed by these kinds of remarks is obvious: Ali Ataie has a very poor logical case. I would characterize the evidence as having the strength of a frayed thread, except that this would be undermining the great strength of frayed thread by comparison. What he can do is play to his audience. Get them emotionally involved. Blow great billows of smoke and then flash the shading around with mirrors.

What he’s shading is the naked truth that he has no good answers to the historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. When the smoke clears, truth-seekers will see this.

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