Jay Smith is an American missionary based in London who campaigns full-time against Muslims and Islam, especially at Speakers Corner where his tirades against Islam are notorious. I was sent the following article written by J. Smith, hot off the press. In it he criticises Professor Bart Ehrman’s Facebook comments concerning the manuscript discovery of some very early Qur’anic folios at the University of Birmingham.
A friend sent me his review of Jay Smith’s article:
ARE BART EHRMAN’S VIEWS ON THE BIRMINGHAM FRAGMENTS CORRECT?
Yesterday Bart Ehrman responded to the Qur’anic Birmingham Folios, and Muslims and friends have been sending me his article, which you can view below: ((https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBartEhrman/posts/909223369149458)).
Yet, he made a few errors in his assessment, which I will go through below. 1) Carbon 14 dating: Ehrman suggests that since the dates for these folios fall between 568 – 645 AD, “These pages may have been produced during his [Muhammad’s] lifetime or in a decade or so later”. He must not know the traditional story, found in al-Bukhari 6:509-510), which clearly states that the Qur’an was compiled in its completed canonized form by Zaid ibn Thabit sometime after 650 AD, due to the many corrupted Qur’ans which were proliferating at that time. The fact that this falls in the time period of Muhammad’s life (570 – 632 AD), and may even predate his life (568 AD), suggests they are perhaps examples of those very corrupted manuscripts which escaped Uthman’s manuscript burnings.
Or they could possibly have been the writings from which a good bit of the Qur’an was borrowed. Note that the three Suras in these folios (included parts of Suras 18 – 20) contain stories which were all borrowed from other sources, such as ‘The 7 sleepers of Ephesus’ (Sura 18:17-26), the descriptions of Hell and paradise, (Sura 18:29-31), the accusations against God having a son (Sura 19:91-98), Moses and the burning bush (Sura 19:9-13), and stories surrounding Moses’ life (Sura 19:9- 13; 20:17-40). Are these folios then examples of those borrowed texts, incorporated and corrected in a later manuscript?
2) Late New Testament Dates: Ehrman suggests that, unlike these folios, which appear during the lifetime of Muhammad, the earliest Biblical equivalent do not appear for 170 years following Jesus’ death. Whether 170 years is correct or not, he completely forgets the completely different materials on which the earliest New Testament books and the earliest Qur’anic documents were written.
The New Testament documents were, up until the 4th century, all written on papyrus. This was because parchment, or vellum (which used animal skins) could only be afforded by wealthy individuals, of which the church had very few early on. Thus, it was only when Constantine, a wealthy emperor, commissioned codices to be written on animal skins, did the church have parchment codices at their disposal (i.e. the Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and Alexandrinus are 3 of these examples). Due to their durability, they are almost as well preserved today as they day they were created, unlike Papyrus which disintegrates after 100 years. That’s why we wouldn’t expect to find any original Biblical Papyri today. The fact that we do find fragments of papyri beginning with the 2nd century is in itself amazing and exciting.
The Qur’an, unlike the Biblical documents, was never written on papyrus, since it was created much later, and didn’t need such cheap material, due to the fact that it was written in an environment of power and wealth. According to Islamic tradition, it was commissioned by the Caliph Uthman himself, who by that time (650 AD) ruled all of the Arabian Peninsula, much of the Middle East, Persia, and parts of Northern Africa. Therefore, he is the one who commissioned multiple copies of the Qur’an to be written on Parchment, and these were sent to four cities for safe keeping (Medina, Basra, Baghdad, and Damascus), while any other Qur’anic manuscripts and fragments which disagreed he had burnt (see al Bukhari 6:510). So where are those four complete Qur’anic manuscripts, all from 650 AD, all of which should be identical, without any manuscript variants? A folio or two discovered here and there (Birmingham and Tubingen) do not the Qur’an make.
What’s more, Ehrman seems to suggest that these two folios, dated early, thus validate the entire Qur’an as being early. Using that criteria, would he be willing to accept that the 2nd century Bodimer Papyrus and the John Rylands fragments now validate all 27 books of the New Testament? Of course he won’t, and neither do we.
3) No variants: Ehrman makes the claim that these two folios are so important because “They made sure they copied it the same, every time, word for word”. Thus, he is quite sure that these folios follow, word for word, the Qur’an that we have today. Unfortunately, not everything we read on the BBC is correct (please know I love the BBC, a source which normally can be trusted). This time, however, Ehrman perhaps should have done a little more research before making such a statement. These two folios do not follow the Qur’an we have today, with slight variants throughout the 3 Suras. See my earlier response to the Birmingham folios, which invalidates any notion that the Qur’an is unchanged, the claim every Muslim makes for their Qur’ans.
4) BBC can be trusted: Ehrman assumed that the article he read could be trusted, and so the fact that no variants were noted in these folios proves the folios were identical to the Qur’an we have today; otherwise, as he notes, “that is the story that would be all over the news”. Which is correct, that really should have been the story. The fact that none of those who were interviewed for the BBC article even brought up this question, one even suggesting that these were the very words of Muhammad, should have been Ehrman’s first point of concern.
It is obvious from the whole tone of the article that it was written as an advocacy for Muslims, particularly those who live in Birmingham. The variants have yet to hit the news, but when they do, Ehrman will then need to refocus his criticism.
5) Only the New Testament has corrections: Ehrman then uses these supposed ‘perfect and early’ Qur’anic folios to set off on a tirade against, what he considers were “hundreds of thousands” of accidental and intentional mistakes in the New Testament documents. He seemed to be on familiar territory here. Perhaps he should have been informed of the many hundreds of corrections that have been found by Dr. Dan Brubaker in his research of just the 10 earliest manuscripts that are available to date (including the Topkapi, Sammarqand, Husseini, Ma’il, Petropolitanus, and San’aa manuscripts). The fact that Ehrman can refer to variants from thousands of New Testament documents (including 230 partial or complete documents which predate the Qur’an), yet would not have a similar number of early Qur’anic documents, is understandably lost on him, since he has not studied the Qur’anic record.
This fact, concerning the paucity of Qur’anic manuscripts available, should concern him greatly. He acknowledges the thousands of New Testaments available today, yet says nothing concerning the few earliest somewhat complete Qur’anic manuscripts, which only begin to appear in the 8th century, 60 – 100 years after the Qur’an was supposedly compiled in its canonized form.
If we were to compare the early documents from both scriptures we would find similar examples of variants in both sets of revelation. Yet, while the New Testament documents were written on less durable material (Papyrus), and thus had to be copied more frequently (which would allow for copyist errors to occur), the Qur’anic manuscripts, in contrast, were all written on much more durable animal skins, so there should be no reason for corrections, unless, of course, there was a concerted need to standardize the text, by the authorities of that time, which seems to be the case with the Qur’an.
6) Amateurs created Errors: Ehrman acknowledges that the errors in the New Testament crept in because they were not written by professionals, but by, “local people who happened to be literate”. Then he wonders why no authority made sure these errors didn’t happen. The answer is simple, Christianity had no unifying authority until the time of Constantine, in the 4th century. Interestingly, Ehrman never asks the same question of the Qur’an. In contrast to the Bible, the Qur’an was written by professionals (Zaid ibn Thabit was commissioned by Uthman because, according to tradition, he was the official secretary of Muhammad himself). What’s more, all of the Qur’anic manuscripts were commissioned by Caliphs, such as Abu Bakr, Uthman, Abd al-Malick, and al Walid. With so many hundreds of errors found in the earliest manuscripts (including erasures, insertions, tapings, and coverings), one has to wonder why those professional scribes did such an inept job, unless, of course they were commissioned by the Caliphs to correct the subsequent manuscripts in order to create a standard canonized text 100 – 200 years after the time of Muhammad.
7) My book is better ‘attested’ than your book: Ehrman tables the notion that only Christians claim that their book is “the best-attested book from the ancient world”. Curiously, he then proceeds to prove that very point himself, noting that there are no other ancient texts with as many manuscripts as the New Testament.
One wonders why he didn’t ask the same of the Qur’an? As we said previously, with Islam dominating much of the world by the end of the 7th century (ruling from Spain to India), it is striking that we cannot find any complete manuscripts of the Qur’an at all from any of the vast area they dominated. All we find are small folios, like the ones in Birmingham. In fact, we don’t even know when the first complete and unchanged Qur’an was finally written as one piece, because the Qur’an which is used all over the Muslim world today was only canonized in 1924, less than 100 years ago.
And Christians are certainly not the only ones to make this claim. Almost every Muslim apologist starts from the premise that the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, is the only scripture that can be traced back to its origins, that it is still complete, that it has never changed, and that the earliest extent manuscripts prove this categorically, a notion which the historical record now pretty much destroys.
One can understand why Ehrman made these easy mistakes, since, as he himself admits, he is not a Qur’anic expert. Why the Muslims today use his riposte and send it to people like myself, however, is more problematic, as they should know better.
Until Muslims can show us where the Uthmanic codices are situated, and prove that they are all complete, unchanged and dated to the mid-7th century, we will continue to question whether their revelation is indeed from the 7th century, or even from Muhammad.