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The Gospels, the Qur’an, and a Level Playing Field

October 22, 2019

This site is devoted to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, but I feel obliged to discuss another matter that pertains to the textual criticism of the Gospels.  A few days ago a reader of this blog site pointed me to a French-language debate between a Muslim apologist and a Christian apologist, in which the palaeographical dating of some key Gospels papyri came up for discussion.  The Muslim apologist claimed (wrongly) that a new consensus among experts in palaeography of Greek papyri dates the items in question to the fourth century:  P. Bodmer II (= P66 in the Nestle-Aland list of manuscripts), and P. Bodmer XIV/XV (= P75 in the Nestle-Aland list).

There is no such new consensus.  There are now individual scholars who push for a fourth-century date for the items, prominent among them, Brent Nonbgri; but the judgement that an early third-century date for P66 and a mid-to-late third-century date for P75 remains quite widely held.[1]  For example, the late-great palaeographer, Sir Eric Turner held this view.[2]  As for more recent scholars, Pasquale Orsini, for example (using his own distinctive method) proposes to date P66 mid-third to mid-fourth century, and P75 to late third-to-early-fourth century.  I blogged previously on his proposal and the reception it received from other scholars here.  Note:  Pasquale doesn’t say that these items are fourth century, only that range of possible dates allows (in his view) for a fourth-century date as a possibility,

But, whenever you date P66 or P75, we are hardly bereft of other early manuscript evidence for the textual transmission of the Gospels.  For example, for the Gospel of John alone, we have portions of some sixteen codices that are commonly dated pre-300 CE, some of them as early as the late second century.  And, as my student, Lonnie Bell, has shown in his recently published PhD thesis, although many of these are mere fragments, we can in fact tell a good deal from them about how conscientiously the text was transmitted in the third and even second centuries.[3]

But when apologists of Christian or Muslim alignment start hurling about dates, they tend to do so to score religious points, not to engage in serious consideration of scholarly dating of manuscripts.  And it’s a particular pity that Muslim apologists think that they can discredit Christianity by arguing over such matters, and by pointing out that there are textual variants evident in manuscripts of the Gospels.  There are two further things to note.

First, as has been shown repeatedly, the many textual variants in the rich abundance of early manuscripts (down through the fifth century) are almost entirely the accidental mistakes that copyists of practically any text make.  These variants don’t affect the meaning of the text.  Even Bart Ehrman admits that, among the thousands of variants, no more than a few dozen at most (and that’s a generous estimate) may show concerns to remove theological ambiguities in the text.

The second thing to note is that the traditional Muslim view of the Qur’an is widely different from the way that traditional Christians view their scriptural texts such as the Gospels.  In traditional Muslim belief, the Qur’an is a miracle, the direct speech of Allah, and has been preserved miraculously down the ages with scarcely a variant.  In contrast, in traditional Christian belief, the biblical writings are the products of human beings, “inspired” by God to write their texts.  But the texts in question are the words of those human authors.  That is, the biblical texts partake of the various historical circumstances in which they were written, edited, and copied.  So, as with any text transmitted by hand, these writings have been subject to the vicissitudes of that historical process, and, therefore, textual criticism of these texts is essential to try to establish the most reliable form/wording of them.  A vast amount of scholarly effort over a few centuries now has been given to setting these texts in their historical context, and to tracing how they have been transmitted through to the invention of the printing press.

But an equivalent scholarly effort to trace the origins and transmission of the Qur’an is still, by comparison, in its infancy.  And a good part of the reason for this is deep opposition from Muslims who regard any such critical inquiry to be  . . .  well, almost blasphemous.  So, it’s hardly a level playing field when Muslim and Christian apologists engage matters.  Muslim apologists are impressively keen to follow critical investigation of the biblical texts such as the Gospels, but (as I know from personal experience) are reluctant to engage in, or even allow, such critical inquiry about the Qur’an.  Indeed, I was told years ago by a Western scholar of Islam that one just didn’t explore certain questions, particularly about the textual transmission of the Qur’an.

Even  the historical processes involved in the transmission of the Qur’an and the Gospels differ.  From a very early point, Muslim rulers (such as Caliph Uthman in the late seventh century) took an interest in establishing a stable Qur’anic text, as part of their aim to standardize Islam, and consolidate their rule.  But early Christian rulers such as Constantine showed no equivalent effort.  Again, the reason partly lies in the different views of the respective sacred texts.  And also, of course, from practically the outset, Islam was wedded to political regimes, where for the first three centuries the Christian movement was not.

There are, however, now some “green shoots” of recent scholarly analysis of the origins and transmission of the Qur’an, such as Nicolai Sinai’s recent historical-critical introduction to the Qur’an (my brief blog posting on it here).[4]  Or consider the detailed study of the transmission of sample passages of the Qur’an by Keith Small (noted in a previous posting here).[5]  Small shows that there is evidence of variants in early copies not now reflected in later copies.  But, as with the variants in the Gospels, these are largely the minor variants that characterize the manual transmission of ancient texts.

So, Muslim apologists wrongly suppose that by pointing to scholarly studies showing that there are variants in the early manuscripts of the Gospels they can somehow undermine Christian claims and faith.  This would work if Christians held that their sacred writings were the direct speech of God and had been somehow miraculously transmitted through the centuries without any variants.  But Christians don’t typically hold such a view.  More typically, they believe that the essential message of the texts has been preserved, not miraculously, but by copyists concerned simply to copy the texts with care.  So, the Muslim apologists’ efforts are fire directed at a non-existent target.

Without wishing to cause offence, we can’t engage in fair discussion of relevant matters unless all parties agree that all texts, even sacred texts, have been subject to the vicissitudes of history.   I don’t seek some “flame-war” in response to this posting.  I’m simply trying to lay out some matters for thoughtful consideration.

[1] See my review of his recent book, God’s Library, in which he proposes a fourth-century date for P66 & P75, here.  In my view, Nongbri is more effective in criticizing the overly specific dates given to manuscripts by some scholars than he is in establishing his own preferred later dates.

[2] Eric G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977; reprint, Wipf & Stock), 95.

[3] Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John:  Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD, 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[4] Nicolai Sinai, The Qur’an:  A Historical-Critical Introduction (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).  Cf. Brannon M. Wheeler, , Prophets in the Quran:  An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis, Comparative Islamic Studies (London: Continuum, 2002); Muhammad Abu-Hamdiyyah, The Qur’an:  An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2000); Ibn Warraq, Which Koran?  Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics (Prometheus Books, 2007).

[5] Keith Small, Textual Criticism and the Qur’an Manuscripts (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).

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  1. Good, kind, and helpful post. I appreciate this sort of accurate and non emotional information.

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  2. Michael permalink

    ” Muslim apologists are impressively keen to follow critical investigation of the biblical texts such as the Gospels, but (as I know from personal experience) are reluctant to engage in, or even allow, such critical inquiry about the Qur’an. Indeed, I was told years ago by a Western scholar of Islam that one just didn’t explore certain questions, particularly about the textual transmission of the Qur’an. ”

    That’s not entirely true Dr. Hurtado.

    Please refer to the following scholarly efforts to trace the origins and transmission of the Qur’an for your consideration:


    • Oh yes. I know that Islamic students are sometimes keen to emphasize that there are remnants of early manuscripts of Quranic texts. But it’s not so clear that the web sites you liist are equally keen to discuss openly the evidence textual variants evident in early evidence. That would be a genuinely critical scholarly work.

  3. Mark Snell permalink

    I have wondered why Christian apologists’ defense in Muslim-Christian discussions seems centered almost entirely around defending the Gospels. While the Gospels are indeed important, the central tenants in Christianity can be found embedded in Paul’s unquestioned writings, as you have articulated in One God, One Lord (among other things., Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 8:1-6 and 15, end Romans 1:1-4). These are early documents, these sections appear to be unchanged in the process of transmission, and as you have pointed out appear to transmit quite early and prevalent ideas that Paul didn’t need to defend. In particular, you have argued that early Christians felt that God now required that Jesus be referenced which should be an intelligible argument for Christ-devotion that fellow monotheists can understand, even though a Jew or Muslim will still disagree.

    Turning the focus to Paul also shows an interesting parallel between Pauline Christianity and Islam: both were started based on revelation by an intermediary, Jesus in one case and Jibrīl/Gabriel in the other. This might be a more fruitful basis for Muslim-Christian discussions than arguing about the authenticity of the Gospels. (It does raise the question about how Paul is described in the Qu’ran and Hadith but I suppose that is another topic.)

    I have also been curious about the “quality process” by which Muslims believe the Qur’an’s contents were accurately transmitted between the time when the Prophet died and when Uthman collected them. I would assume that this process is described in your references 4 and 5.

    • The problem is that Muslims consider Paul to be secondary to Jesus as authority. But, yes, already in Paul’s letters it is evident that earliest (Jewish) believers quickly saw Jesus as elevated/exalted to heavenly rule and authority in God’s resurrection of him. Muslims don’t like to talk about this.

    • Michael permalink

      Well Mark, for a Jew or Muslim, it is incomprehensible to accept that God supposedly now required followers of Christ to reconfigure their understanding of biblical monotheism to believe Jesus was a divine pre-existing being, who created the heavens, the earth, humans and the whole universe, etc to now worship Jesus along-side God to be an exception to idolatry. This belief, to a Jew or Muslim, is an unintelligible argument, grave innovation.

      “Allah! none has the right to be worshipped but He, the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither slumber, nor sleep overtake Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. Who is he that can intercede with Him except with His Permission? He knows what happens to them (His creatures) in this world, and what will happen to them in the Hereafter. And they will never compass anything of His Knowledge except that which He wills. His Throne ends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great. (Quran 2:255)

      • Michael, You record in your comment the THEOLOGICAL view of traditional Islam and Judaism, which everyone knows. This site is not given over to defending or attacking theological views, but to the historical work of when and how earliest Jesus-believers began to reverence Jesus and what became early Christianity began. If you wish to ask about these matters, fine. If you wish to debate theology, take it somewhere else please.

  4. Michael Gould permalink

    ‘And also, of course, from practically the outset, Islam was wedded to political regimes, where for the first three centuries the Christian movement was not.’

    One was formed contrary to the prevailing ethos. The other reinforced it, perhaps. You explain matters very sensitively, Dr Hurtado.

  5. For $10 a month, anyone can access too!

  6. Larry
    Thank you for this reasoned and helpful posting. (Like all your postings, in fact!)

  7. Mark Bratton permalink

    When I was an undergraduate historian at UCL in the early 80s, I had the privilege of doing a course at SOAS entitled ‘Muslim Beliefs, Rituals and Religious Institutions’, taught by Dr (now Professor Emeritus Gerard Hawting). He was part of a group of scholars at SOAS inspired by John Wansborough which included Michael Cook and Patricia Crone (both the latter of whom ended up at Princeton University). They were amongst the first in the English-speaking world (as far as I know) to bring to the Quran, something akin to the techniques of higher crticisim. Gerry always taughts us to distinguish the views of modern scholars from traditional scholars.

  8. RONALD L MINTON permalink

    Good, kind, and helpful post. I appreciate this sort of accurate and non emotional information.

  9. chrisshannon207 permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    There is a terrific new book by Daniel Brubaker called “Corrections in Early Quran Manuscripts: Twenty Examples” that is very important to your discussion here. Thanks for your continued outstanding work! Praying for you!

    Sent from my iPhone


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