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Is the Qur’an More Reliable than the New Testament?

I often get asked questions about the Qur’an, and I almost always do not answer them, most because I can’t answer them.   I’m not an expert on the Qur’an, and tend to talk only about things I have done serious and sustained research on.  Otherwise I’m just spreading stuff I’ve heard, and I’m no more authoritative on that than anyone else.  So what’s the point of my talking about it?

But one question that I get frequently, especially from Muslim readers, is about the manuscript tradition of the Qur’an in relation to the New Testament.  Even though I’m not an expert on the manuscript tradition of the Qur’an (oh boy am I not an expert), I know enough to answer with some authority this particular question.

The question is whether it simply isn’t true that the Qur’an is more reliable than the New Testament.   What the questioner almost always means by that is that the ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an tend to be amazingly similar to one another.  Virtually identical up and down the line.   Scribes kept it the way it was, without changing it.  That’s in contrast to the New Testament, where scribes changed it all the time, often in insignificant ways and sometimes in rather startling large ways, either by accident or on purpose,

So, by comparison, isn’t the Qur’an more reliable?

In almost every instance when I get asked the question, if I pursue it with the person, what they really mean is…

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Is There a Way to Know if a Manuscript is the “Original”?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    nichael  July 2, 2019

    For those who are interested: A nice, popular article (to my admittedly non-expert eyes) on the textual history of the Qur’an is “What is the Koran” by Toby Lester which appeared in the Jan 1999 issue of the Atlantic.

    The article is available on line, for example here:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/01/what-is-the-koran/304024/

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  2. Avatar
    stokerslodge  July 2, 2019

    Bart, thanks for helping us see through/beyond the smoke and mirrors

    1
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    nazam44  July 2, 2019

    As a believing and practicing Muslim, I completely agree with you. Textual authenticity/reliability does not mean that the claims within the texts are also true. The two are separate matters. Both Muslim and Christian apologists – most often Christian apologists in my experience – frequently fail to realise this difference (ie textual reliability does not equal historical reliability).

    I appreciate the fact that you’ve accurately summarised the state of Quranic textual criticism ie that the Quranic mss tradition is far more vast, uniform and early compared to NT mss tradition (which, again, does not therefore follow that the Quran is also historically reliable; the latter is a separate topic). But my question is, why do several of your friends, chief among them Prof Wallace, fail to come to terms even with this basic fact and happily spread outright disinformation on this matter when they comment on the Quranic mss tradition in the passing in their talks on NT textual criticism? Why is it that another colleague of yours, Craig Evans, ventures much further ahead of Wallace and simply propagates fictitious polemical claims about the Quran in a recently coauthored book of his (Jesus and the Jihadis)?

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      I don’t know about their specific claims with respect to the Qur’an, so I can’t comment on that. But they are, of course, both committed evangelical Christians who are convinced that the NT views of God, Christ, and so on are absolutely true and other religious views are not true, and they are interested in convincing others to think so as well. Surely that affects many of the things they say about these other traditions.

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  4. Avatar
    godspell  July 2, 2019

    First of all, we will never know the precise original text of the Qu’ran, because there was no such book at the time of Muhammad’s death. Muhammad was illiterate. He dictated his revelations, and they were written down on whatever was at hand, often just bones or reeds. We don’t have any of these original texts. What we have is what was compiled after his death by his successors, who were at that time in charge of a state structure (and eventually, an empire) inspired by Muhammad’s vision. So once they had come up with what they felt was a correct rendition of his revelation (how likely is it that Muhammad would have agreed?), then there was an agreed-upon text, that could be more or less flawlessly recreated and distributed, over and over again. And what would happen to anyone who (by accident or design) altered the Word of Allah? We really don’t want to know.

    Christianity was much more freeform and anarchic, from its very origin. It did not have any temporal power, any state support, for centuries, so there was no one to impose a unitary text, or to regulate how the texts were replicated. Even after it became the dominant religion of Rome, there were many other traditions surviving elsewhere, with their own texts, their own manuscripts.

    Islam developed its own divisions, which endure to this day, but by that time there was at least agreement over how the Qu’ran should read, and that remained the uniting factor. Interpretation, of course, was another matter. And let’s not even try to get into the Hadith.

    Muslims may, as Jews and Christians sometimes still do, say “God wouldn’t allow any error.” Well, they’re free to believe that, but they can’t prove it. And realistically, looking at how the Qu’ran was first preserved, the odds of there being no errors are basically nil. If anything, the original conditions of transmission were much worse. But once Islam had conquered the Arabian peninsula, they got much better, and that’s why the earliest surviving texts agree. The ones that didn’t agree–well, they probably weren’t so much lost as intentionally destroyed. That’s one way of solving the problem.

    Surprised you didn’t bring up the Book of Mormon. Absolutely no textual conflicts there. The One True Faith! (Or is that Scientology?)

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    • Avatar
      b.dub3  July 4, 2019

      Not completely accurate. There are many variants in the Book of Mormon from it’s earliest editions.

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    nichael  July 2, 2019

    There’s an important point that needs to kept in mind in any discussion about the Qur’an, especially when comparisons are made to the New Testament.

    That is, Christianity, generally speaking, has the model of 1] God, 2] His fully-divine earthly representation, Jesus, and 3] a sacred text about that relationship, the New Testament. And it’s probably safe to say that most Christians assume that the corresponding entities in Islam are, respectively, 1] Allah, 2] Mohammed, and 3] The Qur’an. Specifically, that the Qur’an, while perhaps sacred, is “just a book”.

    But this incorrect and can lead to serious misunderstandings.

    As the Qur’an and Islamic teachings repeatedly makes clear Mohammed is “merely” the (fully-human) Prophet of Allah/God. The divine revelation and manifestation of Allah/God in the world is the Qur’an.

    In short, while all analogies are necessarily approximate, in Christianity probably the figure that best corresponds to Mohammed is Paul. The more accurate analogue to the Qur’an is Christ.

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  6. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  July 2, 2019

    hello dr Bart

    you have failed to menton one particular thing about koran . is that the Quran achieved a literary status known among the Arabs as mutawatir. Mutawatir means that it was so vastly disseminated to so many different groups of people, who all had the same exact wording, that it is inconceivable that that any one person or group could have falsified it. and it was memorised by prophets companions like young people today would memorise lyrics of popular song. they used to hear the prophet again recite those verses in the mosque during daily prayers again and again every single day . in mosques muslims used to sit down and still do even today and recite koran from memory together like rehearsing song and if one makes mistake he will find out . In other words koran was constantly doubled checked and redouble daily until to this very day. so the chances that some thing can be changed is ZERO .

    thanks for reading my comment

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      My point is that this does not mean that what it *says* is true.

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  7. Avatar
    abdullahsameer  July 2, 2019

    Bart, thanks for your write up. I am sure you are aware that Uthman destroyed all the opposing manuscripts. Despite this attempt at controlling the variation, we have evidence of conflicting surviving manuscripts such as the Sanaa Manuscript. As well there are variant Qurans that Muslims agree upon and use that you can buy in Islamic bookstores or read on quranflash.com. This shows us that there were variants that existed pre-Uthman.

    What it seems to me is that the conflicting text in the Sanaa Manscript, as well as the agreed upon variants found in the Warsh and other variant readings shows us that the Quran was not preserved letter for letter dot for dot.

    If you had a chance to look into this a bit more, I would love to hear more from you on this.

    I have published two videos on the topic if you would like to review them. They are quite short:

    What the Sana’a Manuscript Tells Us About Today’s Quran (9mins 48secs)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvPMDyBlUPA

    The Seven Qiraat Demonstrate the Quran was Not Preserved (11mins 58secs)
    https://youtu.be/pfoSEu3kLZk

    Thanks
    Abdullah Sameer

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      My point is that this does not mean that what it *says* is true.

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  8. Lev
    Lev  July 2, 2019

    Are you aware of the Birmingham Manuscript? It’s a section of the Quran that has been radiocarbon dated to 568-645 (Mohammed lived 570-632).

    The most contentious argument over dating is when the ink was placed on the vellum. It’s likely the animal that the vellum belonged to was alive during Mohammed’s life, but some scholars have questioned when the ink was applied (when it was actually written).

    However, as Muhammad Isa Waley, Lead Curator for Persian and Turkish Manuscripts at the British Library, has noted: “The Muslim community was not wealthy enough to stockpile animal skins for decades, and to produce a complete Mushaf, or copy, of the Holy Qur’an required a great many of them.”

    If it was written during Mohammed’s lifetime, or shortly afterwards, we could have an extraordinarily early copy of the Quran. The equivalent of a gospel written within 13 years (or even during!) Jesus’ lifetime.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      My point is that this does not mean that what it *says* is true.

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      • Lev
        Lev  July 3, 2019

        Yes, I’m aware of and accept your point – I was simply asking if you were aware of the Birmingham manuscript.

        You are objecting to a point I didn’t raise.

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  July 4, 2019

      Not sure what you mean about the early Muslim community not being wealthy or being able to afford animal skins. There is evidence the pre-Islamic Hejaz was quite wealthy and in any case one of its main exports was leather, so animals skins would have been widely available.

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  9. Avatar
    Steefen  July 2, 2019

    Professor Robert Eisenman says the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls influenced the content of the Koran. With the Apocalyptic war preparations in the War Scroll and the peacefulness of the gospels, the Koran leans more towards the War Scroll Zealots than the less aggressive Jesus.

    In a freshly post-Jewish Civil War post-Jewish Revolt era, apocalypticism and messianism had better been peaceful even with the peacekeeper being crucified. So, the tone of the Koran is more reliable than the gospels.

    Apparently, John the Baptist was a Zealot of the War Scroll mindset. That community was into bathing because they believed the angels would help them in their apocalyptic war. The angels could not come down to Earth, get contaminated by humans and go back to heaven. You have said Jesus thought his kingdom would get established during the time of Roman occupation by the help of God. The Bible has Jesus saying:

    Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? Mt: 26: 53.

    So, Jesus’ association with John the Baptist associates him with a far more aggressive and militant circle; and Herod then would be fearful of a leader of that stripe.

    In this way, baptism was preparation not only for the coming judgment but for the coming apocalyptic war.

    [Antiquities of the Jews 18.117] For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.

    The post-Jewish Civil War and the post-Jewish Revolt sits heavily on the gospel that it turns the historical events and even the historical Jesus 180 degrees from Apocalyptic War, to no offense against Rome, no blaming Rome, and not even identifying Rome when Jesus “sees” Jerusalem surrounded by armies (Jesus does not see and identify one Roman standard, soldier, or general).

    Do you agree The Koran is more reliable because it is not weighed down by the Roman subjugation, say the first decade after the war AD 70 – 80 about the time the synoptic gospels were completed?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      No, I decidedly don’t. It had its *own* historical context and vicissitudes.

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      • Avatar
        Steefen  July 3, 2019

        Definition of antinomian. 1 : one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace (see grace entry 1 sense 1a) the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation. 2 : one who rejects a socially established morality.

        The Koran is the heir of Jamesian anti-antinomianism. The Koran shares the ethos of James, not the ethos of Paul. The tone of the Koran is more reflective of the messianic majority of the first 67% of the first century and more reliable than the gospels in that respect. You have informed us on this blog that Jesus only had a small following; so, far from being n the majority of zealots or a sizeable minority, Jesus’s followers would be in the single digit percentage of those seeking change, if not a fraction of 1% while the ethos of James and the tone of Apocalyptic War as opposed to Apocalyptic tribulation of destruction of Temple and defeat of people was a vocal and sizeable minority, if not larger against the pro-Roman Herodians.

        Even with The Koran’s own historical context and vicissitudes, the ethos and the tone of The Koran is more reflective of zealot Christians who adhered to the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls and more reflective of the Jews who wanted to run Paul out of town or worse.

        The Koran’s own historical context and vicissitudes are not direct counter-claims to the ethos and tone claims.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  July 5, 2019

          “Over the next few months, I did some research to understand who the James was whose letter I admired so much. … I realized then that I was onto something by noticing … its implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity and its curious resonance with my Muslim faith.”

          Akyol, Mustafa. The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. Introduction: “Meeting James,” p. 4. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2018.

  10. Avatar
    Saleem-Egan  July 2, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    I understand that you are not an expert about the Quran but would you have any opinion on what is mentioned within Islamic tradition about Jesus from a historical perspective? I suggest you can use the great authoritative source that is Wikipedia for a basic overview of Jesus within the Quran and Islamic tradition and if these view points are historical in any sense. It seems to me that a lot of information was borrowed from other non-canon gospels.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_in_Islam

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  July 2, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I understand and agree with you. What fascinates me is how the Qur’an is so well preserved. From reading your books and blog post concerning scribes working with the New Testament I understand how so many changes occurred, scribes changing text for clarification or theological agendas. But we know that so many variants occurred simply from scribal errors. Do you have a clue to how the scribes of Qur’an texts avoided such issues? I know this is not your area of expertise but I feel that your educated guess would be better than my uneducated. Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Short answer: they were very careful and had many checks to be sure. Similar in many ways to medieval *Jewish* scribes.

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  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 2, 2019

    I, too, have heard that “number of manuscripts of the Bible” argument numerous times.

  13. Avatar
    fishician  July 2, 2019

    The Qu’ran was written in the early 7th century; the New Testament the late 1st century. Hadn’t literary arts advanced during those 500 or so years? So wouldn’t you expect a 7th century manuscript to be better preserved and copied than a 1st century one? (I’m not conceding that the Qu’ran is better preserved or more accurate than the NT, but it seems like it should be just because of the advancement of time and technology, and has nothing to do with the contents of either book, and as you point out has no bearing on the truthfulness of the contents.)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Possibly, yes. Accurate Jewish scribal practices were kicking in full steam by this time as well.

  14. Avatar
    mikezamjara  July 2, 2019

    In your opinion which book of the bible was copied more accurately and which is the worse in that sense?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Worse is probably Revelation. Most accurate? Great question. I don’t know.

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      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  July 4, 2019

        Thank you, Dr. Ehrman, Why do you think Revelation is the worse?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 5, 2019

          Probably because it was not copied as much and in the early years not all the copyists were convinced it was part of Scripture.

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          • Avatar
            mikezamjara  July 5, 2019

            thank yo agan

          • Avatar
            Brand3000  July 13, 2019

            Dr. Ehrman,

            Interesting point. Since the 7 undisputed letters by Paul were rarely if ever in doubt, do you think they have a relatively high level of integrity?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 14, 2019

            I”m not sure what you mean by “integrity.”

          • Avatar
            Brand3000  July 14, 2019

            by “integrity” I mean close to what the original likely said.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 15, 2019

            Oh. OK, that’s not what the word normally means. I’d say there’s no way to know for certain whether the entire Qur’an that came into circulation eventually was what was originally written or not. Same with the NT. It’s just more obviously problematic with the NT, but that has no bearing on whether the writings of the Qur’an are more trustworthy or not.

          • Avatar
            Brand3000  July 15, 2019

            Because, unlike Revelation, Paul’s 7 letters were considered legitamate early on and copied often, would you say this makes it more likely that we have a good idea of what Paul’s originals said?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 16, 2019

            Are you asking if one book were copied more often than another, wouldn’t we have a better chance of knowing what the author originally said? Yes, I would think so. But I’d also say that no one differentiated between Paul’s undisputed seven letters and the rest (as modern scholars do) and those who copied Revelation *did* think it was authentic.

  15. Avatar
    wostraub  July 2, 2019

    Great post, Bart.

    My wife, a Christian Coptic Egyptian, was required to read the Qu’ran in grade school. But that was easy, as it was always meant to be read in its original language, Arabic, which my wife already knew. Contrast that with the New Testament, which is available in hundreds of languages today, each with its own translation problems.

    And speaking of Hitler, his Mein Kampf includes

    “I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    How true was that, even if not a single word had ever been mistranslated?

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Yes, there’s some very interesting work dealing with the Christian theology of the Nazis….

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  July 8, 2019

        Including (that) Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi ideologue/war criminal (justly hanged after Nurnberg), quite anti-Christian, was nonetheless a big fan of Marcion.
        (Duh, wonder why.)

        1
  16. Avatar
    Pattylt  July 2, 2019

    I realize this isn’t your area of expertise. I am beginning to see some discussions from scholars that the Quran we have today really isn’t the same as the original and these scholars are getting a lot of push back from other scholars. Several problems are often pointed out. One, until recently all scholars of the Quran were Muslim…that has just started to change. Second is that it’s only recently that anyone has looked into the issue. Where Christian scholarship has had secular investigators for ~ 200 hundred years now, secular Muslim scholars are a very rare breed and very recent.

    It will be interesting to watch developments in Quran origins and transmissions going forward. It is a hard task to challenge established consensus and deal with the Muslim community resistance. We must give them time.

    4
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Interesting. Can you provide us with some bibliography?

      1
      • Avatar
        roycecil  July 3, 2019

        The best one is written anonymously ( for fear of his life ) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Syro-Aramaic_Reading_of_the_Koran .

        1
      • Avatar
        nichael  July 3, 2019

        If I could jump in, here are a couple references:

        — The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book (ed Ibn Warraq)

        — The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History (ed: Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Gerd-R Puin)

        Both are available on Amazon

        (A few other sources are mentioned in the article by Toby Lester I pointed to above).

      • Avatar
        Euler  July 4, 2019

        The oldest Quranic text is the scripto inferior of the Sanaa palimpsest, and it is by far the most divergent Quranic manuscript and the only ancient Quranic MSS that diverges significantly enough to be a separate text-type.

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      • Avatar
        Pattylt  July 4, 2019

        I’m not finding the original scholarship at the moment…sorry.. but it seems to stem from the discovery of the Sanaʽa manuscript and the differences between the current received Quran and this, the earliest found copy, I believe. I do know the Sanaʽa manuscript is causing a relook amongst serious scholars!

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      • Avatar
        HarryJecs  July 22, 2019

        The most famous scholar challenging traditional Muslim narrative about Quran and origins of Islam is Dr. Patricia Crone at Princeton University.

  17. Avatar
    AndrewHLivingston  July 2, 2019

    Oh brother, he so much as mentioned Islam. If the chatrooms during live recordings of Ehrman’s debates are any indication this comments section is going to be a *doozy*. Not one cliche from New Atheist Islamophobes, or one cliche about the alleged evils of religion in general is going to be left out. In the *best case scenario* what you see above and below this post will all be smarmy remarks about how “one fairy tale isn’t better than any other”. When will you Internet Atheists finally learn that we’ve heard everything you have to say before? *All* of it. 479 times each. (Yes, that includes what you were about to say there about how “thats what I usually say to you religionists lol.” I’ve heard *that* one 479 times. The tu quoque fallacy is the resort of a coward.) Here’s hoping I’ll be presently surprised for once.

    Anyway, I do think a lot of brothers and sisters in Islam put too singular a focus on the textual history element when it comes to The Bible. Studying these matters should mean studying *all* of their aspects. There are many ways for a prophet’s words to become corrupted and textual interpolations is only one of them.

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  18. Avatar
    Hon Wai  July 2, 2019

    Next time your Muslim readers (invariably with an apologetics agenda) ask you about the textual criticism of the Quran, you may wish to refer them to a work by Keith E Small:
    https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/textual-criticism-the-new-testament-and-the-quran/
    Keith Small is a lecturer at London School of Theology (an evangelical seminary), involved in evangelical apologetics. I might have met him over a decade ago when I was interested in evangelical polemics against Islam (an approach I had since learned to be flawed). From my experience, religious apologists of any tradition, as apologists, often misrepresent views and traditions outside their own. Nonetheless, this book was positively reviewed by Larry Hurtado, and more importantly by leading scholars of Islam (Fred Donner of University of Chicago, Andrew Rippin of University of Victoria):
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textual_Criticism_and_Qur’ān_Manuscripts
    You may be aware already that your books “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Interrupted” are popular with Muslim apologists engaged in debates with Christian apologists over reliability of the Bible. The standard Muslim apologetical position (which may not be representative of the views of Muslim communities in the West) is that the Bible has been corrupted by Christians. In some respects, your books help the Muslim apologists advance their agenda, yet they often don’t realise or ignore the bigger picture that your view of Jesus as a biblical scholar is far from congenial to the Islamic view.

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Oh yes, I know that about my books. That’s one of the reasons I get all the emails….

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  19. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 2, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Both traditions had different methods of preserving God’s Revelation.
    The Bible is a translation of revelation comprised into many books and many many versions ( not in the native tongue of Jesus ) whereas, the Quran is Revelation only 1 book ( in the Arabic native tongue of Muhammad ) not a translation, unless you read it in a different language.
    Had someone recorded and protected what God revealed to Jesus ( and they might have ) we would not be having discussions about the lost Original Manuscripts, questions with regards to the authenticity and reliability of the gospels, letters, ascribed authorships and ect… The Bible was written by 40 unknown penmen over a period of ?? 1200 to 1600 years?
    In contrast, records were kept when revelation descended onto Muhammad. The revelation was recited orally, memorized and recorded on parchment / leather/bones and whatever the Arabs had available over a period of 23 years. It was recorded who wrote what and when and have chains of narrations going all the way back to the original revelation.
    This is with regard to reliability.
    As far as truth?
    One would have to in entirety read The Bible and read The Quran. Unfortunately, most won’t.

    Great topic. Hope it brings forth sincere and positive dialogue to better enhance our knowledge.

  20. Avatar
    tcasto  July 2, 2019

    I’m missing your meaning in the use of the word ‘true’. I take the intent of the original question as “is the Quran more faithful to the seminal words or events than the N. T. “. I think the answer to that is yes, in part because it was created over 500 years after the New Testament, by scribes who were better trained and more disciplined. But I take your opinion that it is not any more of a “truth”. Horse poop in the temple isn’t really a proof that Mohammed actually journeyed there.

    The Quran was exclusively an oral tradition until Mohammed ‘s death. It’s a question as to how that would influence the consistency of the later commitment to paper.

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