I continue a series that had reached twenty one installments back in April, received one more installment a few weeks ago thanks to a guest blogger, Alan Kurschner, but still requires that I complete the work, specifically, that of responding to the article posted at the Islamic Awareness website by MSM Saifullah and Hesham Azmy, “Is the Bible In Our Hands the Same as During the Time of Muhammad?” A search on “Islam” in the blog articles will turn up the previous installments in this series.
Our Islamic apologists included a very, very lengthy citation (almost the majority of the article) taken from James Bentley’s Secrets of Mount Sinai: The Story of Codex Sinaiticus. We had been working through the various textual variants mentioned by Bentley and responding to them. I pick up with the next variant cited, that being Luke 23:34. I place the variant in italics in the citation: “But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.” You will note that the parallel passages in Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and John 19:18, do not contain these words. Codex Sinaiticus (a) contains the passage in its original hand; the first corrector, however, marked them out; but a later corrector added them back in (hence, a*.2 cited for the phrase, a1 for its deletion). We pick up with Bentley’s brief discussion:
Equally revealing is the way the correctors of Codex Sinaiticus dealt with words attributed to Jesus on the Cross by St Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’s prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, is deleted by a corrector. J. Rendel Harris believed that the text was deliberately cut out by those Christians who believed God could never have forgiven the Jews for the death of Jesus. Had not the destruction of Jerusalem shown this? Here, on the other hand, Hort still maintained that the text had disappeared for entirely innocent and accidental reasons. ‘Wilful excision on account of the love and forgiveness shown to the Lord’s own murderers’, he wrote, ‘is absolutely incredible.’…..
Hort is joined by Dr. Metzger, who writes concerning this variant in his textual commentary,
The absence of these words from such early and diverse witnesses as P75 B D* W Q ita,d syrs copsa, bo mss al is most impressive and can scarcely be explained as a deliberate excision by copyists who, considering the fall of Jerusalem to be proof that God had not forgiven the Jews, could not allow it to appear that the prayer of Jesus had remained unanswered. [Metzger, B. M., & United Bible Societies. (1994). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition; a companion volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th rev. ed.) (Page 154). London; New York: United Bible Societies.]
This citation likewise provides us with a glimpse regarding the actual textual data behind the reading. The disputed phrase, outside of being deleted by the first hand of a, is likewise not found in P75, one of the earliest papyri manuscripts supporting the text of Luke. Likewise, Codex Vaticanus (B) does not contain the text, and other uncials and minuscules (070. 579. 1241) join these early witnesses. Likewise, various early translations, including Latin and Syriac versions, do not contain the text. It is, however, found in the Majority text and in the bulk of later manuscripts.
Once again the real question that is missed by Bentley (and by extension, Saifullah and Azmy) is the important one: what did Luke originally write? We know that our Islamic apologists are reproducing this simply to attempt to promote the idea that the biblical text is fluid and contradictory. They are demanding that we do with our New Testament what they can not do with the edited text of the Qur’an. And we will be glad to do so.
Those who would see the phrase as original would assert that the “few” manuscripts and translations that do not contain the phrase are to be rejected in light of the Majority text. Others would argue that there is a reason why these early manuscripts “removed” the phrase, that being the theological one noted above in Bentley. But what evidence can be mustered in support of such an assertion? None is offered outside of mere speculation.
On the other hand, those who would argue against the phrase point out the wide variety of early sources, including the exemplars used in the production of numerous early translations, and when asked why the phrase would be inserted they would argue that its origin can possibly be traced to Stephen’s words in Acts 7:59-60; i.e., that if it is good to pray for the forgiveness of those martyring you, then Jesus should have done the same thing (ignoring, of course, the fact that Jesus had taught it was necessary for Him to give His life upon Calvary’s tree, destroying the parallel).
Of the two positions, I favor the latter. P75 + B in Luke is a strong pairing; that early pairing plus multiple translations is even stronger; and the corrector of a obviously knew, even at a later point than the original writing of a, of the shorter reading. At the very least, the phrase should be marked (as it is in various translations, but not all) and the data provided regarding its textual history. As a result, the text surely should not be the basis of any kind of major theological or exhortational presentation.
As we have pointed out before, how many such variants were presented to Uthman years after Mohammed’s death? No one knows. No one will ever know, at least not on this earth. But they surely existed, and while Christians can have this kind of information presented to them, and can discuss these things openly, Muslims are left to believe solely in the inerrant textual critical work of Uthman, and they have no means of gaining anything but a brief glimpse into the pre-Uthmanian textual tradition of the Qur’an. If this phrase is not original, and the suggested reason is well founded, that being the misunderstanding of an early scribe, what if a similar situation faced Uthman? How many readings in the Qur’an are therefore based upon misunderstandings of those early scribes who had collected the oral traditions of Mohammed’s sayings? Again, without a manuscript tradition, the defender of the Qur’an is not even on the same ground as the Christian so as to address the issue.