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Why Follow Jesus?

Chapter 4: The Accuracy of the Bible

Imagine what it would be like if there had been tape and video recorders, television and computers in the time of the prophets who were inspired by God and put His message down in writing. Today we would be able to see the original autographs of their work or hear them talking, but we do not have such convenient assistance. What we do have, today, is their message which has been recorded in the Bible. The Bible was copied countless times and therefore some people ask, "Can we be sure that the Bible has been preserved accurately?"

Original manuscripts

Some people say that they do believe in the Bible but not in the Bible we have today. One of the most frequent objections is that we do not have the very first manuscripts. They argue that scholars of the Bible themselves agree that all the original manuscripts of the Bible have perished. [1]

Whilst it may be true that all the original manuscripts of the Bible may have perished, we should bear in mind that when the books of the Bible were originally written, there was no printing press available to reproduce the copies. Each copy had to be written by hand and relatively few copies could be made. In the political conditions of the times it was inevitable that some ancient manuscripts would be lost.

Old Testament

There are Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts pre-dating Muhammad. Until 1947, the oldest copy of the Old Testament available to us came from around 900 AD. This is because a committee of Jewish scholars did the same as Usman had done. Then the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and we got partial or complete copies of every book of the Old Testament except Esther. They are all dated before AD 70, and many can be dated to a century earlier.

The Nash Payrus which contains sections of Exodus and Deuteronomy is dated between 100 BC and AD 70. There is also a collection of around 200 thousand fragments of biblical texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, other Jewish literature, religious and non-religious texts available to us. It is called the Geniza Fragments and dated to the AD 400s.

We also have available to us lists of Old Testament books pre-dating Muhammad. For example Josephus (AD90), a Jewish historian who wrote to Greeks and Romans in defence of the Jewish nation and faith. We have the list of the Council of Jamnia (AD 75-117). At this assembly the Jewish elders in the course of their discussion listed Old Testament books. Later the Council of Laodicea (AD 363), a Christian church council was held to recognize the books of Scripture in the Old and New Testament. There are several other lists available to us in the writings of various early church fathers and all these lists show that the Jews were very serious and sure of the contents of the word they had received. Christians accepted the same Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God also.

There are many translations of the Old Testament in Greek, Latin and Syriac that pre-date Muhammad. They list the same books of the Old Testament that we have today. We are also aware that translations in Ethopic, Armenian, Georgian, Nubian etc. were available before the time of Muhammad.

New Testament

As for the New Testament, the evidence is even greater. We have about 4,500 manuscripts in whole and part. Comprehensive ones known as the Vatican, the Sinaitic and the Alexandrian uncials are world famous. They date back to AD 300-450.

There are 192 Greek New Testament manuscripts pre-dating Muhammad currently in existence and available for study. Five Greek lectionaries, books that were used in church services and which contain Scripture portions, predating Muhammad are presently in existence.

Five Greek lectionaries, books that were used in church services and which contain Scripture portions, predating Muhammad are presently in existence.

We have available to us about 30 translations of the Greek New Testament from the time before Muhammad.

The earliest papyrus fragment containing portions of the verses of John 18:31-33, 37-38 is dated as AD 125 and is housed at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

There are also two Greek fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls that may very well be from the Gospel according to Mark and 1 Timothy. Both of these fragments date to before AD 70.

We also have the evidence from the early Christian leaders (AD 69-150). They wrote about the Bible and quoted in their writings portions of the Scriptures so that today almost the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from them. All these manuscripts do have variants in the text. However please do note that unlike Islam these variants have not been destroyed. They have been preserved, catalogued, studied and evaluated with the highest and most impartial degrees of scholarship. None of these variants affects any major or minor doctrine of the Christian faith.

In Old Testament times the Jews revered the sacred scriptures deeply, as many do the Qur'an today. For this reason they would not allow any part of them to become dirty or ripped and thrown away like a piece of rubbish. They were committed to memory, accurately copied, and then the original was disposed of with great ceremony and dignity.

There are many other ancient books that have no original manuscripts available. Consider the Qur'an, for example. There is no known first manuscript nor contemporary copy available to us. As there were a number of differing copies with variant readings, Usman, the third successor of Muhammad, appointed a committee to collect and compile an official version of the Qur'an. When the task was completed, he ordered that the source copy and all previous copies should be burnt [2]. This does not mean that the Qur'an is not valid. But it does seem to be inconsistent to accept the Qur'an but reject the Bible when neither of them have their original manuscripts.

Accuracy of the text

We are not all historical scholars or archaeologists, but we can make up our own minds about the accuracy of the stories in a very simple way - by reading them! Read the stories of Jesus, for example, and see if there is not the ring of truth about them. Let us look at the healing of a blind man; it is in three of the four books of the life of Jesus (these accounts are called Gospels). The story is in Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43. The blind man was begging, a fate common today in under-privileged places where such people are unable to earn their own living due to disease or disability. The disciples of Jesus were not very sympathetic, because they told the man to be quiet out. Jesus, on the other hand, cared deeply for the man and healed him. Read the story yourself and see how the man's faith in Jesus made a difference to his life and filled him with joy.

Today, even with modern printing methods and sophisticated systems, it is not unusual to see glaring mistakes in published materials. So it is not difficult to see how variant readings could have slipped unnoticed into the Bible. All these manuscripts had to be produced by hand and no human hand is so exact or eye so sharp as to preclude the possibility of errors. In most modern translations these variant readings are noted in footnotes. The fact is that they are only few in number and they do not affect the teaching of the New Testament as a whole and this is what is most important.

Usually in their discussions Muslim friends raise the question of integrity about two short passages. They are the last twelve verses of Mark's gospel and John 8:1-11. Some manuscripts include them while others omit them.

These two passages make up not more than half a page of the Bible, the full length of which exceeds twelve hundred pages. We find no doctrine in these two passages that does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. They are consistent with the text of the New Testament as a whole. If these variants are to be taken as proof of corruption in the Bible, the same standard should be applied to the Qur'an or any other book of that era claiming to be inspired or revealed.


References

  1. Ahmad Deedat, Is the Bible the Word of God? (Durban: Islamic Propagation Centre, 1982), p.64.
  2. Sahih Bukhari, Vol.6, p.479.

 

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