Who Is Afraid Of Textual Criticism?

𝐖𝐡𝐨 𝐈𝐬 𝐀𝐟𝐫𝐚𝐢𝐝 𝐎𝐟 𝐓𝐞𝐱𝐭𝐮𝐚𝐥 𝐂𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐢𝐬𝐦?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


Who is afraid of the textual criticism? According to the Christian missionaries, Muslims are scared of textual criticism not the Christians. The aim of this page is to investigate as well as highlight the myriad of dishonest statements made by the Christian missionaries concerning the textual criticism of the Qur’an and the Bible. And it will also be shown that who precisely is and should be scared of textual criticism. The Christian critic at says:

Many Muslims try to capitalize in their debates on the fact that there are variant readings of Biblical text in the many manuscripts we have of it. This is natural for handcopied texts and nothing else can be expected. Just try yourself to copy down by hand twenty pages of any book, then let a friend proofread it and see how many mistakes he finds.

Well, it appears that the Christian missionary has no clue of how the variants crept into the Bible. His claim is that handcopied texts have variant readings which are unintentional. But then do the Bible scholars say the same thing? Bruce Metzger, one of the leading Bible scholar, has quite a lot to talk about the variant readings or more precisely the errors in the New Testament. He categorizes them as Unintentional Errors and Intentional Changes.[1]

1. Unintentional errors

  1. Errors arising from faulty eyesight
  2. Errors arising from faulty hearing
  3. Errors of the mind
  4. Errors of judgement

2. Intentional changes

  1. Changes involving spelling and grammar
  2. Harmonistic corruptions
  3. Addition of natural complements and similar adjuncts
  4. Clearing up historical and geographical difficulties
  5. Conflation of readings
  6. Alterations made because of doctrinal considerations
  7. Addition of miscellaneous details

Certainly, this goes beyond the simple copying of the text and introducing errors while doing so! Jerome complained of the copyists who

write down not what they find but what they think is the meaning; and while they attempt to rectify the errors of others, they merely expose their own.[2]

So, it is quite clear that the copyists also made intentional errors involving change of spelling and grammar to doctrinal considerations.

We have divided this document into the following sections.

  1. J Mill
  2. R Bentley
  3. J J Wettstein
  4. B F Westcott & J A Hort

The first section deals with the issue of variant readings in the Qur’an and in the Bible. It also discusses the results of the textual criticism of each of them. The second section deals with the attitude of the Church towards textual criticism. This would make one aware of the fact how strongly the Church reacted to the collossal number of variant readings of the New Testament that shook the foundations of its inerrancy.

1. Variant Readings In The Qur’an & In The Bible

This section is sub-divided into two for discussing the individual texts, i.e., the Qur’an and the Bible. We will first start with the Qur’an and then go to the Bible, inshallah.

The Qur’an, Its Variant Readings & Islamic Scholarship

Further, it is claimed that:

It is humanly nearly impossible to copy by hand without any error. In a certain sense Muslims have the “advantage” that Christians have carefully documented these variants in scholarly journals and monographs. Christian and secular scholars are openly discussing these problems in the discipline of textual criticism.

It seems the Christian writer wants to say that Muslims are hiding their variant readings whereas the Christians are open about it by publishing and discussing them in scholarly journals. Certainly he has no clue about how the Muslims have treated their Qirâ’at readings (which is sometimes wrongly called as ‘variant readings’). But before that it is worthwhile pointing out that the book of Arthur Jeffery Materials For The History Of The Text Of The Qur’an: The Old Codices used by Christian missionaries to show that the Qur’an is “corrupted” gets all the variant readings from the classical sources of Qur’anic exegesis and some of them more than 1000 years old! According to Jeffery [3]:

The material which follows is taken from the writer’s collections made with a view to a critical text of the Qur’an….. The main sources from which the variants have been drawn are:

Abû Hayyân, al-Bahar al-Muhit, 8 Volumes, Cairo 1328.

Alusî, Ruh al-Macani Fi Tafsîr al-Qur’an Wa Sab’ al-Mathani, 30 Volumes, Cairo, n.d.

Baghawî, Macalim at-Tanzil, 7 Volumes, Cairo 1332.

Baidawî, Anwâr at-Tanzil Wa Asrar at-Tawil, 5 Prints, Cairo, 1330.

Balawi, Kitâb Alîf Ba’, 2 Volumes, Cairo, 1287.

Banna, Ithaf Fudala al-Bashar Ai’l-Qirâ’ât al-Arba’ata ‘Ashar, Cairo, 1317.

Fakhr ad-Dîn ar-Râzî, Mafatih al-Ghaib, 8 Volumes, Cairo, 1327.

Farra’, Kitâb Macani al-Qur’an, Ms. Stambul, Nuru Osmaniya 459.

Ibn al-Anbarî, Kitâb al-Insaf, Ed. Gotthold Weil, Leiden, 1913.

Ibn Hisham, Mughni al-Labîb, 2 Prints, Cairo, 1347.

Ibn Hisham, Tahdhib at-Tawadih, 2 Prints, Cairo, 1329.

Ibn Jinnî, Nichtkanonische Koranlesarten im Muhtasab des Ibn Ginni, von G Bergstrasser, Munchen, 1933.

Ibn Khalawaih, Ibn Halawaihs Sammlung nichtkanonischer Koranlesarten, Herausgegeben von G Bergstrasser, Stambul, 1934.

Ibn Manzur, Lisân al-cArab, 20 Volumes, Cairo, 1307.

Ibn Ya’ish, Commentary To The Mufassal, Ed., Jahn, 2 Volumes, Liepzig, 1882.

Khafaji, ‘Inayat al-Qadi wa Kifayat ar-Radi, 8 Volumes, Cairo, 1283.

Marandî, Qurrat ‘Ain al-Qurra, Ms. Escorial, 1337.

Muttaqî al-Hindî, Kanz al-‘Ummal, Volume 2, Hyderabad, 1312.

Nasafi, Madarik at-Tanzil wa Haqa’iq at-Ta’wil, 4 Volumes, Cairo, 1333.

Nisaburî, Ghara’ib al-Qur’an (On The Margin Of Tafsir at-Tabari).

Qunawî, Hashia calâ l-Baidawi, 7 Volumes, Stambul, 1285.

Qurtubî, Al-Jâmic li Ahkam al-Qur’an, 2 Volumes (All So Far Published), Cairo, 1935.

Shawkanî, Fath al-Qadir, 5 Volumes, Cairo, 1349.

Sibawaih, Le Livre de Sibawaih, Ed. Derenbourg, 2 Volumes, Paris, 1889.

Suyûtî, Al-Itqan fî cUlûm al-Qur’an, Ed. Sprenger, Calcutta, 1857.

Suyûtî, Al-Durr al-Manthur fî ‘t-Tafsîr al-Ma’thur, 6 Volumes, Cairo, 1314.

Suyûtî, Al-Muzhir, 2 Volumes, Cairo, 1282.

Tabarî, Al-Jâmic al-Bayân fî Tafsîr al-Qur’an, 30 Volumes, Cairo, 1330.

Tabarasi, Majma’ al-Bayân fî-cUlûm al-Qur’an, 2 Volumes, Tehran, 1304.

‘Ukbarî, Imla’ fi ‘l-I’rab wa ‘l-Qirâ’ât fi Jâmic al-Qur’an, 2 Parts, Cairo, 1321.

‘Ukbarî, Icrab al-Qirâ’ât ash-Shadhdha, MS Mingana Islamic Arabic, 1649.

Zamakhsharî, Al-Kashshâf, Ed. Nassau Lees, Calcutta, 1861.

In these classical sources, the variant readings are well documented and they were discussed extensively from the point of view of grammar and their origin. Hence more than 1000 years ago, even before the Biblical criticism was conceived, Muslims knew what the variant readings of the Qur’an were and from where they originated. And it is the Christian missionaries who really had the “advantage” and have used the Qirâ’at dishonestly to assert that the Qur’an is corrupted.

It is clear from the sources quoted above that Muslims were neither scared nor uncomfortable with dealing with the variant readings. They were rather professional in their approach towards dealing with the variant readings and also developed an elaborate science called “cUlûm al-Qirâ’at”. Bernard Lewis in his book Islam in History writes:

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.[4]

So, long before the textual criticism of the Bible originated, Muslims already went through the process of textual criticism. The Qirâ’at were well-known among the Muslims. It is also worthwhile to point out that even to this day Muslims recite the Qur’an in various Qirâ’at. Moreover, these are also available in printed editions.

Adrian Brockett after studying the Hafs and Warsh Qirâ’at says ( See his article “The Value of Hafs And Warsh Transmissions For The Textual History Of The Qur’an”):

The transmission of the Qur’an after the death of Muhammad was essentially static, rather than organic. There was a single text, and nothing significant, not even allegedly abrogated material, could be taken out nor could anything be put in.[5]

In conclusion it can be said that the Muslims had the ‘critical text’ right from the time of the Prophet(P).

The Christian critic adds:

In particular, let us ask why some of the oldest manuscripts are not photographically reproduced and made available to the public and the scholars. Why not start with the Topkapi manuscript in Istambul, the Taschkent manuscript, and the two old manuscripts in Cairo and Damascus. They are not Uthmanic manuscripts as some believe, but they are quite old.

The oldest Qur’anic manuscripts dating from 1st century of hijra are available here.

Firstly, when we have a Qur’an text right from the time of the Prophet(P) and know the variant readings associated with it beforehand, why do they need the superfluous work of going through the manuscripts to check out variant readings?

Secondly, it is a well known fact that all the Qur’ans, in manuscript or in printing are written in what is called al-Rasm al-cUthmâni, the cUthmanic way of writing of the text of the Qur’an. It is also referred to as Rasm al-mushaf. As the copies of the Qur’an made by the order of cUthmân were meant to be authoritative, it is no wonder that their rasm assumed authority as the correct way of writing the Qur’an.

Alongside the development of studies in Arabic grammar, Arabic orthography also developed for linguistic and literary material, and although the cUthmânic rasm was one of the sources of ordinary orthography the latter began to differ from the cUthmânic rasm of the Qur’an. The question was asked whether it was admissible to write the Qur’an itself in the new orthography. Mâlik (179/795) was asked and said:

No, the Qur’an should be written only in the way of the first writing. He was also asked whether the additional waaw and alif (as in the word ) should be deleted since they were not pronounced and said no. Similarly Ibn Hanbal (244/858) said it was unlawful to deviate in writing the mushaf in wâw, yâ, alif or any other way. In line with such views, it will be seen that adherence to the Qur’anic rasm has persisted up to the present.

Along with numerous other aspects of the Qur’an, its orthography was singled out as a separate branch of study known as cIlm al-Rasm. Abû cAmr Al-Dânî (444/1052) examined in detail the characteristics of this rasm. His book al-Muqnic remained an important authority – Suyûtî (909/1503) reduced the rules of Qur’anic rasm to 6 as follows:

1. The rule of deletion, hadhf
2. The rule of addition, ziyâdah
3. The rule of substitution, badal
4. The rule of the hamza,
5. The rule of joining and separating, al-wasl wa-l-fasl
6. The rule of cases where there are two canonical readings but the text is written according to one of them, ma fihi Qirâ’atan fa-kutiba calâ ihdâhumâ.[6]

It is quite clear that the al-Rasm al-cUthmâ, the cUthmânic way of writing of the text of the Qur’an, has persisted up to the present and hence Muslims knew for sure how to write the Qur’an in the past. It is worthwhile to mention the work of Nabia Abbott. In her book The Rise of The North Arabic Script & Its Kur’ânic Development, she presents some Qur’an parchments and manuscripts dating from 1st, 2nd and 3rd century AH as well as later ones.[7] It is interesting to note that she did not mention any textual differences except for a scribal error in one of the manuscripts.[8]

Thirdly, the diacritical marks were introduced very early to make sure that the Qur’an was read correctly.

Arabic orthography at the time was not yet developed in the way we have known for centuries, particularly in two important areas. There was no distinction between letters of the alphabet of similar shape and there were no vowel marks. This may now give the impression that such a system must have given rise to great confusion in reading. This was not actually the case because the morphological patterns of words in Arabic enable readers to read even very unfamiliar material without the short vowels being marked.

More important, however, as far as the Qur’an was concerned, was the fact that learning and reading relied above all on oral transmission. In the Islamic tradition, writing remained a secondary aid; nevertheless, to ensure correct reading of the written texts of the Qur’an, particularly for those coming after the first generation of Muslims, steps were taken gradually to improve the orthography.

This started with the two above mentioned areas by introducing dots to indicate different vowels and nunation and these were put in different coloured ink from that of the text. There were also dots to distinguish between consonants of similar shape. This work was carried out chiefly by three men:

Abu-l-Aswad al-Du’ali (d. 69 / 688), Nasr Ibn cAsim (d. 89 / 707) and Yahyâ Ibn Yacmur (d.129 /746). Understandably there was some opposition at first to adding anything to the way the Qur’an was written. Ibn cUmar (73/692) disliked the dotting; others welcomed it, clearly because it was, in fact, doing no more than ensuring proper reading of the Qur’an as received from the Prophet, and this view was accepted by the majority of Muslims throughout the different parts of the Muslims world, from the time of the tâbicûn. 

The people of Madinah were reported to have used red dots for vowels – tanwîn, tashdîd, takhfîf, sukûn, wasl and madd and yellow dots for the hamzas in particular. Naqt (placing dots on words in the mushaf), became a separate subject of study with many books written on it.

Al-Khalîl Ibn Ahmad (d.170/786) introduced the traditional vowel signs into Arabic orthography instead of the dots, but tht dotting system continued in writing Qur’anic material. Eventually the traditional vowel signs were adopted for the Qur’an.[9]

Summarizing the work of Muslim orthodoxy it is pretty clear that it took great steps to preserve the Qur’an by adding taskeel marks for proper recitation as well as writing the Qur’an in the way it was written in the al-Rasm al-cUthmâni. So, both the oral as well as written Qur’an was secured well before the first century AH.

And let us now compare the Qur’an with the New Testament. We clearly know that the guiding principles of making a Qur’anic manuscript was (and is!) al-Rasm al-cUthmâni, i.e., the cUthmânic way of writing the text of the Qur’an. So, we know well that anything which deviates from this way of writing is in error.

So, the Qur’an textual criticism is not subjected to mercy of the manuscripts. On the other hand, the New Testament is which had no guidelines to write as well as no guidelines how to recite; for more than 150 years or so, it was not considered as a scripture!. Therefore, it ran into the problems of living the life of a ‘living text’.

And hence the modern day scholars are trying to figure out what the ‘original reading’ is from the mass of divergent manuscript evidence that we have. The Nestle-Aland critical text is in its 27th edition. Since most of the Bible translations are based on this text, a wait of couple of decades would make the ‘Word’ of God running into 28th or 29th edition, inshallah.

Of course, remembering the fact that Nestle-Aland’s text is a working text and as more manuscript evidence gets in, revision will take place. And the text New Testament would be a slave of the New Testament manuscript evidence. More about this in the next section, inshallah.

Let us now deal with the issue of manuscripts of the Qur’an. Let us again reproduce what the Christian critic had to say:

In particular, let us ask why some of the oldest manuscripts are not photographically reproduced and made available to the public and the scholars.

Where is the proof that there is not access to Qur’anic manuscripts? There are many old manuscripts kept in Western countries. We’ve all heard of the huge collection of manuscripts that was kept in Germany, but destroyed during the Second World War.[10] 

According to Muhammad Hamidullah, in a lecture given in Islamic University of Bahawalpur, Pakistan, in his conversation with Pretzl in Paris the total number of Qur’anic manuscripts in were 42,000.[11] Where did Nabia Abbott got the Qur’anic manuscripts present in the Oriental Institute in University of Chicago that are mentioned in her book The Rise of The North Arabic Script & Its Kur’ânic Development?

Most of the manuscripts which she mentions date from 1st, 2nd and 3rd century AH and some of them are later ones too. Further one also wonders where did François Déroche got the manuscripts dating between 8th to 10th centuries CE in his book The Abbasid Tradition: Qur’ans Of The 8th To The 10th Centuries AD?

It is worthwhile to point that Oxford University Press has published the manuscripts of the Qur’an dating from 8th to 19th centuries. These manuscripts are present in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, a private collection based in London, UK. Following are their publications that deal with the Qur’anic manuscripts.

The Abbasid Tradition: Qur’ans Of The 8th To The 10th Centuries AD, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol. I, 1992, François Déroche, Oxford University Press, 192 pp.

The Master Scribes: Qur’ans of the 10th to 14th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol. II, 1992, David James, Oxford University Press, 240 pp.

After Timur: Qur’ans of the 15th and 16th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol. III, 1992, David James, Oxford University Press, 256 pp.

The Decorated Word: Qur’ans of the 17th to 19th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol. IV, 1999, Manijeh Bayani, Anna Contadini & Tim Stanley, Oxford University Press, 334 pp.

It is worthwhile to point that Oxford University Press has also published the following book.

Bills, Letters, and Deeds: Arabic Papyri of the 7th to 11th Centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol. VI, 1993, Geoffrey Khan, Oxford University Press, 292 pp.

This volume of the Khalili Collection catalogues approximately 250 Arabic documents written on papyrus. Each accompanied by a plate, the entries are catalogued according to the type of document, firstly accounts, secondly legal documents, and thirdly, letters. Most of the documents date from the eighth or ninth centuries A.D. A large number of the papyri came from Fustat, the old Arab capital of Egypt.

Nearly all published Arabic papyri came from southern Egypt. The Khalili collection contains the first Arabic document that has been discovered to have been written in northern Iraq. The documents are an important primary source for socio-economic history, palaeography, and diplomatics.

Many of the early manuscripts shown in the book of François Déroche come from Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.[12] Further Estelle Whelan also informs us that Déroche has catalogued 295 manuscripts of the Qur’an at Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.[13] She also mentions the Qur’anic manuscripts present in following libraries:[14]

Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

Aya Sofia Library, Istanbul.

Topkapi Sarayi Library, Istanbul.

Royal Library, Copenhagen.

Gotha State Library.

Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin-Dahlem.

Freer Art Gallery, Washington DC.

Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel.

It is also worthwhile to add that A J Arberry mentions some of the Qur’anic manuscripts at Chester Beatty Library, Dublin in his book The Koran Illuminated: A Handlist Of The Korans In The Chester Beatty Library, 1967, Dublin.

Further the critic has said:

Why not start with the Topkapi manuscript in Istambul, the Taschkent manuscript, and the two old manuscripts in Cairo and Damascus.

It is well known that Tashkent manuscript has been photocopied, a copy of which is in Columbia University.[15] Arthur Jeffery had commented on its orthography in detail.[16] It seems that the Christian critic is unaware of these detailed studies. Concerning the Topkapi manuscript we are not aware of studies done it. But there is an interesting clause in the Treaty of Versailles Article 246:

Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Germany will restore to His Majesty King of Hedjaz, the original Koran of Caliph Othman, which was removed from Medina by the Turkish authorities and is stated to have been presented to the ex-Emperor William II.[17]

Further the Christian critic adds:

They are not Uthmanic manuscripts as some believe, but they are quite old.

The most accurate statement would be to say that there is disagreement on whether these manuscripts are ‘Uthmanic, since there are some scholars who say they are, while others say they are not. Sheikh Mohammed Shaibanee from the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society in Kuwait certainly considers Topkapi manuscript as ‘Uthmanic. Others like Muhammad Hamidullah agree with some caution.

It seems that the Christian critic wants to apply the Biblical criticism to the text of the Qur’an. But he seems to forget that the Bible and the Qur’an are different books and hence each has to dealt with in its own right. In the end the critic says:

Until Muslim scholarship will become serious and honest about a critical investigation of the old Qur’anic manuscripts, we are mainly left with guessing, apart from a few documented facts some of which are collected here under the title Variant Readings of the Qur’an. But making access to the Qur’an manuscripts difficult is not inspiring much confidence in the claims of textual preservation of the Qur’an.

Surely, if the Christian critic has not seen the manuscripts catalogued in various books and journal, it then it does not mean that they do not exist.

We have already seen above that the transmission of the Qur’an orally and in the written form were subjected to conditions right before the end of first century. Therefore, any deviation from these conditions would be termed as aberrations. So, the idea of using the manuscripts of the Qur’an to document the variant readings is ridiculuous.

The New Testament, Its Problems & The Critical Texts

It is a well-known fact that the Christianity has nothing like a Bible in which all the books are agreed upon as ‘inspired’. Each Church has its own set of books which it considers as ‘inspired’. Depending upon the Church, the Bibles can be divided into:

Protestant Church
Roman Catholic Church
Anglican Church
Greek Orthodox Church
Coptic Church
Ethiopic Church
Syriac Church

The New Testament is now known, whole or in part, in nearly five thousand Greek manuscripts. Each one of these manuscripts differ from other. Hence The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible is forced to say:

It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the NT in which the MS tradition is wholly uniform.[18]

The lack of uniformity in the manuscript tradition is further aggravated by the fact that the original copies of the New Testament books have perished long ago. Hence there is no way of verifiying what the ‘original’ reading is. The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible again informs us 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 perishable 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.[19]

In addition to the lack of uniform manuscript tradition as well as the original manuscripts of the New Testament books, we also have the problem that the early Christian communities did not consider the New Testament books as scripture! Further information about this issue can be obtained by clicking on the links below.

Church Tradition & Apostolic Fathers

Clement Of Rome
Ignatius Of Antioch
The Didache
Papias Of Heirapolis
Polycarp Of Smyrna
Hermas Of Rome
The So-Called Second Epistle Of Clement

Tersely, after studying the writings of all the above 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.[20]

Hence the books of the New Testament that we see today has its origins as the ‘inspired’ scripture from the end of second century.

Coming back to the text of the New Testament, we have seen above that in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament that there is not a single sentence in it that is uniform. We have also seen that the scribes of the New Testament made intentional as well as unintentional errors. This problem is further aggravated by the fact that we have no original manuscripts to know what the ‘original reading’ is.

Since the ‘original reading’ of the New Testament books was unknown, the copyists went for what could be the ‘true reading’ and hence adding variants to the already existing variants unknown to them.The present day textual criticism of the New Testament involves knowing what could be the ‘original’ reading from the mass of imperfect, often widely divergent copies of the New Testament.

Since – like virtually all ancient literature – no autographs are extant for the NT, its most likely original text must be reconstructed from these imperfect, often widely divergent, later copies.[21]

The New Testament text is described euphemistically as the ‘living text’, i.e., which developed freely. Kurt and Barbara Aland say:

Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely. It was the “living text” in the Greek literary tradition, unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy.

And the New Testament text continued to be a “living text” as long as it remained a manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church molded it to the procrustean bed of the standard and officially prescribed text. Even for later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so familiar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of another.

They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standard of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period, when the text had not been attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves to be filled with the Spirit. As a consequence the text of the early period was many-faceted, and each manuscript had its own peculiar character.[22]

Further they compare and contrast the New Testament with the Old Testament as well as the Qur’an. The ‘living text’ of the New Testament is

in contrast to the Hebrew Old Testament and other oriental traditions such as the Koran, where an almost letter-perfect transcription was the rule.[23]

Hence it is clear that the situation of the New Testament and the situation of the Qur’an are completely different. In the case of the latter, we know how the Qur’an was recited by Muhammad(P) as well as all the variant readings going back to him. In the case of the former, i.e., the New Testament, we have a mass of imperfect and often divergent manuscripts with no original to compare with.

Hence there is a need to construct what could be the original reading without the guarantee that the original reading could be successfully obtained. Therefore, the New Testament requires the construction of the critical text. On the other hand, the Qur’an has already established its own text right from the beginning.

The textual criticism of the New Testament is a human endeavour. Novum Testamentum Graece, a critical text, is one such example. The human beings decide upon which reading could be the best candidate for the original. This does not mean that we have the ‘original text’ with us.

Testament scholars like David Parker from University of Birmingham add a word of caution and differentiate between what is desirable, i.e., to know the ‘original’ text and what can be extracted from the colossal mass of variant readings in the New Testament manuscripts.

We have, however, to distinguish at any rate between the desirable and attainable. Caution rightly prevails in the Introduction to the most common used edition of the Greek New Testament, the small blue volume known as Nestle-Aland:

Novum Testamentum Graece seeks to provide the reader with the critical appreciation of the whole textual tradition… It should naturally be understood that this text is a working text (in the sense of the century-long Nestle tradition); it is not to be considered as definitive, but as a stimulus to further efforts towards redefining and verifying the text of the New Testament.[24]

Further, David Parker emphasizes the fact that the text in the Novum Testamentum Graece edited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland (27th edition, Stuttgart, 1993) was agreed upon by the committee as the ‘best’ reading and it has nothing to do with the ‘original’ text.

This text was agreed by a committee. When they disagreed on the best reading to print, they voted. Evidently, they agreed either by a majority or unanimously that their text was the best available. But it does not follow that they believed their text to be ‘original’. On the whole, the textual critics have always been reluctant to claim so much. Other users of the Greek New Testament accord them too much honour in treating the text as definitive.[25]

So, as far as the Novum Testamentum Graece (edited by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland) is concerned, one can say that the committee itself does not make a claim that it restored the ‘original’ text of the Bible!

Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, inform us about the various problems with the committee text.

A “committee text” of this kind is occasionally regarded as problematical, and at times it may be so. In a number of instances it represents a compromise, for none of the editors can claim a perfect acceptance record of all recommendations offered.[26]

In the footnotes, Aland and Aland mention one of the dissenting votes of the editorial committee:

This may be inferred (at least to a degree, because not all the committee members were equally quick to write) from the dissenting notes included in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, a volume compiled by Metzger at the request of the editorial committee utilizing the minutes of the committee sessions (London and New York: 1971; 2nd ed., 1975).

Of the total of thirty dissenting votes, seventeen represent Metzger alone; eight, Metzger and Wikgren; two, Wikgren alone; one, Metzger and Martini; one, Metzger and Kurt Aland; and one, Aland alone. While a certain tendency may be detected here in the distribution of majorities and minorities, the variety of combinations also witnesses to the lack of any consistent lines of division.[27]

What is pretty clear from the above discussion is that Christian critic boasting about undertaking textual criticism and having the critical text backfired on him. The critical text Novum Testamentum Graece is not the inspired word of God. This also has nothing to do with the individual members of the ‘committee’ being inspired by God or their text is inspired by God, leave alone they restoring the Original Text! 

The translation of most of the modern day Bibles is based on Novum Testamentum Graece critical edition and hence it can be said that that the Bible that we have is not the ‘inspired’ word of God. If anyone believes it to be the ‘Word’ of God, it is currently running in its 27th edition!

Further, the Christian critic’s says:

And then, publish them together in a format that makes it easy to compare them, or even beter, listing all the differences between the texts, like it is done for the critical editions of the Bible text.

This actually opens the Pandora’s box for the New Testament. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland in their book The Text Of The New Testament presents a table which compares the total number of variant free verses in Nestle-Aland edition with the other critical editions such as that of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover. This comparison does not take into account the orthographical differences in the variant free verses. The table below:

…gives the count of the verses in which there is complete agreement among the six editions of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover with the text of Nestle-Aland (apart from orthographical differences).[28]

BookTotal Number Of VersesVariant Free Verses-TotalPercentage
1 Corinthians43733175.7
2 Corinthians25620078.1
1 Thessalonians896168.5
2 Thessalonians473472.3
1 Timothy1139281.4
2 Timothy836679.5
1 Peter1057066.6
2 Peter613252.5
1 John1057672.4
2 John13861.5
3 John151173.3

Table showing the total number of variant free verses in the books of the New Testament when Nestle-Aland edition is compared with the other critical editions such as that of Tischendorf, Westcott-Hort, von Soden, Vogels, Merk, and Bover. The above table is taken from The Text Of The New Testament by Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland (See references below).

So, it is seen that nearly two-thirds of New Testament text in the seven editions of the Greek New Testament reviewed by Aland and Aland is in agreement with no differences other than in orthographic details. Further, verses in which any one of the seven editions differs by a single word are not counted. [29]

The agreement in the verses of various books of the New Testament is defended by the evidence that the seven major editions from Tischendorf’s to the 25th of Nestle-Aland agree in the wording of 62.9% of the verses of the New Testament. The proportion ranges from 45.1% in Mark to 81.4% in 2 Timothy. Let us take an example of the analysis of the four Gospels. The below table gives the agreement of the verses in the four Gospels taken from the above.

BookTotal Number Of VersesVariant Free Verses-TotalPercentage

The percentage agreement of the verses when all the four Gospels are considered is 54.5%. This is very close to the probablity that a tail (or head) appears when a coin is tossed once (i.e., the probablity that a tail or head appears when a coin is tossed is 50%!). For the Christian critic, it would have been better not to talk about the critical editions. This actually show that the New Testament is in a real bad shape and inspires the confidence that the Bible is not preserved, leave alone it being the ‘inerrant’ and ‘unchangeable’ word of God.

Now that we know that our Christian critic, out of his ignorance, has put up a rather brave face concerning the textual criticism, is it not worthwhile to know the Christian Church’s reaction to the textual criticism?

2. Textual Criticism & The Reaction Of The Church

We have already seen above that the textual criticism has destroyed the concept of ‘textus receptus’ and ‘original text’. The New Testament text that we have in our hands today is the work of a committee which decided on the readings which it thought are ‘original’.

The Church and textual criticism were antipodes. Therefore, any one who ventured into this field was condemned or ignored. The bravery of modern day Christians towards the textual criticism (“Who is afraid of textual criticism?”) is similar to the roar of a paper tiger. Since they can’t get away with the devil of textual criticism, they might as well try to befriend it. This is precisely what they did after the fall of ‘textus receptus’ during the time of Westcott and Hort.

In this section we will examine very briefly how the Christians condemned the textual criticism of the New Testament during its inception.

J Mill

John Mill (1645-1707), a fellow of Queen’s College, University of Oxford, began his studies of New Testament textual criticism which were to come to fruition thirty years later in an epoch-making edition of the Greek text, published exactly two weeks before his death.

He collected evidence from Greek manuscripts (about 100), early versions, and Fathers that lay within his power to procure and the total variant readings which came up were about 30,000. Naturally, the churchmen were alarmed by such a large number of variant readings. And hence the attacks on him started (posthumously!).

… Mill’s monumental work came under fire from the controversial writer, Dr. Daniel Whitby, Rector of St. Edmund’s, Salisbury. Alarmed by the great number of variant readings which Mill had collected – some 30,000 in all – Whitby argued that the authority of the holy Scriptures was in peril, and that the assembling of the critical evidence tantamount to tampering with the text.[30]

Bruce Metzger quotes an interesting satire which was logically concluded from the existence of so many variant readings.

The English Deist, Anthony Collins (1676-1729), did, in fact, appeal to the existence of so many variant readings as an argument against the authority of the Scriptures (A Discourse of Freethinking, [London, 1713]). The extent to which such considerations might be pushed is disclosed in Dean Swift’s satirical essay, 

An Argument against the Abolition of Christianity, in which he refers to a roué ‘who had heard of a text brought for proof of Trinity, which in an ancient manuscript was differently read; he thereupon immediately took the hint, and by a sudden deduction of long sorites, most logically concluded: “Why, if it is as you say, I may safely whore and drink on, and, defy the parson”‘ (Jonathan Swift, Works, iii [Edinburgh, 1814], p. 199) [31]

R Bentley

“By taking two thousand errors out of the Pope’s Vulgate [Bentley refers to Pope Clement’s edition of 1592], and as many out of the Protestant Pope Stephen’s [refering to Stephanus’ Greek text of 1550], I can set out an edition of each in columns, without using any book under nine hundred years old, that shall so exactly agree, word for word, and order for order, that no two tallies, no two indentures, can agree better.”[32]

Thus said R Bentley, the Master of Trinity College and it was obvious that he had landed in trouble. He was one of the few person of his age and era to suggest the abandonment of the ‘textus receptus’.

R Bentley (1662-1742) was bold enough to suggest that the ‘textus receptus’ to be abandoned altogether. In his famous proposals for printing a critical edition of the New Testament (1720) he outlined a plan of the work which needed to be done. he proposed to edit the text which was current in the fourth century using the earliest Greek and Latin manuscripts. It was essentially a matter of doing what Toinard had done but on a larger scale.

He even gave the last chapter of Revelationas an example, departing in more than forty places from Estienne’s text which he said had “unfortunately become the Protestants’ Pope”. 

There was a tremendous outcry and Bentley was fiercely attacked and suspended from teaching for a time. Not being a man to allow himself to be intimidated, he set about collecting together the materials for his work; but as he grew older, either for the sake of peace or because of the difficulties of the task, he finally gave up. His proposals, however, continued to exert a profound influence.[33]

J J Wettstein

J J Wettstein (1693-1754), despite the fame which he achieved, made a much lesser contribution to textual criticism. He remained rather in the line of the great men of learning of the previous period, though he carried on the fight with more energy and more persistence. As early as 1713, he published a treatise on the variants of the New Testament and travelled throughout Europe for the purpose of collating the manuscripts. Suspected of heresy, he was driven out of Basle and forced to take the refuge in Amsterdam.

It was there, in 1751-2, that he published his famous edition of the Greek New Testament (reprinted Graz, 1962). In the Prolegomena, which he had already published in 1730 without indicating the identity of the author, his main aim was to reply to the attacks of his adversaries. As for the text, it was none other than the Elzevir text but it was accompanied by quite a considerable critical apparatus which was fuller than it seemed, for an ingenious system of sigla enabled him to keep it compact.[34]

B F Westcott & J A Hort

Westcott and Hort, who were responsible for smashing up the concept of ‘textus receptus’, understandly, had a very tough time.

In 1881, at the same time as Westcott and Hort’s edition was brought out, two other volumes were published in Oxford which were to cause some stir: the Revised English version, intended to replace the 1611 Authorized Version, and the Greek text that was the basis of the Revised Version. On the whole, the editors kept close to the text of the Westcott and Hort, who had generously passed on to them the results obtained during the course of their work. For the New Testament alone, this ‘revised’ text differed in more than 5,000 places from the textus receptus.

An uproar was caused among Anglican churchmen. There were even scholars, such as F H Scriverner, J W Burgon and E Miller, who became involved in the voilent campaign against the Westcott-Hort text. Their arguments were summarized in Scriverner’s main work, A plain introduction to the criticism of the New Testament (1894), volume III, pp. 274-312. In France, Abbé P Martin had the unhappy idea of joining in the fight for the defence of the ‘textus receptus’. Reasons of a dogmatic nature were put forward first of all.

It was not possible that Providence should have allowed the true text of the New Testament to have been lost for nearly fifteen centuries. People talked as if the ‘textus receptus’ were the traditional text throughout the whole Church. So-called critical motives were then put forward: the mass of manuscripts which bear witness to this text;

its early age as established by the supposed testimony of ancient ecclesiastical writers; its character, certified as original despite conflated readings; and, besides all that, the tendency of the ‘neutral’ text, which was claimed to be semi-Arian, thus causing it to be excluded from public use and thereby protected from ravages of time.

To tell the truth, the partisans of the ‘textus receptus’ were generally at their strongest when they took the offensive. The argued that the Westcott-Hort text could not be taken as traditional either, for it represented only a limited region, namely Egypt; it had none of the older ecclesiastical authors among its witnesses; it bore clear marks of revision.

But these attacks in no way established the primitive character of the ‘Syrian’ text, and it was this argument which quickly claim to settle the debate, against the ‘textus receptus’. Subsequently, from time to time, there were some obscure pleas raised in its favour. Today, it seems that this notorious text is now dead, it is hoped for ever.[35]

Bruce Metzger elaborates:

It was perhaps not surprising that Westcott and Hort’s total rejection of the claims of the Textus Receptus to be the original text of the New Testament should have been viewed with alarm by many churchmen. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century the traditional text found a doughty defender in the person of John W. Burgon (1813 – 88), Dean of Chichester.

He has been described as ‘a High-churchman of the old school’ who became notorious as ‘a leading champion of lost causes and impossible beliefs; but the vehemence of his advocacy somewhat impaired its effect’. His conservatism can be gauged from a sermon he preached at Oxford in 1884 in which he denounced the higher education of ‘young women as young men’ as ‘a thing inexpedient and immodest’; the occasion was the admission of women to university examinations!

The publication in 1881 of the Revised Version of the King James or Authorized Version of 1611 aroused Burgon’s indignation not only on the score of its unidiomatic English, but even more because the Revisers had adopted an underlying Greek text substantially identical with that of Westcott and Hort. In a series of three learned articles in the London Quarterly Review, which were reprinted in a volume entitled The Revision Revised (London, 1883), 

Burgon used every rhetorical device at his disposal to attack both the English Revision and the Greek Testament of Westcott and Hort. Burgon’s argument was basically theological and speculative. As an ardent high-churchman he could not imagine that, if the words of Scripture had been dictated by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God would not have providentially prevented them from being seriously corrupted during the course of their transmission.

Consequently it was inconceivable to Burgon that the Textus Receptus, which had been used by the Church for centuries, could be in need of the drastic revision which Westcott and Hort had administered to it.[36]

Even to this day they are condemned as ‘heretics’. See Heresies of Westcott & Hort.

It conclusion, it is quite clear that the Church did not like the idea of seeing the variant readings and abandonment of ‘textus receptus’ which was revered throughout the Christian world as the ‘inerrant’ word of God. The abandonment of ‘textus receptus’ overthrew the doctrine of inerrancy of the scriptures at hand. It was replaced by the inerrancy of the hypothetical ‘original’ manuscript.


We have discussed the response of Muslims and Christians to the textual criticism of the Qur’an and the Bible. Muslims have always been careful of how the Qur’an should be read and written. Detailed rules were formulated to achieve the transmission both orally and written.

The Christian Bible on the other hand did not have any such rules and had to live a life of ‘living text’ which was constantly changing at the whims and fancies of the scribes and the leaders of the Church. And naturally when textual criticism was applied, the Church was up in arms. Very soon it was realized that the beast of textual criticism is here to stay. And the modern day Christians missionaries boastfully say, “Who is afraid of textual criticism?”

And Allah knows best.

Other Articles Related To The Textual Reliability Of The Bible

 Critical Text Of The New Testament: Methodology & Implications

 Church Tradition & The Textual Integrity Of The Bible

 Textual Reliability Of The New Testament

 Extracts From The Book How We Got Our Bible


[1] Bruce M Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & Restoration, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 186-206.

[2] Op.Cit,. p. 195 (See footnotes).

[3] Arthur Jeffery, Materials For The History Of The Text Of The Qur’an: The Old Codices, 1937, Leiden, E J Brill, pp. 17-18.

[4] Bernard Lewis, Islam In History, 1993, Open Court Publishing, p. 104-105.

[5] Andrew Rippin (Editor), Approaches of The History of Interpretation of The Qur’an, 1988, Clarendon Press, Oxford, p. 44.

[6] M A S Abdel Haleem, “Qur’anic Orthography: The Written Representation Of The Recited Text Of The Qur’an“, 19xx, Islamic Quarterly, p. 173.

[7] Nabia Abbott, The Rise of The North Arabic Script & Its Kur’ânic Development, 1939, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, See pp. 59-91 for the discussion of the manuscripts at pp. VIII-XXXIII.

[8] Nabia Abbott, Op.Cit, p. 84.

[9] M A S Abdel Haleem, Op.Cit, p. 172.

[10] Arthur Jeffery, The Qur’an As Scripture, 1952, Russell F Moore Company Inc., New York, p. 103.

[11] Muhammad Hamidullah, Khutubat-e-Bahawalpur, 1401AH, Islamic University, Bahawalpur, Pakistan, pp. 15-16.

[12] François Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition: Qur’ans Of The 8th To The 10th Centuries AD, 1992, Oxford University Press, See from p. 32-54.

[13] Estelle Whelan, “Writing The Word Of God: Some Early Qur’an Manuscripts & Their Milieux, Part I”, 1990, Ars Orientalis, 20, p. 115.

[14] Estelle Whelan, Op.Cit, p. 117.

[15] I Mendelsohn, “The Columbia University Copy Of The Samarqand Kufic Qur’an”, 1940, The Moslem World, p. 357-358.

[16] Arthur Jeffery & I Mendelsohn, “The Orthography Of The Samarqand Qur’an Codex”, 1942, Journal Of The American Oriental Society, Volume 62, pp. 175-195.

[17] Ahmad von Denffer, cUlûm al-Qur’an, 1994, The Islamic Foundation, p. 62.

[18] 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”).

[19] Op.Cit,, p. 599 (Under “Text, NT”).

[20] Bruce M Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament: Its Origin, Significance & Development, 1997, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 72-73.

[21] David Noel Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary On CD-ROM, 1997, New York: Doubleday (CD-ROM Edition by Logos Research Systems), (Under “Textual Criticism, NT”).

[22] Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text Of The New Testament, 1995, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan,p. 69.

[23] Op.Cit,p. 93.

[24] D C Parker, The Living Text Of The Gospels, 1997, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Aland & Aland, The Text Of The New Testament,Op.Cit, p. 34.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Aland & Aland, The Text Of The New Testament,Op.Cit, p. 29.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bruce M Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & RestorationOp.Cit, p. 108.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Op.Cit,p. 110.

[33] Leon Vaganay & Christian-Bérnard Amphoux, An Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, 1991, Cambridge University Press, p. 139.

[34] Op.Cit,pp. 140-141.

[35] Op.Cit,pp. 151-152.

[36] Bruce M Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption & RestorationOp.Cit, pp. 135-136.