An Example of Tahrif (Corruption) in the Bible
Muslims are often told that the corruption of the Bible as Muslims believe in, cannot be demonstrated. Simple examples of taḥrīf (corruption; technically: to move something from its place) are generally dismissed as copyist errors which do not affect the overall meaning of the message, though it does need to be pointed out that at some point there will be enough small changes that they aggregate into meaningful differences. If it was the case that many small changes were ineffectual in the validity of scripture (its meaning and authority) then either it is the case that the scripture itself is so vague and impactless that changes don’t matter on a macro scale or it is the case that the changes do eventually matter because the sanctity and preservation of scripture matters.
The Qur’ān makes a few claims regarding the taḥrīf of the Bible:
“Do you ˹believers still˺ expect them to be true to you, though a group of them would hear the word of Allah then knowingly corrupt it after understanding it?” – 2:75 (trans. by Dr. Mustafa Khattab).
“But they broke their covenant, so We condemned them and hardened their hearts. They distorted the words of the Scripture and neglected a portion of what they had been commanded to uphold. You ˹O Prophet˺ will always find deceit on their part, except for a few. But pardon them and bear with them. Indeed, Allah loves the good-doers.” – 5:13 (trans. by Dr. Mustafa Khattab).
Prof. Adam Gacek writes in his Vademecum (pp. 31-32) regarding the definition of the word taḥrīf:
2. distortion, error, usually involving either transposition of letters within a word, e.g. علم/ عمل or شقر /شرق , or mispronunciation, e.,g. طغرا /طرة (MU, X, 57; MQ, 641: al-taḥrīf bi-al ziyādah aw bi-al-naqṣ); falsification (of a text), comp. al-qalb al makānī, taṣḥīf.”
Regarding “al-taḥrīf bi-al ziyādah aw bi-al-naqṣ”, this means a change by means of increasing or by decreasing (letters, words, passages, etc).
Let’s now proceed by looking at an example of a simple change of one word in which it was swapped with a word of the opposite meaning. At first we will look at a Jewish translation (CJB; emphasis mines), then at Christian translations (ESV, NIV; emphasis mines).
Now it would come about when the cycle of the feasting days would be over, that Job would send and summon them, and offer up burnt-offerings early in the morning burnt- offerings according to the number of all of them, for Job said, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and blasphemed God in their hearts.” So would Job do all the days. – Job 1:5 (CJB).
“And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed[a] God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. – Job 1:5 (ESV).
Now the Hebrew text (MST – Masoretic Text):
וַיְהִ֡י כִּ֣י הִקִּיפוּ֩ יְמֵ֨י הַמִּשְׁתֶּה֜ וַיִּשְׁלַ֧ח אִיּ֣וֹב וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֗ם וְהִשְׁכִּ֣ים בַּבֹּקֶר֘ וְהֶֽעֱלָ֣ה עֹלוֹת֘ מִסְפַּ֣ר כֻּלָּם֒ כִּ֤י אָמַ֣ר אִיּ֔וֹב אוּלַי֙ חָטְא֣וּ בָנַ֔י וּבֵֽרְכ֥וּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים בִּלְבָבָ֑ם כָּ֛כָה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיּ֖וֹב כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים:
The word used in the English is “blasphemed”, the word used in Hebrew is H1288 or the word for “blessed”. “Blasphemed” and “blessed” are words with the opposite meaning, so what happened here? The CJB offers little explanation (at least the digital version I checked), but the ESV rightly has a footnote there:
Job 1:5 The Hebrew word bless is used euphemistically for curse in 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9
As this footnote explains, this issue has arisen in multiple places within the text of Job, at a count of at least four (4) times. They do offer one explanation, the word bless is used euphemistically to mean curse. Yet, is this true? Not exactly, the NET in Translation Note #30 says (emphasis mines):
The Hebrew verb is בָּרַךְ (barakh), which means “to bless.” Here is a case where the writer or a scribe has substituted the word “curse” with the word “bless” to avoid having the expression “curse God.”
For similar euphemisms in the ancient world, see K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, 166. It is therefore difficult to know exactly what Job feared they might have done. The opposite of “bless” would be “curse,” which normally would convey disowning or removing from blessing. Some commentators try to offer a definition of “curse” from the root in the text, and noting that “curse” is too strong, come to something like “renounce.”
The idea of blaspheming is probably not meant; rather, in their festivities they may have said things that renounced God or their interest in him. Job feared this momentary turning away from God in their festivities, perhaps as they thought their good life was more important than their religion.
This would be less of a problem if the entire story of Job did not rest on the meaning of this one word. In the Bible, Satan challenges God by claiming that the only reason the Patriarch Job is so faithful to God, is only due to the blessings which God had bestowed upon him (wealth, a good family, good health, etc). Satan then suggests to God, that should God take these blessings away from Job that Job will then either curse God (if the translations are right) or that Job will bless God (if the edited Hebrew text is right). In other words, either Satan wins the challenge against God or God wins the challenge against Satan.
Given that Job ends up cursing God and repenting for it, and given the use of the original Hebrew word of “curse” (i.e. the word before the scribes changed it to bless in the Hebrew), this would mean that Satan won the challenge against God.
The Challenge by Satan (Job 1:11 – NIV):
“But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
Job’s Admission of Cursing God (Job 42:1-3 – NIV):
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
Interestingly, the NIV has no footnote to indicate that the word should be read in its opposite (and therefore in its original) meaning. To further illustrate this point, the Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments says (emphasis mines):
Job 42:3. Who is he that hideth counsel? — What am I, that I should be guilty of such madness? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not — Because my mind was without knowledge, therefore my speech was ignorant and foolish; things which I knew not — I have spoken foolishly and unadvisedly of things far above my reach.
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary says (emphasis mines):
42:1-6 Job was now sensible of his guilt; he would no longer speak in his own excuse; he abhorred himself as a sinner in heart and life, especially for murmuring against God, and took shame to himself.
In conclusion, this is striking because the Qur’ān teaches:
There are some among them who distort the Book with their tongues to make you think this ˹distortion˺ is from the Book—but it is not what the Book says. They say, “It is from Allah”—but it is not from Allah. And ˹so˺ they attribute lies to Allah knowingly. – 3:78 (trans. by Dr. Mustafa Khattab).
and Allah knows best.
Touching God’s Eye
For example, in Zech. 2:12, God is quoted as saying:
הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּכֶם נֹגֵעַ בְּבָבַת עֵינוֹ Whoever touches you touches the pupil of his own eye.
A number of rabbinic texts claim that the uncorrected wording was actually:
“Whoever touches you touches the pupil of My [= God’s!] eye.”
Midrash Tanhuma calls this “a scribal correction [made] by the Men of the Great Assembly” (שהוא תיקון סופרים אנשי כנסת הגדולה). Writing in the Jewish Study Bible, Ehud Ben Zvi paraphrases this rabbinic comment:
“The original text read, ‘the pupil of My own eye,’ and was changed by the soferim (scribes) so as to avoid the obvious anthropomorphism.”
Attempting to explain this apparently brazen attitude to sacred text from religious leaders, the 20th-century scholar of rabbinics, Saul Lieberman, argued that some rabbis justified their emendations based on the Talmudic saying:
אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן מוטב שתעקר אות אחת מן התורה ואל יתחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “It is better that one letter be removed from the Torah than that the Divine name be publicly profaned.”
3] Beshalah 16.
 Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1962), p. 35, quoting b. Yevamot 79a.
Such attempts to rewrite history and “clean up” the work of an earlier rabbi are not so rare. See e.g. my Rashbam’s Commentary on Leviticus and Numbers: An Annotated Translation, pp. 260-261, where I argue that Rashbam’s commentary to Num 22:1 was altered for religious ideological reasons. And see more generally Marc Shapiro’s recent book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History, concerning the phenomenon in contemporary times.
So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God with him. (Exodus 4:20
They also altered the verse: “For in their anger they slew a man and in their self-will they slaughtered an ox” (Genesis 49:6), to read: For in their anger they slew an ox and in their self-will they uprooted a trough, to avoid the charge that Jacob’s sons were murderers. Instead of: “And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon a donkey” (Exodus 4:20), they wrote: And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon a carrier of people, which could be understood as referring to a horse or a camel rather than the lowly donkey. Talmud Megillah 9a:15)
Josef Bonfils commentary (14th century scholar)
And if you suggest: ‘They changed words but they didn’t add any’ here is a response: Look at the verse (Exod. 4:20): “And he (Moses) placed them on a donkey,” which they translated as “on a transporter of people” – two Hebrew words in place of one word. Similarly, “the hare” they translated as “the short-legged [one].” If one were to retort: They did this to avoid offending the Romans – who gave them the right to change, add or subtract out of fear of the king? And if the king ever learned our language and saw that we had changed [words], this would have been a public shaming of God? Do not our Rabbis say (b. Sanhedrin 74a): “In a situation of desecration of God’s name one should allow oneself to be killed and avoid the violation”?!
Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ (Genesis 18:13)
Really. [Meaning:] “Can it be true that I will give birth?” When I am old.Scripture altered [her statement] for the sake of peace, for she had actually said, “And my master is old.”