Looking for an electronic version of the Qur’an, I found an article “based on transcripts of various lectures given by Yusuf Estes and Gary Miller” comparing the Bible and the Qur’an.

I appreciate the respectful position they (I say “they” as I’m not quite sure to what degree each person was an author, transcriber, translator, or editor) took towards both books and the people who hold to their authority. I wish all people could respectfully and politely disagree in the same manner.

The article carried some interesting objections. As I started to read, I felt like the chap in the Monty Python sketch who goes into an office looking forward to a good argument. Not just an argument: a good argument. I was moderately satisfied. Some of their arguments are valid, but that doesn’t mean they carry much weight. The more weighty arguments revolve around their central thesis, that although the original texts comprising the Bible were divinely inspired,

…the origin of the Bible is clouded with centuries of copying, translating and passing down information, now long lost with only copies of manuscripts remaining to remind us of what once was the Bible.

The article correctly notes that some Christians say the original manuscripts were inerrant and that the copies are inerrant only as far as they correctly duplicate the originals. The article mentions that it

…is an extreme position held only by some Christian groups that the Bible – in its entirety – cover to cover is the revealed word of God in every word, but they do a clever thing when they mention this, or make this claim. They will say that the Bible in its entirety is the word of God; inerrant (no mistakes) in the original writings.

I know there are people who deny that every word in the Bible was inspired, but is it an extreme position to say that every word in the original was inspired? Isn’t the same claim made for the Qur’an? (Maybe the perception of extremity is that Christians believe that the words and prayers of people, such as those in the Psalms, can also be the words of God.) The authors call the Christian argument for the inerrancy of the copies, insofar as they correctly duplicate the original manuscripts, “clever”, which in the context seems to imply that it’s sophistry; playing with words to blur the real issue. But the argument is valid and not difficult to understand.

What is surprising, according to people who study manuscripts, is there are actually so few errors or differences. I don’t recall the precise details, but based on manuscript analysis and studying the causes of errors (like dittography or homoioteleusis) it was said that we can be sure that at least 98.5 per cent of the Bible (or New Testament?) as we have it now is substantially the same as the original manuscripts. I could check the source on this: I know it’s around somewhere, but frankly, at the moment I couldn’t be bothered: not the attitude you want in your blog articles or authors, but I’ve spent long years studying various subjects that impinge of the veracity of the Bible and, with the obvious caveats, I’m convinced that it is God’s message to humanity.

This issue of the accuracy of transmission particularly impressive when you consider the number of documents (66 in a Protestant Bible) and the time over which they were edited and compiled (1,500 years, and 40 authors, give or take proto-books such as Q, and the work of redactors: it’s rather unlikely Moses put in the sections about his own death and burial).

Bear in mind that if one manuscript says “Jesus Christ” and another says “Christ Jesus” this is counted as a difference, although not an error. Also, if 2,000 manuscripts, maybe from the same manuscript family, carry the same difference, it is counted as 2,000 differences, not as 1, However, the authors of this article might argue that this is also a “clever” argument because God is powerful enough to preserve the text in the exact format it was given. Some words have been altered, so it might be argued that God didn’t inspire the Biblical text that was altered, because if God inspired the text He would surely have preserved it exactly. The point has face validity: whether or not it’s how God works is another matter.

The Hebrews scribes believed that they were copying the very words of God and so their methods of copying were fastidious. The discovery of ancient manuscripts, notably the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, testifies to their success. Comparing the DSS with the Masoretic text, whose earliest copies are dated about 900AD I think – a distance in time of about a millennium – it affirms marvellous accuracy of the copying process.

Nevertheless, copying mistakes were made, for different reasons. The article presents evidence that the Bible has been corrupted: mistakes such as the numbers given in 2 Samuel 10:18 versus those given in 1 Chronicles 19:18. This observation is true – it’s rare to find someone who can actually mention a contradiction in the Bible! Most people today are Biblically illiterate – but I think it’s a far cry from establishing their thesis that the Bible is so corrupted that parts of it can’t be trusted.

The article also mentions the Judas’ death as evidence of contradictory accounts. I think it’s simply that one account describes Judas’ suicide and the other, what happened to his body: the rope broke and Judas’ corpse fell onto the rocks, perhaps quite a distance below.

All this could be thought of as majoring on the minors: after all, the centre of Christianity is who Jesus is, and his missing body is the empirical fact that must be satisfactorily explained. Jesus did accept the Old Testament as God’s word, and the article continues with the argument that, because Isaiah 40:8 says, “the word of our God stands forever”, the Bible shouldn’t have any mistakes in it. I would have also added Matthew 5:18, in which Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Far more stringent and particular than the words of the Isaiah reference.

Partly the answer also has to do with what you think of God: is He so powerful that He can allow humans free rein, more or less, and still superintend what they write? Is God so powerful that He can preserve His essential message, even though there are errors in some parts? Personally, I’d naturally think that if the text – every dot and dash – was so important, God wouldn’t leave anything open to error. Then again, I’m not God, and people who irritate me can be thankful for that.

One argument in the article that interested me was the reference about Titus 1:12, where Paul writes that a Cretan prophet said that his own people, Cretans, were “always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” The article said this is an example of the Effeminities [sic: it should be Epimenides] paradox: for example: Statement A says statement B is true, and Statement B says that Statement A is false. But did Paul, or the Cretan poet/prophet (apparently Epimenides), intend for the statement to be taken so literalistically, as a nationality profile? Would they have really believed that no Cretan ever told the truth? Or did they rather intend the statement as an observation on the general untruthfulness of Cretans? Paul was well educated, and would surely have been aware of the logical paradox of taking the Cretan prophet’s words literally. If Paul did take the statement literally, he would surely have told Titus not to ordain any Cretan. But what about Cretans who became Christians? if Cretan Christians could be trusted, through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, then why the warning? Paul knew that false Christians would infiltrate the church, and even for genuine Christians, old habits are difficult to change. The context of the quote is Paul telling Titus what qualifies a person to be an elder in the Cretan churches, how he should conduct ministry among the churches on Crete, and the problems he would have.

In interpreting the text in this way, no paradox exists. Perhaps it’s a “clever” interpretation, but that makes it no less true and valid. Which interpretation you find more amenable depends partly on how well you suspend your bias for or against the full divine authenticity of the Bible. The same applies to other arguments that the article advances.

Other arguments that the article makes may be true yet nonetheless invalid to support the hypothesis that the Qur’an is a divinely inspired document. One such argument, for example, is the Bible lacks reference to itself as a whole (Old Testament and New Testament). But why is self-reference for the entire Bible a criterion for divine authority? How could the Bible refer to itself as a whole, apart such a reference in the last book written? And only then, if the author knew the canon had been formed and that their book was going to be included in the Bible. As mentioned earlier, the Bible is a collection of 66 books (as Protestants count them), written over a period of about 1,500 years, by about 40 different people, some of whom didn’t know their works would be included in the Bible.

Again, there was the argument that not all of the documents carry the divine asseveration of authority; a direct statement that the message was directly given by God. We might expect this, as the article says, so as to give people a chance to accept or reject it; however, we must also beware of imposing our beliefs about what God should do onto what has been done. Moreover, by what standard must a document from God say that it is a proclamation from God? Again, the idea carries face validity, especially because some documents do carry such statements; but anyone can write a book and claim it’s from God, so there must be other criteria (which the article does claim for the Qur’an). In the case of the New Testament, the early Christians used five criteria to determine whether a book was or was not divinely inspired.

The article mentions that Christians might use special pleading to argue their case: for example, that some Christians might argue that Jesus did miracles, so this proves he was God. But, as the article correctly notes, Elijah also did miracles but that doesn’t prove he was God. Arguing for Jesus’ deity only from his miracles would be special pleading if there were no other reasons for thinking that Jesus was greater than a prophet. But there are other reasons: primarily that Jesus claimed to be deity, yet not the same person as the Father. As there are multiple reasons to make the claim for Jesus’ deity, the argument from miracles is supporting evidence, not special pleading.

The article states

It is a fact that the words “son of God” are not found on the lips of Jesus anywhere in the first three Gospel accounts, he was always calling himself the Son of Man.

True as far as it goes. (It is important to note the historical and cultural context of “Son of Man” – read Ezekiel and Daniel: two different meanings.) However, many others – for Jesus and against him – do call Jesus the son of God: Jesus’ disciples, the Roman centurion at the crucifixion, even demons; and the angel Gabriel says to Mary that her firstborn will be called the son of God (Luke 1:35). The important point is that Jesus does not deny their assertions, which we would expect him to do if he truly is, at least, a prophet, and not the son of God. Certainly he should have excoriated the disciples when they worshipped him (Matthew 14:33), and rejected the demons’ statements as false. The Muslim counter-argument to this response would be that ungodly people changed the original documents. However, that’s a lot of changing to do and still make Jesus seem consistent, with the other Gospels, with the epistles and with Christian tradition. Moreover, where are the documents that show a non-divine Jesus, one who doesn’t claim to be the son of God?

One of the closest explicit claims Jesus makes to being the son of God is his answer to the high priest, who asked him (Matthew 26:63), “I charge you by the living God” (an extremely solemn command) “tell us whether you are the Christ, the son of God.” Jesus’ response is, to us, odd: “You have said so.” This was how an educated Jewish person made a solemn affirmation, not by a direct “yes” or “no”.

The article said that using the response of Jesus’ Jewish enemies, who claimed that Jesus asserted he was the son of God, as evidence that Jesus was the son of God, is “a curious form of reasoning”. In fact, evidence from hostile witnesses supporting the defendant’s case is strong confirmation. The crux of Jesus’ trial is that before the Sanhedrin is that he claimed to be the son of God. If the charge of claiming to be the son of God was just what his opponents used, what was their real motive to try to have him killed? And where is the evidence for it?

One of the other problems with this point of the article is that it sets up a claim for proof that might not be justified. We have to take documents on their merits, and measure the evidence by what is there. If we are evaluating the document on the basis of what we think should be there, we run the risk of misinterpretation, based on imposing our values onto the society that produced the document. We have to evaluate cultural validity based on the culture of the document’s author and audience, not of ours. Rejecting an interpretation because it doesn’t meet our expectations indicates we’re doing eisogesis, not exegesis.

One of the reasons Jesus didn’t himself assert propositions such as “I am the Christ” and or “I am the son of God” – although he did confirm it, usually indirectly, when someone said it first – is because of the many false ideas people had about who the Christ and son of God would be, and what he would do. Some thought the Christ/son of God would be a warrior-king who would destroy all Israel’s enemies in a bloody war. Imagine how people would have reacted if Jesus had said, explicitly and publicly, to all and sundry, that he was the son of God, the awaited Christ? Riots and violence to get rid of the Romans – and any others who the various partisans saw as the enemies of God. Look at the crowd who saw him feed the 5,000 plus people: they were going to force the kingship on him (Matthew 6:15). Jesus left before they could do this. Jesus kingship is one of the heart, not one with political borders.

There are other issues the article raises but this is already a long response and I’ve other things I want to do now more than make a point-by-point evaluation. But again, I appreciate the tone of the article, and I can only try to improve my knowledge of the Qur’an to match the author’s knowledge of the Bible.

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