Saturday, January 24, 2009

Islamic Claims that the Bible is Corrupted

It’s a fundamental tenet of Islam that the Christian Gospel and the Jewish Torah are corrupted scripture. This is so fundamental that one would think that it comes straight out of Islamic scripture. The interesting thing is, that it doesn’t. In fact, the Koran is very clear that it confirms what has already been revealed in scripture in many places:

When before it there was the Scripture of Moses, an example and a mercy; and this is a confirming Scripture in the Arabic language, that it may warn those who do wrong and bring good tidings for the righteous. -- The Koran (Pickthall tr), Sura 46:12 - The Sandhills

This theme is repeated in many places: 2:89, 2:91, 2:97, 2:101, 3:3, 4:47, 5:48, 6:92, 35:31, 37:37, 46:12, 46:30, 61:6.

So it’s clear the Muhammad held the Gospel and the Torah in high regard. He seemed oblivious to the Tanakh, either he wasn’t aware of it, or lumped it with the Torah (a common mistake for a Gentile), or he didn’t consider it relevant.

It’s obvious from much of the style of the Koran, the many appropriated stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and outright statements to the effect, that Muhammad fancied himself an heir to a long line of Jewish prophets. His endorsement of Judeo-Christian scripture seemed to bolster that argument. His teaching even raised speculation among the Jews that he may have been the messiah, and among the Christians that perhaps he was the second coming. In the seventh century, both faiths were eagerly awaiting these events.

The student of Islam has to keep in mind some essential facts at this point: During Muhammad’s day, the Koran was not written down! It was memorized by heart by the followers of Muhammad, in what is today considered an archaic form of the Arabic language -- a language not known beyond the bounds of Arabia, Jordan and southeastern Syria. Now some might scoff at this, thinking that such a feat stretches the bounds of reason, that people could memorize such a vast tract. It’s not that out of the ordinary. First the Koran is presented as a poem, in a rhythmic, rhyming cadence that lends itself well to memorization. It is highly repetitive, themes are repeated many times in various surahs, so the feat isn’t quite as vast as one would imagine at first glance. Memorization of huge stories is quite common among peoples with no written language. Illiteracy does not mean people are stupid or cannot manipulate the language. Socrates himself bemoaned the advent of writing, for fear that it would erode the memory.

This lack of a written Koran in Muhammad’s time made it very difficult for the scholar to compare the revelations of Muhammad with Judeo-Christian scripture. Nevertheless, it was done. The Jews of Medina listened to Muhammad. As residents of the area, they well understood the Arabic that Muhammad spoke. They compared it to their (Hebrew) scriptures available in their synagogue, and found that the two did not correlate. They rejected Muhammad, which subsequently led to their downfall as he turned his wrath on them. The details of their objection was not recorded. Muhammad spoke of their dissention as if they were lying to him:

And lo! there is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that ye may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture. And they say: It is from Allah, when it is not from Allah; and they speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. - The Koran (Pickthall tr), Sura 3: 78 - The Family Of Imran

Even at this point, Muhammad was holding onto the idea that the Judeo Christian scriptures were reliable.

To understand this, you have to recognize the roots of Muhammad’s association with Monotheism. He was raised a polytheist in Mecca, but had traveled in the employ of his first wife to southern Syria on trade missions. It’s said that he was a student of a Nestorian monk in the trade city of Bosra named Bahira. None of the Christian scriptures had yet been translated into Arabic, and of course neither had any of the Jewish scriptures. If we assume that Muhammad was interested in Christianity, we can speculate that he heard many tales by oral transmission. Lacking a dedicated scholarly approach to translation, there is no way of knowing the quality of the translations from the extent Greek texts then available and the Arabic that Muhammad received. There is no way of knowing if Muhammad was exposed to the entire old and new testaments, but it’s highly unlikely. More likely, the high points were passed to him, as evaluated by the person who was instructing him. It’s also plain from the Koran that many apocryphal stories were also related to him. Lacking the ability to discern for himself, he had no way of knowing that many of these stories were fanciful, and not accepted even then as canonical. It’s clear from his own “revelations” that he was captivated by the stories, but missed much of the underlying meaning and theological implications.

The motivations for his acceptance of the Judeo-Christian writings as legitimate was plain. No one was going to believe someone who invented his own monotheistic religion from whole cloth (Actually, he was probably wrong on this point, and it may have been better for Islam in the long run if he had done so). By taking up the mantle of Judeo-Christianity, he could appeal to a huge population of already practicing monotheists, and thereby gain legitimacy among his own people as well.

The problem came after Muhammad was long dead, when Islamic scholars who could read in several languages, and had a printed codex of the Koran to use as a gold standard, began to definitively tie the Judeo-Christian scriptures to the Koran.

The problem was, they didn’t match. In fact they contradicted each other at almost every turn. Muslims scholars could not accept that their Koran was in error. After all, it was the direct Word of God, dictated word for word to Muhammad was it not? Therefore the Judeo-Christian scriptures must have been tampered with, and were declared corrupt.

Today, it is not allowed in most Islamic countries for Muslims to read the Bible. Consequently, all they know of it is what they are taught in Islamic schools. Much of what they are taught is incorrect.

The contradictions between the Bible and the Koran are myriad, and I won’t go into them here. If you’re interested in the details, you can find some places to start here and here. It was these contradictions, among others that led Muslim scholars to conclude that the Bible was corrupted.

The interesting thing about this claim is that Muslims never say when this corruption took place!

Well, it either happened before Muhammad, or after him. We’ve already established that Muhammad accepted the Bible as legitimate in his time. This is a theme that is prevalent throughout the Koran. So, one could argue that it’s safe to assume that the Bible was uncorrupted in the time of Muhammad. I mean, if it was corrupted, you think he would say something to that effect, right? But no, he said it confirms the Bible!

So by this logic, the Bible was corrupted after Muhammad. Those dirty Christians must have corrupted it just to spite Islam! One Islamic way of looking at it is that the Bible has been translated so many times that it could not have helped but be corrupted.

Well, there are problems with this. Most Bibles today are translated from and checked against the Latin Vulgate codex. This is the authoritative Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, compiled by Jerome in the early fifth century from the Septuagint and Hebrew texts. It was completed in the year 405, a full two hundred years before Muhammad’s revelations. Some Bibles, such as the New American Standard, choose to go back to earlier known codices in the original Greek and Aramaic, when available. All of these sources predate Muhammad by centuries, and are still available today. There is little difference between them and the Bibles we use today.

Moreover, we have the writings of the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. These letters and epistles, sent between far flung congregations of early Christians, were used to teach and answer questions. The early church fathers were fond of quoting scripture. If you compile all the scraps of scripture quoted in their many letters and documents and pasted it together in the proper order, you could completely reproduce the New Testament except for 27 verses! And guess what? It was the same then as it is today!

By Muhammad’s time, there were more than fifty thousand lectionaries in use in the Christian world. To have corrupted the Bible at this point would have been a monumental effort, involving the gathering and replacement of every lectionary and every codex in existence. This in a time when all copying had to be performed by hand, making a single lectionary a thing of such high value that it was often the most prized thing in the community. The wildest conspiracy theory in history would be dwarfed by this event. Only a Muslim would see this as anything but impossible.

This means that if the Bible was corrupted, it had to happen before Muhammad. Let’s examine this. In the first place, Muhammad never hinted at such a thing. But let’s say he managed to miss it, or was just being polite. If we consider the New testament, the corruption must have happened very early. The Latin Vulgate was codified in 405. The content of the Latin Vulgate agrees with that found in the Chester Beatty Papyri, dated to the third century. This leaves a mere two hundred years between Christ and the earliest known texts of the New Testament.   Most scholars place the earliest dates for the Gospels to have been written at around 60-100 AD . . . within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Christ. This further narrows the window in which corruption might have crept in. The earliest known texts confirm our Bible today. It’s unlikely for the Bible to have been corrupted in the time of the living memory of the men who actually wrote it. The time frame that this corruption could have taken place means that men who had living memories of the authors were still alive (Think about this for a second. My grandmother, aged 92, knew people in her childhood who had fought in the Civil War, 140 years ago!). 

The problem is even worse for the Old Testament. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls confirms the Old Testament of today, and dates back to 250 BC.

Jewish scribes were meticulous about their transcriptions. There was a set of rules that had to be adhered to. Letters were to be printed literally on a grid, like a courier font today, and the resulting text was examined vertically as well as horizontally to ensure through this sort of primitive “checksum” that no errors had crept in.

There is no basis for the Muslim claim that the written Bible is corrupt. Any claims of corruption before the scripture was written are irrelevant, and can be just as easily leveled at the Koran as at the Bible. In fact there is plenty of scriptural reference in Islam that suggests that the Koran is neither complete or pristine. But that is the subject of another article.

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