Monday, December 21, 2015

Has the New Testament Been Substantially Edited Since It Was First Penned?

This is one of the most frequently-asked questions I encounter when attempting to explain to people the cumulative evidence which stands in support and corroboration of the Christian worldview. I probably actually get this question more frequently from the Muslim/Islamic community than I do from atheists, agnostics and other non-believers. The reason for this is not hard to see. The Qur’an not only claims that the gospels and the torah are revealed Scripture, but claims that the Qur’an and the Bible are consistent with one another (e.g. Surah 2:75; Surah 5:49; Surah 32:23; Surah 17:55). But any cursory reading of these books quickly reveals that this is not the case. And it is not merely on minor details that the Qur’an and Bible differ, but on close-to-all of their assertions. For example, the Qur’an (Surah 4:157) explicitly denies that Jesus was even crucified, though this is the core doctrine of the Christian faith. The Qur’an also explicitly denies the Triune character of God (Surah 4:171), though there is no evidence that Muhammad understood what this doctrine was, and it is substantially misrepresented in the pages of the Qur’an (e.g. Surah 2:116, 5:72-76, 5:119, 6:101, 19:35). The Qur’an also teaches that Muhammad is predicted in the Christian and Jewish Scriptures (Surah 61:6), though Muhammad is no where to be found in any of the Christian Scriptures.

Modern Muslims attempt to evade this dilemma by arguing that the Christian Scriptures were consistent with the Qur’an, in their original form, but that they have been substantially edited and re-written in the centuries thereafter. But this argument fails for at least two reasons. First, the Qur’an refers the Christians and the Jews back to their own Scriptures for confirmation of the message revealed by Islam (see my recent article here for a more detailed discussion). There is absolutely no suggestion in the Qur’an or Hadith literature, at least to my knowledge, that the Bible was regarded as having been edited in such a radical fashion.  Certainly this process of editing cannot have taken place after the Qur’an was written (we have entire copies of the New Testament which pre-date the Qur’an by hundreds of years, such as the Codex Sinaiticus). But what about before?

This argument fails for another, perhaps even more potent, reason. Certainly when compared to the situation for other great works of antiquity, the New Testament comes out very well indeed as far as the manuscript tradition and textual variation is concerned. Indeed, we now have more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament for comparison with our present New Testament, and a little under half of the New Testament can be reconstructed from quotations by the early church fathers.

It is the application of double standards – specifically, the subjection of the New Testament to criterion which would never be applied to such an extent to any other ancient writing – which is the sure sign of a failed argument. The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable. There has never been an Uthman-like character controlling manuscript transmission, as in Islam. All assertions regarding adding and manipulation of doctrines, altering theology, removing key teachings etc, are non-viable. The Christian church was a persecuted minority until the fourth century, with no power to enforce a uniform textual transmission.

Then we have multiple lines of transmission. The earliest manuscripts we have demonstrated the existence not of a single line of corrupt transmission, but multiple lines of transmission with varying levels of accuracy. Multiple lines of transmission defy the possibility of being under the control of any central editing process. The burden of proof lies with the skeptic who asserts corruption of the primitive New Testament texts since the extant manuscripts show multiple lines of independent transmission. The skeptic must show how the New Testament text can appear in history, via multiple lines of transmission, and yet each line presents the same text, without any controlling authority.

It is not Bart Ehrman’s facts which I take issue with. I take issue with his conclusions which are drawn from his (usually correct) facts. For example, he asserts that there are more inconsistencies in our various copies of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament. As a matter of factual statement, the claim is true. There are more textual variants in the New Testament than there are words. This is absolutely correct. However, it is the conclusions which are drawn from this correct statement which are so misleading, and I might even go as far as to say maliciously deceiving.

As noted, there are about 5800 (give or take) handwritten New Testament Greek manuscripts, and there are approximately 400,000 textual variants amongst those manuscripts. But the fact is that the vast majority of these variants are utterly irrelevant to the proper understanding and translation of the text.

Obviously, the more manuscripts you have, the more variants you are going to have. If you only have a small number of manuscripts, you have fewer variants and reciprocally less certainty of the original text.

Having manuscripts from different areas at different times, from different lines of transmission, yet all testifying to the same text, is solid evidence that you have the document in more or less its original form. The New Testament has more manuscripts (by far) than any other work of antiquity, approximately 1.3 million pages of handwritten text. When you consider that most of the differences come down to such things as whether the name John is spelt with one nu or two nu's, the actual number of meaningful textual variants of the New Testament is much, much less.

On top of that, when you factor in viability, that is whether the variants in question have a chance to be original, the situation changes even more dramatically.

This does not prove that Christianity is true, of course. One can have a perfect copy of a lie. But it does serve to refute a popular objection to the Christian faith, coming from multiple groups, including Islam and the New Atheism.


Zack_Tiang said...

Excellent read. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Muhammad was axis of evil. He knew that there was nowhere in Torah and in the Bible referring his coming in Arab as prophet in support of his claim. He had no original copy to proof, so he blamed Christians and Jews to delete his name from Torah and the Bible to convince unruly, illiterates, ignorant Arabian tribes to bring them into his faith. It is surprising that even in modern time ignorant, stupid people like Michael Moore, OSAMA ABDULLAH are still available who claimed proud to be Muslims after watching all these killings around the world. Everybody knows that all thugs, criminals, terrorists in Muslims countries control main stream Islam by terrorizing with looting, raping, and killing etc. and main stream Muslims enjoy their atrocities silently for fear of their ferocious Allah. What a faith Islam is!

Jesus came to save low deprived people of society to make us eligible to live with Holy God but Muhammad came to bring all thugs, criminals, terrorists of society to control the world.

التصميم الذكي said...

You say: "though Muhammad is no where to be found in any of the Christian Scriptures."

You have to learn the Gospel of Barnabas. There Mohamed is mentionned.

" There is absolutely no suggestion in the Quran or Hadith literature, at least to my knowledge, that the Bible is deemed to have been edited so dramatically . " "
Not so dramatically !! And if you read the Bible now objectively , you will find that nothing has to do with the Christian doctrines. For example, Jesus asked you worship , but you worship him . God never said in the Bible : I am God in Trinity , but you worship one God in Trinity . God commanded your women put the veil in churches but what your wives away . etc.

And no one can deny the existence of inunmerables contradictions in the Bible and especially the Old Testament. I have here over 100 contradictions.

Mister Who said...

"And if you read the Bible now objectively , you will find that nothing has to do with the Christian doctrines."

This is an odd and nonsensical statement. For example, Jesus predicts his own death more than once in the Bible. That obviously "has to do with Christian doctrines". I think what you mean to say is "None of the parts of the Bible I choose to acknowledge have anything to do with Christian doctrine".

"And no one can deny the existence of inunmerables contradictions in the Bible and especially the Old Testament. I have here over 100 contradictions."

Watch me, I deny the existence of innumerable contradictions in the Bible. Every single time in my life someone's made such a claim, it was either a misunderstanding of the text due to translation quirks, or a verse taken grossly out of context with its meaning twisted to fit their preexisting worldview. I have complete and total confidence that your list falls in the same category. With regarding Muslims, this is usually a confusion caused by reading the Bible as though it's the Qu'ran. The Bible is presented in chronological order. You need to read it in order to understand the proper context of many verses, the term "Son of Man" being an excellent example. Although I don't even need to disprove any of your assertions to deny your hypothesis. It isn't mathematically possible for a book with a finite number of pages to have innumerable contradictions.

Unknown said...

Omar Ibn Khatab You have to learn the Gospel of Barnabas

So the rejected Gospel of Barnabas is accepted as part of Islam's authentic book, equal to Quran or at least to Valid/Saheeh Hadiths perhaps ? that's new info ... thanks for sharing

m s said...

Mohamed is mentioned in the gospel: Matthew 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Unknown said...

Dear Omar Ibn Khatab,
As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuhu "the peace be upon you".

You said “You have to learn the Gospel of Barnabas. There Mohamed is mentioned.”

Omar, I am sure you know that during late 16th century two manuscripts of “Gospel of Barnabas” written in Italian and Spanish were found. No scholar you can show who confirmed it was written originally by Saint Barnabas during his life time in 1st century. But without verification you (Muslims) believed that the book was written by Saint Barnabas, the disciple of Christ. It was written by Muslims to support Muhammad’s claimed as prophet of God centuries after Death and Resurrection of Christ. You should know that Christians believe in four canonical Gospels written during life time of disciples of Jesus Christ. Muslims believed Gospel of Barnabas but not earlier 4 Gospels because it was written in support of Muslim doctrine about Jesus. Since creation of mankind, dishonesty/cheating is coming along with development of mankind. Muhammad was born in 6th century he was a business man and never saw God as Moses did in front of many people, but Muhammad claimed his Allah revealed Quran. You can believe Muhammad’s cock and bull story, but people of wisdom won’t believe.

You said “Jesus asked you worship, but you worship him. God never said in the Bible : I am God in Trinity”

Omar, I believe you have enough educational level to understand word of Jesus written in the Bible. Of course, there is no verse that says “God is three Persons” or “God is a Trinity.” However, the New Testament does bring God (Father), the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit together in such a way as to strongly imply the Trinitarian nature of God. Three Scriptures are quoted below for your understanding that bring together the three Persons of the Godhead.

• Matthew 28:19 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Jesus). Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
• 1 Peter 1:1-2 “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
• 1 Peter 1:1-2 “To God’s elect...who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”

There are many other passages in the Bible that confirm the three Persons of the Godhead in an unmistakable way.

Thank you for opening your mind in criticizing Christianity. May God bless you to understand Him!!

Unknown said...


The gospel of branabas is a forgery, it has many historical errors

Second the contradictions in the Old Testament are a result of copyist error

Geoff said...


Well said. There are many texts that individually imply the trinitarian nature of God. When taken together and in context of all of scripture. They are pretty definitive. A good example is Genesis that shows God as a plurality, refers to the Spirit of God, and how God walked in the garden among Adam and Eve.

I like this sequence in John 14:

Thomas said to him (i.e., Jesus), “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.

Jesus is clearly claiming divinity, but he makes a distinction between himself as a person and the Father as person. Aside from the fact that Muslims would not refer to Allah as "Father", there is no way of understanding this outside of a trinitarian God, though the Spirit doesn't make an appearance in this particular passage.

I would agree with Muslims that Allah is not a trinity, because Allah is not the God of the Bible. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to refer to Allah as Father, Son, or Spirit. The Bible and the Q'uran are mutually incompatible.

Patrick Constantine said...

Bart Ehrman's sad case is an example of the dangers of evangelical fundamentalism. If he had been raised in orthodox or catholic tradition (or at least non-fundamentalist) then he never would have been so blown-away by his discovery at Princeton that, shocking, there are manuscript variations. The sad thing is he let this discovery destroy his Christian faith. He feels silly for his prior devotion to fundamentalism, that's fine, but why does he have to take out his vendetta on the one holy apostolic catholic church as well? Christianity is not worship of the Bible. Ehrman had no understanding of the Church's role as guardian of the deposit of faith (including the 1st century writings which the Church compiled into a new testament canon) because his evangelical fundamentalism taught him to mistrust the Church.