A Qualitative, Discourse Analysis of Resurrection Apologetics in Two Academic Debates


This is work I produced in post-graduate studies of religion during 2019 in the University of Cape Town’s department of religion. I have excluded the literature review to make this article briefer, which means I have included just the research methodology and the analysis of the debates. It is not a short read but I believe it will be helpful to those wanting to become familiar with some important areas in the resurrection of Jesus in debates focused on this topic. The abstract below will explain this in a bit more detail.


This paper uses a qualitative, discursive approach to explore religious apologetics and the contestation of resurrection symbols of Jesus Christ within two formal debates that have taken place in South Africa. Debates on the resurrection of Christ have enjoyed a frequent presence within North American and Western European zones, but have been infrequent within South Africa. This infrequency can contribute to both a lack of an awareness of the subjective motivations of religious persons on matters of the resurrection as well as to a lack of religious illiteracy concerning the beliefs and convictions of other religious and irreligious persons within South African society. Further, no researcher has examined the motivations of South African religious apologists and apologists from distant shores who have come to South Africa to engage in inter-religious debate. David Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange is a helpful framework for laying bare the contestation of resurrection symbols between three ideological groups: Christians, Muslims, and modernist Christian theologians. This framework emphasizes contestation of religious symbols, and has potential for scholars of religion who intend use a discursive approach to review symbol contestation within inter-religious debates and apologetics beyond the topic of this paper.

Research Question

What is resurrection apologetics and the motivations of Muslim, Christian, and Modernist apologists within two formal debates on Jesus Christ’s resurrection that have taken place within South Africa?

Research Background and Rationale

This author of this research paper possesses an interest in the discourse between religious persons, which typically involves the use of religious apologetics and arguments. Although a number of researchers have looked into the field of religious apologetics few have investigated its evolution over and expression within the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In many cases, where a researcher has examined apologetics it has been done so within a specific religious tradition and the work published within a journal ideologically attached to that tradition (i.e. The Evangelical Philosophical Society or The Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics). One aim of this thesis is to provide a coherent developmental narrative of apologetics as it has evolved into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This evolution has witnessed contentious topics of debate, one of which has been an increase in debates on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hope is to locate this debate in historical context. Very few academics and scholars of religion have looked into resurrection apologetics in any detail or into the linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts of the apologists within the debate themselves, and where this has been done it has been on resurrection apologetics outside South Africa, notably within the United Kingdom and North America. This fact underpins the second aim of this paper, which is to bring light to resurrection apologetics within South Africa and to the linguistic, situational, and cultural influences underpinning the apologists with interests in the debates. The research insights of this thesis led to the discovery of two formal debates emphasizing the resurrection, which is a small number when compared to other markets. The adoption of David Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange as the theoretical framework within the second section to this paper is deliberate, not only for the material investigated here but for future use too. Its selection is first and foremost because of its applicability to investigating symbol contestation within religious apologetics and resurrection apologetics, which in turn assists examining motivations and linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts and influences. Secondary to this is that Chidester’s theory is applicable to many areas of religious studies research where there is symbol contestation, whether that be on apologetics or the areas of post-colonial theory and feminist studies.

Research Methodology

This section provides an explanation of the research methodology used for this paper. This will include an explanation of the choice of research approach, research design, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the research tools selected. This is followed by an elucidation of the methods used, and will conclude with a brief discussion on the ethical considerations and limitations posed by the research methodology, as well as problems encountered during the research.

Research Theory

The research approach used is a qualitative, discourse analysis which makes use of ‘existing video’. Discourse analysis is a research method involving an analysis of language with the underpinning conviction that language is not a fixed, immutable phenomenon, but one that is moulded by a social context (Fairclough and Wodak 1997, 277). Context affirms that a discourse is not taken in isolation but within a given context, a background (Hernández-Guerra 2014, 240). Analysis of context and background information shared between a speaker and hearer is considered important (Bloor and Bloor 2013, 7). According to A. D. Jankowicz,

“The technique focuses on the way in which language is used in given settings, and in a discourse analysis, your task is to identify the context; the various interpretive repertoires; and attempt a matching of one to the other, to arrive at an understanding of the function, from the point of view of your respondent, of the different stories being told” (Jankowicz 2005, 229).

The researcher investigates language which constitutes ‘a coherent unit’ beyond a single sentence, which suggests that a discourse under analysis can be an entire novel, sermon, argument, joke, narrative, and/or debate (Crystal 1992, 25). Crucial elements to discourse analysis are linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts (Song 2010, 876-877). The linguistic context looks at the words, phrases, and sentences that surround a particular discourse in order to determine their meaning. The situational context refers to time, place, and environment in which the discourse under analysis took place. The cultural context makes reference to culture and the cultural background in which the speakers participate. This context also refers to language and pays special attention how language is influenced by factors such as sex, age, social status, and social role.

Qualitative, discourse analysis is appropriate for this study (Stausberg and Engler 2011, 7). Qualitative research design is not concerned with rendering broad generalizations from the data but instead with nuanced descriptions through elements of analysis such as words and sentences. This design favours investigating the meaning that persons and groups ascribe to social phenomena, and provides a space for entertaining subjectivities through the point of view of the subject(s).

One disadvantage is that qualitative, discourse analysis focuses solely on language, which suggests that other important factors not being studied will be missed. Cues, which can include facial expression, and individual, bodily behaviour (gesturing and sign usage), that are insightful to many qualitative researchers do not factor into discourse analysis. This analysis is limited to language. Discourse analysis, as well as existing film analysis (see below), is also time consuming, particularly because discourse analysis requires a careful analysis of language. For this thesis’s purpose, all the claims, statements, arguments, and words of each of the debate actors (one Muslim, two evangelical Christians, and two modernist Christian theologians) were carefully transcribed word for word, which, despite being an incredibly time consuming process, was necessary for breaking down language into digestible units for later analysis of symbol contestation.

Research Methods

This paper makes use of ‘existing video’, which is one of several ways qualitative researchers have employed video within their research (Jewitt 2012). Existing video is adopted for this paper because it constitutes a significant resource. It is a useful investigative tool within the social sciences, and can include home-made domestic video, broadcast media, CCTV recording, and/or online published videos (such as published on sites including YouTube and Vimeo) (Jewitt 2012, 21). This paper employs the qualitative, discursive method as an analytical tool for analyzing the full length recordings of two formal debates released onto two YouTube channels where they are accessible and open to public viewership. Advantages and disadvantages of the existing video research method are briefly discussed.

Existing video analysis is limited in that it allows the researcher to only investigate what is recorded on camera within a limited timeframe. The result is that statements on a particular topic made external to the footage, either prior to or after the filming and on different occasions, by the same individual being filmed are inaccessible, even though they might be relevant and informative on the topic itself. This is an unfortunate limitation for much what a particular individual says on a given topic elsewhere cannot be noted, which suggests that the researcher’s insight drawn from the subject will be limited.

For both YouTube videos accessed there is concern over the quality of the footage. The first debate was recorded in 1983, a period in which camera technology was far less advanced than it is today. It is not clear whether some of the substandard visuals are due to video compression or other technology related factors. Fortunately, the audio is clear and undistorted throughout the duration of the debate. The second debate was recorded in 2010 but its visual and audial quality is also less than ideal. On infrequent occasions a word uttered by a proponent becomes inaudible over and above sounds from the audience, such as coughing or clapping, or due to the speaker mumbling or speaking away from the microphone. The visual quality is also subpar but not problematic enough to make proceedings unobservable. Despite these limitations, the videos are adequate for research purposes as no important information concerning any of the perspectives presented within them has been obscured due to the audial and visual imperfections. This paper is convinced the two videos ‘capture what is really going on’ and that their content is open to analysis (Jewitt 2012, 10).

The advantage of existing video analysis is that it is supportive of the qualitative, discourse research method. Filmed contents can be revisited throughout the researcher’s investigation in order to best represent what a particular subject argues, claims, or states. This reduces the chances of unknowingly distorting or misrepresenting a subject’s words or views as he or she has has stated them on camera. That the video content is shareable is further advantageous because it enables two or more reviewers to analyze the content. Advice can be given and reflections can be shared, which is surely appreciated by any researcher investigating a topic. Two or three heads are better than one.

Method of Data Analysis

This paper’s analysis involved coding the text into meaningful units representing themes within the data (Bremborg 2011, 317). The text consists of a complete transcription of the words (minus several inaudible exceptions) and statements of the actors within the debates. This text was coded in order to discover common words and phrases representing contested symbols between the debaters. The codes are referred to as “symbols”, which were grouped together in order to examine their contestation. No computer software was utilized within this process.

Ethical Considerations

Legal and ethical considerations were kept in mind throughout this paper’s development. The study was conducted within the bounds of relevant institutional and governmental guidelines, laws, and policies. This research required a respect for scientific validity in that it will produce useful results and add to knowledge. Objectivity required that despite this author’s personal investment within the debates and contestations under review it was crucial to purposefully avoid personal subjectivities colouring transcription, coding, and data analysis. Data integrity strives for an honest and accurate representation of the transcribed and coded data, which required avoiding omitting, fabricating, misrepresenting and/or manipulating data intentionally. All data, theory, and research has been referenced to their original sources and authors in order to respect their intellectual property. No information is plagiarized and no restricted data was used. This study did not make use of common qualitative methods such as interviews, and therefore did not need to adhere to informed consent, confidentiality, anonymity, and so on with the data.

A Discourse Analysis of Two Resurrection Debates

This paper analyzes arguments for and against the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an animated contestation of symbols, claims to their ownership, and their appropriation (see my symbolic analysis of religious apologetics). The proponents within the debates, as the discursive analysis will attempt to show, are also inextricably woven into and influenced by their linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts. These contexts shape what the proponents argue and attempt to communicate to their audience. This inter-religious debate and ideological discourse on the resurrection of Christ has commenced cordially across formal academic debates, forums, conferences, and symposiums that are open to audiences and media coverage. Unfortunately for South Africans, nearly all of these discussions have taken place overseas, particularly in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom where interest appears highest. Fortunately, there is some evidence of formal resurrection debates upon local shores, two of which this paper examines through a discursive analysis. This includes a debate between a Muslim apologist, Ahmed Deedat (1918-2005), and a Christian preacher, Paul Williams, and another between two local modernist Christian theologians, Hansie Wolmarans (University of Johannesburg) and Sakkie Spangenberg (University of South Africa), and two American Christian scholars, Michael Licona (Houston Baptist University) and William Lane Craig (Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University). It is best to briefly introduce the six proponents along with a brief summary of their positions within the respective debates.

Ahmed Deedat. Deedat, born in Surat, India, was the founder of Islamic Propagation Centre International located in the city of Durban, as well as an apologist, author, and missionary who dedicated his years to sharing the Islamic religion with non-Muslims in South Africa and around the world (IPCI n.d.). During the apartheid era of South Africa, he engaged in numerous inter-religious debates and dialogues with proponents of the Christian religion, and provided several public lectures on the topics of the Bible, Christianity, Islam, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad. In his debate with Paul Williams, Deedat argues against the resurrection and in favour of the Qur’an’s view that Christ was neither crucified nor killed. He proposes and defends several points: (1) The Qur’an is God’s authoritative word and teaches that Christ was neither killed nor crucified, (2) Christ used the Sign of Jonah to teach that he would no die, (3) Christ did not historically die by crucifixion given his process of crucifixion was non-lethal, (4) Christ escaped the tomb in which he was buried, (5) Mary Magdalene visited the tomb with the intention of reviving Christ’s painful body, (6) the gospel texts demonstrate Christ to have had a physical human body when he appeared to the disciples after he had been crucified suggesting that he did not die, (7) that Christ was in the process of starting an armed rebellion before his arrest by the Jews and Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane, and (8) that there is evidence of contemporary persons coming back to life from near death states, which includes a crucifixion.

Paul Williams. Williams is a Christian evangelist, missionary, and preacher, as well as the founder of the Know Your Bible South Africa ministry located in the town of Eshowe (KwaZulu-Natal) (Williams n.d). He has preached and shared the Christian religion to believers and unbelievers alike since 1949, and provides visitors to his church based ministry website with six online courses on biblical theology and the New Testament. In his debate with Ahmed Deedat, Williams argues in favour of the resurrection. He proposes and defends several points: (1) Christ’s bodily death due to crucifixion for human sins, (2) Christ was buried, (3) Christ was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, (4) Christ appeared to selected witnesses after his resurrection, (5) Christ’s historical resurrection is the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection, (6) the disciples were willing to embrace and propagate this belief amidst persecution, (7) Christ’s resurrection is not random but falls within God’s redemptive plan for human beings, (8) Christ’s resurrection is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies made centuries prior to the invention of crucifixion as a punishment, (9) the New Testament canon is textually complete and reliable based upon its manuscript attestation, (10) the Qur’an is unreliable as a witness to Christ’s crucifixion due to its late date and because it conflicts with historical evidence, and (10) the Apostle Paul did not invent Christianity.

Michael Licona. Licona is an American New Testament scholar, theologian, Christian apologist, and evangelist who operates the Risen Jesus website (Licona 2017). He speaks frequently at university campuses, Christian groups, churches, retreats, and has featured on numerous radio and television programs. He has debated a number of atheists and Muslims on topics including Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s divinity, Christ’s resurrection, and the reliability of the New Testament. Licona is also a member of several scholarly bodies including the Evangelical Theological and Philosophical Societies, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Studitorum Novi Testamenti Societas. In his debate with Hansie Wolmarans and Sakkie Spangenberg, Licona argues in favour of the resurrection. He proposes and defends several points: (1) The Apostle Paul’s letters affirm Christ’s resurrection to be a historical event, (2) Paul had a sufficient knowledge of the historical Christ despite not meeting him personally, (3) Paul visited Christ’s disciples to receive a history of Christ’s life and teachings, (4) Paul reliably taught the same message that Christ did as was affirmed by Peter and the disciples, (5) that it is warranted to hold to a supernatural resurrection within the modern scientific age, and (6) that God is the best explanation of Christ’s resurrection.

Hansie Wolmarans. Wolmarans, born in Johannesburg, is a theologian, member of the New Reformers Network, and the head of the Department of Greek and Latin Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ 2019). He teaches numerous subjects, including New Testament, Classical Mythology, and Greco-Roman mythology, and his current area of research is on the motif of the resurrection within Greco-Roman mystery cults. Wolmarans grew up in a conservative Calvinist household, and, as a current member of the New Reformers Network, believes that Christianity needs to adapt to the modern scientific age. In his debate with William Craig and Michael Licona, Wolmarans argues against the resurrection. He proposes and defends several points: (1) The New Testament must not be interpreted literally but be read within the parameters of scientific discourse, (2) to believe in biblical miracles is to be inconsistent with scientific discourse, (3) the New Testament is “mythos” in that it explains empirical reality in mythological terms according to a three storied mythological worldview, (4) Christ was first interpreted as a mythological figure, (5) the resurrection story grew over time, (6) the resurrection of Christ is mythos, (7) mythos is false but provides human beings with a sense of meaning in life and that there exists a just God who is in control of things, (8) the gospel burial narrative of Joseph of Arimathea is a late addition to the New Testament, (9) the Apostle Paul mentions his Damascus conversion experience in order to obtain apostolic authority on level with Peter, James, and the apostles, (10) there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the gospels, and (11) that Christianity was founded to establish an alternative community to the empire based upon love, empathy, and inclusion.

Sakkie Spangenberg. Spangenberg is a member of the New Reformers Network, and was, prior to his retirement in 2016, a professor at the University of South Africa where he lectured in Old Testament Studies (Snyman 2017, 215). He was also the former chairperson of the Old Testament Society of South Africa. In his debate with William Craig and Michael Licona, Spangenberg argues against the resurrection. He proposes and defends several points: (1) the New Testament gospels are not historical documents, (2) the gospel resurrection narratives are contradictory, (3) the Christ of the Apostle’s creed is an invention that differs to the Christ of the gospels, (4) the Bible is open to interpretation and that no-one reads it neutrally, (5) the Bible teaches Christians to resist the Christianity of the empire, (6) the resurrection of Christ was the way early Christians turned the story of a crucifixion into one of hope, and (7) that Christ did not believe in the Trinity or believe he was a part of it.

William Craig. Craig is an American philosopher, theologian, and author of over thirty books. He is renowned philosopher having been listed as one of the fifty most influential living philosophers alive, and in particular for his contributions within the philosophy of religion where he has articulated arguments, such as the Kalam cosmological argument, in favour of the existence of a monotheistic concept of God (Craig 2019a). Craig identifies as an evangelical Christian and apologist who has to date participated in 103 formal debates with prominent philosophers, scientists, and biblical scholars on the topics of atheism and Christianity, the Bible, Christ’s divinity and resurrection, evidence for the existence of God, intelligent design, Islam and Christianity, the problem of evil and suffering, and science and theology (Craig 2019b). In his debate with Hansie Wolmarans and Sakkie Spangenberg, Craig argues in favour of the resurrection. He proposes and defends several points: (1) the New Testament gospels and the Pauline letters teach history, (2) the gospels are ancient biographies and therefore not the same as Greco-Roman mythology, (3) the gospel biographies are early, use recent traditions, and consistently affirm the burial, the empty tomb, the post-mortem resurrection appearances of Christ, and the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection, (4) Christ must be understood within a first century Palestinian Judaic context constituting the background of the gospels, (5) the gospels promote a physical view of the resurrection because Jews believed in a bodily resurrection from the grave, (6) Christ was interred in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, (7) the burial narrative is attested to within several early and independent sources, (8) Christ’s tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion, (9) that the discovery of the empty tomb was made by women within a cultural setting in which their testimony was regarded as basically worthless suggests the empty tomb tradition’s historicity, (10) the empty tomb narrative is attested to within several early and independent sources, (11) the empty tomb story is simple and lacks signs of legendary or theological embellishment as one finds in apocryphal texts, (12) various individuals and groups of people on multiple occasions and under different circumstances saw appearances of Christ alive after his death, and (13) the original disciples’ belief in the resurrection was not due to their faith in him, but was instead a result of having come to believe that he had been resurrected from the dead.

Discursive Analysis of Symbol Contestation within Two Inter-Religious Debates on Resurrection of Christ

Examined below are several contested symbols and the linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts in which the contestations occur. For a brief list of symbol contestations which were not analyzed due to this paper’s word limit consult Appendix A included prior to the references at the end of this paper. Symbol contestation analysis is structured as follows: first an identification of the interpretations of a specific symbol, followed by a collection of direct quotations from each debate proponent supportive of his interpretation of this symbol, and then an application of discourse analysis to the proponent’s interpretation of the symbol in light of the contestation.

God as Contested Symbol

Contestation occurs between conceptions of God: [1] an impersonal God who does not intervene within human affairs and who did not bring about the resurrection of Christ (Hansie Wolmarans), [2] a God who intervenes within history through the resurrection of Christ (Michael Licona, William Craig, Paul Williams), and [3] a God who revealed in the Qur’an that Christ was neither crucified nor killed (Ahmed Deedat).

William Craig: “Jesus is now widely recognized to have carried out a ministry of miracle working and exorcisms as signs of the inaugurating of the kingdom of God into human history in his person. The events of Easter have been no exception of this revolution in scholarship.” [07:08-07:26]

“Such an event would literally be a miracle and an event caused by God, and of course if you do not believe in God then you are not going to be open to any such miraculous explanation.” [11:22-11:37]

Michael Licona: “The reason that this is important ladies and gentlemen is because if Jesus rose from the dead then I think we are probably in agreement that God is the best candidate for the cause of Jesus’ resurrection, and theism obtains. So what Professor Spangenberg in his opening statement did was seem to argue backwards in terms of history. I don’t believe that God exists therefore Jesus couldn’t be raised from the dead.” [34:54-35:21]

Hansie Wolmarans: “I agree with Paul Tillich that God is the ground of all being, and my translation of Psalm 23 was to give expression to that view of God which is much wider than the personal God pulling the strings of our Earthly events.” [36:56-37:15]

Paul Williams: “For the purpose of God for the salvation of men to be accomplished Jesus had to die so he put aside his human feelings and surrendered to his father’s will. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” [20:12-20:32]

Ahmed Deedat: “On the subject of crucifixion the Muslim is told in no uncertain terms in the holy Qur’an, the last and final revelation from God, that they didn’t kill him nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them, and those who dispute therein are full of doubts, they have no certain knowledge, they only follow conjecture.” [38:36-39:20]

Hansie Wolmarans accepts Paul Tillich’s view of God. Tillich did not view God as a personal being, but rather the ground of “Being-Itself,” which is understood to be a challenge to the traditional Christian theism of a personal God embraced by Craig and Licona (Hammond 1964, 289). This God is impersonal and does not pull any strings behind empirical Earthly events. Wolmarans refers to the supernatural resurrection of Christ as “mythos,” which denotes its mythical and unhistorical status. It could be argued that Wolmarans’ ascribing to some sort of God concept, in this case to a Tillichian notion of deity, remains important for him. Many Christians, including modernist Christians, feel the need to embrace and articulate some concept of deity, whether that be in accordance with mainstream Christian views or not (Bates 1981, 82). Wolmarans’ Tillichian God is consistent with a modernist Christian tradition that attempts to render Christianity comprehensive to the modern world and scientific mind, and to do so without dismissing the Christian religion in its entirety as one might except of an atheist or an agnostic. The Tillichian notion of deity avoids a personal God who intervenes in creation through miracles, and therefore can be embraced by Christians who wish to respect scientific discourse.

William Craig, Michael Licona, and Paul Williams all situate themselves within the evangelical school. All three individuals view apologetics as an ecumenical practice inextricably linked to evangelism with the end goal of the conversion of unbelievers and skeptics to the Christian faith (Bates 1981, 86). They all intend to present the Christian religion and God as rationally tenable options within the marketplace of worldviews. This is primarily directed at non-Christian audiences, which includes skeptics and Muslims. For Williams this audience is mainly Islamic, many of whom concur with the Qur’an’s claim that Christ was neither killed by crucifixion nor resurrected from the dead as an act of God. According to Williams’ own post-debate reflections stipulated on the website linked to his church in Eshowe, there were between 1200 and 2000 people in attendance at his debate with Deedat. This group consisted of “few white people who believed in Jesus, but most of the crowd were Indian Muslims” (Williams 2007). Williams’ claim is partially corroborated by the YouTube footage which, despite never once focusing on the audience, suggests, going on the sound of jeers and applauses from the audience, that there was more support for Deedat than for his Christian opponent. Williams is convinced that the death and resurrection of Christ is a theological truth which materialized to atone for human sin according to Christian scriptures.

The Craig/Licona-Spangenberg/Wolmarans audience consists of a majority white crowd with a mixture of a mature and young audience. The only evidence of total attendance is a Tweet Michael Licona posted on his Twitter account after the event, which puts the estimated number at 1200. Given the setting of the University of Pretoria, this audience likely constituted Christians, skeptics, and modernists, some of whom were probably students. Such a constitutive is suggested by Craig and Licona’s apologetic approach which is to dispute the tenability of an anti-supernatural and naturalistic worldview they claim typifies the modernist theology embraced by their debate opponents. As evangelicals, Craig and Licona are concerned with worldviews that challenge the truths of Christianity, which forms the rationale behind their visit to South Africa to debate and contest the modernist theological worldview and interpretations of God. They believe that an anti-supernatural, modernist worldview is one embraced by students at the University of Pretoria as well as by South Africans within society and in the secular educational institutions. They wish to penetrate the secular university space in order to demonstrate the reasonableness of a supernatural worldview, in particular a Christian worldview, which not only affirms the existence of God but also of a God who intervenes within the physical, empirical universe and did so through the resurrection of Christ. Evangelicals share concerns that the secular educational space is often hazardous to the Christian student’s faith (Rauser 2009, 76-77). Some of these reasons include members of university faculty holding to more politically liberal views than to religiously, particularly Christian, conservative ones, and that Christian students are exposed to other worldviews such as atheism and non-Christian views of spirituality (Gross and Simmons 2007). There is also a significant and increasing unaffiliated demographic which collectively refers to citizens who are either atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular.” This stands at 22.8% in the United States (Pew Research Center 2015), and 25% of American college graduates fall into this category (Pew Research Center 2019). These trends extend beyond North American borders. In South Africa this demographic constitutes 14.9% (7 450 000) of the population as of 2010 (Pew Research Center 2010), which suggests that both countries are home to a sizable unaffiliated population. These statistics underscore the motivation for why Craig and Licona selected to engage evangelically within the tertiary institutional space in South Africa, as they have done in the United States.

Ahmed Deedat holds to belief that there exists a God who can intervene within the natural order to bring about events, except he rejects that this God did so in the case of the death by crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Christ. This is a view held by most Muslim believers and appears the mainstream view among Muslim exegetes, which is that the Qur’an teaches that Christ was not killed or crucified (Reynolds 2009, 237; Howard 2015, 303). For Deedat, given the Qur’an’s divine inspiration and its status as being God’s authoritative word, sura 4:157 is by definition the true account of historical events relating to Christ. Deedat shares the evangelical sentiments of Williams, which is suggested by his 40 years of presenting Islam to mainly non-Muslim audiences across the world in order to convert them to the Islamic religion (IPCI 2019). This forms the overarching mission of the Islamic Propagation Centre International, the very organization Deedat founded in Durban and continues to exist today (IPCI n.d.). Certainly Deedat and Williams’ interpretation of God too finds parallel in an opposition to modernist interpretations of deity. Both proponents agree that a transcendent deity exists, that this deity intervenes within creation, and that belief in this deity is an essential component to identifying with their respective religious traditions.

New Testament Reliability as a Contested Symbol

Contestation occurs between interpreting the New Testament texts and the gospels [1] as historically unreliable mythos (Hansie Wolmarans), [2] as reliable historical biographies (William Craig, Michael Licona), [3] as reliable eyewitness documents to historical events of Christ’s ministry and resurrection (Paul Williams), and [4] as consistent with Qur’anic claims that Christ was neither crucified nor killed (Ahmed Deedat).

Hansie Wolmarans: “I am going to say something about two types of discourse which the Greeks distinguished. They called it mythos and logos… I will interpret the resurrection appearances of Jesus to Peter and the twelve as such a myth.” [38:48-39:13]

“Mythos is a story explaining this reality in terms of another supernatural reality. To think that somehow there is justice in God’s control of events. And logos, of course, is the exact opposite. It explains phenomena in terms of this reality… I do think it is very dangerous to call a mythos a logos, and the history of Christianity is unfortunately filled with this type of reasoning.” [39:55-40:49]

“I strongly disagree with the suggestion that the gospels are good history, in fact they’re bad history, but they’re good poetry” [01:16:12-01:16:22].

William Craig: “Dr. Wolmarans thinks that the gospels are examples of mythological writing akin to the stories of Greco-Roman mythology, and are therefore to be understood symbolically. Unfortunately I am sorry to say Dr. Wolmarans’ scholarship here is just hopelessly out of date. He would have us ignore over 100 years of historical scholarship with respect to the New Testament, and revert to the mythological interpretation of the nineteenth century. In particular he would have us ignore the Jewish reclamation of Jesus and revert to understanding Jesus against the backdrop of pagan religion. He fails to grasp the Jewishness of Jesus and so seriously distorts the meaning of these very Jewish texts. The fact that the gospels were written so soon after the events that they record makes them utterly unlike myths which form through centuries of development… The gospels are not of the genre of mythology. They are historical records of people who really lived, of events that really occurred, of places that actually existed that you can read about in the works of historians like Josephus, the Jewish historian.” [50:01-52:09]

Paul Williams: “Does their testimony agree? The answer is yes. Just as independent witnesses could be expected to agree. There is no opposite testimony from any of them, and not one changed their testimony, and what powerful testimony indeed. It is no wonder that people by the thousands were converted by it, it is testimony that continues to convert because it, and it alone, makes sense of all that we know.” [29:39-30:12]

Ahmed Deedat: “According to Christian records, according to your records, according to your claims Friday evening he is supposed to be in the grave… the first day of the week Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. So the gospel records is that she goes to anoint him. This word anoint in Hebrew and Arabic comes from the root word masaha, which means to “rub”, “to massage”, “to anoint”. Now you tell me, what do you want to go and message, anoint, or rub a dead rotten body after three days? Because within three hours rigor mortis sets in, the hardening of the cells, the body starts fermenting. In three days time the body is rotted from the inside.” [56:10-59:22]

“Because this crucifixion was on the eve of the Sabbath, the Romans had a system. If they wanted a slow death there was a system. If they wanted a quick death, a fast death there was a system. This was because of the Sabbath a fast method was being used. And in the fast method of this so-called crucifixion, the person was tied with leather tongs… by tying the arms on the straight piece, and the feet were resting on a platform like my hands are resting now on a platform.” [01:39:18-01:40:17]

Hansie Wolmarans firmly situates himself within a modernist theological worldview that emphasizes scientific knowledge (“logos”) above knowledge derived from the superstitions of the supernatural and miraculous (“mythos”) prevalent within ancient religion, in particular within Christian history. It is Wolmarans’ contention that the supernatural worldview held by Christ and the New Testament/gospel authors in which supernatural phenomena was believed to have occurred is no longer rational to believe in or accept within the contemporary scientific world. However, if one can still appreciate the New Testament/gospels in some sense, which in Wolmarans’ case is not literal or historical, then one can still situate himself within a Christian tradition that appreciates the New Testament/gospel texts themselves. Wolmarans construes the New Testament/gospels as “good poetry” but “bad history,” thus conforming with the modernist disposition to never fully reject the text by perceiving some value within it but to still view its contents as inconsistent with scientific discourse (Bates 1981, 82-83). Wolmarans does not clarify what good poetry is or why the New Testament/gospels should be interpreted as such.

William Craig rejects this modernist mythological interpretation and contends that interpreting the New Testament/gospels as stories akin to Greco-Roman mythology is over a century out of date within academic scholarship, and that it also ignores the Jewish backdrop for understanding Christ and the New Testament/gospels. Further confronting the mythological interpretation is that the gospels were composed within the first century, and therefore cannot be deemed analogous to myths which develop over centuries. Craig is convinced that if one can situate the resurrection story within a short space of time post Christ’s death by crucifixion then it cannot simply be explained away as myth or legend, but is rather likely to be based upon a historical event. For Craig, that the gospels bear the marks of biography in that that they constitute historical records of individual persons who really lived, of events that really occurred, and of places that actually existed lends credibility to the historical interpretation of Christ’s resurrection. Craig is resolute that if one can trust the gospels as historical witnesses to tangible persons, communities, and locales of history, then that individual is also within his rights to accept that the gospel authors reference a real historical event in the resurrection, despite the resurrection being an ostensibly supernatural event. Craig’s interpretation of the resurrection as a literal event of history is clearly in contrast to the modernist interpretation presented by Wolmarans who argues that the resurrection cannot be deemed historical.

Craig’s interpretation is shared by Paul Williams who also wishes to ground the gospels in history, and he believes that examining their testimonies proves their reliability. He argues that their testimonies agree just as one would expect independent witnesses to an event of history to agree. There are no conflicting reports from the New Testament that dispute the gospel testimonies, and neither did the authors alter their stories as one might expect had they colluded and presented a fabrication. Indeed then the resurrection was a literal event in which Christ was historically raised from the dead.

Ahmed Deedat does not reject the notion that the gospels have a historical characteristic to them, and he uses them to construct a theory of Christ’s crucifixion which supports Qur’anic claims that Christ was not killed by the crucifixion process. Deedat’s theory is that Christ was indeed injured in a crucifixion but that this crucifixion did not lead to death. Instead of Christ’s wrists being nailed to the wooden beam they were tied to it with leather tongs, which suggests that he would not have suffered injury and blood loss from nails penetrating his flesh. Christ also had a platform on which to rest his feet that, presumably, would have prevented his death by slow asphyxiation, which was a common mode of death by crucifixion (Litchfield 1997, 98). Christ would have yet still sustained some level of injury from this process, and Mary Magdalene, evidently aware of this, went to revive his body in the tomb he was placed. Deedat disagrees with modernist interpretations because he believes that Christ was really, as the gospel narrative attest, buried in a tomb later discovered empty, although his theory is not that this is because Christ was raised from the dead. For the modernist like Wolmarans the empty tomb narrative is mythological just as are the resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples and followers.

Apartheid as Contested Symbol

Contestation occurs between interpreting [1] the Bible as being used in a way supportive of apartheid ideology (Sakkie Spangenberg), and [2] the Bible being interpreted to support apartheid ideology as being irrelevant to arguments for or against the resurrection of Christ and to the appropriate interpretation of the New Testament (Michael Licona).

Sakkie Spangenberg: “No-one reads the Bible neutrally, we are all influenced by our upbringing and our church traditions… That type of using the Bible was responsible for the support of apartheid. The Bible did not teach apartheid because when people started to read the Bible they discovered that different Christians read had the Bible in different ways. So there you can see that we all do not read the Bible from a neutral viewpoint. We are influenced either by politics, or by the church tradition, but we do not read in a neutral way.” [57:52-59:37]

“The gospel that Jesus taught was the gospel of God’s Kingdom… God’s Kingdom is standing over and against the empire of the Romans. Because people suffered because of the oppression Jesus said “God’s kingdom will be different.” And that is what we should return to, to resist the religion of the empire… The Christianity that we were brought up with is the religion of the Roman Empire… And from then on Christians turned on other Christians that did not believe in the same way that they believed. They turned on women, and burned witches, they turned on the Muslims, they turned on whoever differed from them.” [01:00:34-01:02:14]

Afterwards Christians came to tell a story: Jesus has been vindicated by God. He has been resurrected. That gives us hope. And whether that was physical or bodily or whatever, that gave them courage, and they went into the world to do good. Not to kill, not to turn their backs on people of other colours, not to turn their backs on women.” [01:04:11-01:04:39]

Michael Licona: “He says that the Bible has been misused to teach apartheid, and we don’t read the Bible from a neutral position. But that doesn’t prove anything except that we don’t read the Bible from a neutral position, and that some people misinterpret it.” [01:07:23-01:07:39]

“Red herring. It’s interesting, I could debate that, in fact I’ll stay after if you want, we can debate it. But it is irrelevant to tonight’s debate.” [01:08:09-01:08:14]

For Sakkie Spangenberg the resurrection of Christ is not the most important theme within the New Testament/gospels. Instead he stresses the importance of interpreting the texts’ teachings of God’s kingdom, which is a kingdom that opposes the injustices of the ruling empire. This kingdom establishes an alternative community which lacks division and is characterized by love and acceptance. Spangenberg claims that the actualization of this kingdom is linked primarily to human effort. It is human persons who are the agents responsible for instituting such an empire, not God or Christ or any supernatural force acting directly in the universe or through persons. Although Spangenberg throughout the debate is never as directly critical of the supernatural, the miraculous, and God as Wolmarans is, Spangenberg still locates himself within the modernist Christian tradition by placing his emphasis upon human action in the actualization of God’s kingdom as modeled on Christ rather than on supernatural forces. Although actualizing God’s kingdom through human collective effort is perceived by Spangenberg to constitute a beneficial prospect for all persons it also suggests that heinous empires which are the antithesis of God’s kingdom can too be established. Apartheid was an example of such an empire. Spangenberg perceives apartheid to constitute an abominable human construct which occurred partly through theologians claiming “the Bible teaches!” apartheid. Spangenberg believes, however, that God’s kingdom can be established in a post-apartheid South Africa, and he desires such prospects given that the apartheid era has left millions of South Africans facing deep racial, social, and economic hardship and division. Spangenberg’s interpretation of the New Testament/gospels is therefore based primarily along liberationist lines, which not only speaks to South Africans still hurting from apartheid’s legacy but also urges Christians within the country to resist morally problematic interpretations of scripture that could potentially cause suffering through religious intolerance, division, racism, and sexism. Spangenberg is a professor himself and is aware that the university space is valuable for disseminating liberationist ideology. Evidence suggests this. Transformational and activist dimensions are deeply embedded within university citizenship (Stuurman 2018), and students, particularly from previously disadvantaged, oppressed groups within South Africa, often constitute the vanguard of activist and protest efforts (Naicker 2016, 54-56). Student protest movements have indeed upped the ante since the time of the Craig/Licona-Wolmarans/Spangenberg debate given widely publicized student-led movements such as #feesmustfall (Naicker 2016, 57-59) and #rhodesmustfall (Mangcu 2017), but evidence suggests that student activism extends well back into the time of apartheid (Cele and Koen 2003). For Spangenberg the post-apartheid, democratic South Africa that witnesses frequent collective assemblages of students pressuring governmental authorities and educational institutions into changing how institutional systems function (Osipian 2016), presents an opportune moment to distribute liberationist ideas despite criticism from his debate opponents that they are irrelevant to the actual topic of discussion.

That the Bible is contended to have taught apartheid’s ideology of racial superiority is one of several of Spangenberg’s claims that Michael Licona argues are irrelevant contestations in light of how one is to interpret the New Testament texts and the resurrection of Christ. Licona does not claim that any of Spangenberg’s “red herrings” are trivial, and in fact states that they are important and worth debating, but on the occasion when they are the relevant topics of debate. This contestation evidences a clear distinction between liberationist and historical apologetic approaches to symbols. For Spangenberg liberationist apologetics it is not a literal, historical case for the resurrection of Christ that ultimately matters, whereas for Licona a literal, historical interpretation certainly does matter. The liberationist apologetic seeks to use the Bible as the foundation for actualizing a kingdom of moral good based upon love and acceptance, whereas the historical apologetic of Licona employs the Bible to establish Christ’s resurrection on historical grounds and thus the truth of the Christian religion.

Christ as Rebel Symbol

Contestation occurs between interpreting [1] Christ as a leader of a small group of Jewish rebels, of whom together were plotting an insurrection against oppressive Roman rule, who would survive the ordeal as suggested by his reference to the Sign of Jonah (Ahmed Deedat), and [2] that interpreting Christ as a leader of a small group of Jewish rebels is tangential and a misreading of the Sign of Jonah (Paul Williams).

Ahmed Deedat: “Because as Jonah was three days and three nights. Want soos Jonah drie dae en drie nagte. Ngoba u Jonah ebengekho intsuku ezintathu kunye nobusuku obuthathu.” [57:39-57:49]

“I’m quoting [Jesus]: “but now I tell you those of you who have no swords must sell your garments and buy them.” I am asking you, what do people do with swords?… Look this man is preparing to fight. He is telling his people to arm themselves… if you look at the whole story, the whole setup, the man is prepared for a fight. He is preparing to have a show down with the Jews, but the Jews were cleverer than what he thought. His own people. They go and bring Roman soldiers. Instead of fighting Jews against Jews now they bring Roman soldiers, and against trained men his disciples would have been slaughtered to pieces, cut to pieces.” [01:45:38-01:47:52]

Paul Williams: “He [Deedat] took the sign of Jonah, and what did he tell you? He said Jonah went into the fish alive and he came out alive. And therefore Jesus had to go into the tomb alive, and come out alive… Now it doesn’t say that, that’s what Mr. Deedat says. Jesus says “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so I will be in the heart of the Earth for three days and three nights.” No word “alive” there at all… the point of comparison with Jonah is that he was in the belly of the whale and so Jesus was going to be in the heart of the Earth.” [01:13:03-01:15:22]

“But now I don’t like to get sidetracked off on things like that. These are such ridiculous things. Now, what are we going to do with all these witnesses here? They all say “we saw Jesus raised from the dead.” [01:15:50-01:16:08]

“The arguments which I have made have not been attacked topside or bottom. There is just no way for me to answer his answer because he didn’t try to answer. But he’s picked at this and that and the other thing without coming to proper conclusions. He hasn’t spun his theory out so that we could see the consequences of it.” [01:51:26-01:57:47]

Ahmed Deedat presents Christ as a rebel leader and tactician in opposition to the Jews and the oppressive ruling Roman Empire. Deedat contends that Christ, along with some of his followers, ventured to the Garden of Gethsemane located just outside of Jerusalem to prayer, and that this story bears all the signs of the onset of a rebellion waged against a ruling power. The visit to the garden was a tactical move where Christ begun plotting an insurrection and praying to God for assistance. This location was desirable given that Christ and his followers would have been able to defend themselves, but his efforts were soon foiled when the Jews, having discovered his plot, brought along Roman soldiers to apprehend him. Deedat’s interpretation of Christ as prospective rebellion leader and military tactician spoke into the hearts and minds of many within his audience, which was a majority non-white and Indian-Muslim one, on both socio-political and religious levels.

On the socio-political level, it is important to acknowledge that the Williams-Deedat debate took place in 1983, roughly ten or so years prior to South Africa’s liberation from apartheid, and Deedat’s rendition of Christ as a liberator from oppressive rule would have attracted many of the Indian-Muslims in attendance. Like blacks and coloureds, Indians were too discriminated against by apartheid legislation, which included restrictions on movement (the 1925 Areas Reservation Bill), forced removals to townships (the 1950 Group Areas Act), and inferior education than what was afforded to whites (the 1965 Indian Education Act). According to the Population Registration Act of 1950, Indians were classified in the same category as coloureds, of whom were also victims of apartheid legislation. Coloureds were separated from whites in terms of occupational opportunities, forcibly relocated to less desirable areas, had no voting rights within the Cape Province, and legislation prohibited intermarriage and sexual relations with other groups until 1985 (SAHO 2011). Some Indians during the apartheid era, like some blacks and coloureds, were a part of resistance movements rebelling against the apartheid government and its legislation (SAHO 2012). This socio-political context needs to be recognized if one wishes to appreciate how Deedat’s remarks might have resonated with his audience. Although rendering Christ as an insurgent leader akin to other messianic figures of history who rose up in opposition to oppressive Roman rule is certainly unconventional in contemporary scholarship, Deedat is delivering his speech not to scholars but to ordinary Muslims and Christians who, one might assume, are not academic specialists in relevant fields of expertise such as in the specializations of history, theology, Islamic studies, or religious studies. It is possible that Deedat attempts to talk to the hearts of a majority Indian-Muslim audience who are living within awful conditions beneath oppressive legislation. This would have had great rhetorical effect on Deedat’s audience given that, as La Piana rightly noted, faith, feelings, and passions are the major driving forces behind religious beliefs, and that tapping into this source could well influence what members within an audience conclude is the truer or stronger argument (La Piana 1931, 2). La Piana would suggest that for many of the Muslims (and Christians) attending the Williams-Deedat debate it did not ultimately matter whether interpretations of religious figures exercised fidelity with historical scholarship, instead what mattered was what resonated with a person’s already held religious beliefs, feelings, and passions.

On the religious level, moreover, although presenting Christ as prospective rebellion leader and military tactician would strike deeply at many Christians, for Muslims it is unlikely to be of equal concern. In fact it could be quite attractive. The Prophet Muhammad not only provided revelation of God but was also a military tactician who, according to Muslim sources, was successful, having, within his lifetime, amassed a military powerful enough to march on Mecca, conquer it, and establish Islam as the major religion within seventh century Arabia. Christ as a liberator from dominant, oppressive forces not only spoke to Indian-Muslim South Africans living beneath an oppressive, totalitarian apartheid government, but would have also, to many of them, rested comfortably within their Islamic faith without providing contradiction.

It further benefits Deedat’s appeal that he demonstrates an ability to speak three languages: Afrikaans, English, and Xhosa, all of which were, and still are, vernaculars spoken by many South Africans. At one point in the debate Deedat reproduces the statement “For as Jonah was three days and three nights” into Afrikaans and Xhosa, and pronounces them one after another. Deedat’s argument is that Christ, by way of analogy, applied the Old Testament narrative of Jonah to himself to teach that just as Jonah survived for three days and three nights within the belly of the fish that God had sent to swallow him, so Christ said that he would be buried in a tomb for three days and three nights but would then emerge out of it alive. This teaching of Christ, Deedat maintains, affirms his argument that at no point did Christ ever die, and in fact that he explicitly taught his disciples that he would not die. That Deedat uses three languages in the service of this argument is well-received as it receives an applause from those within the audience evidently impressed by his linguistic skill. This reaction to Deedat’s ability, as well as Deedat’s ability itself, must also be viewed within a socio-political context in which the apartheid government employed Afrikaans as its language. Afrikaans is a unique language in that it was the spoken vernacular of the oppressor (those who supported white Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid legislation), but also of the oppressed (more than half of Afrikaans speakers were non-whites) (Jansen 2017, 337). In the voice of the apartheid government, however, Afrikaans was used to discriminate, dominate, and repress persons through it being forced upon those who fell within the non-white category, particularly as a medium of instruction within schools and its use within legislation prohibiting contact between races in sexual relations, housing, and land ownership (Jansen 2017, 337). Some have suggested that if it were not for Dutch being the language forced upon the Khoikhoi, San, and slaves Afrikaans itself would not have developed (van Heerden 2016). Factors such as these suggest that the Afrikaans language has evolved through a chequered history, and one that has contributed to its unfavourable reputation among many that it was (and for some still is) the language of the oppressor. Thus, that Deedat is able to articulate the language openly alongside the English and Xhosa vernaculars encompasses a racial and cultural inclusivity not found within the ideology of the apartheid regime. To articulate the same sentence in three different languages is to treat each language equally. It does not treat any one language with privilege or superiority, and each is deemed sufficient enough to carry the argument proposed. In the apartheid socio-political context this could be suggested to evidence a subtle form of resistance to a divisive racial ideology largely based upon the Afrikaans language’s dominance. An opposition to said dominance is supported by Deedat’s IPCI organization which stated its goal to “make Islam understood in our time and to reach out as far as possible to every human being with its message” (IPCI, n.d.). Islam, according to the IPCI mission, is to be taken to all people, including all South Africans, regardless of their race, culture, or beliefs. There were few better candidates for such a task than Deedat who could speak the languages of several racial groups across South Africa during the time of apartheid.

Paul Williams contends that the arguments he forwarded supportive of Christ’s resurrection were left unengaged by Deedat throughout the duration of the debate. Williams criticizes Deedat for cherrypicking Bible verses, going off on tangents through making claims that do not refute his arguments, and that Deedat’s assertions never come neatly together in conclusions supportive of his own arguments. Williams argues that one such tangent is Deedat’s misreading of the Sign of Jonah which does not support the claim that Christ was teaching that he would not die. Not only was this not what Christ was teaching but that it also fails to take into account all the claims of the witnesses who say that Christ was raised from the dead.

Christ’s Resurrection as Contested Symbol

Contestation occurs over interpreting Christ’s resurrection as [1] historical and bodily (William Craig, Paul Williams), and as [2] historical myth (Hansie Wolmarans)

William Craig: “Today the majority of New Testament scholars agree by far on the following four facts. Number one, after his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth was interred in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea. Two, Jesus’ tomb was then found empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion… Three, there is individuals and groups of people on multiple occasions and under different circumstances who saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death… Finally, number four, the original disciples belief in Jesus’ resurrection was not the result of their faith in him or wishful thinking, quite the contrary their faith in him was their having come to believe that he was risen from the dead… The historical foundations of belief in Jesus’ resurrection are thus surprisingly well attested, and are recognized as such by the majority of New Testament scholars today.” [07:59-10:33]

“The empty tomb story is also multiply attested in independent, early sources. It’s in the pre-markan passion source, it’s in the source independently behind Matthew and Luke, it’s in the gospel of John, it’s implied by Paul’s tradition in 1 Corinthians 15, and it’s also referred to in the early Apostolic sermon in the book of Acts.” [55:21-55:39]

Hansie Wolmarans: “They lived in a time when the dead could reappear any time… This is very bothering for me of the worldview we experienced here and the method applied, that it takes on a myth itself.” [01:16:53-01:17:43]

Paul Williams: “These facts are Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, two, he was buried, three, he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, four, he appeared to selected witnesses after his resurrection. Paul was not the only apostle who preached these things, except for the little books of James and Jude, every New Testament writer specifically witnesses the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ… And nothing else will explain the almost explosive beginning of the Church. Just a few weeks after the crucifixion they all believed and preached the same thing, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.” [11:03-12:12]

“If you turn to your chart on page two of your booklet you’ll find a few verses from Isaiah 53, one of the places that talks about the death of the Messiah for the sins of the world. This was written 700 years before Christ. Here are the verses I have chosen: verse 4 through 6 and verse 8.” [17:12-17:35]

“This verse [Psalm 22:16] says “For dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil doers have encompassed me, they pierce my hands and my feet.” Now, this was hundreds of years before crucifixion had become a method of execution. Yet God was not only prophesying the death of the Messiah he was telling how it was going to occur.” [18:54-19:18]

Comparing the approach of Paul Williams with the collective approach of William Craig and Michael Licona evidence several dissimilarities in apologetic method, which, it could be suggested, can be accounted for by social context and developments within historical Jesus research. The Williams-Deedat debate commenced when resurrection apologetics, and apologetics in general, was not at all prominent within the South African public’s consciousness. It was also the first formal resurrection debate within South Africa, which was then followed by a 27 year gap until it was Craig and Licona’s turn to engage in the contest with Wolmarans and Spangenberg. Over this period since the Williams-Deedat debate, and in particular the past two decades, resurrection apologetics has proliferated among American and European apologists: N. T. Wright completed his Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God in 2003, Michael Licona published his The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach in 2010, and Gary Habermas published the minimal facts apologetic in the Southeastern Theological Review in 2012 and presented his argument at Liberty University in a 2013 lecture titled The Resurrection Argument that Changed a Generation of Scholars. Michael Licona’s earliest debate on the topic (versus Greg Clavin) was in 2012, and the vast majority of William Craig’s formal debates on the resurrection have taken place post the year 2000 (13 in total compared to just three before that date). In respect to these developments Williams is an isolated proponent within an apologetic tradition that has progressed significantly within foreign North American and European markets. This development also reflects these foreign spaces. O’Collins observed how skepticism concerning the gospel materials presented by scholars within the Jesus Seminar in the United States called into question much of the accepted knowledge of Christ, particularly Christ’s own words and teachings, which evidently, through the seminar’s claims made within the media, exerted an influence upon many Americans within the public (Meier 1999, 461; O’Collins 2011, 229). In response to these claims, the apologetic materials of Christian scholars including Luke Timothy Johnson, Richard Bauckham, Gary Habermas, Craig Keener, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright begun reflecting a rigorous engagement with historical-source criticism presented in the work of some members within the Jesus Seminar. William Craig and Michael Licona are located within this same tradition and it reflects in their apologetic engagement with Wolmarans and Spangenberg. Consider Craig’s appeal to the historical method and its criteria of multiple attestation, early and independent source materials, materials behind later source materials (the pre-markan passion source, the source behind the gospel of Matthew, the independent source behind the gospel of Luke), and early creedal traditions (the tradition Paul quotes that goes back to within five years of the death of Christ). This approach sustains the apologetic tradition motivated by the Jesus Seminar through its appreciation of the historical method. The Jesus Seminar pushed skepticism deep within the North American market and demonstrated to Christians, Christian scholars included, that one could not just accept what the gospels affirmed and taught about Christ at face value, but that this knowledge must be justified on some evidential basis. Given that Christ is indeed a figure of history this justification required accessing and evaluating the historical materials on him through vetting them via the processes of the historical method, which reflects in the brand of Christian apologetics that typifies Craig’s approach.

This appreciation and articulation of the historical method is far less pronounced within Williams’ approach although it is not entirely absent. There is some evidence of it within his appeal to the historical method’s independent attestation when arguing in favour of Christ’s resurrection based upon the multiple, agreeable eyewitness testimonies of the gospel writers. The historical method, however, is never the core approach within his brand of apologetics. But what would explain this? It is suggested that this is explained in light of the fact that nothing comparable to the skepticism of the Jesus Seminar, at least as an organized body of academics, has ever existed within South Africa, as well as that the seminar was founded in 1985 (Jacobs 1996, 106), which leaves a gap of two years between Williams and the seminar’s coming into being. At the time of the Williams-Deedat debate it was not possible for the seminar’s skepticism to filter into South Africa, which suggests that neither Williams nor Deedat could have been aware of the unique brand of skepticism that would come to later characterize the seminar (Tuckett 1995, 251). This brand of skepticism included new claims that only 20% of the words attributed to Christ in the gospels were likely said by him (Dart 1991), and that the Gospel of Thomas could be placed alongside the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and viewed as a legitimate source from which to derive some of Christ’s sayings (Tuckett 1995, 251). In addition to these unique claims no such organized body of academics on par with the Jesus Seminar can be found within South Africa. The organization Hansie Wolmarans is a part of, the Reformation Network South Africa, is a society aimed at the reformation of Christian theology, and is perhaps the closest local version of the Jesus Seminar. However, the society is almost entirely invisible to the public in terms of social media and online outreach. The society operates out of Tshwane but no basic information can be found such as its email address, contact numbers, membership, or anything else. Academic skepticism concerning Christ in terms of what he said, taught, and did has not received nearly the same level of publicity or attention in South Africa as it has within the United States and the United Kingdom. Christianity within South Africa has therefore had little need of producing a band of Christian academic apologists seeking to counter claims made by society’s such as the Jesus Seminar.

A final point concerning the divergence of apologetic approach between Williams and Craig-Licona is the role of prophecy. Williams contends that the authors of Psalm 22:16 and Isaiah 53 predicted the crucifixion of Christ several hundreds of years before crucifixion had ever become a method of execution. One would suspect that if Williams could support this claim with evidence then prophecy would indeed be a potent weapon within the arsenal of Christian apologetics. Williams certainly believes that prophetic fulfillment is proof of the divine inspiration of the Bible. If this is indeed the case then one might wonder why it has been left unacknowledged by Craig and Licona, especially given Craig’s reference to the crucifixion in his speech as one of the facts surrounding Christ accepted by New Testament scholars. For Craig one might suppose that both the fulfilled prophecy of Christ’s crucifixion combined with the weight of academic consensus in favour of the historicity of the crucifixion would bring into question the skepticism presented by his opponents. So then why does prophecy not feature in Craig (or Licona’s) approach? One might suggest that this is because prophecy, biblical prophecy included, is an overtly supernatural phenomenon. It claims that an individual possessed a knowledge of future events which in fact came true, and that he could not have discovered this knowledge through any other source or means but through dreams or visions from a deity or some sort of supernatural source (Mawere 2011, 108). Prophecy of this kind is perceived by many, particularly modernists, to be counter to the modern, scientific mind given its supernatural overtones (Bates 1981, 83), which hardly makes the task easier for Craig and Licona. Already Craig and Licona have to persuade a skeptical audience to at least consider the supernatural resurrection of Christ as a possible event within history, which is asking quite a bit from some who already hold to philosophical convictions against the supernatural, and they thought that including biblical prophecy alongside this would be rendering the task much more difficult than it need be. Biblical prophecy does, however, feature prominently within Williams’ approach, which makes sense in light of the fact that the audience in attendance of the Williams-Deedat debate is chiefly a God believing one, and thus belief in the supernatural, which includes prophecy, is uncontroversial. Whereas modernists, such as Hansie Wolmarans, reject the existence of a transcendent, supernatural God, Muslims and Christians do not, and although Williams and Deedat disagree on what this God has done in history, they both believe God can, and has, provided revelation to his prophets and is capable of performing supernatural feats. It is assumed by Craig and Licona that many within their audience do not share belief in God, at least not in the Christian God, and it is assumed by Deedat and Williams that their audience already believes in a God, whether that be the Muslim or Christian one.

Hansie Wolmarans sticks with the modernist tradition of Christian theology, and his major contention is that holding to worldviews that affirm a supernatural resurrection from the dead and that dead people could reappear at any moment is no longer rational to believe in within the contemporary scientific world. The New Testament/gospel authors accounted for natural events through an appeal to supernatural reality, and therefore evidence all the elements of mythos. This conviction informs Wolmarans’s interpretation of the resurrection narratives of Christ which he interprets as a myth, and this is underpinned by his conviction that these texts cannot be viewed as speaking of empirical historical events. On Wolmarans’ anti-supernaturalist interpretation of the New Testament/gospels, there is certainly no room for supernatural prophecy since it requires the existence of a personal deity who would desire to reveal supernatural knowledge to a human being.


Religious apologetics has evolved through a lengthy and complex history from the ancient era up until the modern day. Arguments both in favour and against religious traditions continue to develop just as they have throughout the twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries. These developments have occurred in response to discoveries made in other fields which posed challenges and asked questions of theological beliefs and interpretations of sacred scripture. All six debate proponents are located within these developments, and all six of them satisfy the definition of apologetics as being the attempt to demonstrate a legitimate ownership of sacred symbols as well as the illegitimate claims to ownership of opposing, alternative religious and irreligious traditions and worldviews. It is with credit to Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange that this paper has conceptualized religious apologetics in these unique terms. This played out as an animated contestation of resurrection symbols and attempts at their appropriation given that all the debate proponents considered themselves and their opponents to hold to mutually exclusive positions on the symbols in question.

Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange was germane to analyzing the two debates through the lens of discursive analysis. The topic of Christ’s resurrection was the basis from which interpretations, arguments, and claims were made by the six respective proponents. Claims on this topic encompassed several symbols including apartheid, Christ as rebel, God, New Testament reliability, and the resurrection. All proponents with both debates interpreted the resurrection of Christ in light of their particular linguistic, social, and cultural contexts. For Ahmed Deedat this was the 1980s within the apartheid era which reflected in his arguments and reasoning. Linguistically, Deedat impressed with his mastery of languages while politically he presented a Christ who was intent on overthrowing repressive forces, which was equally the hope of many black, coloured, and Indian South Africans of the apartheid era. These arguments were made in favour of Deedat’s interpretation of sura 4:157 of the Qur’an in the attempt to demonstrate the superiority of his own religious tradition’s theological and historical superiority and its legitimate claims to ownership of resurrection symbols over and above his rival, Paul Williams. In a post-apartheid democratic socio-political context it was Sakkie Spangenberg who argued that Christians ought to acknowledge that Christian theology, which he referred to as the religion of the empire, was used to justify apartheid’s racial and oppressive ideology. He further stated the need for Christians to get behind actualizing God’s kingdom as it was modeled by Christ’s own love and acceptance, particularly in a contemporary South Africa still nursing fractures along racial lines.

The clash of the Christian evangelical and Christian modernist worldviews typified the debate between William Craig/Michael Licona and Hansie Wolmarans/Sakkie Spangenberg, and too commenced within its own unique context. On the evangelical side were historical arguments seeking to ground the supernatural resurrection of Christ in history, which continued on an apologetic tradition largely propelled forth by the skeptical work produced by the Jesus Seminar within the North American market. Craig and Licona, and the much earlier Paul Williams, served the evangelical mission of presenting the Christian faith to a contemporary audience as true and worthy of embrace within a competitive marketplace of worldviews. This was in contrast to Hansie Wolmarans who also wished to render Christianity a worthy choice but just not a version of it that embraces belief in a literal, supernatural resurrection of Christ or that affirms any sort of miracle. Wolmarans continues on a modernist Christian tradition which traces its origins to the twentieth century during which theologians were grappling with developments being made within the hard and historical sciences that were perceived to sit uncomfortably with the Christian faith.

Future Potential for a Discursive Analysis of Symbols in Religious Studies

Discursive analysis is always available for the qualitative researcher who wishes to probe the linguistic, situational, and cultural contexts of select proponents across a variety of academic fields within the study of religion. It is not difficult to see how this approach could apply to debates within comparative religion, the psychology of religion, as well as feminist, post-colonial, and de-colonial theories of religion within which proponents occupy diverse perspectives across the spectrum (Strenski 2015). Discursive analysis, through the framework of symbolic exchange, can bring light to the motivations underlying the contestation of symbols among proponents within these areas too, which could take a similar approach to this paper’s analysis of the six debate proponents across the two selected debates. Debates within feminist theory of religion, for example, will have a socio-political context in which they arise, linguistic characteristics in which select words, phrases, and sentences are used in meaningful and impactful ways, and situational contexts in which the symbols are contested across unique environments within time and space. The discursive analysis approach is further open to use across a diverse range of texts including video, letters, chapters, books, theses, published journal articles, and more, which makes it a very useful tool in the arsenal of the qualitative researcher.

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Appendix A.

This appendix includes several contestations of symbols which have not been subjected to discursive analysis due to word limit constraints.

Apostle Paul. Contestation occurs between views that [1] Paul invented Christianity (Ahmed Deedat), [2] Paul was sexist and invented his Damascus conversion as a means to elevate his name within the early church and to increase his apostolic authority (Sakkie Spangenberg), [3] Paul had a sufficient knowledge of the historical Christ after visiting Christ’s closest disciple Peter and James to receive a history of Christ’s ministry and that he reliably taught the gospel (Michael Licona), and [4] Paul affirms the empty tomb tradition recorded in the four gospels within an early creed he was passing on (William Craig).

Christ’s Women Followers. Contestation occurs between views that [1] Mary Magdalene had the intention of visiting Christ’s tomb to revive his injured body after his crucifixion (Ahmed Deedat), [2] that the women’s testimony supports Christ’s empty tomb tradition on grounds that because a woman’s testimony was near worthless in this ancient first century setting, if the empty tomb were a fabrication it would have made no sense to make women the center of the story as opposed to Christ’s male followers whose testimony was worthwhile and believable (William Craig).

Creed. Contestation occurs between views that [1] the empty tomb tradition is very early and indirectly supported by the pre-Pauline creed of 1 Corinthians 15 (v. 3-8), and also teaches that Christ was raised on the third day from the dead and then appeared to Peter, the 11 disciples, 500 brothers and sisters, James, and finally to Paul (William Craig), and that [2] it is sexist for not mentioning women alongside men as witnesses to Christ’s resurrection appearances (Sakkie Spangenberg).

Origin of Disciples’ Belief in Christ’s Resurrection. Contestation occurs between views that [1] only much later during the second century did Christians begin teaching that what happened to the disciples concerning the resurrection appearances of Christ was historical (Hansie Wolmarans), and that [2] the origin of the disciples’ faith in the resurrection is very early and inexplicable without Christ’s resurrection behind it (William Craig, Paul Williams).

Trinity. Contestation occurs between views that [1] Christ did not believe in the Trinity or that he was a part of the Trinity (Sakkie Spangenberg), and that [2] questions concerning the Trinity are red herrings not relevant to the topic of Christ’s resurrection or to how one should interpret the New Testament texts (Michael Licona).

Qur’an. Contestation occurs between views that [1] the Qur’an is a reliable witness to the purported crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and that it truthfully rejects that either of these occurred (Ahmed Deedat), and the Qur’an [2] is an unreliable witness to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ because it is a late product of a self-claimed spokesperson for God 600 years removed from Christ’s own time, and whose teaching on the crucifixion is in contradiction to all the historical evidence thats supports Christ’s crucifixion (Paul Williams).


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