Does the Bible or the Qur'an have stronger historical corroboration?
How would you support your argument, using specific examples?

By Toby Jepson


Historical corroboration is vital for both the Bible and the Qur'an, as both of them talk about people, places and events - the stuff of history. If they cannot be trusted on the hard facts of who did what, when and where, there is little reason to trust them on the more important issues of who God is and what he requires of us.

This idea of historical corroboration, however, is more suited to the Western mind than the Muslim one. The Muslim seems more interested in the majesty of the book and the doctrines contained and is often suspicious of attempts to evaluate the Qur'an from the viewpoint of the historian.

Preliminary Issues to be Considered

Before embarking on the question of which book has more historical credibility, we must consider their respective natures, as the Bible and the Qur'an are not identical in literary genre.

The Bible is approximately four times the length of the Qur'an, so it is not surprising that more historical details are contained within its pages. Furthermore, the whole perspective of the Bible is more historical than that of the Qur'an. Much of the Bible records with comment those events of history that are relevant to God's working with mankind, so that readers can learn from the examples and mistakes of the protagonists. The Qur'an in contrast has proportionally far more legal decisions than the Bible. This intentional difference in content is one reason why the Bible is more easily evaluated historically, as it simply contains more historical facts that can be tested against other sources.

The temporal relationship of the two books has an important bearing on the discussion. The Bible came first and is therefore independent of the Qur'an. The Qur'an came later into a situation where there was ample opportunity for Muhammad to learn of biblical history from the Jews and Christians he met. In addition to this, the Qur'an came claiming to agree completely with the 'former revelations', so it is expected for it to agree on points of history. Therefore the credibility of the Qur'an is not really enhanced if it accurately records events that are already mentioned in the Bible. Its historicity can be best evaluated when it records events not mentioned in the Bible, for here it can be considered independently.

What is History?

We might like to think that history is something completely objective that we simply go out to recover. Of course this is the ideal, where our opinion of what happened conforms fully to what really did happen, but in reality we are hampered by several factors.

Sparse information often gives us a partial understanding. Our sources may be biased, mistaken or misinterpreted. The depth of our own historical knowledge will help or hinder in interpreting evidence. Our presuppositions are hard to shake off and it is easy to read into sources that which we want to be there. Often we have a vested interest in a particular conclusion and this is rarely seen so acutely as in religion - it simply isn't attractive to disprove your own religion. But unless we look at the two books allowing that either may be correct, we may as well not bother. Humans have an unbelievable ability to 'prove' in their own minds that which they want to be true.

Methods of Historical Corroboration

There are three main categories of historical sources that I wish to use. The first is manuscript support. This helps us to see if the present-day works accurately reflect their original texts.

The second is other written sources. These may take the form of inscriptions or documents that giving insight into the periods concerned.

The third is other archaeological data. In this category I include things such as data from digs showing that a particular town was in existence at the time claimed, or the approximate date of destruction in battle.

In the rest of the paper I will give specific examples from each category. There are many more that could be included, but for the sake of space I shall limit myself to a few that are particularly significant. [1]

Manuscript Support

Looking firstly at the Qur'an, I have not accepted the common Muslim assertion that widespread memorisation of the Qur'an proves its authenticity. This proves little except that virtually all Muslims today read the same text. It tells us nothing of the situation in the 7th century.

We are told from the hadith that Abu Bakr was the first to collate the texts of the Qur'an into one codex soon after Muhammad's death. This is said to have been passed on down to Umar, then Hafsa. At the time of Uthman, we are told, the Muslims of Sha'm and Iraq got together to conquer Armenia and Azerbaijan. The general in charge became afraid of their differences in recitation, so he appealed to Uthman to help. Uthman got the codex from Hafsa and directed that perfect copies be made. Then we are told:

Uthman sent to every Muslim province one copy of what they had copied, and ordered that all the other Qur'anic materials, whether written in fragmentary manuscripts or whole copies, be burnt. [2]

This tells us that already there were variants in the Qur'an. We will never know exactly what they were, as the evidence has been burnt. Muslims may reply that the differences were simply those of vowelling, not the consonantal text. However, the earliest manuscripts make it clear that vowels were rarely included and there was even a lack of the markings to distinguish between different consonants. [3] Therefore, these differences must have been large enough to show up even in a primitive consonantal text.

The next question to ask is whether we have any of Uthman's perfect copies. Muslims often counter that there are two, one in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul and one in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. However, most scholars date them to the 9th century. [4] Indeed, non-Muslim scholars in general hold the oldest complete Qur'an to be the Ma'il copy in the British Library, dated to 790AD.

Recent work on Qur'anic manuscripts found in Sana'a, Yemen, indicates that there was still considerable textual modification since the time of Uthman. These manuscripts, possibly from the early 8th century, show significant variation from the text used today. Whole sections are missing and added in with a much later hand. Passages that today read 'Say...' (a divine command to Muhammad) are seen to have once been 'he said...' or 'they said...', indicating a possible attributing of the words of humans to Allah. Over 1,000 variants have been found within the first 83 surahs alone. [5]

Turning to the Bible, is the situation any different? The earliest complete New Testament manuscripts are from the 4th century AD, with the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library and the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican Library. The Chester Beatty papyri from around 200AD contain major portions of the NT. The earliest complete Old Testament manuscript is the Codex Babylonicus Petropolitanus (around 1000AD), although many substantial manuscripts date much earlier, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. [6]

There are certainly variant readings in Bible manuscripts. Indeed, a whole science of textual criticism has grown up in Christian scholarship to determine which reading is the correct one when there is any doubt. So what can we conclude? Is the Bible hopelessly corrupt, making determination of its original teachings all but impossible? We must of course know the reasons for these variants and the lack of early manuscripts. Can the situation be adequately explained or is it an embarrassment best not talked about?

For the Bible, there are many good reasons. Papyrus, the medium of writing in the 1st century and before, disintegrated easily. There are no original manuscripts of any work of this period. Tacitus, Caesar and Pliny to name three, have gaps of 750-1200 years between date of writing and first surviving manuscript. [7] There are also many more NT manuscripts than there are of other works, leading to the comment that:

...to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament. [8]

The manuscript variants are in the vast majority the unintentional type that are to be expected with repeated copying of manuscripts by hand. They increase in number with time so that the earliest manuscripts are the most accurate and valuable. No important doctrine hangs on a variant and textual criticism has been able to determine the correct reading with confidence in virtually all cases.

In addition to this, Christianity was at first a persecuted religion with no official protection. In its first 300 years, the Christian community was often at risk of having its scriptures confiscated and destroyed.

However, with the Qur'an things are different. In the years between Jesus and Muhammad, things changed. Parchment became the main writing medium, far more durable than papyrus. The great 4th century NT codices are still in pristine condition today. Thus it is embarrassing for Islam if no Uthmanic manuscripts can be produced.

Secondly, the Qur'anic variants known are in the earliest manuscripts. The Yemeni manuscripts mentioned above are perhaps the earliest in existence and the hadith material shows that Uthman had many variants to weed out, although we may never know what they all were. This is the opposite to the biblical position, where variants crept in with time. In the Qur'an, we see the text being standardised with time.

Thirdly, Islam from the time of the hijrah had power, at least in certain places. Muslims cannot use the valid excuse that Christians have, that persecution may have destroyed many important manuscripts.

Other Documentary Support

By far the greatest volume of information concerning Arabia in the time of Muhammad comes from Muslim traditions. However, the best hadith collections, of Bukhari and Muslim, date from 200 years after Muhammad, whilst the sira of Ibn Hisham dates from the early 9th century. Although I have not studied the science of hadith, I cannot see any particular security given by the chain of isnad, as there seems no guarantee that it could not have been made up at a later date. The lack of early documentation weakens this material greatly.

Looking elsewhere, perhaps the most enlightening texts are those researched by Yehuda Nevo, from the Hebrew University. [9] These Arabic rock inscriptions in the Negev desert date from the 7th and 8th centuries. Some are religious, with a monotheistic creed, but not an Islamic one. Neither is there any mention of Muhammad until 691AD. In fact, there is no attestation of Muhammad as prophet anywhere before 691, when it begins to appear on coins and on the Dome of the Rock. [10] This is particularly damaging, as once we step outside the relatively late Muslim traditions, the contemporary evidence appears to go right against many of the events that are supposed to surround the genesis of the Qur'an - the life and activities of Muhammad.

For the Bible, there is much contemporary evidence in support. The writings of the church fathers contain the entire NT text (bar eleven verses) before the council of Nicea in 325AD. [11] There are also the writings of Tacitus, Lucian and Josephus from the 1st/2nd centuries, for instance, that write of the crucifixion. [12]

A wealth of other textual material supports the historicity of biblical events. A fascinating tour of the British Museum contains many exhibits relating to the people and events of the Bible. There is the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III, with a picture of the Israelite king Jehu. There are the carvings from the walls of Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, relating his side of the conquest of Judah around 701BC. [13] These even bear the charring of the fire that destroyed Nineveh, as prophesied by Nahum. [14] Perhaps most satisfying are two inscriptions relating to Nabonidus, the final king of the neo-Bablyonian empire. Daniel states that Belshazzar was reigning in Babylon the night the Medes and Persians invaded. [15] However, records state that Nabonidus was the last king. Even Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, does not mention Belshazzar. Many accused Daniel of being a late forgery and ignorant of the facts. However, the first inscription is a prayer of Nabonidus for his son Belshazzar. The second relates that Nabonidus spent much of his reign at Tema in Arabia. These, then, explain why Belshazzar was reigning and why he could only offer Daniel the third highest position in the kingdom - a dramatic confirmation of the historicity of the Bible.

Other Archaeological Data

Unfortunately I am unaware of any excavations undertaken in Mecca or Medina. Outside of Arabia, there is the interesting situation of the earliest mosques, several of which certainly do not point towards Mecca as expected. [16, 17] Responses about inability to determine direction in the 7th century do not seem credible when Arab mathematicians and astronomers are held in such high esteem.

Yet again, the evidence for the Bible is much more solid. Excavations in Jerusalem have unearthed the very pavements on which Jesus would have walked as he entered the Temple. It was once thought that Ur, the ancestral home of Abraham, was fictitious, yet is was excavated in the 1920s and several relics are now on display in the British Museum.

Data going back to the united monarchy has been known for some time, but before that time it has been difficult to find corroboration of the events mentioned. Of course, the further back one looks, the harder it will be to find anything, but recent work by David Rohl, a British Egyptologist, may have gone a long way to setting the record straight. After realigning Egyptian chronology, on which much dating in the Middle East hangs, Rohl claims to have found good evidence of the Hebrews in Egypt and of the conquest of Canaan. This controversial work, has not yet gained widespread acceptance, but may well do in the future. [18]


As put forward earlier, our view of history can often be subjective and we are constantly tempted to interpret the evidence to suit our own ends, especially in religion. However, the truth is out there, albeit often hidden. Let us conclude this brief survey by reviewing the three categories of evidence.

Regarding manuscripts, the Bible on first glance may seem to be in a sorry state, without original manuscripts and with many variants in those we have. However, on closer examination there are good reasons for the situation and it is seen to be by far the most reliable ancient book, standing up robustly to analysis.

The Qur'an, on the other hand, seems at first unimpeachable, with its impressive record of memorisation and traditions authoritating the text right back to Muhammad. Yet when looked at more closely, the memorisation is irrelevant and there is good evidence of significant textual variation in the earliest times, with later standardisation. Even then the Yemeni manuscripts show that there was still much variation at a later time. Furthermore, the changes in writing material and the Muslim position of self-determination make the lack of early manuscripts inexcusable.

In terms of contemporary documentation, the New Testament in particular has excellent support for its text thanks to the church fathers, whilst many points of history throughout the whole Bible are illuminated and confirmed by independent sources. Here, the Qur'an again appears on the surface to have impressive corroboration from Muslim tradition, yet this is mostly of late date, whilst non-Muslim sources much closer to the time paint quite a different picture.

Finally, looking at other archaeological evidence, the Bible has a varied and impressive repertoire of evidence in general agreement with it. Not much can be said for or against the Qur'an here, yet there are significant questions raised by, for example, early mosque alignment.

Therefore, I conclude that the Bible has far more historical corroboration than the Qur'an. It is a reliable and dependable record of God's working with mankind, which no other book can rightly claim.


  1. Consult Smith J. The Bible and Qur'an for a fuller treatment, at http://debate.org.uk
  2. Sahih Bukhari, vol 6, no 510, pp 478-80
  3. See for instance the Ma'il Qur'an displayed at the British Library.
  4. A much fuller account is given in Gilchrist J. Jam' Al-Qur'an. Benoni. Jesus to the Muslims, 1989.
  5. Research by Dr Gerd Puin et al of Saarbrucken University. To date only published in German.
  6. McDowell J. Evidence that Demands a Verdict, vol 1. San Bernadino. Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972. Pp49,59.
  7. McDowell J. Op cit. pp 47,48.
  8. Montgomery JW. History and Christianity. Downers Grove. IVP, 1971. p29.
  9. Nevo YD. Towards a Prehistory of Islam. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam. 1994;17:108-141
  10. Taken from The Bible and the Qur'an by Jay Smith. June 1998, pp27,28
  11. McDowell J. Op Cit. pp 53-5.
  12. McDowell J. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. San Bernardino. Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972. pp84-88.
  13. 2Ki 18&19; 2Ch 32; Is 36&37
  14. Na 3:13,15
  15. Da 5
  16. Cresswell KAC. Early Muslim Architecture. vol 1 part 1. Oxford, 1969. pp137ff
  17. Cresswell KAC. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Rev. by Allan JW. Aldershot. Scolar Press, 1989. p41
  18. Rohl D. A Test of Time - Pharaohs and Kings. London. Century, 1995

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