[The following article is provided with the permission of the Christian Research Journal, www.equip.org).
In May of 1999 a mixed group of Christians and Muslims gathered at the Bible Baptist Church of Syosset, New York, to debate the question, “Does the New Testament Teach the Deity of Christ?”[i] The Muslim debater was Hamza Abdul Malik of the Islamic Propagation Center. I represented the Christian position. It became very clear early on that Mr. Malik’s thesis was not that the New Testament, as it exists today, did not teach the deity of Christ, but that all passages that could be presented in support of the divinity of Christ were later interpolations, corruptions of the “original” New Testament writings. When challenged to provide any documentation of this assertion in the form of New Testament manuscripts, Mr. Malik informed the audience that he could not name any, “but they are there.”
This encounter illustrates with striking clarity the foundational nature of the Christian belief in the inspiration and divine preservation of the Bible to all forms of apologetic and evangelistic effort. Obviously, the character of Christ is central to a proper presentation of the gospel. But Muslims reject the revealed truths about Christ, and when challenged, the accuracy of the biblical texts upon which those truths are based will become the central aspect of their position. The assertion that the Bible has been corrupted over time, and that it is self-contradictory, will be contrasted with the ubiquitous claim that the Qur’an is not only perfect in its inspiration but in its preservation as well. Muslims attempt to contrast the “many errors of the Bible” with the “perfect Qur’an.”
It is no longer possible for any Christian to ignore the claims of Islam. It is no longer possible to remain in ignorance of the Qur’an and the tenets of the Islamic faith. But given the consistency of the attacks upon the Christian scriptures launched from every side, it is no longer possible for a Christian to be open and active in the proclamation of their faith without having a firm, accurate knowledge of the means God has used to bring us His Word, and why we can trust in it.
The Bible and the Qur’an Contrasted
While the media tends to lump the Bible and the Qur’an together into one lump of “religious texts,” in reality the two works are strikingly different. While the Qur’an contains many stories obviously drawn from biblical sources, the differences between the two texts greatly outweigh the similarities.
The Bible was written by a large number of authors, some anonymous, over a tremendous amount of time, approximately fifteen hundred years.[ii] They wrote in different languages, in different parts of the world, and lived in very different times in world history. And yet Christians confess the result of their writing to be “God-breathed,” the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Matthew 22:31, 2 Peter 1:21-22). The Bible contains many different forms of writing, including historical, didactic, prophetic, poetic, apocalyptic, and parable. Christians have always sought to see their Scriptures spread far and wide and in as many languages as possible,[iii] believing the message of the gospel remains the “word of God” even when translated into languages that did not even exist at the time of the writing of the Bible. Christians believe the Bible to be inspired in its original writing, but do not claim inspiration for later scribes, seeing God’s providential protection of the text of the Bible to be found in the wealth and consistency of the manuscripts produced over the early centuries of the faith rather than in any one single manuscript or “inspired version.”[iv] This confidence in God’s protection of the text over time has led to the willingness on the part of Christian scholars to engage in the detailed examination of the earliest texts of the Bible, both of the Old Testament Hebrew texts, as well as the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Christian scholarship can look forward with anticipation to more findings of ancient texts that bear upon the Bible in full confidence that they will only build our confidence in the accuracy of our texts of the Bible.
The Qur’an, on the other hand, is said to have come into existence over a very short period of time (less than three decades). Muslims believe Muhammad “recited” the words given to him by divine revelation, and that there recitations were memorized by those who heard him. Early on some of these were written down as well. His words were not his own, but were given by God. Even the organization of the Qur’an is said to come from God Himself. The book is organized by “surahs,” placed in descending order, the longest to shortest. The Qur’an is written in Arabic, and though for a time early on in the history of Islam, a movement arose that sought to allow for a wider, broader means of interpreting and understanding the text, Muslim orthodoxy eventually adopted the idea of the “inimitability” of the book. It is perfect only as it is written in Arabic, and the translation of the text into other languages are considered commentary at best, and unwise or unholy at worst. As a result, the Qur’an is memorized by Muslims throughout the world in a language the majority of them do not even understand. Those who read Arabic confess that the book is not easily understood, and great confusion exists over the reading of major portions of the Qur’an. The belief in the perfection of the Qur’an precludes, by definition, interest in the study of the earliest texts, as it is assumed to be impious to believe that it would even be possible for the early manuscripts of the Qur’an to differ in the slightest from the modern version. The Qur’an as it exists in Arabic today, for Muslim orthodoxy, is exactly as it came into existence originally in the decades after Muhammad’s death. This is when Uthman, the third Caliph (644-656), produced the “official” version of the Qur’an.[v]
The Sana’a Qur’an Find
The vast difference that exists in the attitude of believing Christian scholarship versus believing Islamic scholarship can be illustrated best by the Sana’a Qur’an find of 1972. Workers restoring a mosque in Sana’a, Yemen, stumbled across a cache of manuscripts of the Qur’an in the structure of the roof of the building. The manuscripts were stuffed in sacks and probably would have stayed there had the value of the find been recognized by an official of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority. Recognizing that there were no scholars in his country capable of working on the rich find, non-Islamic German scholars were called in to lend their aid. Almost ten years after the initial discovery, German scholar Gerd-R. Puin was allowed to spend significant time with the manuscripts. Only two scholars have been given any significant amount of time to study the manuscripts. It was not until 1997 that 35,000 microfilm images of the manuscripts were finally allowed to leave the country so that others may examine the materials.[vi]
The Sana’a find has tremendous importance to Qur’anic studies, at least for those who wish to see the Qur’an studied in its actual historical setting. Initial studies of the find indicate that it contains some of the earliest Qur’anic material known. It also gives evidence of variation in both the reading of the text as well as in the order and even existence of certain surahs, a thing unthinkable to traditional Islamic doctrine concerning the Qur’an.
When parallel finds with bearing upon the Bible have come to light, Christian scholars have almost climbed over each other to gain access to the manuscripts. Great excitement is generated by such a find. And yet, no such excitement exists in Islam. The contrast is striking. Christians wish to see more and more light shed upon the earliest texts of their Scriptures, while Muslims resist, often with great fervor, all such inquiry into the history of the Qur’an.
In 1995 an Egyptian court labeled Abu Zaid an apostate, and his wife was ordered, under Islamic law, to divorce him. He and his wife fled to Holland. His crime? Zaid dared to put in writing a conclusion that a number of other Muslim scholars know to be true (but fear to express openly): he said the Qur’an was a literary document that needed to be examined as such. The study of the Qur’an outside of the parameters of strict Muslim orthodoxy can be very, very dangerous. One only need mention the name “Rushdie” to conjure up the possible result of making an “offensive” statement concerning the Prophet or the Qur’an itself. It is no wonder, then, that there are many ancient texts that bear directly on the original form of the Qur’an that sit unexamined in Muslim lands. Fear of being accused of apostasy for daring to question the orthodox view of the Qur’an is the primary reason these texts remain shrouded in ignorance.
Islamic apologists rejoice to make reference to the existence of textual variants in the manuscripts of the Bible. A quick Internet search will turn up dozens of pages making wild claims concerning the level of “corruption” in the Bible. I have found the vast majority of these pages to lack any substantive understanding of the issues involved. Instead, they seek to utilize sensationalism to communicate to the average Muslim a horribly false picture of the facts concerning the transmission of the text of the Bible. Quotations from scholarly Christian sources are presented without context, with tremendously exaggerated commentary appended, presenting conclusions far beyond anything the scholars cited would ever endorse. No care is taken to differentiate between consistent, historical sources and inconsistent, a-historical theoretical sources. Islamic apologetic literature as a whole falls far short of even the level of attempted integrity found in, say, the writings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, or other such non-Christian writings.[vii] But its sheer bulk often gives the impression to its intended audience that it “must be true.”
One such Islamic effort seeks to respond to the same criticism I am leveling in this article regarding the Islamic avoidance of meaningful inquiry into the ancient form of the Qur’an. While asserting that Islam has a long history of study of the Qur’an, the writer makes a glaring admission. He cites from a Christian article which states,
In particular, let us ask why some of the oldest manuscripts are not photographically reproduced and made available to the public and the scholars. Why not start with the Topkapi manuscript in Istambul, the Taschkent manuscript, and the two old manuscripts in Cairo and Damascus. They are not Uthmanic manuscripts as some believe, but they are quite old.[viii]
The response completely substantiates the thesis of the Christian article. The Muslim writes,
Firstly, when we have a Qur’anic text right from the time of the Prophet and know the variant readings associated with it beforehand, why do they need the superfluous work of going through the manuscripts to check out variant readings?
The writer then goes on to list all sorts of “rules” for examining the Qur’an, all of which, of course, developed long after the production of the Qur’an and which are designed to establish the current text as “the” text to be read and followed. But the point has already been established: it is a matter of faith that “we have a Qur’anic text right from the time of the Prophet” so why sweat the details of ancient manuscripts and their vitally important variations? The over-riding assertion of the perfection of the Qur’an simply precludes the meaningful construction of an apologetic defense of its own perfection! This attitude is identical to the King James Only advocate in our day who, faced with the multitude of papyri manuscripts and major uncial texts from antiquity responds, “We have the perfect Bible in the King James, so examining such ancient texts would simply be superfluous.” The circularity of the argumentation is clear.
Using the Vast Difference
The fact that Christian scholars welcome the discovery of new manuscript finds and rejoice in the study of the text of the Bible, while Islam must quietly hope such finds are not generally noticed provides believers with a vitally important apologetic tool. It is not merely the fact that we can have full confidence in the results of such factual and fair study[ix] that is useful in the witnessing encounter with the Muslim. Rather, it is the truth it points to that must be understood and communicated. The Muslim claim of a “perfect Qur’an” is a statement of faith that cannot vindicate itself with factual evidence. But the Christian claim that God has preserved His Word can be substantiated. This truth must not only be understood, but the Christian, who seeks to proclaim the life-giving gospel to the Muslim people, must be able to express it with clarity and force. To do so, we must understand it first ourselves. Since the subject of the transmission of the text of the Bible over time is not normally a part of your regular Sunday-school curriculum (though it should be!), a summary of this vitally important subject is presented here.
Preserved and Protected
The greatest stumbling block facing the Christian apologist who seeks to contrast the historically verifiable pedigree of the Bible versus the faith-based, but unverifiable, claims of perfection for the Qur’an, is the existence of textual variants in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments. Since scholars refer to any variation as a “corruption,” Muslim apologists make reference to this fact as sure evidence that the Bible is untrustworthy. Of course, the Qur’an, though more than half a millennium younger than the New Testament, likewise displays textual variation in its most ancient manuscripts, but as we have seen, Islamic theology does not encourage the examination of these variations since the current text of the Qur’an is considered inviolable.
The first thing to understand is that any written document that is transmitted over time is going to exhibit textual variation. This does not mean that the original readings are no longer present or preserved within the manuscript tradition[x] itself. Merely pointing to the existence of textual variation means nothing unless the critic can then prove that the variation results in a loss of the original readings. This is something Muslim apologists do not even attempt to do. They simply rely upon the normal, non-scholarly meaning of the term “corruption” to communicate an idea that is not present in the specific use of the term by textual scholars.
Consider the real situation when it comes to the manuscripts of the Bible. The Old and New Testaments were preserved by God in different manners, corresponding to the different way in which they were produced. The Old Testament has one kind of mechanism for preservation consistent with the great length of time over which it was written, and the New Testament another, corresponding to the much briefer period of its writing. Interestingly, since the controversies between Christianity and Islam focus primarily upon doctrines plainly taught in the New Testament, most of the focus of Islamic apologists has been upon the New Testament documents rather than those of the Old. And yet it is the New Testament documents that are by far the most easily defended against the charge of purposeful corruption, due both to the younger age of the New Testament as well as the large number of manuscripts available to us.
We have more than 5,300 manuscripts of the New Testament in the original Greek language. Most of these manuscripts are from a later point in history (after the tenth century), but the witness to the earliest centuries is rich indeed. Beyond the Greek manuscript tradition, which is the primary witness to the original text of the New Testament, we have translations of the Greek into other languages, such as Latin and Syriac. And very importantly, these manuscripts come from all over the known world of the day, not from any central location. This is very important as we will illustrate below.
It is the body of these manuscripts, especially as seen in the earliest texts, that provides the strongest bulwark of confidence for the Christian and the substance of the refutation of Islamic attacks upon the Scriptures. The assertion that is made is that purposeful changes have been made in the text, either inserting doctrines unknown to Jesus and the Apostles (this was Mr. Malik’s claim in our debate), or deleting doctrines that were opposed to the evolving Christian orthodoxy (such as “hiding” references to Muhammad in John 14 and 16). But how could such insertions or deletions be made in light of the means by which the New Testament documents were spread across the Roman empire?
Consider, for example, the prologue of the Gospel of John, John 1:1-18. This passage contains tremendous theological truths, including references to the deity of Christ, the eternal nature of God, the relationship of the Father and the Son, the gospel, grace, faith, creation, and more. Let’s say some religious leader in Syria at the end of the fourth century wished to “alter” this passage of Scripture by deleting the reference to the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son in the first verse. How would such a change be made? The leader might be able to write a “new” introduction to John and send out copies of his new version, but what about all the already existing manuscripts of John that exist all across the Roman empire? He may not worry himself about them, thinking it is only relevant to have the copies in his own area altered. But what will happen in such a situation? Will the altered texts replace the original?
The answer is a firm and unequivocal “no.” Obviously, looking at this situation from our perspective today, we can see what would happen. We have manuscripts of the Gospel of John that predate the end of the fourth century. A comparison of these earlier texts with the altered texts would clearly indicate the later alteration. Further, the unaltered texts in the rest of the world would continue to be copied, so that the obvious alteration in the one location would be very easily detected.
The New Testament manuscript tradition exhibits what is called “tenacity.” That is, once a reading enters the tradition, it remains there. Scribes were very conservative in their handling of the text, and were fearful of “losing” anything that was in the copy or copies they were working from. Hence, even when a scribe might make a mistake that is obvious, the following scribes would be hesitant to completely change what was found before them in the texts they were copying. This “tenacity” is a vitally important truth, for while it does mean we have to engage in the study of textual variants, it also means something much more important: the original readings of the original documents remain in the manuscript tradition. We are not out on some wild goose chase when we examine variations between written manuscripts. The original reading is there. The importance of this fact cannot be over-stated. The Christian exegete, pastor, scholar, and apologist can respond to the critic, Muslim or unbeliever, and say with confidence, “We possess today what the Apostles wrote long ago.” We can openly embrace the small percentage of textual variations in the text[xi] that require us to engage in the work of determining the original reading, but the cost is a small one, for we can also refute, firmly and finally, the claim that the text has been altered so as to remove, or insert, doctrinal content.
We must communicate to the Muslim who doubts the veracity of Scripture the truth that here has never been a time in the history of the world when any one man, one group, one church, had the ability to go throughout the world and collect all the manuscripts of the Bible and make the kind of purposeful alterations Muslim apologists claim were made in the text of the Bible. And surely, the wholesale insertion of entire doctrines, into literally hundreds of passages across the entire scope of the Bible, such as would be required to substantiate the claim that the deity of Christ has been interpolated into a text that originally did not teach this truth, is simply impossible on any logical and historical basis. The manuscript tradition would contain clear and unmistakable evidence of these changes, and yet it does not.
Consider the common assertion of Muslim apologists that the words of Jesus regarding the Holy Spirit in John 14 and 16 have been altered so that a prophecy of the Muhammad could be expunged from the Bible. Tremendously lengthy articles have been written to substantiate such an allegation.[xii] The argument is that the “paraclete,” the Holy Spirit, is an alteration, and that the original word was “periklytos,” the “highly exalted one,” i.e., Muhammad. But just a few moments of reflection upon the assertion will provide an overwhelming response. First, Muhammad died in the middle of the seventh century. We have fragments of manuscripts of the Gospel of John that date to the second century, with complete manuscripts that predate Muhammad by over 400 years! Why would anyone alter the text of John to hide a prophecy about Muhammad centuries before Muhammad came on the scene? Next, there are no variant readings that indicate any alteration of the text whatsoever in manuscripts before or after the time of Muhammad. There is not even a shred of documentable evidence in the manuscript tradition to support such an assertion. Further, the simple reading of the text defies the amazingly facile interpretations offered by Muslim apologists who seek to turn the discussion of the Holy Spirit into a prophecy of Muhammad. But despite these facts, Islamic propagandists continue to claim the Gospel of John “originally” contained a prophecy about the coming of Muhammad.
Communicating to the Deceived
Muslims who live in non-Muslim countries where some form of Christianity predominates are forced, by their minority status, to consider at least some elements of the religious claims of the Christian faith. The information they have been given on the topic of the Bible’s reliability has probably not come from believing and informed Christians, but from their own community, which has no reason to look very hard at the facts about the transmission of the text of the Bible. That means the Christian who seeks to proclaim the gospel of grace to the Muslim is faced with certain hurdles that must be conquered. When the claim of the perfection of the Qur’an is raised, the fact that this is a statement of faith without foundation must be addressed. And when the assertion is made that the text of the Bible has been corrupted and changed, the Christian who is able to give an answer, showing familiarity with the issues, is able to stand firm upon the truth and continue to press forward the claims of Christ. The person who not only acknowledges the existence of textual variations in the manuscript traditions of the Bible, but then turns the issue around and demonstrates the honesty and integrity of the Christian belief in the divine preservation of the Scriptures over time in such a way as to protect them from the very wholesale changes the Muslim is alleging may well find an open mind willing to hear more.
[i] This debate is available in audio, video, and mp3 formats at www.aomin.org.
[ii] This writer rejects as unfounded and unverifiable redaction-based theories concerning the origination of both Old and New Testament texts. German “higher-critical” thinking has only led to a denigration of the actual study of the texts of the Bible, as it is derived from an anti-supernaturalistic worldview that is directly at odds with a Christian worldview. I find far more reason to believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch than I have to believe the Graf-Wellhausen theory is anything more than wishful thinking on the part of naturalistic materialists. The ever-changing canons of redaction criticism can be used to “demonstrate” any theory an enterprising scholar wishes to see published.
[iii] The suppression of such a desire through the enshrinement of the Latin Vulgate and the prohibition of “unguided” reading of the Bible in medieval Catholicism derived from the same unbiblical and non-Christian sources as the contemporary doctrine of purgatory, the Inquisition, or the Crusades.
[iv] The exceptions to this being found in such widely divergent movements as Pope Sixtus V’s “infallible Vulgate” and the modern-day King James Only movement, both of which appeal to a standardized text rather than to the entirety of the manuscript tradition. In response to the King James Only movement, see the author’s article in the CRI Journal (Winter, 1996) available at http://www.equip.org/free/DK115.htm.
[v] The fact that Uthman had to undertake such a revision, even as it is described in Islamic sources, should indicate to the open-minded investigator that a need existed for the work, which immediately makes one wonder as to why one should accept the final decision of Uthman himself. Further, such a revision closes the door (outside of the examination of non-Uthmanian ancient versions of the Qur’an) to any meaningful claim to be able to trace the text beyond that point, all the way to Muhammad.
[vi] For an overview of this find, see Toby Lester, “What is the Koran” in The Atlantic Monthly—Digital Edition (January, 1999).
[ix] I speak of factual and fair study so as to exclude the non-factual and unfair study that marks such enterprises as the Jesus Seminar.
[x] The phrase “manuscript tradition” refers to the entire body of manuscripts of all languages of the same historical document, in this case, the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.
[xi] Many critics, from Islamic apologists to even Roman Catholic writers (see Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone (Queenship, 1997), 250-255), will inflate the amount of textual variation so as to cast doubt upon the text of the Bible. They will list verses, instead of words, as build wildly erroneous lists of percentages based thereon. Further, not every textual variation is even relevant. For example, many variants involve transposition of words, which rarely impacts translational meaning. Others include how to spell a place name, or the use of a synonym. Including these variants along with the truly important ones can mislead the person who is ignorant of the true textual purity of the New Testament.
[xii] These attempts, commonly found in Muslim apologetic writings and on their websites, are studies in the misuse of every form of linguistic study, from a-contextual mis-citations of scholarly Christian sources to the most inane grammatical arguments. To see the lengths to which some go on this issue, see www.answering-christianity.com/prediction.htm.