Were the Gospels Written Under Divine Inspiration? A Response to Abu Zakariya (Part 1)

This past weekend I attended an Islamic exhibition at the city library in Newcastle, England. The subject of the exhibition was the Islamic perspective on Jesus. During the course of the day, I was given a copy of a new book by Muslim apologist/polemicist Abu Zakariya. The book is entitled Jesus: Man, Messenger, Messiah. I have now had the opportunity to read through the book, and so I thought it fitting for me to write a detailed review of some of the material and argumentation presented in the book. Although Zakariya, to his credit, pursues more depth in his discussion than most Muslim treatments of this subject (although that isn’t very hard to do), the book still engages in a significant level of mangling of the Biblical text. Over the course of this and subsequent blog posts, I want to interact with some of the central claims of Abu Zakariya’s book, since I thought it a good opportunity to explore some popular fallacies of thought that occur when people study the Scriptures. I will not be interacting with the book in order, but dipping into various parts of the book that I took a particular interest in. Readers will recognize that I have addressed much of the material in various blog posts and talks/interviews/debates before. Nonetheless, it is always valuable to repeat material and so I will be reiterating some material I have touched on in the past, and perhaps on occasion delving into more detail than I did previously — but a lot of what I want to write about I have not covered before in my writings. If Abu Zakariya is interested in a public engagement regarding his book (in the form of a moderated debate), I will be only too happy to oblige.

One chapter I found to be particularly interesting in the book was chapter 5, in which Zakariya makes a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible — namely, the Qur’an’s claim in Surah 4:157 that Jesus did not die by crucifixion. In this and subsequent articles, I aim to examine how well he does in this undertaking.

Do the Gospels Claim Divine Inspiration?

Zakariya’s first wave of attack is against the divine inspiration of the New Testament. I would not argue that the reason we know Jesus was crucified is because the text of the New Testament is inspired by God, for this is very difficult to convincingly demonstrate without first using the tools and methods of historiography. Rather, we know Jesus was crucified because of overwhelming historical evidence (which we will of course discuss in due course).

Zakariya asserts on page 93 that,

None of the authors of these books claimed to be writing under divine inspiration.

The problem with this statement is that it is patently false. Consider John 14:26:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

Thus, one of the functions of the Holy Spirit, according to words uttered by Jesus and recorded in John’s gospel was to bring to the disciples’ remembrance the things that Jesus had said and taught. Indeed, in John 2:22, after Jesus has just predicted His impending death and resurrection, we are told,

When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

It was brought to their remembrance by the Holy Spirit, as indicated in John 14:26. Thus, this is indeed a claim to divine inspiration of the apostles to remember Jesus’ teachings.

Did Paul Consider the Gospels to be Divinely Inspired?

Zakariya then proceeds to make allusion to 2 Timothy 3:16, in which we read that,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

He notes that, Paul here was,

…referring to the Old Testament Scriptures which did exist at the time the author penned 2 Timothy.

It is certainly true that Paul believed the Old Testament was Scripture, and thus god-breathed (‘theopneustos’). Indeed, in context it is the Hebrew Scriptures that Paul was referring to in 2 Timothy 3:16. But did Paul also view the gospels as Scripture? Zakariya assumes that the gospels were not yet written when Paul wrote to Timothy, but I would argue that the evidence as far as the synoptic gospels are concerned suggests otherwise. Turn over to Paul’s previous letter to Timothy, to 1 Timothy 5:18:

For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

The first text is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second (“the laborer deserves his wages”) comes directly from Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:7). Therefore, Paul equates Luke’s gospel as Scripture on the same par as the Penatateuch. This has implications of course for the dating of Luke’s gospel, for Luke must pre-date the writing of 1 Timothy by far enough to be considered Scripture when Paul wrote to Timothy (in the early 60’s A.D.). If Matthew and Mark are earlier than Luke (which is the conventional scholarly view) then Matthew and Mark must be even earlier still. Given the independent evidence for the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles (1/2 Timothy & Titus), this conclusion (in combination also with other evidence for the early dating of the gospels) seems rather convincing. But a detailed discussion of these topics would take me beyond the scope of our current discussion.

The Synoptic Puzzle

Zakariya then proceeds with a discussion of the synoptic puzzle, and the well-known literary dependence between Matthew, Mark and Luke. To support the literary dependence between the synoptics, Zakariya cites Matthew 24:15-16 and Mark 13:14, where he states that both writers insert the same editorial comment into their narrative:

  • Matthew 24:15-16: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.
  • Mark 13:14: “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 

No one will contest that a literary relationship exists between Matthew and Mark. However, it is not clear to me (as it appears to be to many) that the statement “let the reader understand” is an editorial comment inserted into the account of Jesus’ speech here. This is often assumed by commentaries on Mark but seldom demonstrated. Consider earlier in Mark’s gospel, in 4:9,23, in which we read,

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This is strikingly similar to our statement in Mark 13:14 (again using a third person singular imperative), but nobody would argue that this is an editorial insert into the words of Jesus as represented by Mark. The abomination of desolation spoken of in Mark 13:14 is an allusion to the book of Daniel (12:11). Thus, what I understand Jesus to be saying here is that the one who reads those prophecies are to take care that they understand correctly as they read. See this article by Dr. Larry Perkins of Northwest Baptist Seminary for a detailed discussion of the phrase “let the reader understand” in Mark 13:14.

Although the fact that there exists a literary dependence between the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is uncontroversial and abundantly supported, the conclusions Zakariya attempts to draw are not well-founded, although they are popular claims, even among many scholars. His basic contention is that the gospel authors deliberately altered one another in order to embellish their portrayals of Jesus. This relates to one of the bad habits of New Testament scholars — i.e. preference for complex over simple theories, in this case the failure to recognize when a variation is just a variation. Furthermore, it is often uncritically assumed that the gospel authors had each others’ work laid out before them as they wrote their own gospels. This is implausible and impractical. It’s not like the ancients could simply click on windows on their desktop or use multiple monitors while composing their respective volumes. In fact, it would have been very difficult for them to have each other’s work in front of them, much more so all at the same time — these are all big scrolls. It seems rather unlikely that the gospel authors were constantly rolling and unrolling each other’s scrolls and looking up passages and then scurrying back to their own scroll and writing another passage or chapter. Rather, most probably they had taken notes from their sources before composing their own narrative.

This is part of remembering that a variation is often just a variation. Insisting that later authors were always conscious of precisely how their wording, chronology, or nuances varied from that of earlier authors is far too similar to the ponderous assumptions of redaction criticism itself in which Matthew or Luke are taken to write a scene in different words from Mark only by deliberately changing Mark. Matthew and Luke are never allowed to compose naturally and smoothly in their own words. They are always thinking of how what he says relates to Mark and whether or not to use the same or different words. 

Gospel Embellishments?

Before discussing further Zakariya’s examples of one gospel embellishing another, I want to note that all of his examples assume Markian priority — that is, that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written. Now, there is no question that Mark and Matthew/Luke are literarily dependent, but the question is, in which direction? The majority of contemporary scholarship maintains that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke drew upon Mark. The conclusion that Mark’s gospel was first to be written is so paradigmatic in contemporary Biblical scholarship that it is often taken for granted, and many are unaware of the problems that exist for this hypothesis. Recently, I have been coming more towards the view that Mark may well have been written after Matthew and Luke. On this view, Mark used Matthew and Luke as a source rather than the other way round. For a good defense of this thesis, I refer readers to an insightful book by Dr. David Black (Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary), Why Four Gospels? Such a thesis is consistent with the early church tradition that Matthew was the first gospel composed. The church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes the writing of Clement of Alexandria (Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7), saying,

And again in the same books Clement has set down a tradition of the earliest elders about the order of the Gospels, and it has this form. He used to say that the earliest written Gospels were those containing the genealogies, and that the Gospel of Mark had this arrangement. When Peter had publicly preached the word in Rome and by the Spirit had proclaimed the gospel, those present, who were numerous, urged Mark, as one who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been spoken, to record what was said. And he did this, handing over the Gospel to those who had asked for it. And when Peter got to know about it, he exerted no pressure either to forbid or to promote it.

The gospels containing the genealogies are Matthew and Luke. Thus, according to Clement of Alexandria, Mark was written only after those gospels. At least four lines of internal evidence can be drawn on to corroborate this perspective. These are:

First, there is the pericope order and the zigzag phenomenon. J.J. Griesbach (1745-1812), a German biblical textual critic, in Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies, p. 108, observes,

Briefly, you can see with your own eyes, Mark having the volumes of Matthew and Luke at hand, continually consulting each, extracting from each whatever he thought would most benefit his readers, now laying aside Matthew, now Luke for a little, but always returning to the very same place of either one where he had begun to diverge from him.

Griesbach provided a table to reveal how Mark jumps between Matthew and Luke in a ‘zigzag’ fashion. For instance, consider the following example of the zigzagging phenomenon:

  • Mark 14:12a: Matthew
  • Mark 14:12b: Luke
  • Mark 14:12c: Matthew
  • Mark 14:13a: Luke
  • Mark 14:13b: Matthew
  • Mark 14:13c-16: Luke
  • Mark 14:17-21: Matthew

This suggests that Mark was utilizing Matthew and Luke as a source, rather than the other way round. Markian priority requires that one otherwise explain this phenomenon.

Second, the vivid detail often added by Mark to the narratives in Matthew and Luke suggest that the author was familiar with both of the other gospels. Additional detail is usually an indication of dependence and lateness.

Third, the minor agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark are best explained by Markian dependence on Matthew and Luke. The defender of Markian priority must explain why in as many as 180 instances, Matthew and Luke independently left out identical sentences and phrases from Mark’s gospel.

Fourth, there is evidence that Mark has conflated the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Consider, for example, Mark 1:32, which parallels Matthew 8:16 and Luke 4:40. Notice how Mark conflates his sources Matthew and Luke:

  • Matthew 8:16: When evening came…
  • Luke 4:40: The sun having set…
  • Mark 1:32: When evening came, when the sun had set…

One example of this phenomenon of course is not a convincing argument for discounting Markian priority, but when one considers it as a cumulative case based on many numerous examples of the phenomenon (and especially in view of the other independent evidence), the case seems to me to be rather strong for rejecting Markian priority. It seems to me rather non-parsimonious to suppose that Matthew and Luke on so many different occasions chose the opposite statements from Mark to draw on for their own narrative. For further discussion of this, I refer readers to Rethinking the Gospel Sources: From Proto-Mark to Mark by Dr. Delbert Burkett (Professor of Biblical Studies at Louisiana State University) — see in particular chapter 6, which covers conflation in Mark.

With all that stated, we have significantly undermined in principle the thrust of Zakariya’s argument for gospel embellishments from Mark through to Matthew and Luke. But there is yet another in principle difficulty with this argument, and that is that the examples are cherry-picked. Other instances could be given where Christology appears to be elevated in Mark over other gospels. Consider, for example, the words of the centurion at Jesus’ death. Consider the parallels between the synoptic gospels:

  • Mark 15:39: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
  • Matthew 27:54: “Truly this was the Son of God!”
  • Luke 23:47: “Certainly this man was innocent!”

Thus, while Matthew and Mark agree about the words of the centurion, if we were to employ here the same line of argument employed by Zakariya and others, we would conclude that Luke changed the words of the centurion so as to portray Jesus as merely an innocent man, rather than the Son of God. But Zakariya does not mention this example, since it does not support the overall thesis that he wants to argue for.

Another example is at Jesus’ trial:

  • Mark 14:61-62: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
  • Matthew 26:63-64: But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • Luke 22:70: So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.”

Here, again, the identity of Jesus is more emphatic in Mark than it is in Matthew and Luke. Are we really to suppose that Matthew and Luke changed the words of Mark in order to lessen the emphaticness of Jesus’ statement to be the Messiah and Son of God? Hardly.

But let’s take a look at the examples Zakariya provides.

Zakariya quotes the story of the woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:23-34, Matthew 9:20-22) and comments:

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew narrate a story about a woman who seeks to be cured by touching Jesus’s cloak. In Mark, Jesus does not seem to know who touched him; he even asks the crowd. Only after the woman comes forward and confesses does Jesus know who touched him. Contrast this with Matthew’s account which omits a large portion of the story and instead has Jesus immediately spotting who touched him. Matthew seems to want to portray Jesus in a more powerful light.

Luke also narrates this story (Luke 8:41-48) and he does include Jesus’ question of who touched him. Matthew’s account (9:20-22) is a telescoped narrative and the story is summarized in two verses, as opposed to 11 verses in Mark and 7 verses in Luke. This is an instance where a variation is just a variation!

His second example is the incident of Jesus and the question of eternal life. He refers to the incident where Jesus was approached by a rich young ruler and asked how he might inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-18, Matthew 19:16-17). According to Zakariya,

Matthew seems to have been troubled by the implication of the statement “Why do you call me good?” and therefore re-phrased it (very slightly) to “Why do you ask me about what is good” so as to avoid the difficult implication that Jesus might be admitting to not being wholly ‘good’.

Mark very clearly affirms Christ’s deity, throughout his gospel (for a detailed defense of this, see this excellent paper by Dr. Daniel Johansson), so Jesus’ meaning in Mark 10:17-18 must be interpreted within the context of Mark as a whole. Regarding our text in Mark 10:17-18, Johansson comments,

To begin with, Jesus questions why the man is addressing him, “good teacher”: “Why do you call me good?” and, echoing the words of the scribes in 2:7, he continues, “No one is good but one, God.” Jesus then goes on to refer the man to the commandments, “You know the commandments…” This transition has led some scholars to conclude that Jesus distances himself from God and that he can only respond to the question by pointing to God’s commandment. This would probably be correct if we were to isolate 10:17-19 from the context, but in the present context quite the opposite is true. Mark describes how Jesus both discerns the secrets of the man’s heart and then himself goes on to define what is necessary to inherit eternal life: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (10:21). It is not sufficient to keep the commandments to inherit eternal life, as the man claims he has done; he must give up everything he owns and follow Jesus. Consequently, Jesus does not only himself define what is required for entrance into the kingdom of God; at the climax of his declaration he binds it to himself!

Johannson concludes,

The point of the passage is clear. Loyalty to Jesus must surpass loyalty to family and property; only by following him is salvation and entrance into the kingdom of God possible. With regard to the person of Jesus this means that he occupies a place normally reserved for God alone. Or to put it the other way around: only in the giving of unreserved devotion to Jesus is the demand of the Shema to love God fulfilled. But this also means that the “following” of Jesus takes on a much deeper meaning than the physical wandering with Jesus, a meaning which most clearly comes to expression in the choice Elijah puts before the people: “If YHWH is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kgs 18:21).

Zakariya’s third example relates to the incident of the disciples and Jesus sailing on a boat (Mark 4:38-40, Luke 8:23-25). He comments,

Mark portrays the disciples as rather disrespectful towards Jesus, as they accuse him of being uncaring. Even the response of Jesus is harsh, “Do you still have no faith?” Luke neutralizes these negative portrayals by having the disciples address Jesus more respectfully, and softens Jesus’s response to “Where is your faith?” 

I fail to see much difference between the statement “Do you still have no faith?” and “Where is your faith?” Again, it seems that here once more a variation is just a variation.

His fourth and final example is the last words of Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:34, Luke 23:46). He comments,

The Gospels of Mark and Luke record the last words of Jesus. In Mark, Jesus utters the blasphemous words of despair “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke’s account deletes these troubling words and replaces them with the far more submissive statement “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

But in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is portrayed as being fully aware of the purpose of his death on the cross (e.g. Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). And the words uttered by Jesus in Mark 15:34 (also in Matthew 27:46) identify him with the Psalmist’s words in Psalm 22. The fact that Luke omits this saying is simply, once again, only a variation and nothing more.


In conclusion, while many of Zakariya’s claims in this section of the book are popular, even among those conversant in Biblical scholarship, he fails to make a convincing case. In a subsequent article, I will address Zakariya’s comments on the foretelling of the crucifixion in the Old Testament Scriptures.

6 thoughts on “Were the Gospels Written Under Divine Inspiration? A Response to Abu Zakariya (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Was the Crucifixion of Jesus Foretold in the Old Testament: A Response to Abu Zakariya – Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

  2. Pingback: Were the Stories About Jesus Passed on Reliably? A Response to Abu Zakariya – Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

  3. Pingback: Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony? A Response to Abu Zakariya - Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

  4. Pingback: Does the Qur'an Have the True Insight Into the Crucifixion? A Response to Abu Zakariya (Part 5) - Jonathan McLatchie | Writer, Speaker, Scholar

  5. Hey Jonathan, the link to the paper that Daniel Johansson in defence of high Marken Christology doesn’t work. There doesn’t even seem to be a link. Regardless, I can’t access the paper you linked in defense of high Marken Christology.

    1. Thank you, Peter, for bringing this to my attention. I have now fixed this so you should be able to access it.


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