Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mirza Tahir Ahmad and Textual Criticism

Christianity A Journey From Facts to Fiction

In the past month or so, I have been critiquing a certain book entitled "Christianity: A Journey From Facts to Fiction", by the late Mirza Tahir Ahmad. For those who don't know, this man was one of the former leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an offshoot of Islam that was founded back in the late 19th century. The reason I'm critiquing this book is because I am dialoguing with a pair of Ahmadis in my school, and one of them owns a copy of this book, so I realized that I had to address their groups claims in order to clear up their misconceptions regarding the Christian faith.

While there isn't much in the way of solid argumentation in this book, what did stick out for me are a couple of instances where the author attempts to make use of "recent scientific and scholarly investigations" by "Contemporary Christian scholars" in order to undermine certain Christian doctrines. So, I thought I'd look into these attempts at textual criticism to see whether the arguments hold up.

The first attempt is focused on undermining the physical ascension of Jesus (a belief that is discarded by Ahmadis, even though it is accepted by mainstream Muslims). In the fifth chapter of his book, Mirza Tahir Ahmad makes the following statement:

The subject of the Ascension of Jesus Christ is untouched by St. Matthew and St. John in their Gospels. The lack of mention of such an important event leaves one wondering as to why.

The only two synoptic Gospels which mention the Ascension are Mark and Luke. However, recent scientific and scholarly investigations have proved that the accounts contained in both these Gospels are later interpolations. These verses were non-existent in the original texts.

Codex Siniaticus dates from the 4th century and remains the oldest near complete text of the Old and New Testament. It stands witness to the fact that the said verses in both Mark and Luke were not included in the authentic original versions but were certainly added by some scribe on his own initiative much later. In the Codex Siniaticus the Gospel of Mark ends at chapter 16 verse 8. This fact is now acknowledged in some modern Bible editions as well. Also, the Gospel of Luke (24:15) in Codex Siniaticus, does not contain the words ‘Carried up to heaven’.

According to the textual critic C.S.C. Williams, if these omissions in the Codex Siniaticus are correct, there is no reference at all, to the Ascension in the original text of the Gospels.

Even Jehovah’s Witnesses who are some of the most vehement proponents of Jesus’ ‘Sonship’ and his ascent to God the Father, had to admit ultimately that the verses in Mark and Luke are additions without a foundation in the original texts. (link)

Leaving aside the practically absurd appeal to the Jehovah's Witnesses (who are no textual authority), it is generally accepted by mainstream biblical scholarship that the last few verses of Mark are indeed a late addition. This fact can is admitted to in pretty much any modern day Bible translation.

But what about Luke? The phrase "carried up into heaven" may indeed be absent from the Codex Sinaiticus, but does that justify the conclusion that it is a late addition? Note that Mirza Tahir Ahmad is appeal here to a single manuscript, with no regard for other ancient manuscripts that carry equal weight from a textual critical viewpoint. To prove this point, here is a statement from a journal published by the Southern Evangelical Seminary:

Although the Codex Sinaiticus may be the oldest complete set of New Testament manuscripts, it is by no means the oldest copy of the Gospels. Furthermore, some ancient manuscripts are palimpsests; i.e., paper was so valuable that text was rubbed out so that the paper could be rewritten and sometimes both the original text and the new text, rescriptus, can be discerned. (link)

This pretty much debunks the notion of the Lucan passage being a late interpolation. Besides, even if it was, that doesn't change the fact that Jesus' ascension is also attested to in Acts 1:9-11, which is also written by Luke, and is not questioned by any noteworthy biblical scholar that I am aware of.

As a side note, it is also untrue that John does not mention the ascension. In fact, it is alluded to twice, first in John 6:62, and then in John 20:17. John does not get into too much detail in either instance, since Luke had already covered the ascension.

The second attempt by Mirza Tahir Ahmad is focused on undermining the deity of Christ by attacking a certain passage that shows Jesus being worshipped. Incidentally, this passage is Luke 24:52, which comes right after the previously noted passage. With regards to this passage, the author writes:

Having denied any reference in the Bible to Jesus being worshipped, it is left to us to explain the only reference relating to this in Luke 24:52. Many claim that these verses provide evidence of Jesus himself exhorting his followers to worship him. Contemporary Christian scholars are well aware that these verses have been proved to be spurious and have no right to be treated as a genuine part of St. Luke’s Gospel. (link)

Here, Mirza Tahir Ahmad is relying on an old theory known as the theory of western non-interpolations, which was formulated by 19th century textual scholar F.J.A. Hort. According to this theory, certain passages must have been late additions because they are absent from certain western texts. The effects of this theory can be seen in various bible translations that had been published between the 40s and 70s, wherein the phrase “worshipped Him” is left out, as it is absent from the western witnesses. This is best demonstrated by comparing the text of the New American Standard Bible (1995 Update) with that of the Revised Standard Version:

"And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy." (NASU)

"And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy." (RSV)

Unfortunately for the author, this theory is no longer accepted by biblical scholars, except perhaps for a small minority. (link) Therefore, appealing to "Contemporary Christian scholars" will not work for our friend here. And besides, there are numerous other references to Jesus being worshipped elsewhere in the gospels, such as Matthew 2:8-11, Matthew 14:33, Matthew 28:9, and John 9:35-38. So even if the phrase wasn't originally there, it would be of little consequence to the New Testament's consistent testimony regarding the deity of Christ.

In conclusion, we can see that Mirza Tahir Ahmad's attempts to utilize textual criticism to undermine biblical doctrines have failed. The ascension and the deity of Christ are left unscathed, and our Ahmadi friends are going to have to search elsewhere if they want to attack these two important Christian truths.

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