Qur’an: No Variations! What say the hadiths?

“The Qur’an is the original scripture – same language, letters and recitation.  No place for human interpretation or corrupted translation …If you pick up a copy of a Qur’an from any home around the world I doubt you will even find a difference between them.”

A friend sent me this note.  He was  comparing the text of the Holy Qur’an with that of the Injil/Bible.  Twenty-four thousand ancient manuscripts of the Injil exist and they do have minor variations, where just a few words vary.  Though all themes and ideas are the same across all 24000 manuscripts, including the theme of Isa al Masih ransoming us in his death and resurrection, the claim is often made, as above, that there has been no variation in the Qur’an.  This is seen as the Qur’an’s superiority over the Bible, and evidence of its miraculous protection.  But what do the hadiths tell us about the formation and compilation of the Qur’an?

Formation of Quran from Prophet to Caliphs

Narrated `Umar bin Al-Khattab:

I heard Hisham bin Hakim bin Hizam reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to that of mine. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) had taught it to me (in a different way). So, I was about to quarrel with him (during the prayer) but I waited till he finished, then I tied his garment round his neck and seized him by it and brought him to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) and said, “I have heard him reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way different to the way you taught it to me.” The Prophet (ﷺ) ordered me to release him and asked Hisham to recite it. When he recited it, Allah s Apostle said, “It was revealed in this way.” He then asked me to recite it. When I recited it, he said, “It was revealed in this way. The Qur’an has been revealed in seven different ways, so recite it in the way that is easier for you.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2419; Book 44, Hadith 9)

Narrated Ibn Mas`ud:

I heard a person reciting a (Qur’anic) Verse in a certain way, and I had heard the Prophet (ﷺ) reciting the same Verse in a different way. So I took him to the Prophet (ﷺ) and informed him of that but I noticed the sign of disapproval on his face, and then he said, “Both of you are correct, so don’t differ, for the nations before you differed, so they were destroyed.”  (al-Bukhari 3476; Book 60, Hadith 143)

These two clearly tell us that during the Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) lifetime there were several variant versions of the Qur’an’s recitation that were used and approved by Mohamed (PBUH).  So what happened after his death?

Abu Bakr and Qur’an

Narrated Zaid bin Thabit:

Abu Bakr As-Siddiq sent for me when the people of Yamama had been killed (i.e., a number of the Prophet’s Companions who fought against Musailima). (I went to him) and found `Umar bin Al- Khattab sitting with him. Abu Bakr then said (to me), “`Umar has come to me and said: “Casualties were heavy among the Qurra’ of the Qur’an (i.e. those who knew the Qur’an by heart) on the day of the Battle of Yamama, and I am afraid that more heavy casualties may take place among the Qurra’ on other battlefields, whereby a large part of the Qur’an may be lost. Therefore I suggest, you (Abu Bakr) order that the Qur’an be “How can you do something which Allah’s Apostle did not do?”collected.” I said to `Umar, `Umar said, “By Allah, that is a good project.” `Umar kept on urging me to accept his proposal till Allah opened my chest for it and I began to realize the good in the idea which `Umar had realized.” Then Abu Bakr said (to me). ‘You are a wise young man and we do not have any suspicion about you, and you used to write the Divine Inspiration for Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ). So you should search for (the fragmentary scripts of) the Qur’an and collect it in one book.” By Allah If they had ordered me to shift one of the mountains, it would not have been heavier for me than this ordering me to collect the Qur’an. Then I said to Abu Bakr, “How will you do something which Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) did not do?” Abu Bakr replied, “By Allah, it is a good project.” Abu Bakr kept on urging me to accept his idea until Allah opened my chest for what He had opened the chests of Abu Bakr and `Umar. So I started looking for the Qur’an and collecting it from (what was written on) palme stalks, thin white stones and also from the men who knew it by heart, till I found the last Verse of Surat at-Tauba (Repentance) with Abi Khuzaima Al-Ansari, and I did not find it with anybody other than him. The Verse is: ‘Verily there has come unto you an Apostle (Muhammad) from amongst yourselves. It grieves him that you should receive any injury or difficulty..(till the end of Surat-Baraa’ (at-Tauba) (9.128-129). Then the complete manuscripts (copy) of the Qur’an remained with Abu Bakr till he died, then with `Umar till the end of his life, and then with Hafsa, the daughter of `Umar. (al-Bukhari 4986; Book 66, Hadith 8)

This was when Abu Bakr was caliph, directly succeeding Mohamed (PBUH).  It tells us that Mohamed (PBUH) had never collected the Qur’an into a standard text or given any indication that such a thing should be done.  With heavy battle casualties amongst those who knew the Qur’an by memory, Abu Bakr and Umar (he became the 2nd Caliph) persuaded Zaid to start to collect a Qur’an from diverse sources.  Zaid was initially reluctant because Mohamed (PBUH) had never indicated a need to standardize the text.  He had trusted several of his companions to teach the Qur’an to their followers as the following hadith tells us.

Narrated Masriq:

`Abdullah bin `Amr mentioned `Abdullah bin Masud and said, “I shall ever love that man, for I heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying, ‘Take (learn) the Qur’an from four: `Abdullah bin Masud, Salim, Mu`adh and Ubai bin Ka`b.’ ”

(al-Bukhari 4999; Book 66, Hadith 21)

However, after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death disagreements arose between the companions because of these variant recitations.  The hadith below tells of a disagreement over Surah 92:1-3  (Al-Layl)

Narrated Ibrahim:

The companions of `Abdullah (bin Mas`ud) came to Abu Darda’, (and before they arrived at his home), he looked for them and found them. Then he asked them,: ‘Who among you can recite (Qur’an) as `Abdullah recites it?” They replied, “All of us.” He asked, “Who among you knows it by heart?” They pointed at ‘Alqama. Then he asked Alqama. “How did you hear `Abdullah bin Mas`ud reciting Surat Al-Lail (The Night)?” Alqama recited: ‘By the male and the female.’ Abu Ad-Darda said, “I testify that I heard me Prophet reciting it likewise, but these people want me to recite it:– ‘And by Him Who created male and female.’ but by Allah, I will not follow them.”

Bukhari Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 468

Today’s Qur’an has the 2nd reading for Surah al-Layl 92:3.  Interestingly Abdullah, who is one of the four in the previous hadith especially singled out by the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) as an authority on Qur’anic recitation, and Abu Ad-Darda used a different recitation for this verse and were not willing to follow the others.

The following hadith shows that whole regions of the Islamic empire were following different recitations, to the extent that one could verify where someone came from by what recitation he used.  In the case below, the Iraqis of Kufa were following Abdullah bin Mas’ud’s recitation of Surah 92:1-3.

‘Alqama reported:

I met Abu Darda’, and he said to me: To which country do you belong? I said: I am one of the people of Iraq. He again said: To which city? I replied: City of Kufa. He again said: Do you recite according to the recitation of ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud? I said: Yes. He said: Recite this verse (By the night when it covers) So I recited it: (By the night when it covers, and the day when it shines, and the creating of the male and the female). He laughed and said: I have heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) reciting like this.

Muslim Book 6, Hadith 346

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

`Umar said, Ubai was the best of us in the recitation (of the Qur’an) yet we leave some of what he recites.’ Ubai says, ‘I have taken it from the mouth of Allah’s Messenger () and will not leave for anything whatever.” But Allah said “None of Our Revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten but We substitute something better or similar.” 2.106

Bukhari. Book 66, Hadith 27

Though Ubai was considered ‘the best’ in reciting the Qur’an (He was one of those noted previously by Mohamed-PBUH), others in the community left out some of what he recited.  There was disagreement over what was to be abrogated and what was not.  Disagreements on variant readings and abrogation were causing tensions.  We see in the hadith below how this problem was solved.

Caliph Uthman and Quran

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman came to `Uthman at the time when the people of Sham and the people of Iraq were Waging war to conquer Arminya and Adharbijan. Hudhaifa was afraid of their (the people of Sham and Iraq) differences in the recitation of the Qur’an, so he said to `Uthman, “O chief of the Believers! Save this nation before they differ about the Book (Qur’an) as Jews and the Christians did before.” So `Uthman sent a message to Hafsa saying, “Send us the manuscripts of the Qur’an so that we may compile the Qur’anic materials in perfect copies and return the manuscripts to you.” Hafsa sent it to `Uthman. `Uthman then ordered Zaid bin Thabit, `Abdullah bin AzZubair, Sa`id bin Al-As and `AbdurRahman bin Harith bin Hisham to rewrite the manuscripts in perfect copies. `Uthman said to the three Quraishi men, “In case you disagree with Zaid bin Thabit on any point in the Qur’an, then write it in the dialect of Quraish, the Qur’an was revealed in their tongue.” They did so, and when they had written many copies, `Uthman returned the original manuscripts to Hafsa. `Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur’anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt.

al-Bukhari 4987; Book 66, Hadith 9

This is why there are no variant readings today.  It was not because the prophet Mohamed (PBUH) only received or used one recitation (he did not, he used seven), nor because he compiled an authoritative Qur’an.  He did not.  In fact, if you search for ‘different recitations’ in online sunnah there are 61 hadiths that discuss different recitations of Qur’an.  Today’s Qur’an is non-variant because Uthman (3rd caliph) took one of the readings, edited it, and burned all the other recitations.  The following hadiths show how this editing lives on in today’s Qur’an.

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

`Umar said, “I am afraid that after a long time has passed, people may say, “We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,” and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed. Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” Sufyan added, “I have memorized this narration in this way.” `Umar added, “Surely Allah’s Messenger () carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”

al-Bukhari 6829; Book 86, Hadith 56

Narrated Ibn `Abbas:

… Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person (male & female) who commits illegal sexual intercourse, and we did recite this Verse and understood and memorized it. Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him….

Bukhari  Book 86, Hadith 57

Today there is no verse about stoning (Rajam) for adultery in the Qur’an.  It was thus edited out.

Narrated Ibn Az-Zubair: I said to ‘Uthman, “This Verse which is in Surat-al-Baqara:  “Those of you who die and leave widows behind…without turning them out.” has been abrogated by another Verse. Why then do you write it (in the Qur’an)?” ‘Uthman said. “Leave it (where it is), …, for I will not shift anything of it (i.e. the Quran) from its original position.” Bukhari Vol 6, Book 60, No 60:

Here we see a disagreement between Uthman and Ibn Az-Zubair over whether abrogation of a verse meant it should or should not be kept in the Qur’an.  Uthman had his way and so this verse is in the Qur’an today.  But there was controversy about it.

Uthman and the Heading for Surah 9 (At Tawbah)

Narrated Uthman ibn Affan:

Yazid al-Farisi said: I heard Ibn Abbas say: I asked Uthman ibn Affan: What moved you to put the (Surah) al-Bara’ah which belongs to the mi’in (surahs) (containing one hundred verses) and the (Surah) al-Anfal which belongs to the mathani (Surahs) in the category of as-sab’u at-tiwal (the first long surah or chapters of the Qur’an), and you did not write “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” between them?

Uthman replied: When the verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ), he called someone to write them down for him and said to him: Put this verse in the surah in which such and such has been mentioned; and when one or two verses were revealed, he used to say similarly (regarding them). (Surah) al-Anfal is the first surah that was revealed at Medina, and (Surah) al-Bara’ah was revealed last in the Qur’an, and its contents were similar to those of al-Anfal. I, therefore, thought that it was a part of al-Anfal. Hence I put them in the category of as-sab’u at-tiwal (the seven lengthy surahs), and I did not write “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” between them.

Dawud; Book 2, Hadith 396

Surah 9 (at Tawbah) is the only Surah in the Qur’an that does not begin with ‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful’.  The hadith explains why.  Uthman thought that Surah 9 was part of Surah 8 since the material was similar.  From the questioning we can see that this was controversial within the early Muslim community.  The next hadith shows the reaction of one of the Companions to Uthman’s Qur’an.

‘Abdullah (b. Mas’ud) reported that he (said to his companions to conceal their copies of the Qur’an) and further said:

He who conceals anything he shall have to bring that which he had concealed on the Day of judgment, and then said: After whose mode of recitation you command me to recite? I in fact recited before AIlah’s Messenger (ﷺ) more than seventy chapters of the Qur’an and the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) know it that I have better understanding of the Book of Allah (than they do), and if I were to know that someone had better understanding than I, I would have gone to him. Shaqiq said: I sat in the company of the Companions of Mubkmmad (ﷺ) but I did not hear anyone having rejected that (that is, his recitation) or finding fault with it.

Sahih Muslim; Book 44, Hadith 162

 Several things stand out:

  1. Abdullah b. Masud tells his followers to hide their Qur’ans for some reason.
  2. He seems to have been commanded by someone to use a different recitation. This is best understood as referring to the time when Uthman standardized his version of the Qur’an.
  3. Ibn Mas’ud’s objection to changing the way he recited the Qur’an was that: I (Mas’ud) have better understanding of the Book
  4. Shaqiq said that the Companions of Muhammad did not disagree with Mas’ud.

Textual versions of Qur’an today

Following Uthman’s edition, however, variant readings still existed.  In fact, it seems that in 4th century after the Prophet [PBUH] there was a sanctioned return to different readings.  So though today the major Arab textual reading is the Hafs (or Hofs), there is also the Warsh, used mostly in North Africa, Al-Duri, used mostly in West Africa and still others.  The difference between these readings are mostly in spelling and some slight wording variations, usually without any affect on meaning, but with some differences that do have an affect on meaning only in the immediate context but not in wider thought.

So there is a choice as to what version of the Qur’an to use.

We have learned that there are variant Arabic readings of the Qur’an today, and it went through an editing and selection process after the death of the prophet Mohamed (PBUH).  The reason that there is such little variation in the Qur’anic text today is because all other text variants were burned at that time.  The Quran has no alternate reading footnotes, not because it had no alternate readings, but because they were destroyed.  Uthman probably produced a good recitation of the Qur’an, but it was not the only one, and it was not made without controversy.   Thus the widely accepted idea of the Qur’an being  “original scripture – same language, letters and recitation.  No place for human interpretation” is incorrect.  Though the Bible and Qur’an both have variant readings, they also both have strong manuscript evidence indicating that the text as it is today is close to the original.  Both can give us a trustworthy representation of the original.  Many are distracted from seeking to understand the message of the Books by having an undue veneration for the mode of preservation of the Qur’an and an undue disdain for the mode of preservation of the Bible.  We would be better off focusing on understanding the Books.  That was the reason they were given in the first place.  A good place to start is with Adam.

How was the Bible translated?

The Bible, or al kitab, is not usually read in its original languages Hebrew & Greek). This is not because it is not available in these languages. It is, and scholars study Greek and Hebrew at university for the purpose of being able to read and study the Bible in the original languages. This is often the way that professional teachers of the Bible study it. But regular believers do not generally read or study the Bible in its original languages, and instead read it in a translation of their native language. Therefore, the Bible is not often seen in its original languages, leading some to think that the original languages have been lost, and others think that the translation process has led to corruption. Before jumping to these conclusions, it is better first to understand the process of translation of al kitab, or the Bible. That is what we will do in this article.

Translation vs. Transliteration

We need to first understand some basics of translation. Translators sometimes choose to translate by similar sound rather than by meaning, especially when it comes to names or titles. This is known as transliteration.  The figure below illustrates the difference between translation and transliteration. From Arabic you can choose two ways to bring the word for ‘God’ into English. You can translate by meaning which gives ‘God’ or you can transliterate by sound to get ‘Allah’.

This uses the term ‘God’ to illustrate how we can translate or transliterate from one language to another

With the increased exchange between English and Arabic in recent years, the term ‘Allah’ has become a recognized word in the English language to mean God. There is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the choice of translation or transliteration for titles and key words. The choice depends on how well the term is accepted or understood in the receiver language.

The Septuagint

The first translation of the Bible was when the Hebrew Old Testament (= Taurat & Zabur) was translated into Greek about 250BC. This translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX) and it was very influential.  Since the New Testament was written in Greek, the many quotations of the Old Testament were taken from the Greek Septuagint.

Translation & Transliteration in the Septuagint

The figure below shows how all this impacts modern-day Bibles where translation stages are shown in quadrants.

This shows the translation process of the Bible (al kitab) to modern language

 

The original Hebrew Old Testament (Taurat & Zabur) is in quadrant #1 and is accessible today in the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because the Septuagint was a Hebrew –> Greek translation it is shown as an arrow going from quadrant #1 to #2.  The New Testament was itself originally written in Greek, so this means #2 contains both Old and New Testaments. In the bottom half (#3) is a modern language translation of the Bible (eg English).  To get there the Old Testament is translated from the original Hebrew (1 -> 3) and the New Testament is translated from the Greek (2 -> 3). The translators must decide on transliteration or translation of names and titles as explained previously. This is illustrated with the green arrows labeled transliterate and translate, showing that the translators can take either approach.

The Septuagint witness on the Question of Corruption of Bible

Since the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew around 250 BC we can see (if we reverse translate the Greek back to Hebrew) what these translators had in their Hebrew manuscripts that they translated from.  Since these texts are almost identical this shows that the text of the Old Testament has not changed since at least 250 BC.  The Septuagint was read across the Middle East and Mediterranean for hundreds of years, by Jews, Christians, and even pagans – and even today many in the Middle East still use it. If someone (Christians, Jews or someone else) changed the Old Testament and corrupted it, then the Septuagint would be different from the Hebrew text. But they are essentially the same.

Similarly, if for example someone in Alexandria, Egypt, had corrupted the Septuagint itself then the Septuagint manuscript copies in Alexandria would be different from the other Septuagint manuscripts across the Middle East and Mediterranean. But they are the same. So the data tells us without any contradiction that the Old Testament has not been corrupted.

The Septuagint in Translation

The Septuagint is also used to help with modern translation. Translation scholars use the Septuagint to this very day to help them translate some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament. Greek is very well understood and in some passages where the Hebrew is difficult translators can see how the Septuagint translators understood these obscure passages 2250 years ago.

Understanding translation/transliteration and the Septuagint help us understand where the terms ‘Christ’, ‘Messiah’, and ‘Masih’ come from as these terms relate to Isa (or Jesus – PBUH), which we need to grasp if we are to understand the message of the Injil. We look at this in our next article.

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.

A timeline showing how all ancient books come to us 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):

With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small
With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small

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:

with more manuscript copies it is easier to determine the variant reading
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.   The manuscripts used to translate Bibles today come before the time of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH, and the fact that he confirmed the Bible as he found it in his day is significant since we know just from the manuscripts used that it has not changed from his day.

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, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH
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, and before time of Prophet Mohamed PBUH

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.