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The debate of CHRISTIAN FAITH between patriarch Timothy I and Caliph Mahdi in 781 A.D.



Part 5

Translation. By Alphonse Mingana



And our King said to me: "Who gave you the Gospel?"— And I replied to his Majesty: "Our Lord Jesus Christ"—And our victorious King asked: "Was it before or after His ascension to heaven?"—And I replied to him: "Before His ascension to heaven. As the Gospel is the narrative of the Economy of the works and words of Jesus Christ, and as the works of Jesus Christ were done and His concrete words were uttered before His ascension to heaven, it follows that the Gospel was delivered to us before His ascension to heaven. Further, if the Gospel is the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and this proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven has been delivered to us by the mouth of our Lord, it follows that the Gospel was also delivered to us by the mouth of our Lord."

And our King, invested with power, said to me: "Was not a part of the Gospel written by Matthew, another part by Mark, a third part by Luke, and a fourth part by John?"—And I replied to his Majesty: "It is true, O our King, that these four men wrote the Gospel. They did not write it, however, out of their own head nor from the fancies of their mind. Indeed they had no literary attainments of any kind, and by profession they were generally fishermen, shoemakers or tentmakers. They wrote and transmitted to us what they had heard and learned from Jesus Christ, who had taught them in actions and words during all the time He was walking with them in the flesh on the earth, and what the Spirit-Paraclete had reminded them of."

And our King said to me: "Why are they different from one another and contradict one another?"—And I answered his Majesty: "It is true that there is difference between their words, as to contradiction there is not any between them, not even in a single case. Different people write differently even on the creation of God, the Lord of all: some of them speak of the great height of heaven, some others of the brilliant rays of the sun, some others of the wonderful phases of the moon, some others of the fine beauty of the stars, some others of the atmosphere, some others of the land and sea, and some others of some other topics. Further, among the people who write on heaven alone some speak of its immense height and some others of the swiftness of its movement, and among those who speak of the sun alone, some write on the high and dazzling resplendence of its light, some others on its heat, some others on the roundness of its sphere, some others on its purity and clearness, and some others on its multitudinous powers and effects.

"Let your Majesty order some men to write on the topic of the resplendent glory of your Majesty, and some others on the great quantity of your gold and silver, and some others on the lustre of your pearls and precious stones, and some others on the beauty and fine features of the face of your Majesty, and some others on the power, might and strength of your Kingdom, and some others on the wisdom and intelligence of your Majesty, and yet some others on your gentleness, virtue, and piety. In what they will write there might be differences of words in their statements of facts, but there will not be any contradiction between them, not even in a single item. They will all be right in all that they will write, although some of them might omit some items, because there is no one who is able to speak with accuracy of everything dealing with the works of God nor with the greatness of the glory of your Majesty. The above applies to what the evangelists wrote concerning the words, deeds, and natures of Jesus Christ. There are here and there differences in their statements, but as to contradictions there are none whatever. The four of them write in the same way and without discrepancies and differences on the main topics of His conception, birth, baptism, teaching, passion on the cross, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to heaven."

And our powerful King said to me: "You should know, O Catholicos, that as God gave the law through the prophet Moses and the Gospel through the Christ, so He gave the furkan 78 through Muhammad"—And I replied: "O my victorious King, the changes that were to take place in the law given through Moses, God had clearly predicted previously through the prophets whom we have mentioned. God said thus through the prophet Jeremiah and showed the dissolution of the law of Moses and the setting up of the Gospel, 'Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which covenant they nullified, and I also despised them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their minds and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour nor his brother, saying. "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me from the least of them unto the greatest of them.' 79 In the above words God demonstrated both the dissolution of the law of Moses and the setting up of the Gospel.

"Through another prophet, called Joel, God disclosed the signs which would occur at the time of the dissolution of the Torah and the setting up of the Gospel, and the signs concerning the Spirit-Paraclete which the Apostles, the commanders of the army of the Gospel, were to receive, because He said through him, 'And afterwards I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour my spirit in those days.' 80 This is said of the Spirit-Paraclete who descended on the Apostles after the ascension of Jesus to heaven, according to the promise that He had previously given. And the prophet adds, 'And I will show wonders in the heavens and the earth, blood and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood.' 81 All this took place at the Passion of Jesus Christ on the Cross. And he further adds, 'Before the great and the terrible day of the Lord;' he calls the 'great and terrible day of the Lord,82 the day on which the Word-God will appear in our flesh with great power and glory of angels, and the day on which the stars will fall from heaven, as Jesus Himself said in the Gospel.' 83 And the prophet further adds, 'Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved,' that is to say whosoever shall receive the Gospel of God shall live an everlasting life.

"God, therefore, pointed clearly to the transition from the Law to the Gospel when He showed us a new covenant, and signs, witnessed by men, that appeared in heaven and earth, in sun, moon, and stars, and when He showed us the gifts of the Holy Spirit which He imparted to the Apostles: wonders, signs, and miracles. God nowhere showed such irrefragable signs for the transition from the Gospel to something else. The Law that was given by Moses was the symbol of the Gospel, and the Gospel is the symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is nothing higher than the Kingdom of Heaven."

And our powerful King said to me: "Did not God say clearly to the children of Israel, 'I will raise you up a prophet from among your brethren like unto me.' 84 Who are the brethren of the children of Israel besides the Arabs,85 and who is the prophet like unto Moses besides Muhammad?"—And I answered his Majesty: "The Israelites have many other brethren besides the Arabs, O our Sovereign. First of all the six sons of Abraham by Keturah are nearer to the Arabs than the Israelites, then the Edomites composed of three hundred clans are also nearer to the Israelites than the Arabs. Jacob from whom descended the Israelites, and Esau from whom sprang the Edomites are indeed brothers and sons of Isaac, and Isaac from whom the Jews descend and Ishmael from whom the Arabs spring, together with Zimran and Jokshan 86 and their brothers, the sons of Keturah, are children of Abraham. If the sentence of the prophet Moses refers to the brethren of the children of Israel and not to their own twelve tribes, it would be more appropriate to apply it to the Edomites, because it has been shown that they are nearer to the Israelites than the Arabs. It is not only the Arabs who are the brethren of the Israelites but also the Ammonites and the Moabites.

"Further, Moses said to the children of Israel that God will raise up from among their brethren a prophet to themselves and not to the Arabs, because he says that the prophet whom the Lord your God will raise up will be from among yourselves and not from outside yourselves, from your brethren and not from strangers, and then that prophet will be similar and not dissimilar to him in doctrine. This Biblical passage resembles that other passage in which God said to them concerning a king, 'I will raise up for thee a king from thy brethren.' 87 As in the subject of a king God does not refer to the children of Ishmael by the word 'their brethren,' so also in the subject of a prophet He does not refer to them through the same word.

"Further, you assert that Muhammad has been sent as a prophet to his own people.88 We must examine in this respect the construction of the words. It is said: a prophet from yourselves, from among your brethren, and like unto me. If Muhammad be a prophet like Moses, Moses wrought miracles and prodigies; and Muhammad, who would in this case be a prophet like Moses, should have wrought many miracles and prodigies. And then, if Muhammad be a prophet like Moses, since Moses practised and taught the Law that was given to him on Mount Sinai, Muhammad should similarly have taught the Torah and practised the circumcision, and observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals. Muhammad did not teach the Torah, and Moses taught the Torah, the prophet Muhammad is not, therefore, like unto Moses, because the one who was to be a prophet like unto Moses, would not have changed anything from Moses, and the one who is different in one thing from Moses is not a prophet like unto Moses. The prophet Moses spoke the above words concerning the prophets who from time to time rose after him from this or that Jewish tribe, such as Joshua son of Nun, David, Samuel, and others after them, who from generation to generation were sent to the Israelites." 89

And our victorious King said to me: "What is the punishment of the man who kills his mother?"—And I replied to his Majesty: "And what is the punishment of the man who does not respect the honour of his mother?"—And our King said to me: "Strokes, fetters, and death."—And I said to his Majesty: "The decision of your Majesty is just. And the man who kills his mother is also liable to the same punishment."—And our King said to me: "Jesus Christ is, therefore, liable to the same punishment, because He let His mother die and so killed her."—And I asked the King: "Which is the highest, this world or the world to come?" And our King answered: "The world to come."—And I then replied to his Majesty: "If Jesus Christ let His mother die, and through death He transferred her to the next world, which as your Majesty asserts is better than this one, He therefore invested His mother with a higher dignity and more sublime honour; and since the one who honours his mother is worthy of all blessings, Jesus Christ who transferred His mother from the mortal life to the immortal one and from the land of troubles to the Kingdom of Heaven, is, therefore, Worthy of all blessings.

"What should Jesus Christ have done? While He takes up everybody from earth to heaven, and while, as God said, He causes them to be immortal after having been mortal, should He only have left His own mother in this mortal life? This would have been a great disgrace; but her death which took place like that of every other human being, was only natural and did not bring the smallest disgrace to her. As it was not a dishonour to her to have been born from a womb, so also it was not a dishonour to her to have been born again to eternal life from death and earth.90 If Mary had not died, she would not have risen; and if she had not risen, she would have been far from the Kingdom of Heaven, and it is fair that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ through whom the Kingdom of Heaven was revealed, should have been raised up first to heaven. It was, therefore, imperative that she should have died. He who demolishes a house in order to renew it and ornament it, is not blameworthy but praiseworthy."

And our King said to me: "Is Jesus Christ good or not?"— And I replied to his Majesty: "If Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and God is good, Jesus Christ is, therefore, good. He is one nature with God, like light is one with the sun."—And our King said: "How then did Jesus say, 'There is none good but one, that is one God?"  91—And I replied to him: "Was the Prophet David just or not?"—And our King said: "He was just and head of the just."— And I said then: "How then did the prophet David say, 'There is no one that is just, no, not one,'" 92 —And our King said: "This saying does not include David. It has been said of the wicked ones."— And I said: "So also the sentence, 'There is none good but one' cannot possibly include the Christ. As the sentence, 'There is no one that is just' embraces many others to the exclusion of David, so also the sentence, 'There is none good' embraces many others to the exclusion of Jesus Christ, and as David did not include himself when he said, 'There is no just man, no, not even one,' so also the Christ did not include Himself when he said, ' There is none good but one, and that is one God.'

"The very same Jesus Christ who said about Himself, 'I am the good shepherd,' 93 could not have said the above sentence, 'There is none good' about Himself. Indeed, He said this sentence about the one whom He was addressing. The latter was thinking this in his heart: how difficult are the laws that Jesus Christ is establishing! There is none good but one God who gave us all the good things found in the land of promise. As to Jesus Christ, He disclosed to him his hidden thoughts and showed to him that his words were in flagrant contradiction with his thoughts, in calling Him in his words 'good master' while in his thoughts he was saying ' This one was no good,' and wishing to rebuke him He disclosed to him his thoughts and said to him, 'Why callest thou me good with thy tongue while in thy thoughts thou sayest about me, "This one is no good, because He orders me to squander my fortune; there is none good but one that is God " '? Jesus Christ makes mention both of a good man and a good tree.94 How is it possible that there is a good man and a good tree, and Jesus Christ alone is not good? How can this be possible?"

And our King said to me: "If you accepted Muhammad as a prophet your words would be beautiful and your meanings fine"— And I replied to his Majesty: "We find that there is only one prophet who would come to the world after the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven and His descent from heaven.95 This we know from the prophet Malachi and from the angel Gabriel when he announced the birth of John to Zechariah."

And our King said: "And who is that prophet?"—And I replied: "The prophet Elijah. The prophet Malachi who is the last of the prophets of the Law, said, 'Remember ye the law of Moses, my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.' 96 And the angel Gabriel when announcing to Zechariah the birth of John reminded him of these very words, because he said to him, 'Fear not, Zechariah, for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah, to turn 97 the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.98

"Think, O our victorious Sovereign, how the angel called Jesus 'the Lord their God.' It is this prophet Elijah who, as we have learned, will come into the world after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. He will come to rebuke the Antichrist, and to teach and preach to everybody concerning the second apparition of Jesus from heaven. As John, son of Zechariah, came before His apparition in the flesh, and announced Him to everybody in saying, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world' 99 'He is that shall baptise with Holy Ghost and fire,' 100 'He is the one the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloosen' 101—so also the prophet Elijah is going to come before the divine apparition of Jesus Christ from heaven in order to announce beforehand to all His glorious apparition, and to make them ready for His presence.

"Both messsengers, John and Elijah, are from one power of the Spirit, with the difference that one already came before Christ and the other is going to come before Him, and their coming is similar and to the same effect. In the second coming He will appear from heaven in a great glory of angels, to effect the resurrection of all the children of Adam from the graves. As the Word of God, He created everything from the beginning and He is going to renew everything at the end. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and there is no end and no limit to His Kingdom."

And our highly intelligent Sovereign said: "If you had not corrupted the Torah and the Gospel, you would have found in them Muhammad also with the other prophets."—And to set his mind at rest on this subject I replied to him: "To the mind of your Majesty, O my illustrious Sovereign—you to whom God has granted that intelligence and broad-mindedness which are so useful for the administration of public and private affairs of the people, and you who speak and act is a way that is congruous with the dignity of your Majesty—it is due to inquire why and for what purpose we might have corrupted the Books. Both the Torah and the prophets proclaim as with the voice of thunder and teach us collectively the divinity and humanity of Christ; His wonderful birth from His Father before the times, a birth which no man will ever be able to describe and to comprehend. It is written, 'Who shall declare his generation,' 102 and, 'His coming out is in the beginning, from the days of the worlds' 103 and, 'From the womb before the morning-star I have begotten Thee' and, 'His name is before the sun.' 104

"So far as His temporal birth is concerned it is written, 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.' 105 David and Isaiah and all the other prophets reveal to us clearly and distinctly the signs and miracles that He was going to perform in His appearance in the flesh, and the accurate knowledge of God with which the earth was going to be filled through this appearance. They tell us about His passion, His crucifixion, and His death in the flesh, as we have demonstrated above. They tell us about His resurrection from the dwelling of the dead and His ascension to heaven. Finally they enlighten us concerning His second appearance from heaven and concerning the resurrection of the dead which He is going to effect, and the judgment which He is going to hold for all, as one who is God and the Word of God. O our Sovereign, while all the corpus of the Christian doctrine is embodied in the Torah and the Gospel like a clear symbol and mirror, for what reason could we have dared to corrupt these living witnesses of our faith? They are indeed the witnesses of our truth, O our Sovereign, and from them shines on us the resplendent light of the duality of the natures of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and that of His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. It could never have been possible for us to stir ourselves against ourselves, and tamper with the testimony of the Torah and the gospel to our Saviour.

"Even if we were able to corrupt the Books of the Torah and the Gospel that we have with us, how could we have tampered with those that are with the Jews? If one says here that we have corrupted those that are in our hands while the Jews themselves corrupted those that are in theirs, how is it that the Jews have not corrupted those passages through which the Christian religion is established? The Christians never have had and will never have such deadly enemies as the Jews; if the Jews had, therefore, tampered with their Book, how could we Christians induce ourselves to accept a text which had been corrupted and changed, a text which would have shaken the very foundations of the truth of our religion? No; the truth is that neither we nor the Jews have ever tampered with the Books. Our mutual hostility is the best guarantee to our statement.106

"If the Christians and the Jews are enemies, and if there is no possibility that enemies should have a common agreement on the line that divides them, it was therefore impossible for the Christians and the Jews to agree on the corruption of the Books. Indeed the Jews disagree with us on the meaning of some verbs and nouns, tenses and persons, but concerning the words themselves they have never had any disagreement with us. The very same words are found with us and with them without any changes. Since the Torah and the Prophets teach the truth of Christianity, we would have never allowed ourselves to corrupt them, and that is the reason why, O our victorious Sovereign, we could have never tampered with the Torah and the Prophets.

"The very same reason holds good with regard to the Gospel, which we could not and would not have corrupted under any circumstances. What the ancient prophets prophesied about the Christ is written in the Gospel about the Christ. The ray of light that shines on the eyes of our souls is the same from the Torah, from the prophets, and from the Gospel. The only difference is that in the first two Books the light is in words uttered in advance of the facts, while in the last Book it is in the facts themselves. What the prophets had taught us about the divinity and humanity of Christ, and about all the Economy of the Word-God in the flesh, the Gospel proclaimed to us without corruption in a glorious manner. Further, God, the giver of both the Torah and the Gospel is one, and if we had changed them in any way, we would have changed those things which according to some people are somewhat undignified in our faith."


78. I.e. the Kur'an. This Kur'anic word is the Syriac furkana, "salvation."

79. Jer. xxxi. 32-34. This prophecy is with much ingenuity ascribed to Muhammad and to Islam by the Muslim apologist, `Ali b. Rabban Tabari, who concludes his statement as follows: "These meanings cannot be ascribed to any other besides the Muslims." Kitab ad Din, p. 125 of my translation.

80. Joel ii. 28-29.

81. Joel ii. 30. 

82. The Cod. repeats inadvertently.

83. Cf. Matt. xxv. etc. 

84. Deut. xviii. 18.

85. Lit. Ishmaelites. 

86. Cod. Joktan ex errore see Gen. xxv. 2.

87. Cf. 1 Kings xiv. 14; Jer. xxx. 10.

88. Arab. Kaum.

89. Great ingenuity is shown by the Muslim apologist, `Ali b. Rabban Tabari, to ascribe this prophecy to Muhammad. We will quote him here in full: "And God has not raised up a prophet from among the brethren of the children of Israel except Muhammad. The phrase, 'from the midst of them' acts as a corroboration and limitation, viz. that he will be from the children of their father, and not from an avuncular relationship of his. As to Christ and the rest of the prophets, they were from the Israelites themselves; and he who believes that the Most High God has not put a distinction between the man who is from the Jews themselves and the man who is from their brethren, believes wrongly. The one who might claim that this prophecy is about the Christ, would overlook two peculiarities and show ignorance in two aspects; the first is that the Christ is from the children of David, and David is from themselves and not from their brethren; the second is that he who says once that the Christ is Creator and not created, and then pretends that the Christ is like Moses, his speech is contradictory and his saying is inconsistent." Kitab ad-Din, pp. 85-86 of my translation.

90. The following pronoun and verb are probably to be used in feminine: lah for lan, tithiledh for nithiledh.

91. Matt. xix. 17.

92. Peshitta Version.

93. John x. 11.

94. Luke vi. 43, etc.

95. That the line of defence of the Christians against the Muslims of the eighth and ninth centuries was to the effect that no prophet will rise after Christ is borne out by the Muslim apologist, `Ali b. Rabban Tabari, who in his Apology (Kitab ad-Din, pp. 15, 17-18 of my edition) quotes against the Christians, Acts xi. 24; xiii. 1; xxi. 9, in which St. Luke speaks of prophets. On the Christian side it is well emphasised by the apologist Kindi in his Risalah, p. 78.

96. Mal. iv. 4-6.

97. Read d-naphne with a Dalath.

98. Luke i. 13-17

99. John i. 29.

100. Matt iii. 11.

101. Luke iii. 16.

102. Is. liii. 8.

103. Cf. Is. li. 9; Prov. viii. 23-24.

104. Cf. Ps. ii. 7; Ixxii. 17; Is. xliv. 2, 24. This prophecy of David, "His name is before the sun" is referred by the Muslim apologist, `Ali b. Rabban Tabari, to Muhammud himself. Kitab-ad-Din, pp. 90 and 115 of my translation.

105. Is. vii. 14.

106. That the Jews and Christians are enemies and that this enmity is a guarantee of the genuineness of the Biblical text is also emphasised by Kindi in his Risalah, p. 150.

 End of part 5