Weighing the Evidence
by Jay Smith
When in dialogue with a Muslim, how often do we find ourselves put on the defensive, fending off the same five or six standard questions which seem to repeat themselves time and again? The objection to the Trinity leads the way, pursued hard on its heels by the disbelief that God could have a Son, followed by the contention that these doctrines were erroneously created by the apostle Paul, and therefore not part of the original canon preached by the “historical Jesus.” We play the part and answer as best we can, quoting from our Scriptures the oft-repeated responses we have been taught from our days in Sunday school. Yet, sooner or later we find ourselves returning to that which is our foundation—the Bible—just as they do likewise with the Qur’an. Therein lies the problem. Regardless of the topic we may choose, the discussion we have with Muslims leads back inevitably to that of revelation. Much as “all paths lead to Rome,” so do all apologetical discussions lead to the repository of our respective beliefs, the Bible or the Qur’an.
This should not surprise us, for both Christianity and Islam derive their sets of beliefs from their revelations. Yet we find that the two scriptures disagree in a number of salient areas. One need only compare how both the Bible and the Qur’an deal with Jesus, sin, atonement, and salvation to understand that they are quite different from one another.
So then we need to begin with the fundamental question: Which revelation is the true Word of God? Until we seek to settle that question we will not be able to judge the value of what the Bible and the Qur’an say. The answer, however, will not be simple.
Whenever two documents which claim to be true are contradictory to one another, one must ask whether, using criteria which a neutral third party can accept, one or neither meet the standards for historicity. Essentially one must ascertain whether the Qur’an or the Bible can stand up to an external analysis for its authenticity. Since both Islam and Christianity claim to receive their beliefs from the revealed truth which they find in their respective scriptures, to suspect the source the scriptures claim to have for their revelation is to put the integrity of both Christianity and Islam on trial.
Obviously this can only be done by asking whether there is historical data that can help us verify that which they profess is true. If we accept that God has intersected time and space in order to reveal His truth to His creation, then we should expect to see evidence of those revelatory events in history.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an claim to have been revealed at certain places, to special people, and over a specific period of time. For whichever claim is true, we should be able to find evidence for its claims by looking at the historical data which exists. This we can do by looking at three areas of evidence: that provided by manuscripts, documents and archaeological data. If the evidence supports the claims for the Bible or the Qur’an, then we can assume its reliability. However, if the evidence denies their historicity, then we have to question their authenticity.
It is this type of study which will show not only the paucity of credibility for Islam but underline the enormous authority which we have for our own scriptures. We have nothing to fear by such a critical historical study, as it is not new. Since the scholars at Tubingen in the last century began critically analyzing the Bible, we have scoured the deserts and monasteries of the Middle East and have retrieved manuscripts, documents and archaeological artifacts which place the events and personages of the Bible in the time and place to which they claim, adding even greater historical credibility to our scriptures.
The Qur’an, on the other hand, has not had the same success. For too long westerners have been content to assume that Muslims had evidence to substantiate their claims. It is only now, as secular historians of Islam re-examine the Islamic sources, that evidence is being uncovered which puts into question much of what we have been led to believe concerning the historicity behind Muhammad and “his revelation,” the Qur’an.
The new crop of historical experts on Islam are now looking more closely at earlier Middle Eastern sources to ascertain clues to Islam’s origins. By looking at the syntax of the language, the names of certain places and historical references, their findings indicate that the Qur’an was not revealed to just one man in the early seventh century, but was a compilation of later redactions (or editions) formulated by a group of men, over the course of a hundred or more years. It was during this time, the Orientalists say, particularly in the late eighth to early ninth century, that Islam took on its classical identity and became that which is recognizable today. This is troubling for a document which claims outright that this process did not occur.
As for the Bible, with the abundance of existing manuscripts of the New Testament (230 of which were in existence before the compilation of the Qur’an), we know little has been lost through the transmission of the text. As far as we can know, the names, places, and events mentioned in the Bible have been recorded accurately so that what we have is indeed accurate. We also know that, outside the few copyists errors, the historical events and personages are correct, as they do not confuse names, dates and events, and continue to coincide with major archaeological findings.
This is significant, since with each successive year, ongoing documental and archaeological discoveries move us toward, rather than away from, affirming the historicity of the Scriptures. The Ebla, Amarna, Mari and Nuzi tablets continue to corroborate what the Bible has been saying for thousands of years.
The conclusion of this type of evidence is that the Bible, much more than the Qur’an, can be trusted as an accurate and reliable historical document. While we continue to unearth data which substantiate the Bible’s accuracy, we likewise unearth data which eradicate the validity of fundamental points of the Qur’anic account. If a scripture claims to be a revelation from God, it must substantiate its claim by establishing its historical credentials, to the extent that a third party can agree upon the evidence provided. This the Bible and not the Qur’an does adequately, which gives us great confidence. For once we have established the historical credibility of the Bible, we can then open its pages and trust what it has to say, knowing that it is indeed authoritative as a foundation for that which we believe. This the Qur’an has not done satisfactorily, and therein lies one of our best apologetics.