The Role of Scriptural Manuscripts in Islam and Christianity – A Primer
Given all the buzz about manuscripts regarding both the scriptures of the Muslims and Christians, I thought it’d be best to write something simple to explain the differences in approach that the Islamic and Christian faiths use when understanding their scriptures. This isn’t meant to be a highly technical article, but by the end of this post you’ll understand why manuscripts are important and to whom they are important.
The main difference in understanding manuscripts in both these faiths can be summed up in one term, “textus receptus vs textus criticus”. Textus receptus refers to the passing of scripture from generation to generation, until present day. Hence the term, “received text”. Textus criticus refers to a reconstructed version of scripture, based on the best manuscript witnesses that are extant (still surviving to our times). Hence the term, “critical text”.
Textus Receptus or Textus Criticus?
Christians today no longer depend on their textus receptus, they opt for textus criticus. In essence, they believe that their scriptural tradition internationally, that their Churches internationally, that for over 2000 years, their collective world of Christendom was unable to accurately preserve the New Testament. We can assign the shift in thinking from textus receptus to textus criticus sometime during the 16th century, when we had Erasmus’s, Cisneros’s and Stephanus’s critical Greek editions of the New Testament. This movement agreed on the principle that the Latin Vulgate, despite being the primary New Testament for centuries, did not accurately represent the “original” readings that the earlier Greek manuscripts contained. Therefore, Christians had to “recover” and “reconstruct” their scripture from the earlier Greek manuscripts, as opposed to relying on the traditional view of depending on the Latin Vulgate which was a translation of some of the Greek, the primary language of the New Testament.
There are however Christians who do disagree with this view that the entire world of Christendom failed to preserve the New Testament, and that the Church tradition did preserve their scripture. This is a minor group known as KJV-Onlyists. It has taken over 500 years for Christendom to propagate the shift from textus receptus to textus criticus. Thus, to modern Christians, manuscripts are extremely important to reconstructing the original words of the New Testament. The problem here is that we have no original manuscripts (autographs) and at best, the critical text of the New Testament today is an approximated “prototype” (vorlage) of the manuscripts, that may have been written in between 200 – 500 CE. In other words, the critical text of the New Testament does not go back to the original manuscripts (autographs) but they can be traced back to a “prototype” from which they may have been copied from at a later date, usually known as an “archetypal text”.
This view of textus criticus is not accepted in Islam. We believe that our scholastic tradition has preserved the Qur’an in its entirety. This is because in Islam, we did not translate the Qur’an from Arabic to English and then only used the English for 1400 years, while forgetting the Arabic and failing to preserve the Arabic Qur’an. We have kept the primary language of the Qur’an alive as well (fusha Arabic), and we’ve kept two separate traditions alive for over 1400 years: Hifz al Qur’an (memorization of the Qur’an) and ‘Ilm al Rasm al Mushaf (the science of the writing of the Qur’an). In essence, Muslims have kept reciting the Qur’an, memorizing it in its entirety, specializing in learning its language, specialized in learning its recital for over 1400 years, to this very day. We’ve also kept the tradition of writing the Qur’an and writing it with the most advanced Arabic styles of calligraphy. These two traditions mean that the Muslims in China are reciting the same Qur’an, in the same way, as the Muslims in the Caribbean, and that they have been doing so for centuries. The fact that Muslims have an entire month each year dedicated to the reciting of the Qur’an, and that we must recite it at a minimum 5 times a day, ensures that the Qur’an is being preserved everyday, all day. The same cannot be said for the New Testament.
This means, that while Christians have great reasons to doubt the preservation of their scripture and have to rely on reconstructing it, us Muslims do not share this problem. We have no reason to doubt our traditions of preservation as we have means to authenticating them. The Christians do not. As mentioned in other articles, we know who our reciters are and where they came from, what their characters were like and what their beliefs were. They are not unknown and we do not take knowledge from unknown persons. Today one would find many Christian scholars trying to search for a “Jesus oral tradition”. They’re trying to find some oral tradition that can link the manuscripts to credible persons who are historically viable to give their manuscripts authority, so that they could validate their reconstructed text. Muslims do not need to find an oral tradition to do so, as ours still exists to this day through our sanad of reciters (Qurra) and memorizers (Huffaz), which must authorize (provide an ijaza) students before they can teach the Qur’an to others. These mechanisms are inherent to the Islamic scriptural tradition, but they are alien to the Christian scriptural tradition.
The Need for Manuscripts
What Christians are doing today, like Jay Smith, Keith Small, Andy Bannister, Samuel Green and Spencer, is trying to get Muslims to reject textus receptus and to create a textus criticus. In essence, they need Muslims to have the same level of doubt about the Qur’an as they do, with the New Testament. Yet, as mentioned previously, our faith’s mechanisms in regard to preserving, teaching and sharing scripture are far more advanced that those of Christianity’s. Thus, when Christians point out that manuscripts have some variants or some differences, they are trying to force Muslims to reject our scriptural tradition. However, we are not in the same position as Christianity. We have no need to reject our scriptural tradition, but Christians do, since their collective world of Christianity was unable to preserve their scriptural tradition as Muslims have. The problem with using manuscripts from unknown authors, from unknown sources is quite obvious. What would happen if Christians found a manuscript of John 1 from the 1st century CE that excluded the Johannine Prologue? By their standards, they would have to give this manuscript authority and remove the prologue from their modern Bibles.
However, Christians are not consistent. They will instead claim that Church tradition has mentioned the prologue as being scripture and thus they will find some excuse to remove authority from that manuscript, despite rejecting their scriptural tradition for the critical method. In other words, Christians seriously doubt the preservation of their scripture and demand that Muslims use their critical methods on the Qur’an, when they themselves do not apply these critical methods consistently. Consider then, the example of the Shepherd of Hermas which is included in our earliest collection of the New Testament from the 4th century CE, Codex Sinaiticus. An entire book is excluded from the modern critical texts because Church tradition did not consider it scripture, yet the critical texts are not supposed to be based on tradition, but on the critical method. If Christians were consistent, they’d have to place the Shepherd of Hermas in their modern day critical edition. Yet, when missionaries see that some obscure manuscript, found in some obscure place may or may not have a different spelling of a word in the Qur’an, they demand that we accept that the Qur’an has changed.
That is strange reasoning. Who wrote this manuscript? We don’t know. What was their level of education? We don’t know. Why did they write it? We don’t know. So, on what basis do we accept an unknowable. unverifiable text, over 1400 years of verifiable, known tradition from chains of historic transmission? There are a hundred and one reasons why a manuscript can contain a variation. The person writing may have been using regional orthography (representation of letters and words) than a standardized style of writing. The scribe may have been using the manuscript to practise writing. The scribe could have been writing while someone was reciting (usually known as an amanuensis) and made an error in haste. The scribe could have been copying the shapes of the letters without knowing what the letters on the manuscript meant, thus if they made an error they would not have known that they changed a word. These are all common reasons that Christian textual critics point out for rejecting the variants found in many New Testament manuscripts.
In other words, Christians themselves reject the notion that all manuscripts are authoritative and for them manuscripts need to be authoritative because their scriptural tradition internationally was unable to preserve their scripture from its earliest days to the present day. This problem is not present in Islam and so we have no need to depend on, unverifiable manuscripts. We don’t need to authorize texts that are historically without authority. Christians have that need, it’s a necessity because their scriptural tradition was insufficient, Islam does not have this problem. So when Christians point out a variant that a scribe may or may not have made in writing the Qur’an, that means nothing to do the Muslim as it is a lone witness, versus a living tradition of witnesses in continuous verification over 1400+ years through daily, monthly and yearly memorization and recitation. However, if there is a variant in a New Testament manuscript, this is a problem for Christianity as not only do they accept that their scriptural tradition needs to be abandoned, they now need to reconstruct what their scripture may or may not have looked like and so they try to attack the Qur’an out of jealousy. While Muslims can be certain about the Qur’an, a Christian simply cannot be certain about anything in the New Testament.
One of the divine signs of Islam is the promise in Qur’an 15:9, which reads:
“Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.”
From the very start of Islam, the Qur’an was commanded to be recited. It was memorized, taught, recited daily. If God wanted a scripture to be preserved, then the best way to preserve it among humans would have been through continuous and daily recitation. In Islam, we find this with the 5 daily prayers in which the Qur’an must be recited. God included an entire month of the year dedicated to reciting the Qur’an in mass congregation, Ramadhan. God made it compulsory for each community to have a hafiz (memorizer) who needed to know the Qur’an by memory. God made it compulsory for each Muslim to individually carry the responsibility of knowing several chapters (Surahs) of the Qur’an. The God of Islam, it would seem through divine wisdom, knew what was needed for the Qur’an to be preserved among its followers. The same cannot be said about the New Testament or the Graeco-Roman Post-Hasmonaean Jewish Syncretic deity that Christians worship. This deity did not make the New Testament central to the lives of the early Christians. There was no need to memorize what Jesus said and taught, there was no need to recite what God revealed daily, monthly or even yearly. There was no command to preserve the language in which the scripture was given.
There was no need to preserve the New Testament. One must wonder, if there is a God and He wanted us to know Him, wouldn’t He have raised a community of people devoted to the preservation of His scripture? This is what we find in the religion of Islam, but it is not something we can find in the religion of Christianity. Interestingly, this rejection of textus receptus for textus criticus raises a very disturbing problem. If the collective world of Christendom, could not preserve their scripture for over 2000 years and they needed to reconstruct their scripture, what else has their religious tradition failed to preserve? What if their traditional teachings about the Trinity are wrong and need to be recovered. What if their traditional beliefs about Jesus dying for their sins are wrong and need to be recovered? What if…? Islam does not carry with it, such uncertainty, only Christianity can and does. For me, that’s a problem.
and Allah knows best.