Questions and Answers
QAmerican scholar Bart Ehrman asserts that the New Testament’s manuscripts were deliberately altered to support what became the orthodox Christian view of Jesus. Why would a distinguished New Testament scholar make such a claim if it’s false?
AThe quick answer is that, despite his being a distinguished New Testament scholar, Ehrman is also an atheist, with a natural desire to discredit orthodox Christianity. The longer answer is that, while it’s true that some New Testament manuscripts were altered, Ehrman is dishonest in his use of that fact. Some texts were altered to make them support a given group within the church. For example, some Western manuscripts have additions supporting the Western view of Peter’s primacy in the church. But those additions are easily spotted by comparing such manuscripts with manuscripts from other regions in the widely-distributed church. As a result, all Western scholars today accept the additions for what they were. There are other cases where minor changes were made to manuscripts of a text to make them more theologically palatable. But there’s a whole science of critical sifting to determine what the original reading is. For example, Christian scholarship today considers the less palatable reading of Mark 10:18 authentic, since pious scribes were likely to smooth out the text’s roughness to make Jesus look better, not add to a text’s roughness. Unfortunately, Ehrman has not shown the same candor in dealing with these variants. Instead, his atheism drives him to use them to suggest a conspiracy on the part of the orthodox church. The vast majority of serious scholars, however, acknowledge that no such conspiracy happened.
QWhile all Christian scholars admit that there are many variants in the New Testament’s ancient manuscripts, the Qur’an has been transmitted without any variants from the very first. That being so, isn’t it reasonable that Christians choose the perfect scripture—i.e., the Qur’an—over their own very imperfect one?
ANo ancient text is without its variants, the Qur’an included, as the early Qur’an commentaries all attest. With respect to textual variants, the biggest difference between the New Testament and the Qur’an lies in how their respective communities have handled their variants. While Christians have never denied their existence, Muslims have always taken the approach of removing evidence of textual variants and have often gone even further to say there never were any variants. The Christian (and Jewish) approach of candor is admittedly far messier than the Muslim approach. But thanks to the scholarly work of the past 150 years, we have a high degree of certainty concerning which reading of the New Testament text is original and none of the remaining uncertainty is of any doctrinal significance. From a Christian standpoint, being honest about the remaining holes in our understanding of the text is far better than covering up the actual variants. For destroying the evidence of variants, as Uthman did, and pretending the were no variants suggest an agenda-driven cover-up, even if that wasn’t the case. For more on this, see Gordon Nickel’s The Gentle Answer to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification.
QAccording to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, each of the New Testament’s Gospels presents a different Jesus. If the New Testament really is the Christian scripture that the Qur’an refers to, why does it have four different Gospels? And if four Gospels, why not five?
ATo begin, the qur’anic al-injil does not refer to a single Gospel received by Jesus, since there is no textual evidence for such a book. It likely refers to the New Testament as a whole since that was the (distinctively Christian) scripture in their possession. Well before Muhammad’s time, the New Testament included all four Gospels. Ehrman’s claim that each of the four Gospels presents a different Jesus is simply false. Each Gospel presents him from a different perspective, with a slightly different purpose in mind and for a different audience. But together they present one and the same Jesus. The New Testament’s inclusion of just four Gospels is the result of the Church’s decision—both informal and formal—to exclude other writings about the meaning of Jesus’ life from its authoritative scriptures. And incidentally, the Gospel of Thomas and the other so-called “gospels” in existence don’t hold a candle to the New Testament’s four magisterial treatments of Jesus’ life and teachings.
QSince Christian theology teaches that the second person of the Trinity was crucified, this must mean that God died. This claim is illogical from a Muslim perspective. How can Christian theology possibly make such a claim?
AThe New Testament teaches that God the Son died on the cross to restore creation to God’s plan (e.g., Acts 20:28). This doctrine has often been attacked since it seems to suggest that God lost control of the universe or even ceased to be God while Jesus was dead. But according to the New Testament, Jesus’ death, as God incarnate, involved neither. Jesus didn’t cease to exist when he was dead either. Rather, he surrendered his spirit to his Father’s keeping, while awaiting resurrection on the third day (Lk 23:46). The claim that God loved his creation enough to endure such a shameful death to redeem the very race that tried to do away with him certainly boggles the mind. Whether or not we accept the claim as true, we must acknowledge that it’s humbling to think that God would willingly endure such shocking mistreatment for our sakes. Both doctrines involved—that God took on our humanity in Jesus and was mistreated at the hands of his people—have many clear precursors in the Old Testament. However, their combination in the crucifixion of God incarnate was the furthest thing from the minds of Jesus’ disciples and enemies alike. And that explains why both rejected the doctrine when it was first put to them.
QFrom a Muslim perspective, even if it is logically possible, it is utterly unthinkable that God would choose to die a humiliating death for the sake of his creation. Why is Christianity so adamant that God became incarnate, lived among us and eventually submitted to crucifixion?
AThe word “gospel” means “good news,” pointing to the fact that Christianity is history-driven. With one voice, the four Gospels declare that a definitive historical event—God the Son’s incarnation / crucifixion / resurrection / ascension—happened, the effect of which is immeasurably good to all who believe. No one could have imagined this. The awareness that the Messiah must die came as a shock even to Jesus’ disciples. But the gospel would not be so good if God had come to earth—in Jesus—as the one person in the room with the microphone or, worse, a military general issuing ultimatums. Rather, the Gospels show us that God assumed a position of vulnerability right from his birth in a lowly manger. Infuriated that an outsider would challenge their authority, the powerbrokers in Jesus' society mistook his humility for weakness and conspired to condemn him falsely and crucify him. In fact, they couldn't possibly have forced anything on him-he freely chose to endure it. What would induce an omnipotent God to endure such abuse at the hands of his subjects? Only love. Had he wanted mere submission, he could simply have silenced all dissenters. Had he been content with external conformity, he could easily have brought an army to enforce his will. But God desires our love, and you cannot mandate that. If it isn't freely chosen, it's not love. God knew that safeguarding the freedom essential to love would cost him everything. But for love's sake, he willingly paid the price. Thus, the life he asks of us is but the joyful response of our whole being to his love (1 Jn 4:19). For God came to earth not to command our love, but to win it.
QChristianity claims that Jesus' death established him as king on earth and that his resurrection demonstrated that fact. Why, then, is the world still such a mess 2000 years later?
AThe New Testament teaches that Jesus has begun to reign on earth and continues to rule through his people, in union with him, but that his rule will not be absolute till he returns. Theologians summarize this by saying that his kingdom is already present and not yet fully here. Jesus' seven parables in Matthew 13 point to
the delay of his kingdom's fulness
his kingdom's hiddenness
its stealthy penetration of the world
In the first parable here, he indicates that believers and unbelievers will coexist in the world until the final judgment (vv. 24-30, 34-43). His second parable pictures the kingdom as something that starts out very small and gradually grows large (vv. 31-32). The third pictures it as yeast-something tiny, yet powerful-that works invisibly till it penetrates the larger whole, representing the world (vv. 33). The fourth and fifth parables respectively liken the kingdom to a hidden treasure and a tiny object worth sacrificing everything for (vv. 44-46). Thus, it's not something everyone sees or values. Returning to the first parable's idea, the sixth tells of a net full of fish, with some worth keeping and some not, but none sorted out till the catch is finally brought to shore (vv. 47-50). Jesus sums up what he's saying with a parable of a homeowner who displaying old and new treasures. Jesus claims here to be the homeowner, revealing both familiar and unknown things (vv. 51-53). Thus, Jesus' kingdom isn't visible to all and penetrates the whole gradually. Also, its effects won't be fully realized till the final judgment. Jesus also told his followers they'd need to endure persecution and stay alert to be ready when he returns in power (Mt 24:9-14, 45-51).
QJesus said his followers would prove their loyalty to him by loving one another (Jn 13:35), yet Christians have split into many denominations and even gone to war against each other. Doesn't the fact that the Christian Church couldn't even avoid division reflect badly on the Christian claim to possess the treasure of the kingdom?
AYes, it does. Jesus clearly wanted a united church and the Holy Spirit makes believers one. Splitting into denominations and fighting against each other speaks of our failure to follow Jesus as we should, not of Jesus' or the Spirit's inability to keep us united. Most of the major divisions within the Church occurred when Christianity had been coopted by political rulers who could enforce conformity to their unique teachings and practices. Christians would have avoided those divisions if we'd kept Church and State separate and given individual churches theological room to breathe. There are bound to be some differences dividing Christians, particularly differences growing out of cultural distinctives. But the vast majority of those who call themselves Christians are united in spirit, hold to the Nicene Creed and strive to keep the Ten Commandments.
The Smartest Man Who Ever Lived The Sermon on the Mount Seven Timeless Truths Recommended Reading