Editor’s Note: This post seems particularly relevant at this moment when some people are making such bad arguments, in my opinion, for supporting a truly awful ongoing chief executive. This was originally posted in the Bart Ehrman Blog. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Bart Ehrman
Here now is the final post in my series of Favorite Posts from the Past. We are now in year nine of the [Bart Ehrman] Blog, and this post came from earlier this year.
Sometimes I am in a feisty mood when writing a post, especially when I am dealing with arguments that strike me as a bit mind numbing, made by highly religious people of one religious tradition or another, in support of their views. I should probably tone it down a bit, no? In any case, here’s an example of that kind of thing. (I actually have edited this one a bit so it’s not quite so, uh, snarky.
I’m always puzzled about why smart people make (and believe) such bad arguments. We see this all the time, of course, in political discourse and family disagreements, not to mention department meetings, but since my field is religious studies I hear it the most in connection with the great religions of the world. Actually, I guess I find it less puzzling than aggravating.
A lot of conservative Christians get upset with me when I push them for evidence of their views, and so I thought I should devote this post to give equal share time to other religions whose self-appointed representatives send me proofs of the superiority of their views, based on hard “evidence.” It is really difficult to believe that someone can actually be persuaded by these claims. Let me stress, I am NOT (repeat NOT) saying anything negative about any of these religions – in this case, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. I’m decidedly not. I’m saying something negative about very bad arguments used to “prove” their inherent superiority to one another.
And one of the striking things is that similar arguments are made by conservative Christians in favor of *their* favorite faith. I too have a favorite faith – even though I don’t personally subscribe to it. But at least I don’t try to use specious arguments to prove it is the “best.”
I will talk about two emails I have received, one today and one tomorrow [note: in this re-post, I’m just doing the one]. Today’s came from a Muslim. If I had a nickel for every time a Muslim has written to me with this same basic argument over the past three years, I could renovate my kitchen.
I preface this by saying I have the utmost respect for Islam – truly and deeply; and for the Quran. It obviously is getting horrible press these days, but almost entirely by people who don’t know the first thing about it. I’m not going to go there – even when you beg me to – because this blog is about the New Testament and the origins of Christianity (centuries *prior* to Islam). But whatever you think about Islam and the fantastic numbers of people committed to it, this particular (common) argument for its superiority is not, well, thoughtful. Here’s the email:
Sir…the Quran is a “living Miracle.” Miracles do happen, as a man could see even if he were blind. The authenticity and sophisticated preservation of the Quran were “miraculous” combined with truthfulness and sincerity of the Shahabas to keep this oral or written revelation in their hearts in their minds and everyday life. Though Torah and Gospel are the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, they are NO MATCH, because they were not preserved. That is because the keepers themselves were hypocrites and disobedient group of men, so their books are filled with contradictions.
OK, what can one even say? I have no idea who this person is and so really can’t say whether they are willfully ignorant or simply caught up in religious fervor, though, of course, those are not mutually exclusive options. (As I’m going to show in a second, a very similar argument is also used by a number of fervently religious Christians.) I’m not even going to go into the question of the preservation of the Torah, which, through the Middle Ages, was every bit as good as the preservation of the Quran. Does that too require a miracle? No, it requires careful copying practices. I’ve known people who can type 80 words a minute without making a mistake. Is that a miracle? Sure, it may seem like it a miracle to the rest of us hackers – at least to me; but in fact it’s just a skill they have. They can type without making mistakes. And does it mean that what they typed was true? Or that it came from God?
The Quran (and the Torah) were carefully preserved because people went out of their way to make sure they were. They developed sophisticated methods of literary reproduction, technologies of transcription. As civilization advanced, new technologies developed. One might think of, well, the printing press. Because the printing press can make sure every copy of every book is completely the same, does that mean that every book that is published is a miracle from God and is more true than, say, books that were copied by hand for centuries, filled with scribal mistakes?
I have posted a number of times about Christians who make this same bad argument about the New Testament. In their case, they have an ever-so-slight disadvantage that the text was not preserved for centuries without being changed. (!) On the contrary, among our thousands of New Testament manuscripts, we have hundreds of thousands of changes – recent estimates put the number at around half a million. So you would think that Christians would not be able to argue that God has miraculously preserved the text. But here’s the kicker: some of them DO!!
It’s flabbergasting, really. But there are fundamentalist Christians who insist that God has miraculously preserved the text of the New Testament from error and corruption. Uh, how can they do that given the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of differences in our manuscripts? They would, in fact, make the same argument if there were a *billion* differences. That’s because their argument is that among all the differences among our manuscripts, God has seen fit to make sure that the *original* reading is also there. Among all the textual variants, the original can still be found. God has made sure of that. All we have to do is find it. It’s a miracle!
Other fundamentalists argue that one particular form of the Greek text is the word for word the original. It goes by various names: the Byzantine text, the Koine text, the Majority Text, the Textus Receptus (these actually are not the same thing, they are variations of a very similar thing, all of which are claimed by one person or another to be “the” original). This is the text (roughly speaking) that is most prominent in the majority of our surviving manuscripts since it was the common text of the later Middle Ages, the basis for the first printed editions of the NT, and in turn the basis for, among other things, the King James Version.
And why this text? Because God wanted to make sure that we today received his inviolable word? Uh, the counter-arguments are pretty obvious, but they fall on deaf ears. If God wanted to preserve his word intact, why didn’t he preserve it intact? Why didn’t he makes sure scribes did their work well? (As, e.g., Jewish and Muslim scribes did.) Well, God works in mysterious ways! Why would God make sure that modern English-speaking people have his word intact, but, that most people throughout Christain history (knowing the text in any of its many many different forms) didn’t? Well, he wasn’t probably as concerned about them, and hey, God works in mysterious ways!
It’s funny how those mysterious ways always benefit those of us living now, in certain parts of the world, speaking a particular language, with particular religious beliefs. Isn’t it just MARVELOUS? What a MIRACLE!
Muslims at least can claim that their sacred text hasn’t been changed since it was first written. At least so far as we can tell. But I have to stress: we don’t have the original copy, so we can’t compare the later unchanged text with the original. That doesn’t seem to matter to the people who make this argument. The later preservation itself is all they care about. And they INFER that it must have been that way from the very first, since it was that way thereafter – that the very first copy had no changes in it. How do they know? They can’t know. They don’t have the first copy or the original it was copied from. So they *believe* it wasn’t changed. It’s a matter of faith. And if it’s a matter of faith, then it is not historical *evidence*.
But even if the first copy of the Quran and every copy after that were exactly what the original author wrote, that would have ZERO bearing on whether what the original copy said was true or not or whether the contents of this book are superior to those of other religious traditions.
Put it in simple terms (WHY don’t people think of this???): there are millions of copies of Das Kapital, and Mein Kampf, and The Wealth of Nations, and The Art of the Deal, and and and. None of these copies differs from each other. Would any sane person argue that the fact we have copies that are all the same is evidence that each and every one of them must therefore be true? Or superior to the others? Or preserved by God?
Obviously not. Then why do they make that argument about their own sacred texts?
OK, OK. We all know why.
**Editor’s Request** Twenty-one questions were asked in this post. Please pick one or more and answer them.
Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog
>>>>>Photo Credits: By sayyed shahab-o- din vajedi – http://akkasemosalman.ir/wp-content/gallery/immortal/quran-nour01.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44411634 ; By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400