This past week has brought to the public’s attention the discovery of two important manuscripts: one of Leviticus and one of the Qur’an.
The Leviticus manuscript was actually discovered in 1970 in a Torah ark from a Byzantine-era synagogue excavated at Ein Gedi in Israel. It was burnt by a fire, however, and could not be deciphered until now. The scroll was found to contain Leviticus 1:1-8. It is dated no later than the 6th century A.D. (when the synagogue and village were burned).
Two pages of the Qur’an (portions of Surahs 18-20) were discovered inside the codex of another late 7th century Qur’anic manuscript at Birmingham University. Radiocarbon dating of the manuscript has revealed an age of A.D 568A- 645. Muhammad lived from A.D. 570 – 632, making it a live possibility that the manuscript fragment was composed while Muhammad was still alive.
This is quite an exciting find. While the news articles are claiming the text is “very similar” to the form of the text today, it would be interesting to see what the variations are. This is particularly important given the Muslim claims that the Qur’an they use today is identical to the Uthmanic version, which is identical to the revelations provided to Muhammad. If the earliest manuscript copy of these Surahs has textual differences, it would call this view into question.
More work also needs to be done to date the manuscript. While the vellum may date to the time of Mohammed, that doesn’t mean the writing does. It could have been written on much later, or it could be a palimpsest (a reused manuscript, in which the scribe scrapes off the earlier writing much like an eraser, and then reuses the manuscript for a new writing). To properly date the manuscript an analysis will need to be done on the ink, the script, etc.