The Islamic Awareness website is a high-quality Muslim apologetics site. It seems to be run by a group of intelligent people, with boundless time and energy (they may tell me otherwise). I have been rather reluctant therefore to start any sort of debate with the bright folk there, knowing that they will have far more time to reply to anything I write than I will have to reply. For anyone who wants to look at the quantity and quality of material produced just check here. One particular article that has been drawn to my attention is the one of the reliability of the NT text. A full response would require an article of equal or perhaps greater length. Time forbids a comprehensive reply, but I wish here briefly to show some of the weaknesses and imbalances in this article by Saifullah et al.
In the opening paragraph the authors state their purpose as being to counter four false arguments for the integrity of the NT text: the first, that the NT text is reliable because a large number of manuscripts survives; the second, that most of the NT text could be reconstructed by quotations from early church Fathers; the third, that the quantitative integrity of the NT text can accurately be described by statistics suggesting integrity of 95-99.9%; the fourth, that some manuscripts of the NT are extremely early.
Of course, we should observe that even if all these arguments were to fall that would not mean that there was no ground for believing the NT to be true. After all, Aquinas, Calvi, Luther, etc., did not use any of these relatively modern arguments. To my knowledge the second argument is not one that is commonly used, and the fourth (claims by C.P. Thiede and J. O’Callaghan that there are first-century NT manuscripts) is not one that is advanced by most Christians with knowledge in the area. The four counter-arguments are presented by Saifullah et al. as if they were replies to mainstream Christian scholars, and yet how many authors can they quote who would use all four arguments that they attribute to Christians?
On the first argument, that the mere number of NT manuscripts suggests that the NT text has been well transmitted, the authors present us with a rather crude version of an argument that appears in some Christian apologetic literature. As they note, the argument goes back at least to F.F. Bruce, but it can hardly be suggested that Bruce thought that mere number was sufficient to indicate reliability.
The third argument, of statistics for textual integrity, is one that is used by Christians, and the authors rightly point out some of its weaknesses, though, as we will see, they suggest replacing it with a far more misleading set of statistics.
Percentages of textual certainty are generally misleading, but then so are the percentages of uncertainty suggested by the authors. If you define certainty one way you can get an answer in the high nineties. On the other hand, if you prefer to talk of ‘variant free verses’ as in this article you get a lower percentage. The authors say,
The percentage agreement of the verses when all the four Gospels are considered is 54.5%. This is very close to the probability that a tail (or head) appears when a coin is tossed once (i.e., the probability that a tail or head appears when a coin is tossed is 50%!). It is still a mystery to us from where exactly the evangelicals pick-up [sic] such fantastic ‘agreements’ between the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.
However, they have purposely chosen the Gospels rather than Epistles and the unit of the verse rather than a more meaningful smaller unit in order to achieve their low statistic. If two adjacent verses contain fifty words and one of them has two words in a varying order then according to Saifullah et al. we have 50% uncertainty of the text, when in fact only 4% of the text is affected! Now I’m willing to admit that there are problems with the statistics of Christian apologists, but it seems to me that they are not wider from the mark than the statistics of this article. Moreover, we must remember here that not every variant makes the text uncertain; not every variant has a reasonable claim to be original. Here they are comparing seven different editions of the NT. Yet sometimes these editions have decided to print texts with minimal or no Greek support. For instance, in Matthew 1:16 von Soden printed a Greek text without the support of any Greek manuscripts. Thus their statistics for variation include variants that were in von Soden’s mind as well as real variants in Greek manuscripts. The variant in Matthew 1:16 arose because von Soden, despite linguistic evidence, began with naturalistic assumptions that sought to explain Jesus’ birth without recourse to a miracle and accordingly chose to print what he thought must be the original reading. Ironically, in the article by Saifullah et al. they typically build on naturalistic assumptions within textual criticism. Likewise the belief that there are ‘primitive errors’ within the NT text (i.e. errors that precede all our manuscripts) is a supposition that is open to challenge rather than a bare fact.
A key thing to realize when making any useful statistics on this issue is that in general the more manuscripts you have the more known variations there will be in the entire collection of manuscripts. Therefore, Saifullah et al. are in the position that the more evidence the Christian finds, the more evidence for NT unreliability Saifullah et al. will believe that they have. If Christians had twice the number of manuscripts they presently have almost certainly there would be more variants than are presently known. Thus, almost in principle, Saifullah et al. are committed to the view that the more evidence there is, the less certain something is. This has the air of making a vice out of a virtue. This is where their argument unravels. Although simple numerical comparison between NT texts and Classical texts cannot assure us of the reliability of the former, NT texts are not only more numerous than Classical texts, they are also generally earlier, more widely cited, and more widely translated. Obviously this produces a wealth of material attesting the NT, but with that wealth comes evidence of variety. Those sceptical of Christianity, whether Muslims, secularists or any other group, can of course latch onto the variety and then make the lazy assumption that it is not possible to apply critical assessment to the variety nor to argue that much of the variation has no claim to be original.
However, it is not only lazy, but it is also ignorant to conclude that every variant in a Greek manuscript has a claim to be original. When one gets familiar with a Greek manuscript one will often find that it makes a recurrent type of error. Once you factor out the errors that are peculiar to that manuscript these variations no longer play a role in identifying the text of the NT. Unfortunately, within the discipline of NT textual criticism it has been common to present textual witnesses, such as manuscripts or translations, prior to undertaking an analysis of what factors within that witness are almost certainly secondary. This is something that I have had reason to criticize in relation to early translations on a number of occasions. Essentially, these critical editions of the Greek NT serve up for us information in an undigested form. They often assume that variation in a translation means that there was variation in the Greek original from which that translation was made. They likewise do not adequately consider the mistakes of individual scribes within the manuscripts. As a consequence many modern editions serve us up with an apparatus full of variations that, to the unsuspecting eye, probably look like evidence that there is a high degree of uncertainty about the biblical text. To the extent that Saifullah and others are building on a false assumption that all variants bring the original into question, their work is inadequate.
The Age of Manuscripts
It takes some skill to present an argument that makes the fact that the NT exists in earlier manuscripts than the overwhelming majority of Classical texts into a weakness for the NT, but this is what happens in Table VI. A clear strong point of NT transmission (relative to all texts of its age) is argued to be a weakness.
The statement following Table VI that 1 and 2 Timothy and 3 John only have ‘very late manuscripts’ is rather misleading. Here comparison with Classical works is relevant. Scholars have a great deal of confidence in the integrity of the text of Classical works though the manuscripts are generally much later than those of NT works. If 1 and 2 Timothy and 3 John are only in ‘very late manuscripts’ then most Classical works are only in ‘very, very late manuscripts’. The argument presented by Saifullah et al. is that the witnesses are late, and yet their argument is also subject to attrition. One century or two centuries ago the earliest manuscripts were considerably later than the ones we now have. It would be better to say that the manuscripts are early, and are getting earlier all the time. Moreover, their table ignores the fact that sometimes manuscripts in languages other than Greek exist prior to Greek manuscripts. For instance, there is a Coptic manuscript in London, namely Crosby-Schøyen Codex Ms 193, which contains all of 1 Peter, which has been dated to the late second century or early third century by Roberts (whose datings the authors accept elsewhere in this article), though other scholars put this manuscript later in the third century (J. Goehring, The Crosby-Schøyen Codex Ms 193 [CSCO 521, Louvain, 1990]). Thus their entry for 1 Peter might be amended to show this earlier witness. Now the point is this: most scholars would accept that if 1 Peter was being translated into Coptic by this stage then so were the Gospels. Christian literature was very widespread early on and spread across language boundaries. It would not be possible for some conspiracy to exist to change all the Bible manuscripts at any one stage because they were too widespread. What is not observed by Saifullah and friends, and which would need to be worked out at greater length, is that the amount of variation amongst extant NT texts is probably too little for it to be plausible that there was widespread change of these texts early on.
Certainty and Diversity
The article rather lacks precision when dealing with the issue of certainty. The article seems to confuse lack of certainty amongst a range of scholars with lack of certainty of the issue. I doubt whether the authors would accept an argument of the structure: a range of scholars are uncertain about the status of Islam, therefore the status of Islam is uncertain. Yet their argument is very much of the structure that if a range of scholars are uncertain about the NT text therefore the NT text is itself uncertain. The article does not consider that ‘lack of certainty’ is a feature of many areas of scholarship. You could take many an issue from global warming to economic theory and find a range of opinions and therefore declare the issue uncertain. This, however, would not mean that another scholar could not rationally reach a much higher degree of certainty about the text than was available within the academy as a whole. They do not show that an individual scholar could not rationally be 99% or more sure of what the original text was.
Muslims and Christians live in an academic environment where the overwhelming number of scholars in the world’s most distinguished universities do not believe that God has given a record of his words to humans. This is an environment in which a believer in God, whether Christian or Muslim, should begin with an approach which does not uncritically accept that trends in academic scholarship necessarily represent the truth. There must be a rigorous attention to evidence and argument. The article in question could, I think, do more to distinguish between bare fact and the consensus opinion of scholars working in a largely secular academic environment.
In my publications cited, as well as in others found on my webpage, I have sought to document large numbers of textual variants within the Bible which are only believed to have existed due to uncritical presuppositions which have flourished in a more secular age. They do not really exist. These pseudo-variants are open to critique on scholarly and linguistic grounds, though I have found that a sceptical attitude towards secular attitudes to scripture has also been helpful in exposing some of these errors. I suspect, though I cannot prove, that if more scholars were to have a similar scepticism and apply it in their area of study that the text of the NT would appear in an ever better light.
There is obviously plenty to discuss with the Islamic Awareness folk and if the rumour is true that some of them are in Cambridge, England, then perhaps I will get a chance to meet them and chat as I'm usually down there a couple of times a year. I would not even deign to think that these few ramblings are a match in quality for their far more thoroughly researched article.
 Clearly the authors are trying to persuade us that this is how many Christians argue. The first argument is said to be used ‘invariably’. The second argument is introduced as ‘The Christian apologists’ second line of defence…’ Assuming the apostrophe to be correctly placed, the authors are asserting that this is generally the line that is taken by Christian apologists.
 I refute von Soden’s reconstruction of Matthew 1:16 in P.J. Williams, Early Syriac Translation Technique and the Textual Criticism of the Greek Gospels (Texts and Studies 3:2; Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2004) pp. 240-44.
 For my criticism of this procedure in the textual apparatus see, P.J. Williams, ‘On the Representation of Sahidic within the Apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece’, Journal of Coptic Studies 8 (2006) 123-25; ‘Bread and the Peshitta in Matthew 16:11-12 and 12:4’, Novum Testamentum 48 (2001) 331-33; ‘Some Problems in Determining the Vorlage of Early Syriac Versions of the NT’, New Testament Studies 47 (2001) 537-43; ‘“According to all” in MT and the Peshitta’, Zeitschrift für Althebraistik 12 (1999) 107-109. I understand that my conclusions will be taken into consideration in future versions of the Nestle-Aland edition.