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What makes the Bible unique?

Posted September 7, 2019 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Many people assume that the Bible and Qur’an are essentially saying the same thing. There definitely are many similarities between the two scriptures. For example, they both tell how God created the world and how he will one day judge everyone who has ever lived. They both speak of many prophets–in fact, of a chain of prophets and a sequence of scriptures–some of which are at least nominally the same. Both refer to Jesus as the Messiah and honor his mother, and speak of Jesus’ virgin birth. Both scriptures urge us to pray and take care of the poor.

Both scriptures extol justice and mercy and call us to faith and submission to God, but the Bible is a radically different scripture from that of the Qur’an in many respects.

Despite the many similarities, there are many profound differences between the Bible and Qur’an too. Christians and Muslims would almost universally agree that they are very different books in their present form. So, to assume that the two scriptures are essentially the same is to do injustice to both of them. The rest of this website presents biblical teachings on God, Jesus, his eternal reign. Those are 3 subjects in which the Bible differs most widely from the Qur’an. But the Bible differs radically from the Qur’an in more than just contents. The two books originated in very different ways also, and we will struggle to understand the Bible if we expect it to read like the Qur’an and vice-versa.

Some people say we can’t claim that the Bible clearly reveals who God is or what he wants of us when so many of its passages are hard to understand. But the problem is with us, not with the Bible. It’s like what happens if you try to read while wearing someone else’s prescription glasses. However clear the text before you is, the lenses you’re looking through distort it on you. Similarly, despite the Bible’s inherent clarity, our theological, linguistic and cultural distance from the text functions like a lens that distorts it on us.

To understand an ancient and complex scripture like the Bible, we must approach it in the right way. It is thus important to know some key facts about its origins and make-up:

  • The Bible is a collection of religious texts that grew up within, first, the Hebrew (Jewish) community and, then, the Christian community.
  • It is divided into 2 major sections, the Old Testament—texts originally received as scripture by the Hebrew community—and the New Testament—texts written by Christian prophets, after Jesus’ coming.[1]
  • Written primarily in Hebrew and Greek, this veritable library of texts grew up very gradually, over a period of many centuries, ending about 100 CE.
  • The various authors who wrote the Bible came from diverse cultural, historical and educational backgrounds, but shared a common belief in God’s essential goodness, mercy and justice.
  • The Bible’s component texts represent a number of different genres, including history, law, poetry, proverbs, letters (i.e., correspondence) and apocalypse.[2]
  • Revering their biblical texts as God-given, the Jewish and Christian communities carefully preserved their exact wording, both orally and in writing.[3]
  • Scholars have thoroughly studied the many ancient manuscripts on which our Bibles are based and certified its texts as authentic, having only minor textual variants.

Muslims will instantly realize that the above points make the Bible a very different scripture from the Qur’an since the latter represents

  • A series of prophetic texts conveyed by just one man: Muhammad
  • In just one religious community: Muslim (or proto-Muslim)
  • Over a far shorter period of time: some 23 years
  • In a single language: Arabic
  • Involving fewer genres of literature[4]

In addition, Muslims believe the Qur’an had no human author, while Christians and Jews view their scriptures as having dual authorship, human and divine.[5] Only on the point of scripture’s preservation is there basic correspondence between the Bible and Qur’an. But even there we find significant differences since Christians and Jews have never tried to conceal the fact that the biblical texts contain minor variants (e.g., copyists’ errors), as all ancient handwritten texts do. Muslim authorities, by contrast, have repeatedly destroyed qur’anic texts containing variants to make their chosen text prevail.[6]

All of the above differences make it hard for Muslims to understand the Bible and accept it as God-given. Beyond those differences, the Qur’an describes the biblical scriptures in terms that make readers expect them to be very much like the Qur’an. For example, qur’anic references to the Bible (e.g., the Psalms or New Testament) imply that they were revealed in the same manner and form as the Qur’an. Thus, when Muslims read the Bible, they’re often disturbed by the difference between their expectation of it and the reality.

The New Atheists tell us the Bible and Qur’an are basically saying the same thing. Hating all religion as they do, they paint Christianity and Islam with one brush, as if the differences between them are negligible. This may make great press, but it’s far from accurate.

The Qur’an seems to make a similar argument, but for very different reasons. It claims its messages were revealed by the God of the Bible, which it says predicted Muhammad’s coming. The Qur’an presents itself as the Bible’s sequel and always refers to the biblical Torah (al-tawrat), Psalms (al-zabur) and New Testament (al-injil) with honor and respect. It says it confirms, clarifies and guards those scriptures from misinterpretation. These points all imply that a trustworthy Bible existed in Muhammad’s day.

However, in terms of their theological content, while the Bible and Qur’an have many important similarities, they have many profound differences too.

For example, both scriptures affirm the existence of a creator God who reveals himself in both his creation and scripture, who sent prophets—including Jesus—and who will judge humankind at the end of time.

However, as already noted, the qur’anic concept of revelation excludes any notion of human authorship, but the biblical texts all had human authors, though angelic mediators were sometimes involved.[7] In addition, the Bible

  • Calls humankind to an intimate relationship with God, a relationship of friendship and even union with God
  • Presents God as wanting to live among his people, wanting his people to be morally like him and having come to earth
  • Makes God’s atoning work on our behalf central and says that God accepts sinners purely on the basis of his grace
  • Presents Jesus as God’s Son, though in a radically different sense than what the Qur’an denies

In all these respects, the Bible and Qur’an differ very significantly. In addition, the Qur’an

  • Refers to the New Testament (al-injil) as a book received by Jesus from God, though it’s only ever been a collection of books written by his followers
  • Offers such little clarity on Jesus’ death and resurrection that most Muslims now deny that they ever happened, yet their historicity is central to the New Testament
  • Entirely omits Jesus’ return in power at the end of time to judge humankind and rule the world, also key biblical themes

These differences produce a tension that clearly demands resolution.

Though it wasn’t always so, most Muslims today seek to resolve this tension by asserting that the Bible’s texts originally conformed to qur’anic descriptions, but were later falsified. Many Muslims consider the New Testament fabricated and claim that the qur’anic Injil refers to a no longer extant “original Gospel,” allegedly received by Jesus. Due solely to the polemical power of this falsification theory, nearly all Muslims now accept it, with many convinced that it is indisputable. But despite its immense popularity, there is no factual basis for the Muslim falsification theory. The text of the Bible is authentic, as can easily be shown.

—————

[1] While Jews believe only the books written by their prophets—which they refer to collectively as the Tanakh—Christians believe the books written by their own prophets, as well as the Jewish prophets before them. For that reason, one Christian scholar says it would be better if we called our testaments, the First and Second Testament, respectively, since we take them together as God’s Word and the guide for our life. The second testament presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the first testament. Christians thus view their scriptures as not replacing those of the Jewish community, but rather complementing them.

[2] The huge diversity we find in the Bible is the result of its including so many genres and being written by so many different authors over so many centuries. This fact is often disconcerting to Muslims reading the Bible since their scripture is less diverse, less noticeably human, and much smaller. In terms of their respective word counts, the Bible is many times bigger than the Qur’an—over 780,000 words compared to fewer than 78,000 words.

[3] Growing out of the Jewish community, the first Christians carried with them a deep reverence for the Jewish scriptures, which the New Testament frequently quotes and discusses. On this, see n. 1 above.

[4] Although the entire corpus of the Qur’an is presented as prophetic oracle, there are a number of genres within it. The very idea that personal letters (such as those in the New Testament) could qualify as scripture strikes most Muslims as bizarre, due to the fact that they reject the possibility of a scripture’s having dual, human-and-divine, authorship. On this, see n. 5 below.

[5] By dual authorship, we mean that the biblical text is simultaneously human and divine. Thus, God guided the human author’s thoughts in such a way that he expressed both himself and God, his words being at once 100% human and 100% divine.

[6] They unfortunately chose the text they did, not by comparing all the variants and determining which was most strongly supported by early manuscript evidence, but rather primarily for political reasons.

[7] For example, the Bible says Moses received the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from angelic mediators (Acts 7:53, Gal. 3:19, Heb. 2:2).

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