To fully understand what a Muslim means when he says that the Bible is corrupted, we must first understand what in his mind is the concept of uncorrupted revealed literature. Briefly stated, Muslims have basically two criteria for this.
Firstly, the Muslim mind contrary to (a majority of) the early Christians, at least such Christians as played a major role in the canonization1of the books of the New Testament, does not believe that God's revelation is accessible to all men without distinction2. On the contrary, it believes that God reveals His words to those whom He selects from amongst men. Such men are of impeccable character and repute. They bring with them clear evidence of their divine authority. These men are called Prophets, or Messengers of God, by the Muslims. Whatever they say and whatever they do with reference to religious beliefs or actions gets the status of True Religious Teachings. No one other than the Prophets or Messengers of God holds this position. The apostles of any Prophet, are by their very name, subordinate to these Prophets or Messengers of God. They only deliver the message of a Prophet and do not speak or write with divine inspiration. Consequently, Muslims believe that the origin of any divine literature must lie with some Prophet (and thus God) and not with a Prophet's disciples or apostles.
Secondly, such writings, actions or sayings of the Prophets must come down to their followers through unbroken and absolutely dependable chains of transmission. For instance, it should not be so that a compilation of the sayings of a Prophet is suddenly made available to the world, while in the past it is not known to exist. If such be the case, the Muslim mind would not base its religious beliefs3on such a narrative. This also means that such a transmission must be free of any kind of alteration, and must be delivered to the later people in exactly the same words as it was delivered to the companions of a Prophet.
Thus, when a Muslim says that the text of the Bible is corrupted, all that he means is that:
1. The books that comprise the Bible are not the ones given by the respective prophets to whom they are ascribed.
2. These books do not meet the criteria of unbroken and dependable chains of transmission, and
3. A number of intentional and unintentional changes have occurred in the text of these books.
It should be borne in mind that Muslims do believe that the Torah was revealed to Moses, and the Gospel was revealed to Jesus. But it is pretty obvious from these books as they appear in the Bible today that neither of the two books are the same ones which were revealed to these Prophets of Allah or even dictated by them. They are more of a historian's account of the lives and teachings of Moses and Jesus respectively than books revealed to them.
The Bible that is normally read around the world today is basically a translation of the (narration of the) original text. The various books that constitute the Bible today were first written in languages other than English or German or Urdu or Arabic. For example, the Genesis is thought to be originally written in Hebrew. So is Exodus and the other books of the Pentateuch.
Let us first consider the Torah (or the Pentateuch). The Torah is believed to be revealed by God to Moses (sws). Thus it is believed to be revealed somewhere around the 13th century BC. But the books that we have with us today that constitute the Torah do not date as farther back. Furthermore, experts on the text of the Bible also believe that the Torah, as we have it now, was not written or even dictated by Moses (sws) himself. Geddes MacGregor, in his book, "The Bible in the Making" writes:
All you have to do to see that the Old Testament as we know it did not come straight from the pen of its several authors, is to look at the first three chapters of Genesis. There you will find two quite distinct accounts of the creation of man. The account in the first chapter is startling different from the account in the second and third.
There is no doubt that these two stories of the creation of man which have been set down together in the opening chapters of Genesis belong to very different periods. The second is by far the more primitive one, and between the writings of the two narratives about as much time elapsed, as has elapsed between the day of Christopher Columbus and our own. The disparity is obvious from the character of the stories themselves: you can detect it in reading them alongside each other in an English Bible. If you were reading them in Hebrew you would be struck by the fact that throughout the first account, the word used for "God" is from "Elohim", while in the second the name assigned is that of "Yahweh".
The use of the term "Elohim" goes further back, however, than the date of the passages in Genesis in which it is used. A study of various passages in the Hebrew Bible shows that there must have been originally two documents, of which the author of the more primitive one used the name Yahweh in referring to God, while the author of the other used the name Elohim. Scholars call the first document J, from "Jahveh" ("Yahweh"), and the second document E, from "Elohim". (London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, pp. 23-24,)
The author has then described briefly how the first six books of the Hebrew Bible have come down to us. A summary of the writer's description follows4:
J was the product of the southern kingdom, while E of the northern kingdom. Some time after 721 BC, a writer in the southern kingdom put these two documents together with additions of his own. The work of this scholar is called JE by the modern scholars. In the following century, JE was enlarged by the addition of the discourses of Deuteronomy (these are apparently, addresses delivered by Moses, shortly before his death)5. Around 500 BC, a school of priests undertook further editorial revision. Finally, in the fifth century BC, this codification was incorporated with JE as revised and expanded by the Deuteronomic editor.
In other words, J and E are the two most primitive narrations of the life and teachings of Moses (though not written or dictated by him). Both these narratives are not similar, and differ with each other in many respects. J (written somewhere around 850 BC)6and E (around 750 BC) were combined and added upon in (around) 650 BC and the resulting document was called JE. In (around) 550 BC, further additions were made from a document called D (dated around 621 BC) and thus, the document now became JED. In (around) 400 BC, priestly ritual laws, (written around 500 - 450 BC) were added to JED - now growing to JEDP. JEDP, as it became in 400 BC, is the Pentateuch (The Torah) as we now know it. Thus, a book considered and believed to be written by and revealed to Moses (around the 13th century) is actually written in the fourth or the fifth century7.
This then is the reality about the Torah. No doubt, the text of these books do contain parts of revelations to Moses, but, the situation as it actually stands does not endorse that all the material contained therein is revelation -- all revelation. Consequently, Geddes MacGregor writes:
There are, indeed, probably echoes in the Old Testament itself of dissatisfaction with the revisions. Jeremiah, for instance, having questioned whether his compatriots are justified in their confidence in possessing the Law of God revealed to Moses, warns them: Behold, the false pen of the scribes hath wrought falsely (Jeremiah viii.).
The position of most of the other books of the Old Testament is not much different.
Now, let us turn towards the New Testament.
The New Testament does not consist of any book that even claims to be written or dictated or even proposed to be written by Jesus (sws) -- the prophet of God (as Muslims believe him to be), to whom, as the Muslims believe, the real Injil was revealed. All the New Testament consists of, besides the book called "Revelation", are four biographies of Jesus (sws) claimed to be written by his disciples, and some letters (claimed to be) of his disciples. The case of "Revelation" is just a little bit different, as it is presented completely as a narrative of a dialogue of Jesus with one of his disciples. Recognizing this fact, C. F. Evans writes:
The only New Testament book, which appears to have been written self-consciously as if for canonical status (but only until the imminent end) is Revelation, with its solemn blessing on those who read and hear it and its threat of damnation on anyone who adds to or subtracts from it, but this is because writing had become a solemn and mysterious act in the apocalyptic tradition, and it is significant that Revelation, though a mosaic of Old Testament phrases and allusions, nowhere makes any explicit citation from it. (The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 1, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1970, p. 234)
It seems that in the beginning all the writings now included in the New Testament with many others that were in circulation among Christians were written only to preserve the life and teachings of Jesus (sws), as was understood or interpreted by their respective writers. Most of these writings it seems were never meant, initially, to become the basis or canons of a new religion. So whoever had anything related to the life and teachings of Jesus (sws), he wrote it down. This is quite understandable. Disciples of all great people tend to do this and, no doubt, such writings are of great importance for a student of history. But placing them at the exalted status of canons or basis of a new religious belief does not seem to be quite justified. Thus, it seems that initially no one even thought about collecting and publishing all the writings that were in circulation8 and at that time they were probably not even as much revered as they later became. C. F. Evans writes:
So long as Christianity stood close to Judaism, or was predominantly Jewish, scripture remained the Old Testament, and this situation can be seen persisting in such a document as I Clement, with its frequent and almost exclusive appeal to the Old Testament text. The elevation of Christian writings to the position of a new canon, like those writings themselves, was primarily the work of Gentile Christianity, whose literature also betrays a feeling that the very existence of the Old Testament was now a problem to be solved and that there was need of some new and specifically Christian authority. ... what eventually took place was precisely what in the earliest days of the Church could hardly have been conceived, namely, the creation of a further Bible along with that already in existence, which was to turn it into the first of two, and in the end to relegate it to the position of 'old' in a Bible now made up of two testaments. The history of the development of the New Testament Canon is the history of the process by which books written for the most part for other purposes and from other motives came to be given this unique status; and the study of the New Testament is in part an investigation of why there were any such writings to canonize, and of how, and in what circumstances, they came to possess such qualities as fitted them for their new role, and made it impossible for them to continue simply as an expansion of, or supplement to, something else. (The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 1, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1970, pp. 234-235)
He further writes:
During the apostolic age the Christian Bible consisted of the Old Testament alone. (The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 1, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1970, p. 286)
Consequently, it seems quite obvious that this status was given to these books only at a later stage. Initially, they were neither considered as divine nor as canons of a new religion. They were simply regarded but a narration of the teachings of a Prophet by such people as were his companions or by those who had been companions of his companions. Nothing more than that. Furthermore, to improve the attitude towards them, it was claimed that they were divinely inspired. Geddes MacGregor writes:
Prominent in the measures taken to safeguard the Church against the dangers that beset it was the attempt to provide a body of Scripture that could be set side by side with the Old Testament and have, for Christians, a comparable status. But this movement to limit the Christians Scriptures to a fixed number of books was much stronger among some Christian communities than among others. (The Bible in the Making,Cambridge: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, pp. 39-40)
This process of selecting some of the books that were in circulation at that time as more authoritative and making a New Testament on their basis began in the second century. By the end of the second century churches in the West, especially Rome, accepted some books to be more authoritative and started calling them the New Testament. In this categorization of the books in circulation, Revelation, the Epistle to the Hebrews, II Peter, II and III John, and Jude were considered to be less authoritative.9While among the Eastern or Greek Fathers, there was considerable disagreement even in the fourth century10.
Now, let us take a look at the "corruption" alleged.
A few methods have been devised by textual scholars of the Bible to infer which of the text given in the old manuscripts is most likely that of the originally written document. A number of books have been written on the explanation of these methods. One such book is Bruce M. Metzger's "The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration". The author, in the preface of the book has briefly mentioned why it is important to apply textual criticism on the Bible. He states:
The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: (a) none of the original documents is extant, and (b) the existing copies differ from one another. The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original. (Oxford:The University Press, 1964, Preface)
This statement, in other words simply means that the oldest of the manuscripts of the New Testament that we have, do not comply with each other. In such a state, a simple mind, is obviously prone to believing that the text of the New Testament from its oldest of days was not safe from corruption.
C. F. Evans after a detailed analysis of the various reasons that can be ascribed to the variant readings of the New Testament presents his conclusion in the following words:
Thus a study of the history of the text of the New Testament in the earliest and formative period shows a number of different factors at work. In the first place, the New Testament documents have been open to the normal hazards of manuscript transmission. This is evident in some lines of descent.... It is still a matter of debate whether any places have been so affected in all lines of transmission: a plausible case for corruption might be made in John 3: 25, I Cor. 6: 5, Col. 2: 18, and Jas. 1: 17, to mention only some striking instances... Another debated factor is the influence of doctrine upon the text. It is understandable that many scholars, conscious of the sensibilities of fellow-churchmen, and often sharing those sensibilities themselves (whether from a consciously conservative standpoint or not), should have denied that any variant had arisen from alteration in the interest of some doctrinal issue. However, we have seen that there are instances where we run in the face of the evidence if we deny the presence of this factor in the development of the text. Many variants which can be traced to the second century bear the mark of the development of doctrine... Many variants of a different kind have sprung from the closely related factor of interpretation... Lastly, we perceive that change has come about as a result of the history of the Greek language, both conscious changes from locutions deemed barbaric to others considered cultured, and unconscious changes such as arose through the disappearance of the dative case or the attenuation of the perfect. (The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 1, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1970, pp. 375-376)
Bruce M. Metzger has outlined the causes of error in the transmission of the text of the New Testament, in a separate chapter of his book, "The Text of The New Testament". He has broadly divided such errors into two categories: (a) Unintentional Changes, and (b) Intentional Changes. A summary of the unintentional changes, he mentions, follows:
Errors Arising from Faulty Eyesight:This maybe of any one of different natures. For example, a scribe with such a problem, found it difficult to distinguish between Greek letters that resemble one another; this was especially the case where the previous copyist had not written with care. Then, there can be a problem of jumping from one line to other and thereby omitting a line or a few lines, if both the lines ended or began with similar words. Errors Arising from Faulty Hearing: Such problem can especially arise when the scribe is making a copy from dictation. A scribe is more prone to this problem in the case of two or more words with the same pronunciation. Errors of the Mind: This category of errors seem to have arisen during the particular instance when the copyist was holding a sentence or a phrase in his mind, whether after looking at the previous copy, if the copy was made by looking at a previous copy, or after hearing the sentence, if the copy was made from dictation. This error can result in a number of variations in the text. For example, the copyist may unintentionally substitute a word with a synonymous word. The sequence of words may be unintentionally altered. The letters of a word may be so transported that causes a different word to be written in the copy being so made. The passage being so written may be replaced in the mind of the scribe with a similar passage that is better known to the scribe. Errors of Judgement: Such errors may arise when a scribe mistakes some words written on the margin of a previously written manuscript to be part of the text being written. (Oxford:The University Press, 1964, pp.186-195)
A summary of the unintentional changes, the author mentions, is give below:
Changes Involving Spelling and Grammar:The scribe may, with a motive of correction, change or alter the spelling of a word or the sequence of words in a sentence. Harmonistic Corruptions: Since the monks normally knew portions of the Scriptures by heart, they tended to make changes in the text to harmonize discordant parallels or quotations. Addition of Natural Complements and Similar Adjuncts: Where the scribe thought a phrase to be missing a few words that, in his opinion, should have been there, he added such words as he thought were obviously missing and were meant to be there. Clearing up Historical and Geographical Difficulties: The scribes who were aware of a particular historical or geographical reference being made in the text and found that reference to be incorrect in some way, tended to correct such reference. Conflation of Readings: When the same passage was given differently in different manuscripts most scribes incorporated both readings in the new copy which they were writing. Alterations made because of Doctrinal Considerations: When the words of the manuscript which was used as a source differed from or negated the doctrine to which the scribe ascribed himself, he was tempted to alter the words in a way that prevented the particular doctrine from losing its ground. Addition of Miscellaneous Details: Some scribes had the tendency of adding details to some event that was referred to in the text. (Oxford:The University Press, 1964, pp.195-206)
The author has given a number of examples under each sub-category of these changes.
This, then, is what confuses the Muslim. Muslims do not believe that the books that now constitute the New Testament were written by Jesus (sws), whereas, the basis of Christianity is ascribed to him. Even if these books were ascribed to Jesus (sws), the Muslims have never been provided with unbroken and dependable chains of transmission of these books from one generation to the next. The case of the Torah is no different. Lastly, even experts on the text of the Bible believe that it has not remained safe from intentional and/or unintentional changes in the text. Consequently, in the situation, as it stands, Muslims have no option but to believe that the books of the Bible as we have them today do not truly reflect the true teachings of the Prophets to whom they are ascribed.
Notes & References
1. Canonization, very simply stated, means the acceptance of some of the writings that were in circulation in the early period of Christianity as authoritative while not giving this position to other such writings.
2. See C. F. Evans, The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol 1, Cambridge: University Printing House, 1970, p. 286.
3. Note that such narratives would not become the "basis" of religious doctrine for the Muslims. This does not imply that such narratives would be out rightly rejected.
4. See Geddes MacGregor's "The Bible in the Making", London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961.
5. The author writes:
…indeed they were no doubt based on an oral tradition of a farewell address given by that great leader of the early Hebrews. The writer of Deuteronomy incorporated older materials in his work such as the "Blessing" Deuteronomy xxxiii); but the ideals and sentiments he expressed are those of his own age, not that of Moses.
6. It must be remembered that the time of Moses is around the 13th century, and the most ancient narrative and that too only a part of the Torah is not earlier than 850 BC.
7. See the table in Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making, London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, p.26.
8. Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making, London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, p. 35.
9. Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making, London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, p. 40.
10. Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making, London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd, 1961, p. 41.
11. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, Oxford:The University Press, 1964, p. 186.