Review: “Before Nicea: The early followers of Prophet Jesus” by Abdul Haq al Ashanti and Abdur Rahman Bowes, 2005

This book was drawn to my attention on Twitter, where it was offered as a scholarly source for some very odd remarks about ante-Nicene Christianity.

The book has the ISBN of 0955109906.  But it circulates most widely in eBook form, e.g.  The eBook that I have marks it as “© SalafiManhaj 2005”, although it does not seem to appear on the site here.  The authors are Abdul Haq al-Ashanti (once known as Paul Addae, a 39-year old SOAS graduate), and Abdur Rahman Bowes (once known as Tim Bowes, I think).  The former is a media representative for the Brixton mosque in London, set up by West African Salafi muslims, as is apparent from this report here.

The introduction tells us that the book is intended for those “who seek to know the original belief of the people that followed the teachings of Jesus”  and make “comparisons between early Christianity and Islam”.  They add that “Before Nicea should not be viewed as ‘Muslim propaganda’ or bias, rather as an honest look at the evidence that qualified scholars have provided.”[1]

The title is misleading, however.  It is not in fact concerned with giving a historical account of the church “before Nicea”.  This becomes apparent very quickly.

Now I’m sure that some readers remember the old trick, much beloved of students in a hurry, of reading a book from the back?  Doing so is revealing, and I will review it, section by section, in just that way.

For pages 98-76 (“Where does this leave us?”) are about the Koran, and how wonderful it is; material that, true or false, can have no possible relevance to such a theme.  On this section, I will only observe that while we have no critical edition of the text of the Koran, assertions about the extreme textual reliability of copies circulating today cannot be based on anything but wishful thinking.

Pages 75-59 (“Later Christianity and its parallels in the wider world”) involves a copy and paste of “pagan Christs” material from such folk as long-dead headbanger T. W. Doane, whose claims that Christianity is copied from Buddhism sit strangely with the supposed purpose of the book.  There are claims about “Isis – Mother of God”; claims that the hellenistic use of “Sons of God” mean that Jesus was not really considered divine; and much else, all of it the fag-end of someone else’s polemic, all of it plainly unchecked, and repeated purely in order to attack Christianity and for no other reason.  This indicates the real purpose of the book; it’s a tract.

Pages 58-55 are devoted to the history of the translation of the English bible, a topic of no conceivable relevance to the subject; but which contains the following gem of logic:

The evangelical Christians would say that the people who persecuted the two characters, Tyndale and Wycliff, were not “real Christians,” yet at the same time the Evangelical Christians denounce and brand as “heretical” the original followers of Jesus who had similar beliefs to Islaam.

I’m sure that we have all seen before an argument which boils down to “some claims that X is a fake are untrue, therefore all claims that X is a fake must be wrong.”  It is not very impressive that the authors fall into such an elementary mistake.

Pages 54-37 (“The Bible: its alteration, compilation and translation”) consist of recycled atheist anti-bible polemic, made up of supposed quotations from “scholars”.

The purpose of this section is to bring together the facts about the Bible, as presented by many Christian scholars.[2]

The scholars are not in fact Christians; claiming that they are is a polemical trick copied from the atheist literature.  But what on earth is the relevance of all this fifth-hand nonsense to the topic of Before Nicea?

One notes that the book was compiled so hastily that the authors did not recognise that they had included a statement from F. G. Kenyon twice.  It is mildly depressing to discover that the statement itself is a complete misrepresentation of Kenyon’s views on whether the text is reliable; for he, contrary to what the authors would like the reader to learn, that the bible text is indeed reliable, on the very next page of his work.[3]

Pages 36-31 consist of attacks on the Trinity.  This might have been relevant.  But in fact the authors are only concerned to show that the early Christians did not hold Trinitarian views.  Unfortunately they are not very familiar with the history of doctrine, and they blunder badly.

As we all know, the term itself is Latin, and was applied by Tertullian to his summary of the biblical teaching in Adversus Praxean., ca. 215 AD.  But the authors know nothing of this, and commence their comments with “The New Catholic Encyclopedia, officially approved by the Catholic Church, explains that the concept of the Trinity was introduced into Christianity in the fourth century”.  The quotes that follow really suggest that the authors thought that the trinity is post-Nicene, and did not realise that details, such as the precise position of the Holy Spirit, or whether the Son was of the same substance or like substance, are not of themselves the doctrine of the Trinity.  The encyclopedias that they read, and mined for quotes, consequently misled them.

Pages 30-28 as “Is Jesus God”?  The second century fathers, to a man, say that he is.  The heretics of the period agree, apart from the few Jewish heretics; instead asking whether Jesus was really human or a phantasm.  But none of this, about the church before Nicea, merits discussion; because the authors knew nothing about it.  Instead we get a couple of pages of assertions.  None of these merit much discussion.

Pages 27-19 are titled “early Christianity”.  This is what the book is supposed to be about; and it is disappointing that it consists of a mere 8 pages.

Unfortunately the section is consists really of an assertion that the early Christians believed only in the Father.  But this is not so.  I have a few quotes on the incarnation here, which by themselves would indicate otherwise.

A quotation from the Koran, from the Shepherd of Hermas, a passage from the Nicene Creed (?!), and a couple of very dubious quotes from 19th century scholars who certainly did not believe the views the authors attribute to them take up two of the 8 pages. We then get 4 pages of vague claims about the Ebionites and related heresies.  Some of these claims are strange; if we consult Epiphanius Panarion, we quickly find that Basilides believed in many gods, one of whom was the Hebrew god; and Jesus was not a man but a phantasm[4]  But certainly some heretics mixed Jewish-type views into their collection of strangenesses.  The oddities of these groups, their angelologies and so forth, are not mentioned by the authors, which misleads the reader into supposing that these people were proto-muslims.  The section ends with the following:

Hans Küng et al. note that “the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.”[5]

The parallels seem remarkably escapable to most of us.

Pages 18-12 – the first pages after the introduction – are headed “The crucifixion”; but in reality the purpose of this section is to establish that those whom the early church called heretics were the real Christians, and the real Christians simply invented the teachings which they attributed to Christ and his apostles.  In fact even the introduction, the authors make the curious demand that Christians should not claim to decide who share their views and who do not, but instead should let the authors decide (!).

The authors do not conceal their reasoning.  The Koran says that Jesus was not crucified; the apostles and those they appointed say that he was; those who the apostles rejected and who rejected the teaching of the apostles said that Jesus was not crucified, and indeed adapted and changed the apostolic teaching freely and in any old manner.  So … clearly the latter were the real followers of Jesus.

As an analysis of the historical record this is wretched stuff.  We don’t try to discover whether or not the disciples of (e.g.) Valentinus kept to his teaching, or invented their own, on ideological grounds.  We look at the data.  Those who were concerned, then as now, to preserve the teaching of Christ, nothing added, nothing taken away, are clearly visible to us.  Those who preferred to make stuff up, in the manner of the old philosophical schools or haereses, are also visible to us, not least because they kept right on changing their teachings.  Valentinus’ disciples were not faithful to the teaching of their master.  Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum 7, and 43, lists who they borrowed their teachings from, and how they run their cults.  Only groups that are interested in preservation are likely to preserve.

The authors list a number of heretical groups that evaded the idea that Jesus was crucified.  They don’t ask why these groups might do so, assuming that this was a tradition handed down to them, even though a list of the teachings of these groups shows that they did not rely on any handed down tradition.  But in fact we learn that the crucifixion of Jesus was shameful in the Roman world, and a cause of embarrassment to Christians.  Tertullian makes much of this point in De carne Christi 5, arguing that Jesus must have been crucified and risen, precisely because nobody would go out and invent such a daft and embarrassing story.

But the authors are not interested in demonstrating their claim.  Instead they just assert:

All of these notions of the crucifixion differ from the ‘orthodox’ Christian understanding, illustrating that there were indeed varied beliefs amongst the early followers of Jesus. These would later be deemed as ‘heretics,’ by ‘orthodox’ Christians with beliefs much further away from the teachings, belief and practice of Jesus…

But we have only the authors’ assertion that these people were followers of Jesus.  Why should we accept it?  The New Testament itself talks of “false teachers”, of those who try to “deceive” with adulterated teaching.  It’s a very common idea in every piece of early Christian writing.  Likewise we have in Irenaeus a quotation from no less than the apostle John.  On going to the baths one day, and learning that their supposed hero Cerinthus was there, the apostle responded:

Let’s get out of here.  Cerinthus is inside, and he’s so dishonest that if he leans against a wall, the whole place may collapse.[6]

The reader asks why he should listen to these heretics; but no answer is given.

The authors do seem to be aware that those whom they wish to call the “original Christians” are in fact a disreputable group, whose teachings won’t bear much examination.  They would have fared better had they tabulated the teachings of each group, to the extent that they are known, for it would have explained clearly that they were in fact a mish-mash of stuff borrowed from anywhere as convenient.

These 8 pages show the weakness of the authors.  They are not really concerned to investigate.  Instead they have produced a set of proof texts, mainly from modern authors, to prove their thesis that Jesus was not crucified.  Everything revolves around that need.

And … that’s the book.  None of it is about the early church.  None of it is about “Before Nicea”.  It’s an islamic religious tract.  It’s not a study, nor a review of what scholars say, nor an attempt to describe what happened.

It is rather a collection of excuses to ignore what the Christians say about themselves in order to confirm what the Koran says about Christians, padded out with anti-Christian polemic copied from atheists, and which eventually forgets altogether what it was supposed to be about, in order to settle down to debunking Christianity and promoting Islam.

Of course such a tract has a perfect right to exist.  None of us can complain that a book is not what it does not set out to be.  But since it is being touted as scholarship, then let’s identify that it is not.

  1. [1]All these quotes on p.4.
  2. [2]P.38.
  3. [3]Online here.
  4. [4]Panarion 24.
  5. [5]Reference given is Hans Küng (ed.), Christianity and the World Religions – Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (1986), p.24.  But I have not been able to check this.
  6. [6]My paraphrase of the rather more sober text in Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, book 3, 3:4. Here. “There are also those who heard from him [Polycarp] that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me? “”I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.””  Polycarp knew John personally; Irenaeus knew Polycarp.

Sayings attributed to Jesus in Muslim sources, translated by Anthony Alcock

In the Patrologia Orientalis 13 and 19 is a collection of deeds and sayings attributed to Jesus in Muslim sources of the 10th-11th century.  This was edited by Miguel Asin y Palacios in 1919 and 1924.  Asin apparently took the curious view that these went back to the 1st century.  (Anyone familiar at all with Arabic literature will be aware how much story-telling and elaboration features in it, so we need not take that opinion very seriously!)  But it is good to have these things, since they will undoubtedly pop up in odd places.

Anthony Alcock has started to translate this edition into English, and he has kindly made it available online to us all, with an explanatory introduction.  Here is the first part:


External references to Islam

I knew that a collection of sources did exist online somewhere.  It seems that Peter Kirby, back in 2003, produced one and it is here.  It is excerpted from Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. (1997)  Nearly all of it is about the Islamic invasions, as might be expected.

Eusebius and Islam

There are some things which are obvious, once they have been invented.  It took the genius of Eusebius of Caesarea to digest down into a tabular form of dates and events all the information about dates and events for Greece and Assyria and Persia and Rome — and the Hebrews — contained in the literature available to him.  But once this Chronicle of World History existed, running up until the 20th year of Constantine, every copyist would feel the urge to add extra lines on the bottom, to bring it up to date.  It’s sort of obvious, isn’t it?

To this obviousness we owe a mass of chronicles, not just in Greek but in Latin and Syriac.  One such continuator was James of Edessa, the 8th century scholarly West Syriac bishop who attempted to introduce Greek vowels into the Syriac script, and partially succeeded.  His continuation was composed in 692 AD.  

The text is lost, but portions of it remain.  The text of the 10th century World History of Michael the Syrian makes use of it verbatim in places, although not in tabular form.  Better still, a 10th/11th century Syriac manuscript from the Nitrian Desert, now in the British Library (Ms. Additional 14685) contains a substantial chunk of it, albeit in an abbreviated form.  It starts where Eusebius left off, and begins with a preface in which James discusses an error in calculation which he has found in Eusebius.  Then it goes into a set of tables.  Like the Armenian version of Eusebius (but unlike the original, or the Latin version), the columns of year numbers are positioned in the centre of the page, and events for those years written on either side.

I was looking around the web today for the ancient texts which mention Mohammed, and came across this site.  To my surprise this chronicle by James is one of the earliest mentions of Mohammed.  This has given impetus to me to put it online.  But how to do so?

E. W. Brooks published the Chronicle in Zeitschrift fur deutschen morgenlandischen Gesellschaft 53 (1899), p. 261-327.  He didn’t publish the preface.  He published the Syriac text, laid out in tabular form.  He followed it with an English translation, not of all the text, but of the wording (events) against each year.  He then republished it, this time with the preface, in CSCO Syr. 5, with a Latin translation of the lot in CSCO Syr. 6.  Both text and translation contained the tabular layout.

I’m not going to transcribe the Syriac, or the Latin.  I have already OCR’d the English, but there is a problem.  The Islamic website above rightly quotes three chunks of relevant information.  But… two of these are embedded in the table in the middle of the page, so not present in the English translation.  Anyway… don’t we want to see the proper layout?  I certainly would!

I think the solution will be to take the Latin translation, lay it out in HTML, and then substitute the English where it is available, translating the trivial bits of Latin where it is not.  It will be fiddly; but it will work.  Considering its importance, tho, something must be done.

More notes from Agapius

I’m still working on an English translation of Agapius.  I’ve now reached the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate, and the early Abbassid period.

In the year 14 of `Abdallah, the Magi revolted in Khorasan and shook the authority of `Abdallah-al-Mansour for this reason:

In a city of Khorasan which is called Far`is (?), there was a mountain from where much silver was taken.  30,000 workmen dealt specifically with the exploitation of this mine and the purification.  The workmen were Magi to whom the mountain had been ceded. A very rich mine was discovered there.  The Sultan wanted to take the mountain from them and give it to others.  They were opposed to the implementation of this project, and the Sultan struck a Magus.  Then they threw themselves on him and killed a great number of his soldiers. 

After that, the Sultan wrote with Mohammed-ibn-`Abdallah-al-Mansour who was in Ray, to tell him what had occurred.  The latter sent to him 34,000 soldiers who formed his vanguard;  then he went out, himself, against the Magi, at the head of 30,000 soldiers. 

The people who formed the vanguard arrived at the mountain where the mines and the Magi were;  they started the battle, but the Magi overcame them and made a very great number perish. 

Mohammed-ibn-`Abdallah, learning of the defeat of his soldiers, remained at the place where he was and sent a letter to `Abdallah-al-Mansour in which he made known to him the fate of his troops and the business of the mine.  He was then at the place which is called Arfasir(?),  and he spent the winter there. 

After winter had passed, he sent against the rebels a man called Hazim at the head of 40,000 soldiers. 

When he arrived near the rebels, (his soldiers) attacked them, overcame them, killed more than 20,000, made captive the survivors whom they sent to Mohammed-ibn-`Abdallah who was on the Tigris, opposite Baghdad.

No doubt the silver mines pretty much stopped working, after the workforce was killed or sent to Baghdad.

I was struck, while reading the section on the reign of the last Umayyad, Marwan II, and the early Abbassids, how much of this sort of thing is going on.  The rulers care nothing for the lands under their control.  The cities, inherited from the Roman empire, are routinely devastated in internal Arab quabbles, their inhabitants deported here and there.  Incessant raiding goes on.  Subjects are treated merely as sources of revenue.  There is no sense of a social contract between ruler and ruled; merely the exactions of a conqueror, even a century after the Arab conquest.

Here we see a successful industry destroyed at the whim of a remote despot.  Is it any wonder that the cities of the Roman East gradually declined and disappeared?  What motive was there to invest time or money, to develop civic pride, when capricious confiscation could see it all vanish in a trice? 

It is also interesting to see that Zoroastrianism was still active in whole communities, a century after the Arab conquest of Persia.

Errors in the transmission of the Koran

The following article from Almasry Alyoum sheds an interesting light on claims that manuscripts of the Koran are without error.

Koran Copies Full of Mistakes on the Markets
By  Ahmed el-Beheiri    12/8/2008 

Several flawed copies of the Koran are put on sale from time to time and several of these copies have recently appeared on the markets. Some suras (chapters) are completely missing, while some have been completed with others.

This is described as a great negligence on the part of publishing and distribution houses in dealing with the act of pressing and collecting the verses of the Holy Koran.

Al-Masry al-Youm has obtained one of these copies full of mistakes. It was published by a publishing and distribution house (“Al-Misriya lil Nashr wa al-Tawzie”) that had been authorized by the Islamic Research Academy to print and distribute 40,000 copies.

The copies contain several mistakes in the collection and arrangement of the papers.

Speaking to al-Masry al-Youm, the director of the department in charge of research and composition, Abdel Zaher Abdel Razek, said that the house staff had made mistakes in collecting and arranging the papers of the Koran. As a result, he said, some suras had disappeared while others were completed with others.

He put the blame for the mistakes on the publishing house owner, as the copies were not reviewed once again before being launched on the markets.

“We will have no leniency on the publishing house owner and the others who made the same mistake” he added. “We will send him a strong letter to warn him and call on him to commit to precision and preserve the sacredness of the Holy Koran when printing it, otherwise he will lose his license to print it”.