Can we trust the Gospels?
A letter to my Muslim brothers by Hans Wijngaards MHM
When Christians quote from the Gospels, Muslims often reply:
The text you are quoting from is not the true Gospel. The original Gospel of Jesus Christ has been lost. Past generations of Christians have corrupted your Scriptures so that now they are useless.
Muslims are so convinced about this that meaningful communication with them usually breaks down at this point. How to explain what we believe regarding Jesus Christ when Muslims are convinced that the original Gospels presented another Jesus? Whether spoken or unspoken, the suspicion, if not the accusation, is always there: 'You are relying on Scriptures that have been falsified!'
Such allegations also appear in print. Recently a book was published with the title Jesus Prophet of lslam. In line with common Muslim thinking, the author contends that Jesus presented himself as no more than an ordinary prophet that he never died on the Cross (he was miraculously spirited away by angels), that he announced the coming of Muhammad. Present-day Christian doctrine is a heresy, deliberately introduced in later years. And these heretics, he says, pointing an accusing finger, were prepared to mutilate the Scriptures too. They even introduced false writings in order to support their opinions:
The books into which Jesus's teaching had gone were either completely destroyed, suppressed or changed in order to avoid any blatant contradiction with their own, new doctrine. . . The original teaching in its totality has disappeared and is irrevocably lost.
Not content with pronouncing such a general indictment the author pinpoints a precise historical beginning to the process of falsification:
In 325 AD, the famous Council of Nicea was held. The doctrine of the Trinity was declared to be the official doctrine of the Pauline Church, and one of the consequences of this decision was that out of the three hundred or so gospels extant at the time, four were chosen as the official gospels of the Church. The remaining gospels, including the gospel of Barnabas, were ordered to be destroyed. An edict was issued stating that anyone found in possession of an unauthorised gospel would be put to death. This was the first well-organised attempt to remove all the records of Jesus's original teaching, whether in human beings or in books.1
For those familiar with historical fact, such gratuitous assertions will easily be shrugged off. What to reply to a person who believes that London lies in Libya? But it may not be so easy for Christians who have not studied theology or Church history. They may not know what answer to give when talking to their Muslim friends or what to make of such Muslim publications. For their sake I shall put together some facts and arguments to show that our Gospels have not been falsified. But first it may be useful to ask: where did Muslims get the idea that our Gospels have been tampered with?
The origin of a myth
In the Qur'an Muslims are told to respect the Gospel revealed to Jesus Christ and read by Christians. The Qur'an presupposes that the Gospel possessed by Christians is in fact identical with the original one proclaimed by Jesus.2 In the first four centuries after Muhammad (600 - 1000 AD) no Muslim theologian seriously contended that the Gospel texts were not authentic. They might accuse Christians of giving a wrong interpretation to the words; they would not dispute the words themselves. As studies of Muslim apologetics have shown it was only with Ibn-Khazem who died at Cordoba in 1064, that the charge of falsification was born.3
Ibn-Khazem ruled the south of Spain for some time as the vizier of the caliph, waging many civil wars on his behalf. He also took part in theological discussions. Belonging to the so-called Zahiric school, he strongly opposed the Shi'ites. `Both in religion and in politics he was a hard and intransigent fighter. Whoever dared to resist him hurt himself as by running against a rock. His pen was as devastating a weapon as the sword of the warrior. Because of his fanaticism he failed to attract disciples or found a school. But his writings were very influential in later times.4
In his defence of Islam against Christians, Ibn-Khazem came up against the contradictions between the Qur'an and the Gospels. One obvious example was the Qur'anic text `They slew him not and they crucified him not' (Sura 4:156). `Since the Qur'an must be true,' Ibn- Khazem argued, `it must be the conflicting Gospel texts that are false. But Muhammad tells us to respect the Gospel. Therefore, the present text must have been falsified by the Christians.' His argument was not based on historical facts, but purely on his own reasoning and on his wish to safeguard the truth of the Qur'an.5 Once he was on this path, nothing could stop him from pursuing this accusation. In fact it seemed the easiest way to attack the opponents. `If we prove the falsehood of their books, they lose the arguments they take from them.'6 This led him eventually to make the cynical statement `The Christians lost the revealed Gospel except for a few traces which God has left intact as argument against them.'7
Later writers took up the same reasoning, enlarged it and embellished it. The falsification of the Bible was thus asserted by Salikh Ibn-al-Khusain (died 1200), Ahmad at-Qarafi (died 1285), Sa'id Ibn-Khasan (died 1320), Muhammad Ibn-Abi-Talib (died 1327), Ibn-Taimija (died 1328) and many others. From then on it became a fixed ingredient of Muslim apologetics.
These same authors designate the Emperor Constantine and Paul as the chief falsifiers. Constantine, whose personality is blurred for them with the Council of Nicea, is said to have invented the story of Jesus's crucifixion for political reasons and to have reduced the number of gospels to four. About Paul many fantastic stories are recounted. According to one version, Paul was a great enemy of Christianity who wanted to destroy it utterly. First he tried violence, but when this did not succeed, he decided to go about it in a different way. He pretended conversion and allowed himself to be baptised. His intention was to ruin Christianity from within. To make sure that he would make a lasting impression on the Christians, he wished to be considered a martyr. So he invented the story that Christ had appeared to him during the night and had requested him to sacrifice himself at the foot of a mountain. On the day before his death he called the three main Christian kings and gave to each a secret revelation: to the first that Christ is God's son; to the second that Mary was God's wife; to the third that God is three. When the sun rose next morning Paul came out of his cell in a grey mantle carrying a knife. He sacrificed himself with his own hands. The people watched him and believed him to be a saint. This is how Christians received their false doctrines and how they became divided into different sects.8 According to other stories Paul was a Jewish king, or a monk living in Rome 150 years after Christ. All versions agree in calling him a crafty falsifier, who feigned conversion to corrupt the Christian community from the inside.
These fables about Constantine and Paul seem to have arisen from a mixture of anti-Christian Jewish sources, Persian legends and Marcionite writings.9 It is not difficult to show that they make no historical sense. Paul lived from c. 5 - 67 AD, preached the same doctrine as the other Apostles and wrote many of the New Testament Letters. Constantine was the Roman Emperor from 312 - 337 AD. He gave Christians the freedom to practice their religion, but he did not invent the crucifixion or tamper with the Gospels. The Council of Nicea which gathered from May 20 to August 25 in 324 AD did not decree anything regarding apocryphal writings. The 300 bishops who participated argued about the understanding of the Scriptures, not about what was Scripture or was not. They were in full agreement regarding the text. All these are historical facts.
Knowing the cause of a sickness is the first step to its cure. Muslims often read only their own literature and since these will keep repeating the old accusations, they may be firmly convinced they are right. A frog in a well may believe he has seen the ocean. There is no solution. Genuine progress in dialogue is only possible when a person, whether Christian or Muslim, is prepared to step outside the vicious circle of self-enforced prejudice by facing objective facts.
The text of the Gospels
This leads us on to consider the Gospels themselves. Can we find out what the original text was, the precise words of the inspired writings as they were written down in the period between 50 and 90 AD? Many scientists have devoted their whole lives to this question. The science of 'text criticism' has studied many ancient writings, among them the books of the New Testament. I shall endeavour to explain in a few paragraphs what is, in actual fact a complicated and painstaking procedure.
In Christ's time all books and letters had to be written out by hand. When the New Testament writings had been completed, they could only be spread to the various Christian communities by taking hand-written copies of them. Such a copy is called a `manuscript' (a Latin word that means `written by hand'). The material used in those days was papyrus, an inferior quality of paper made of reed. Because the sacred writings would be handled frequently - for private reading as well as for the Sunday celebrations - the original text and the earliest copies would soon be tattered and worn. They were being replaced continuously by new copies.
In the fourth century AD a better material was found, namely parchment. This parchment was manufactured from strips of sheepskin that were scraped and tanned and sewn together to form scrolls. Obviously, this parchment made of leather was much more expensive, but its advantage consisted in its being almost indestructible. Gradually more and more New Testament copies were made on parchment scrolls, or on `codices', ie. books in which the sheets of parchment were piled up one on top of the other (as our books are arranged today). There were also improvements in the writing. During the first century every Greek letter was written as a capital (the so-called majuscule script). Later a more differentiated style arose (the minuscule script). When scientists find an ancient manuscript they first determine its age, then transcribe it as faithfully as possible and study all its characteristics. The text preserved in a particular manuscript is then compared to that found in other ones.
To study the New Testament writings, scientists have a wealth of material at their disposal. Of the Greek text (remember that the New Testament was written in Greek) there are no less than 4680 manuscripts. 68 of them are papyri, 241 majuscule parchments, 2533 minuscule parchments and 1838 lectionaries (collections of Scripture texts for reading on Sundays). Then there are more than 6000 manuscripts of ancient translations in such languages as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, Nubian Arabic, Persian and Slavonic. A third source for comparison are quotations of scriptural texts found with more than 220 Church Fathers and theologians.
Some of these texts are very old. One of the papyri known as P52, contains fragments of St John's Gospel. It has been dated as 130 AD, which means that this copy of the Gospel was written hardly forty years after the original. Another famous example is the Codex Sinaiticus, which was written in about 350 AD in Egypt. 347 of its leaves have been preserved which cover practically the whole New Testament. From comparing the handwriting we can see that three scribes had worked at it.
The nature of the evidence
To compare these thousands of manuscripts and other sources which range roughly from the second to the fourteenth century is a gargantuan task. But it has been done. The repeated copying of the text through the centuries, by different scribes in widely separated places, resulted in small variations creeping into the text. They are known as `variant readings'. Once such a variant reading had been incorporated, further copies would obviously contain the same variation. By analysing these small differences, scientists have been able to group many manuscripts together, showing that they derive from common ancestor manuscripts. In this way very early versions of the text can be reconstructed with great precision. We know what the text was like at the end of the third century in four streams of transmission the Alexandrian, Western, Caesarian and Antiochian families. By projecting this further back into the past the original text that must have antedated these recensions can be arrived at.
The outcome of all these studies has been to establish beyond doubt the authenticity of the New Testament text. We can be absolutely sure that the text we possess is essentially identical to the original writings.10 Or, to put it in quantitative terms: the small variations that have crept into the text over all these centuries affect only one and a half per cent of the text (one of every sixty words); they rarely make any doctrinal difference. Ninety-eight and a half per cent of the text is certain beyond reasonable doubt.
This proves that the text has not been falsified. Indeed, if anybody at any time had attempted such a falsification, this could immediately be detected. Imagine that a wealthy banker in Singapore wrote a last will describing how his property should be divided after fifty years. Imagine that he had five children, each of whom made a copy of this will and had it with him while migrating to different parts of the world - London, Cape Town, Los Angeles, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. Each of these children again had five children who all made copies of the document possessed by their parents. Again, they too had five children each, who in turn made copies of the document. Now even supposing that the original will of their great-grandfather in Singapore was lost by a comparison of the many copies that had been made in so many different places the original text could with certainty be established. If any of the children or grandchildren had tried to change the text his deception would immediately be exposed by its deviation from what the other copies showed. In the same way, any attempt at falsifying the Gospel text would immediately show up in its discrepancy from the many thousands of manuscripts that retain independent copies.
The Buddhist king Ashoka who ruled in India from 273 to 240 BC promulgated a unique, humanitarian constitution. He ordered it to be inscribed in many places throughout his empire: on rocks, on pillars, on the walls of caves. Because more than thirty-five of such inscriptions have been preserved, we know with certainty what Ashoka's original constitution was. Even if one of the stone carvers had wanted to falsify Ashoka's text and so deceive us, we could prove the deception by comparison with the other versions. The Gospels were the constitution of the Early Church, copied in thousandfold from the earliest days. If a falsification had taken place, it could not fail to show up.
H. K Moulton, who spent more than forty years studying the manuscripts, may be quoted by way of summary at this point. After stating that the smaller variations between texts do in no single case mean a loss of Christian doctrine, he says:
When all the documents have been sifted and rigidly examined, we find that essentially they agree ... The textual critic leads us back from our present printed Scripture through long and sometimes round-about paths to the New Testament writers themselves. He gives us substantially what they wrote, rigorously tested and objectively approved ... No book has ever had its text so vigorously examined as the New Testament has. No fabrication could have survived such thorough testing without falling apart ... We can trust our Source-Book, it has been weighed in the balance and not found wanting.11
Guardians of Tradition
Thus it has been shown that the Christians from the earliest times onwards have faithfully preserved the revealed doctrines they had received. This should not surprise us. We know how anxious they were to guard the treasures which God had entrusted to them. As early as the year 50 AD St Paul writes: `Brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us' (2 Thess. 2:15). `Maintain the traditions as I have handed them on to you'(1 Cor. 11:2). `I handed on to you what I also received, that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later ... This is what we all preach and this is what you believe ... You are saved by the Gospel if you hold firmly to it' (I Cor. 15:3-4, 11, 2).
The early Christians were as anxious as we are to know what Christ has said and done. The Greeks and Romans had developed quite high standards of historical writing. They knew this should report objective facts, proved by eyewitness accounts and original documents.
Modern scholars judge that several of the ancient historians were trustworthy and accurate in the writings which they left us. Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus were outstanding; Josephus, Caesar, Polybius and Livy note-worthy. Even if some people were careless about it the early Christian writers certainly knew what accurate recording involved.12 Consequently, we should take Luke's claim seriously when he says he has consulted eyewitnesses (Lk. 1:2) and then continues: `Because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account of them for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught (Lk. 1:3-4). Christians have always wanted to know the full truth about everything which they have been taught.
A new beginning
Christians and Muslims share many beliefs in common. Both accept only one God, the Creator and Source of all Revelation, the Merciful Judge who will punish the wicked and reward the good. With materialism gaining the upper hand and in many parts of the world, it is important that believers stress what they have in common rather than intensify mutual opposition. This means that unfounded prejudice on both sides should be removed. In February 1976, 1200 delegates from sixty countries took part in a seminar on `Islamic-Christian Dialogue'. The Christians asked the Muslims to make a deeper study of the New Testament and to drop the charge of falsification. Dialogue requires that each party accepts the authenticity of the other person's Scriptures on which his faith is based.13
Many of the great Muslim thinkers have, indeed, accepted the authenticity of the New Testament text. Listing the names of these men seems a fitting conclusion to this essay. Their testimony proves that Christian-Muslim dialogue need not for ever be stymied by the allegation introduced by Ibn-Khazem. Two great historians, Al-Mas'udi (died 956) and Ibn-Khaldun (died 1406), held the authenticity of the Gospel text. Four well-known theologians agreed with this: Ali at-Tabari (died 855), Qasim al-Khasani (died 860), 'Amr al-Ghakhiz (died 869) and, last but not least, the famous Al-Ghazzali (died 1111).14 Their view is shared by Abu Ali Husain Ibn Sina, who is known in the West as Avicenna (died 1037). Bukhari (died 870), who acquired a great name by his collection of early traditions, quoted the Qur'an itself (Sura 3:72,78) to prove that the text of the Bible was not falsified.15 Finally, Muhammad Abduh Sayyid Ahmad Khan, a religious and social reformer of modem times (died 1905), accepted the findings of modern science. He said:
As far as the text of the Bible is concerned. it has not been altered ... No attempt was made to present a diverging text as the authentic one.16
May God be praised for the witness of these honest men.
1. MUHAMMAD ATA UR-RAHIM, Jesus Prophet of Islam, Omar Brothers Publications, Singapore 1978, pp. 12, 15 and 40.
2. G. PARRINDER, Jesus in the Qur'an, Faber and Faber, London 1965, ch 15.
3. P. A. PALMIERI Die Polemik des Islams, German tr. Holzer, Salzburg 1902; E. FRITSCH, Islam und Christentum im Mittelalter, Müller & Seiffert, Breslau 1930; see also. H. HIRSCHFELD, `Muhammadan Criticism of the Bible'. Jewish Quarterly Review 13 (1901) 222-240.
4. F. M. PAREJA, Islamologia, Orbis Catholicus, Roma 1951, pp. 460-461.
5. I. DI MATTEO, `Il "takhrif" od alterazione della Bibbia secondo i musulmani', Bessarione 38 (1922) 64-111; 223-260; `Le preteze contradizzioni della S. Scrittura secondo Ibn-Hazm', Bessarione 39 (1923) 77-127, E. FRITSCH, op. cit., p. 66.
6. IBN KHAZEM, Kitab al-fasl fi'l-milah wa'l ahwa'l nikhal, II,6; E. FRITSCH, op cit., p.55.
7. IBN KHAZEM, ibid.; E. FRITSCH, op. cit, p. 64.
8. Synopsized from AL-QARAFI; E. FRITSCH, op. cit., p. 49.
9. Parallel stories are found in Tustari's Persian version of Qisas al-anbija (history of the prophets) in a manuscript dated 1330 AD, and in Ghalal-addin Rumi's Metnewi (the story of a Jewish king and his vizier, 1273 AD); E. FRITSCH, op. cit., pp. 50-65.
10. For a more complete description of text criticism and its conclusions, I recommend F. G. KENYON, The Text of the Greek Bible, London 1937, 1949; L. D. TWILLEY, The Origin and Transmission of the New Testament, Edinburgh 1957; V. TAYLOR, The Text of the New Testament, London and New York 1961; J. H. GREENLEE, An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, Grand Rapids 1964; B. M. METZGER, The Text of the New Testament Oxford 1968.
11. H. K. MOULTON, Papyrus, Parchment and Print; the story of how the New Testament text has reached us, London 1967, pp. 9-10, 70-71.
12. A. M. MOSLEY, `Historical Reporting in the Ancient World', New Testament Studies 12 (1965) 10-26.
13. Text of the Final Declaration of the Tripoli Seminar, L'Osservatore Romano (English Edition), Feb. 26, 1976, pp. 6-7.
14. I. DI MATTEO, loc. cit (note 5), AT-TABARI and AL-GHAKHIZ claimed the translations were unfaithful at times; they did not doubt the authenticity of the Greek original. With regard at AL-GHAZZALI, see F. M. PAREJA, op. cit, p. 463.
15. G. PARRINDER, Jesus in the Qur'an, Faber and Faber, London 1965; Dutch translation, Ten Have, Baarn 1978, p. 124.
16. M. H. ANANIKIAN, `The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan'. The Moslem World 14 (1934) p. 61.
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