Early Muslim/Christian Debate – a Proto Two Kingdoms Apologetic

The Letter of Mor Yuhannon [John] (d. 649), the Patriarch, Concerning the discussion which he had with the Amir of the Mhaggraye, provides for us one of the earliest records of debates between Christians and Muslims. A complete translation can be found at the following link (link). It’s worth noting that in the discussion Mor Yuhannon distinguishes the “orthodox” from the “Chalcedonians.” My point is not to enter into the question of the orthodoxy of Mor Yuhannon, only to point out that he advocated the Christian side of the discussion, with the Emir representing the Mulsim side of the discussion.

Of particular interest are the following:

I) The blessed Patriarch, the Father of the community, was questioned by him: “Whether the Gospel is one, and whether it is the same, without differences, which all Christians in the world hold to?” The blessed one answered that it is one and the same among the Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, the Copts, the Cushites, the Indians, the Armenians, the Persians, and the rest of all peoples and tongues.

It is interesting to note this late Patristic era response. The places identified go significantly beyond the scope of any of the so-called Ecumenical councils. They include India and Ethiopia (Cush), which were not – as far as I can tell – included in the discussions at any of the seven ECs.

And we may add that we agree with the Patriarch. The gospel is one and the same throughout the world.

II) Again he asked, “Since the Gospel is one, why is the faith different?” The Blessed one responded, “Just as the Torah is one and the same and it is accepted by us Christians and by you Mhaggraye, and by the Jews and by the Samaritans, and each is distinct in belief; likewise concerning faith in the Gospel, each heretical group understands and interprets it differently, and not like us [the Orthodox].

It is interesting to note the fact that the Patriarch believes that the Muslims accept the Torah. One assumes that this is because the Muslims tell him that they accept the Torah.

Likewise, the Patriarch’s answer regarding the reason for the different views is not because each has a different document, but because there are different understandings of the documents.

III) Again he asked, “whom do you say Christ is? Is he God or not?” And our Father answered, “He is God; and the Word, who was born from God the Father, who is eternal and without beginning. At the end of time, for the salvation of mankind, He became flesh and was inhominated from the Holy Spirit and from the holy Virgin Mary, the mother of God, and became man.”

This is an astute answer. I’m not fond of the term “mother of God,” because it can be easily misunderstood, but this answer seems to provide the necessary qualifications. It is also interesting because despite distinguishing himself from the Chalcedonians, this patriarch is quite willing to use the “mother of God” terminology.

IV) And the glorious Amir asked him this: “When Christ was in the womb of Mary, the one you say is God, who was carrying and ruling the Heaven and earth?” Our blessed father argued with him concerning the question: “When God came down to Mount Sinai and spoke with Moses for forty days and forty nights, who was carrying and ruling the Heaven and earth; as long as you claim that you accept Moses and his books.” The Amir said, “He is God and He rules the Heaven and earth.” Immediately, he heard this from our Father: “Likewise Christ [who is] God when he was in the womb of the virgin, he was carrying and ruling the Heaven and earth, and everything which is in them as Almighty God.”

Again, note that the Patriarch relies on the Old Testament, believing that the Emir accepts it. Moreover, the Emir’s answer seems to presuppose that the Emir does accept it.

V) Again the glorious Amir asked, “What kind of belief and faith did Abraham and Moses hold?” Our blessed Father answered, “It is the belief and faith of Christians that they held: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, the rest of the prophets, all the just and righteous ones.”

The Amir said, “Why did they not write clearly and make it known concerning Christ?” Our blessed father replied, “As sharers of the mysteries and intimate ones they knew it, but [because of] the infancy and innocence of the people at the time, who were inclined to worship many gods [polytheism] and cling to them, to such an extent that they regarded wood, stones and many other things as gods, they made idols, they worshipped them and sacrificed to them. [For this reason] the holy ones did not want to give the erroneous ones a pretext that they might depart from the Living God and follow error, but prudently proclaimed the truth: “Hear, Israel, the Lord God is One Lord” for they truly knew that there is only One God, and one Godhead, that of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus they spoke and wrote symbolically concerning God that He is One in divinity and three hypostases and persons; there neither is nor do we confess three gods or three deities; there are neither gods nor deities; for the Godhead of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is One, as we have said, and from the Father is the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you want, I am ready and prepared to confirm this from the holy Books.”

I’m not sure whether I would follow the reasoning of the Patriarch on this point. I wouldn’t think that it was only the most ancient peoples who were inclined to idolatry and polytheism. Nevertheless, the Patriarch’s emphasis on the common monotheism of the Old and New Testaments is important.

VI) Again, when the Amir heard all of these, he requested only “if Christ is God, and was born from Mary, and if there is a Son for God, let that be proved literally and from the Torah.” The blessed one said that not only Moses, but also all of the holy prophets previously prophesied and wrote this concerning the Christ: One [of the prophets] had written concerning His birth from a virgin, another that He would be born in Bethlehem, another concerning His baptism; all of them, so to say, [wrote] concerning His saving passion, His vivifying death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead after three days. He [the blessed one] brought evidences, and began to confirm this from all of the prophets, and from Moses, according to their writings.

Notice that the Patriarch initially interprets “Torah,” here as referring generally to the Old Testament. He then begins to demonstrate each point that the Emir had requested from the Old Testament as a whole, including Isaiah (regarding the virgin birth, for example).

VII) The glorious Amir did not accept these [proofs] from the prophets, instead, he demanded proof from Moses that Christ is God. The blessed one, therefore, cited Moses in many things (verses), e.g., that “the Lord let fire and sulfur come down from the Lord on Sodom and on Gomorrah.” The glorious Amir demanded that this be shown in the book. Immediately, our father showed it in the complete Greek and Syriac texts.

At the same place, there were some Mhaggraye with us, and they attentively saw the passages and the glorious Name of the Lords, and the Lord. The Amir called a Jew, who was there, and he was considered by them to be knowledgeable in the Scriptures, and asked him if it was literally so in the Torah; and he answered, “I do not know exactly.”

Notice that the Emir wants to see it in the books of Moses, rather than the Old Testament more broadly. This already seems to clarify that when the Emir said, “Torah,” he meant the Pentateuch, not all the inspired Hebrew books.

Also, notice the disbelief by the Emir when confronted with the contents of the book. He wants to see it actually in the books, and the Patriarch shows it to him both in Syriac and Greek.

But even that leaves the Emir wondering if it is just something inserted by a Christian translator. So, he asks a Jew to confirm that the translation is literal, and the Jew does not deny it, but simply tries to defer.

VIII) At this point the Amir moved to ask him concerning the laws of the Christians: “what and how are they, and whether they are written in the Gospel or not?” Again [he asked], “if a man die and leave behind boys or girls and a wife and a mother and a sister and a cousin, how would his possessions be divided among them?” Then our holy father said that the Gospel is divine, it instructs heavenly teaching and commands vivifying commandments; it despises all sin and wickedness, and it teaches virtue and righteousness. Many other related issues were brought up.

It is interesting to note that the Emir has the expectation that the Christian books should specify every aspect of Christian life.

The answer the Patriarch gives is a very “two kingdoms” sounding. He points out that the laws of the Gospel are divine and spiritual. They are not intended to provide for every detail of human governance, such as how exactly an estate is supposed to pass from father to son, and so on.

IX) And the glorious Amir said, “I ask you [Plural] to do one of three things: either show me your laws written in the Gospel and conduct yourselves accordingly, or follow [or submit to] the law of the Mhaggraye. Then our Father replied that we Christians have laws, which are just and right, and we follow [submit to] the teaching and the commandments of the Gospel and the rules of the Apostles and the laws of the Church.
In this manner the assembly of the first day was dismissed. And we have not yet been interviewed again by him.

Notice that the two-kingdoms answer doesn’t really seem acceptable to the Emir. He is basically willing to allow the Christians to live by a sort of Gospel Sharia if there is one, but if there is not one, he expects them to obey the Islamic Sharia. The question from the Emir is not whether the laws are reasonable and just, but whether they have divine authority.


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