Those of you who follow the news have heard that a truly great manuscript discovery has been made public this week, coming out of the University of Birmingham, England. The university has a very important collection of manuscripts, and for New Testament scholars it is famous for its Institute devoted to the study, analysis, and editing of Gospel manuscripts, an institute headed by my long-time friend and colleague David Parker, indisputably one of the top NT textual scholars in the world.
But the discovery that has been made is not connected to the New Testament. It is connected to the Qur’an. Since 1932 the university has had, among its collected works, a virtually full two page fragment of the Qur’an. Recently they decided to see if they could come up with a (relatively) precise date for these pages. And so they had a carbon-14 dating done. The results are nothing less than astounding. See, e.g., http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/23/opinions/quran-manuscript-analysis/index.html
Let me say that carbon-14 dating is indeed a science, but it’s not a highly exact science. It dates organic material based on the deterioration of its carbon-14 isotope, and so can give a range of dates that are statistically determined to be of relative accuracy. Even so. This dating is remarkable. The dating was done by a lab devoted to such things in Oxford. It turns out that there is a 95% chance that these pages were produced between 568 and 645 CE. How good is that? The prophet Mohammed, who (in traditional Islamic teaching) was responsible for producing the Qur’an was engaged in his active ministry in 610-632 CE. These pages may have been produced during his lifetime or in a decade or so later.
In case anyone is missing the significance of that, here is a comparison. The first time we have any two-page manuscript fragment of the New Testament is from around the year 200 CE. That’s 170 years after Jesus’ death in 30 CE. Imagine if we found two pages of text that contain portions, say, of the Sermon on the Mount, in almost exactly the same form as we have them in what is now our Gospel of Matthew, and suppose that these pages received a carbon-14 dating of 30 BCE – 40 CE. Would we be ecstatic, OR WHAT???
Since I am a scholar of early Christianity rather than Islam, this discovery in Birmingham raises all sorts of questions for me that it would not raise for any of my Muslim friends and neighbors. One is a historical question, and one is a question of modern Christian attempts to “prove” the “truth claims” of Christianity.
My historical question is this. If these pages of the Qur’an do indeed show that the text of the Qur’an is virtually the same in, say 630-40 CE as it is in 1630-40 as it is in 2015, that would suggest that Muslims are indeed correct that at least in some circles (it would obviously be impossible to prove that it was true in *all* circles), scribes of the Qur’an simply didn’t change it. The made sure they copied it the same, every time, word for word. Now it *may* be that these newly-dated fragments have significant textual variants from the rest of the manuscript tradition of the Qur’an, and if they do, that too will be immensely interesting. But my sense is that they must not be much, if at all different, otherwise *that* is the story that would be all over the news.
And so back to my question. If Muslim scholars over the centuries – from the very beginning – made dead sure that when they copied their sacred text they didn’t change anything, why didn’t Christian scribes do the same thing??? Here I should stress that within Judaism as well, at least in the Middle Ages, there was exorbitant care taken to ensure that every page, every sentence, every word, every letter of the Torah was copied with complete and resolute accuracy (that’s not true for an earlier period of Judaism, to be sure; but it became true in Judaism in a way that never, ever was true in Christianity). Christian scribes did not do the same thing. We have many thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament. They all have mistakes in them. Lots of accidental mistakes (hundreds of thousands) from times that scribes were inept, inattentive, sleepy, or otherwise careless; and even lots of mistakes that appear to be places that scribes altered the text to make them say something other than what it originally said.
You don’t appear to get that with the Qur’an. And so my historical question. Why was that? For Christians the New Testament was a sacred book, the Word of God. Why didn’t they *make sure* that it never got changed? I can understand on one level why they didn’t. The scribes who copied it, especially in the early period, were not professionals. In the early centuries, the copyists were simply the local people who happened to be literate who could do a decent job. And they made lots of mistakes and changed the text in places intentionally. But why didn’t anyone go to the trouble of making sure that didn’t happen? It’s a genuine question.
My second point has to do with modern attempts to defend the truth of Christianity. I hear a certain perspective expressed a LOT by Christian apologists who are determined to show that Christianity is true (and that, as a result, not just non-belief but all other religions are flat-out wrong). If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this view I would buy a summer home in Provence. It is this: since the New Testament is the best attested book from the ancient world, we can trust it.
There are so many problems with this view that it’s hard to know even where to begin in addressing it. But let me just say two things about it. The first is that even though it is absolutely true (as I’ve been emphasizing in my posts over the past week or two) that we have more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book from Greek and Roman antiquity – far, far more – these manuscripts all differ from one another and contains many thousands (hundreds of thousands) of differences among them, so that even though we can be relatively sure of what the authors wrote most of the time, there are numerous places of disagreement and some of these places really matter. There are some passages where we will probably never know the exact wording.
That may not be the case with the Qur’an.
And that raises my second point, which is really THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ONE. The fact that you do (or do not) know what a book originally said, has no bearing – no bearing at all, not a single bearing – on the question of whether you can trust it or not. It is completely irrelevant to the question. An absolute non sequitur. I wish Christian apologists would learn this, instead of continuously filling people’s heads with nonsense. Being the best-attested book from antiquity has no bearing on the question of whether the things that are said in the New Testament are true. No bearing at all.
I can prove that. Take a Christian fundamentalist apologist and ask him whether Mein Kampf (Hitler’s autobiography) or The Communist Manifesto (a writing of a very different order indeed!) or … well, take your pick of a modern book – whether there are serious textual problems with such writings so that you do not know what the author wrote. The answer is NO. There is not a huge question about how well these books are attested. They are extraordinarily well attested. And here’s the point: Does the fact these books are well attested prove that you can trust them? That what they say is true? Of course not. It’s completely irrelevant. Whether you can trust a writing and accept its views as true is unrelated to the question of how well it is attested.
The New Testament is well attested. Does that mean you can trust that what it says is true? Of course not. You have to make that judgment on *OTHER* grounds.
And now we appear to have evidence – better evidence than, say, for the Gospel of Matthew, or Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the epistle to the Hebrews – that the Qur’an was (at least by some scribes) very accurately copied over the centuries from the time it was produced. Does that “prove” that you can trust what it has to say? Of course not. But for historians it is an absolutely stunning, marvelous, and wonderful discovery nonetheless.