On Saturday June 7, 2008 a ground-breaking debate was held between Dr. Douglas Jacoby, Imam Shabir Ally and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.  Below is a review of that debate with commentary by Dr. John Oakes

Review of the Debate

Judaism, Christianity, Islam:  Which is the True Legacy of Abraham?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: author, scholar, TV personality, world-renowned public speaker and debater (including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens)

Dr. Douglas Jacoby:  author, scholar, minister, principal instructor of the Athens Institute of Ministry, and debater (including Michael Shermer).

Imam Shabir Ally:  lecturer, author, scholar, world renowned authority on Islam, and debater.

            What can I say about this debate?  You should have been there.  If you know him personally as many of us do, you would have been so proud of Dr. Douglas Jacoby.  The good news is that you can relive the event, or live it for the first time, as a DVD of the debate is available at www.ipibooks.com.

            For myself, the debate was as much about being educated and exposed to the Jewish and Muslim perspective on Christianity as it was a debate over historical legacy.  Even putting on the event was an education.  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an Orthodox Jew.  This affected the logistics of the debate, as the event was held on a Saturday night.  Shmuley had to walk to the event, a distance of 1.5 miles in the rain.  He could not speak into a microphone until 45 minutes after sunset, which meant that he could not come to the podium until 9:09 PM.

            The tone of the debate was extremely cordial.  One got the impression that the debaters respected and genuinely liked each other-almost as if they regretted having to make strongly worded statements for their respective religion and against the teaching or practice of the others.

 In each round of the debate, Dr. Jacoby spoke first.  He was careful to point out that much good has been done by both Jews and Muslims.  Christianity does not have full claim to holding the legacy of Abraham.   Muhammad brought belief in one God to the highly pagan Arab nations.  The Jews brought the Law of Moses to humanity.  Jesus was a Jew.  

Having said that, Douglas offered several reasons Christianity fulfills the legacy of Abraham more fully.  He noted from Genesis 12:3 that all along God intended for Abraham’s descendants to come from all nations.  Although the Jews undoubtedly represented the true legacy of Abraham at one time, they have lost their vision to spread faith in the God of Israel to all nations.  Christianity, with its 1.8 billion adherents, has taken on that mantle.  With regard to Islam, Dr. Jacoby pointed out that Jesus, not Muhammad is the "prophet like you from among your (i.e. Moses’) brothers" (Deut 18:15).  He also proposed that the violence which seems endemic to Islam, both historically and because of what is written in the Koran is not a legitimate part of the legacy of Abraham.  He quoted from the Koran a passage in which men are admonished to beat their wives if they are not obedient as evidence that Islam has lost its way in terms of exercising justice toward women.

Imam Shabir Ally spoke second.  He too expressed that Judaism and Christianity can be considered part of the legacy of Abraham and, as with Dr. Jacoby, noted their positive contributions.  Nevertheless he expressed a few reasons he believes Islam most accurately represents the spirit of Abraham.  First, he claimed that Abraham came with his son and visited the Kabah in Mecca, although he offered no support for this claim.  Second, he faulted Christianity for its pacifist roots, claiming this is more because the Christians were the "losers" politically in their immediate historical context, whereas the Muslims were victorious.  In other words, he claimed that the New Testament writers changed the original sayings of Jesus so as to make him less offensive to the Roman rulers they were under.  He claimed that Jesus would never have played up to the Romans as do the New Testament writers.  He continued by providing what he felt was good evidence that the Koran is the inspired Word of God.  His reasoning is that the Arabic word "day" appears 365 times in the Koran, which "cannot be a coincidence." (His opponents later pointed out that the Arabic lunar year does not have 365 days, to which Ally had no response).  There are many other numerical coincidences involving integer multiples of the prime number nineteen which show the divine source of the Koran.

Rabbi Shmuley spoke last because of his restriction as an Orthodox Jew against using a microphone on the Sabbath.  Shmuley seemed most eager of the three to be inclusive of the three great faiths in the legacy of Abraham.  He praised both Islam and Christianity for bringing monotheism and the worship of the one true God to the masses of humanity, something he admitted the Jews have not done quite so well.  He was particularly strong in his praise of Islam for its staunch monotheism, but a bit hesitant to endorse Christianity’s tendency to make Jesus of Nazareth into deity.  The Rabbi was glowing in his praise of Christianity, acknowledging that a majority of the benevolent work in the world today is done by Christian groups.  Shmuley almost reluctantly pointed out the problems with Christianity and Islam.  First of all, he takes strong exception to the Christian implication that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.  He felt that this responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the Romans and chided Christianity for trying to put the blame on the Jews. (Dr. Jacoby was later quite clear that he does not at all blame the Jews for killing Jesus, but he does believe the Jewish leaders at the time for betraying the people of God.)  He faulted Christian scripture, in part, for the persecution of the Jews.  He admonished Muslims in general and Shabir Ally specifically to renounce terrorism, violence and the abuse of women.

A period of rebuttal ensued.  Dr Jacoby claimed that anyone can use a computer program to find numerical coincidences in the Koran or the Bible for that matter.  What Islam lacks is fulfilled prophecies such as Isaiah 53, Zechariah 11:7-12, Isaiah 9:1f, Micah 5:2 and even such early prophecies as Genesis 3:15.  In fact, he challenged Imam Ally to offer a single prophecy in either the Old or the New Testament which predicted the coming of Muhammad.  Shabir later mentioned John 16:5-11, although he appeared a bit hesitant to use this passage.  With more confidence he said that Muhammad, not Jesus is the prophet mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15, specifically because Jesus claimed to be God’s Son, which is not mentioned in Deuteronomy 18.  Jacoby challenged Rabbi Shmuley that the Hebrew Bible predicts a suffering savior in Isaiah 53, which is consistent with Jesus of Nazareth, along with a number of other prophecies in the Hebrew scripture.

Imam Ally countered that Christianity cannot be the legacy of Abraham because it does not make sense that God would punish Jesus for the sins someone else committed.  This is not just and God is just.  He continued to defend his numerical analysis to support the inspiration of the Koran.  He responded to the specific charge that the Koran justifies violence against women in the passage on "beating your wives."  He claimed that Muslim scholars, who are more qualified to interpret the Arabic language that either Jacoby or Boteach, give this passage a much different interpretation.  He pointed out (and his opponents were willing to concede) that the Koran sets a much higher standard for the treatment of women than what is practiced is some Islamic cultures today.  With regard to the violence perpetrated by certain Muslims, he pointed out that the Christians are far from innocent in this matter.  Indeed, when they persecuted the Jews in Spain and elsewhere, it was the Muslims who gave them a home.  He claimed that true Muslims reject terrorism and that only defensive war is anticipated in the Koran.  He also made the controversial statement that Samson was a Jewish suicide "bomber" (Judges 17:21-30).  This accusation was rejected by Boteach on the grounds that Samson was shackled, tortured and mutilated by his captors, which is not like a suicide bomber.

Rabbi Boteach made a strong argument that no matter what anyone says, the Jews, more than anyone else, hold up the one true God, the Abrahamic ethics, and the call to faith combined with repentance.  He did not so easily accept that the Koran only anticipates defensive war.  He strongly rejected what he feels is  the Christian doctrine of original sin, which would make God unjust.  God would never hold an infant responsible for the sin of Adam or anyone else.  He also said the belief that it was God’s plan to have Jesus killed as a substitute for our personal sin cannot be the legacy of Abraham because it is not just.  He criticized what he sees as the Christian teaching that we are saved by faith alone apart from deeds of repentance, stating that this is not consistent with the life of Abraham.  He pointed out that in the Old Testament the sacrifices are only for sins committed accidentally.  The only way to atone for willful sin is repentance, not the blood of a sacrifice.  He strongly intimated that obedience and repentance are the key human qualities needed to have a relationship with God.  These are the qualities stressed in modern Judaism.

Douglas undercut Shmuley’s criticism of Christianity when he agreed that Original Sin is not the legacy of Abraham, nor is it a teaching of the New Testament.  It was created by the Catholic Theologian Augustine about AD 400.  With regard to the faith only doctrine, Jacoby rejected this as well,  completely agreeing with his Jewish counterpart that repentance and obedience are required for the atonement for sin.  In the heat of the moment, Dr. Jacoby did not get an opportunity to answer the charge that it is not just for Jesus to be punished for the sins of other people.  (In a personal communication after the debate, Douglas related to me that this was not for lack of having a clear answer to the question, as Jesus willingly chose to offer to take the punishment on himself.  This, in his view, undercuts the charge of injustice.  There are many examples in human history of a hero offering his or herself to take the penalty for a group of people.  This is not considered by most to be an injustice, but rather a noble sacrifice for the sake of the people).  Like Boteach, he was not prepared to accept Ally’s contention that the Koran does not sanction violence, quoting specific passages from the Koran about not taking prisoners, cutting off hands and so forth and mentioning the caravan raiding activities of Muhammad and his sanctioning of the massacre of hundreds of Jews.   He also criticized the Koran’s picture of heaven as appealing to our worldly desires.  He vigorously defended the pacifism of Jesus.

In the third round of debate Shabir Ally mainly reiterated his previous statements.  He defended the massacre of Jews in Medina on the grounds that these people stubbornly opposed the teaching of Muhammad.  He defended the claim that Abraham honored the future prophet Muhammad by coming with Ishmael to Mecca.  He pointed out the polytheistic leanings of Christianity, implying that Jesus himself would not make such a claim, as no prophet would claim deity.  He strongly rejected the Jewish picture of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as sinners and deceivers.  The picture of the prophets in the Koran as sinless or nearly so is much more attractive than the weak and sinful picture of the prophets in the Hebrew scripture.

Rabbi Shmuley defended the Old Testament picture of Abraham.  He claimed that a human prophet is what we need, not some sort of impossibly perfect prophet we cannot relate to.  He shocked the crowd by claiming that anyone who practiced godly ethics and treated others with dignity and love can be "saved," even an atheist.  He came back to his theme that we should not attack each other’s religion, but should stand together against the polytheism and the worldliness of others.  He called on Muslims to give Israel a place in the Holy Land and thanked the Christians for being the best friend of modern Israel.

The opponents in this debate, as you can see, had some rather sharp points of contention with their counterparts.  Despite this, one got a real sense that this was done in a spirit of humility on the part of all.  The debaters readily smiled at each other, conceded points at times when it was appropriate, readily noted positive points about the other religions and treated each other with a respect and friendliness which did not at all seem put on for the debate.  If only their counterparts in the religious and political world could behave with such dignity, good humor, respect and humility, the world would be a much better place.

Commentary on the Debate from an admittedly biased observer

            Up to this point, I have attempted to be as fair and factual as I can be in describing what happened in the debate.  My description is not complete as I do not have a tape of the event and I did not take notes.  However, I believe the description above represents more or less fairly the main points expressed in the debate.  At this point I want to express my personal viewpoint and what I learned as a spectator.

            First of all, with a debate, everyone wants to know who "won."  If this were a boxing match and we were scoring points for punches and knockdowns, it is my personal opinion that it may well have been a tie between Jacoby and Boteach, with a slight edge for Douglas.   With his humor and dignity, Boteach seemed somewhat above the fray.  Besides, most of the criticisms were leveled against Christianity and Islam, not Judaism.  He was a bit like an incumbent in a political race watching the opponents in the other party duke it out, staying above the battle.  His clarion call to treat others with dignity and respect in some ways set the tone for the entire debate.  Having said that, Douglas Jacoby probably had the clearest and most well-formed arguments.  In each round of the debate, his arguments were stronger and more specific.  He quoted directly from Boteach and Ally a number of times.  Although all three were impressively well-prepared, Jacoby seemed the best arguer and best prepared of the three.  On the negative side for the Christian point of view, Jacoby did not have a response to the accusation from both Ally and Boteach that the death of Jesus on the cross is not rational from the human point of view with regard to justice.  If Ally "lost" the debate it is not for doing a poor job.  In fact, his presentation was quite impressive.  Personally, I was prepared for him to look a bit foolish with regard to the legacy of Abraham.  This was definitely not how it turned out.  If he lost the debate it may be at least in part because his religion has the weakest position with regard to the historical legacy of Abraham.  It is hard to argue the historical legacy of the Jews and the fulfilled prophecy angle for Jesus is a very strong point without an equivalent in the case of Muhammad.   His argument for the inspiration of the Koran based on numerology came across to the audience as not credible.  He was not able to completely escape the charge that Muhammad and the Koran sanction violence.  Despite all this, I heard a number who were at the debate declaring that it was a three-way tie.

            I would like to share what I learned from the debate.  Foremost, all those who participated gained a very helpful understanding of how the Muslim and the Jew view Christianity and Jesus in particular.  While the biggest problem for Islam, at least in this debate, was the militarism of Muhammad, it was quite surprising to me that one of the biggest problems for Christianity in the debate was the pacifism of Jesus.  The Rabbi challenged the Christian ethic here.  He said that he hates Osama Bin Laden.  He almost ridiculed the Christian position and challenged Douglas, "Do you love Osama Bin Laden?"  Doug’s response was excellent, when he said the way to love Bin Laden is to call him to repent, not to be nice to him.  Nevertheless, I was made to feel a bit defensive with regard to the call from Jesus to turn the other cheek.  This was a revelation to me.

            The most profound thing I learned from this debate was from the question Douglas did not answer.  Why is it just for a completely innocent man to die so that a guilty person can go free?  That Jesus willingly offered himself answers this question in part, but I was reminded in the most striking way that at the heart of Christianity there is an element of the irrational.  As an apologist, I am used to defending Christianity using rational arguments.  Christianity does quite well from a rational analysis.  However, I am tempted to forget that, "Faith is assurance of things unseen."  There are things about the Christian gospel which simply do not make sense from a human point of view.  Turning the other cheek is not logical.   Paul reminds us in Romans 5:6-8 that a righteous man dying for the unrighteous enemy is something that in the human world is just not done.  I believe the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter one sums up what I learned quite well.

For to those who are perishing the message of the cross is foolishness, but to those of us who are being saved it is God’s power.  For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise

And I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the debater of this age?  Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish?  For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.  For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Those of you who know Douglas Jacoby would have been so proud of how well he did.  You also would have been proud of the gospel message and the powerful argument which can be made that Christianity is the religion which makes the most sense from the point of view of evidence and rational argument.  However, for me, what was brought out most clearly is that in the final analysis there is a part of the gospel message which is "foolishness" to the world.  Jesus Christ of Nazareth, born of woman, fulfiller of all the prophecies in the Hebrew scripture, contrary to all human logic and reason, willingly laid down his life so that a hopelessly guilty sinner like me can be right with God.  This point may not win a lot of debates, but it is the most important truth of all.

John Oakes

Comments are closed.