When, three days ago, I posted my comments about the discovery of a two-page manuscript fragment of the Qur’an that, according to new reports, can be dated (technically, the parchment on which the text is written can be dated) to the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed or to a decade or so later, I had no idea that the post would be such a big deal. The Facebook version of the post has had nearly245,000 hits. and counting. Who would-a thought?
There are, as you might imagine, many many comments being made. And it strikes me that many, many of these comments are simply wrong. I won’t be taking them on one at a time. I want simply to say something about a strain of comment that I’m getting (including in private email) from fundamentalists.
There are various ways that one can define fundamentalism. (I often say, in jest, that the easiest definition is that a fundamentalist is: “no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.”) I don’t need to go into a lot of detail here. The people that I’m calling fundamentalists have two features in common (they have a lot more, but these are the two that I’m focusing on here): they believe they have a literal, verbal, inerrant revelation from God, and they are very intent on convincing others to think so as well. That is, they tend to be inerrantists and evangelists. Strongly.
The world has seen a lot of fundamentalists during our times: Jewish fundamentalists (who, OK, as a rule are far less evangelistic than the other kinds), Christian fundamentalists, and Muslim fundamentalists. It’s the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists that I’m concerned with here, and it is because they both are making precisely the same mistake, in my judgment, about the significance of the transmission of their Scriptures that I want to say a few words.
Here is their mistake: they both seem to think that if one of them has a set of Scriptures that has not been changed over the years, and the other has a set of Scriptures that scribes have altered, either by making mistakes or intentionally changing it, that makes the “unchanged Scripture” religion superior to the “changed Scripture” religion.
In my view that is completely bogus.
Let me stress that I am NOT – really, I AM NOT – taking sides in the religious controversy between Christians and Muslims. It is true that I was certainly raised Christian myself, was a committed Christian for many years, was very much a fundamentalist for some of those years, and am a scholar of the Christian tradition. Some Muslims may think that this makes me biased in favor of Christianity. But equally, it makes some Christians think that it makes me biased *against*Christianity (their view is that I’m out to destroy the religion I’ve emerged from – as many notes written to me suggest, sometimes rather forcefully and, well, unpleasantly).
Whatever my personal biases, let me stress that in what I have to say here, I’m NOT taking either side. I’m simply pointing out what seems to me to be a reality. Having a set of Scriptures that has not changed in 1500 years does not make a religion, as a religion, superior to a religion that has a set of Scriptures that *has* changed in 1500 years. The two phenomena (unchanged Scriptures; changed Scriptures) are irrelevant to the question of which religion, if either, is better. (Again, I’m speaking as someone who is not inclined to *either* religion).
I’ll explain by making two points, which I make as a historical and literary scholar, not as a theologian with an axe to grind on either side.
The first is the one I already made but some people don’t seem to be hearing. It is related to claims of fundamentalists about the truth of the Islam. The second is a related point that I have not yet expressed but sense that I need to do so, strongly. It is related to the claims of fundamentalists about the problems with Christianity.
First, to repeat myself: Knowing the exact words of a text does not make the text true. It simply means that you know what its author(s) wrote. In other words, Muslim fundamentalists who are delighted that I have suggested that their Scriptures have not changed substantially over the years (frankly, I don’t know if they were changed at the outset of the movement or not – but I’ll say more about that in a late rost) seem to think they have won some kind of debating point (or that I’m on the verge of converting). That’s not true AT ALL. The issue is irrelevant to the question of the truth claims of the religion. And that means it is irrelevant to the question of which religion is superior. If either. Or neither. If someone doesn’t “get” this point, let me know, and I’ll have to explain it all over again (but I thought that my examples of Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto would have made the point crystal clear: we KNOW without a doubt what their authors wrote; but that doesn’t mean that what they had to say is TRUE.)
Second and even more important: both kinds of fundamentalists – Muslim and Christian – seem to think that if there are textual problems in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament (which there are) that somehow that “disproves” or compromises the truth claims of the Christian religion. THAT IS NOT THE CASE AT ALL.
People can’t understand this precisely because they are THINKING LIKE FUNDAMENTALISTS.
It is true that if the truth of a religion was to be rooted in having an *inerrant* revelation from God in the *very words* that he wants to communicate, and it turns out that a religion does *not* have those words because scribes have altered their texts over the years, then yes, of course, the textual problems of the New Testament would be damaging to Christianity. But they are damaging only to THAT PARTICULAR *VERSION* of Christianity. And that fundamentalist version of Christianity is NOT “Christianity.” It’s a kind of Christianity. A rather awful kind of Christianity. A kind of Christianity that many other Christians hate deeply, wishing that people who hold such extreme views would simply wise up, think a bit more, or just go away.
Christianity is NOT about the inerrant revelation of God in the Bible. Those who think it is are simply fundamentalists. I’ll say more about why – from a historian’s perspective (not a theologian’s, since I’m not a theologian) — I think that’s just wrong, in a future post.
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