A Clash of Monotheisms: You Christians Changed the Bible!

In light of the rapidly escalating and multi-frontier conflicts the Global West is heading into with various Islamic groups, I thought it was about time for me to finish my short series on the “Clash of Monotheisms.” In this post, I deal with the claim put forth by many Muslims that the Bible is not to be trusted because Christians changed and corrupted it.

Introduction

This is the third (and final) installment of my short series dealing specifically with the top three apologetics issues that a Christian faces when encountering Islam:

  • Issue #1: “Christians believe in 3 Gods, not 1″ — Tawhid vs. Trinity (posts 1, 2, 3,  4 and 5)
  • Issue #2: “Jesus did not die on the cross and did not rise from the grave” — The Qur’an on the Crucifixion
  • Issue #3: “Christians corrupted the Bible” – The Transmission of the OT/NT vs. the Qur’an (this post)

Both Christianity and Islam make very important truth claims based on their recognized scriptures. Unsurprisingly, just as Christians take certain issues with the Qur’an, so also do Muslims take issue with many aspects of the Bible.

The Qur’an at many points makes reference to the Gospels (“Injil”), the Torah (first 5 books of the OT), and the Psalms as in some way given by Allah (e.g., suras 3:3, 3:65, 5:46, 9:111). Moreover, the Qur’an repeatedly makes positive statements about Christians and Jews because they are “People of the Book” (just like Muslims)—though much stronger negative feelings towards Christians/Jews surface in the later stages of the writings in the Qur’an. On the whole, however, the Qur’an makes it quite clear that at least the core portions of the Christian Bible (Genesis–Deuteronomy, Psalms, Matthew–John) are inspired by Allah.

However, perhaps the biggest object many everyday Muslims have about the Bible is that Christians (and Jews) have corrupted it and changed it beyond all recognition, so that it is not trustworthy anymore. More precisely, the assertion is that Allah originally revealed the Torah, Psalms, and Injil, but later Christians (Paul? Peter? John?) came along and distorted/changed/corrupted the pure original revelation. The Qur’an does not appear to make this claim (though occasionally some appeal to 2:79), but several portions of the Hadith do (and at the practical level the Qur’an and Hadith are equally authoritative). While some Muslim scholars who are more aware of the textual history of the Bible may not subscribe to this argument, the mainstream dogma, which has been held at least since the Middle Ages, is that Christians corrupted the Bible, and hence any appeal to it is invalid.

Naturally, this puts the Christian in a very tough situation, for it means the very thing to which we appeal as our final authority is deemed wrong at the outset. Of course, many Muslims in conversation may be open to hearing what the Bible says, but ultimately (apart from the work of the Holy Spirit) they will de facto assign no epistemological credibility to whatever it says. Quite a conundrum.

How do we respond? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Clarify misunderstandings about translation

For some the issue is one of simple misunderstanding. As I mentioned in a prior post, within Islam the only true Qur’an is that which is written in Arabic. Translations are accepted for daily use but are not considered authoritative. Within Christianity (apart from an era of Latin-only use in the Roman Catholic realm), there has always been a huge emphasis on translating the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek scriptures into native languages. We recognize that translations are never perfect, but we still call an English translation “God’s Word” in an authoritative sense (even though we acknowledge that the original texts are definitive).

At any rate, some Muslims believe that current English Bibles have been translated from prior English versions, which were translated from yet prior English (or other) versions, which themselves were translations of translations of translations … and only at some point LOOOONG ago do we have anyone doing real work with the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek. In other words, they think today’s Bible is the product of a long and complex “Telephone Game.”

Obviously, if that were the case, they would have a valid claim: any product of such a process would rightly be deemed “corrupted.”

However, that is precisely not how modern translations work. All major English Bibles in use today are the result of direct translation work from the original languages. In some cases you might have a paraphrase edition that is a revision of, say the KJV (e.g., some Spanish translations are from English, rather than the original), but that is not the norm. All major translations today are a single step from the originals (and, for that matter, produced by the best scholars we have, and lots of them). In other words, translation ≠ corruption.

2. Deal with red herring issues

It is becoming increasingly common for young Muslims to engage with critical biblical scholars. In fact, according to a good friend of mine who has served in Southeast Asia for several years, one of the most popular scholars among apologetically-minded Muslims in that part of the world is Bart Ehrman, who has written extensively about all the alleged corruptions in the Bible. Their basic accusation is this: “You see, even your own Christian scholars admit that the Bible is messed up and that Christians have changed it.”

Bart is NOT a fan of the textual transmission of the Bible
Bart has been making my alma mater UNC proud for decades.

Problems with this argument: (a) Ehrman is not a Christian. In fact, his agenda is to jettison the Christian faith of his students. (b) Ehrman does not even remotely represent mainstream critical scholarship, let alone Christians. And (c) Ehrman (and his posse) have been roundly and frequently refuted by loads of leading scholars (including my former professor, Mike Kruger, and my current doctoral supervisor, Simon Gathercole).[1]

This is simply a misinformed red herring. Ehrman asks some interesting questions, but his conspiracy-theorist claims that, paraphrasing, “The Christians have corrupted the Bible in order to push the orthodox agenda that turned the wandering peasant Jesus of Nazareth into a Greco-Roman god, etc.” have been soundly dealt with.

3. Address with the core issue

The central issue is presuppositional. The Muslim who discredits the Bible because he thinks it has been corrupted by Christians must answer two important questions.

 (a) Did the corruption of the Bible happen before or after Muhammad “received” the Qur’an (ca. 609–632 AD)?

If before: Why would the Qur’an then be very explicit about affirming the divine inspiration of the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels as they stood when Muhammad apparently had access to them? In other words, the originally pure portions of the Bible had been corrupted by later Christians, why would Muhammad still have a high opinion of them when he apparently used some portions of them in recording the Quran? How did he prevent the corrupt bits from making their way into his retelling of the Moses or Abraham or Jesus stories? One could reply that Muhammad was able to discern the pure portions from the impure portions, but if that were even true, then (i) could he not have restored the pure/inspired portions of the Bible and told his disciples which portions were corrupted (since, as shown above, he encourages his disciples to read the gospels!)? And (ii) would this not in principle mean that the uncorrupted core is knowable / recoverable? Why would the Qur’an both sanction the entire three corpora while later tradition would dispute them all? Moreover, where have the originally pure manuscripts gone? Have they been burned?[2] Have they disappeared? On what basis did the later Muslim scholars even know about said corruption if they didn’t have at least two very different copies to compare in order to make this discovery?

If after: This option is even more problematic. For such a claim to arise, the alleged corruption would have to have taken place within the subsequent two centuries or so after 632 AD, when most of the Hadith was collected. The problem is that the textual tradition of the Bible had stabilized long before that period.

  • On the OT side, though our earliest complete manuscripts of Hebrew date from the 900s (Aleppo Codex) and early 1000s (Leningrad Codex), we have solid evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll, at least 100 BC) that bear witness to the integrity of the textual tradition. Additionally, we have early manuscripts of Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin, and Syriac translations of the OT that, while showing plenty of scribal variants, on the whole support the integrity of the text we have today. At a minimum, we know where the questions lie, and none of them have any real bearing on doctrine.
  • The situation is even stronger on the NT side. We have manuscripts dating as early as 125–150AD, including some near complete copies of individual books from the 200s (e.g., P66 of John, P46 of the Pauline Epistles, P75 of Luke/John). Moreover, the important complete (or mostly complete) codices that are critical to the modern text of the NT used today—Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus being the big three—all date to the 300s-400s. All these manuscripts have been heavily studied in an attempt to discern the original text as it came from the pen of the authors, and there is substantial agreement on over 99% of the text. Even Ehrman agrees that few, if any, of the variants (where serious questions remain) have any bearing on doctrine. In other words, the text of the NT was secure well before 632 AD, and any later corruptions have been identified and noted as such in the critical apparatus of any standard Greek NT.

In short, there is absolutely no evidence that any Christians corrupted the OT or NT without scholars knowing about it and identifying/rejecting such corruptions. The texts we use today are very very close to the originals. So the claim that the corruption of an allegedly pure original form after Muhammad’s day is simply an empirical falsehood.

(b) Is it possible in principle for Allah to allow his revelation—Torah, Psalms, Injil, or Qur’an—to be corrupted in its transmission?

This gets at the heart of the presuppositions of the Muslim pertaining to any form of Allah’s inscripturated revelation.

If the answer is “no”: Then by definition the Bible could not have been corrupted, given the Qur’an itself affirms the divine revelation of the Bible (or at least the portions in question). One could counter: “yes, but that only applies to the originally pure core.” But the initial objection itself is that this original core has been so modified that it cannot even be recognized (otherwise, we could solve the problem by simply removing the additions/revisions), meaning that Allah has allowed his revelation to be corrupted, hence a contradiction.

If the answer is “yes”: Then the Qur’an’s own claims about itself—namely, that is has never been subject to any modification or scribal error in its entire 1,400 year transmission history[3]—is entirely subject to question, since there would now be no theological support for believing Allah providentially guided the transmission. In other words, one could make the same accusation that the Qur’an had been corrupted by later Muslims, just like the Bible.

Either way, there are tremendous problems. Either Allah providentially ensures his inspired texts are copied and recopied accurately, or he doesn’t. If he does, then there’s no a priori reason to claim that only the Torah/Psalms/Injil have been corrupted and not the Qur’an, especially given the empirical evidence to the contrary. If he does not, then there’s no a priori reason to assume the Qur’an is free from this problem but the Bible is not.

Connecting to the pew

I have one concluding though regarding this particular issue, and one regarding the three-part series as a whole.

  • Sometimes you may need to deal with “meta” issues before you deal with the issues themselves. When we have opportunities to converse with non-Christians,  we rightly want to appeal to the Bible as God’s definitive word, for it is the chief instrument the Spirit uses to convict hearts, transform minds, and win sinners. Yet this issue with Islam is a great example of how occasionally some prior barriers to the Bible itself may need to be put out in the open. Obviously Jesus can work in someone’s heart through the Bible even if he/she thinks the Bible is a load of rubbish. Practically speaking, however, it is important to be aware of this up-front bias that some Muslims (but not all) may have to even giving the Bible a hearing in the first place. (Another is the whole “Son of God” issue, but that is an issue for another day). So apologetically it may be useful to get this antecedent issue on the table, and go from there.
  • From a big picture perspective, it is incumbent upon all Christians to be informed about “true Islam.” It is somewhat ironic that earlier this week President Obama commented that ISIS is not “true Islam.” But what is “true Islam”? Who defines it? What are its authoritative sources? What does it teach? What, for instance, is “jihad,” and who decides? These are monumental issues of our times, both from a mission/apologetics/evangelism perspective and a geopolitical perspective. Islam is a difficult religion to get one’s arms around, but we all must try to do so. In a few decades Muslims will outnumber Christians, and that will have huge implications. It is on us to understand as much as we can about this very diverse religious and cultural movement.

________________

[1] Kruger has written reviews of nearly all of Ehrman’s books. See this post for recent discussion. Gathercole has recently debated Ehrman and written against him as well (How God Became Jesus, 2014).

[2] Incidentally, that is exactly what happened on the Islam side under Uthman, who secured the authoritative version of the Qur’an by burning (or attempting to burn) all competing variations.

[3] Which, empirically, is completely false. Traditionally it has been frowned upon within Islam to subject the Qur’an to the same kind of scholarly textual study that the OT and NT have faced for centuries. However, this has changed as more openness to scholarly study of the Islamic literature has become mainstream. The study the textual history of the Qur’an has demonstrated that, like any text that was transmitted pre-printing press (let alone pre-word processors), scribal slips of pen or other emendations crept in.  Keith Small’s study, Textual Criticism and the Qur’an Manuscripts, is a leading example of such work.

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