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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
    roycecil  July 2, 2019

    Quranic manuscripts also have some unique problems that I have not come across when discussing Bible Manuscripts. One of the problem is that most early manuscripts are written in parchment. And in some manuscripts the parchment was wiped clean and written over so under UV light they can see two sets of text. For eg. the upper and lower text in Saana Manuscript. Do we have similar problems in NT ? If you are aware can you please give some examples

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Yes, that kind of manuscript is called a “palimpsest,” and a number of the very important biblical manuscripts are palimpsests — meaning that they were erased and other texts were written on the top. You can usually see traces of the underneath writing, which is usually what you want to get at. In the 19th century they had to use chemical reagents to get the underwriting to come out; very bad idea (for the manuscript). These days there are much, much better techniques, including most impressively multi-spectral imaging. (Two famous examples in biblical manuscripts; a fifth century Greek codex called Ephraimi Rescriptus — designated as MS C, and one of the best ancient Syriac mss discovered on Sinai by twin sisters at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the end of the 19th century; see the fascinating account in the book The Sisters of Sinai.

      3
  2. Rick
    Rick  July 2, 2019

    Professor,
    I just read an article on Dr. Seale’s ( University of Kentucky Computer Scientist) work on “reading” the Herculaneum Scrolls which were charred/preserved in ash in 79CE. A whole Roman library at a wealthy Mediterranean port. The wealth probably cuts against any Christian church there but, do you think there is any chance of NT related material?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Nothing like that that I know of among NT mss, but there are other Xn manuscripts that have survived in a charred state.

  3. Avatar
    Wael Ibrahim  July 3, 2019

    Quote: “Just because you are relatively certain that you know what an author *wrote* does not mean that what that author wrote is *true.*”

    Which means that if you’ve reconsteuxted the entire NT and became certain that every word has been preserved it would lead to the same conclusion. That we cannot trust its message!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      No, not quite. I”m not saying we CANNOT trust it. I’m saying that even if we can reconstruct it accurately word for word, that does not mean that it is NECESSARILY true. It may well be though. It’s textual reconstruction has nothing to do with the issue.

      4
  4. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  July 3, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. This question is off topic and I apologize. Can you explain why Christians pray? Presumably an all knowing omnipotent God would know what we need and there would be no reason to pray. If I have a disease God should know I want to get better and there should be no need to beg for healing through prayer. If I pray for rain and it does rain does that mean God likes me better than my neighbor who prayed for dry weather? Thanx so much for your blog.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Different Christians have different reasons, with very different levels of theological sophistication. Many do NOT simply pray in order to get what they want thinking it will work. Often it is instead to acknowledge dependence and love for a greater, caring being.

      2
  5. Avatar
    zaheerskh  July 3, 2019

    “Just because you are relatively certain that you know what an author *wrote* does not mean that what that author wrote is *true.*”
    So you saying that its more like the Sanad(chain of transmission) and Matan(meaning of the text) System in Islam for Hadith.
    Like, if I say to you that, “You owe me $5k”. There would be no doubt that I said it, but it may not necessarily be that you actually owe me.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      Yes, if you write me and tell me that you are going to send me $5000, which I encourage you to do, I can show you did write it, but nto that you will send it.

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 3, 2019

    Muslims were politically powerful enough to establish an official version of the quran early on in the religion, which prevented variant texts from becoming popular.
    By the time christians were politically powerful enough to establish an official version there were too many popular variants to make any one of them official.

    4
    • Bart
      Bart  July 3, 2019

      But even when they were powerful enough, they still didn’t preserve their manuscripts without changing them — down to the time of the invention of printing.

      1
      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 3, 2019

        But only because there was no official version – which allowed new variants to become popular.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 5, 2019

          There were lots of reasons for variants to be introduced into the manuscripts of the New Testament even at later stages (e.g., when scribes were sleepy or inattentive). But you’re right, there was absolutely not “official” version that everyone had to stick to.

  7. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 3, 2019

    Maybe the Quran was copied more faithfully after being in circulation for a certain period of time, but I believe you’ve said the same for he New Testament. I know there’s a few critical scholars of the Quran who say it was not copied reliably at all. They’ve also had their lives threatened speaking out about it. There doesn’t seem to be the same academic freedom to examine the Quran critically the way the NT is.

    3
  8. Avatar
    abdullahsameer  July 3, 2019

    What do you think about the Sanaa manuscripts? Have you read the paper

    Ṣan‘ā’ 1 and the Origins of the Qur’ān by Behnam Sadeghi and Mohsen Goudarzi?
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1NLpaOILbeOb2vShBAsY321Ap8Q2KF2m1/view

    Would love to know if you have any thoughts on it

  9. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  July 3, 2019

    I understand that Muslims believe that the entire book was dictated by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammmad (peace be upon him), and therefore is literally the word of God. I got this information from the imam’s wife of our local Islamic center back in 2000 when they partiipated in our PC (USA ) peace conference at Chapman University in Orange, California. The theme dealt with how to be true to your own faith while being respectful of the faith of others.
    In addition to islam, we had workshops on Judaism and Hinduism.

  10. Avatar
    AndrewHLivingston  July 3, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I know this is slightly off topic but you don’t seem to do the Reader’s Mailbag thing these days and I need to know this for the research I’ve been doing about the origins of the Resurrection doctrine: would you say that there’s any chance the omission of Mark 9:10 from Matthew 17:9-10 was due to copyists or is it more reasonable to conclude that Saint Quote Unquote Matthew intentionally took that verse out himself? What’s your professional opinion about that? I’m guessing the latter is kind of obvious but I figured it would be irresponsible of me not to ask somebody.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Oh, I do it; I just stopped calling it that for some reason. Maybe should start again!

      Yes, the omission of the verse is normally seen as Matthew’s own redaction of Mark (along with other edits he made in the passage). And you’re right, the big question is why he would do so. It’s always useful to speculate on possible explanatoins. Did Matthew, for example, think that it made no sense for Jews (Jesus’ disciples) to wonder what a resurrection might mean?

  11. Avatar
    Sixtus  July 3, 2019

    When I did a cursory investigation into the history of the Koran I started with books by Ohlig and by Ibn Warraq. They provide sufficient bibliographic references for further investigation. At the more popular level is Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword. On YouTube you can also find Holland’s related video Islam, the Untold Story, which was quite controversial when it first came out.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 4, 2019

    Larry Hurtado blogged about Keith E. Small’s Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts (Lanham/Boulder/New York/Toronto/Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012).

    From Larry’s blog:
    “As to results, Small repeatedly notes that the Qur’an manuscripts exhibit a remarkable stability in the text across many centuries, from the earliest to the latest…But Small also notes that the other evidence (especially palimpsests and reports from early centuries) suggest strongly that there was, in the earliest period, a considerably greater diversity in the text of the Qur’an than is reflected in the extant manuscripts studied. Moreover, as is widely accepted, in the late 7th century, disturbed by the diversity in the text of the Qur’an, the Caliph Uthman organized a standardization of the consontantal text (early Arabic, like ancient Hebrew, was a consonantal aphabet with no written vowels), suppressing variant versions.

    As often the concern of monarchs, Uthman wanted to unify his religio-political doman, and suppress potentially dangerous differences. Therefore, given the place of the Qur’an in Islam, he focused on fixing its text. Thereafter, in successive centuries, further steps were taken to fix the text and its recitation. So, as Small observes, “the history of the transmission of the text of the Qur’an is at least as much a testament to the destruction of Qur’an material as it is to its preservation . . . It is also testimony to the fact that there never was one original text of the Qur’an” (p. 180).”

    https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/textual-criticism-the-new-testament-and-the-quran/

  13. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 4, 2019

    Here’s a really good article that discusses some of the results of modern critical scholarship for the Quran—
    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/01/what-is-the-koran/304024/

    And, of course, Wikipedia—
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_the_Quran

    I made comments elsewhere on the blog about some having their lives threatened, but I can’t remember if it was about scholarship or just criticism of the Quran by former Muslims. I think it was both, but I can’t find the post now. And I believe it was a Blast from the Past about the recently discovered manuscript of the Quran.

    • Avatar
      nichael  July 7, 2019

      Yes, this is the article I described above in the first comment on this posting.

      1
  14. Avatar
    mkahn1977  July 4, 2019

    Since you have debated Robert Price I was wondering if you ever considered writing a popular book like his Case against the Case for Christ? I know from reading most of your books you have pretty much covered everything relating to the topics but thought you could counter his point for point. I didn’t hold on to the book because it was a bit of a drab, and his counterarguments seems to rest on simply disagreeing (from what I remember) with all of the NT scholars that Stobel interviewed. I enjoyed Stobel’s book even though he’s pretending to write objective history and uses circular reasoning and theological arguments to make historiographical deductions.

    (Then there’s Michael Brown’s 5-volume “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus”– 4 of which I read and are redundant, dry, apologetic and blatantly offensive!)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      I’m not sure if you know my book Did Jesus Exist? That’s what it’s about. (Though I don’t deal with just his views, but a range of mythicists’)

      1
      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  July 5, 2019

        Have it at home and have read it (a few years back). Did you write it in response to Stobel’s book? It’s amazing how many people will me I have to read Stobels book as it would “convince me”…. Oy

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          No no, Strobel and I agree that Jesus existed. But he’s not a scholar or an expert in any of this — his books are condensations of his conversations and readings of people who share his views. (Intentionally so: he’s a journalist who interviews people and reads their books)

  15. Avatar
    dannawid  July 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman asks his students, who mostly come from the bible belt: “How many of you read the Bible?” it appears not many. Although some Bibles are written in easy to read modern English so you’d think if those students truly believed that the Bible is inspired by God, they would have read it. Or maybe there is a tiny bit of doubt in their subconscious.
    The Quran is written in old mostly complicated classical Arabic scipt, yet many non Arabic speaking Muslims memorize it word for word observing the intricate pronounciation and enunciation of the anciant Arabic text. They are called hafiz. So a hafiz from Iran when reciting verses of the Quran sounds exactly like a hafiz from Algeria, Indinisia or Pakistan. Of course most of these hafiz have no idea what they are reciting, but they could bring to tears their Arabic speaking Muslims. My business travels took me to many countries around the world including Islamic majority countries where I was struck by the Quranic memorizing phenomena. Upon visiting a mosque in Algiers I observed a bunch of men sitting in a circle, each reciting a few Quranic verses then the person next to him takes up where he left off and so on. Then a new commer joins the group and does his share of recitation. No one knows the exact number of Hafiz in Algeria but it is estimated to be in the thousands. In Cairo I saw a boy of about 10 sitting in a corner of a mosque with a man of mid 20, chanting Quranic vesrses. I was told that the boy will soon memorize the complete Quran and become a hafiz.
    Muslims do not have one iota of doubt that the Quran is of divine revelations. They believe it now as did their predecessors 1400 years ago. So a scribe inscribing the Quran is not afraid that some mortal will punish him for making a mistake. But he is terrified of the divine punishment in the hereafter if he does so. For God is stern in punishment.

  16. Avatar
    Ruven  July 4, 2019

    Nice post, but I really would have used another example than Mein Kampf of all things. It could be really taken the wrong way, that is when people don’t read closely enough (or just have a bad day) they could think you’re comparing Hitler to Mohammed.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2019

      Yes, that would be SERIOUSLY misreading my point. I picked Mein Kampf precisely because no one I know believes it, as opposed, say, to the New Testament or the Qur’an or … whatever. But the copies are all identical. You don’t believe a book because the copies are all identical. … Yikes!

      • Avatar
        Sixtus  July 6, 2019

        But Mein Kampf does have a modern Critical Edition (in German only, so far) that is truly critical — edited by scholars of a distinctly non-believing (in Nazism) bent. Would that all holy scriptures could receive such treatment. Hint, hint Herr Doktor Professor.

        Hitler, Mein Kampf – Eine kritische Edition https://www.amazon.com/dp/3981405234/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_3SriDb3QAKFY0

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          Not sure what you’re saying? Did they actually change the words of what Hitler said in this edition? Commenting on it is not hte same as altering the words.

  17. Avatar
    Tkirby  July 6, 2019

    Bart,
    Your post is crystal clear that it seeks to answer only one narrow question relating to the relative truth of the New Testament and the Qur’an. In stating the question, however, your post appears to accept and assert the truth of the factual predicate of the question, rather than making it clear that you are providing an “even if” response. This matters because, like it or not, you are one New Testament scholar whose views carry weight in Muslim polemics.

    The clearest example of the problem is your reference to: “the fact that scribes of our surviving manuscripts did change the New Testament a lot and did not change the Qur’an at all …” That easily is read to assert the “fact that scribes … did not change the Qur’an at all.” Given how you emphasize your limited background in Qur’anic studies, I doubt you intend to make such a factual assertion or that you reject emerging scholarship showing considerable variation prior to the Uthman standardization and some continuing variation thereafter.

    Someone who writes as prolifically as you can’t spend his life looking over his shoulder for every possible misunderstanding. But I wonder if this is a case in which a clarifying comment from you would be useful.

    Tom

    • Bart
      Bart  July 7, 2019

      I think it’s factually true that the scribes of the surviving manuscripts of the Qur’an did not change it much and that the scribes of the surviving manuscripts of the NT did change it a lot. Isn’t it? I wasn’t referring to what happened to the manuscript tradition *before* our surviving manuscripts were produced.

  18. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 6, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    We are not comparing apples to apples. If we were comparing the NT to the translations of a lost Quran, that is one thing. But we are not, There are many many translations to the Quran ( and they differ from one to another ) The reason they differ is because the authors of the translations differ in scholarly work opinions and views. Each translation has its own independent authorship. We as readers can accept or reject their translation.Very similar to the NT and its content ( Mark , Matt , Luke, John …ect are all according to their views ). and are copies of copies of copies….

  19. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 14, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    Since it has been deduced that the NT scribes changed it lot and the Quran scribes did not.
    “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? ”
    If we were to suppose that both the NT and The Quran originally came with a true message. Can we say or is it fair to say that based on the quote above that one of these manuscripts could be more closer to the the truth than the other? ( meaning truer to the original message than the other).

  20. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 14, 2019

    All you need is… Genesis 1?

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