A Question about the Bible and the Quran
July 19, 2023, 11:40 AM

Question: I read a Muslim say that the earliest manuscripts that we have are 300 years after the death of Jesus. Also, he said they have been added to and subtracted from. I know this is a common Muslim argument which is false, but can you help me push back on it with the true facts? Thank you!

Answer: Hi and thank you for your question. It's one thing to defend the faith against an unbeliever, and quite another to defend it against an adherent of another faith. The tactics are different even as we ultimately argue for the same thing to each person: The centrality of the gospel message and the reliability of the biblical Scriptures.

Let's look at the first claim, namely that the "earliest manuscripts" (of the New Testament, presumably) are "300 years after the death of Jesus." How do Christians respond to this claim? The question itself is a bit misleading. A "manuscript" (in the sense we're talking about) is a handwritten copy of an original "autograph." When we're talking about the writings of the ancient world, we need to understand that none of the original autographs of any of these writings exist today. We do not have the original writings of the Apostles, nor do we have the original Quran as written by Muhammed from the angel Gabriel. What we do have are copious manuscript copies of these original autographs. You may have heard that in regard to the New Testament (NT), we have 5,000+ manuscripts in Greek (the language in which the NT was written) as well as 19,000+ other manuscripts in various languages (Latin, Syriac, Coptic, etc.). When you compare the manuscript evidence of the NT to any other work of antiquity, there is no comparison. Skeptics like to claim that the NT manuscript tradition is lacking, yet they have no qualms about taking works such as Homer's Odyssey or Plato's Republic at face value despite the paucity of manuscript evidence for those works compared to the NT.

Back to the first claim. When speaking of manuscripts, you need to ask are we talking about complete manuscripts or fragments. If we're talking about complete manuscripts, then the claim is true. The oldest surviving complete manuscripts of the NT are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Both are dated to the 4th century AD, and since Jesus died ca. 30-33 AD, that is 300 years after the death of Jesus. However, this fails to mention that we have a wealth of papyrus manuscript fragments containing some, most, or all of various book(s) of the NT. The earliest such fragment is of John's Gospel called P52, which dates to around 125 AD. That's 200 years earlier than Sinaiticus or Vaticanus. Furthermore, there are many other papyri that date in the 2nd & 3rd centuries. Again, these are all fragments that contain some, most, or all of various book(s) of the NT, not complete manuscripts. But there's another thing to consider when looking at the manuscript evidence. We need to consider manuscript evidence to the writing of the original autograph, not the events written about. For example, take the aforementioned P52. It contains a portion of John's Gospel. P52 is dated to around 125 AD, and John's Gospel was written ca. 80-85 AD. That's only 40-45 years after the original writing. We may look at that and say, "40 years? Might as well be 400 years," but in the world of textual criticism, 40 years might as well be 40 minutes ago. Especially when you consider the period we're talking about. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus occurred ca. 30-33 AD, the earliest books of the NT begin appearing within 20 years of that, the entire NT is completed within 50 years of that, and the earliest extant manuscript copies date to 40 years after that. That's an amazing manuscript tradition.

Let's look now at the second claim. I am assuming that by "additions and subtractions," we are referring to what are called "variants" in the NT textual tradition. A detailed examination of the NT textual tradition is a little bit beyond the scope of this reply, but according to NT textual criticism (the discipline of collecting, collating, and categorizing NT manuscripts), there are four families of NT manuscripts: Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine. The important thing to take away from this is that each family has a "flavor, or character" to it in its variants. A variant simply is a difference between an original writing and a copy of that original. This only applies to handwritten copies. Since the advent of movable type and the printing press, we can make perfect copies of written works. Let's take an example. I write a story, and then I give that written story to four people to make a handwritten copy. In variably, there will be variants, or copyist errors, in the copies. Since I gave the original to four different people, there will be four different types of copyist errors in the copies. Suppose these four people then give their copy to others to make their own handwritten copies. Not only will they replicate the variants of the first copy but will most likely introduce variants of their own. That's how you get "families" within a manuscript tradition. 

With that said, when considering variants, there are two types of variants: Intentional and unintentional. An intentional variant would be a copyist making a correction to a text because he perceives the manuscript he's using as the exemplar to have an error. For example, if I were citing a text and the original had a typo or a misspelling, I could make the correction in my citation (although usually, the procedure is to cite the work, errors and all, with the phrase sic included to indicate you're replicating the original as is). An unintentional variant would be exactly that, a variant that the copyist did not intend to include in his copy. These would usually include misspellings or skipping words or even whole lines. The last can happen when you get to the end of a line and then you eye looks for that word, but finds it at the end of another line, so you skip some lines by mistake.

Now this whole idea of variants within the NT textual tradition can seem worrisome. How can we claim to have a divinely inspired word from God when the copies used to form the basis for our English translations have variants? This is what former Christian and current Atheist NT scholar, Bart Ehrman claimed was the downfall of his faith. He is famous for saying in public and in his writings, there are nearly 400,000 variants in the NT, which amounts to more variants than there are words in the NT. That sounds devastating. Except for the fact that the vast majority (90-95%) of these variants are not meaningful at all. They involve misspellings, changes in word order, use of synonyms, etc. The remaining 5+% that are considered "meaningful" might affect one's interpretation of a passage, but they do not affect or alter any major doctrine of the Christian faith. Two of the biggest variants in the NT are the Pericope Aldulterae (John 7:53-8:11, the woman caught in adultery) and the "longer ending" of Mark's Gospel (Mark 16:9-20). If you have a more modern translation (e.g., NIV, ESV), these passages will be footnoted or bracketed to indicate the issues with those texts. Moreover, if you were to consult a critical text of the NT in the Greek language (e.g., the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece or the 5th edition of the United Bible Societies The Greek New Testament) you would see textual evidence of what is supported in the text along with the textual support of variants in the footnotes (or "apparatus"). In other words, Christian scholarship is not "hiding the ball" on this issue of variants in the NT text. 

So, how do we answer the Muslim critique of variants in the NT text? In defense, I would say variants are to be expected in the tradition of any text for which handwritten copies are being made. Muslims like to claim the Quran has no variants in its tradition, but that is simply not the case. There are variants in the Quranic tradition much like the NT tradition. But consider this fact, according to Islamic tradition, Uthman (the 3rd Caliph) ordered the standardization of the Quranic text and then ordered all other variations or versions be destroyed. That's one way to "preserve" a textual tradition: Get the version you like and destroy the rest.

Another response to the Muslim critique is to go on "offense." The Quran affirms and commands Muslims to consult earlier Scripture (the Torah and the Gospel) to confirm the Quran's message (Surah Al-Ma'idah 5:68). So according to the Quran, Allah sent earlier revelation. To the Jews, he sent the Torah, and to the Christian, the Gospel. Jews and Christians, like Muslims, are "people of the book." The Jew and the Christian are told to consult their Scripture to confirm what Allah has said to the Prophet. So, if the Gospel is considered "Scripture" by the Quran, why does the Quran contradict much of what the Gospel affirms? Well, the Gospel was "corrupted" say the Muslims. This is problematic on two fronts. The first is an inconsistency on the part of Muslims. Where do they get the idea that the Gospel is "corrupted?" Well, from Christian "scholars" such as Bart Ehrman. Do you suppose Muslims would sit by and let Christians consult liberal or unbelieving Quranic scholars in their critique of the Quran? Absolutely not! It is disingenuous to quote an unbelieving Christian scholar on the authenticity of the NT. Secondly, if the Gospel is corrupted, we need to ask when was it corrupted? Remember, the Quran was written some 600 years after the life of Christ. If the Gospel was corrupted before the Quran, then why would the Quran direct us to consult a corrupted text? If the Gospel was corrupted after the Quran, well, we have a wealth of manuscript evidence (see first point above) to refute that claim.

I conclude with this: We can be extremely confident that the Bible we hold in our hands is the very divinely inspired word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved throughout the centuries by that same Holy Spirit. We can trust what is says and rest in its promises of life eternal through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I hope this helps.

~Pastor Carl

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