Muhammad and Jesus: How Christian Apocrypha Informed the Quran
Jesus in the Quran
The Quran presents a Jesus very different to that found in the gospels. Critics often say he amounts more to an argument than a person, and in many respects this assessment is justified. It is difficult not to see the apologetic nature of much that is written of him – specifically addressing doctrines and beliefs concerning Jesus that the author found objectionable. However, there are moments in which we catch glimpses of a deeper tradition which may have shaped Muhammad’s understanding of Jesus, and thus the Quran itself.
What is most striking is that the Jesus of the Quran does not come to Muhammad from the canonical gospels or even later Christian apologists and theologians, but from “Christian Apocrypha” of the late second century.
What are the Apocrypha?
There are many different works which fall under the broad heading of “Christian Apocrypha.” Theologically they cover a wide spectrum, from essentially orthodox gospels to later works exhibiting such developed Gnosticism it is no longer possible to discuss them under the heading of even “Pseudo-Christian” texts.
Some, (such as the “Egerton Gospel,” PEg 2) were apparently based on second-hand knowledge of the canonical gospels. Others were written by the disciples of well-known gnostic teachers of the second century (such as the “Gospel of Truth,” a Valentinian work) in an attempt to establish authority and antiquity to their doctrines1. Finally, there was a genre of pious literature which began gathering popularity in the later half of the second century. It is this last category that most concerns our present discussion.
As the Christian faith spread, so too did a desire to know more about Jesus and the life he lived during his earthly ministry. The gospels of Matthew and Luke provide accounts of Jesus’ birth, and Luke gives a glimpse of his boyhood2, but nothing more is said until the beginning of his ministry years later. Even modern readers wonder about what Jesus must have been like as a boy, and this omission must have been all the more aggravating to audiences of late antiquity – a period where biographies were expected to demonstrate how any important person’s youth presaged their later greatness1.
To address this apparent oversight, legends sprang up concerning Jesus’ childhood. These come to us through the so-called “Infancy Gospels.”
The Infancy Gospels
As the infancy gospels developed out of a need to satisfy curiosity and literary conventions, little good can be said for their theological adeptness. They can be clumsy, stumbling over themselves in an attempt to defend one doctrinal aspect of Jesus’ nativity at the expense of another. To make matters worse, some appear to have been written in gnostic circles, and less-than discerning audiences took them, made adjustments where orthodoxy clearly demanded, and passed them along. Many of these texts have no fixed form, and their manuscripts present to us a number of different recensions. Although their accounts cannot be considered historical, they are fascinating records of the development of Christian and Pseudo-Christian thought.
Perhaps the two most important infancy gospels extant are the “Protevangelium of James,” and the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (Not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). Both were very popular works, and lent their material to later Infancy Gospels which expanded their reach. One such later text is the Arabic Infancy Gospel, which borrowed heavily from both – especially the Protevangelium of James which it expanded upon. Together, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Arabic Infancy Gospel contain accounts of Jesus paralleled by Quranic surahs 5:110 and 19:22-34.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas suffered from a very loose transmission process and so comes to us in three separate Greek recensions. The first chapter in the long version specifies Thomas as the author, but this chapter appears to be a late addition to the text, and the manuscripts offer different authors, including James. IGTh’s basic components may date back as early as the late second century where they were probably composed anonymously. It was translated into numerous languages, including an Arabic version which is preserved for us in two manuscripts3.
In chapter 1 of the Arabic IGTh, we find this account:
“When Jesus was five, he went out one Saturday to play with other boys. Jesus took some clay and made twelve birds out of it. When people saw this, they said to Joseph, “Look at him, doing things that are not allowed on a Saturday.” Hearing this, Jesus clapped his hands in the direction of the clay and said “Fly, birds!” and they flew. Everyone was amazed and they all praised God together.3” *
Surah 5:110 of the Quran relays this parallel:
“Then will Allah say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favor to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught thee the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel and behold! thou makest out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and thou breathest into it and it becometh a bird by My leave.4”
The phrasing and details suggest Muhammad had no direct access to IGTh or its parallel account in the Arabic Infancy Gospel. It is more likely he was familiar with an oral version. The existence of an Arabic language version of IGTh and the later Arabic Infancy Gospel merely serve to demonstrate that this story, along with many others, was circulating among Christian and Pseudo-Christian communities in Arabia by the time Muhammad began his teachings.
The Protevangelium of James and the Arabic Infancy Gospel
The Protevangelium of James (ProtEv) was most likely written at the end of the second century or early in the third. It is less an account of Jesus’ life as it is a glorification of Mary. Some have suggested it was written as an apologetic in response to accusations against Mary leveled by pagan rhetoricians of the time1. Like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, ProtEv lent its material to a number of other works which added their own flavors to the text. One such later work is the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
It is believed the Arabic Infancy Gospel came into its own sometime in the sixth century1, probably based on an earlier Syriac text. Although again there is no reason to believe Muhammad had direct knowledge of the Arabic Infancy Gospel, we again find an undeniable parallel.
Chapter 1 of the Arabic Infancy Gospel states:
“He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle he said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.5”
What first strikes us about this account is its similarities to Surah 19:29-33, wherein Jesus cries out from the cradle, “I am indeed a servant of Allah. He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live…So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again!”
Of course, in this later text we find an apologetic against its Pseudo-Christian origin. Jesus speaks from the cradle after being born of a virgin, but he calls himself a “prophet,” and the Quran is quick to add a few lines later that Allah did not beget a son.
“It is not befitting to the majesty of Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.6”
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
A final parallel comes from another Infancy Gospel based on the Protevangelium of James – Pseudo-Matthew. This work was responsible for preserving ProtEv in the west and exerting it’s Mariological tendencies over medieval European thought.
In chapter 20 of Pseudo-Matthew there is an account of Jesus and his family on their way into exile in Egypt wherein a palm tree bends down to allow Mary to eat its fruit and a stream bubbles up from under its roots.
In Surah 19:23-25, as Mary suffers the pangs of childbirth in a remote place, we are told:
“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree…a voice cried to her from beneath the palm-tree: "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.6”
Although Pseudo-Matthew is considered a western document, there are elements of shared tradition between it and the Arabic Infancy Gospel1, and so it should be no surprise that this story too was circulating in Arabia even if it was not directly informed by Pseudo-Matthew.
There is much more that could be said concerning the influence of Apocryphal literature on Muhammad. For instance, could it be the exaggerated Mariology of the Protevangelium that made it necessary in his mind to deny Mary was a deity in Surah 5:75? Could the argument that Jesus did not truly die on the cross in Surah 4:157-158 be informed by Docetic** groups which had some affinity for ProtEv and its related texts? But these matters require more time than this article has to do them justice.
When we see Quranic depiction of Jesus, there can be no doubt Muhammad was informed by apocryphal legends. These entered into the Arabian Peninsula via Arabic-Language versions and expanded texts. By the seventh century they were already very old traditions, and one could hardly expect Muhammad to detect their anachronisms and misunderstandings of Jewish ritual law which would have betrayed them as ahistorical fabrications.
It leaves us wondering what must Muhammad have envisioned when he wrote the words of Surah 10:94:
“If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise of those in doubt.7”
When listening to apocryphal tales of pseudo-Christian folklore, did he ever hear the words, “For God so love the world that He gave his only son, that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life?8” Perhaps not. Or perhaps it was the angel Gabriel who drowned them out when Muhammad was alone in a secluded place. Either way, Muhammad appears to us as a caution against the traditions of men and even the declarations of angels.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed!9”
* Chapter 2 in the Greek Long Form (A). Also see the Arabic Infancy Gospel chapter 36
** Docetism denied the physicality of Jesus and thus denied that he truly suffered death. Although the Protevangelium has only a flavor of Docetism which may be accidental, later adaptations of the work, such as the Latin Infancy Gospel, expanded on them1, indicating a definite use of the text in Docetic circles.
1. Klauck, Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction
2. c.f. Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2
3. Burke, The Arabic Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Ceplo translation - http://www.tonyburke.ca/infancy-gospel-of-thomas/the-arabic-infancy-gospel-of-thomas/
4. The Quran, Surah 5 Wright-House translation - http://www.wright-house.com/religions/islam/Quran/5-table.php
5. Arabic Infancy Gospel, chapter 1 - http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0806.htm
6. The Quran, Surah 19, Wright-House translation - http://www.wright-house.com/religions/islam/Quran/19-mary.php
7. The Quran, Surah 10 - http://www.wright-house.com/religions/islam/Quran/10-jonah.php
8. The Gospel According to John, 3:16
9. Galatians 1:8