The science of Textual Criticism to see if the Bible is corrupted or not

“Why should I even consider the books of the Bible? It was written so long ago, and has had so many translations and revisions done to it – I have heard that its original message was changed over time.”  I have heard questions and statements like this many times about the books of the Taurat, Zabur and Injil that make up al Kitab or the Bible.

This question is very important and is based on what we have heard about al Kitab/the Bible. After all, it was written two thousand plus years ago. For most of this time there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires crumbled and new ones were born. Since the original manuscripts are no longer in existence how do we know that what we read today in al Kitab (the Bible) is what the original prophets actually wrote long ago? Apart from religion, are there any scientific or rational reasons to know whether what we read today is corrupted or not?

Basic Principles in Textual Criticism

Many who ask this do not realize there is a scientific discipline, known as textual criticism, by which we can answer these questions.  And because it is a scientific discipline it applies to any ancient writing.  This article will give the two main principles used in textual criticism and then apply them to the Bible.  To do so we start with this figure which illustrates the process by which any ancient writing is preserved over time so that we can still read it today.

manuscripts from past to today

A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us today

This diagram shows an example of a  book written 500 BC. This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence (extant) today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this extant copy was made in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the book is only from 500 AD onwards. Therefore the period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy checks since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if corruptions occurred when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period before the existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty – where corruption could have happened.  Therefore, the first principle of textual criticism is that the shorter this interval x is the more confidence we can place in the correct preservation of the document to our time, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more that one manuscript copy of a document exists today. Suppose we have two manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them is the following phrase (Of course it would not be in English, but I use English to explain the principle):

This shows a variant reading (one says ‘Joan’ and the other says ‘John’) but with only a few manuscripts it is difficult to determine which is the one in error.

The original author had either been writing about Joan or about John, and the other of these manuscripts has an error. The question is – Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to decide.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

 

Now we have four manuscripts and it is easier to see which one has the error.

Now it is easier to decide which manuscript has the error. It is more likely that the error occurs once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John. ‘John’ is the corruption.

This simple example illustrates the second principle in textual criticism: The more manuscripts that exist today the easier it is to detect & correct errors and know what the original said.

Textual Criticism of Historical books

So now we have two principles that of scientific textual criticism that are used to decide the textual reliability of any old book: 1) measuring the time between original writing and earliest existing manuscript copies, and 2) counting the number of existing manuscript copies. Since these principles apply to all ancient writing we can apply them to both the Bible as well as other ancient books, as done in the tables below (Taken from McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 42-48).

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span #
Caesar

50 BC

900 AD

950

10

Plato

350 BC

900 AD

1250

7

Aristotle*

300 BC

1100 AD

1400

5

Thucydides

400 BC

900 AD

1300

8

Herodotus

400 BC

900 AD

1300

8

Sophocles

400 BC

1000 AD

1400

100

Tacitus

100 AD

1100 AD

1000

20

Pliny

100 AD

850 AD

750

7

* from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of ancient times – the writings that have shaped the development of modern civilization. On average, they are passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.

Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The following table compares the Biblical (Injil in particular) writings along these same points (Taken from Comfort, P.W. The Origin of  the Bible, 1992. p. 193).

 

MSS

When Written

Date of MSS

Time Span

John Rylan

90 AD

130 AD

40 yrs

Bodmer Papyrus

90 AD

150-200 AD

110 yrs

Chester Beatty

60 AD

200 AD

140 yrs

Codex Vaticanus

60-90 AD

325 AD

265 yrs

Codex Sinaiticus

60-90 AD

350 AD

290 yrs

 Summary of Textual Criticism of Bible/al Kitab

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive” (McDowell, J. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 40)

A leading scholar at the British Museum agrees with this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the New Testament are counted by … thousands”  Kenyon, F.G. (former director of British Museum) Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. 1941 p.23

I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. It starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”  (P. Comfort, “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. Preface p. 17. 2001)

In other words, many of these existing manuscripts are very early, merely a hundred years or so after the original writings of the New Testament.  These manuscripts come earlier than the rise to power of Constantine and the Roman church.  And they are spread across the Mediterranean world.  If some from one region were corrupted we would see the difference by comparing it with manuscripts from other regions.  But they are the same.

So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs and time spans between original and earliest extant MSS) the New Testament (Injil) is supported much more than any of the other classical writings.  The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote:

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”  Montgomery, History and Christianity. 1971. p.29

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we question the reliability of al kitab (the Bible) we may as well discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest existing MSSs come before these events. For example, we know that no pope or the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the Bible since we have manuscripts that are earlier than Constantine and the popes and all these earliest manuscripts contain the same accounts.

This is shown in the following timeline where the manuscript sources that are used in translating modern Bibles are shown to come very early.

Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD.  These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers

Modern Bibles are translated from the earliest existing manuscripts, many from 100-300 AD. These source manuscripts come long before Constantine or other religious-political powers

 

To summarize, neither time nor Christian leaders have corrupted the original ideas and messages that were first placed into the original writings of al kitab or the Bible. We can know that it today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote from the many thousands of early manuscripts that we have today.  The science of Textual criticism supports the reliability of al Kitab (the Bible).

Textual Criticism in university lecture

I had the privilege to give a public lecture on this topic at the University of Western Ontario in Canada not too long ago.  Below is a 17 minute video of the part of the lecture that covers this question.

Thus far we have really only looked at the textual criticism of the New Testament – the Injil.  But what about the Taurat and Zabur – the books that make up the Old Testament?  In the following 7 minute video I summarize the textual criticism principles of the Old Testament.

 

 

The Injil Corrupted! What does the Sunnah say?

In my previous post I had looked at what the Qur’an says about revelation of the Taurat, Zabur & Injil of al kitab – the Bible.  I noted that the Qur’an states clearly that when it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), around 600 AD, that the followers of Injil still possessed the message from Allah (so it was not corrupted by that date), and even more clearly the Qur’an affirms that the original messages in the Injil were His Words, and also that His Words can never be changed.  To believe both of these statements would also mean that it would be impossible to change or corrupt the Words of the Taurat, Zabur & Injil.

I want to continue this study by noting what the Sunnah says on this topic.  Consider how the following haddiths affirm the existence and use of the Torah and Injil in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (1).

“Khadija [his wife] then accompanied him [The Prophet - PBUH] to her cousin Waraqa …, who, during the PreIslamic Period became a Christian and used to write the writing with Hebrew letters. He would write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as Allah wished him to write.” Al-Bukhari Vol 1, Book 1, No 3

Narrated Abu Huraira: ..The people of the Scripture used to read the Torah in Hebrew and explain it to the Muslims in Arabic. Then Allah’s Apostle said, “Do not believe the people of the Scripture, and do not disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah and whatever has been revealed…’  Al-Bukhari Vol 9, Book 93, No. 632

The Jews came to Allah’s Apostle and told him that a man and a woman from amongst them had committed illegal sexual intercourse. Allah’s Apostle said to them, “What do you find in the Torah about the legal punishment of Ar-Rajm (stoning)?” They replied, “(But) we announce their crime and lash them.” Abdullah bin Salam said, “You are telling a lie; Torah contains the order of Rajm.” … the Verse of Rajm was written there. They said, “Muhammad has told the truth; the Torah has the Verse of Rajm.  Al-Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 56, No. 829:

Narrated Abdullah Ibn Umar: ..A group of Jews came and invited the Apostle of Allah (PBUH) to Quff. …  They said: ‘AbulQasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so pronounce judgment upon them’. They placed a cushion for the Apostle of Allah (PBUH) who sat on it and said: “Bring the Torah”. It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying: “I believed in thee and in Him Who revealed thee.”  Sunan Abu Dawud Book 38, No. 4434:

Narrated AbuHurayrah: The Apostle of Allah (PBUH) said: The best day on which the sun has risen is Friday; on it Adam was created, …. Ka’b said: That is one day every year. So I said: It is on every Friday. Ka’b read the Torah and said: The Apostle of Allah (PBUH) has spoken the truth.  Sunan Abu Dawud Book 3, No. 1041

These undisputed haddiths tell us of the attitude of Muhammad (PBUH) to the Bible as it existed in his day. The first haddith informs us that the Injil existed and was available when he first received his call.  The second haddith tells us that the Jews read the Taurat in Hebrew to the early Muslim community.  The Prophet (PBUH) did not dispute their text, but was indifferent (neither confirming or denying) to their Arabic explanation of it. The next two haddiths tell us that Muhammad (PBUH) used the Taurat as it existed in his day to arbitrate decisions.  The last haddith shows us that the Taurat, as it existed in that day, was used to verify a statement of his about the day of creation of man (it was on a Friday).  In none of these haddiths, do we see any hint that the text of the Bible is treated as corrupted or changed.  It is used as is for important applications.

Earliest manuscripts of Injil (New Testament)

I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents.  It starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text”(P. Comfort, “The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts”. Preface p. 17. 2001 ).

This is significant since these manuscripts come before Roman Emperor Constantine (ca 325 AD) who often is accused of altering the text of the Bible.  If he had corrupted it we can know it by observing the alterations of the texts before him (since we have them) by comparing it to the texts that come after him.  In addition to this we have many complete Bibles in existence still today that were made long before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).  The most famous of these are the Codex Sinaiticus (ca 350 AD) and the Codex Vaticanus (ca 325 AD).  These and other thousands of manuscripts from before 600 AD come from diverse parts of the world. The idea of Christians changing these texts makes no sense at all.  It would not have been possible for them everywhere to agree on the changes to be made. Even if those in Arabia had made changes, the difference between their copies and those of their brothers, let us say in Syria and Europe, would have been obvious.  But since the Qur’an and haddith both clearly affirm the Biblical text as it existed around 600 AD, and the Bible is based on manuscripts that pre-date this time, then the Bible of today is not corrupted.  The timeline below illustrates this, showing how the text base of the Bible pre-dates 600 AD.

The earliest manuscipts copies of the Taurat and Zabur date from even earlier.  Collections of scrolls, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were found in 1948 by the Dead Sea.  These scrolls make up the entire Taurat and Zabur and they date from 200-100 BC.  This means that though, for example, the prophet Musa (PBUH), was given the Taurat long before that (around 1500 BC) we have copies of the Taurat that date even before the prophets Isa al Masih (PBUH) and Muhammad (PBUH).  Since they both publicly used and approved the Taurat and Zabur that they had (which was the same as the Dead Sea Scrolls we have today) we have assurance that these first books of the prophets were also not corrupted.

The testimony of the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) in the Sunnah, along with background knowledge of the manuscripts of the Bible, point to the same conclusion as the testimony in the Qur’an – the text of the Bible has not been corrupted or changed.

The Bible through time

Manuscripts of Today’s Bible (al kitab) – from long ago