Church Tradition and The Textual Integrity Of The Bible
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
The basis of evaluation of any hadîth (story or report) in Islam of any text concerned particularly with religion is based on the study of matn (i.e., text) and its isnad (i.e., chain of narration).
A hadîth (pl. ahâdîth) is composed of two parts: the matn (text) and the isnad (chain of reporters). A text may seem to be logical and reasonable but it needs an authentic isnad with reliable reporters to be acceptable; cAbdullah b. al-Mubârak (d. 181 AH), one of the illustrious teachers of Imâm al-Bukhârî, said, “The isnad is part of the religion: had it not been for the isnad, whoever wished to would have said whatever he liked.”
The Christian ‘hadîth’ is composed of matn (text) but no isnad (chain of narration). Without isnad, as cAbdullah b. al-Mubarak said, anyone can claim anything saying that it is coming from the authority. The authorities in the case of Christian ‘hadîth’ are the Apostles and later day Church Fathers. But how can one be sure that the Christian ‘hadîth’ is not mixed with falsehood without the proper isnad and its verification?
The Old Testament, to certain extent and the New Testament in toto lack chain of narration. When this argument was put forward, the Christian missionary Jochen Katz wrote:
On 8 Oct 1998, Jochen Katz wrote (on a different thread):
> That is a bogus argument from an Islamic point of view.
Missionaries when cornered try to wiggle out of the argument by calling names. According to Katz, the Islamic argument of using the chain of narration, i.e., isnad, is ‘bogus’ because the New Testament and major part of Old Testament lacks it and above all it is a Muslim argument. By calling the Islamic argument of isnad ‘bogus’ Katz thought that he is already refuted it. Unfortunately, the Orientalists like Bernard Lewis who read this ‘bogus’ Islamic tradition and compares it with the Christian scholarship say that:
From an early date Muslim scholars recognized the danger of false testimony and hence false doctrine, and developed an elaborate science for criticizing tradition. “Traditional science”, as it was called, differed in many respects from modern historical source criticism, and modern scholarship has always disagreed with evaluations of traditional scientists about the authenticity and accuracy of ancient narratives
. But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meagre, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islam in volume, variety and analytical depth.
So, after all this Islamic science of hadîth, called ‘bogus’ by Katz, was so advanced that its Christian counterparts were far far away from its sophistication. Futher where does it sophistication lie?
. . . it would have been easy to invent sayings of Muhammad. Because the cultural background of the Arabs had been oral the evidence that came to be expected was the chain of names of those who had passed on the anecdote containing the saying . . . The study of Traditions rapidly became a distinct branch of the studies of the general religious movement. It was soon realized that false Traditions were in circulation with sayings that Muhammad could not possibly have uttered.
The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views.
This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man’s teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars (on his reliability as a transmitter) and the date of his death. This biography-based critique of Traditions helped considerably to form a more or less common mind among many men throughout the caliphate about what was to be accepted and what rejected.
If the Muslim traditions have been bogus, how come the Jews did not understand this and went on to use the great works composed by Muslims? Saadia Gaon, the famous Jewish linguist, says:
Saadia expresses himself unreservedly about his indebtness to Arabic authors, who served him as models in the composition of his work. “It is reported,” he says, “that one of the worthies among the Ishmaelites, realizing to his sorrow that the people do not use the Arabic language correctly, wrote a short treatise for them. From which they might learn proper usages.
Similarly, I have noticed that many of the Israelites even the common rules for the correct usage of our (Hebrew) language, much less the more difficult rules, so that when they speak in prose most of it is faulty, and when they write poetry only a few of the ancient rules are observed, and majority of them are neglected. This has induced me to compose a work in two parts containing most of the (Hebrew) words.
Guillaume informs us in his preface of the book The Legacy Of Islam:
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century there has been a constant recourse to Arabic for the explanation of rare words and forms in Hebrew; for Arabic though more than a thousand years junior as a literary language, is the senior philosophically by countless centuries. Perplexing phenomenon in Hebrew can often be explained as solitary and archaic survivals of the form which are frequent and common in the cognate Arabic.
Words and idioms whose precise sense had been lost in Jewish tradition, receive a ready and convincing explanation from the same source. Indeed no serious student of the Old Testament can afford to dispense with a first-hand knowledge in Arabic. The pages of any critical commentary on the Old Testament will illustrate the debt of the Biblical exegesis owes to Arabic.
It turns out that the same tradition which Katz addressed as ‘bogus’ result in the exegesis of his own scriptures, the Old Testament.
Since Christianity did not have anything like the ‘tradition’ to evaluate their own material, we see quite a lot of differences. Let us now examine the great tradition of the Church which Katz wants Muslims to trust and also to see which tradition is really bogus.
This document is divided into the following:
1. Church Tradition & The Bible
It must be made clear that there is nothing like one Bible with a set of books. The number of books in the Bible actually depend upon the Church one follows. Therefore if we follow the Church tradition we end with following Bibles. They differ in number of books in both the Old Testament and the New Testament:
Historically, Protestant churches have recognized the Hebrew canon as their Old Testament, although differently ordered, and with some books divided so that the total number of books is thirty-nine. These books, as arranged in the traditional English Bible, fall into three types of literature: seventeen historical books (Genesis to Esther), five poetical books ( Job to Song of Solomon), and seventeen prophetical books. With the addition of another twenty-seven books (the four Gospels, Acts, twenty-one letters, and the book of Revelation), called the New Testament, the Christian scriptures are complete.
The Protestant canon took shape by rejecting a number of books and parts of books that had for centuries been part of the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint and in the Latin Vulgate, and had gained wide acceptance within the Roman Catholic church. In response to the Protestant Reformation, at the Council of Trent (1546) the Catholic church accepted, as deuterocanonical, Tobit, Judith, the Greek additions to Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, three Greek additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), and I and 2 Maccabees. These books, together with those in the Jewish canon and the New Testament, constitute the total of seventy three books accepted by the Roman Catholic church.
The Anglican church falls between the Catholic church and many Protestant denominations by accepting only the Jewish canon and the New Testament as authoritative, but also by accepting segments of the apocryphal writings in the lectionary and liturgy. At one time all copies of the Authorized or King James Version of 1611 included the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments.
The Bible of the Greek Orthodox church comprises all of the books accepted by the Roman Catholic church, plus I Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Slavonic canon adds 2 Esdras, but designates I and 2 Esdras as 2 and 3 Esdras. Other Eastern churches have 4 Maccabees as well. (See below)
Athanasius issued his Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle not only in the Greek but also in Coptic, in a slightly different form – though the list of the twenty seven books of the New Testament is the same in both languages. How far, however the list remained authoritative for the Copts is problematical. The Coptic (Bohairic) translation of the collection knowns as the Eighty-Five Apostlic Canons concludes with a different sequence of the books of the New Testament and is enlarged by the addition of two others: the four Gospels; the Acts of the Apostles; the fourteen Epistles of Paul (not mentioned individually); two Epistles of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; the Apocalypse of John; the two Epistles of Clement.
Until 1959, the Ethiopic Church was under the jurisdiction of the head of Coptic Church. Hence it is not surprising that its canon of Scripture should parallel in some respects that of the Coptic Church.
The Ethiopic church has the largest Bible of all, and distinguishes different canons, the “narrower” and the “broader,” according to the extent of the New Testament. The Ethiopic Old Testament comprises the books of the Hebrew Bible as well as all of the deuterocanonical books listed above, along with Jubilees, I Enoch, and Joseph ben Gorion’s (Josippon’s) medieval history of the Jews and other nations. The New Testament in what is referred to as the “broader” canon is made up of thirty-five books, joining to the usual twenty-seven books eight additional texts, namely four sections of church order from a compilation called Sinodos, two sections from the Ethiopic Book of the Covenant, Ethiopic Clement, and Ethiopic Didascalia. When the “narrower” New Testament canon is followed, it is made up of only the familiar twenty-seven books, but then the Old Testament books are divided differently so that they make up 54 books instead of 46. In both the narrower and broader canon, the total number of books comes to 81.
Bruce Metzger in his book The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development elaborates more on the books accepted by Ethiopic Church. The’broader’ Canon of Ethiopic New Testament consists of the following thirty five books:
The four Gospels
The (seven) Catholic Epistles
The (fourteen) Epistles of Paul
The Book of Revelation
Sinodos (four sections)
The Book of the Covenant (two sections)
The contents of the last four titles in the list are as follows. The Sinodos is a book of church order, comprising an extensive collection of canons, prayers, and instructions attributed to Clement of Rome.
Clement (Qalementos) is a book in seven parts, communicated by Peter to Clement. It is not the Roman or Corinthian correspondence, nor one of the three parts of the Sinodos that are sometimes called 1, 2, and 3 Clement, nor part of the Syriac Octateuch of Clement.
The Book of Covenant (Mashafa kidan) is counted as two parts. The first part of sixty sections comprises chiefly material on church order; section 61 is a discourse of the Lord to his disciples after his resurrection, similar to the Testamentum Domini.
The Ethiopic Didascalia (Didesqelya) is a book of Church order in forty-three chapters, distinct from the Didascalia Apostolorum, but similar to books I-VII of so-called Apostlic Constitutions.
Let us also not forget the Syriac Churches which used to deal with Diatesseron, the four-in-one Gospel, introduced by Tatian which was read in the Syriac Churches for quite some time before it was replaced by Peshitta. Peshitta has again a different number of Books in the New Testament.
This represents for the New Testament an accomodation of the canon of the Syrians with that of the Greeks. Third Corinthians was rejected, and, in addition to the fourteen Pauline Epistles (including Hebrews, following Philemon), three longer Catholic Epistles (James, 1 Peter, and 1 John) were included. The four shorter Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude) and the Apocalypse are absent from the Peshitta Syriac version, and thus the Syriac canon of the New Testament contained but twenty-two writings. For a large part of the Syrian Church this constituted the closing of the canon, for after the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) the East Syrians separated themselves as Nestorians from the Great Church.
Peshitta is still followed by the Christians in the sourthern state of Kerala in India.
Still today the official lectionary followed by the Syrian Orthodox Church, with headquarters at Kottayam (Kerala), and the Chaldean Syriac Church, also known as the the Church of the East (Nestorian), with headquarters at Trichur (Kerala), presents lessons from only the twenty-two books of Peshitta, the version to which appeal is made for the settlement of doctrinal questions.
To make the issue clearer, we are here dealing with different number of books of New Testament followed by different churches all over the world. These are not the different translations of the Bible, the argument which Christian missionaries use to brush the problem under the carpet. Calling another church heretical is not going to work the problem out because there was no single book right from the beginning of Christianity which constituted the New Testament as we would see later, inshallah. The New Testament as we see today, depends upon the Church again(!), is a product of centuries worth of metamorphosis. Under “Canon of the New Testament” the Catholic Encyclopedia says:
The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council.
So, the great Church tradition has not made up her mind on the Bible.
Now this would be big enough problem for the Christian missionaries to ruminate, inshallah. Let us now go into the issue of what the Apostolic Fathers refer to during their time.
Bruce M Metzger, a noted authority on the New Testament, analyzing the Apostolic Fathers viz., Clement of Rome, Ignatius, the Didache, fragments of Papias, Barnabas, Hermas of Rome, and the so-called 2 Clement concludes the following:
By way of summary, we see that Clement’s Bible is the Old Testament, to which he refers repeated as Scripture, quoting it with more or less exactness. Clement also makes occasional reference to certain words of Jesus; though they are authoritative to him, he does not appear to enquire how their authenticity is ensured. In two of the three instances that he speaks of remembering ‘the words’ of Christ or of the Lord Jesus, it seems that he has a written record in mind, but he does not call it a ‘gospel’. He knows several of Paul’s epistles, and values them highly for their content; the same can be said of the Epistle of the Hebrews with which he is well acquainted. Although these writings obviously possess for Clement considerable significance, he never refers to them as authoritative ‘Scripture’.
The upshot of all this is that the primary authority for Ignatius was the apostolic preaching about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, though it made little difference to him whether it was oral or written. He certainly knew a collection of Paul’s epistles, including (in the order of frequency of his use of them) 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. It is probable that he knew the Gospels according to Matthew and John, and perhaps also Luke. There is no evidence that he regarded any of these Gospels or Epistles as ‘Scripture’.
The Didache is a short manual or moral instruction and Church practice. The Church history writer Eusebius and Athanasius even considered to be on the fringe of the New Testament Canon. Assigning the composition of Didache has ranged from first century to fourth century by the scholars, but most of them prefer to assign it in the first half of the second century. Metzger summarizes the book as:
By way of summary, we can see from Didache that itinerant apostles and Prophets still find an important place in the life of the Church, but this authority is declining. Their activity is surrounded by all sorts of precautions and rests ultimately on the authority of the traditional teaching deriving from the Lord, whose manner they must exhibit: ‘Not everyone who speaks in a spirit is a prophet, except he have the ways of the Lord. By their ways, then, the false prophet and the true prophet shall be distinguished’ (xi. 8). The author refers to the gospel, but he cites only words of Jesus. This ‘gospel’, which is without doubt the Gospel according to Matthew, is not regarded as a necessary source from which the words of the Lord, with indispensable warrants, come to the faithful, but quite simply as a convenient collection of these words.
By way of summary, Papias stands as a kind of bridge between the oral and written stages in the transmission of the gospel tradition. Although he professes to have a marked preference for the oral tradition, one nevertheless sees at work the causes that, more and more, would lead to the rejection of that form of tradition in favour of written gospels. On the whole, therefore, the testimony of Papias concerning the development of the canon of the New Testament is significant chiefly in reflecting the usage of the community in which devotion to oral tradition hindered the development of a clear idea of canonicity.
Epistle of Barnabas is a theological tract. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen valued the work highly and attributed its composition Barnabas, the companion and co-worker of the apostle Paul.
Metzger summarizes the position of Barnabas concerning the scripture as the following.
By way of summary, one can see that for Barnabas the Scriptures are what we call the Old Testament, including several books outside the Hebrew canon. Most of his contacts with the Synoptic traditions involve simple sentences that might well have been known to a Christian of that time from oral tradition. As against the single instance of his using the formula, ‘it is written’, in introducing the statement, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, must be placed his virtual neglect of the New Testament. If, on the other hand, he wrote shortly before or after 130, the focus of his subject matter would not make it necessary to do much quoting from New Testament books – if indeed he knew many of them. In either case he provides no evidence for the development of the New Testament canon.
By way of summary, the short Epistle of Polycarp contains proportionately far more allusions to the writings of the New Testament than are present in any other of the Apostolic Fathers. He certainly had a collection of at least eight Pauline Epistles (including two of the Pastorals), and was acquainted as well with Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 John. As for the Gospels, he cites as sayings of the Lord phrases that we find in Matthew and Luke. With one exception, none of Polycarp’s many allusions is cited as Scripture – and that exception, as we have seen, is held by some to have been mistakenly attributed to the Old Testament. At the same time Polycarp’s mind is not only saturated with ideas and phrases derived from a considerable number of writings that later came to be regarded as New Testament Scriptures, but he also displays latent respect for these apostolic documents as possessing an authority lacking in other writings. Polycarp, as Grant remarks, ‘clearly differentiates the apostolic age from his own time and, presumably for this reason, does not use the letters of Ignatius as authorities�even though they “contain faith, endurance, and all the edification which pertains to our Lord” (xiii. 2)’.
By way of summary, it is obvious that Hermas was not given to making quotations from literature; in fact, the only actual book anywhere named and quoted in the Shepherd ( Vis. ii. 3) is an obscure Jewish apocalypse known as the book of Eldad and Modat. Despite reminiscences from Matthew, Ephesians, and James, Hermas makes no comment that would lead us to think that he regarded them as canonical Scripture. From the testimony contained in the Shepherd, it can in any case be observed how uneven during the course of the second century was the development of the idea of the canon.
This work is not the genuine work of Clement of Rome. This is regarded as an early Christian sermon. The style of this work is different from that of 1 Clement. Both date and composition of this work are difficult to determine. It was probably written around 150 CE. Metzger summarizes the contents of this work as:
By way of recapitulation, the unknown author of 2 Clement certainly knew and used Matthew and Luke, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. There is no trace of the Johannine Gospel or Epistles, or of the Book of Acts. And one can not say more than that he may have known Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter. Of the eleven times he cites words of Jesus, five are not to be found in the canonical Gospels. The presence of these latter, as well as the citation in xi. 2-4 of an apocryphal book of the Old Testament, introduced as ‘the prophetic word’, shows that our homilist’s quotations of divinely authoritative words are not controlled by any strict canonical idea, even in relation to Old Testament writings.
After studying the writings of all the Apostolic Fathers, Bruce Metzger concludes that:
For early Jewish Christians the Bible consisted of the Old Testament and some Jewish apocryphal literature. Along with this written authority went traditions, chiefly oral, of sayings attributed to Jesus. On the other hand, authors who belonged to the ‘Hellenistic Wing’ of the Church refer more frequently to writings that later came to be included in the New Testament. At the same time, however, they very rarely regarded such documents as ‘Scripture’.
Furthermore, there was as yet no conception of the duty of exact quotation from books that were not yet in the full sense canonical. Consequently, it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to ascertain which New Testament books were known to early Christian writers; our evidence does not become clear until the end of second century.
We have evidence of the spotty development and treatment of the writings later regarded as the New Testament in the second and third centuries CE. Gradually written Gospels, and collections of epistles, different ones in different regions, became to be more highly regarded.
So for 200 years or so there was nothing like New Testament to begin with. The great Church tradition did not even bother to collect the ‘Scriptures’ between two covers!
3. Church Tradition & The Early Lists Of The Books Of The New Testament
Now when the Church tradition finally started to make up her mind on compiling the New Testament various lists of books in the Canons of the Bible were drawn. Bruce Metzger gives the following list of the Canons of the Bible drawn at different times in the ‘western’ Church. Please note that we still do not have the great deal of idea about how many lists were drawn in the Eastern Churches such as Coptic and Ethiopic. The following are the canons drawn at various points of time in the Church history.
To complete the thoughts about how the New Testament evolved, a brief survey of early lists of the books of the New Testament is necessary. The list is taken from Appendix IV of Bruce Metzger’s The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development.
- The Muratorian Canon
- The Canon Of Origen (A.D. c. 185 – 254)
- The Canon Of Eusebius Of Caesarea (A.D. 265 – 340)
- A Canon Of Uncertain Date And Provenance Inserted in Codex Claromontanus
- The Canon Of Cyril Of Jerusalem (c. A.D. 350)
- The Cheltenham Canon (c. A.D. 360)
- The Canon Approved By The Synod Of Laodicea (c. A.D. 363)
- The Canon Of Athanasius (A.D. 367)
- The Canon Approved By The ‘Apostolic Canons’ (c. A.D. 380)
- The Canon Of Gregory Of Nazianzus (A.D. 329 – 89)
- The Canon Of Amphilochius Of Iconium (d. 394)
- The Canon Approved By The Third Synod Of Carthage (A.D. 397)
The earliest exact reference to the ‘complete’ New Testament as we now know it was in the year 367 CE, in a letter by Athanasius. This did not settle the matter. Varying lists continued to be drawn up by different church authorities as can be seen from above.
The Catholic Church proclaims itself to be the authority for the Canon and the interpretation of scripture, therefore the owner of the list of 27 books. Nevertheless, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, entry “Canon of NT” proclaims that 20 books of the New Testament are inherently worth more than the 7 deuterocanonical books (Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Revelation), acknowledging that the authenticity or reliability of them had already been challenged by ancient Christian authorities.
The Catholic New Testament, as defined by the Council of Trent, does not differ, as regards the books contained, from that of all Christian bodies at present. Like the Old Testament, the New has its deuterocanonical books and portions of books, their canonicity having formerly been a subject of some controversy in the Church. These are for the entire books: the Epistle to the Hebrews, that of James, the Second of St. Peter, the Second and Third of John, Jude, and Apocalypse; giving seven in all as the number of the New Testament contested books.
The formerly disputed passages are three: the closing section of St. Mark’s Gospel, xvi, 9-20 about the apparitions of Christ after the Resurrection; the verses in Luke about the bloody sweat of Jesus, xxii, 43, 44; the Pericope Adulteræ, or narrative of the woman taken in adultery, St. John, vii, 53 to viii, 11. Since the Council of Trent it is not permitted for a Catholic to question the inspiration of these passages.
We will deal more with the individual books (i.e., Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Revelation) later, inshallah.
4. Church Tradition & ‘Inspiration’ Of New Testament Books
Whatever this word ‘inspiration’ means in the Church tradition to select the books, it does not mean what it actually means. A small list of the following books which are not there in the present day New Testament were at once time considered ‘inspired’. Going further in history as the concept of New Testament ‘Canon’ evolved many books were considered ‘inspired’ which we do not see in the Bibles of 20th century. A brief survey of those books would be considered here.
Several of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were for a time regarded in some localities as authoritative. The Didache was used both by Clement of Alexandria and by Origen as Scripture, and there is evidence that during the following century it continued to be so regarded in Egypt.
The text of the (First) Epistle of Clement is contained, along with a portion of the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, at the end of the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus of the Greek Bible (the manuscript is defective at the end). Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen all made use of the epistle. We know that about A.D. 170 it was customary to read 1 Clement in public services of worship at Corinth.
The Epistle of Barnabas was for a time on the fringe of the canon. Clement of Alexandria regarded it as of sufficient importance to write a commentary on it in his Hypotyposes, now lost. Origen calls it ‘catholic’, a term that he elsewhere applies to 1 Peter and 1 John. It stands after the New Testament in the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus of the Greek Bible.
The Shepherd of Hermas was used as Scripture by Irenaeus, Tertullian (before his conversion to Montanism), Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, though according to Origen it was not generally read in church. The Muratorian Canon reflects the esteem in which the work was held at the time that list was compiled, but according to the unknown compiler, it might be read but not proclaimed as Scripture in church.
Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria had a very ‘open’ canon, i.e., he did not mind using the materials of pagans, ‘heretics’ and other Christian literature. It is worthwhile reminding here that we have already seen different set of books in Ethiopic and Coptic Church.
5. Church Tradition & Manuscripts
As much as there is a variation is the canons of the Bible as well as in its ‘inspiration’, it is reflected in the manuscripts too. Below is some material taken from The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, Under “Text, NT”. Interestingly enough, this section starts with The Problem. Many Christian apologists prefer to brush this well-known problem under the carpet as if it does not exist!
THE PROBLEM. The NT is now known, whole or in part, in nearly five thousand Greek MSS alone. Every one of these handwritten copics differ from every other one. In addition to these Greek MSS, the NT has been preserved in more than ten thousand MSS of the early versions and in thousands of quotations of the Church Fathers. These MSS of the versions and quotations of the Church Fathers differ from one another just as widely as do the Greek MSS. Only a fraction of this great mass of material has been fully collated and carefully studied. Until this task is completed, the uncertainty regarding the text of the NT will remain.
It has been estimated that these MSS and quotations differ among themselves between 150,000 and 250,000 times. The actual figure is, perhaps, much higher. A study of 150 Greek MSS of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings. It is true, of course, that the addition of the readings from another 150 MSS of Luke would not add another 30,000 readings to the list. But each MS studied does add substantially to the list of variants. It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the NT in which the MS tradition is wholly uniform.
Many thousands of these different readings are variants in orthography or grammar or style and however effect upon the meaning of the text. But there are many thousands which have a definite effect upon the meaning of the text. It is true that not one of these variant readings affects the substance of Christian dogma. It is equally true that many of them do have theological significance and were introduced into the text intentionally. It may not, e.g., affect the substance of Christian dogma to accept the reading “Jacob the father of Joseph, and Joseph (to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed) the father of Jesus who is called ‘Christ'” (Matt. 1:16), as does the Sinaitic Syriac; but it gives rise to a theological problem.
It has been said that the great majority of the variant readings in the text of the NT arose before the books of the NT were canonized and that after those books were canonized, they were very carefully copied because they were scripture. This, however, is far from being the case.
It is true, of course, that many variants arose in the very earliest period. There is no reason to suppose, e.g., that the first person who ever made a copy of the autograph of thc Gospel of Luke did not change his copy to conform to the particular tradition with which he was familiar. But he was under no compulsion to do so. Once the Gospel of Luke had become scripture, however, the picture was changed completely. Then the copyist was under compulsion to change his copy, to correct it. Because it was scripture, it had to be right.
After reading all this, does not the Muslim position of the corruption of the Bible hold water? And of course, again which Bible manuscript is inspired?
Now we all know that none of the variants that are there in the Bible have a chain of narration or isnad. So it is very hard to say which one or ones is the true reading and the other the bogus one. So, futher on we read:
Many thousands of the variants which are found in the MSS of the NT were put there deliberately. They are not merely the result of error or of careless handling of the text. Many were created for theological or dogmatic reasons (even though they may not affect the substance of Christian dogma). It is because the books of the NT are religious books, sacred books, canonical books, that they were changed to conform to what the copyist believed to be the true reading. His interest was not in the “original reading but in the “true reading.”
This is precisely the attitude toward the NT which prevailed from the earliest times to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the invention of printing. The thousands of Greek MSS, MSS of the versions, and quotations of the Church Fathers provide the source for our knowledge of the earliest or original text of the NT and of the history of the transmission of that text before the invention of printing.
Now if you do not know what the “original reading” is, then there is no point talking about ‘believing’ in what is supposed to be the “original” reading. So, this is the great Christian Church tradition which cannot even produce two identical manuscripts! Furthermore on “original” reading one can say that since there are no original manuscripts, there is not point talking about “original” reading at all. This search for “original” reading would be a guess work or ‘consensus’. Indeed the Acts of Apostles has earned the notoriety for the variant readings.
In fact no book of the NT gives evidence of so much verbal variation as does the Acts of Apostles. Besides the text represented in the oldest uncial Greek MSS, begin with the Codex Vaticanus, often called the Neutral Text and dating back to the second century AD, there is evidence either of a consistent alternative text equally old, or of a series of early miscellaneous variants, to which the name Western text is traditionally applied.
The ancient authorities of the Western Text of Acts include only one Greek (or rather bilingual Greek and Latin) uncial MS, Codex Bezae of the fifth or sixth century. But the variants often have striking content and strong early support from Latin writers and Latin NT MSS. It now appears that while both the Neutral and Western texts were in circulation, the former is the more likely of the two to represent the original.
Apart from the notorious variation, we also have the problem of which text is the original text. Since we do not know which one is original, the guess work in pressed into service. This is one such example of guess work. And how come guess work leads to truth?
We have already seen that the there is no original document of the Bible available to us to verify its inerrancy doctrine. Concerning the New Testament documents The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible confirms that:
The original copies of the NT books have, of course, long since disappeared. This fact should not cause surprise. In the first place, they were written on papyrus, a very fragile and persihable material. In the second place, and probably of even more importance, the original copies of the NT books were not looked upon as scripture by those of the early Christian communities.
So, the Qur’an in this aspect is far more better placed than the Bible with all the Qiraa’a associated with it clearly listed with detailed chain of narrations going back to the Companions of the Prophet(P) who in turn learnt the Qur’an from the Prophet(P) himself.
6. Church Tradition & The Six ‘Disputed’ Books
As we have seen above that the books of Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude and Revelation had quite a dubious history of the entry into the canon, it is time that we have a cursory glance over their comparatively recent history.
Zwingli, at the Berne disputation of 1528, denied that Revelation was a book of the New Testament.
Martin Luther condemned the Epistle of James as worthless, an ‘epistle of straw.’ Furthermore, he denigrated Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse (Revelation). He did not omit them from his German Bible, but drew a line in the table of contents, putting them on a lower level than the rest of the New Testament. In Prefaces to each of these books, Luther explains his doubts as to their apostolic as well as canonical authority.
The reformer known as Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt (1480-1541) divided the New Testament into three ranks of differing dignity. On the lowest level are the seven disputed books of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse (Revelation).
Oecolampadius in 1531 under Wurttemberg Confession declared that while all 27 books should be received, the Apocalypse (Revelation), James, Jude, 2 Peter 2 and 3 John should not be compared to the rest of the books.
Early in his career, Erasmus (d. 1536) doubted that Paul was the author of Hebrews, and James of the epistle bearing the name. He also questioned the authorship of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The style of Revelation precludes it from being written by the author of the Fourth Gospel.
The same four books are labeled ‘Apocrypha’ in a Bible from Hamburg in 1596. In Sweden, beginning in 1618, the Gustavus Adolphus Bible labels the four dubious books as ‘Apocryphal New Testament.’ This arrangement lasted for more than a century.
With all the gory details of the Church history and the Bible are out, with no clear cut indication of the Bible and its ‘inspiration’, why would any Muslim even bother to read it? And above all why should a Christian missionaries would push such a dubious set of scriptures down the throat of Muslims? And above all why call it injil?
cAbdullah Ibn Mascud, the well known Companion of the Prophet(P), is reported to have said:
Do not ask the ahl al-kitab about anything (in tafsir), for they cannot guide you and are themselves in error….
If Christianity has got the biographies of the people who transmitted their New Testament or Old Testament as well as their traditions, it would compete with the Islamic science of hadîth. Alas, with no isnad, who is going to believe in their Bible and what is in it? And as the illustrious teacher of Imaam Bukhari had said:
“The isnad is part of the religion: had it not been for the isnad, whoever wished to would have said whatever he liked.“
The lack of isnad and people drawing different Canons of the Bible seem to be the problem of people saying whatever they wished. Any one would claim anything and the Bible canon seems to reflect precisely that.
And look how bogus the missionary argument turned out to be!
A Few Questions
As Muslims we are obliged to ask:
- Which Bible or the books are inspired? Is it the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Ethiopic, Coptic or the Syriac? Please remember that they contain different number of books. It is just not the “oh! those are different translations”.
- How can we trust the Church tradition when she herself cannot produce a reliable bunch of books worth calling a Bible?
- Why should we trust the Church which cannot even produce a set of manuscripts throughout the centuries which can be relied on instead of the guess work to find which reading is the original?
- How do we know that Jesus(P) said what is there in the Bible as there is no way of confirm how his words got transmitted? This is one of the major argument of Islamic traditionalists against the Older scriptures which deal with Israa’iliyat stuff. And they were rejected outright for very obvious reasons.
And if Christian missionaries cannot answer these question, there is no point calling the Bible as a reliable document. Therefore, an unreliable document is worth not calling a ‘Scripture’.
Other Articles Related To The Textual Reliability Of The Bible
Extracts From The Book How We Got Our Bible
 Suhaib Hasan, An Introduction To The Science Of Hadîth, 1995, Darussalam Publishers, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, p. 11.
 Bernard Lewis, Islam In History, 1993, Open Court Publishing, pp.104-105.
 W Montgomery Watt, What Is Islam?, 1968, Longman, Green and Co. Ltd., pp. 124-125.
 Henry Malter, Saadia Gaon: His Life And Works, 1921, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, pp. 39-40.
 Alfred Guillaume, The Legacy Of Islam, 1931, Oxford, p. ix.
 Bruce M Metzger & Michael D Coogan (Ed.), Oxford Companion To The Bible, 1993, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, pp. 79 (Under ‘Bible’).
 Bruce M Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, 1997, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 225.
 Metzger, Oxford Companion To The Bible, Op.Cit, p. 79.
 Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, Op.Cit, pp. 227-228.
 Ibid., p. 219.
 Ibid., p. 220.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia Online Edition.
 Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, Op.Cit, p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 49.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Ibid., pp. 55-56.
 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
 Ibid., pp. 62-63.
 Ibid., p. 67.
 Ibid., pp. 71-72.
 Ibid., pp. 72-73.
 Ibid., pp. 305-315.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia Online Edition.
 Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, Op.Cit, pp. 187-188.
 Ibid., p. 188.
 Ibid., pp.130-135.
 George Arthur Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, Volume 4, 1962 (1996 Print), Abingdon Press, Nashville, pp. 594-595 (Under Text, NT).
 George Arthur Buttrick (Ed.), The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, Volume 1, pp. 41 (Under “Acts of the Apostles”).
 Ibid., p. 599 (Under “Text, NT’).
 Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, Op.Cit, p. 273.
 Ibid., p. 243.
 Ibid., pp. 241-242.
 Ibid., p. 244.
 Ibid., p. 241.
 Ibid., pp. 244-245.
 Ahmad von Denffer, cUlûm al-Qur’an, 1994, The Islamic Foundation, p. 134.