Why the discovery of ‘oldest’ Quran fragments is no big deal

Most recently, there have been several articles about the discovery of a possible ‘oldest’ Quran fragment. CNN has an article here called Discovery of ‘oldest’ Quran fragments could resolve history of holy text. In it, the article says,

Two Quran fragments unknowingly held since 1936 in the University of Birmingham’s manuscript collection have been definitively dated to the era of Mohammed’s life or a little later.

The writing of the two folios (with text corresponding to chapters 18-20 in the modern Quran) has been placed somewhere between 568 and 645 CE, which is very close to the conventional dating offered for the Prophet’s ministry, 610-632 CE. Given the more than 95% accuracy of the carbon dating involved, carried out at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, this discovery indicates that these fragments are in all probability contemporary with the Prophet himself. No wonder that the University of Birmingham, and the city as a whole, has welcomed the news with excitement and pride.

There seems some poetic justice in the fact that a city that is home to one of the most multicultural communities in the world (described without irony on Fox News as a “no-go area”for non-Muslims) should now, as it surely will, become a veritable Mecca for both non-Muslims and Muslims eager to examine for themselves these almost 1,400 year old pages, which are offered in a clear, legible, even beautiful hand.

Just recently, textual expert and skeptic Bart Ehrman said the following about the discovery on his own blog: He says:

 “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.

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 fromThat 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. 

Now hopefully we know by now there have been many responses to Bart’s skepticism about the New Testament. To see a couple of responses, see here and here. Or, see his debate with Dan Wallace.

But does Ehrman actually say something that has a grain of truth here? Yes he does! Note he says:

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.

So I will expand on Ehrman’s comment’s here: In the end, even if we have one or several early manuscripts of the Quran, it doesn’t mean the actual content of the Quran is true. If anything, textual preservation may be one test for the trustworthiness. But just like all history, we would have to take other tests in account to determine the reliability of the text. That’s why with the Quran discovery, I don’t ‘see it as being that important. Allow me to give another illustration : Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelations from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). Therefore, if we had 60,000 early manuscripts recording this event, this by no means makes Mormonism true. As we know, there is barely any external evidence for The Book of Mormon.  

Now I know many Muslims already think that the Quran is perfect and without error, so this discovery really won’t make a lot of difference to them. Most Muslims think that Muhammad’s claim that the angel Gabriel visited him and that it was during these angelic visitations that the angel purportedly revealed to Muhammad the words of Allah. These dictated revelations compose the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Therefore, that settles it. If a perfect dictation! Sadly, some Christians view inspiration of the Bible as perfect verbal dictation as well. But that’s not what we mean when we say the Bible is inspired.  Anyway, I am looking forward to Keith Small’s response to this. If you have never seen his lecture on textual criticism and the Quran, you can watch it here.

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5 thoughts on “Why the discovery of ‘oldest’ Quran fragments is no big deal

  1. dude July 26, 2015 / 11:14 am

    The Bible was fully written and confirmed and compiled by the Lord 500 years before Muhammed was even born. Sura 6:115 (AI-An’am) says: “Perfected are the words of your Lord in truth and justice. None can change them. He is the Hearing, the Knowing.” The Torah and the Gospel are the word of the Lord, according to the Quran, so no one can change them! If the Bible has been changed, as some Muslims will argue, then the Quran is not true. No, the Bible has not been changed; it must be studied and respected as the Word of God.

  2. J.W. Wartick July 26, 2015 / 12:41 pm

    I think the discovery is at least something of a big deal, but not in the sense you say. I mean it in the sense Keith Small would: it might mean we can do more textual critical studies of the Quran.

    • chab123 July 26, 2015 / 5:22 pm

      Well we can do all the textual studies we want. I am not against that. But in the end, textual preservation isn’t the only thing that matters. So if Muhammad received perfect revelation from God, that means God told him that if you leave Islam, you get a death sentence. Apostates are killed! Sounds like a winner!

      • J.W. Wartick July 26, 2015 / 6:20 pm

        I agree that textual preservation isn’t the only thing that matters. However, the work of Small and others does allow us to demonstrate that the popular Muslim apologetic argument about the Quran not having a textual tradition is mistaken.

  3. chab123 July 27, 2015 / 1:29 am

    Oh yes, I agree 100%

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