Response to Dr. James R White’s “Anonymous Books and Inspiration”

November 7, 2007 at 12:49 am (Canon, Dialogue/Discussions/Debates, General, New Testament Studies, The "Bible" in Islamic sources)

A response to Dr. James R White’s “Anonymous Books and Inspiration”

This will be a response to a short paper authored by Dr. James White entitled “Anonymous Books and Inspiration” (

The main issues raised by White may be identified as follows:

    1. Muslim and Christian conception of the nature of inspiration of Scripture
    2. The significance and consequence of anonymous writings in the Bible
    3. Muslim view of the Bible

The issues have not been brought up in precisely the above order by White. I will go through them briefly in an attempt to comment upon what I consider to be White’s weak points and problematic arguments.

1. Concept of the inspiration of Scripture

White leaves the reader with the impression as if Christians, of the present and the past, have agreed upon a single unified conception of the nature of inspiration of Scripture – the one proposed by him. However, even a cursory glance at the scholarly material on the subject will make it amply clear to any investigator that there has never been a single accepted view of inspiration among Christians. Even today Christians are not united upon a single view of inspiration but adhere to a variety of competing views. A major reason for this is that no author of the Bible clearly defined and put forth a precise theory of inspiration. Likewise, with few exceptions, the majority of the early Christians, while accepting the fact of inspiration of the writers of Scripture, did not examine further its manner and degree of impact upon them.[1] The Christian preoccupation with ‘inspiration’ and its working is rather recent. Thus, over the years the scholars and preachers have studied the different Biblical writings and have sought to come out with a concept of inspiration which seems to them to best account for and explain the nature of the Biblical writings.

The main Christian views of inspiration of Scripture may be divided into two broad categories:

A. Plenary (all parts, as opposed to ‘partial’) or verbal views of inspiration.
B. Partial or non-verbal views of inspiration.

Within both categories there is internal diversity, variant models of inspiration, or differences over matters of detail.

Verbal/Plenary views of inspiration are mainly shared by conservative Protestant Evangelists and fundamentalists, though not by all (conservatives and evangelists). On one view, the Bible is totally infallible and inerrant in both its doctrinal contents and all historical details, even down to its wording. A central feature of fundamentalist doctrine is that the men – prophets and apostles – who were recipients of inspiration emerged from specific situations in their particular times but, as writers of Scripture, conveyed what they received from God to the community, being teachers of true doctrine. In other words, while a prophet or apostle would be a product of his particular society, being a writer of Scripture he acted as a vehicle of God’s word to the community. The differences in literary style between the Biblical books are usually acknowledged, on the basis of which it is concluded that such differences would not have existed had the writers contributed “nothing but tongue and pen.” Thus, while being inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Biblical writers were able to maintain, and were fully conscious of, their individuality.

‘Dictation’ is a term which is often disliked and avoided by conservative Christians and they are often at pains to clarify that the writers of Scripture were not merely used as ‘tape recorders’ by God. Commonly some freedom on the part of the prophet/apostle is acknowledged, with the insistence that the Holy Spirit ‘superintends’ every word selected by the inspired writer. In the past, however, as the late James Barr pointed out by citing Hutter and Quenstedt, there were theologians of Protestant scholasticism (as well as Catholics) who seriously intended ‘dictation’ in the strict sense.[2]

A noteworthy feature of adherents of the verbal plenary concept of inspiration is the belief that only the text of the autographs of Biblical writings are without error. Even though the autographs no longer exist, their text can be reconstructed on the basis of the surviving manuscripts. The translations and manuscripts of the Bible may thus be deemed as the word of God to the extent to which they represent the ‘original text‘. An interesting by-product of a strictly verbal plenary view of inspiration is that conservatives adhering to it often have to appeal to textual corruption of certain Biblical passages when they run in the face of apparent difficulties and discrepancies which cannot be ‘explained away’ through exegesis, no matter how genius.[3]

It should be reiterated that not all conservative and Evangelical Christians accept the above verbal plenary view of inspiration.[4]

Mention should also be made of the concept of “verbal inspiration and religious inerrancy”, which is described as proposing that the whole Bible is inspired, but that only the religious teachings of the Bible are inerrant and infallible. Divine authority, however, does not stand behind historical and scientific assertions. Here verbal inspiration is limited. God is seen as the principal author of the Bible, who used human authors as instruments. Therefore, the human dimension of the Bible can be accounted for. In this view, the language of the Bible is looked upon as pedagogical: God spoke to His people as a parent would speak to a child. This concept of inspiration has also been called ‘accommodation’ and many Catholics appealed to ‘accommodation’ in the 19th century as did both Luther and Calvin before them.[5]

Moving on to the partial or non-verbal concepts of inspiration, much diversity is to be found here. At its most simple, the concept acknowledges both divine and non-divine intervention in the formation of Scripture. That is, Scripture has been inspired by God, though not in an inerrant sense, whereby every detail within it is accurate right down to the very wording. Instead, Scripture may well contain historical and scientific errors as well as errors in detail, but it conveys inspired ‘teaching’ and doctrine. The right inspired teaching and doctrine can be conveyed even with the presence of secondary errors, which do not affect the overall nature of the teaching.

Professor Joseph T. Lienhard presents a helpful listing of popular views of inspiration, which I will fit under the umbrella of partial and non-verbal conceptions of inspiration, some of which are briefly summarised below:[6]

The inspiration of ideas or persons – God supplies the ideas whereas the words are supplied by man. God conveyed the author’s ideas, thoughts and judgements, who then created the words and the phrases themselves. While Scripture is authoritative in matters relating to morals and faith, the rest of it can contain human error.

The concept of social inspiration – “inspiration is a charism (gift) bestowed upon an entire community rather than upon words, ideas, or writers.” The model stipulates that everyone involved in producing the Bible was inspired. In contrast to the view that only the autographs are without error and that this ‘final’ product is inspired, Christians adhering to this model of inspiration argue that inspiration should be extended over to all the stages: the stage prior to the ‘final product (oral tradition, earlier drafts/editions etc.), and the later stage: the copying of manuscripts. Thus, inspiration extends to both the ‘pre’ and ‘post’ stages of the formation of Scripture.[7] Barr explained:

There was in fact no single point at which the scriptural text was ‘originally given’, and if inspiration is to be talked of at all it must apply to the entirely of a long process of origin, often involving use of sources, multiple previous editions, changes of text, and additions of explanatory matter. Even in New Testament books and on a conservative basis, this process may last a generation or more; and in Old Testament books it may have lasted hundreds of years.[8]

In another version of social inspiration, everyone involved in the production of the Bible is considered inspired. The original community of faith which has been established by God is believed to have produced the Bible. This makes the Bible the “uniquely authoritative deposit of tradition” where God is the principal Author and the Church the secondary author of Scripture (Karl Rahner).[9]

I should also note here the view enunciated by Peter E. Enns, a prominent conservative evangelical scholar and associate professor of the Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. Enns considers three thorny issues in his book, “Inspiration And Incarnation”:

  • The parallels between certain stories within the Old Testament and the ancient Near Eastern literature
  • The theological diversity within the Old Testament
  • The way the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament

On the basis of the problems encountered in the above, Enns proposes that we draw upon the analogy of ‘incarnation’ to view the Bible. By this he means that just as Jesus was both human and divine, so is the Bible. To cite Enns:

. . . we are to think of the Bible in the same way that Christians think about Jesus.[10]

For Enns the Bible is God’s authoritative inspired word and he holds it in immense esteem. Yet he also acknowledges at the same time that there are also points of tension within the Old Testament; that the Bible does contain discrepancies; that there likely is, in some cases, dependency – direct and indirect – between certain Biblical stories and the parallels in the Near Eastern literature as well as conceptual similarities. Enns sees the ‘incarnation’ model as the best explanation for this state of affairs. It is argued that God was communicating with ancient humanity in a language and used the terms of references which they could readily understand to drive home the essential message. In other words, God used the experiences of the prophets and even adopted the mythic categories they were familiar with from their surroundings to convey His word.

The modern Catholic view of inspiration of Scripture is also important to bear in mind. The human and divine elements within the Bible are generally recognized and the presence of scientific and historical errors is normally acknowledged by Catholics. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) was summoned by Pope John XXIII and convened in four sessions lasting from 1962-1965. The primary purpose of this council was to bring the Catholic Church up to date with the modern times, strive to bring unity to the divided Churches (Ecumenism), and to encourage Catholic scholars to familiarise themselves with the modern tools of critical analysis that were being applied upon the Bible by others. Among the many documents produced by Vatican II, there is one that needs to be considered.

The Dei Verbum (Latin for Word of God) – Vatican II’s Constitution on Divine Revelation – permits Catholic scholars to use the modern methods of scholarship to investigate the Bible, such as historical and literary analysis – which are applied to reconstruct the meaning intended and expressed by the Biblical writer. Secondly, it places emphasis upon the importance of the ‘living tradition’ of the Church to understand the meaning of the whole of Scripture. Interestingly enough, in its final draft, the term ‘inerrancy’ was removed from the Dei Verbum.[11] At most, Dei Verbum states that the Bible teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.[12] The proposition that the Bible was inspired in such a way that it contains no conceivable error whatsoever is not to be found in the Dei Verbum.

Another key document is the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1993), which defends the use of the historical-critical approach to study the Bible and emphasises the need to pay particular attention to the historical and cultural contexts in which the Bible was written in order to better grasp its meaning. The view that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ in the sense that it contains no errors whatsoever is dismissed. For example, we read:

The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.

Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.[13]

There is recognition here, for instance, that the Pentateuch did not come from a single author (Moses), that the tradition recorded in the gospels went through development, finding its basic shape within the early Christian community, and that the evangelists themselves later made personal contributions, driven by certain theological tendencies.

Next, I will summarize the main ancient Christian understandings of the Bible as ‘inspired’:

Prominent Church historian and conservative scholar, J.N.D. Kelly, informs us that the early Church believed that the books of the Bible were ‘written by the Holy Spirit’ with the human author serving as God’s instrument, his tongue being (citing Psalms 45:1) ‘the pen of a ready writer’.[14] The whole of the Bible was deemed inspired. Irenaeus was not taken by surprise by the frequent obscurity of the Bible as he saw it as ‘spiritual in its entirety’. Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, considered Paul to have implied that everything within Scripture was the deliverance of the Holy Spirit. Theodore of Mopsuestia distinguished between the special inspiration given to the prophets and the inferior grace of ‘prudence’ granted to Solomon and believed that all Biblical authors wrote under the influence of the same Spirit. Both Origen and Gregory of Nazianzus believed that they could observe activity of divine wisdom “in the most trifling verbal minutiae, even in the solecisms,11 of the sacred books.” Likewise Jerome believed that ever word, syllable, accent and point within the Bible was replete with meaning. Chrysostom even attached profound value to the chronological figures and the catalogues of names in the Bible. Some Christians accepted Philo’s explanation of ‘possession’: that the prophets were ‘seized’ by God’s Spirit which caused them to lose consciousness and they did not know what they were saying so that God spoke through their lips. Conveying a similar description, Christian apologist Athenagoras described the prophets as prophesying in a state of ‘ecstasy’ and the Spirit breathing through them as a musician breathes through a pipe. Nonetheless, while generally likening Biblical authors to instruments, the ‘orthodox tradition’ avoided the implication that their role was purely passive. For example, Hippolytus said that the Word clarified the vision of the prophets and instructed their understanding; Origen dismissed comparisons between the inspired Biblical authors and the ecstatic pagan oracles, suggesting that the Spirit allowed the Biblical authors to grasp divine truth more clearly with their free will being intact; Epiphanius reminded the Montanists that the true prophets (writers of the Bible) were in a state of normal consciousness and in complete possession of their faculties as they wrote. Despite describing Peter and Paul as God’s musical instruments played by the Holy Spirit, Chrysostom (and Cyril of Alexandria) also noted the personal contribution of Moses, Paul and John in the composition of their works. Jerome, likewise, pointed out the differences between the styles of the Biblical authors and the general culture and background which they exhibit. Augustine said that the gospel authors relied upon their personal reminiscences in compiling the gospels while the Holy Spirit stimulated their memories and preserved them from error.[15]

The purpose of this quick summary of some of the popular views among Christians on the ‘inspiration’ of the Bible was to show the diversity among Christians on the subject, all of which was not mentioned by White. The verbal plenary views are primarily popular among conservative Protestants – though not all of them – as well as fundamentalist Christians, and dismissed by the vast majority of Christians. The variants of the partial or non-verbal views of inspiration, on the other hand, are most in vogue among Christians.

As William H. Barnes notes:

Today all but the most extreme Jewish and Christian fundamentalists recognize the complicated and heterogeneous origins of the Bible and that it contains statements that in any other literary work would be considered erroneous.[16]

Simply put, White is not the spokesperson of all Christians nor does he present the Christian view of inspiration. In reality, he adheres to a view of inspiration according to which the Bible is fully inerrant, not only in the message that it proclaims but also in all of its scientific and historical claims. White follows a verbal plenary view of inspiration, which is dismissed by the majority of modern Christians. He represents a fringe spectrum of fundamentalists and ultra-conservative Protestant Christians. The Catholics form the bulk of the Christian population and their general view of the Bible as inspired is quite different from White’s own view. For White the Catholics are ‘heretics’ or just nominal ‘Christians’ at best.

With the above discussion in mind, let us now turn attention to White’s comments (italics added in lines #6-7):

    “The contrast in belief that is illustrated by this point from Friday’s debate is this: the Christian focus when speaking of inspiration is on the nature of the written record; that is, as Paul expressed it, it is Scripture itself, not the instrument used in producing it, that is God-breathed. In the same way, Peter said that men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Peter places “men” in this text (2 Peter 1:21) at the very end, locating all the activities of God before the instrument, man. Scripture nowhere presents itself as some magical book that just floats down out of heaven. God has revealed Himself by means. Those means include man’s language, man’s experiences, man’s interaction with God Himself. But it is not the mechanism that is “inspired,” but the result. God is so powerful and so wise that He is able to use His creatures as the mechanism whereby His Word comes without compromising the nature of the final product. This is why the specific name of the writer is not the issue. God knows who He carries along by the Holy Spirit, and He will exert just as much effort to let His people know as He does in the actual work of inspiration itself. Plainly books that do not bear today, and did not bear in the days of Christ, a particular author are quoted by Jesus as “Scripture.””

Notice the key points here:

  • The human author has been used as an instrument by God.
  • God’s Word is not compromised even though the instrument was not purely passive.
  • The result is inspired, or the final product. These would be the authographs of the Biblical writings.

White would likely abhor these terms, but his is a verbal plenary and fundamentalist view of Scripture, which sees the Bible as an inerrant source in the fullest sense.

Secondly, by claiming that “the specific name of the writer is not the issue” White appears to be unaware of Church history, something I will explore in the next section.

Finally, the sentence in italics (starting from sixth to seventh line) appears to be an indirect swipe at the Quran. If so, let me make it clear that Muslims do not believe that the Quran is a ‘magical book’ that ‘just floated down from heaven’. Now, there are some similarities as well and dissimilarities between the Muslim belief in the Quran as God’s inspired Scripture and the early Christian views of the inspiration of Scripture, together with the plenary verbal views of inspiration and the dictation view. To begin with, just like the authors of the Bible, Muhammed too was an instrument used by God to reveal His Word and Message to humanity. In order to convey His Message to us, God chose to communicate in the language of the community (Arabic) and made use of parables, similes, and metaphors, and used imagery and language that would be comprehensible to us. Rather than being a revelation ‘magically’ floating down from the heaven, God chose to send it in piecemeal over an extended period of time (around 23 years). This is where the similarity would seem to end. The Quran, unlike the Bible, is not deemed to be ‘God-breathed’, and the instrument (Muhammed) was truly passive. The Quran IS pure Revelation, representing the direct Speech of God. Muhammed, while conscious at the moment of revelation, made no contribution to it. To put it simply: he listened and conveyed.

2. Church history and anonymous Biblical writings

According to White:

    “During the cross-examination Shabir Ally asked me about the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. He asked if we know who wrote it, and I said we do not. He took this as clear evidence that it cannot possibly be inspired, since it is anonymous. This is related to the Islamic insistence that we must know the character of a prophet, and that the character of that prophet is directly related to the authority of the word he proclaims.”

Let us completely put aside our Islamic presuppositions and consider the issue from the outside. If it is claimed that a particular book is inspired, would it not be commonsense to make enquiry about its authorship? Is it not plain and simple commonsense to want to know something about the human author and his background? We can put aside the Islamic paradigm and still wonder about these basic questions.

For White, the final product is inspired and the identity of the human author is irrelevant. He wrote elsewhere that:

    “This is why the specific name of the writer is not the issue. God knows who He carries along by the Holy Spirit, and He will exert just as much effort to let His people know as He does in the actual work of inspiration itself. Plainly books that do not bear today, and did not bear in the days of Christ, a particular author are quoted by Jesus as “Scripture.””

For White the name of the writer is ‘not the issue’, but from the historical perspective, this is not entirely correct. There are examples of early Christians displaying concerns regarding authorship and, at times, dismissing or accepting books based on questions pertaining to authorship. The Oxford Companion to the Bible even goes so far as saying:

Indeed, apostolic authorship, whether actual or pseudonymous, of the New Testament writings served as a major criterion for later acceptance into the canon.[17]

Consider the reception of the book of Hebrews in the West:

… questions regarding the authorship of the letter [of Hebrews] contributed to the general neglect it suffered in Western or Latin Christianity.[18]

In his recent book on the canon of the Bible, L. M. McDonald writes:

The authorship of the book [of Hebrews] was central to its acceptance in the churches.[19]

There were two reasons why Hebrews was neglected in the West: 1. lack of strong tradition of authorship; 2. Hebrews teaching against second repentance. It was the later which was the primary reason why Hebrews was neglected, yet its attachment to Paul made its recognition easier.

According to the late evangelical and conservative scholar F.F. Bruce, the ones who doubted the apostolic authorship of writings such as 2 and 3 John as well as the Apocalypse (Revelation) also tended to doubt their canonical status.[20]

If a writing was known to have been authored by an apostle, then it was eventually accepted as sacred Scripture. The Church historian Eusebius, for example, argued against the apostolic authorship of the pseudepigraphal literature which, according to McDonald, is a reflection of the ‘universal acknowledgement’ of the authority of apostolic writings and the rejection of non-apostolic writings.[21] Tertullian (ca. 200) said that the gospels were authored by apostles or by ‘apostolic men’, giving the former priority over the later; Eusebius also displayed doubts about the acceptance of 2 Peter on the basis of its apostolicity.[22]

McDonald concludes:

In sum, if it was believed that an apostle wrote a particular book, that writing was accepted and treated as Scripture. There is no doubt that several books of the NT were placed in the canon because the majority believed that they were written by apostles or members of the apostolic community.[23]

There was also a circularity in argument: if a book claimed to have an apostle as an author and if its teachings were judged to be, say, ‘unorthodox’ and not settling well with the established beliefs and doctrines, it was supposed that the writing could not have been authored by the purported author. In a similar manner, if a book contained very useful teachings and was deemed to be of immense help, then it could be attributed to an apostle, as in the case of Hebrews.

The discussion needs to be put in perspective. Both situations occurred: writings were dismissed and accepted for matters relating to authorship and anonymous writings were also accepted as canonical primarily due to their useful and beneficial teachings. While the book of Hebrews was accepted as canonical in the East despite being anonymous, it was, at the same time, neglected in the West, with the attachment of Pauline authorship eventually removing the hesitations towards its acceptance. Even though Origen subsequently concluded that ‘only God knows’ who authored Hebrews, its teachings were clearly valued by him. Hence, books were also accepted as canonical Scripture even if anonymous. The same type of inconsistency is to be observed when we investigate the other popular criteria applied by Christians to decide whether or not a book was canonical (Orthodoxy, Antiquity, Use, Adaptability, Inspiration). To give an example, documents such as the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement and the Didache which met the criterion of ‘use’ or ‘traditional usage’ – whether a document was employed in the teachings and worship of the various churches – did not enter the canon while documents which clearly lacked long standing and general currency made it into the canon (2 Peter, James, 2 and 3 John).

In the words of Kurt Aland:

… if one wanted to sum up in a formula the external principles which played a part in the choice of the canonical Scriptures, one can only speak of the principle of ‘having no principles’.[24]

Be that as it may, authorship was not universally deemed unimportant or worthless by the early Christians even if at times other considerations were more to the forefront, causing authorship to take the back seat. If a writing was known – through whatever means – to be stemming from an apostle, it was very likely accepted as canonical scripture. Writings believed to have been authored by apostles, or their associates, were elevated higher in status than anonymous documents. Likewise, eyewitness testimony was held in esteem. Writings were excluded if they were thought – whether rightly or wrongly – to have been composed after the period of the apostolic ministry (Shepherd of Hermas). On other occasions, where the authorship of a writing was unknown or uncertain, other criteria were applied. These included assessing its antiquity, use, and its teaching and doctrine. If a writing claimed an apostle, or an apostles associate as its author, then either it was accepted on this basis or dismissed through the use of other criteria which appeared to render the authorship claim wanting.

Metzger makes some cogent observations in this regard:

… the apostolic origin, real or putative, of a book provided a presumption of authority, for clearly an epistle attributed to the apostle Paul stood a greater likelihood of acceptance than one attributed, for example, to someone like Montanist Themiso … We observe, moreover, that in the Muratorian Canon there is still a healthy feeling that the authority of the apostles is not merely of the nature of a dogmatic assertion. In all that the writer says about the historical books of the New Testament, he insists on the personal qualification of the authors either as eyewitnesses or as careful historians.[25]

The Muslim question “how do you know that Hebrews is inspired when you do not even know who authored it?” is a valid and reasonable question. It is a question which will come to your mind even if you are a non-Muslim. The early Christians, while being inconsistent in their procedure, maintained a concern for authorship-related issues as well.

Having said this, there is a notable difference between the Muslim and Christian approach to assessing the status of texts and traditions. For Muslims, not only was the name and identity of an author an important issue, but the names and identities of the transmitters of documents and traditions was also of paramount importance. Much effort was exerted by Muslim traditionists, for instance, to ascertain the reliability and character of the transmitters and authors, to verify the strength of their memory, their intellectual level, and the level of their knowledge. Efforts were also made to obtain information about the teachers of the authors and transmitters as well as to verify their religious views. All of this data was collected to get a rounded picture of the authors and transmitters. They were then critically scrutinised to determine whether or not they were likely to distort certain facts deliberately, to have really acquired information from the claimed sources, or commit different types of mistakes etc. All of these factors – the character of individuals – do have a bearing upon the accuracy and quality of reports and books being transmitted and this was understood by Muslim scholars. Thus, testimony of and information supplied by known liars and forgers was dismissed; information derived from those of weak intelligence and memory was treated with caution; information stemming from anonymous sources was also dismissed since you cannot know if these sources were trustworthy or otherwise.

White’s insistence that “the specific name of the writer is not the issue” exemplifies an important difference between the Muslim and Christian attitude towards the assessment of evidence. In contrast, while displaying concerns whether or not certain documents emerged from apostles, their associates, or from the apostolic era, and whether or not eyewitnesses were behind certain reports, the rigidity and strictness we encounter in Islamic history to deal with these questions is nowhere to be observed among the Christians. Unlike the Muslims, the Christians had no methodology of verification and authentication. There was a comparatively much more relaxed attitude. Thus, anonymous books were also eventually accepted as canonical Scripture, as were books which were initially of disputed status. Different criteria were applied in an inconsistent fashion upon different books, with a lot of circular reasoning in the process.

It is no wonder that many Christian scholars today believe that the early Christians, if they had the information we have now on the New Testament writings, would have been quite unlikely to have canonised a number of books now to be found in the New Testament. For example, these would include documents such as the Pastoral Epistles – believed by the scholarly consensus to have been authored by someone other than Paul probably sometime near the close of the first century, and the Petrine Epistles, particularly 2nd Peter which is deemed even by many conservative scholars to be pseudonymous. Not only that, but not many scholars are today willing to defend the thesis that the gospels of Matthew and John stem from apostles of Jesus (P). What if the early Christians knew that, contrary to its claim, 2nd Peter was not, in fact, authored by the apostle Peter? Would it have been included into the canon? What if the early Christians were aware of the problems associated with the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles. Would they have likely canonised these epistles knowing what we now know about them? Certainly we cannot get inside their minds to ascertain their answer, but we may intelligently speculate that it is unlikely they would have canonised such writings. These are questions which scholars are grappling with today.

With the book of Hebrews things are a bit different. Unlike the Pastoral and the Petrine Epistles, Hebrews is an anonymous document – it does not name an author for itself. So Christians have little difficulty accounting for its presence in the canon even by dismissing Pauline authorship. Yet other issues remain. Given the fact that we know nothing about the author and his background, nothing about his associates, teachers, personal habits, character etc., how can we be reasonably certain that he was not a liar? That he was not a misguided writer? That he was trustworthy and honest? With the information that we do have – supplied in the book of Hebrews – we cannot answer these commonsense questions. The same types of questions come up when we move on to the book of Revelation and the Johannine epistles for instance.

White poses a question:

    “… if the Muslim wishes to argue that the name of the writer of a book of Scripture must be known, upon what basis is this to be argued?”

It is to be argued upon the basis of good ol’ commonsense. You can take Islam completely out of the picture and still ask this question. As I attempted to explain above, you are not at all required to be a Muslim to think of such a basic question. Ones personal character does have a bearing upon the quality and accuracy of the information conveyed, whether it be orally or in written form. Naturally, we would be cautious and sceptical when receiving information from a known liar, or someone who is mentally unstable, or known to make mistakes perhaps due to weak memory etc. A truth seeker will wonder who the author is of a certain document which is purported to be God’s inspired word. He/She would like to know a bit about the background of the author and details of his associations and character in order to determine whether or not his writing could be truly inspired or otherwise, or to determine whether or not the author was an honest individual.

3. Muhammed and the Bible

White makes a number of odd statements within his small piece while discussing Muhammed’s (P) view of the Bible. He says that “One is immediately struck by the irony of the Qur’an’s frequent references to the Torah and the Injil, and what those terms would have meant to Muhammad in his context.” But what precisely is supposed to be ‘ironic’ here is never spelt out. It is then asserted that Muhammed (P) was “ignorant of the actual content of the Christian Scriptures” and that despite his alleged ignorance he still “believed in these books.Earlier White insisted that Muhammed (P) did not even have access to the Jewish and Christian writings, and that he never read them, as they were in a different language. But at the same time he is sure that Muhammed ‘believed’ in ‘these books’.

A number of points are in order:

1. The first point has two parts A. According to Muslims, Muhammad (P) did not write the Quran. The Quran itself states that God is its author. Hence, Muhammed’s (P) ignorance or otherwise of the Christian scriptures is entirely beside the point (In case some may get confused, I am not arguing that a non-Muslim must accept the Quran as God’s word simply because the Quran claims to be from God). A Muslim would say that Muhammed (P), on his own, was indeed ignorant about the contents of the Bible just as he would be about the contents of all other books in existence at the time. But, the Quran is believed to be not Muhammed’s (P) but God’s direct Word and pure Revelation, with Muhammed (P) merely acting as a passive instrument of God. God is not ignorant. Therefore, the Quran needs to be taken seriously and studied with sincere intentions to get to the truth. B. Due to the revelation of the Quran, Muhammed (P) was not ignorant despite not having read for himself, or having possession of, any Christian scripture. Muhammed (P), through the Quran, came to correctly learn that Christians worshipped Jesus (P) as God, that they believed that Jesus (P) had died on the cross, that Jesus (P) was proclaimed to be God’s ‘son’ in the divine sense and he knew that God was conceived in a Trinitarian sense. All of these items were naturally acquired by Christians on the basis of their traditions and Scripture (whatever it may have been).

2. White fails to cite any passage where Muhammed (P) is alleged to have said that he ‘believed’ in ‘these books’ (what are ‘these books’?). There is, likewise, no statement within the Quran where it is said that ‘these books’ (which precise books?) are to be ‘believed’. What are to be accepted and believed are the original revelations of God revealed to the actual prophets.

3. White misrepresents the Muslim view. According to Muslims, the writings in the hands of the Jews and the Christians are not the ‘original’ revelations. They may well contain inspired teachings and historical elements, but they are not identical to the ‘original revelations’. It should be made clear that the Quran does not mention ‘gospels’ but only mentions ‘the gospel’ (singular). The Quran describes this ‘gospel’ as something that was taught to Jesus (P) by God. It may well be that remnants of ‘the gospel’ are to be found in the canonical (and non-canonical) gospels, but they are themselves largely ancient types of biographies about the life and ministry of Jesus (P), containing both historical and non-historical elements. The Quran does not present ‘the gospel’ as this type of book or revelation. This has been understood by Watt who writes:

While it is stated that Jesus received from God a scripture called the Gospel (or Evangel – Injil), there is nothing to suggest that this was any more like our actual gospels in the New Testament than the tawrat received by Moses was like the actual Pentateuch. Indeed Muslims usually deny that our actual gospels are the book received by Jesus, since that consisted entirely of revelations from God and not of historical statements about Jesus.[26]

4. As Prof. Walid Saleh has noted in his essay:

The claim that the Qur’an tallies with Christian scripture is certainly one of the least substantiated claims about the Qur’an and the nature of its relationship to previous scriptures ever to be stated.[27]

The Quran maintains a polemical tone while addressing Christian (and Jewish) claims and beliefs. The Quran considers itself to be God’s final authoritative word and the judge/arbitrator for what the Jews and Christians differ about (27:76). For example, the Author of the Quran is aware that the Christians believe that Jesus (P) had been killed via crucifixion. Yet, despite knowing this, He labels the story “conjecture.” Similarly, the Quran’s Author is aware that the Christians believe that Jesus (P) was ‘the Son of God’ (understood in a ‘more than human’ type of sense). The Christians must have acquired this belief from their Scriptures and traditions. Knowing what the Christians say about Jesus (P), the Quran’s Author denies this belief of theirs and insists that Jesus (P) was only God’s servant, messenger and messiah. That he was no more than a mortal. In other words, the Quran deals with the teachings themselves and ‘rectifies’ them; dismissing the falsehood while presenting the corrections. Many examples like these can be cited where specific teachings and claims, which the Jews and Christians acquired from their sacred Scriptures and traditions, are ‘rectified’ by the Quran. Thus, any book, report, or tradition which proclaims Jesus (P) as ‘more than a man’, for example, is wrong in this particular claim since the assertion has been directly dismissed by the Quran. Viewed in this light, it becomes clear that the Quran does not ‘endorse’ or ‘affirm’ any particular Jewish and Christian book in totality, whether it is canonical or non-canonical. On the contrary, the book – whatever it may be – may contain teachings which are either in conformity to the Quran or in disagreement with it. In the later case the judgement of the Quran prevails and is the final word since it is God’s final authoritative Revelation.


References and Notes

1. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition, 1978, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, p. 64.

2. Summarised from James Barr, Fundamentalism, Second Edition, 1984, London: SCM Press, pp. 288-293.

3. Ibid, pp. 279-283.

4. I have already mentioned Peter E Enns’ view in the paper. To mention a few more names, consider I. Howard Marshall, N. T. Wright, Bruce M. Metzger, F.F. Bruce, C.A. Evans, Richard Baukham, and John Drane.

5. Summarised from Joseph T. Lienhard, The Bible, the Church, and Authority: The Canon of the Christian Bible in History and Theology, 1995, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, p. 81.

6. Ibid, pp. 81-85.

7. James Barr, Fundamentalism, Second Edition, Op., Cit., p. 293-294.

8. Ibid, p. 294.

9. Joseph T. Lienhard, The Bible, the Church, and Authority: The Canon of the Christian Bible in History and Theology, Op., Cit., p. 84.

10. Peter Enns, Inspiration And Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, 2005, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 17.

11. “Scripture: Recent Protestant and Catholic Views” By Avery Dulles, S.J. Accessed on 30/10/2007.

12. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) Accessed on 30/10/2007.

13. “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993 (as published in Origins, January 6, 1994). I. METHODS AND APPROACHES FOR INTERPRETATION. Under subheading “F. Fundamentalist Interpretation.” Accessed on 30/10/2007.

14. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition, 1978, Op., Cit., p. 61.

15. Summarised from ibid, pp. 61-64.

16. William H. Barnes, “Inspiration and Inerrancy,” in Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan (Editors), The Oxford Companion To The Bible, 1993, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 304.

17. Ibid, pp. 303-304.

18. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Hebrews, the Letter to the,” in Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan (Editors), The Oxford Companion To The Bible, Op., Cit., p. 275.

19. Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, 2007, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., p. 394.

20. F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 1988, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 259.

21. Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, 2007, Op., Cit., p. 406.

22. Ibid, pp. 407-408.

23. Ibid, p. 409.

24. K. Aland, The Problem of the New Testament Canon, 1962, London: A.R. Mowbray and Co., pp. 14-15.

25. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, 1987, New York: Clarendon Press – Oxford, p. 253.

26. William Montgomery Watt, Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions And Misperceptions, 1991, Routledge, p. 24.

27. Walid Saleh, “The Etymological Fallacy and Quranic Studies: Muhammad, Paradise, and Late Antiquity,” p. 41-42. Accessed on 30/10/2007



  1. imran said,

    peace brother

    is it alright if i copy all of your “church history and annoymous biblical books” reply to white? i will link to your reply

  2. opendiscourse said,

    Assalam Alaikum Imran,

    I don’t mind you making use of this essay.

    Can you please send me the URL of your website?

  3. rob said,

    Criterion of biblical authority

    There was another opportunity for Evans to appeal to a discussion of some or even one of the criteria of authenticity again, but again he failed to seize his opportunity.

    Beginning on the same page Craig Evans complained about those scholars who see in the gospels’ use of the title “rabbi” for Jesus an anachronism, since “rabbi” did not become a title till after 70 c.e. (Although Evans refuses to use the c.e. designation, insisting throughout, for reasons not hard to imagine, on the anachronistic and theologically charged A.D. Stubborn pupil. Obviously thinks he is above scholarly conventions and norms.)

    And what is Evans’s argument contra? Well, simply that the Gospels use it of Jesus, therefore it cannot have been anachronistic after all. In other words, the Gospels are true and all other so-called evidence should be evaluated in the light of literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of them. Gospels do not need any further corroboration — faith is all they need. Scholarly controls are useful for other textual studies, but are “misguidedly suspicious” if applied to the Gospels!

    Evans says “the use of rabbi in the Gospels is informal and evidently reflects Jewish usage in the first century, before its later, formalized usage.” He does not, however, offer the reader an example to demonstrate his claim that the word is used “informally” in the Gospels. It simply isn’t. Nor does he discuss the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus forbidding the use of the term for his disciples (Matt. 23:9) — clearly he considered it a formal term, even “in the first century”!

    How could bible-believing Evans have honestly overlooked this passage? Will he need to be confronted for his intellectual dishonesty on this count too? Stressful. Teachers have enough stress without having to confront situations like these.

    Nor does he offer any evidence that it reflected informal Jewish usage in the first century. One witness — even an anonymous witness that has been dated anywhere between the mid first century and the early second century, what we know as the canonical Gospel of Matthew — is enough, he thinks, to settle his claim. In other words, Evans seems to be trying to slip into this classroom essay a view something like:

    The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!

    I will have to have a talk with the principal and then with Craig’s parents to see if he really should continue in a school that seeks to inculcate a “training in history” in all its students – a matter discussed in this previous post.

    brother opendiscourse
    is it established fact that in jesus’s time no learned jew was called “rabbi”?

  4. Muhammad said,

    I suspect that these highly educated Christian scholars are aware of the logical truths but because they are appointed to push these untruths from an organised collective agenda to foster irreligiosity, they will probably never concede.
    it has been said that many biblical scholars do not believe in the bible itself, thus revision after revision which will cease at the advent only.

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