Robert Spencer just published an extraordinarily inaccurate piece about my work. I would not normally dignify Spencer with a reply, but his piece appeared at jihadwatch, which has among its followers a significant number of folks who feel the need to send hate-filled screeds against those who meet their displeasure. While such dingbat mail is often amusing, it is disquieting to see the depth of pathological hatred that such readers feel about any reference to Islam that seeks to be scholarly or objective. As they won’t have got any kind of accurate statement from Spencer’s account, let me state my argument again, as simply and clearly as possible.
I published an article at Aleteia.com, which made the following argument. A group of ninth century Islamic scholars collected many sayings attributed to Jesus. Most of these bear a very close resemblance to materials found at an early stratum of the Christian gospel tradition, especially within the Jewish-Christian movements. So close are the resemblances that it looks as if they are drawing on an early Sayings Gospel, which would not be surprising given the ancient Christian survivals in Syria or Mesopotamia.
However, in that same context, those same writers also include a number of other non-canonical texts that look startlingly like known Christian agrapha, that is, uncollected sayings preserved by early Fathers, and other ancient documents. Such agrapha are a very well-known subject for scholars of Early Christianity, and they appear in many different cultures. It is very well known and widely recognized that some appear in Islamic contexts.
This may be a glaringly obvious comment, but what I am doing is an absolutely standard, mainstream, kind of research on Early Christian history and New Testament scholarship.
Now, here is Spencer’s rant:
“In this new piece he claims that the Islamic tradition has preserved some sayings of Jesus that could be authentic — basing his argument on the fact that they sound rather like other sayings attributed to Jesus, particularly in their exhortation not to value this passing world. He produces six sayings to support this, three from Islamic tradition and three from Christian non-canonical sources, claiming that the impossibility of distinguishing them from each other supports the authenticity of the Islamic sayings. This is, of course, palpably absurd. Otherworldly sayings can be found in all manner of non-Christian traditions. The fact that they’re otherworldly doesn’t mean that Jesus said them.”
It would indeed be absurd if that summary was vaguely connected with my argument, which was spelled out quite thoroughly in the column in question. A casual resemblance between spiritual sounding statements is nothing to do with that argument, which depends entirely on the presentation of such sayings in the context of other materials that clearly come from non-canonical gospel traditions. “Sound rather like” is a gross mis-statement of what I said, and it is one of the mysteries of the ages how Spencer can think that this is what I am saying. Nor does the fact that they sound “otherworldly.”
I produced three Islamic sayings that could potentially be authentic agrapha, but I could easily have offered thirty or so to illustrate my point.
Spencer’s article demonstrates that he has not a clue about how New Testament scholarship works, or what scholars in that discipline do. And many of those scholars even pay serious attention to early authorities like al-Biruni, who were actually Muslims! Heaven forfend.
If, by the way, Spencer believes that I am a “politically correct professor”, he will believe anything. I am more commonly denounced for publishing in outlets like Chronicles magazine that are so far to the conservative Right that they can only be seen on a clear day. I won’t dwell on my association with the pinko fellow traveler American Conservative.
Spencer says I published “an extraordinarily irresponsible piece” on the Muslim Jesus. And “palpably absurd,” to boot.
Mr. Kettle? It’s Mr. Pot calling for you, line 2. He says it’s urgent.
By the way, Mr. Spencer is the co-founder of the group “Stop Islamization of America.” You might find interesting the characterizations of that group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and also, strikingly, by that well-known group of Islamist terror sympathizers, the Anti-Defamation League.
Note to dingbats: that last phrase was IRONIC. Look it up.