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When textual weakness is apologetic strength

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength…..But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1.25, 27)

When Muslims try and proclaim the superiority of the Quran over the bible, they will of course try and denigrate the bible, using pretty much the same arguments of village atheists and the like – claiming contradictions and corruptions.  Thus you get claims such as this in an article entitled ‘50,000 Errors in the Bible…Is Bible God’s Word??’:

‘But when a BOOK of GOD has as many as 50,000 Errors, Then everybody will NEVER believe it again’

It then quotes the Founder of Seventh Day Adventism as saying:

THE BIBLE WE READ TODAY IS THE WORK OF MANY COPYISTS WHO HAVE IN MOST INSTANCES DONE THEIR WORK WITH MARVELLOUS ACCURACY. BUT COPYISTS HAVE NOT BEEN INFALLIBLE, AND GOD MOST EVIDENTLY HAS NOT SEEN FIT TO PRESERVE THEM ALTOGETHER FROM ERROR IN TRANSCRIBING.

After various random bible quotes that are supposed to prove something or other, it then seems to imply that just because the authors of several Old Testament books are unknown they can’t be relied on and therefore Islam is best (Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are the books in question, but it doesn’t happen to mention that an awful lot of them name their sources as various kings’ official records and other such documents).  The reason is that they believe that since the entire Quran was dictated word for word from God to Muhammed, whereas in the bible some texts don’t have named authors, and there is a wide range of genres, from prophecy, which could be the equivalent of the Quranic material in type, to history, poetry and letters, from multiple named authors, that this makes the Quran superior.

Anyway, aside from that particular Islamic argument, these other kinds of claims get made by atheists and pagans and the like too.  Typically Muslims will quote some liberal academic and say ‘there, even the best of your Christian scholars say so, so come to Islam’.  They will often claim that the Quran does not have such ‘errors’ or variants, and that there is one copy, faithfully handed down.  This is in fact not entirely true – there have been similar errors or variants as in the bible (the vast majority of the so called multi-thousand variants are simple spelling differences and the like).   What is more, the single basic version  of the Quran that we have now is known as the Uthman rescension, and Islamic history records that from about 12-24 years after Mohammed’s death, Uthman set out an authoritative version of the Quran which he sent out to all major Islamic centres and also systematically collected and burned every existing variant version he could get his hands on, leaving only a very few surviving variants (one famous one was found in Sanaa in Yemen).

The Muslim claim is then that the Quran was perfectly preserved and flawless, and that clearly the bible wasn’t, and therefore the Quran is superior and more reliable.  Let us ignore all the later variants that in fact do exist and accept this claim at face value – let us accept that the Uthman rescension is utterly without variant.  This would seem to be an extraordinarily strong case on the face of it, but in fact it isn’t.

The bible verses I started out with give out a basic principle in how God relates to the world – in that he will show himself in ways that seem weak or foolish to human minds, but in fact constitute immense strength and wisdom, and that is the case here.  The points I am going to make are by no means original to me, they have been noted by many Christian scholars and apologists.

From a historical or text-critical point of view, despite appearances to the contrary, it is actually the many tiny variants in the Bible that mean we can be more sure of what the original said than we could otherwise be.  How is that?  Well, if we compare the New Testament, say, with other major documents from the time, such as the work of Julius Ceasar, then we have a huge amount more copies or bits of copies of the New Testament.  We only have a relative handful of copies of Julius Ceasar’s writing, even though he was a mighty ruler of a great empire.  What that means is that where there are variants, it can be very difficult to judge which is closest to the original, and the most accurate.  However, given the huge abundance of fragments and copies of the New Testament we have over a very long period and geographical range, it means scholars can have a pretty good idea of which changes came about when, where and how.  They group the texts into families, and whilst it is not an exact science, and there are areas for debate (isn’t there always, in scholarship?) the fact is that in the vast majority of cases, the original text can be known to very high degree of accuracy and certainty.  And the thing is, those that can’t are really minor issues, like for instance, one version of a letter by an apostle saying ‘we’ and the other saying ‘you’ at certain points (which to an extent would be inevitable anyway in a letter by one Christian addressing other Christians – by saying ‘you’ they would not be excluding themselves, but addressing their readers, and by saying ‘we’, they were not saying ‘we as opposed to you’ but ‘we as in you and us together’).

One of the main reasons there is such a huge number of variations is probably due to the position of weakness Christians were in for at least the first 300 years or so of Christian history, namely frequent persecutions by the Roman state.  Whilst they did often have some rich members, who helped the poor, by and large Christian workers and church leaders would not have been able to afford professional scribes, so would have to use less able scribes or copy documents themselves, leading to more variants or errors.  Then later on, even when there were more professional copyists involved, they would have texts with variants different to what they were used to and have to make a decision – actually they could get quite good and sophisticated at correcting errors, but inevitably they didn’t always get these corrections right.  Now, like I said, this means there are loads of variants, but it also means that it is relatively – emphasis on relatively – easy to track the errors and variants back and eliminate them.  However, with only a few copies, this is much, much more speculative.  But there were 300 years plus of such variants, giving lots of material.  However, according to Islamic tradition, it was a couple of decades at most before Uthman set about destroying all versions but his own.  In this case, how can we tell how accurate his was?  Of course, Muslims will say that as an article of faith the true version was preserved by the will of Allah, but historically and textually how can we prove that?  After all, in the extremely factionary situation after the death of their prophet, all sorts of political motives could have been at play, and from what I understand at least some scholars argue that there were political motivations in at least some of Uthman’s decisions.

Thus, the apparent weakness of all those ‘1000’s of variants’ is not an indication that somehow the bible has been corrupted and not preserved by God, but is actually God’s way of giving great grounds for assurance that the true word of God, the Bible, has been passed down and can be known.  Textually speaking, the original text of the bible is more assured than that of the Quran.

If you want to read more about how this whole textual variant thing works, check out these links:

http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/theology/05text.html  on the basics of the bible and ‘textual criticism’

http://www.allaboutworldview.org/biblical-inspiration.htm which critiques a liberal bible scholar who makes false or exaggerated claims about textual problems in the bible

http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Text/ and http://bible-quran.com/quran-manuscripts-copyist-errors/ on textual variants in the Quran