Resolving the Christian “I-Know-Nothing” Multi-Problem in Textual Criticism
Occasionally we come across Christians who, when informed that the text of the gospels underwent corruption during their transmission, often react with the following type of questions: “When? Who did the corruption? In what country? Before or after Muhammad? Why was it done? How come no one noticed it?” These type of seemingly “innocent” questions merely reveal the incalculably colossal ignorance of the person in question. Christians who pose such questions do not seem to realize how utterly foolish they come across to anyone who are familiar with at least the very basics of textual criticism. Thus, the poor questioner only succeeds in on humiliating no one else but himself. Christian apologists and missionaries need to stop posing such outdated, absurd questions since it reflects quite badly upon their intelligence and gives others a very bad impression of them.
Therefore it was not surprising to come across an anonymously-written “paper” containing precisely these type of questions on the Christian missionaries’ cesspool, Answering Islam, entitled The Muslim Multi-Problem. This will be a reply to this short “paper” where the argument is that we are, in fact, faced with a Christian who-when-where-how-what-why-I know nothing-multi-problem. Since this article is a response to Christian missionaries, most of the attention will be focused upon the integrity of the New Testament and will only occasionally make mention of the Jewish Bible where necessary.
The anonymous writer begins:
- Many Muslims claim that the Bible has been tampered with and corrupted.
Yes, because it is true; the Biblical text was indeed corrupted. Moreover, Biblical scholars are also in full agreement that the text of the Bible (in this instance, by “Bible” it is referred to both the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament) underwent changes during the course of its transmission.
- Any event in real life reality with human agents has certain characteristics and conditions attached to it. Any such act is done by one or more particular persons, at one or more specific times, in a certain fashion, in certain places, and for a reason. I hope everybody can agree with that. So, to make your claim of tampering credible you will have to answer these questions:
Sure, let us now answer the questions by using the answers provided by Biblical textual critics.
- 1. When happened this tampering? [Before or after Muhammad]?
Answer: Mostly before Muhammad (P). Beginning with the New Testament, scholars of textual criticism generally agree that the text of the New Testament underwent the most drastic and frequent types of changes/corruptions in the first three centuries of its transmission. The New Testament text of these periods is often described as a “living” text, a “fluid” text, and a text in “flux.” For instance, one of the leading scholars in the field of New Testament textual criticism of our times, Bart D. Ehrman describes the transmission of the New Testament text in the earliest period as follows:
The majority of textual variants that are preserved in the surviving documents, even the documents produced in a later age, originated during the first three Christian centuries.
This conviction is not based on idle speculation. In contrast to the relative stability of the New Testament text in later times, our oldest witnesses display a remarkable degree of variation. The evidence suggests that during the earliest period of its transmission the New Testament text was in a state of flux, that it came to be more or less standardized in some regions by the fourth century, and subject to fairly rigid control (by comparison) only in the Byzantine period1
Similarly, in the latest revision of Bruce Metzger’s classic, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, co-authored with Bart Ehrman, we read:
We have good evidence to indicate that in the early decades of transmission numerous changes were made to the texts in circulation: as words or entire lines came to be left out inadvertently or inadvertently copied twice, stylistic changes were made, words were substituted for one another, evident infelicities or outright mistakes were corrected, and so on…It is a striking feature of our textual record that the earliest copies we have of the various books that became the New Testament vary from one another far more widely than do the later copies, which were made under more controlled circumstances in the Middle Ages. Moreover, the quotations of the New Testament by early church fathers evidence a wide array of textual variation dating from these earliest stages in the history of transmission.2
Likewise, the Alands describe the state of transmission of the text of the New Testament of the earliest period as follows:
Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely. It was the “living text” in the Greek literary tradition, unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy. And the New Testament text continued to be a “living text” as long as it remained a manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church molded it to the Procrustean bed of the standard and officially prescribed text. Even for later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so familiar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of another. They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standard of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period, when the text had not been attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves to be filled with the Spirit. As a consequence the text of the early period was many-faceted, and each manuscript had its own peculiar character.3
Similar statements acknowledging the fluid state of the New Testament text in the first three centuries are found in many other sources. Thus, we can say with reasonable certainty that the vast majority of changes and corruptions were made to the New Testament text much before the time of Prophet Muhammad (P).
Moving on to the Jewish Bible, scholars again agree that most changes were made to its text much before the time of Prophet Muhammad (P). For example Waltke explains:
…the further back we go in the textual lineage, the greater the textual differences. Before the text was fixed as ca. 100 CE it was copied and recopied through many centuries by scribes of varying capabilities and of different philosophies, giving rise to varying readings and recensions (i.e., distinct text-types).4
Thus, far more variations are to be encountered in our earliest witnesses. It should be noted that we do not encounter the “original text” of any book of the Jewish Bible in the Qumran scrolls – the oldest witnesses of the Jewish Bible. Eugene Ulrich, one of the leading authorities on the Qumran scrolls – being the chief editor of the Qumran scrolls – and the text of the Jewish Bible, explains:
Although in the traditions, pious, and popular imagination, the books of Scripture were composed by individual holy men from earliest times (Moses and Isaiah, for example), critical study of the text of Scripture demonstrates that the books are the result of a long literary development, whereby traditional material was faithfully retold and handed on from generation to generation, but also creatively expanded and reshaped to fit the new circumstances and new needs that the successive communities experienced through the vicissitudes of history. So the composition of the Scriptures was organic, developmental, with successive layers of tradition. Ezekiel was commanded to eat a scroll and found that it was sweet as honey (Ezek 3:1-3), so perhaps I can be allowed to use the image of baklava for the composition of scriptural texts: many layers laid on top of one another by successive generations over the centuries, as the traditions were handed on faithfully but creatively adapted, and formed into a unity by the honey – sometimes heated – of the lived experience of the community over time.5
The Qumran scrolls reveal that the text of the Jewish Bible were not copied without changes. Instead, the text was growing organically, being adapted and changed. Naturally, this alters our understanding of the so-called “original text.” After summarising the state of the text of the individual books of the Jewish Bible in the Qumran scrolls, Ulrich concludes:
The process of composition of the Scriptures was layered; some of the latter stages of that process – multiple literary editions of the books of Scripture – are demonstrated by our new extant evidence.
3. Because the text of each book was produced organically, in multiple layers, determining “the original text” is a difficult, complex task; and theologically it may not even be the correct goal. How do we decide which of the many layers that could claim to be the “original reading” to select? Often the richer religious meaning in a text are those which entered the text as a relatively late or developed stage; do we choose the earlier, less rich reading or the later, more profound reading? In contrast, if a profound religious insight in an early stage of the text is toned down later by a standard formula or even a vapid platitude, which do we select? And must we not be consistent in choosing the early or the later edition or reading?
5. The Masoretic Text, like the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, is not a univocal term or entity, but a collection of disparate texts, from different periods, of different nature, of different textual value. There is no reason to think of the Masoretic collection as a unit (a codex, a “Bible”), or as a unity. The collection is like the Septuagint, a collection of varied forms of the various books.
6. Thus, finally, the situation has changed concerning translations of “The Holy Bible.” The New Revised Standard Version now contains a number of improved readings based on the biblical manuscripts from Qumran. It can even claim to be the first Bible to contain a paragraph missing from all Bibles for 2,000 years! It contains between chapters 10 and 11 in 1 Samuel a paragraph found at Qumran and attested by Josephus, but absent from all other Bibles over the past two millennia.6
And therefore it should be obvious that the vast majority of changes and corruption of the text of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament happened many centuries before the time of Muhammad (P).
- 2. Who did the tampering?
Answer: The New Testament text was corrupted by Christians who were involved in the copying of its text whereas the text of the Jewish Bible was corrupted by the Jews responsible for the copying of the text.
- 3. Where was it done? [city, country, ...?]
Answer: It was done where ever Christians were located and required New Testament texts — such as Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, etc. In the case of the Jewish Bible, we would say the Palestinian region.
- 4. What parts of the text were changed?
Answer: A list of some specific changes is produced here. D. C. Parker, the leading British scholar of textual criticism, in The Living Text of the Gospels, discusses some of the important parts of the text of the gospels which were changed – such as for instance the words of Jesus (P) on divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-12; Luke 16:18); the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4); the addition of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; the ending of Mark; and a bunch of textual problems in the last 167 verses of Luke. After analysing a number of textual problems in Luke, Parker concludes:
In our investigations we have uncovered evidence in rather more than 40 verses out of the last 167 of Luke’s Gospel, about a quarter of them. Some of the readings might be best described as quaint. In several others we can see, as in so many other places, a difficulty or an unfortunate phrasing being removed…But the sum total provides incontrovertible evidence that the text of these chapters was not fixed, and indeed continued to grow for centuries after its composition.7
Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, make mention of several other changed parts of the New Testament text which are of immense theological and exegetical significance:
Just within the Gospels, reference can be made to the Prologue of John (e.g., 1.18), the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke (e.g., Matt. 1.16, 18; Luke 1.35), the baptism accounts of the New Testament (e.g., Mark 15.34; Luke 3.22; John 1.34), and the various passion narratives (e.g., Mark 15.34; Luke 22.43-44; John 19.36). Moreover, a number of variants effect a range of issues that continue to interest historians and exegetes of the New Testament, including such questions as whether the Gospels could have been used to support “adoptionistic” Christology (e.g., Mark 1.1; Luke 3.22; John 1.34) or one that was “antidocetic” (e.g., the Western non interpolations), whether Luke has a doctrine of the atonement (e.g., Luke 22.19-20), whether members of the Johannine community embraced a gnostic Christology (e.g., 1 John 4.3), and whether any of the authors of the New Testament characterizes Jesus as God (e.g., Heb. 1.8).8
- 5. How was it done [i.e. without leaving traces of it]?
Answer: We know that the texts were changed and corrupted precisely due to the numerous traces left of it in the manuscript tradition! Traces of changes and corruptions are most prominent in the earliest New Testament fragments and manuscripts. Quoting Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman again:
It is a striking feature of our textual record that the earliest copies we have of the various books that became the New Testament vary from one another far more widely than do the later copies….9
Gabel, Wheeler and York summarise the types of traces of changes and corruptions to be found in our earliest witnesses:
One study of three of the most extensive papyri (Chester Beatty I, Bodmer II, and Bodmer XIV-XV), covering passages from the Gospels and Acts, has discovered more than a thousand “singular readings” – words or groups of words not found in any other known manuscript – and this does not include different spellings! None of the papyri has a text wholly like that of the later, reconstructed families surveyed earlier. To the extent that they represent a consecutive text at all and are not fragmentary (as most of them are), they are witnesses to several textual families within the same book. For example, the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, from the third century, gives us a reading of Romans that exists nowhere else. It places the doxology that now ends chapter 16 at the end of chapter 15, lending support to those who have maintained on literary grounds that chapter 16 is really a separate letter that was later attached to Romans. Both Bodmer II and the Bodmer XIV-XV contain portions of the Gospel of John, but they often differ drastically from one another.
What can account for this wide variance among documents written so early in the history of the New Testament text? The answer, leaving aside errors of copying and writing, is that Christianity was evolving rapidly during its first several centuries and the New Testament evolved along with it to meet its needs. As the young religion spread across the ancient world, it created communities of believers in widely separated places, and each of these communities faced unique situations and had its own peculiar needs. The sacred texts were adjusted to meet local conditions. One scholar refers to such changes as “reverential alterations,” while another calls them “orthodox corruptions.”10
Similarly, it is due to the traces left in the manuscript tradition of the Jewish Bible that we know for sure that its text also underwent corruption:
Textual criticism is necessary because there is no error-free manuscript…Variants occur more frequently in the medieval manuscripts of the MT tradition, but they are minuscule compared to the variants found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). In fact, the further back we go in the textual lineage the greater the textual differences. Before the text was fixed as ca. 100 CE it was copied and recopied through many centuries by scribes of varying capabilities and of different philosophies, giving rise to varying readings and recensions (i.e., distinct text-types).
The restoration of the original OT text is foundational to the exegetical task and to theological reflection.11
As we have seen, the same observation also holds true for the New Testament text; the earliest manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament reveal far more differences and variations than all the later manuscripts.
- 6. Why would anybody do this incredibly difficult thing?
Answer: It is not “incredibly difficult” to make certain changes to the text of a document, especially if that document is initially passing along in a non-uniform manner between different communities. The New Testament is not one book; it is a collection of different books produced by various authors at different times and locations. Not all of the four gospels were available to all the Christian communities from the start. For instance, one community might initially have read only Mark while lacking the other gospels; another community might have read Matthew but would not know anything about Mark; and yet other communities might have possessed Luke and John while lacking Matthew and Mark and so on. Only later were the books collected together and widely known as such. As Frederic Kenyon explained:
…the anonymous Gospels and Acts were not regarded as the literary compositions of their authors, but as narratives of the life of our Lord and the work of His apostles, compiled with the purely practical object of disseminating the knowledge of their lives and teachings among the Christian community, and with no eye to a future which in any case would soon be curtailed by the Second Coming.
There was no need to be meticulous in verbal accuracy. The substance was what mattered, and if additions, believed to be authentic, could be made to it, why should they not? Then there were little means, even if it had been thought needful, to secure uniformity of transmission. Each book circulated originally as a separate roll, and there was no fixed Canon of Christian Scriptures. Not every Christian community could possess a complete set of Gospels or of Paul’s epistles, but each would supply itself as best it could from its neighbours. Many copies would be made by untrained provincial copyists, and there would be no oppurtunity of correcting them by comparasion with other copies, except such as might be in the immediate neighbourhood. Such revision as there might be would be local and unmethodical.12
In such a scenario, different communities would make different types of changes to the specific books that they happened to possess as they copied and recopied their text. Then these copies would find their way to other communities and scribes, who would then further adjust and edit their texts to suit their own particular needs and this process would go on and on. Even later when Christians would have become aware of most of the writings now forming the New Testament, different changes would continue to be made to the text of these documents by different Christian scribes involved in the copying of the texts and in the recopying process more changes would undoubtedly come about. Thus, the text of the New Testament writings were changed in a haphazard and non-uniform manner. Hence, the text underwent different types of changes even though there was no outright grand “conspiracy” involving each and every Christian to alter the text of documents. Moreover, not all of the changes were deliberate. Many corruptions would be quite unintentional, such as spelling mistakes, missing of words and lines, mistakenly copying lines twice, etc.
Besides the many unintentional changes, parts of the text of the New Testament were also altered occasionally for theological and doctrinal reasons – thus quite deliberately. Christians belonging to different rival sects altered the text of the various New Testament writings, particularly those of the gospels, to suit their theological and doctrinal agendas, while accusing their rivals of changing passages. Then on other occasions similar passages within the gospels were harmonised with each other in order to eliminate contradictions. Moreover, at times passages were also corrected to remove historical and other errors from the text.
The different reasons that led to the corruption of the New Testament text are listed by Bruce Metzger13 as follows:
- 1. Unintentional errors
- Errors arising from faulty eyesight
- Errors arising from faulty hearing
- Errors of the mind
- Errors of judgement
- 2. Intentional changes
- Changes involving spelling and grammar
- Harmonistic corruptions
- Addition of natural complements and similar adjuncts
- Clearing up historical and geographical difficulties
- Conflation of readings
- Alterations made because of doctrinal considerations
- Addition of miscellaneous details
We are finally done answering all of Christian’s “I know nothing!” multiple questions. Yet the anonymous apologist is not quite finished. It seems he/she is intent on embarrassing him/herself further by making the following astounding claim:
- No Muslim could ever answer these questions. I wonder why?? Maybe because it is such an incredible feat that would require more than a miracle do get done? Believing in the tampering needs a lot of faith. Blind faith, against the manuscript evidence we have.
It takes no faith whatsoever to believe and know for sure that the text of the Bible underwent corruption during the course of its transmission, since it is solely due to manuscript evidence that we know with 100% certainty that the Biblical text was indeed corrupted — both intentionally as well as unintentionally. Refusing to look at the incontestable evidence and irrationally insisting otherwise is the actual blind faith, and is in fact self-deception — akin to a child screaming incoherently, “Santa Clause does exist!” multiple times upon realizing that he is but a myth. One may close their eyes, deny the truth a million times, insist that something is true while knowing it is false, but the truth will not alter despite these episodes of self-deception.
And only God knows best!
For a detailed refutation of popular Christian claims about the manuscripts, preservation and textual accuracy of the New Testament, see also: Textual Reliability / Accuracy Of The New Testament
- Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, 1993, Oxford University Press: London & New York, pp. 28-29 [back]
- Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 275-276 [back]
- Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, 1989, 2nd edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 69 [back]
- Bruce K. Waltke, “How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Text and Canon of the Old Testament”, in Peter W. Flint (ed.), The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 2001, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 27 [back]
- Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 23 [back]
- Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 32 [back]
- D. C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels, 1997, Cambridge University Press, p. 172 [back]
- Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, footnote 52, pp. 284-285 [back]
- Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 275-276 [back]
- John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler and Anthony D. York, The Bible As Literature: An Introduction, 2000, 4th edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 262-263 [back]
- Bruce K. Waltke, “How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Text and Canon of the Old Testament”, in Peter W. Flint (ed.), The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 2001, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 27-28 [back]
- F. G. Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible, Studies in Theology, 3rd edition revised and augmented by A. W. Adams, 1976, Duckworth, pp. 249-250. [back]
- For more details see: Bruce M. Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 186-206. [back]