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More on the Discovery of Ancient Qur’an Fragments

My post on Saturday about the discovery of two pages of the Qur’an in the library of the University of Birmingham that appear to date from the time of Mohammed himself. or a decade or so later, evoked more than the usual response.   My facebook post has received nearly 260,000 hits.   I think before that my previous highest hit total was 25,000 or so.   Amazing amount of interest in this.

And so I’m going to do something I’ve never done before on the 3+ years of the blog:  I’m going to post several comments that I have received (on the assumption that many people reading the blog do not read all the comments and my responses to them) (if I’m completely wrong about that, I’d like to know) (though I’m not sure how I could ever get enough responses to see that I’m *completely* wrong.  🙂 )    will say something  about each one – the first two are typical of several that I’ve gotten.  The last two are hard-hitting and particularly informative.   (I will not name names here.  Not sure why, other than that I haven’t asked permission.  But if you want to see who posted what, that can be found on the comment page of the post)

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COMMENT:

Hi Bart, this brings back the question I asked before about the Qur’an’s version of Jesus. If those who copied the Qur’an were careful to avoid errors, then wouldn’t there be some more percentage of relevance in the Qur’an’s version of Jesus story? What are your comments on this, thank you.

MY RESPONSE:

Good question!  But, no, actually, I would say that it wouldn’t have any relevance.   The fact that later scribes accurately copied the Qur’an has no bearing on the question of whether the author(s) of the Qur’an had accurate information when they composed the book.  With respect to Jesus, they would have had no independent information – only what they had learned from earlier Christians and Christian sources. (He/They were writing over 450 years after the Gospels of the New Testament!)

COMMENT:

Isn’t it just the parchment that’s been dated, not the ink? Is there any reason to think that the writing is also old?

MY RESPONSE:

Yes, that’s right, just the parchment has been dated.   It is very difficult to test the ink on such documents, because to do so requires you to destroy the ink!   And it takes a good bit of it to be enough to be checked.   So in theory the parchment could be from the 7th century, but the ink from, say, the 14th.

But in the judgment of most experts that would be highly unlikely (but see the final comment below, and my response).  The only real reason for someone to use ancient parchment for a modern writing (when modern parchment would be in much better shape and easier to access and easier to use) is to make the writing look older than it was.   That is something you might expect a modern forger to do, someone who knew that the parchment could be scientifically dated.  But it’s not something that would be expected to be done in the Middle Ages.   So more than likely the date of the parchment is pretty close to the date of the writing on it.  As with all history, of course, this is simply a matter of probabilities, not certainties.

COMMENT:

A few points. First, this is not time Qur’anic manuscript pages have has such an early date. All such manuscripts, including this one, are usually dated paleographically to the late 600’s or early 700’s, and it is thought that the process of making the parchment involved certain organic elements – I forget what they are – that would yield an older date.

That said, the fact there is such a cluster of dates c. 600 have caused some to wonder if Qur’ans really were circulating that early. This could give support to revisionist arguments that Muhammad did not actually reveal the text as the sacred book of Islam, but instead inherited or was otherwise somehow associated with an older lectionary of some kind.

This discovery does not seem particularly important next to the nearly complete Sana’a codex, which has a similar C-14 date, but has the chapters in a different order suggesting it predates the standardization of the text traditionally ascribed to Uthman (644-656) but possibly undertaken by Abd al-Malik in the 690’s.

MY RESPONSE:

Very interesting!  I’m afraid I’m not an expert in any of these fields, and so have nothing to add, subtract, change, or challenge!

COMMENT:

This is potentially exciting news, but when claims like this come via press release rather than via scholarly conferences and peer reviewed journals, I’m a little skeptical. This is an instance in which I would like to hear more from palaeographers and students of early Islamic codicology. I’m not a specialist in Arabic books and scripts, but the New York Times quoted a source (whose work is unknown to me) as follows:

“Saud al-Sarhan, the director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said he doubted that the manuscript found in Birmingham was as old as the researchers claimed, noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. He also said that dating the skin on which the text was written did not prove when it was written. Manuscript skins were sometimes washed clean and reused later, he said.”

The phenomenon of erased manuscripts that were reused (palimpsests) is known from other very early copies of the Qur’an, such as the so-called Sana’a palimpsest (see discussion here: http://ponderingislam.com/2015/02/05/understanding-the-sanaa-manuscript-find/) I would be interested to learn from specialists whether the writing of the Birmingham manuscript is in fact consistent with a date in the first half of the seventh century, and it would be good to know if the manuscript has been subjected to multi-spectral imaging to see if traces of any earlier writing might be present.

MY RESPONSE:

Very interesting indeed.  Yes, of course, I completely agree that we should prefer scholarly presentations to press releases!  But this item is in the news and is worth noting.   I should say that the sensationalization one gets in this newspaper or another is somewhat countered if the story comes from an official press release by an academic institution rather than based simply on an interview that a single reporter has had and spun in order to sell newspapers.  But absolutely I agree – the matter needs study and we shouldn’t take it, should decidedly not take it, as an established scholarly position.

On palimpsests:   I’m puzzled — mainly by my ignorance.  I’m not familiar with the phenomenon of a manuscript being *SO* thoroughly washed and cleaned that there is no visual evidence of the under-writing to the naked eye.  The only palimpsests I know of (there are, of course, a number of famous ones that contain New Testament texts:  Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus; the Syriac Sinaiticus; etc.) quite clearly (to the eye) have been washed and reused: you can tell simply by looking at them.  Are there exceptions?


Fundamentalist Mistakes
The Significance of an Astounding New Discovery

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    prince  July 27, 2015

    ..”noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. “… not entirely true..There is evidentally a case where tashkil can be traced back to A.H. 22 and earlier..

  2. Avatar
    prince  July 27, 2015

    ..”noting that its Arabic script included dots and separated chapters — features that were introduced later. “… not entirely true..There is evidences of cases where tashkil can be traced back to A.H. 22 and earlier..

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 27, 2015

    Nine times out of 10 I read the previous day’s comments and answers before I read that day’s blog posting. Today was an exception though.

  4. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  July 27, 2015

    This is a quote from page 12 of Francois Deroche’s Qur’ans of the Umayyads:

    “The famous “Qurʾan of the Nurse” is one of the best-documented manuscripts at hand. Its colophon and its deed of waqf allow us to know that the copy was completed in 410/1020. Ananalysis performed on a piece of parchment taken from the manuscript helped to evaluate the accuracy of the measurements. A French laboratory determined the radio carbon age of the parchment as BP 1130±30. This result was then calibrated and gave a date range comprised between 871 and 986 AD, with a probability of 95%. The most probable dates, arranged in decreasing order of probability were 937, 895 and 785 AD. The closest result, that is to say 937 AD, is separated by eighty-three years from the date provided by the colophon. If we use the upper limit of the date range,that is to say 986 AD, the difference still amounts to fifty-four years, that is to say half a century.”

  5. Avatar
    bknight  July 27, 2015

    Bart: It’s a good question whether old text could ever be erased to the point that it was 100% invisible to the naked eye. I wonder if the project to digitally record ancient documents at St. Catherine’s has found such books? Here’s a link to an article about the project:

    Advanced technology exposes invisible information in centuries-old manuscripts
    http://www.shfwire.com/advanced-technology-exposes-invisible-information-centuries-old-manuscripts/

    If you’re not already familiar with The History Blog, I’ve been reading it daily for a pretty long time, and it seems to have some of the best-researched, highly detailed, and intelligently written articles on the Internet. Here’s that Blog’s article about the recent find:

    Birmingham Qur’an folio one of world’s earliest
    http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/37657

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2015

      Interesting. I should have known that about the Didymus manuscript (obviously)! But alas, it’s amazing what I don’t know….

      • Avatar
        Brian  July 28, 2015

        Reminds me of a wonderful line from Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet:” “I am not a well-rounded man. I am not equally ignorant in all directions.”

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 27, 2015

    I’m finding this topic very interesting – especially the comments speculating that the reason Muslim scribes were better copiers than early Christian scribes was because they were aware, sooner in their faith’s history, that they were copying documents that would be regarded as sacred Scripture. (And I read all the comments, except for extremely long ones.)

    But I simply have to mention something off-topic!

    I’ve started reading your New Testament textbook. And I had a “wow!” reaction to something in the very first chapter.

    One of the things you suggested students do was imagine a history in which the form of Christianity that won out was one that didn’t include the “Old Testament” in its Bible. I thought about it for a few minutes, and didn’t think there’d be much difference, in practice, in the kind of religion I knew. Didn’t think, for example, that it would affect the degree of anti-Semitism.

    But the following morning, it suddenly hit me. If there was no Creation story in the Bible, no Christians would have seen a reason to deny evolution!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 27, 2015

    Wow! 260,000 hits. One of your many positive features is that you don’t pretend that you know everything even though you know a lot. Interesting but complicated stuff. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2015

      It’s flat out stunning what I don’t know!!

      • Avatar
        Michael Sommers  July 31, 2015

        At least you know what you don’t know; lots of people don’t know what they don’t know.

  8. bnongbri
    bnongbri  July 28, 2015

    On the question of palimpsests: I haven’t seen a lot of palimpsests “in person,” but I understand that the completeness of the “washing” process varies (sometimes even within the pages of a single manuscript). The recently discovered Syriac palimpsest with an under-text of a tract by the Roman doctor Galen has been described as “all but invisible to the naked eye” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/02/science/medicines-hidden-roots-in-an-ancient-manuscript.html?_r=0 ). Similarly, the BYU codex of Didymus’s commentary on the Psalms is written over earlier material that is sometimes really tough to see (good images online here: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/DidymusPapyri/id/58 )

  9. Avatar
    qaelith2112  July 28, 2015

    Joe Hoffman weighs in — I think his thoughts are interesting:

    https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/the-bbc-birmingham-quran-facts-fiasco/

    https://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/update-on-the-birmingham-quran-debacle/

    Excerpt — the blog expands on this quite a bit:

    “What we have at Birmingham is the discovery of leaves of parchment, probably recycled and scraped and used by a religious teacher to record bits of memorized narrative from sources that finally make their way into the Qur’an. That there should be some overlap in these extracts and later editions of the Qur’an as copied and printed is not at all surprising. But as there is no prototype, it can hardly be said to be evidence of an unalterable textual tradition. There is no compelling reason to think that this slim discovery proves the inviolability of the Islamic holy book, or vindicates any doctrine. In fact, if treated intelligently and using the methods of western textual criticism, this could shed light on how books like the Qur’an evolved over time to become compendiums of the words of men regarded as the prophets and teachers of their tradition.”

  10. Avatar
    Jonathan  July 31, 2015

    Who would you consider the Bart Ehrman of Early Islam and early Muslim writings?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2015

      I’m afraid I don’t know of anyone publishing popular books taking a critical stand toward Islam and the Qur’an.

      • Avatar
        SHameed01  September 19, 2015

        Haha I wouldn’t mind being the first if I ever could.

  11. Avatar
    smokesccreen  August 9, 2015

    As I read this I was noticing about myself that I tend to read your “more on” posts first and work back. Then I said “more on posts” out loud and had a good chuckle at myself.

  12. Avatar
    Jondee209  August 12, 2015

    Mr.Erhman , when James white pressed you back in 09 in your debate with him you said quote “I dont know anything about the Qu’ran. Have you taken a strong interest in this religion as of lately ?

  13. Avatar
    Elisabeth  August 20, 2015

    Just a thought, not sure if this has been brought up in the comments or not – as an avid student and teacher of ‘tajweed’, the science of memorizing and reciting the Qur’an, I would suggest that it is the rigorous – VERY rigorous – standards applied to the *oral* preservation of the Qur’an that held the written copies accountable. As it was primarily an oral revelation, to an illiterate prophet, it has remained so, and to this day, those of us memorizing it in its entirety are required to devote hours to the incredibly minutely precise pronunciation and vocalization of each and every letter and ‘tashkeel’, or vowel and orthographic markings. The rigor with which teachers correct – and correct, and correct, and correct – a student’s pronunciation of a single letter, is not only remarkable, but completely indistinguishable to the unlearned ear. Add to this the tradition of ijaazah, of reciting the Qur’an in its entirety upon completion of memorization to a qualified teacher, who did so to their teacher, who did so to their teacher, all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad, multiple chains of transmission of which each human link is recorded, attested to, and also memorized, it’s hard to imagine textual variants – even a single letter or vowel marking – would go unnoticed more than a few minutes, and allowed to survive.

    (For those who’ve never heard the oral transmission, here is a video of one of the most famous and skilled modern reciters reciting one of the most famous verses from the Qur’an, with English subtitles – again, to a learned ear each letter is incredibly precise, as are many other details of the recitation, such as the number of seconds given to each letter (harakat), or the characteristics of pronunciation applied (sifaat al-hurouf), such as nasalization of certain ones depending on their place in the text, merging of others, whispering of others, etc., all of which is designed to ensure that it flows smoothly and not a single letter is dropped or added.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaqRmhOa_LM

    • Avatar
      Omar6741  October 20, 2015

      This is correct. Non-Muslims have not experienced how the teaching of the Quran works, and so have not experienced how it concerns very small details of pronunciation. When that much care is taken over the details of the letters, letters and words do not very easily get altered.

  14. Avatar
    Seekknowledge  December 28, 2016

    Bart,

    You say that those who “authored” the Qur’an only had access to information about Jesus that was prevalent at the time from Christians. So why would the Qur’an reject the divinity of Jesus when it would have been the currently prevalent view of Jesus at the time?

    Why would the Qur’an accept the miracle birth of Jesus and the miracles he carried out but not accept his divinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2016

      I assume it’s because the authors weren’t Christians and so did not believe in Jesus’ divinity, but had no problem with the idea that Jesus, like other prophets, was a miraculously born worker of miracles.

    • Avatar
      Malik  January 7, 2018

      I guess the real question is, does a virgin birth and miracles make someone God?
      In terms of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ , if I were to make an order of miraculous creation (without normal reproduction means) , I would order the following figures (in the Bible) as so:

      Adam > Eve> Jesus..

      Why is Adam first? Well there is nothing to work with ,except dust/earth, etc. The creation of Eve is superior to Jesus because at least with Jesus you have some vessel to work with. Eve was essentially formed from Adam’s rib.

      In terms of miracles, other Prophet’s performed miracles too INCLUDING resurrecting other people. And then there is the argument that Jesus went to heaven, well so did other people. And……

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