In Acts 5:36, Gamaliel is recorded to have said as follows concerning the Jewish revolt of Theudas against the Roman Empire:
Pro gar toutoon toon heemeroon anestee Theudas legoon einai tina heauton, hoo proseklithee androon arithmos hoos tetrakosioon, hos aneerethee, kai pantes hosoi epeithonto autoo dielutheesan kai egenonto eis ouden.
“For before these days rose up Theudas, giving himself out to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed, and came to nought.”
It is interesting to note, however, that this incident involving Theudas happened about ten or fifteen years after this alleged discourse by Gamaliel! Hence, we are faced with a serious case of anachronism where Acts 5:36 is concerned.
Theudas is referred to by Gamaliel in his speech before the Sanhedrin, when he advised them as to the position they should adopt in regard to the apostles (Acts 5:36). The failure of the rebellion of Theudas was quoted by Gamaliel on this occasion as typical of the natural end of such movements as were inspired “not of God, but of men.” A rising under one Theudas is also described by Josephus (Ant, XX, v, 1), but this occurred at a later date (according to Josephus about 44 or 45 AD) than the speech of Gamaliel (before 37 AD).1
Raymond Brown states that:
Luke also seems to be inaccurate about that census in Acts 5:36. There, Gamaliel, supposed to be giving a speech in the early or mid 30s (shortly after the death of Jesus), mentions the uprising of Theudas, which did not occur till some ten years after Gamaliel’s speech, and compounds the error by implicitly dating the census and uprising of Judas the Galilean (A.D. 6-7) after Theudas.2
This error has not escaped the attention of the Biblical commentators, as they sought to postulate various explanations for this obvious historical error.
Of the theories put forward in explanation of the apparent anachronism in Gameliel’s speech, the two most in favor are (1) that as there were many insurrections during the period in question, the two writers refer to different Theudases; (2) that the reference to Theudas in the narrative of Acts was inserted by a later reviser, whose historical knowledge was inaccurate.3
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, appealing to methodology (1), went so far as to allege that the “Theudas” mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:36 is a different person from the “Theudas” who appeared some fifteen years later:
For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
He cited recent historical events to remind them that there had been other movements among the Jews that amounted to nothing, and that therefore they should have no fear of this new group who proclaimed Jesus to be Messiah. Josephus says that there were many such movements in those days of unrest. Gamaliel recalled one Theudas, who claimed to be a person of great importance and who persuaded some four hundred Jews to follow him. This movement was crushed and Theudas slain. We know nothing else about this man. About A.D. 45, a magician by the same name led a large number of Jews to the Jordan River, promising that he could separate the waters so that they could walk across the river on dry ground. The Roman governor, Crispus Fadus, sent horsemen and crushed the movement. This false messiah, however, was a different person from the one mentioned by Gamaliel.4
However, this claim seems untenable, in light of the fact the author of Acts (Luke) did not intend to write a chronological account of events, but wrote from a purely theological perspective. Hence:
Luke’s intention “to write an orderly account” (1:3) does not imply that he gives us exact history or chronology. A study of Luke/Acts shows that Luke had shortcomings as a historian, e.g., in Acts 5:36 he has Gamaliel in the mid-30s refer in the past to a revolt by Theudas which did not occur till the 40s – and then Luke compounds the confusion by having Gamaliel refer to the revolt led by Judas the Galilean (A.D. 6) as if it came after the revolt of Theudas! There is every reason to believe that Luke himself composed many or all the speeches he has placed on the lips of Peter and Paul in Acts. To be sure he may be reusing older material in these speeches, but Luke weaves it together in a dramatic setting….Thus, if one wishes to use the statements in the Lucan Prologue to make prejudgments about the amount of historical precision one can expect in the infancy narrative, one must first interpret the Prologue in the light of Luke’s procedure in the body of Luke/Acts – a procedure that gives evidence of considerable freedom of composition, occasional historical inexactitudes, and a primary interest in the logical rather than the chronological.5
In conclusion, a historically-erroneous document certainly cannot be “divinely-inspired”. The anachronistic error in Acts 5:36 is yet another reason why Muslims reject the status of the Bible as being the ‘Word of God’, and indeed, they are certainly most justified in doing so.
Ibn Hazm (994CE-1064CE) was a Muslim scholar of great repute in Cordoba during the Muslim Spain era and is widely regarded as the “Father of Comparative Religion”. In his celebrated magnum opus entitled Kitab al-Fasl fi al- Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal, he predated modern Biblical textual criticism by several centuries and as Krentz admits, Ibn Hazm’s criticisms generally represents the first, albeit rudimentary, systematic historic criticism of the Bible1. He had demonstrated his prowess in Biblical textual criticism by giving many examples of internal contradictions of the Bible. The following Bible contradiction on the sister of Abraham is extracted from Muslim Understanding Of Other Religions: A Study of Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal2 and insha’allah this will be part of an ongoing series to reproduce extracts of Ibn Hazm’s criticisms of the Bible and Christianity and we will make further elaboration on our part to refine his arguments and further strengthen our case against the Bible.
Was Sarah really the sister of Abraham? Ibn Hazm questions the status of Sarah as being Abraham’s sister as well as his wife, as accepting that viz., from the Biblical perspective, would result in various disagreements with other passages in the Old Testament concerning moral and theological issues that would contradict each other.
This is in reference to the stories of Sarah’s seizure by Pharaoh and Abime’elech which was narrated in Genesis 12:10-18 and Genesis 20, Genesis 17:17 and Genesis 20:1-18.
We cite the related passages on the story of the seizure of Sarah as follows.
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sar’ai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels. But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sar’ai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?3
From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abim’elech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abim’elech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abim’elech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.” So Abim’elech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abim’elech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abim’elech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'” Then Abim’elech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife to him. And Abim’elech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your vindication in the eyes of all who are with you; and before every one you are righted.” Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abim’elech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abim’elech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.4
From the passages that we have cited briefly above, Ibn Hazm raises the following objections which we note as follows:
(a) it is inconceivable that a woman of more than 90 years5 was fair and attractive enough to have lured Abime’elech;
(b) they told a lie to both the kings, i.e., that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, which is not acceptable for a Prophet of God to have told a lie;
(c) if Sarah was really Abraham’s sister as the passages suggest, then either Abraham had violated the Mosaic Law which forbids one to marry one’s sister or that the Torah had abrogated Abraham’s Shari’ah, hence implying that there is abrogation which Jews and Christians vigorously deny6
Thus, based on the objections above pointed out by Ibn Hazm, we thus say that this story of Sarah being Abraham’s sister is not without inconsistency when conferred with the other passages in the Bible and thus this is an internal contradiction of the Bible with no clear answer.
It should also be mentioned in passing that Ibn Hazm had discussed the issue with a contemporary Jewish scholar of his era named Samuel Ben Joseph, or Ibn al-Naghrilah. The question of the sister/wife motif still remains a puzzing and disturbing question to modern Biblical scholars who consider it to be different strands of traditions which were woven together in confusion. Ibn al-Naghrilah had told Ibn Hazm that the word ukht (sister) as used in the passage means just a relative and not neccessarily a sister as understood by him. Ibn Hazm replied to this by citing Genesis 20:12 which reads as:
“Besides she is indeed my [Abraham’s] sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.”
Needless to mention, this answer left Ibn al-Naghrilah confused and silent.7 Perhaps the today’s Christian missionaries should take a leaf from the example of Ibn al-Naghrilah and remain silent as well.
Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 41 [↩]
See Ghulam Haider Aasi, Muslim Understanding Of Other Religions: A Study of Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal (Adam Publishers, 2004), pp. 92-114 for extracts of Ibn Hazm’s major criticisms of the Pentateuch. [↩]
See Genesis 17:17 which indicated Sarah’s age: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” [↩]
Occasionally we come across Christians who, when informed that the text of the gospels underwent corruption during their transmission, often react with the following type of questions: “When? Who did the corruption? In what country? Before or after Muhammad? Why was it done? How come no one noticed it?” These type of seemingly “innocent” questions merely reveal the incalculably colossal ignorance of the person in question. Christians who pose such questions do not seem to realize how utterly foolish they come across to anyone who are familiar with at least the very basics of textual criticism. Thus, the poor questioner only succeeds in on humiliating no one else but himself. Christian apologists and missionaries need to stop posing such outdated, absurd questions since it reflects quite badly upon their intelligence and gives others a very bad impression of them.
Therefore it was not surprising to come across an anonymously-written “paper” containing precisely these type of questions on the Christian missionaries’ cesspool, Answering Islam, entitled The Muslim Multi-Problem. This will be a reply to this short “paper” where the argument is that we are, in fact, faced with a Christianwho-when-where-how-what-why-I know nothing-multi-problem. Since this article is a response to Christian missionaries, most of the attention will be focused upon the integrity of the New Testament and will only occasionally make mention of the Jewish Bible where necessary.
Bible Tamperation and Textual Corruption Issues
The anonymous writer begins:
Many Muslims claim that the Bible has been tampered with and corrupted.
Yes, because it is true; the Biblical text was indeed corrupted. Moreover, Biblical scholars are also in full agreement that the text of the Bible (in this instance, by “Bible” it is referred to both the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament) underwent changes during the course of its transmission.
Any event in real life reality with human agents has certain characteristics and conditions attached to it. Any such act is done by one or more particular persons, at one or more specific times, in a certain fashion, in certain places, and for a reason. I hope everybody can agree with that. So, to make your claim of tampering credible you will have to answer these questions:
Sure, let us now answer the questions by using the answers provided by Biblical textual critics.
When Did The Bible Tampering Happen?
The missionary asks:
When happened this tampering? [Before or after Muhammad]?
Answer: Mostly before Muhammad(P). Beginning with the New Testament, scholars of textual criticism generally agree that the text of the New Testament underwent the most drastic and frequent types of changes/corruptions in the first three centuries of its transmission. The New Testament text of these periods is often described as a “living” text, a “fluid” text, and a text in “flux.” For instance, one of the leading scholars in the field of New Testament textual criticism of our times, Bart D. Ehrman describes the transmission of the New Testament text in the earliest period as follows:
The majority of textual variants that are preserved in the surviving documents, even the documents produced in a later age, originated during the first three Christian centuries.
This conviction is not based on idle speculation. In contrast to the relative stability of the New Testament text in later times, our oldest witnesses display a remarkable degree of variation. The evidence suggests that during the earliest period of its transmission the New Testament text was in a state of flux, that it came to be more or less standardized in some regions by the fourth century, and subject to fairly rigid control (by comparison) only in the Byzantine period1
Similarly, in the latest revision of Bruce Metzger’s classic, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, co-authored with Bart Ehrman, we read:
We have good evidence to indicate that in the early decades of transmission numerous changes were made to the texts in circulation: as words or entire lines came to be left out inadvertently or inadvertently copied twice, stylistic changes were made, words were substituted for one another, evident infelicities or outright mistakes were corrected, and so on…It is a striking feature of our textual record that the earliest copies we have of the various books that became the New Testament vary from one another far more widely than do the later copies, which were made under more controlled circumstances in the Middle Ages. Moreover, the quotations of the New Testament by early church fathers evidence a wide array of textual variation dating from these earliest stages in the history of transmission.2
Likewise, the Alands describe the state of transmission of the text of the New Testament of the earliest period as follows:
Until the beginning of the fourth century the text of the New Testament developed freely. It was the “living text” in the Greek literary tradition, unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was subject to strict controls because (in the oriental tradition) the consonantal text was holy. And the New Testament text continued to be a “living text” as long as it remained a manuscript tradition, even when the Byzantine church moulded it to the Procrustean bed of the standard and officially prescribed text. Even for later scribes, for example, the parallel passages of the Gospels were so familiar that they would adopt the text of one Gospel to that of another. They also felt themselves free to make corrections in the text, improving it by their own standard of correctness, whether grammatically, stylistically, or more substantively. This was all the more true of the early period when the text had not been attained canonical status, especially in the earliest period when Christians considered themselves to be filled with the Spirit. As a consequence the text of the early period was many-faceted, and each manuscript had its own peculiar character.3
Similar statements acknowledging the fluid state of the New Testament text in the first three centuries are found in many other sources. Thus, we can say with reasonable certainty that the vast majority of changes and corruptions were made to the New Testament text much before the time of Prophet Muhammad(P).
Moving on to the Jewish Bible, scholars again agree that most changes were made to its text much before the time of Prophet Muhammad(P). For example, Waltke explains:
…the further back we go in the textual lineage, the greater the textual differences. Before the text was fixed as ca. 100 CE it was copied and recopied through many centuries by scribes of varying capabilities and of different philosophies, giving rise to varying readings and recensions (i.e., distinct text-types).4
Thus, far more variations are to be encountered in our earliest witnesses. It should be noted that we do not encounter the “original text” of any book of the Jewish Bible in the Qumran scrolls – the oldest witnesses of the Jewish Bible. Eugene Ulrich, one of the leading authorities on the Qumran scrolls — being the chief editor of the Qumran scrolls — and the text of the Jewish Bible, explains:
Although in the traditions, pious, and popular imagination, the books of Scripture were composed by individual holy men from earliest times (Moses and Isaiah, for example), critical study of the text of Scripture demonstrates that the books are the result of a long literary development, whereby traditional material was faithfully retold and handed on from generation to generation, but also creatively expanded and reshaped to fit the new circumstances and new needs that the successive communities experienced through the vicissitudes of history. So the composition of the Scriptures was organic, developmental, with successive layers of tradition. Ezekiel was commanded to eat a scroll and found that it was sweet as honey (Ezek 3:1-3), so perhaps I can be allowed to use the image of baklava for the composition of scriptural texts: many layers laid on top of one another by successive generations over the centuries, as the traditions were handed on faithfully but creatively adapted, and formed into a unity by the honey – sometimes heated – of the lived experience of the community over time.5
The Qumran scrolls reveal that the text of the Jewish Bible was not copied without changes. Instead, the text was growing organically, being adapted and changed. Naturally, this alters our understanding of the so-called “original text.” After summarising the state of the text of the individual books of the Jewish Bible in the Qumran scrolls, Ulrich concludes:
The process of composition of the Scriptures was layered; some of the latter stages of that process – multiple literary editions of the books of Scripture – are demonstrated by our new extant evidence.
3. Because the text of each book was produced organically, in multiple layers, determining “the original text” is a difficult, complex task; and theologically it may not even be the correct goal. How do we decide which of the many layers that could claim to be the “original reading” to select? Often the richer religious meaning in a text are those which entered the text as a relatively late or developed stage; do we choose the earlier, less rich reading or the later, more profound reading? In contrast, if a profound religious insight in an early stage of the text is toned down later by a standard formula or even a vapid platitude, which do we select? And must we not be consistent in choosing the early or the later edition or reading?
5. The Masoretic Text, like the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint, is not a uni-vocal term or entity, but a collection of disparate texts, from different periods, of different nature, of different textual value. There is no reason to think of the Masoretic collection as a unit (a codex, a “Bible”), or as a unity. The collection is like the Septuagint, a collection of varied forms of the various books.
6. Thus, finally, the situation has changed concerning translations of “The Holy Bible.” The New Revised Standard Version now contains a number of improved readings based on the biblical manuscripts from Qumran. It can even claim to be the first Bible to contain a paragraph missing from all Bibles for 2,000 years! It contains between chapters 10 and 11 in 1 Samuel a paragraph found at Qumran and attested by Josephus, but absent from all other Bibles over the past two millennia.6
And therefore it should be obvious that the vast majority of changes and corruption of the text of the Jewish Bible and the New Testament happened many centuries before the time of Muhammad(P).
Who Tampered With The Bible?
The missionary asks:
2. Who did the tampering?
Answer: The New Testament text was corrupted by Christians who were involved in the copying of its text whereas the text of the Jewish Bible was corrupted by the Jews responsible for the copying of the text.
Where Was The Bible Tampered?
The missionary asks:
3. Where was it done? [city, country, …?]
Answer: It was done where ever Christians were located and required New Testament texts — such as Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, etc. In the case of the Jewish Bible, we would say the Palestinian region.
What Parts Of The Bible Were Changed?
The missionary asks:
4. What parts of the text were changed?
Answer: A list of some specific changes is produced here.
D. C. Parker, the leading British scholar of textual criticism, in The Living Text of the Gospels, discusses some of the important parts of the text of the gospels which were changed – such as for instance the words of Jesus(P) on divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-12; Luke 16:18); the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4); the addition of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; the ending of Mark; and a bunch of textual problems in the last 167 verses of Luke. After analysing a number of textual problems in Luke, Parker concludes:
In our investigations we have uncovered evidence in rather more than 40 verses out of the last 167 of Luke’s Gospel, about a quarter of them. Some of the readings might be best described as quaint. In several others we can see, as in so many other places, a difficulty or an unfortunate phrasing being removed…But the sum total provides incontrovertible evidence that the text of these chapters was not fixed, and indeed continued to grow for centuries after its composition.7
Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, on the other hand, make mention of several other changed parts of the New Testament text which are of immense theological and exegetical significance:
Just within the Gospels, reference can be made to the Prologue of John (e.g., 1.18), the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke (e.g., Matt. 1.16, 18; Luke 1.35), the baptism accounts of the New Testament (e.g., Mark 15.34; Luke 3.22; John 1.34), and the various passion narratives (e.g., Mark 15.34; Luke 22.43-44; John 19.36). Moreover, a number of variants affect a range of issues that continue to interest historians and exegetes of the New Testament, including such questions as whether the Gospels could have been used to support “adoptionistic” Christology (e.g., Mark 1.1; Luke 3.22; John 1.34) or one that was “anti-docetic” (e.g., the Western non-interpolations), whether Luke has a doctrine of the atonement (e.g., Luke 22.19-20), whether members of the Johannine community embraced a gnostic Christology (e.g., 1 John 4.3), and whether any of the authors of the New Testament characterizes Jesus as God (e.g., Heb. 1.8).8
How Was The Bible Tampered With?
The missionary asks:
5. How was it done [i.e. without leaving traces of it]?
Answer: We know that the texts were changed and corrupted precisely due to the numerous traces left of it in the manuscript tradition! Traces of changes and corruptions are most prominent in the earliest New Testament fragments and manuscripts. Quoting Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman again:
It is a striking feature of our textual record that the earliest copies we have of the various books that became the New Testament vary from one another far more widely than do the later copies….9
Gabel, Wheeler and York summarise the types of traces of changes and corruptions to be found in our earliest witnesses:
One study of three of the most extensive papyri (Chester Beatty I, Bodmer II, and Bodmer XIV-XV), covering passages from the Gospels and Acts, has discovered more than a thousand “singular readings” – words or groups of words not found in any other known manuscript – and this does not include different spellings! None of the papyri has a text wholly like that of the later, reconstructed families surveyed earlier. To the extent that they represent a consecutive text at all and are not fragmentary (as most of them are), they are witnesses to several textual families within the same book. For example, the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, from the third century, gives us a reading of Romans that exists nowhere else. It places the doxology that now ends chapter 16 at the end of chapter 15, lending support to those who have maintained on literary grounds that chapter 16 is really a separate letter that was later attached to Romans.Both Bodmer II and the Bodmer XIV-XV contain portions of the Gospel of John, but they often differ drastically from one another.
What can account for this wide variance among documents written so early in the history of the New Testament text? The answer, leaving aside errors of copying and writing, is that Christianity was evolving rapidly during its first several centuries and the New Testament evolved along with it to meet its needs. As the young religion spread across the ancient world, it created communities of believers in widely separated places, and each of these communities faced unique situations and had its own peculiar needs. The sacred texts were adjusted to meet local conditions. One scholar refers to such changes as “reverential alterations,” while another calls them “orthodox corruptions.”10
Similarly, it is due to the traces left in the manuscript tradition of the Jewish Bible that we know for sure that its text also underwent corruption:
Textual criticism is necessary because there is no error-free manuscript…Variants occur more frequently in the medieval manuscripts of the MT tradition, but they are minuscule compared to the variants found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). In fact, the further back we go in the textual lineage the greater the textual differences. Before the text was fixed as ca. 100 CE it was copied and recopied through many centuries by scribes of varying capabilities and of different philosophies, giving rise to varying readings and recensions (i.e., distinct text-types).
The restoration of the original OT text is foundational to the exegetical task and to theological reflection.11
As we have seen, the same observation also holds true for the New Testament text; the earliest manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament reveal far more differences and variations than all the later manuscripts.
What Was The Motive For Bible Tampering?
The missionary finally asks:
6.Why would anybody do this incredibly difficult thing?
Answer: It is not “incredibly difficult” to make certain changes to the text of a document, especially if that document is initially passing along in a non-uniform manner between different communities. The New Testament is not one book; it is a collection of different books produced by various authors at different times and locations. Not all of the four gospels were available to all the Christian communities from the start. For instance, one community might initially have read only Mark while lacking the other gospels; another community might have read Matthew but would not know anything about Mark, yet other communities might have possessed Luke and John while lacking Matthew and Mark and so on. Only later were the books collected together and widely known as such. As Frederic Kenyon explained:
…the anonymous Gospels and Acts were not regarded as the literary compositions of their authors, but as narratives of the life of our Lord and the work of His apostles, compiled with the purely practical object of disseminating the knowledge of their lives and teachings among the Christian community, and with no eye to a future which in any case would soon be curtailed by the Second Coming.
There was no need to be meticulous in verbal accuracy. The substance was what mattered, and if additions, believed to be authentic, could be made to it, why should they not? Then there were little means, even if it had been thought needful, to secure uniformity of transmission. Each book circulated originally as a separate roll, and there was no fixed Canon of Christian Scriptures. Not every Christian community could possess a complete set of Gospels or of Paul’s epistles, but each would supply itself as best it could from its neighbours. Many copies would be made by untrained provincial copyists, and there would be no opportunity of correcting them by comparison with other copies, except such as might be in the immediate neighbourhood. Such revision as there might be would be local and unmethodical.12
In such a scenario, different communities would make different types of changes to the specific books that they happened to possess as they copied and recopied their text. Then these copies would find their way to other communities and scribes, who would then further adjust and edit their texts to suit their own particular needs and this process would go on and on. Even later when Christians would have become aware of most of the writings now forming the New Testament, different changes would continue to be made to the text of these documents by different Christian scribes involved in the copying of the texts and in the recopying process more changes would undoubtedly come about. Thus, the text of the New Testament writings was changed in a haphazard and non-uniform manner. Hence, the text underwent different types of changes even though there was no outright grand “conspiracy” involving each and every Christian to alter the text of documents. Moreover, not all of the changes were deliberate. Many corruptions would be quite unintentional, such as spelling mistakes, missing words and lines, mistakenly copying lines twice, etc.
Besides the many unintentional changes, parts of the text of the New Testament were also altered occasionally for theological and doctrinal reasons – thus quite deliberately. Christians belonging to different rival sects altered the text of the various New Testament writings, particularly those of the gospels, to suit their theological and doctrinal agendas while accusing their rivals of changing passages. Then on other occasions, similar passages within the gospels were harmonised with each other in order to eliminate contradictions. Moreover, at times passages were also corrected to remove historical and other errors from the text.
The different reasons that led to the corruption of the New Testament text are listed by Bruce Metzger13 as follows:
1. Unintentional errors
Errors arising from faulty eyesight
Errors arising from faulty hearing
Errors of the mind
Errors of judgement
2. Intentional changes
Changes involving spelling and grammar
Addition of natural complements and similar adjuncts
Clearing up historical and geographical difficulties
Conflation of readings
Alterations made because of doctrinal considerations
Addition of miscellaneous details
We are finally done answering all of Christian’s “I know nothing!” multiple questions. Yet the anonymous apologist is not quite finished. It seems he/she is intent on embarrassing him/herself further by making the following astounding claim:
No Muslim could ever answer these questions. I wonder why?? Maybe because it is such an incredible feat that would require more than a miracle do get done? Believing in the tampering needs a lot of faith. Blind faith, against the manuscript evidence we have.
It takes no faith whatsoever to believe and know for sure that the text of the Bible underwent corruption during the course of its transmission since it is solely due to manuscript evidence that we know with 100% certainty that the Biblical text was indeed corrupted — both intentionally as well as unintentionally. Refusing to look at the incontestable evidence and irrationally insisting otherwise is the actual blind faith, and is, in fact, self-deception — akin to a child screaming incoherently, “Santa Clause does exist!” multiple times upon realizing that he is but a myth. One may close their eyes, deny the truth a million times, insist that something is true while knowing it is false, but the truth will not alter despite these episodes of self-deception.
Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption Of Scripture: The Effect Of Early Christological Controversies On The Text Of The New Testament, 1993, Oxford University Press: London & New York, pp. 28-29 [↩]
Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 275-276 [↩]
Kurt & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, 1989, 2nd edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 69 [↩]
Bruce K. Waltke, “How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Text and Canon of the Old Testament”, in Peter W. Flint (ed.), The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 2001, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 27 [↩]
Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 23 [↩]
Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 1999, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 32 [↩]
D. C. Parker, The Living Text of the Gospels, 1997, Cambridge University Press, p. 172 [↩]
Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, footnote 52, pp. 284-285 [↩]
Bruce M. Metzger, Bart D. Ehrman, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2005, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 275-276 [↩]
John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler and Anthony D. York, The Bible As Literature: An Introduction, 2000, 4th edition, Oxford University Press, pp. 262-263 [↩]
Bruce K. Waltke, “How We Got the Hebrew Bible: The Text and Canon of the Old Testament”, in Peter W. Flint (ed.), The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature), 2001, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 27-28 [↩]
F. G. Kenyon, The Text of the Greek Bible, Studies in Theology, 3rd edition revised and augmented by A. W. Adams, 1976, Duckworth, pp. 249-250 [↩]
For more details see: Bruce M. Metzger, The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, 1992, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 186-206 [↩]
In Matthew 2:14, we are told that Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt:
“When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.”
Yet in Luke 2:39, they went to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth:
“And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.”
It does not need a rocket scientist to inform us that these verses are contradictory and hence irreconcilable.
In their alleged reply to this irreconcilable error, the missionaries made the claim that:
Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem to present the new born infant in the temple. From there, they went back to their home in Nazareth. A short time later, the holy family decided to return to Joseph’s ancestral hometown and Jesus’ birthplace, namely Bethlehem in Judea. This is where Matthew picks up. When the Magi found the child Jesus, he was already up to two years old. Being told in a dream about Herod’s desire to kill the child, Joseph left his home and took his family to Egypt until the death of Herod. Fearing that Herod’s son Archelaus would search them out if they returned to Bethlehem, the holy family once again returned to Nazareth and settled there.
We do not accept this explanation, simply because the two narratives in Matthew and Luke are vastly different in a number of details. As Brown himself notes:
…the two narratives are not only different – they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth , and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehelm, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem were seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew’s implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth…one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical.1
In other words, only one of these narratives can be accepted as factual, and not both at the same time. Do note that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14), Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18), and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23) occur only in Matthew. Therefore, the more important question is if the missionary is bothered to know the fact that Luke, Mark and John do not mention these significant events. How could they miss mentioning these if they really did happen? Since the gospels circulated independently for quite some time, that means that many of the earliest Christians never got the oppurtunity to know of these stories. Those reading Luke, Mark and John, while they were independently circulating, certainly would not know of them.
Also, commenting upon the story in Matthew, Brown noted the following:
[t]here is no remembrance in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus of such an extraordinary event in this background [the flight to Egypt and massacre at Bethlehem – ed.], and a journey to Egypt is quite irreconcilable with Luke’s account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child. An attempt has been made to detect independent support for an Egyptian sojourn in the Jewish stories of the second century which have Jesus going to Egypt…However, these stories introduce Egypt as a place where Jesus or his mother sought refuge because of the scandalous (adulterous) character of his birth and as a place where he became adept in black magic which he then used to decieve people. Most likely this is a Jewish polemic against the Gospel picture of Jesus (including the Matthean infancy narrative) and can scarcely be invoked as independent support for the historicity of that picture.2
It also needs to be noted that concerning Raymond Brown, his work on the infancy is the single most authoritative book on the subject, and he himself is a believing Christian scholar of immense repute. Now, if believing Christians cannot agree among themselves if certain passages are contradictory or not, then the missionary should first attempt to convince his own Christian scholars before worrying too much about the Muslims. The fact that Christians scholars themself hotly disagree on this matter indicates the problematic nature of the two accounts.
McDonald and Porter, two believing Christian scholars, also noted the differences in the narratives:
When we compare the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, we see that Matthew focuses on royalty (birth in a house, not a stable: the special gifts of the Magi from the east), while Luke focuses on the lowliness of the birth (the poor shepherds coming to the manger scene to witness the new birth: no room for Jesus in the inn). According to Matthew, evidently Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, and only after the threat to the life of the newborn child did they consider leaving Bethlehem, going first of all to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Luke tells nothing of the threat to Jesus’ life and indicates that Joseph and Mary originally came from Nazareth and returned there only after all that was necessary regarding purification and dedication of the child in the temple had taken place. Why does Matthew have Jesus taken down to Egypt while Luke simply says that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth with their child? In Matt 2:22. Joseph was warned in a dream to go to Nazareth to avoid dealing with Herod Archelaus. Nothing of this kind of threat is found in Luke, Luke says nothing of the massacre of children in Matt 2. Why are these birth and infancy narratives so different? These questions are not easily answered, but it is probable that the construction of each of these accounts was based on a different theological agenda. Meier says that the point of these widely differing stories is that the church, not Mary or Jesus, wished to make the major theological point that “what Jesus Christ was fully revealed to be at the resurrection (Son of David, Son of God by the Power of the Holy Spirit) he really was from his conception onward.” Because of the considerable differences in these narratives and because they appear to serve early church apologetics. Many, if not most, critical scholars do not see much historical evidence for the life of Jesus in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. But if the criterion of multiple attestation is taken seriously in light of the fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke appear to represent independent traditions, much more credibility should be given to various dimensions of the account. There are basic facts, such as the agreement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that Jesus’ birth took place during the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:50), who died ca. 5/4 B.C. There are also more significant factors-angelic visitations, the special circumstances of conception and visitors attesting to the special qualities of this child that should not be neglected. These point to the significance of Jesus for both Matthew and Luke.3
Again we note that Christians scholars have admitted the fact that there are significant and considerable differences in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. McDonald and Porter argue that the points where Matthew and Luke agree are historical, yet they do not deny that their stories nonetheless have many differences. If Matthew and Luke were using independent traditions, and if the reports and stories were true and historical, then how do we explain the presence of significant differences in their story of the birth of Jesus? As Raymond Brown mentions, Matthew and Luke had their theological agenda and views to sell, and so they coloured/tainted the reports and traditions to “prove” their theology. Obviously both reports cannot be true, one of them is fiction, or both are fictitious containing an element of historical truth in them.
In light of these evidence, we thus conclude that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are undoubtedly contradictory to one another, and this is hence a irreconcilable error. And only God knows best.
Addendum: Responding To A Missionary Obfuscation
Naturally, the missionaries, as per their tradition of welling hatred towards the noble Qur’an, attempt to erect this straw-man in order to avoid the embarrassment of the irreconcilable error in the birth narratives of Jesus. Our answer to the provocative Christian missionary questioning follows.
How do you explain that in the Quran the person of Mary’s husband Joseph as well as the towns of Nazareth, Bethlehem and the journey to Egypt all disappeared?
According to the various scholars of the Bible, the above are fiction invented by the anonymous author of the Gospel according to Matthew. Therefore there is no point blaming the Qur’an for rightfully excluding these fiction. Therefore, what the Qur’an is “lacking” is fictitious stories concocted by the authors of the Gospels.
So the question that should be asked now is that did the journey ever take place or was it an invention of the anonymous gospel author to “prove” and make his theological point? It is important to note how the author of Matthew made use of the Jewish Bible and molded some of its contents to “prove” his theology. A male child is born to Jewish parents, a tyrant ruler (Herod) learns of this and sets out to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm and is taken to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt to pass through the waters (of baptism) and goes into wilderness to be tested for a long time. Later he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him. We see that Matthew shaped the stories pertaining to Jesus(P) to “show” that Jesus'(P) life was a fulfillment of the stories of Moses(P) (cf. Exodus 1-20). Matthew’s target market were the Jewish readers. No one can ignore these parellels. Herod is made into a Pharoah-like ruler, Jesus’ baptism is like Moses crossing the Red Sea, the forty days of temptation are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount is like the law of Moses delievered on Mount Sinai. Jesus(P) is therefore portrayed by Matthew as the “new” Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage and give them new law and teachings. In order to present this picture of Jesus(P), the author of Matthew had to colour the traditions he used. Therefore not everything within his gospel is historical.
but has it ever bothered him that the Quran is lacking so much information?
No, it has never bothered us to know that the Qur’an lacks the fictitious information of the gospels. We hope that this answer satisfies the missionary.
A more important question is if it has ever bothered the missionary that Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is not mentioned in Luke? How could something so significant escaped the notice of Luke, who is supposed to be a “reliable” historian, and even Mark? What about the visit of the Magi, why is that only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other gospels? Why did the other gospels fail to mention such an important story in their writings if it did take place? Matthew even states that the King and all Jerusalem was upset over the birth of the Messiah in Jerusalem! If this is historical, then why has it not left any traces in Jewish records and elsewhere in the New Testament?
This is all the more striking in this case, since the vast majority of all verses in the Quran speaking about Jesus deal with his miraculous birth.
The verses of the Qur’an dealing with the birth of the Messiah, Jesus(P) are collected here. The Qur’an mentions the miraculous birth of Jesus(P), that he was born to a virgin, and mentions that he was not the divine son of God or God, that he asked people to worship God whom he worshipped and accept him as His messenger. The Qur’an stays to the point, does not mention the fictions within the gospels, states who Jesus(P) was and rejects the lies attributed to him by the Christians, unlike the gospels whose anonymous authors had to distort traditions to “prove” and “support” their theology.
The missionaries had pathetically accused us of “suffering under [SIC!] a serious form of ‘attention deficit'”, among other low-down allegations, and then proceeds to claim that we have not “bothered” to respond to their arguments.
The following material will further supplement our case for the irreconcilable error regarding the birth narrative of Jesus(P). It remains to be seen as to how much “abuse” are the missionaries willing to take before they concede that we are not suffering from “attention deficit” and are truly “satisfied” with our charges.
Problems and Flaws In Harmonization
We would like to know how the author of Matthew shaped the stories concerning the birth of Jesus(P). Matthew used certain key events in the Jewish Bible to relate the story of his Jesus(P). According to Matthew, the family of his Jesus flees to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of Herod “in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my Son'” (2:15). The quotation comes from the book of Hosea 11:1 and refers to the Exodus of the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. The author of Matthew makes his Jesus go to Egypt to show that he “fills” this event with meaning. Similarly, Matthew has his Jesus born in Bethlehem because this is what was “predicted” by the prophet Micah (2:6).
A male child is born to Jewish parents, a tyrant ruler (Herod) learns of this and sets out to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm and is taken to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt to pass through the waters (of baptism) and goes into wilderness to be tested for a long time. Later he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him.
Thus we note that Matthew shaped the stories pertaining to Jesus(P) to “show” that Jesus’(P) life was a fulfillment of the stories of Moses(P) (see Exodus 1-20). Matthew’s target market was the Jewish readers. Herod is made into a Pharoah like ruler, Jesus’s baptism is like Moses(P) crossing the Red Sea, the forty days of temptation are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount is similar to the law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai. Jesus(P) is therefore portrayed by Matthew as the “new” Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage and give them new law and teachings. In order to present this picture of Jesus(P), Matthew had to colour the traditions accordingly. Therefore not everything within his gospel is historical.
Another point to bear in mind is that if Herod and all within Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3), so much so that Herod would send his army to kill the children in a town hunting for Jesus (2:16), then why is it that later in his ministry no one seems to know of his marvelous origin (13:54-55), and Herod’s son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? The body of the gospels shows that the people among whom Jesus had been raised knew nothing about extraordinary infancy. Furthermore, why is there no mention of these amazing events in the other gospels? These also indications of the fictitious nature of the story.
The statement that all Jerusalem was startled over the birth of the King of the Jews and that there was widespread awareness of the King’s birth at Bethlehem (Herod, chief priests, scribes, and, to their regret, the people of Bethlehem) conflicts with the Gospel accounts of the public ministry where the people in Nazareth do not know this and are amazed that Jesus has special pretensions (Mark 6:1-6 and par.) and where people in Jerusalem do not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (John 7:40-42). According to the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:14-16 and par.), Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, despite the measures his father is supposed to have taken against Jesus, is perplexed by Jesus and seems to have no previous knowledge of him. A possible explanation may be found for one or the other of these difficulties, but the overall thrust is clearly against historicity.1
It is problems like these which are overlooked by the missionaries which is why there are serious implications to be considered if we were to accept their “harmonization” of the birth narratives.
But What About The Basic Similarities?
Earlier, we have stated that the missionaries have complained about our having overlooked basic similarities in the two narratives. It should be noted that we do not deny a broad similarity between the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. However, the differences between the two accounts are striking, and as Brown comments elsewhere, both cannot be factual. Hence one is fictional. To begin with, none of the specific stories of Luke occur in Matthew and vice versa. In one narrative we find the shepherds whereas in the other we find the Magi, one has the journey to Bethlehem whereas the other to Egypt. One records an angel’s words to Mary whereas the other narrative records the angel’s word to Joseph.
Most Christian scholars, who have studied and analyzed the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke have concluded that a vast amount of imagination would be required to reconcile these narratives.
Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative so that the ordinary Christian is often not even aware of a difficulty when Lucan shepherds and Matthean magi fraternize in the Christmas crib scene. But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? As I hinted above, the suggestion that Matthew is giving Joseph’s remembrance of the events, while Luke is giving Mary’s, is just a pious deduction from the fact that Joseph dominates Matthew’s account, and Mary dominates Luke’s. In point of fact, how could Joseph ever have told the story in Matthew and not have reported the annunciation to Mary? And how could Mary have been responsible for the story in Luke and never have mentioned the coming of the magi and the flight into Egypt?2
Relating the same event, Matthew presents no indication that would suggest that Joseph and Mary went from Galilee to register for a census. Matthew simply suggests that the family originally came from Bethlehem. In the story of the wise men, which is only found in Matthew, the men arrive to worship Jesus, making a long journey in by following a star that appeared in the heavens. These men find Jesus(P) in Bethlehem, in a house – not a stable or a cave (Matthew 2:11). So it seems that the house is where Joseph and Mary normally live according to Matthew.
Next, we read that Herod sends forth his troops to slaughter every boy in Bethlehem who is 2 years and under (2:16). According to Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary are still in Bethlehem at this time because this is simply where they live.
To continue with the story, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod. Sometime after their escape, Joseph learns in a dream that it is safe to return home. Hence he intends to return to the place where he and Mary came from – Bethlehem. However, he learns that the ruler of Judea is now Archelaus, a man much worse than his father Herod. So he realizes he cannot return home and therefore decides to move his family in the town of Nazareth in Galilee (2:22-23). Hence, the impression given is that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem but had to relocate to Nazareth and this is where he, Jesus, was raised.
“Reconciliation”: Its Difficulties and the Realities
It is possible that these narratives be “reconciled”, albeit with the thorough use of some highly imaginative arguments, stretching all limits of reason and imagination and requiring quite a lot of hard work and effort. However, the fact remains that the two narratives are quite different from one another.
It is indicated that Jesus(P) was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, but this happens in a very different manner in their two narratives. The whole of Matthew 2:2-22 has no parallel in Luke, just as most of Luke 1 (outside 1:26-35) and most of Luke 2 have no parallel in Matthew. Only Luke makes mention of the following stories: the census bringing Joseph to Bethlehem, the acclamation of Jesus by the shepherds etc. Matthew, on the other hand, focuses upon a different series of happenings of which Luke makes no mention: the star, the magi, Herod’s plot against Jesus, the massacre of the children at Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt. Christian scholars Lee Martin Mc Donald and S. E. Porter suggest that
…it is probable that the construction of each of these accounts was based on a different theological agenda.3
Meaning they do not represent historical realities. Evangelical Christians, for understandable reasons, see no difficulties in the two narratives, however serious Christian scholars of the Bible have long realized the difficulties and have accepted them as such.
Matthew’s way of using prophecy is not what a modern scholar could call historically accurate, but it is in accord with a type of interpretation customary in New Testament times, and for that matter still practiced now. According to this way of thinking, it is assumed that the text refers to events and persons in the present or the immediate past or future.
Sometimes, indeed, one can hardly avoid a suspicion that prophecy, understood in this way, led to imagining events that never occurred. Did Joseph and Mary really take their child to Egypt for a while, or did some early Christian infer that they must have done so because God says in the book of Hosea (11:1), “Out of Egypt I called my son”? Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem, or was it assumed that he must have been because the prophet Micah (5:2) had predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem? More probably, the known fact of Jesus? birth at Bethlehem was felt by his followers to confirm their conviction that he was the Messiah.
How should we understand and judge these familiar narratives? The whole Christmas story, mingled as it is now with Santa Claus and other more or less pagan additions, seems much like a fairy tale for children. Even so, to raise questions about the truth of the record is painful. A good deal of the story, however, is undoubtedly legendary.4
Baptist Minister William Hamilton, also the Associate Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, writes that:
Luke, like Matthew, mentions Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but otherwise, the two accounts differ somewhat In Matthew, Jesus is apparently born in Joseph?s house (verse 11); in Luke, he is born in a stable. Here, we read nothing about the visit of the shepherds or about the census that brought Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Here, we read of the flight to Egypt; in Luke, the family returned to Nazareth (2:39).
This conflicting evidence has led some to question the historical basis of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and to point out that it would be natural for primitive Jewish Christians to use the enigmatic saying of Micah 5:2 as a prediction. Throughout his life, Jesus is always referred to as a Nazarene.5
To escape the burden of admitting to an error in the birth narratives of Jesus(P) as related by Luke and Matthew, the Christian missionaries and apologists have always attempted to harmonize these two drastically different accounts. This is because:
Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Matthew, however, says nothing of coming to Bethlehem from anywhere else, and he seems to imply that Joseph would have gone back to Bethlehem from Egypt if he had not been warned in a dream not to return to Judea (2:22-23).6
As we have demonstrated above, there are simply too many flaws and implications to be considered if we were to accept the general “harmonization” offered by the missionaries. Christian scholars who have studied and analysed the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke have concluded that a vast amount of imagination would be required to reconcile these narratives.
Hence our final conclusion in the matter remains starkly similar to that of Brown’s opinion, namely that:
…Luke’s infancy narrative is not only massively different from Matt’s, but also in details is virtually irreconcilable with it, e.g., about Joseph and Mary’s home (in Bethlehem in Matt 2:11 [house]; in Narareth in Luke 2:4-7, with no home in Bethlehem) and about their travels after the birth of Jesus (to Egypt in Matt 2:14; to Jerusalem and Nazareth in Luke 2:2239).7
Christian apologists and missionaries believe that Luke was “inspired” and “inerrant,” even though Luke himself does not make such a claim in his books (Gospel according to Luke and Acts). One of the most popular arguments often proposed by the missionaries as “evidence” that Luke was “inspired”, or at least someone who we can blindly trust without second thoughts, is as follows: he was an excellent historian who conducted a careful investigation during the course of composing his books.
It is claimed that Luke accurately named many countries, cities, that he accurately described certain events of his time, correctly named various officials with their proper titles and referred to places which have only recently been discovered. Therefore, this somehow “proves”, according to the apologists, that Luke’s story can be trusted in its entirety and that there is no room for doubts regarding his claims whatsoever.
We refer to the author as “Luke” simply for the sake of convenience and not because we believe that Luke authored the third Gospel and the Book of Acts. We might as well call the author “Max”, but because the third gospel is commonly known as the “Gospel according to Luke,” the name “Luke” is retained.
Did Luke Author The Third Gospel and Acts?
According to critical scholars, the third gospel, like all the gospels, is anonymously authored. That is to say, we really do not know who authored it. Nonetheless, even if we accept the traditional authorship claim, it remains that Luke was a non-eyewitness – he did not witness any of the alleged events from the life of Jesus first hand. Luke was a follower of Paul.
According to the late Raymond Brown, it is possible that Luke, a minor figure who travelled with Paul for some time, wrote the third gospel and the book of Acts decades after Paul’s death.
We have no way of being certain that he was Luke, as affirmed by 2nd-century tradition; but there is no serious reason to propose a different candidate.1
Similarly, Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley Porter accept traditional Lucan authorship but not wholeheartedly. They write (p. 295): “We are inclined to accept Lucan authorship, but not without some reservation …”2
Bart Ehrman, summing up the stance of critical scholars, writes:
Proto-orthodox Christians of the second century, some decades after most of the New Testament books had been written, claimed that their favourite Gospels had been penned by two of Jesus’ disciples – Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved disciple – and by two friends of the apostles – Mark, the secretary of Peter, and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul. Scholars today, however, find it difficult to accept this tradition for several reasons.
…none of these Gospels makes any such claim about itself. All four authors chose to keep their identities anonymous.3
As for the dating of Luke and Acts, most scholars place it in the 80 – 100 AD period. For instance, Paula Fredriksen places Luke between c. 90 – 100.4 E. P. Sanders dates the final form of the gospels between the years 70 and 90.5 Theissen and Merz place Luke anywhere between 70 C.E to 140/150 C.E — more in the first half of this period6 The late Catholic scholar and priest, Raymond Brown, placed Luke in the year 85 — give or take five to ten years7
Never Claimed To Be Inspired
It should be noted that the author of the third gospel and Acts nowhere claims to have been “inspired” by a higher source to write his accounts. Such arguments are listed by one missionary as follows:
Independent archaeological research has solidified the authenticity and the historical reliability of the New Testament. Some of the discoveries include:
Luke refers to Lysanias as being the tetrarch of Abilene at the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, circa 27 A. D. (Luke 3:1) Historians accused Luke of being in error, noting that the only Lysanias known was the one killed in 36 B. C. Now, however, an inscription found near Damascus refers to “Freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch” and is dated from 14 and 29 A. D.
Paul, writing to the Romans, speaks of the city treasurer Erastus (Romans 16:23). A 1929 excavation in Corinth unearthed a pavement inscribed with these words: ERASTVS PRO:AED:P:STRAVIT: (“Erastus curator of public buildings, laid this pavement at his own expense.”)
Luke mentions a riot in the city of Ephesus which took place in a theatre (Acts 19:23-41). The theatre has now been excavated and has a seating capacity of 25,000.
Acts 21 records an incident which broke out between Paul and certain Jews from Asia. These Jews accused Paul of defiling the Temple by allowing Trophimus, a Gentile, to enter it. In 1871, Greek inscriptions were found, now housed in Istanbul which read:
NO FOREIGNER MAY ENTER WITHIN THE BARRICADE WHICH SURROUNDS THE TEMPLE AND ENCLOSURE. ANYONE WHO IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO THANK FOR HIS ENSUING DEATH.
Luke addresses Gallio with the title Proconsul (Acts 18:12). A Delphi inscription verifies this when it states, “As Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the Proconsul of Achaia …”
Luke calls Publicus, the chief man of Malta, “First man of the Island.” (Acts 28:7) Inscriptions now found do confirm Publicus as the “First man”. (Josh McDowell, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense, pp. 110-111)
He goes on to present more similar citations and arguments:
The significance of such extra-Biblical evidence is of such magnitude that honest sceptics are now forced to agree that the Bible is historically accurate and reliable. One such person was Sir William Ramsey, considered one of the world’s greatest archaeologists. He believed that the New Testament, particularly the books of Luke and Acts, were second-century forgeries. He spent thirty years in Asia Minor, seeking to dig up enough evidence to prove that Luke-Acts was nothing more than a lie. At the conclusion of his long journey, however, he was compelled to admit that the New Testament was a first-century compilation and that the Bible is historically reliable. This fact led to his conversion and embracing of the very faith he once believed to be a hoax.
Dr Ramsey stated:
“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Ramsey further said: “Luke is unsurpassed in respects of its trustworthiness.” (Josh McDowell, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense, pp. 108-109)
Firstly, we should note that there is nothing in the above which would indicate that Luke was “inspired”or “inerrant” and that everything within his books can be trusted blindly. There is nothing here which would show that Luke was somehow “special”. Far from being remarkable, the above are very ordinary examples of Luke’s alleged accuracies. There is no reason to suppose that unless a person is inerrant or inspired, he or she cannot get such basic elementary facts straight. Such type of ordinary accuracies relating to certain factual matters is also to be observed in fictional books, which name, for instance, cities correctly, etc.
So what if Luke was able to name the various cities in existence in his time, accurately name officials of his time with their correct titles, name certain countries of his time, mention a theatre he knew about which has recently been discovered and accurately mention certain religious rites and practices of the time? There is nothing “extraordinary”about this. This only shows that Luke was a person who had a basic education and was familiar with his surroundings.
If I am not considered inspired and inerrant — despite accurately naming fifty countries in existence today, accurately naming various world cities, accurately naming heads of state and various other officials together with their correct titles and ranks, accurately naming a few theatres around London together with a few additional tourist attraction sites and accurately describing the workings and practices of the local mosques and churches — then why must Luke be considered inerrant and inspired? These are utterly ordinary matters and such type of accuracies do not in anyway suggest that the person or book is “extraordinary”, “special”, or in any way heavenly “inspired”.
Secondly, besides the above listed so-called wonderful “accuracies”, there are also grave inaccuracies within Luke’s gospel. The following are some inaccuracies and discrepancies within Luke’s Gospel and Acts over which there is widespread agreement among scholars, including devout Christian scholars:
Luke forged a genealogy for Jesus(P) even though he(P) had no father. The genealogy has no historical standing. Worse, his genealogy contradicts the one forged by Matthew.
Luke mentions a census under Quirnius during the birth of Jesus(P) which is almost universally recognized as a major historical blunder on Luke’s part.
In addition to the difficulties raised by a detailed comparison of the two birth narratives found in the New Testament, serious historical problems are raised by the familiar stories found in Luke alone.8 In Acts, Luke has Gamaliel referring to a revolt by Theudas which in fact took place years later after his speech. Again, there is widespread agreement among Christian scholars that Luke was in error on this occasion.
There is also general agreement among New Testament scholars that the speeches found in Acts are either the creations or adaptions of Luke.9
Furthermore, Luke’s story in Acts contradicts at a number of points with the information within the authentic Pauline epistles, something also generally acknowledged by scholars. Luke was thus an errant writer who made mistakes and inaccuracies in his writings.10
How Luke Copied From Mark
Moving on, “inspired”Luke lifted 50% of his gospel from Mark — a secondary source authored by a non-eyewitness. Why would Luke do this if we are to suppose that he was accurately researching the issues and shifting through reliable first-hand sources? We know from Luke’s opening words that he did not have high regard for the previous narratives. Evangelical scholar Donald Guthrie writes:
Luke’s preface is illuminating in regard to his own approach to his task. He claims to have made a comprehensive and accurate survey over a considerable period, which throws a good deal of light on his seriousness of purpose. Moreover, Luke admits that others had previously attempted the same task, but his words imply that he found them unsatisfactory…11
W.G. Kummel, in his classical introduction to the New Testament writes:
With his historical work Lk joins their ranks [ranks of his predecessors who composed gospel narratives], though he was not himself a witness from the beginning, because he feels the works of his predecessors to be in some way inadequate.12
Raymond Brown, on the other hand, says:
…neither evangelist [Matthew and Luke] liked Marks’s redundancies, awkward Greek expressions, uncomplimentary presentation of the disciples and Mary, and embarrassing statements about Jesus. When using Mark, both expanded the Markan accounts in the light of post-resurrectional faith.13
Yet Luke, our so-called “reliable” historian, copies no less than 50% of his book from Mark, regarded as an unsatisfactory source!
Raymond Brown mentions some of the ways on how Luke had used Mark:
Luke improves on Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, e.g., in 4:1, 31, 38 and passim by omitting Mark’s overused “immediately”; in 20:22 by changing a Latinism like kensos (=census) from Mark 12:14; in 20:23 by substituting the more exact “craftiness, treachery” for the “hypocrisy” of Mark 12:15.
Luke states at the beginning his intention to write carefully and in an orderly manner (1:3); accordingly he rearranges Marcan sequence to accomplish that goal, e.g., Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is put at the opening of the Galilean ministry rather than after some time had elapsed (Luke 4:16-30 vs. Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum; the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is placed before the call of Simon and companions (4:38-5:11 vs. Mark 1:16-31) in order to make more logical Simon’s willingness to follow Jesus; Peter’s denials of Jesus are put before the Sanhedrin trial in preference to Mark’s complicated interweaving of the two. At times Luke’s orderliness is reflected in avoiding Marcan doublets (Luke does not report the second multiplication of loaves) whereas Matt likes to double features and persons. Yet Luke has a double sending out of the apostles/disciples (9:1-2; 10:1).
Because of changes made in material received from Mark, Luke occasionally creates inconsistencies, e.g., although in Luke 5:30 the partners in the conversation are “the Pharisees and their scribes,” 5:33 speaks of “the disciples of the Pharisees,” as if the Pharisees were not present; although in 18:32-33 Luke takes over from Mark the prediction that Jesus will be mocked, scourged, and spit on by the Gentiles, Luke (unlike Mark 15:16-20) never fulfills that prediction; Luke has changed the Marcan order of the denials of Peter and the Jewish mockery of Jesus but forgotten to insert the proper name of Jesus in the new sequence, so that at first blush Luke 22:63, in having “him” mocked and beaten, seems to refer to Peter, not Jesus. See also n. 67 above.
Luke, even more than Matt, eliminates or changes passages in Mark unfavorable to those whose subsequent career makes them worthy of respect, e.g., Luke omits Mark 3:21,33,34 and (in 4:24) changes Mark 6:4 in order to avoid references detrimental to Jesus’ family; Luke omits Mark 8:22-26 which dramatizes the slowness of the disciples to see, and Mark 8:33 where Jesus calls Peter “Satan”; in the passion Luke omits the predicted failure of the disciples, Jesus’ finding them asleep three times, and their flight as reported in Mark 14:27,40-41,51-52.
Reflecting Christological sensibilities, Luke is more reverential about Jesus and avoids passages that might make him seem emotional, harsh, or weak, e.g., Luke eliminates: Mark 1:41,43 where Jesus is moved with pity or is stern; Mark 4:39 where Jesus speaks directly to the sea; Mark 10:14a where Jesus is indignant; Mark 11:15b where Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers; Mark 11:20-25 where Jesus curses a fig tree; Mark 13:32 where Jesus says that the Son does not know the day or the hour; Mark 14:33-34 where Jesus is troubled and his soul is sorrowful unto death; Mark 15:34 where Jesus speaks of God forsaking him.
Luke stresses detachment from possessions, not only in his special material (L), as we shall see below, but also in changes he makes in Mark, e.g., followers of the Lucan Jesus leave everything (5:11,28), and the Twelve are forbidden to take even a staff (9:3).
Luke eliminates Mark’s transcribed Aramaic names and words (even some that Matt includes) presumably because they were not meaningful to the intended audience, e.g., an omission of Boanerges, Gethsemane, Golgotha, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.
Luke may make Marcan information more precise, presumably for better story flow, greater effect, or clarity, e.g., Luke 6:6 specifies that the next scene (Mark 3:1: “again”) took place “on another Sabbath”; Luke 6:6 specifies “the right hand” and 22:50 “the right ear”; Luke 21:20 clarifies or substitutes for Mark’s “abomination of desolation”.14
The important point to note here is that Luke has used Mark and made a number of changes to its contents. New Testament scholars compare Luke and Mark to see how Luke is using his source (Mark) and adapting it. Mark is obviously not the only source employed by Luke, but since we know that he has altered the Markan stories in a variety of ways, it is only logical and reasonable to conclude that Luke must have done the same with the other sources at his disposal – he must have altered them as well to suit his agenda and presuppositions. The fact that Luke accurately mentions certain ordinary details, such as naming cities correctly etc., does not follow that his story in its entirety can be trusted blindly.
Thus, the statement that “honest sceptics are now forced to agree that the Bible is historically accurate and reliable” is nothing more than nonsense. Critical scholars certainly do not regard Luke, or any book of the Bible, in its entirety to be “historically accurate and reliable” just because certain ordinary details are recorded accurately within them.
Luke As A Historian: Final Observations
Although we have not gone into detail regarding the above-mentioned issues, the aim was to simply highlight here some of the major problems within Luke’s writings over which we have a scholarly consensus. Contrary to Ramsey’s conclusion (and bear in mind that he was an apologist and not a balanced historian) is the fact is that there is nothing “super”, “extraordinary” or “special” about Luke’s writings, even if we buy all of Ramsey’s claims regarding Luke’s alleged accuracy on certain issues.
Moreover, Luke also makes mistakes, some examples provided above. Of course, apologists will challenge all of them but note that these are accepted as such and acknowledged by mainstream scholarship.
Instead, we come across a fairly ordinary writer who utilises sources at his disposal, making a variety of changes to them to suit his theological agenda and one who makes errors at times and also gets certain facts right. None of the examples presented by these apologists suggests that the “Bible” (which is a collection of many individual books and letters by authors of varying degrees of education and literacy) is “historically reliable” as a whole.
Modern New Testament scholars do not entirely endorse Ramsey’s claims pertaining to Luke’ abilities as a historian and consider him to have exaggerated his case. To be more precise, the studies by Ramsey and others did at least establish that Acts was not a complete fiction authored in the mid-late second century period. The author is likely to be one writing sometime in the late first century, someone who was educated and well-travelled, and was using some traditions and sources at his disposal. There is no doubt that he does present accurate details, yet it is also a fact that his account is selective, romanticised at times and theologically motivated. We know that the author was not just relating bare incidents and events without changes but was adapting them to suit his purposes.
Hence his work (the gospel and Acts) needs to be used carefully and critically by the historians.
The late Raymond Brown made a remark that Luke would have been a fitting candidate for membership in the brotherhood of Hellenistic historians, but he would never be made the president of the society.15 Howard Marshall, on the other hand, a major conservative evangelical scholar of our times who is quite charitable towards Acts, admits that:
“…he [Ramsey] was capable of making assertions about Luke’s historical accuracy which went beyond what could be shown by the available evidence.”16
Marshall talks about the “essential” reliability of Acts regarding historical matters and not its complete reliability. Sherwin-White, for instance, believes that “Luke makes mistakes, but the main thrust of his book is to demonstrate that for the most part, Luke portrays the first-century Roman scene accurately.”17
Do note that this does not mean that we can accept all of Luke’ stories blindly. So, while many modern scholars do not outright dismiss Acts and consider it to be more accurate than was previously thought, it is nonetheless recognized that its author is not without mistakes and does colour sources at his disposal for theological and apologetic reasons. This means that not everything within his books is historically accurate, as alleged by Christian missionaries.
Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament (The Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1997, Doubleday, p. 326 [↩]
See Lee Martin McDonald, Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity And Its Sacred Literature, 2000, Hendrickson Publishers. For a more critical assessment, see Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, who dismiss the traditional authorship claims about the gospels in their The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 1998, SCM Press Ltd. See also W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 1975, Revised Edition, SCM Press Ltd. Helmut Koester also discusses gospel authorships in his Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, 1990, Trinity Press International. Also Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the New Testament and its Message: An Introduction, 1998, Paulist Press [↩]
Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2000, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 52. For a defense of traditional authorship claims, see the following books by evangelical scholars: Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Master Reference Collection), Revised Edition, 1990, InterVarsity Press; D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Dr. Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 1992, Zondervan Publishing House. [↩]
See Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus To Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ, Second Edition, 2000, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, pp. 3-4, 19. [↩]
See E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure Of Jesus, 1993, Penguin Books, p. 60. [↩]
Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide , 1998, SCM Press Ltd. p. 32 [↩]
Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament (The Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1997, Doubleday, p. 247. Similar dates are also proposed in the following sources: Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did, 2001, Prometheus Books; Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, Second Edition, 2002, Oxford University Press; James L. Mays (General Editor), The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000, HarperSanFrancisco; Donald Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, New and Revised Edition, 1992, Paulist Press; W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 17th Revised edition, 1975, SCM Press Ltd; Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the New Testament and Its Message: An Introduction, 1998, Paulist Press; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1, 1991, 1st edition, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday; Also Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus, 2004, Penguin Books. These types of dates are accepted by the vast majority of New Testament scholars and the references provided above are only a few examples. For much earlier dates, see the aforementioned introductions by Donald Guthrie and Carson. See also John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 2000, Wipf & Stock Publishers. [↩]
Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2000, Oxford University Press, p. 109 [↩]
Marshall believes that most of the speeches in Acts are based on traditional material, but he adds that they were never meant to be verbatim reports and that Luke has provided us with nothing more than brief summaries. Hence he leaves room for at least some Lucan creativity [I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 41]. Moreover, he acknowledges that Luke could not have known what Festus and Agrippa said to each other in their private apartments (25:13-22; 26:30-32) nor could the Christians have learnt what exactly was said by the members of the Sanhedrin in closed sessions (4:15-17; 5:34-40). Nonetheless, he speculates that perhaps Luke could have expressed the things that the public behaviour of rulers indicated that they had probably said in private (so some invention of speech by Luke did take place?) and that it is possible that some sympathizer from the Sanhedrin may have given Christians the gist of the conversation (ibid.). [↩]
Marshall admits that there are points of tension between Luke’s portrait of Paul and his own writing, but insists that they are not so substantial so as to make Acts entirely unhistorical (ibid.) [↩]
Donald Guthrie, B.D., M. Th., New Testament Introduction. The Gospels and Acts, 1966, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 87 [↩]
W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 17th Revised edition, 1975, SCM Press Ltd, p. 129 [↩]
Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, (The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, p. 115 [↩]
Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, pp. 263-265 [↩]
Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, p. 322. [↩]
I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 34 [↩]
I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, pp. 36-37 [↩]