Seemingly every day brings to us more depressing news from the Middle East.
The depraved murders of Westerners which have dominated our TV screens over the last few weeks are only the most prominent examples of the sickening violence being perpetrated by the fanatical hordes of ISIS.
Whilst the stiffened resistance of both the Kurds and the Shia Iraqis combined with the threat of new US airstrikes seems for the moment to be stemming the advance of ISIS, as Christians we must understand that this is a spiritual battle and so isn’t going to be won by carnal weapons alone.
For us prayer must be the weapon of choice and it will be fervent prayer that proves far more effectual than any guns or missiles!
Undoubtedly these are troubling and unsettling times. Across large tracts of the Middle East, Christian populations that have existed since well before the time of Muhammad have been systematically erased.
It seems therefore a good time to remind ourselves that our God is in control and that He holds the powers of darkness on a firm leash. He is the One who causes even the wrath of men to praise Him (Ps 76:10).
We serve a God who can use even Islamist aggression at its worst to serve His purposes and to bring incalculable blessing to His Church.
He has done so before- even using Islam as a tool for the preservation of His Word!
How many believers are aware that God has not once but twice exploited what seemed at the time to be great Islamic victories in order to help to preserve the text of the New Testament?
The Rise of Islam
It is easy to forget today that many of the nations that we now think of instinctively as Muslim were once just as instinctively thought of as Christian!
Indeed the current Arab world was Christianity’s heartland for centuries until the rise of Islam. It was the great caliph Umar’s military prowess that allowed Islamic armies to sweep both East and West in a series of remarkable victories in the 7th Century.
The momentum of those invasions would propel Islamic forces as far as France before they were held at the Battle of Tours in 732AD.
During the tumultuous intervening years Middle Eastern and North African Christianity had been largely eradicated. The Christian cities we see being decimated in our own day are the surviving remnants of communities that once spanned the whole region which had been swept away by a previous expression of Islamic power.
It is here where the story of Islam dovetails with the preservation of our Bible.
In 1898 the first of a remarkable series of papyri findings was made in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, believed to have been an early Christian copying centre with links to the great city of Alexandria.
As a coastal city, Alexandria itself was too damp to effectively preserve ancient papyri but Oxyhrynchus’ inland location meant the dry climate served to protect the fragments.
The site was to prove a treasure trove of findings that would greatly increase our confidence in the robustness of the New Testament manuscript tradition, allowing us to access documents written within just a few years of the time of the apostles.
Although much is often made of the variants found in these Alexandrian texts as compared to the later Byzantine (Constantinople) texts, in reality the findings proved the great harmony that exists between the different manuscript traditions.
In particular they demonstrated that the classic bibles we had from the 4th & 5th centuries (Vaticanus and Alexandrinus) were essentially faithful renditions of earlier copies.
Much is made of the role of the dry climate of Egypt in preserving the texts. This was an important factor but it alone does not explain the value of the Alexandrian finds. There are other dry climates in the Middle East which have not yielded the same treasures.
Another key factor was the sudden disappearance of the Church.
The production of manuscripts in the area was curtailed by the Muslim invasion, and over time the Egyptian Christian Church largely disappeared. The Copts are the descendants of the only survivng Christians in Egypt.
Scholars believe that the fragments found at Oxyrhynchus are so well-preserved, not just because of the dry climate but also because the rapid extinction of the Christian communities prevented these manuscripts from being utilised to the point of destruction as happened in other areas.
It is important to see that it was the loss of the Christian community, though a huge tragedy in itself, that had this wholly unforeseeable side-effect. Yet this hugely important benefit to the Church would not become apparent for very many centuries.
The second occasion in which the spread of Islam assisted in the preservation of the Greek New Testament came much later towards the end of the Middle Ages.
In 1453 Christendom’s eastern capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks
The capital city of the first Christian emperor, it had stood for over a thousand years, and its loss was felt throughout Christian Europe. Days of looting, murder and rape followed the siege with no one being spared even the priests and nuns.
Though viewed throughout Christendom at the time as a catastrophe the fall of Constantine’s ancient eastern capital was actually destined to breathe new life into the decadent and stagnated Western Church and set off a cascade reaction which in many respects is still reverberating around the world today.
To understand how this occurred we need to understand the state of Western Christianity at the end of the Middle Ages.
Neither of the chief biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek formed part of the curriculum of Western universities throughout the Medieval period and as a consequence the Greek New Testament had long since disappeared from the West.
It had been replaced by the Latin Bible though by the 15th Century this was itself a largely unknown and unread book.
To own a Bible in your own language was a crime. In England the first attempt to produce an English Bible by John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers in the 14th Century had been brutally stamped upon.
These were the worst days of papal corruption and the heyday of Marian worship, the sale of indulgences, and the belief in purgatory. Few challenged such blasphemies because very few had access to a Bible that could instruct them in the true Gospel.
It was into this dark situation that the refugee clerics came from Constantinople. Fleeing their besieged homeland they came seeking refuge in the West… and bringing with them their precious Greek manuscripts!
Doubtless not realising their potential effect upon his papal empire, Pope Nicholas V gathered them together and had them transcribed. Now, for the first time in many centuries Western scholars had access to the New Testament in its original language.
The effect was to be dramatic
In 1516 the Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus produced the first edition of his Novum Testamentum Graece, later editions of which would eventually become known as the Textus Receptus or Received Text.
This was to be the core text for English bibles for centuries, the most prestigious example being the majestic Authorized or King James Bible which was eventually to propel the Gospel around the world.
But long before that, the influence of Erasmus’s work was being felt elsewhere in Europe. It was around 1519 that a German monk, benefiting from the insights gleaned from Erasmus’ Greek text, and whilst studying the concept of justification in the book of Romans was to testify,
“All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.”
That monk was of course Martin Luther and from that day the Church and the world would never be the same again.
From the Reformation to the King James Bible; all of these stunning achievements can be traced directly back to the Islamic overthrow of Constantinople so many years earlier.
The KJV would reign supreme amongst English bibles until the unsettling of the sands in Egypt at the end of the 19th Century would reveal those long hidden texts of a generation of Christians whose lands and lives had been lost to Islam even earlier.
Thus it was that God preserved one excellent Bible for us in Constantinople and hid an even better one in the sands of Egypt – Islamic aggression being the chosen vehicle of preservation in both cases!
Now there is a tremendous irony here that must not be missed.
It is a central tenet of Muslim belief that Allah spoke through other, earlier prophets before bringing his final revelation to Muhammad through the Qur’an. Two of the prophets who are held to be most significant are Moses and Jesus (Isa).
Their importance stems from the fact that, according to Islamic theology, each man had been entrusted with an earlier portion of the divine scriptures prior to the Qur’an.
To Moses was given the Torah (Law) and to Jesus was handed down the Injil (Gospel).
According to the Qur’an (Surat AL Maidah 5:46-47) the torah and injil were to serve as “guidance and light” to the Ahl-al-Kitab or the “People of the Book” i.e. the Jews and Christians.
Islam’s holy book therefore instructs believers to read the Bible for instruction.
The problem, of course, is that when Christians study their bibles, those scriptures lead them to belief in the Trinity and the deity of Christ which are abhorrent beliefs to a Muslim!
Muslims today must therefore insist that our present-day Bible is not the original torah and injil, but instead is the result of wholesale corruption suffered at the hands of later scribes.
The headache for them is that we know precisely what the scriptures said in Muhammad’s day because we have complete bibles that predate his day by centuries.
We can categorically prove that the scriptures have undergone no wholesale change since the 7th Century and so it is reasonable for us to assert that the torah and injil cited in the Qur’an are meant to be understood as being those that existed then. What other scriptures did the Jews and Christians have to turn to in Muhammad’s day?.
So, if the Bible of the 7th Century (which is today’s bible) was corrupt and was leading men into Trinitarian idolatry then why would the Qur’an point to it as “light and guidance”?
Ought the Qur’an not rather to have warned those 7th Century Jews and Christians that their scriptures had become hopelessly corrupt and warned them off reading them? Instead it does precisely the opposite and encourages study of the Bible!
This is a conundrum for which Muslim scholars have no real answer.
But the central irony is this: whilst Muslims insist that our Bible has been corrupted down through the centuries we have seen that it was actually Islam that played a pivotal role in preserving the text of the New Testament from corruption!
The historical irony of this could not be more delicious and truly we must see the overriding hand of Providence in this.
So today as the black flags of ISIS flutter over the tormented remnants of Middle Eastern Christianity, we remind ourselves that this evil - like all evils that preceded it- is held on a firm leash; and that ultimately it is Christ who will determine His Church’s future in that part of the world as elsewhere.
History shows us that God has used some of the darkest materials in order to weave His most beautiful tapestries.
We do not yet know what good He is going to bring out of the current Middle Eastern crisis, but if Tertullian was right about the blood of the martyrs being seed, then we certainly do need to watch the Middle East closely in the coming years.
Both Scripture and History remind us that our God is able to bring limitless blessing out of even the most terrible darkness. They testify to a God who is able to direct the worst depravities of men into the fulfillment of His own perfect plan.
“You meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20).