Post Author: Bill Pratt
In a previous blog post, I was quoting from historical scholar Mike Licona on the importance of the apostle Paul’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection. There are skeptics, however, who want to discount Paul. One such skeptic is atheist Michael Martin, who questions why Christians accept Paul’s testimony, but not Muhammad’s testimony about the angel Gabriel.
Mike Licona picks up the challenge in his book The Resurrection of Jesus:
Martin cites as a primary source of revelation the conversion of Muhammad from polytheism to monotheism based on an appearance to him of the angel Gabriel. According to Muhammad, Gabriel directly communicated revelation from heaven: the Qur’an. So why accept Paul’s testimony while rejecting Muhammad’s?
Martin’s point has some weight. Muhammad’s testimony that Gabriel revealed the Quran to him appears four times in the Qur’an. Accordingly, both the Qur’an and Paul may qualify as providing eyewitness testimony. However, Martin overlooks some very important differences.
What are the differences between Paul and Muhammad? There are several that need to be examined:
First, the overall sources for the event are far from equal in quality. Outside of the Quranic texts, the appearance of Gabriel to Muhammad is found in the early biographies and hadith, all of which were written more than two hundred years after Muhammad’s death. These are secondary sources that are, in a sense, similar to Luke’s accounts of Paul s conversion. However, Luke’s accounts are much closer to the time of the events they purport to describe and may even be provided by a traveling companion of Paul, whereas the Muslim sources are more than two hundred years removed from Muhammad.
For example, Luke is reporting events in Acts that allegedly occurred between A.D. 30-62 and is writing between A.D. 61-90. He is writing 31-60 years after the events and may have personally known some of the subjects. In the case of the biographies and hadith, the earliest sources are more than two hundred years removed from the subjects and could not have had any first-, second-, third- or fourth-hand acquaintance with them. Accordingly, although the biographies and hadith probably contain some traditions that go back to Muhammad, those traditions are not of the same historical quality of the traditions preserved in the New Testament literature.
Second, Paul’s experience is in a sense corroborated by other eyewitnesses who claimed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them. Friend and foe alike reported that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to them in both individual and group settings. On the other hand, Muhammad is the only one who claimed to have been visited by Gabriel in connection with the rise of Islam.
Third, Muhammad’s dissatisfaction with the paganism and idolatry in his society existed prior to his alleged revelations. Thus no conversion from polytheism occurred as a result of his religious experience, even according to Muslim sources. On the other hand, Paul seems to have been quite content with and extremely sold out to his strict sect within Judaism. Indeed, he was on his way to arresting Christians on his own initiative when his experience occurred. Muhammad’s experience confirmed his views, while Paul’s opposed his.
Perhaps most important of all, however, is that historians need not deny that Muhammad had an experience that he interpreted as a supernatural being appearing to him. They are at liberty to support an alternate explanation to Muhammad’s for the experience just as they do for the experiences of Jesus’ disciples.
There you have it: a quick and concise summary of some key differences between the testimony of Paul and the testimony of Muhammad. I consider Martin’s challenge answered.