The Quran and the New Testament Bible: A Comparison of Textual Histories
It is difficult to conceive of two texts which have more drastically shaped the world than the Bible – in particular the New Testament – and the Quran. Two irreconcilable texts, with two very different histories, are held today by well over three billion1 men and women as the word of God. What are the histories of these divergent texts? And how have they come to us?
A Controlled Transmission: The Quran
Unlike the New Testament (and the Old, for that matter) the Quran was delivered to the world by a single man – Muhammad – in the early part of the seventh century (first century by Muslim reckoning). Over the course of twenty-three years, Muhammad taught, preached, and dictated his revelations to a myriad of followers. Though Mohammad himself never wrote any of these words down, many were written on pieces of parchment, wood, and even shards of bone and leaves. These sayings, lacking all context in which they were spoken, were not organized nor compiled, though a number of Mohammad’s followers committed them to memory along with their context2a. These men who learned the sayings by heart were called “Qaris” and were the living vehicles by which the first “Quran” was transmitted – a codex of flesh and not paper.
Almost immediately after Mohammed’s death, insurrection broke out throughout Arabia. Mohammad had spent much of his later life bringing the Arabian peninsula under his control by way of both the tongue and the sword, but he appointed no direct successor to take his place, and it was only after some dissention that Abu-Bakr was chosen as the first Caliph (literally “representative”)2b. The result was the Ridda Wars, from 632-633, in which Abu Bakr struggled to reunite Muhammad’s kingdom3. During this period, many of the Qaris were killed in battle, and a grave concern was raised that, if many more met a similar faith, the Quran might very well be lost forever. Indeed, according to some sources, portions of the Quran were already lost9. To prevent further calamity, Abu-Bakr ordered Zaid bin Thabit (a man who had once written many Mohammad’s teachings as he heard them) to collect all the teachings into a single manuscript. Zaid collected sayings from every scrap of bone he could find and consulted the Qaris who yet remained until he was satisfied he had amassed the entire collection of teachings. The resultant manuscript he gave to Abu-Bakr who kept it until his death4.
Less than two decades after this incident a third Caliph had arisen – Uthman. By this time the Islamic nation had turned its attention outward; Egypt and much of Mesopotamia were already conquered, and Islamic forces were pressing eastward. But with this rapid expansion came new troubles. Uthman gained word that some among the Muslims were reciting the Quran differently from others and dissention was beginning to stir because of it. In response, he ordered Zaid to retrieve the original compilation made and, with the aid of three others scholars, produce copies of a standardized text which was then sent to major cities across Uthman’s expanding kingdom. Zaid, having mistakenly left out at least one verse which he recalled Mohammad saying decades earlier, took the opportunity to find the verse and include it in the revision. Uthman ordered the original returned to its keeper, and then ordered that everyone who possessed even a portion of the Quran other than the freshly made recension should burn the manuscripts, thus destroying all texts that did not agree with the Uthmanic recenssion5.
Naturally there were some Muslims who resisted this order, and likely others who simply never received the instructions, and so there remain today texts that contain variants stemming from even before the Uthmanic revision c 650 A.D.*6, but the end result was that a relatively pure, Uthmanic text was subsequently preserved through the centuries until the onset of printing in the Middle East2a.
An Uncontrolled Transmission: The New Testament
In contrast to the Quran, the New Testament is a collection of a number of writings. There was no single author, nor have Christians traditionally sought to “prove” the veracity of these texts by looking to sources from before they were written**. Rather, it is the original written text of the four canonical gospels (those according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and those of the epistles that are considered to be God-breathed and these texts verify themselves by their agreement with one another. The teachings of Jesus, the founder of the Christian faith, are preserved in those texts by direct quotations from the gospel writers, and in Spirit by the epistle writers such as Peter, John, and Paul. Therefore, the beginning of the New Testament’s transmission begins with twenty six separate manuscripts, written at different times and different locations, for a diversity of audiences. Once written, the process of transmission begins.
The first Christians did not have the comparative luxury of existing in an environment receptive to their faith when the New Testament texts were produced. The first Muslims after Mohammad had the kingdom he had carved in which to transmit the early Quranic texts. Christians on the other hand were under attack from the start, first from the Jews, and then by the Romans. In this environment, there was no mechanism by which the text of the New Testament could have been controlled: no scriptoria to mass produce a single text and no central authority to select the preferred recension. For this reason, the texts of the New Testament were copied by whoever could access them; some copies were made for personal use, some for congregational reading. Copies were passed along to neighboring churches where further copies were made, and the process was repeated7a. The last of the New Testament books was penned at the end of the first century, and sometime in the mid-second century, these texts began to be gathered into collections. The process of forming a single, New Testament canon had begun, though it would not be finalized for some time. This was the mode of transmission for the New Testament texts. The result was a number of textual traditions which, although they all substantively agree, nevertheless must be carefully studied to discern which readings hearken back to the original autographs. Fortunately, few variants exist in New Testament Texts that remain uncertain as to their originality, and none of those that do remain affect any central doctrines of the Christian church8.
Pros and Cons
In dialogue with Christians, many modern Muslims are quick to observe two drawbacks to the New Testament’s mode of transmission: a slow to develop canon, and a much larger number of textual variants.
The Quran, as produced by Zaid, was relatively easy to canonize as the sole Islamic holy book – although there was some early dissention even from some of Mohammad’s most trusted reciters as to what was included and what was left out of Zaid’s recension10. The New Testament as a single corpus, on the other hand, took much more time to be recognized universally among Christians. Paul’s texts found this process of recognition easier, as they were the product of a single author (even the much disputed ‘Hebrews’ seems to have been included) – though Paul’s pastoral epistles, being less well known, took far more time. The Gospels are a good example of the slower process of canonization, as various regions held to one gospel text at first and only began to recognize others when second century churches began to share their own texts in an attempt to present a more unified front against growing gnostic sects.
The Muslim disparagement of New Testament variants however proves a double edge sword. Christians have long been aware of textual variants. (Indeed, many of the written Greek manuscripts themselves have marginal notations of variant reading in them!7b) To the Muslim, who largely due to Uthman’s recension have far fewer variants in their own text, the notion of so many variants seems unacceptable, the Christian, however, sees these variants as a low price to pay for the surety of an unaltered text.
Christians balk at the notion of so much control over presumably sacred scripture resting in the hands of a single man, particularly a political authority such as Uthman. Even Islamic sources acknowledge that some of the sayings of Mohammad’s closest Quaris were left out of Zaid’s recension11, though they console themselves that God has preserved what He intended. Even a number of the very men Mohammad directed his followers to consult concerning the sayings he delivered rejected Zaid’s version10. When Uthman’s scholars had finished their final recension, Uthman ordered all other portions of the Quran to be burned, doubtless destroying much precious textual evidence. This means the Muslim must place a great deal of trust that Uthman, Zaid, and the three other Islamic scholars were both careful and honest in creating the final text.
The relative lack of viable variants in the Uthmanic Quran comes at the expense of knowing no man could have irreparably altered the text. Inversely, the New Testament’s utterly uncontrolled transmission allowed no mechanism to ensure only a single textual tradition was preserved. As a result, a diversity of textual traditions are represented in the manuscript data. This not only ensures a later recension could not have obliterated the original text, it also allows us to see to what extent these texts may have been affected by scribal errors or intentional changes. A diversity of textual traditions allows the texts to be tested against each other, noting where and to what extent they differ, and where the most and earliest agreements demonstrate the most likely original.
* See, for example, Fog’s Palimpsest
** This is not to say Christians have no interest in the persons who penned these works or their sources (if applicable), but rather Christian orthodoxy dictates that the New Testament writings themselves are the inspired texts, so the canonical gospels do not require their authors to have a perfect memory of Jesus’ exact words.
1. PEW - http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/
2. Durant, The Age of Faith,
_ a. page 175
_ b. page 187
3. Brown University, The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology - https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/islamiccivilizations/8026.html )
4. Sahi al-Bukhari volume 6, book 60, number 201 http://www.sahihalbukhari.com/sps/sbk/sahihalbukhari.cfm?scn=dsphadeeth&HadeethID=6728&txt=Hafsa [Note: references to volume, book, and number in Islamic hadiths vary from edition to edition]
5. Sahi al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 510 510http://www.sahihalbukhari.com/sps/sbk/sahihalbukhari.cfm?scn=dsphadeeth&HadeethID=4658&txt=save%20this%20nation
7. Aland and Aland, The Text of the New Testament,
_a. p. 48 _ cf. also Colossians 4:16
_b. p. 241
8. Dr. James White, New Testament Reliability, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuiayuxWwuI
9. Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif, cited from Dr. Wood, Christian Essential Series - http://adlucem.co/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Christian-Essential-Series-The-History-of-the-Quran-by-David-Wood.pdf
10. Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2 – cited from Dr. Wood (link in footnote 9)
11. cf. al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 527 - https://www.sahih-bukhari.com/Pages/Bukhari_6_61.php