Is the Bible more reliable than the Quran considering the New Testament's textual variants?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question (from Asia): So many of the Muslim debaters refer to the preface of the King James version and say there are modifications in the Bible. The Quran has no modifications and also the proofs for the New Testament which are 5000 manuscripts are not exact to each other, they quote the scriptures at that time are not the same if we check one another. Is it right what the Muslim debaters are saying? Please answer me. 

Answer: Greetings friend. It will be my pleasure to respond to your question today — because the facts of your question are true… but only to a point, and I see in them the common Muslim objections to the veracity of the Christian scriptures. I also see the classic “disconnect” between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the transmission of Scripture and, therefore, scriptural inerrancy… and it will take me a while to unwind all this; so stick with me.

Muslims believe that Allah dictated the Quran to Mohammed — and that Mohammed acted as a stenographer, copying down (in Arabic) the exact words that Allah wanted. Christians, however, believe that God used the confluence of God and man to create his written word — a process that imprints humanity on the Scripture — yet in a God-guided way… a way that delivered the exact product that God desired: a scripture that is both inspired and inerrant.

Muslims see this as a fundamental problem — that fallible men could not contribute to the Scripture without injecting their fallibility. But with this objection, they deny God’s greatness — that the all-powerful God who superintended this work through the agency of his Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) would fail to overcome this… and in this, they think too little of Allah.

But with the dictation theory, they think too little of Mohammed.  Let me ask you, which would you rather be: a stenographer for a great man — painstakingly recording his every utterance, or would you rather be his Chief Operating Officer — who through personal knowledge of the CEO and his objectives, executes his will? Christians are the latter; Mohammed is the former… and in this, we can see where Mohammed’s relationship to Allah is inferior to the biblical authors’ relationship to God. But in spite of this, Muslims tout dictation as a superior method!

Few would argue that being a stenographer (although a useful and honorable occupation) is not comparable to being a fiduciary agent for a vital enterprise. In fact, I see these as so different that I consider them beyond logical comparison… that purported dictation from Allah cannot be reasonably compared to the Bible’s inspiration — the confluence of divine revelation with the familial and fiduciary engagement of the biblical authors.

But what about the “thousands” of textual variants reported of the New Testament manuscripts? Doesn’t the mere presence of so many variants kill any possibility of inerrancy? No. In fact, these variants have had just the opposite effect: they have driven centuries of… no…. make that millennia of… global scholarship and this has yielded a general consensus about these documents — even among many nonbelieving scholars. But the Quran has no such “vetting” — no such “checks-and-balances;” it’s a “Mohammed said it — take it or leave it” kind of thing.

By way of comparison, the Bible is a lively tome; it is designed to be studied, discussed and applied… to be the measure of all things. As such, its language is updated regularly, rendered credibly by different translators and brought from its original Hebrew and Greek into the thousands of languages around the world…. yet Muslims see this as a problem. But it’s not a problem… that’s how a true “word-of-God” works. Such a work must be vital… after all, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ to all people of all time!

But the Quran is not like that at all — and why not? Because it was stillborn in 610 AD, it is static today — and that, my friend, is not an advantage — that is a DOA. (DOA is a medical term for a patient who is “Dead on Arrival”).

“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21, NIV)

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

Before I go into more detail about the New Testament manuscripts, let me demonstrate the end-result by having you perform a simple test. If you will indulge me, please go to the following website:

I show 24 distinct renderings of Hebrews 4:12 in English. Now, we know they are distinct by design, so there will be differences, but I’d like you to read them all and decide for yourself if the same truth was transmitted reliably — and I’m not talking about the mechanical repeating of any particular words; look for God’s message — and feel free to try this for any other Bible verses. You will find the same thing.

Note also that the original languages are available for inspection and analysis (click on “Greek” in the menu) — so you could perform your own translation from the original! You’ll also find the verses’ context, topics, cross-referencing, commentaries, etc. This is the type of activity you can expect from a lively work!

Furthermore, the Bible lends itself to finding new ways to tell God’s truth to a contemporary audience… but… it is always the same truth — the one God wanted to be told. And in today’s Internet Age, people everywhere enjoy more egalitarian access to God’s data than we’ve had at any moment in human history. Why… it’s almost like he designed Scripture with that in view because God’s lively word continues to engage people at every historical turn. But the Quran is not like that. Its purported strength, its fixedness, is more characteristic of a dried flower than a living one.

The claim of the Muslims that, unlike the Bible, the Quran is unchanged is also an overstatement. First, Mohammed was not the one who penned this purported revelation — he was illiterate! So, the information was processed through his intimates and successors. Second, as is also true of the New Testament, no original Quran exists. However, since we Christians claim that God superintended the production of the Bible in whatever form it took, this is verifiably true by God’s product, the Bible. But the Muslims claim that God dictated the Quran to Mohammed — and that they have this text unchanged. But this is an article of faith. It is not a verifiable truth, because no original exists.

Now that we’ve shown that there is a difference between the Bible’s transmission of God’s meaning and the Quran’s static carrying-forward of exactly-the-same-words, and also that neither the original Quran nor the New Testament autographs are in hand, I should say a few words about the New Testament manuscript variants, because the layman is often confused by the true but decontextualized comments of people like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman.

"Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more! We do not know for sure because, despite impressive developments in computer technology, no one has yet been able to count them all. Perhaps, as I indicated earlier, it is best simply to leave the matter in comparative terms. There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."

Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart D. Ehrman, HarperCollins, 2005

Doesn’t Ehrman (who is a credible scholar with good credentials and a good job) leave us with the impression that there could be 400,000 mistakes in the New Testament… more mistakes than it has words? He sure does — and boy… he sure sells some books! But did you notice the waffling… that bit about computers and counting… and how he never lifts the veil on what a variant might be. So, what does one do with Ehrman’s statement about all those manuscript variants?

Among other things, one reads Craig Blomberg's response to Ehrman in his book:

Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Publishing Group, 2014)

It’s obvious what we have here: two scholars canceling each other out… so it’s time to put any lingering postmodernism aside because when it comes to a “yes or no” answer on biblical inerrancy, they cannot both be right… and I agree with Blomberg. To see why let’s look more closely at Ehrman’s quote because there is a critical issue hidden within it that he did not reveal — one that supports the New Testament’s veracity rather than fights it.

In order for anyone to enumerate manuscript variants in the 200,000 – 400,000 range, one needs a large (and I mean large) supply of rare ancient manuscripts. Well, guess what? We have well over five-thousand of these, as your question noted… but you noted this as a problem. But it’s not a problem; it’s an advantage presented as a problem — and Ehrman uses this to set the hook… in spite of the fact that the more documents you have, the better your data — which is an advantage for those who support the New Testament project, not for Ehrman.

Another factor used in assessing manuscript veracity is, the closer they are written to the events they describe, the better they are — and guess what? Many of the New Testament manuscripts are incredibly close to the first century. Christians have a unique bounty of ancient “witnesses” (as these documents are called) that we use to reconstruct the New Testament. But I realize that this notion of “rebuilding” the New Testament out of subsequent documents may sound like a sketchy process to the laymen — one ripe for error. But as I explained previously, these are lively processes… and they produced our lively truth.

The Bible that we Christians have in our hands today is the faithful rendering from the Hebrew and Greek texts that existed at the time of the early church. In fact, our New Testament has been constructed with such astounding accuracy, that there are only a few words in the entire New Testament that are in dispute… and none of these affect doctrine in any way. So, we “have” the New Testament; we just don’t have the originals.

But what about all those variants? Don’t they equal mistakes? No. Those figures on the variants are a function of combinatorial mathematics, not a function of any error. Here’s how that works.

Let’s say we have 5000 documents that are the same, except one has a one-word variant. Since the process involves matching every document against every other document, that single variant generates 5000 variants when compared to the other documents. This simple example shows the deception of people like Ehrman: They have the gall to describe an accuracy rate of 99.98% (4999 out of 5000 documents) as 5000 variants… which the layman wrongly understands to be errors — and if you’re pitching your books to the general public, how is this not fraud? Reporting the decontextualized numbers like 200,000 or 400,000 variants — although not a necessarily false statement — is unconscionable marketing (… and I think we know who runs that department).

The above example is simplified, of course. But you should know where those types of numbers come from… that they are a result of combinatorial math which yields shockingly high numbers to describe a minor problem. And when you think about it, if there were only one ancient document in the batch… there would be no variants, and the math would show no problems. But is having “no variants” always the preferred condition?

No. Having only one or two ancient witnesses to any event would be thin proof. But we Christian have 5000-plus of these ancient documents! — which shoots the potential for combinatorial math through the roof — and skews the story. With 5000-plus documents, variations will certainly occur. But in spite of the large looking variant numbers, the documents vary only slightly. So scholars are able to reconstruct the original documents with great confidence… and under a great cloud of witnesses.

I cannot exactly tell by your question, but I hope that you are a Christian who is just looking for some relief with this issue. But if you are not, you seem to be right there … seeking the truth in all this… between the God of the Bible and the God of the Quran. Make no mistake: they cannot both be right… not about the word of God, salvation in Jesus Christ, the nature of heaven, etc. So, be brave. Pray for help and chose well.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV)

(I have answered another question related to this one. Click here if you'd like to go there.)

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