Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Blessed Virgin Mary: A Response to Paul Williams

Paul Williams (hereafter PW) hardly gave me enough time to miss him before making his return to the blogosphere. His return is accompanied by an article attacking the reliability of the Synoptic portrayals of Mary. Just how PW found the composure and presence of mind to do this while wishing Christians a Merry Christmas (something many Muslims say is worse than being an alcoholic or engaging in fornication or murder) remains a mystery.

Here is the rub of what PW has said about the portrayal of our Lord’s blessed mother in the synoptic gospels.
On a first reading of the gospels it is tempting to take these stories at face value: here are ancient texts that tell us what Mary the Mother of Jesus said and did. Their reliability and facticity is usually assumed without question. And this way of reading of the gospels has been ubiquitous in the Christian churches for much of the last 2000 years.
Today, however, such a reading of the gospels is no longer possible. As we have seen there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching. It is illuminating to apply the same methodology to the Gospel portraits of Mary that we have employed with such powerful effect concerning the gospel portraits of Jesus.
I want to examine how the gospel writers depict Mary the mother of Jesus.
The earliest surviving gospel, that of Mark, portrays Mary (along with Jesus’ brothers) in a negative light, placing them literally outside the crowded circle of those who make up his eschatological family – which is based on faith.
Mark 3:20-35 reads:
…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
The scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first to be written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings source known as Q. I think this is the most plausible explanation (though a few scholars disagree). So Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark. This shows us that for Matthew ‘facts’ could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note how Matthew improves the negative portrayal of Jesus’ mother and brothers in Mark: in the latter they are shown as outsiders who think Jesus is mad and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message.
Matthew has a very different positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to fit his viewpoint. He omits Mark’s negative story where Mary (and Jesus’ brothers) all try to ‘restrain’ Jesus because they thought he was ‘out of his mind’. So it is clear that there has been a development in the way Mary is presented in the Gospels. In Matthew’s gospel Mark’s negative portrayal is eliminated.
Luke (unlike Mark) also presents a highly positive portrait of Mary. In the scene parallel to Mark’s (with the brothers in the house) she is now included in the eschatological family – those who hear the word of God and do it (see Luke 8:19-21). Luke, like Matthew, omits the embarrassing and offensive passage (Mark 3: 20-21). (Emphasis original)

------------End Quote---------

Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

PW’s entire argument that Matthew and Luke are “happy to change the facts” presented in the earliest gospel rests on the following conclusion: “So Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources.” (Emphasis mine)

The premises from which this supposedly follows are:

P1: The scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first to be written (and that Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source).


P2: I think this is the most plausible explanation.

But this argument is either a non sequitur or it is elliptical and subjective. That is, the conclusion that Mark was written first and was then used by Matthew and Luke does not follow from the fact that this is the current scholarly consensus or from the fact that PW thinks it is the most plausible explanation. PW’s own rejection of the scholarly consensus regarding the crucifixion of Jesus is sufficient evidence against the force of the first premise, and the only thing that can be inferred from the conjunction of P1 and P2 is a purely subjective one: i.e. it is true for PW that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke. The only way this argument could be rescued is if we implicitly assume that whatever PW thinks is “the most plausible explanation” is necessarily or likely to be true. But of course as the “consensus of philosophers” tell us, what people take to be “plausible” is a reflection of their underlying presuppositions or worldview. Any one who does not share PW’s worldview assumptions is thus unaffected by this “argument.”

Two other points may be briefly mentioned. First, note how Paul moves from saying this hypothesis is "plausible" to saying it is certain: "So Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. But HE CLEARLY thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete." Second, note PW's assumption that he has the ability to read Matthew's mind in order to say why he (on the assumption of Markan priority/2D-hypothesis) abbreviated Mark's account. Apparently Paul does not agree with the consensus of Muslim scholars who teach that omniscience is an attribute of Allah alone.

Many other problems attend PW’s claims regarding Markan priority and the Two-document hypothesis (hereafter 2D-hyposthesis) but I will move on.

Mark and Matthew

According to PW, Mark’s negative portrayal of Mary is ELIMINATED in Matthew who gives us “a VERY DIFFERENT and POSITIVE” view of Mary because it does not include the word “restrain” or the phrase “out of his mind.”

Yet, even if we assume the 2D-hypothesis, Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be judged “very different” and “positive” simply because Matthew abbreviates Mark’s account. To be sure, Matthew does not include the words that PW finds offensive, i.e. he does not tell us why the Lord’s mother and brothers came to the house, but Matthew’s account still places Mary and the Lord’s brothers outside of “the eschatological family,” and thus comes to the same NEGATIVE conclusion as Mark.

While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are STANDING OUTSIDE seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And STRETCHING OUT HIS HAND TOWARDS HIS DISCIPLES, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)

PW’s ability to gloss right over what is clearly a negative portrayal in Matthew in order to pit it against Mark shows that his bias in favor of what he finds “plausible” is being allowed to get in the way of a more balanced reading. This is the kind of obscurantism that PW regularly accuses fundamentalists of engaging in. 

Mark and Luke

According to PW, Luke also presents a positive view of Mary. He does so by: 1) placing the Lord’s brothers IN the house, thus including Mary among the eschatological family (i.e. those who hear the word of God and do it), and 2) omitting the “embarrassing” and “offensive” statement found in Mark.

Even the most cursory and superficial glance at the passage will show that PW’s first claim is nothing short of absolutely false. Perhaps that is why PW simply gives the citation and does not actually quote the verse, possibly hoping that his readership won’t look it up. Here is what we read in Luke’s account:

And His mother and brothers came to Him, and they were UNABLE TO GET TO HIM because of the crowd. And it was reported to Him, ‘Your mother and Your brothers are STANDING OUTSIDE, wishing to see You.’ But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21)

It is hard to imagine a more obvious misreading of the passage. This is eisegesis with a vengeance. Mary and the Lord’s brothers are NOT in the house. They were unable to get near to Jesus, and they were standing outside. That much should stand out to everyone in possession of even the most modest reading comprehension skills. And it only takes a little further reflection on the passage to see that Mary and the Lord’s brothers, who were unable to get near to Jesus, are not included among “these” who hear the word of God and do it. The word “these” (v. 21) is referring to the disciples of Jesus who are in the house near to him, rather than to Mary and the Lord’s brothers who are NOT NEAR to him. The same point is underscored only two chapters later, where Luke writes:
While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed." But He said, "ON THE CONTRARY, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." (Luke 11:27-28)
As for PW’s second claim, it is simply a repeat of the error already answered above in connection with Matthew. The same response already given to the earlier instance of this claim applies here with equal force.

Astoundingly, PW concludes his article by saying that the Gospels are unreliable and asking what then is the truth about Mary. His answer? You guessed it: the Qur’an, which says nothing directly about how Mary processed what Jesus was doing at this point in His earthly ministry, tells us that Mary was chosen and pure. In other words, the Qur’an, which comes after Mark, Matthew and Luke, and that by FIVE HUNDRED years, always and only portrays Mary in a POSITIVE light, as if she never sinned and did not struggle to understand prior to the resurrection. In other words, the Qur’an ELIMINATES anything negative about Mary. To use PW’s own reasoning, since the Qur’an came along after the Synoptic gospels, it is “clear” that Muhammad was “happy to change the facts” from what we find in our earliest gospel (as well as in Matthew and Luke). 


PW says that his article, "The Blessed Virgin Mary," is an extract of his forthcoming book Resurrecting Jesus: Rediscovering the original Jesus in the light of modern Bible Scholarship and the Quran. As the above reply has shown, given the fallacious reasoning, unchecked bias, and rank eisegesis involved in PW's efforts, if the "original Jesus" needed to be rediscovered, PW would not be the man for the job. 


Unknown said...

I think PW has an untreated 'spiritual malady' (12 step talk) which can manifest itself in ways such as this, once I had read he has had issues of this nature previously I stopped considering anything he had to say with too much weight... Not because there is anything wrong with having addiction issues, but because it explains his actions a little better. He strikes me as the type of person who if Britain was a predominantly Muslim nation, would decide to become a born again Christian, however, writing books as he intends to in reverse would probably get him fatwa'd and killed in such a reverse scenario.

Radical Moderate said...

Amazing. What is funny other then Pdubs article is in the comments section. Someone points out how the various translations of the Quran have been sanitized. Pdubs response: "Do you speak Arabic"... and then on another comment PDUB says "I have spoken to those that speak Arabic and they assure me that Asads translation is closer to the meaning". Simply amazing

Anonymous said...

Good article

Jesus was not being negative towards his mother and brothers but was simply using the situation as an opportunity to explain the big picture regarding our obedience to God i.e. “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”

It makes no difference whether it is Mark, Mathew or Luke describing the same incident (from their individual perspectives and style of writing), it is still the same overall message.

PW says “Luke, like Matthew, omits the embarrassing and offensive passage (Mark 3: 20-21)”

An accusation of insanity/madness does not make it true.

The “embarrassing and offensive passage” was included in order to relate the events, and from the writer’s (Mark) perspective.

That something from Mark was not included in Luke and Matthew is just an argument from silence and does not prove that it was “embarrassing” but rather, like other ‘discrepancies’ in the gospels, was simply a result of the individual perspectives and style of writing of each of the gospel’s writers.

The events described in the gospels occurred over months and years with each of the writers not necessarily having been in the same position, or, had they been in the same position, even having had exactly the same perspective of the same event.

Not everyone sees and hears things exactly the same way since we are not all necessarily focused on exactly the same point at the same time during an event. Also, one or two writers may have been present at an event and would later have related the event to the ones that were not.

But this in no way interferes with the overall message of the bad news of sin and death, and the good news of salvation through Christ.

PW’s whole argument is really an attempt to bear false witness (Exodus 20:16) against the Gospel of Christ, which also means that he is by default working for the devil.

Hazakim1 said...

Anthony Rogers done-diddit agin! Lovely deconstruction of Paulie's blatant distortions and illogical assumptions.

Unknown said...

Can Paul Williams cite a single reputable and independent New Testament scholar or historian who has found evidence which leads him to conclude that Jesus was a Muslim?

Can Paul Williams cite single respected and independent New Testament scholar who has found credible evidence for the claim that Jesus rejected the Torah that existed in the first century as corrupt?

Can Paul Williams cite single respected and independent New Testament scholar who has found any evidence for the existence of a book called the “Injeel” given to Jesus by Allah?

Let me quote Bart Ehrman, the New Testament historian who is probably most frequently quoted by Muslims.

In his lecture “Jesus the apocalyptic prophet” Ehrman states the following:

“In the case of Jesus there is a clear and consistent trend when it comes to the apocalyptic materials. Our earliest sources ‘Q’, Mark, ‘M’ and ‘L’ all portray Jesus apocalyptically”.

Bart Ehrman’s historical Jesus as found in ‘Q’, Mark, ‘M’ and ‘L’ demolishes the myth that Muhammad was a prophet.

Nakdimon said...

Really, reading Muslim apologists' attempts to "rediscover Jesus" makes me wonder how one can suspend logic as they do. You have to be able to literally KILL YOUR BRAIN in order to not see the falacy of your own reasoning.

To be honest, I sometimes write stuff, re-read it to play the devil's advocate and defeat my own argument, only to rephrase my argument to make it sound or drop it altogether. Muslims simply seem to have no such integrity whatsoever!

I am literally DISGUSTED by Islamic apologists and their application of illogic, double standards and sheer bias against what is common sense reasoning. Never have I come accross a religion that demands a suspense of reasoning to substantiate its claims as is the case with Islam!

Unknown said...

There is something about Islam that turns men’s minds to mush.