May 102008
 

This article is adapted from The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

Those who are familiar with the style of the Bible get surprised, and even baffled, when they read a translation of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible which addresses most issues in the context of relating history, the Qur’an is not a history book. Although it contains historical stories about righteous and sinful individuals and nations, these are very limited. Additionally, the Qur’an has a unique style even in relating history. Understanding this aspect of the Qur’an is vital when studying its historical accounts. This short appendix should be particularly useful to the reader who is not familiar with the Qur’an or expects the Qur’an to have a similar style to other religious or historical texts, such as the Bible.

One attribute that characterizes the Qur’anic text in general and appears in different forms is succinctness. One manifestation of the Qur’an’s succinct eloquence is that its text often does not mention explicitly information that can be concluded from or found in another Qur’anic text. This is better explained with examples from the Qur’an, such as the following set of verses which start with God’s command to Prophets Moses and Aaron:

So go you both to him (Pharaoh) and say: “We are two messengers from your Lord; therefore send the Children of Israel with us and do not torment them; we have brought to you a sign from your Lord, and peace be upon him who follows the right guidance (20.47). Verily it has been revealed to us that torture will come upon him who rejects [the message] and turns away” (20.48). He said: “So who is your Lord, O Moses?” (20.49). He said: “Our Lord is He who created everything, then guided it [to its course]” (20.50). He said: “Then what about the former generations?” (20.51). He said: “The knowledge thereof is with my Lord, in a book; my Lord errs not, nor does He forget” (20.52).

The Qur’an reveals in verses 20.47 and 20.48 the essence of the message that God ordered Moses and Aaron to convey to Pharaoh. When it informs us in verse 20.49 of the debate that Moses and Aaron had with Pharaoh, the Qur’an does not mention what the two Prophets said to Pharaoh, because it is the same message mentioned in the previous two verses. The verse starts with Pharaoh’s reply to the message. It is as if the Qur’an says implicitly after verses 20.48 “and Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and conveyed to him what God had ordered them to tell him.”

Note also the Qur’an’s use of “He said” without specifying the identity of the speaker in each case. The reason is that the context leaves no ambiguity that the speakers are Moses and Pharaoh, and it makes clear also who said what.

The Qur’an often bypasses details that are given prominence in traditional recounting of history. For instance, it is common for the Qur’an not to mention the names of main characters and places in a story. Examples of prominent characters in Qur’anic stories whose names are not mentioned include Adam’s wife and two sons and Joseph’s eleven brothers. The latter are referred to throughout chapter 12 of the Qur’an, but never with their names. This is another example of a prophet that the Qur’an refers to but without mentioning his name:

Have you not considered [O Muhammad!] how the chiefs of the Children of Israel who came after Moses said to a Prophet of theirs: “Set up for us a king and we will fight in the way of Allah.” He said: “May it be that you would not fight if fighting was ordained for you?” They said: “Why would we not fight in the way of Allah having been driven out of our homes, and for the sake of our children?” But when fighting was ordained for them, they turned away except a few of them; and Allah knows the wrongdoers (2.246). And their Prophet said to them: “Surely Allah has raised Saul to be a king for you.” They said: “How can he hold kingship over us when we have a greater right to kingship than he, and he has not been granted abundant wealth?” He said: “Surely Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and He has increased him abundantly in knowledge and body; Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases”; and Allah is Embracing, Knowing (2.247). And their Prophet said to them: “Surely the sign of His kingship is that there shall come to you the Ark, in which there is tranquility from your Lord and a remnant of what the house of Moses and the house of Aaron have left, which will be carried by angels; surely there is a sign in this for you if you are believers” (2.248).

Although God refers to Saul with his name, He refers to the prophet in the three verses with his title only and does not reveal his name.

There are also many instances of places and cities that God refers to in various places in the Qur’an without naming or specifying them explicitly, such as the place to which Adam descended (2.36, 7.24), the village to which Jonah was sent (10.98), and the birthplace of Jesus (19.23).

Let us take another example. The Qur’an mentions in lengthy detail in several places the suffering of a certain prophet at the hand of his disbelieving people, and God’s subsequent revenge on those people. Nevertheless, not many details are given about the revenge itself, as often only the type of punishment is mentioned and the perishing of the disbelievers stressed. For instance, God reveals in several chapters various details of the story of Prophet Hūd, but He does not mention many details of the punishment of his disbelieving people:

So We saved him (Hūd) and those with him by a mercy from Us, and We cut off the last of those who rejected Our signs and did not become believers (7.72).

And when Our decree came to pass, We saved Hūd and those who believed with him with a mercy from Us, and We saved them from a severe torment (11.58). And that was [the people of] ‘Ād; they denied the signs of their Lord, disobeyed His Messengers, and followed the bidding of every insolent oppressor (11.59). And they were pursued by a curse in this world and on the Day of Resurrection; Lo! Surely ‘Ād disbelieved in their Lord; away with ‘Ād, the people of Hūd! (11.60).

So they rejected him (Hūd); therefore We destroyed them. Surely there is a sign in this, but most of them (the disbelievers in general) would not believe (26.139).

The punishment represents the end and climax of the struggle of Hūd against his people. Details of this event would have been given particular importance in traditional story telling. The Qur’an, in contrast, mentions only God’s aid to His prophet and His destruction of the disbelievers.

Another attribute of the Qur’an’s style in recounting historical stories is that the details of any particular story are usually found in more than one place. Building a complete picture of that story in the Qur’an would require compiling all its details from the various chapters. One example is the story of Jesus. The story of Joseph is mentioned in its entirety in the chapter that is named after that prophet; but this is an exception, not the rule.

An event may be described in different, but consistent, ways in different chapters, to reflect what God wants to emphasize and highlight in each chapter. For example, a historical conversation may be cited in different chapters using a number of different wordings to convey the meaning of that dialog. We must not forget that often the original language of a dialog was not the Arabic of the Qur’an, if Arabic at all, such as the dialogs between various prophets and their peoples. The verses below, which come from different chapters, describe the first dialog between God and Moses. They use different wordings to describe the same events. These chapters also differ with respect to the type and amount of information they give about that dialog:

When Moses said to his family: “Surely I have perceived a fire. I shall either bring you tidings thence, or I shall bring you a burning firebrand so that you may warm yourselves” (27.7). So when he came to the fire he heard a call: “Blessed is Whoever is in the fire and whoever is around it, and glory be to Allah, the Lord of the people (27.8). O Moses! It is Me, Allah, the Invincible, the Wise” (27.9). [And it was said to him]: “Throw down your staff.” And when he saw it moving as if it was a snake, he turned away fleeing without retracing his steps; [and it was said to him]: “O Moses! Fear not, for messengers are not to fear in My presence (27.10). Neither he who, after doing wrong, does good instead of evil, for surely I am Forgiving, Merciful” (27.11). [And it was said to him]: “Enter your hand into your bosom, it will come out white, showing no harm; [go with this] as one of nine signs to Pharaoh and his people; surely they are a rebellious people [against Me]” (27.12).

Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term and left in the night with his family, he perceived [at a distance] a fire at the side of the Mount and said to his family: “Tarry here; I have perceived a fire that I might bring to you tidings thence, or a firebrand that you may warm yourselves” (28.29). And when he came to the fire, he heard a call from the right coast of the valley in the spot that was blessed because of the tree: “O Moses! It is Me, Allah, the Lord of the peoples” (28.30). [And it was said to him]: “Throw down your staff.” And when he saw it move as if it was a snake, he turned away fleeing without retracing his steps. [And it was said to him]: “O Moses! Draw nigh and do not fear for you are one of those who are secure (28.31). Enter your hand into your bosom and it will come out white, showing no harm; and guard your heart against fear, for these shall be two proofs from your Lord to Pharaoh and his chiefs; for they are a rebellious people [against Me]” (28.32). He said: “My Lord! I have killed one of them and I fear that they will kill me (28.33). My brother Aaron speaks better than me, therefore make him a messenger and a helper to confirm me; I fear that they will accuse me of telling lies” (28.34). He said: “We shall strengthen you with your brother, and We shall give to you both authority so they shall not be able to reach you [for harm] on account of our signs; you both and those who follow you will be the victorious” (28.35).

And when your Lord [O Muhammad!] called Moses [saying]: “Go to the wrongdoing people (26.10) — the people of Pharaoh. Will they not act dutifully?” (26.11). He said: “My Lord! I fear that they will accuse me of telling lies (26.12). And my breast will be straitened, and my tongue will not speak fluently, therefore make Aaron a messenger [to help me] (26.13). And they have a charge of crime against me, so I fear that they will kill me” (26.14). He said: “By no means [will they hurt you]. So go you both with Our sings; We shall be with you, hearing (26.15). So, both of you go to Pharaoh and say: ‘We are messengers of the Lord of the people (26.16). Let the Children of Israel leave with us’” (26.17).

There is another prominent attribute that characterizes the Qur’an’s untraditional style in relating historical stories. Events that are mentioned in successive verses may or may not be related, and if they were related, the fact that they are mentioned immediately after each other does not necessarily mean that the latter event happened immediately before the first. In such cases, starting the narration of the second event with the article idh (when), rather than with thumma (then) or fa (“therefore” or “so”), often indicates the lapse of a period of time since the first event, the unrelatedness of the two events, or both. This is one example of two verses which we studied in detail in the book (§16.4 and §21.2.1). Both events are parts of the Jesus story, but the second event is unrelated to the first and is separate from it temporally, so the second verse is started with idh (when):

Lo! When I inspired the companions: “Believe in Me and in My messenger.” They said: “We believe. Bear witness that we are Muslims” (5.111). Lo! When the companions said: “O Jesus son of Mary! Can your Lord send down for us a table of food from heaven?” He said: “Observe your duty to Allah, if you are true believers” (5.112).

One last point that should be mentioned is that there are a number of verses that refer to historical details revealed in the Qur’an and stress that this information became known to Prophet Muhammad only through the Qur’an. These verses imply or explicitly state that had Muhammad not been a true Prophet of God, he would not have known these historical accounts. For instance, after relating the story of Prophet Noah, God states:

Those are some tidings of the unseen which We reveal to you [O Muhammad!]; you did not know them nor did your people before this [the Qur’an]; so be patient; the [prosperous] end is for the dutiful ones (11.49).

The term “tidings” in the following verse denotes the plot of Joseph’s brothers to get rid of him — another story that the Prophet learned about through the Qur’an: These are some tidings of the unseen which We reveal to you [O Muhammad!], and you were not with them (Joseph’s brothers) when they concerted their plans together when they were scheming (12.102). Another example is God’s following words about His revelation to Prophet Moses:

And We gave Moses the Book, after We destroyed the generations of old, [as] clear testimonies for people, and a guidance and a mercy, that they may remember (28.43). And you [O Muhammad!] were not on the western side [of the Mount] when We handed the matter to Moses, and you were not one of the witnesses (28.44). But We brought forth generations, and their lives dragged on for them; and you were not dwelling with the people of Midian, reciting to them Our verses, but We have sent [you as] a Messenger (28.45). And you were not on the side of the Mount when We called [Moses], but this [knowledge that We have revealed to you] is a mercy from your Lord for you to warn a people to whom no warner before you came, that they may give heed (28.46).

God stresses that the Prophet was not on the western side of the Mount to know about the Tablets of the Torah, which He wrote for Moses there, nor was he living among the people of Midian to know of what happened to Moses there after he left Egypt escaping Pharaoh’s wrath. God explains that Muhammad acquired this knowledge because God made him one of His Messengers: “but We have sent [you as] a Messenger.” In other words, that knowledge is proof that Muhammad is indeed a Messenger of God. Finally, God reminds His Messenger that he was not on the side of the Mount when God called on Moses, but that He has given him this knowledge as a mercy from Him so that he would warn people who had not had a warner before him “that they may give heed.” Confirming the prophethood of Muhammad and the divine source of the Qur’an is one goal that historical accounts in the Qur’an has.

Verse 3.44 makes a similar statement about God’s revelation of historical details about Mary’s childhood.

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
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Feb 122008
 

This is “Chapter 6: The Virginal Conception” from The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

The claim that Mary conceived Jesus without having a sexual relationship with a man, which is stressed in both canonical Gospels and apocryphal sources, is one of the most controversial parts Jesus’ story. Unsurprisingly, historical and scientific arguments have been made against the historicity of the virginal conception. What may be surprising to some, however, is that the New Testament itself has also been used to argue that the virginal conception was unhistorical! This scriptural argument is based on major inconsistencies in the New Testament.
 
First, the miraculous nature of Mary’s conception of Jesus is confirmed in only two books — Matthew and Luke. Second, there are passages in the New Testament that contradict the virginal conception. Third, the two birth stories that confirm this concept differ fundamentally from each other and, thus, are unreliable. Questioning the virginal conception has, not unexpectedly, led to questioning Jesus’ illegitimacy.
 
The “virginal conception” is often mistakenly referred to as “virgin birth.” The latter is a broader Roman Catholic doctrine that incorporates the virginal conception. The virgin birth doctrine states that in addition to conceiving Jesus while a virgin, Mary remained a virgin even after giving birth to him. This is why the Catholic Church describes Mary as the “ever-virgin” (Aeiparthenos).
 
The virginal conception is also at times confused with the “immaculate conception.” This is another Catholic doctrine stating that Mary was free from the “original sin” from her conception. The original sin is a state of sinfulness that man is born with because of the sin of Adam and Eve. This is how Pope Pius IX defined the immaculate conception in 1854 when he turned this centuries-old concept into a revealed dogma that all Catholics had to believe in: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The immaculate conception was introduced because it was believed that not only Jesus but his mother also had to be free of sin.
 
Both concepts of the virgin birth and immaculate conception have established themselves in Catholic theology, but they have no foundations in the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’an’s teachings about the noble, yet human, nature of both Mary and Jesus are at odds with these concepts, as well as with much of Christian theology. The Qur’an confirms several times, however, that Mary became miraculously pregnant with Jesus while she was a virgin.
 

6.1. The Virginal Conception in Christian Sources

The conception of Jesus is described in Matthew and Luke in the New Testament and some apocryphal writings, where it is described as miraculously virginal. I have already quoted the relevant passages in Chapter 5, so I will only make quick references to them here.
 
Matthew makes it clear that Mary conceived a child through the Holy Spirit, without having a sexual relationship with Joseph: “While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit”. When Joseph became aware of Mary’s pregnancy he thought of leaving her, as he was not the father of the child and naturally thought that she must have had an affair with someone else. But then he saw the angel in a dream who reassured him that Mary’s pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18-20).
 
Matthew then goes on to say that Jesus’ birth would fulfill an Old Testament prophecy of a “virgin” giving birth: “This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:22-23). There is more to say about the word “virgin” and Matthew’s quotation of this Old Testament prophecy later in the chapter.
 
Luke’s account of the annunciation is even keener on stressing the virginal conception of Jesus. He first emphasizes that when the angel visited Mary she was a “virgin” (Luke 1:27), although she was betrothed to Joseph. When the angel told Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a child (Luke 1:31), she was astonished and asked the angel how this could happen when she had not known a man. The angel’s reply made it clear that Mary’s conception was going to be miraculous and involve no man: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
 
The virginal conception is also confirmed in apocryphal writings. The Gospel of the Birth of Mary states that the angel addressed Mary as “Mary! Virgin of the Lord most acceptable! O Virgin full of grace” (BirMary. 7:3). He then went on to tell her: “For you have found favour with the Lord, because you made virginity your choice. Therefore while you are a Virgin, you shall conceive without sin, and bring forth a son” (BirMary. 7:9-10), and then “Think not, Mary, that you shall conceive in the ordinary way. For, without lying with a man, while a Virgin, you shall conceive; while a Virgin, you shall bring forth; and while a Virgin shall give suck. For the Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you” (BirMary. 7:17-19).
 
The Infancy Gospel of James also stresses that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus miraculously. The writer of this gospel has Mary ask the angel who informed her about the conception whether she would conceive naturally like any other women. The angel replied that Mary’s conception would not be natural but supernatural: “Not so, O Mary, but the Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you” (InJam. 9:13). This gospel also tells us that Joseph wanted to leave Mary when he learned about her pregnancy, but he was instructed in sleep to keep her and was told that the child she bore was “of the Holy Spirit” (InJam. 10:18).
 
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew does not mention the virginal conception explicitly, but it does say that when Joseph had doubts about Mary’s pregnancy, the angel appeared to him in his dream, told him to take Mary as his wife, and revealed that the child in her womb was of the Holy Spirit (PsMatt. 11).
 

6.2. The Arguments Against the Virginal Conception

The virginal conception has been rejected on three main grounds: scriptural, historical, and scientific or rational.
 
The scriptural argument is based on flaws and contradictions in the story of the conception of Jesus in the New Testament. The historical objection stems from the resemblance of the scriptural accounts of the virginal conception to historical stories that predate Jesus. The rational or scientific argument states that a virginal conception is an impossibility, so could not have taken place. We will examine these three arguments in this section.
 
In my discussion of scriptural and historical rejectionist arguments, I will frequently cite Jocelyn Rhys’ comprehensive study Shaken Creeds: The Virgin Birth Doctrine, which was originally published in 1922. Rhys’ work covers the main arguments against the virginal conception of Jesus.
 

6.2.1. The Scriptural Arguments

Rejectionists usually ignore the Qur’anic story of Jesus’ birth because they do not consider it independent, presuming that it is based on Christian sources. Additionally, the Qur’anic story does not contain any contradictions that can be used to discredit it. Apocryphal writings are also usually given very little attention by critics because what established the belief in the virginal conception is the account in the canonical Gospels, and because of the wider belief that apocryphal books are less original than the canonical ones and have little inherent value. Discrediting the New Testament story of the virginal conception, therefore, is seen as undermining the story in the apocryphal sources also. Thus, it is the New Testament that has been the target of the critics of the virginal conception; and this criticism is not unjustified.
 
There are three main criticisms of the story of the virginal conception in the New Testament. First, it is mentioned in only two of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. Of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one Epistles, and the book of Revelation, only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about the virginal conception. This is taken to mean that there was no knowledge or wide acceptance of the story. Second, the books of the New Testament, including Matthew and Luke, contain details that contradict the virginal conception of Jesus. Third, the two Gospels that mention Jesus’ virginal conception give very different accounts of the events leading to and following his birth. As the birth story is closely tied to that of the conception, serious doubts are raised about the historicity and authenticity of the whole nativity account in the two books. Let’s discuss these arguments in more detail.
 

6.2.1.1. Unknown Story

The Gospels of Mark and John do not contain any information about the birth of Jesus or his childhood. Both start their accounts around the time when Jesus met John the Baptist, which is believed to have happened when Jesus was around 30 years old. It is still very surprising that these two Gospels do not mention even in passing the virginal conception although it is one of the greatest miracles associated with Jesus. It is extremely difficult to accept that Mark and John could not have known of Mary’s miraculous conception yet they had good knowledge of Jesus’ life. Either they did not know much about Jesus’ life, or that they knew about the story of the virginal conception but deliberately ignored it because they did not believe it. They wrote what they knew and believed, so they either did not know the story or did not believe it. Even when John reports how a group of Jews objected to Jesus’ claim that he had come down from heaven on the grounds that they knew his mother and father, Jesus does not bother to correct and remind them that Joseph was not his father:
 
Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)
 
It is unlikely that the Evangelists did not believe the story of the virginal conception. After all, they reported many of Jesus’ miracles. Also, there is nothing in their theologies that stands against the concept of Jesus’ virginal conception.
 
The fact that the earliest and latest Gospels contain nothing at all about Jesus’ early life probably means that the authors had no knowledge of that history. Even if they believed that the most important phase of Jesus’ life started at his baptism, his earlier years would surely have merited at least brief coverage and would have been of so much interest to people. Additionally, ancient people had great interest in the birth stories of their heroes. Mark and John did not know anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood. If these two Evangelists knew about the virginal conception story but did not believe it, they would have probably written what they knew of Jesus’ birth and overlooked or explicitly rejected that story. I am excluding the possibility that the current versions of the Gospels of Mark and John are missing parts as there is no evidence to this effect.
 
The ignorance of the two Evangelists of that history should not be surprising, as these books were written several decades after the events they describe and in a time where unrecorded history can be as easily lost and forgotten as changed and manipulated. It is still surprising, nevertheless, that the New Testament, which is supposed to be the most authoritative record of Jesus’ life and religion, mentions his miraculous birth and his childhood only in 2 of its 27 books.
 
No matter how this absence of the virginal conception from Mark and John is explained, it represents a major and significant difference between them and Matthew and Luke. Mark’s and John’s complete silence about Jesus’ early history also raises serious questions about the credibility of these two books, but it does not say anything about the credibility of the story of the virginal conception. To say that Jesus’ childhood was religiously insignificant undermines the credibility of Matthew and Luke whose accounts are laden with miracles. Suggesting that Jesus’ childhood was religiously significant reflects equally as bad on Mark and John.
 
It may be argued that the infancy story did not need to be reported in all Gospels, and that the four books complement each other. This argument is driven by faith, and it is false. The authors of these books did not sit together and agree who was going to report what, in which case it would have been understandable why the virginal conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus are not reported in all Gospels. Also, there are many events from Jesus’ life that are reported in more than one Gospel, and some of them are found in all four Gospels. These books became parts of one scriptural unit centuries after they were written and after the events they describe. There is clear evidence that the Gospels are not completely independent of each other and that they have used earlier sources. There is no evidence that the four Gospels were intended to or do complement each other, and the many contradictions between these books prove the opposite.
 
The claim that the four Gospels shed light on the same history from different angles is a more general argument whose use is not restricted to explain the absence of Jesus’ infancy from two Gospels. This argument is often used to explain why there are four Gospels rather than one and different accounts of the same events. It ignores the fact that there have been many more than four Gospels, and that the canon’s embracement of only four of these Gospels and the other New Testament books was the result of a long process that involved many people and much politics.
 
The Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one Epistles, and Revelation also make no mention of the miracle of Jesus’ conception. Even when a reference is made to Jesus’ birth, the authors of these books do not make any reference to the virginal conception. For instance, when Paul says “but when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4, he seems to either deliberately avoid to mention the virginal conception, or is simply unaware of it. It is not possible that Paul knew and believed in the virginal conception yet did not mention it even when talking specifically about Jesus’ birth. As already noted by others, a reference to the miraculous conception would have been as simple as replacing the word “woman” with “virgin” in Paul’s words above. After all, from the virginal conception point of view, Jesus’ conception was different not because it involved a “woman,” but because that woman was a “virgin.” It is true that Paul does not mention any of Jesus’ miracles, but he clearly believed Jesus did perform and can perform miracles. He prayed to him to heal him (2 Cor. 12:7-9) and claimed to have been converted to Christianity by a major miracle (Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-10, 26:13-18). Paul must have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally. This is confirmed by his tracing of Jesus’ genealogy to David, who is Joseph’s ancestor, and stressing that Jesus was related though the “flesh” to David: “concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). The Second Epistle to Timothy, whose attribution to Paul is doubtful, also stresses that Jesus descended from David (2 Tim. 2:8). In his letter to the Romans, Paul also emphasizes that Jesus came “by human descent” from the Patriarchs (Rom. 9:5).
 
This is how the author of Shaken Creeds: The Virgin Birth Doctrinesummarizes these serious differences and the significance of the chronology of these books:

Thus neither the authors of the Epistles which are the earliest of our New Testament books, nor the authors of the earliest and the latest of our four Canonical Gospels, make any mention of a Virgin Birth. The Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke are our only authorities for the story, and they, as we have already seen, were not written until about the middle of the first half of the second century. Then for the first time, more than a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus, and nearly a century after the date assigned to his death, appears the first mention of the Virgin Birth….
Even if a much earlier date be assigned to the publication of these two Gospels, the argument against the doctrine [of the Virgin Birth] on the score of lateness is not impaired. No scholar, however orthodox, denies that the Epistles are the earliest Christian documents in our Canon, or that the Epistles contain no reference to the Virgin Birth story, or that the Gospels were not written until at least three-quarters of a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus. So even the most conservative confess that the story first appears in two comparatively late documents, and that it is peculiar to these two out of all the other New Testament scriptures. Our “witnesses” are two. As we have already seen, neither of them is a first-hand witness. (Rhys 1922: 82-84)

 

Rhys concludes that the apostles had either never heard of or did not believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. This is the same conclusion that has to be reached about Mark’s and John’s failure to mention the virginal conception, although because these two, like Matthew and Luke, were particularly interested in Jesus’ history, it is far more likely that they simply did not know about the virginal conception, as they did not report anything about Jesus’ early history, as I explained above.

Even the Qur’an, which does not share the Bible’s great interest in historical details and covers Jesus’ story only briefly, mentions the virginal conception four times in three different chapters — twice in passing (3.59, 4.171) and twice in more detail (3.45-47, 19.17-22). This further highlights the oddity of the complete silence of all but two of the New Testament books on this unique miracle.

Another group of Qur’anic verses (19.27-33) show Mary’s people, expectedly, question Jesus’ legitimacy and tell us how the infant Jesus responded on behalf of his mother. In the New Testament, there is no mention that people were aware of Jesus’ miraculous virginal conception. This applies even to Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s shepherds who visited the newborn Jesus. They saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, and in the absence of any mention of their knowledge of the miracle, the implication is that they thought that Joseph was the baby’s father. The presence of Joseph in Mary’s life must have had at least some people think that her conception was the result of her relationship with Joseph. This natural conclusion did not escape the author of the Infancy Gospel of James. In one episode of this nativity story, news that Mary was pregnant came to the knowledge of the high priest who accused the couple of getting married secretly. The author solves the problem by having Mary and Joseph pass the test of the “water of the Lord” and thus prove their innocence (InJam. 11). Yet apart from a passing reference in John (8:37-41), we do not read in the New Testament about people suggesting that Jesus was the son of a normal relationship nor any rebuttals for such claims. If this means that people were not aware of the virginal conception then they must have believed that Joseph was Mary’s husband, otherwise she would have been accused of adultery and, according to the Jewish law (Lev. 20:10), stoned to death.

Rhys also sets out to prove that the first two chapters in Matthew and Luke, in which the virginal conception is mentioned, were added to their respective books later. He thinks, as many scholars do, that the story of the virginal conception was a relatively late invention that was forced into Matthew and Luke, as well as written in some apocryphal books. One interesting observation is that while Acts and the Gospel of Luke were both written by the same person, the earlier of the two does not mention the virginal conception. It is indeed difficult to understand why the author who was so impressed and fascinated by the virginal conception in his later book did not mention it at all in the first! Is it possible that he learned about it later? Additionally, Acts indicates that Jesus’ apostles knew him only from the time of his baptism by John (Acts 1:22).

Scholars have noted that if the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are ignored, these two Gospels would share with Mark and John the same starting point: Jesus’ baptism. The gospel of the Jewish Christian group of the Ebionites (Aramaic: “poor men”), which seems to be a revision of Matthew, also omits the nativity story and starts with the story of John in the wilderness. Irenaeus, the 2nd century bishop of Lyon, pointed out that the Ebionites believed that Jesus was the product of a normal relationship between Mary and Joseph:

Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassable, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.26.1-2)

Rhys (1922: 79) also argues that had the virginal conception been true, the baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit would have be unnecessary, as Jesus is supposed to have received the Holy Spirit in his miraculous birth.

There is another criticism that has been directed at Matthew’s use of an Old Testament prophecy to suggest that the virginal conception had been predicted. The Evangelist states that Mary became “pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18), and that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). He then has the following quotation from “the prophet”: “‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). This prophet is Isaiah, and the prophecy Matthew quotes is this: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). As is clear from the New English Translation of the Bible, which is used in this book, the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about a virgin! It uses the word ‘almah, which means “young woman,” who may and may not be virgin. The word ‘almah does not mean virgin inherently. It is the feminine form of the masculine noun ‘elem which is used in 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, ‘almah is translated into parthenos. The latter means “virgin,” but it also used in the Septuagint for another two Hebrew words for “girl” and “young woman.” Matthew does not quote the original Hebrew Bible which talks about a young woman, but he uses the Greek translation which employs a word that is more suggestive of a virgin.

Bible scholar Robert Miller (2003: 201-206) argues that even if Matthew meant to use “parthenos” to mean “virgin,” he would still not necessarily have meant a virginal conception. He might have meant to talk about a lady who was then a virgin and was going to become naturally pregnant later. Miller’s argument is derived from his uncommon view that Matthew did not have a virginal conception on his mind when he wrote his Gospel.

That said, since the Hebrew term may still mean “a virgin,” a conclusive argument cannot be made for either position.

The real problem in Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy is that he takes it completely out of context in order to apply it to Jesus’ conception. Around 735 BCE, Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, King of the northern kingdom of Israel, formed an alliance against the threat of invasion by the neighboring superpower of Assyria. They wanted Ahaz, King of the southern kingdom of Judea, to join their coalition, but Ahaz was fearful of becoming Assyria’s enemy. Rezin and Pekah then sent their armies to depose Ahaz and install a new king who would join their alliance. Ahaz thought of allying himself with Assyria to seek its powerful protection against Rezin and Pekah’s advancing armies toward Jerusalem. God sent Prophet Isaiah to ally Ahaz’s fears and give him a sign: a young woman will give birth to a boy called Immanuel, and before this boy is old enough to differentiate between right and wrong, the lands of Rezin and Pekah would be destroyed:

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear, will be desolate. (Isa. 7:14-16)

The text goes on to talk about events that would follow.

Matthew has completely misused Isaiah’s prophecy in applying it to Jesus’ birth. First, there was nothing special or miraculous about the conception or birth that Isaiah described. Second, the birth was not itself significant, as it was only a sign to Ahaz about future events. Third, that birth would be a sign only if it happened during Ahaz’s life. Fourth, while Isaiah talked about a child called Immanuel (Isa. 7:14, 8:8), Jesus is never actually called “Immanuel” anywhere in the New Testament. The context of Isaiah’s prophecy could not be clearer, so Matthew must have consciously decided to take the prophecy out of its context and apply it to Jesus.

This is not the only Old Testament prophecy that Matthew misuses to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies that he links to the coming of the Messiah, to show that Jesus is the awaited Messiah. The fact that the cited prophecies are forced to seem applicable to their respective parts of the Jesus story makes it highly unlikely that Matthew used those prophecies as a source of inspiration to fabricate the relevant episodes. If Matthew was using his imagination to create history, his keen interest on linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies would have made him come up with events that are much easier to match to those prophecies. Yet almost every time he linked an episode in Jesus’ life to a Biblical passage the latter had to be taken out of context, changed, and/or clumsily applied, which means that it is far more likely that the Evangelist was reporting what he believed to be history. He simply used the Old Testament to provide support for the history he had learned about, believed in, and accordingly reported. In the case of the virginal birth, Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about the conception of a virgin but a “young woman” and is not applicable to Jesus’ story anyway, so this Biblical passage could not have inspired Matthew with the story. He simply wanted an Old Testament text that he thought he could apply to the story which he already knew to give it Christological dimensions. He reported a story that was already in circulation as part of the tradition of Jesus’ birth which he believed. Whether that tradition is historical or not is, of course, a different matter.

Additionally, the suggestion that Matthew made up the events he reported makes the fulfillment argument which he persistently pursued completely meaningless. Matthew must have genuinely believed in the events he reported to diligently seek reference to these events in the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the Christ (France, 1979: 120).

The fact that other apocryphal gospels misuse prophecies more or less in the same way Matthew does does not necessarily mean that they copied Matthew. It is more likely that these writings, including Matthew, were based on earlier oral or written sources.

6.2.1.2. Contradictory Accounts

The second attack against the authenticity of the Gospel accounts of the virginal conception is that the books of the New Testament, including Matthew and Luke, contain passages that contradict the virginal conception. One contradiction is the repeated reference to Jesus’ descent from David, which implies that Joseph was his father, as Mary was probably not Davidic. Rhys links this contradiction to the assumption of the late inclusion of the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke:
 
The contradictions involved in a story which frequently refers to Joseph as the father of Jesus, and yet begins by the Virgin Birth episode, can be accounted for only by assuming that the original Gospels did not contain the earlier chapters of our present Gospels, and that when these chapters were added the editors omitted to make all the alterations in the text of the original chapters which would be necessary to bring these into accordance with the new commencement. Some small modifications seem indeed to have been made, but much remains which is absolutely inconsistent with the Virgin Birth story. (Rhys 1922: 105)
 
Miller (2003:65) has interestingly pointed out that a number of ancient manuscripts changed the child’s “father and mother” in Luke 2:33 to “Joseph and his mother,” and Mary’s words “your father and I” in Luke 2:48 to “we.” Clearly, those ancient copyists recognized that calling Joseph Jesus’ fathers challenged the story of the virginal conception, so they changed this description. The contradictions and textual variations regarding whether Jesus was the son of David or not, and what this link meant, can be seen also outside the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. They reflect awareness of the conflict between making Jesus of Davidic descent and his virginal conception. For instance, the clause “the carpenter, the son of Mary” in Mark 6:3 appears in different versions in some copies. In several old manuscripts, including the oldest available manuscript, it reads “the son of the carpenter and Mary,” and a few others have it as “son of Mary and Joseph” Miller (2003:213). Matthew also has a different version: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary?” (Matt. 13:55). Jesus was repeatedly linked to David not because Joseph was known to be his father, but because the awaited Messiah was believed to be Davidic (p. 234).
 
Other contradictions that have been identified is that Joseph and Mary “were amazed” at the praise of the child Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:33), and that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5). Mark even suggests that Jesus’ brother and mother thought that he was mad (Mark 3:21, 31)! Rhys argues that had Jesus been born of a virginal conception, Mary would not have been “amazed” at the good words that were being said of him. He also contends that Mary would have certainly told Jesus’ brother of his miraculous birth, so they would have believed in him. Rhys concludes that these texts show that the Gospels did not contain originally anything about a virginal conception, and that this story was introduced later on.
 
It is perhaps another sign of the confusing state of the accounts in Matthew and Luke that the basic argument of these texts can be read completely differently by different experts. For example, Miller (2003: 198-206) accepts that Luke’s account is clearly suggestive of a virginal conception but raises serious doubts about whether Matthew had a miraculous conception in mind, yet Parrinder (1995: 71-72) concludes almost the opposite, suggesting that it is Matthew’s account that is more plainly talking about a virginal conception! Nevertheless, the majority of scholars agree that both Matthew and Luke talk about a virginal conception.
 

6.2.1.3. Different Infancy Narratives

The third flaw in the New Testament’s story of the virginal conception is that the two books that mention the story differ fundamentally in their accounts of Jesus’ birth, which is closely tied to the story of his conception, thus raising serious questions about the credibility of the two nativity accounts. There is no disagreement that Mary had a virginal conception. While Luke talks in detail about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Matthew only makes a passing reference to the fact that Mary “was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18) and that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). But the two Gospels give very different accounts of Jesus’ birth. I will discuss these differences in more detail when I study Jesus’ birth (pp. 168-169), but here I would like to focus on two major differences.
 
Matthew talks about Herod’s massacre of young infants that targeted Jesus’ life and forced Joseph to take Mary and little Jesus and escape to Egypt. This major event in the Matthean account is completely missing from Luke. The latter, on the other hand, talks about Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary traveling from Galilee to Judea to register in a census that was ordered by the Roman empire, yet Matthew makes no mention of this journey. Both Gospels talk about a journey, but each ties its journey to his own version of events. Significantly, both stories of Herod’s massacre (§11.3.2) and Roman census (§10.6) have also serious historical problems.
 
The three arguments above highlight major contradictions and inconsistencies in the New Testament and raise serious questions about the account of the virginal conception. These arguments often lead critics to reject the story of the virginal conception. They conclude that these problems are indicative of the inauthenticity and non-historicity of the story of the virginal conception. It is undeniable that the story of the virginal conception in the New Testament has real problems. The many contradictions raise serious questions about the credibility of the New Testament authors, not the least the authors of the four Gospels. This does not necessarily mean that the story of the virginal conception, or to that matter other events in Jesus’ life that the Gospels mention, did not take place. These flaws and inaccuracies can have an alternative explanation, and the Qur’an offers one.
 
From the Qur’anic perspective, Biblical textual problems are no surprises. The Qur’an has made it clear that the religious books that the Jews and Christians possess were written and changed by people. Even the Torah and the Injil were tampered with. There is no reason to believe that the Gospels or other books in the New Testament are more factual or accurate about Jesus’ life than other books that were not chosen for canonization. The fact that Luke’s and Matthew’s infancy narratives look isolated and probably unauthentic undermines the credibility and authenticity of the Gospels not the narratives. Focusing on problems in the two nativity narratives is a red herring, as these problems are not confined to these parts of the New Testament. They are rather a small sample of similar problems permeating many parts and books of the New Testament, and indeed the Old Testament also. They are symptomatic of more fundamental problems with the Bible.
 
Many scholars believe that the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke — specifically the accounts of the virginal conception — are inauthentic, as they are inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament. The likelihood, however, is that Matthew, Luke, and the other two Evangelists were not as informed and knowledgeable as tradition would have us believe. The contradictory picture of the virginal conception in the New Testament is the result of the confused state of its books not the story’s incredibility. This is the Qur’anic perspective.

 

6.2.2. The Historical Arguments

In his rebuttal of the concept of virginal conception, Rhys compiled ancient stories from various cultures and traditions in which some form of miraculous conception features one way or another. His collection includes many myths and legends from ancient Egypt, Greece, China, India, Asia, Mexico, and North America. Rhys’ long list of pre-Christianity characters that traditions claim to have been born by virgin mothers include Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349), the Phrygian god Attis, the Grecian God Dionysos, Buddha (6th century BCE), the Indian god Rama, and many others.
 
In his quest to prove that the concept of the virginal conception lived long before Christianity and that the latter copied it from older traditions, Rhys confused this concept, which he inaccurately called the “virgin birth,” with “non-sexual, supernatural conception.” For instance, Rhys mentions Buddha’s mother who is said to have conceived Buddha through a dream. Buddha’s mother was actually married, even though she did not conceive Buddha through her husband. The same applies to the mother of the Indian god Rama, Queen Kausalya. She had been married to King Dasarath, but had no children. Dasarath, who was married to other women who also did not have children, performed a special sacrifice at the end of which he was given a divine drink. He gave the drink to his wives who gave birth, with Kausalya giving birth to Rama.
 
Most of the stories that Rhys cites do not really share anything of significance with Jesus’ story. Even when a story does contain some form of virginal conception, the similarity is negligible given the substantial differences between the two stories. Let me give two more ancient examples cited by Rhys, one from Greece and the other from Sicily:
 

Dionysos, the Grecian God, was said in one version of the myth concerning him to be the son of Zeus out of the virgin goddess Persephone, and in another version to be the miraculously begotten son of Zeus out of the mortal woman Semele. He, according to this story, was taken from his mother’s womb before the full period of gestation had expired, and completed his embryonic life in Zeus’s thigh. Dionysos was thus half human and half divine, born of a woman and also of a god. (Rhys, 1922: 118)

A Sicilian tale, probably very old, tells of a king’s daughter who was shut up in a tower which had no aperture through which the sun could shine, as it had been foretold that she would conceive a child by the sun, and her father was anxious to prevent this occurrence. The girl, however, made with a piece of bone a small hole in the wall, and a sunbeam, entering through this hole, impregnated her. (Rhys, 1922: 143)

The attempt to discredit the virginal conception of Jesus because similar stories existed before Jesus is a good example of one of the flaws of the secular approach (§1.1.2). One astonishing aspect of this flaw is that the claimant is not required to prove that the latter story was copied from the earlier one(s), or that all these stories are instances of a literary motif and thus the work of the imagination of man. The mere existence of the two is taken to mean that story copying or creation did take place! The ridiculousness of this conclusion is clear from the fact that it can be applied almost at will, as no evidence is required. For instance, it could be claimed that no story of extraordinary or inexplicable healing, including the miraculous healings performed by Jesus, can be factual, because almost all nations and cultures from ancient times have had such stories in their traditions.

Jesus’ virginal conception should be treated as a myth, it is often claimed, because other religious leaders have also been claimed to have been born to virgins. This is how the New Testament story is seen by those critics. This criticism cannot be made of the Old Testament where a number of miraculous conceptions are reported but none is claimed to have been virginal. More significant, the Qur’an also contains a number of stories of miraculous conceptions, but only Jesus is said to have been born of a virgin. Not even Muhammad is described as having been born of a virgin. In fact, the tone of exaggeration that religious books are often accused of engulfing the lives of their leaders with is remarkably missing from the Qur’an’s account of Muhammad’s life. With respect to the Prophet’s birth, we know that he was an orphan (93.6), and there is no claim about him being born by a virginal conception, or that any miracle was involved in his birth. It is interesting to contrast the Qur’an’s account with other Islamic literature where the writers associate many miracles with Muhammad from his conception to his birth. This is another example on the fundamental differences between the Qur’an and other writings. Had Muhammad written the Qur’an, you would expect him to have attributed all kinds of miracles and marvels to himself to impress an Arab society that was submerged in myths and legends. It is remarkable and significant that none of this exists in the Qur’an. This adds credibility to the only account of virginal conception in the Qur’an, which is that of Jesus.

By its very nature, a conception can be known to be virginal only by the woman who experiences it. She is the only person who can know whether her pregnancy was indeed miraculous and did not involve a man. Even the presence of the hymen cannot provide conclusive independent evidence that the pregnancy of a woman was not caused by human sperms. This is why we cannot expect of find independent, historical evidence to support the virginal conception of Jesus. This does not mean that history refutes this claim; it simply means that it cannot provide evidence for it.

Aware of the fact that the virginal conception cannot be known or verified by independent evidence, Matthew, the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of James have Joseph informed paranormally in a dream that Mary’s conception of Jesus was virginal, facilitated by the Holy Spirit. The Infancy Gospel of James (14:18-19) and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (13) address this differently. They have two midwives examine Mary after the birth and find her still a virgin. What they found is actually evidence on a virgin birth not only virginal conception.

In the Qur’an, the supportive evidence from God to Mary’s claim to chastity came from her infant son Jesus — the very subject of the accusation — who spoke in the cradle in defense of his mother, as we shall see later in this chapter (also p. 178).

6.2.3. The Scientific Arguments

Science has also been used to reject the virginal conception. This argument appeals to the fact that a human conception happens when a sperm from a male fertilizes an egg from a female. In the virginal conception, there was no male involved, so it is claimed that the pregnancy could not have occurred.

The development of an egg into an individual without fertilization has actually been known to exist in nature since the 18th century. Parthenogenesis, as it is known scientifically, has been observed in lower plants and animals, such as insects. In many social insects, such as the honeybee and the ant, the unfertilized eggs develop into the male drones and the fertilized eggs into the female workers and queens. Recently a captive female hammerhead shark at a zoo in Nebraska made the news when it gave birth without having contact with a male. Scientists confirmed that the young animal possessed no paternal DNA.

Parthenogenesis has also been induced artificially. This was first clearly demonstrated by 1900 by Jacques Loeb, who found that unfertilized frog eggs that he pierced with a needle caused some times normal embryonic development to start. Artificial parthenogenesis has been achieved in almost all major groups of animals and in mammals, although usually resulting in incomplete and abnormal development. What is relevant to the discussion of the virginal conception of Jesus, however, is that there are no reports of successful parthenogenesis involving humans.

The scientific argument has been elaborated further. The nucleus of the human cell contains two sex chromosomes. These are X chromosomes in females, and one X and one Y in males. In a normal fertilization process which involves a sperm and an egg, the fertilized egg would either inherit one X chromosome from the egg and one X chromosome from the sperm and develop into a female, or one X chromosome from the egg and one Y chromosome from the sperm and become a male. As there is no male participation in a virginal conception, no Y chromosome is involved, so the egg would have only X chromosomes and would develop into a female. Since Jesus was a man, he could not have been conceived by virginal conception.

The scientific arguments against the virginal conception are misguided, because Jesus’ conception is presented in the scriptures as a miracle — that is, an event that violated natural laws. In fact, the whole point of a miracle is that it is supernatural. Jesus’ story in the both the New Testament and the Qur’an contains many miracles, and the virginal conception is only one of those miracles, so the scientific arguments go actually beyond the current discussion of the virginal conception. Science can also be appealed to, for instance, to reject Jesus’ miracles of raising the dead. I have already indicated that I will not deal in this book with the question of whether miracles can or cannot happen, as this complex subject is outside the scope of this book. But I have it made clear that, following the Qur’anic approach, I believe that miracle did and can happen.

6.3. The Accusation of the Illegitimacy of Jesus

Unsurprisingly, questioning the virginal conception has led to questioning Mary’s chastity. If Mary was unmarried, did not conceive Jesus miraculously, and Joseph was not Jesus’ father, then she must have been impregnated by another man. The conclusion is that Mary must have had an illicit relationship that led to her becoming pregnant with Jesus. This is not a new allegation. The Gospel of John seems to include a reference to this accusation being made by Jews in a debate with Jesus:
 
I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. But you want to kill me, because my teaching makes no progress among you. I am telling you the things I have seen while with the Father; as for you, practice the things you have heard from the Father!” They answered him, “Abraham is our father!” Jesus replied, “If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself.” (John 8:37-41)
 
Some think that this accusation was probably merely intended as an insult and did not represent a real doubt about Jesus’ legitimacy (e.g. Miller, 2003: 214). Strangely, there are no more references to people accusing Jesus of being an illicit son or to rebuttals of this accusation.
 
One old mention of accusing Jesus of being born of fornication is found in the Acts of Pilate, which records Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. This work is included in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which is believed to have been compiled in the beginning of the 5th century, although it probably used older materials. It is believed that the 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr referred to the Acts of Pilate.
 
After accusing Jesus, in the presence of Pilate, of breaking the law, the Jewish elders went on to accuse Jesus of being a son of fornication:
 
Pilate called Jesus, and said to him: “What is it that these witness against you, and you say nothing to them?” And Jesus answered: “If they had not the power, they would not speak. Everyone has power over his own mouth to say good and evil; let them see to it.”
 
And the elders of the Jews answering, say to Jesus: “What shall we see? First, that you was born of fornication; second, that at your birth in Bethlehem there took place a massacre of infants; third, that your father Joseph and your mother Mary fled into Egypt, because they had no confidence in the people.”
 
Some of the bystanders, kind men of the Jews, say: “We say that he was not born of fornication; but we know that Mary was espoused to Joseph, and that he was not born of fornication.” Pilate says to the Jews who said that he was of fornication: “This speech of yours is not true, seeing that the betrothal took place, as these of your nation say.” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “We with all the multitude say that he was born of fornication, and that he is a magician; but these are proselytes, and his disciples.” And Pilate, calling Annas and Caiaphas, says to them: “What are proselytes?” They say to him: “They have been born sons of the Gentiles, and then have become Jews.” Then answered those who testified that Jesus was not born of fornication, Lazarus and Asterius, Antonius and James, Annes and Azaras, Samuel and Isaac, Finees and Crispus, Agrippa and Judas: “We were not born proselytes, but are sons of the Jews, and we speak the truth; for we were present at the betrothal of Mary.”
 
And Pilate, calling to him those twelve men who proved that Jesus had not been born of fornication, said to them: “I adjure you by the health of Caesar, tell me if it is true that Jesus was not born of fornication.” They say to Pilate: “We have a law not to swear, because it is a sin; but let them swear by the health of Caesar that it is not as we say, and we are worthy of death.” Then said Pilate to Annas and Caiaphas: “Answer you nothing to those things which these testify?” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “Those twelve believe that he is not born of fornication; we — all the people — cry out that he was born of fornication, and is a magician, and says that he himself is the Son of God and a king, and we are not believed.” (Nic. 2)
 
This piece of text is probably completely forged and does not have much historical value, but what interests us here is its documentation of the fact that there were Jews — possibly many of them — who considered Jesus an illicit son. Equally interesting is the fact that the dispute is not over whether Jesus was conceived miraculously by a virgin or not, but whether he was the legitimate son of Mary and Joseph or the illicit son of Mary and another, unknown man.
 
Celsus, a staunch 2nd century opponent of Christianity, recounts in his book The True Doctrine, which is quoted in Origen’s Against Celsus, an attack by a Jewish interlocutor on Jesus and the accusation that Jesus fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin:
 

He accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28)

Other reports have even identified and named the man who is alleged to have fathered Jesus illegitimately. Celsus cites the following claim by a Jew against Mary: “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32).

The Jewish Talmud also has a few references attributed to rabbis from the early 2nd century that call Jesus “son of Pantera,” and appear to treat “Pantera” as a family name. Other Talmudic references call Jesus the “son of Stada.” Miller points out that the Rabbis knew that “son of Stada” was not Jesus’ real name. He suggests that this seems to have been the name of a Jew who promoted the worship of non-Roman gods and was put to death because of that, so Jewish Rabbis applied it to Jesus because they considered him also to have called to the worship of false gods. In a reference to both “son of Pantera” and “son of Stada,” one Rabbi claims that Stada was Mary’s husband and Pantera was here paramour (Miller, 2003: 217).

Commenting on linking “son of Stada” to Jesus, France accepts that “it is not unlikely that later Rabbis identified Ben Stada with Jesus,” but he voices caution of “assuming that any Ben Stada tradition originated as a historical reminiscence of Jesus” (France, 1999: 38).

One modern variation on these stories which tries to preserve Mary’s chastity yet allow for the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate son is the suggestion that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Such a scenario actually requires a considerable amount of creative imagination to stitch together a number of ancient stories of unknown reliability using a good amount of convenient assumptions, as can be seen in Miller’s (2003: 220-222) version.

6.4. The Qur’an’s Affirmation of the Virginal Conception

It has been claimed by some that the Qur’an does not confirm explicitly the virginal conception of Jesus. Geoffrey Parrinder states that while the Qur’an makes it clear that the conception involved divine intervention, it does not say whether it was natural or not. He also points out that in the past, commentators considered Jesus to have been born without a father, but that some modern Muslim writers deny, on scientific and historical grounds, that the Qur’an teaches the virginal conception (Parrinder, 1995:70-74).
 
This is probably one of the most obvious misreadings of a Qur’anic text. The Qur’an can hardly be any clearer in stating that Mary conceived Jesus without having a relation with a man. This is clear in the story of annunciation, which we have already studied; the story of the birth of Jesus (§10.4); and some other verses. This is a list of explicit and implicit confirmations in the Qur’an that Mary did not have a sexual relationship and that her conception was caused miraculously:
 
1) After hearing the good news about Jesus, Mary replied to Gabriel: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?” (19.20), and “How can I have a child when no human being has touched me?” (3.47). Gabriel did not reply with something such as “yes, but you will get married,” but he rather responded with a statement emphasizing that the conception was going to happen miraculously: “Thus Your Lord has said: ‘It is easy for Me. And so that We may make of him a sign for people and a mercy from Us, and it is a matter that has been ordained’” (19.21), and, “Thus Allah creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it ‘Be!’ and it is” (3.47).
 
2) These are two verses that refer to Mary guarding her private parts, emphasizing that she was made to conceive miraculously while a virgin: “And [Allah set forth an example] Mary, daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her private parts, then We breathed therein of Our spirit. And she believed in the words of her Lord and His Book, and was one of the obedient” (66.12), and, “And she who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit and made her and her son a sign for the peoples” (21.91). The Qur’an keeps stressing Mary’s chastity to make it clear that the conception of this unmarried woman did not involve a sexual relationship.
 
3) Gabriel’s words to Mary that he was sent to bestow on her a pure son mean that he was directly involved in causing the conception of Jesus. This does not mean that Gabriel had a relationship with Mary, because in his reply to her question about how she could get pregnant without having a sexual relationship with a man he still maintained that the pregnancy was going to happen through a miracle. In a subtle way, Gabriel’s presence in that room caused Mary’s ovum to be fertilized. In another verse, Mary’s conception is also described as happening by the breathing of God’s Spirit into Mary, confirming Gabriel’s involvement and the non-sexual nature of his role: “And she who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our spirit and made her and her son a sign for the peoples” (21.91).
 
4) God stresses in another verse that He “made the son of Mary and his mother a sign” (23.50). While Jesus being a “sign” for people may be understood in terms of the many miracles he performed from his birth, calling Mary also a “sign,” which is a term associated with miracles in such a context, can only denote her virginal conception of Jesus. There is nothing else in Mary’s story to make her a sign for people. The miracle of having food brought to her in the sanctuary was probably witnessed by Zechariah only, as she was living in isolation. This conclusion is also confirmed by the significant observation that the mention of Mary being a sign is made in the context of calling her with her son a sign.
 
We may also note that the word “sign” is used in the singular, i.e. the speech is not about two signs but one, so it must be about the virginal conception. Additionally, verses 21.91 and 23.50 talk about making Mary and her son themselves a sign, which suggests a miracle that happens to them as opposed to miracles that they perform. Probably even Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was related to his paranormal conception.
 
5) Mary’s words during the pangs of birth, “I wish I had died before this and had become someone totally forgotten” (19.23) — which reflect distress, despair, a deep sense of shame, and utmost apprehension — indicate that the childbirth was not going to be seen favorably by people, because they would not recognize the legitimacy of the child.
 
6) When Mary went back to her people with baby Jesus they said to her: “O Mary! You have come up with a grave thing. O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man, and your mother was not an unchaste woman” (19.27-28). The accusation means that she was known not to have been married.
 
7) When baby Jesus spoke to defend his mother against her people’ accusation, he did not say that he was the legitimate son of Mary and her husband. He spoke instead about his status as a prophet and showed that he was indeed a miraculous boy: “I am Allah’s servant. He has given me the Book and has appointed me a prophet. He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive. And [He has made me] kind to my mother, and has not made me arrogant or wretched” (19.30-32). He is clearly telling people to believe in his miraculous origin on the basis of his miraculous nature.
 
8) In his words above, Jesus states that God made him kind to his mother, but he does not mention his father, because he did not have one.
 
9) The Qur’an calls Jesus “son of Mary” 23 times — 13 times as “Jesus son of Mary,” 5 times as “the Messiah son of Mary,” 3 times as “the Messiah Jesus son of Mary,” and 2 times with no other name or title. Jesus is also referred to once as “her son,” i.e. Mary’s son (21.91). The title “son of Mary” is clearly intended to emphasize the fact that Jesus had no father. It cannot mean that Jesus had an unknown father, because it is a title that God Himself used for Jesus, not simply one used by people who did not know Jesus’ father. God is described as omniscient in the Qur’an, so it cannot be claimed that this title implies that Jesus’ father was unknown.
 
10) The Qur’an identifies people after their fathers, so its identification of Jesus after his mother is a unique case. People in general are referred to as “the sons of Adam” (e.g. 7.26, 17.70), the Israelites are called “the Children of Israel” (e.g. 5.72, 20.80), Adam’s two sons are called “the sons of Adam” (5.27), and Mary herself is called “the daughter of ‘Imran” (66.12). Note that Mary’s father died before her birth (p. 49), but she is still called after him. Even if Jesus’ father was no more around after his birth, he would have still been called after his father, had he had one.
 
I do not think these arguments leave any room to doubt that the Qur’an emphasizes that Mary was virgin when she conceived Jesus and that this conception was not through a sexual relationship with a man. It was a miraculous, virginal conception.
 
We discussed in the previous section the insinuation that started at least as early as the 2nd century that Jesus was the fruit of an illicit relationship between Mary and someone other than Joseph. We also saw that this defamatory allegation was used by opponents of Christianity, including Jews. The Qur’an also mentions the Jewish accusation to Mary of unchastity. This occurs in the context of criticizing Jews for misbehaviors, including breaking their covenant and killing prophets:
 
And because of their disbelief and of their speaking against Mary a tremendous calumny. (4.156)
 
The Qur’an stresses that Mary was virgin when she conceived Jesus miraculously and strongly criticizes those who accused her of unchastity. There is no mention in the Qur’an of Mary’s getting married or having other children.
 

          

 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
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Nov 272007
 

Source: The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

Science has also been used to reject the virginal conception. This argument appeals to the fact that a human conception happens when a sperm from a male fertilizes an egg from a female. In the virginal conception, there was no male involved, so it is claimed that the pregnancy could not have occurred.

The development of an egg into an individual without fertilization has actually been known to exist in nature since the 18th century. Parthenogenesis, as it is known scientifically, has been observed in lower plants and animals, such as insects. In many social insects, such as the honeybee and the ant, the unfertilized eggs develop into the male drones and the fertilized eggs into the female workers and queens. Recently a captive female hammerhead shark at a zoo in Nebraska made the news when it gave birth without having contact with a male. Scientists confirmed that the young animal possessed no paternal DNA.

Parthenogenesis has also been induced artificially. This was first clearly demonstrated by 1900 by Jacques Loeb, who found that unfertilized frog eggs that he pierced with a needle caused some times normal embryonic development to start. Artificial parthenogenesis has been achieved in almost all major groups of animals and in mammals, although usually resulting in incomplete and abnormal development. What is relevant to the discussion of the virginal conception of Jesus, however, is that there are no reports of successful parthenogenesis involving humans.

The scientific argument has been elaborated further. The nucleus of the human cell contains two sex chromosomes. These are X chromosomes in females, and one X and one Y in males. In a normal fertilization process which involves a sperm and an egg, the fertilized egg would either inherit one X chromosome from the egg and one X chromosome from the sperm and develop into a female, or one X chromosome from the egg and one Y chromosome from the sperm and become a male. As there is no male participation in a virginal conception, no Y chromosome is involved, so the egg would have only X chromosomes and would develop into a female. Since Jesus was a man, he could not have been conceived by virginal conception.

The scientific arguments against the virginal conception are misguided, because Jesus’ conception is presented in the scriptures as a miracle — that is, an event that violated natural laws. In fact, the whole point of a miracle is that it is supernatural. Jesus’ story in the both the New Testament and the Qur’an contains many miracles, and the virginal conception is only one of those miracles, so the scientific arguments go actually beyond the current discussion of the virginal conception. Science can also be appealed to, for instance, to reject Jesus’ miracles of raising the dead. I have already indicated that I will not deal in this book with the question of whether miracles can or cannot happen, as this complex subject is outside the scope of this book. But I have it made clear that, following the Qur’anic approach, I believe that miracle did and can happen.

          

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
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Nov 232007
 

Source: The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

In his rebuttal of the concept of virginal conception, Rhys compiled ancient stories from various cultures and traditions in which some form of miraculous conception features one way or another. His collection includes many myths and legends from ancient Egypt, Greece, China, India, Asia, Mexico, and North America. Rhys’ long list of pre-Christianity characters that traditions claim to have been born by virgin mothers include Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349), the Phrygian god Attis, the Grecian God Dionysos, Buddha (6th century BCE), the Indian god Rama, and many others.

In his quest to prove that the concept of the virginal conception lived long before Christianity and that the latter copied it from older traditions, Rhys confused this concept, which he inaccurately called the “virgin birth,” with “non-sexual, supernatural conception.” For instance, Rhys mentions Buddha’s mother who is said to have conceived Buddha through a dream. Buddha’s mother was actually married, even though she did not conceive Buddha through her husband. The same applies to the mother of the Indian god Rama, Queen Kausalya. She had been married to King Dasarath, but had no children. Dasarath, who was married to other women who also did not have children, performed a special sacrifice at the end of which he was given a divine drink. He gave the drink to his wives who gave birth, with Kausalya giving birth to Rama.

Most of the stories that Rhys cites do not really share anything of significance with Jesus’ story. Even when a story does contain some form of virginal conception, the similarity is negligible given the substantial differences between the two stories. Let me give two more ancient examples cited by Rhys, one from Greece and the other from Sicily: 

Dionysos, the Grecian God, was said in one version of the myth concerning him to be the son of Zeus out of the virgin goddess Persephone, and in another version to be the miraculously begotten son of Zeus out of the mortal woman Semele. He, according to this story, was taken from his mother’s womb before the full period of gestation had expired, and completed his embryonic life in Zeus’s thigh. Dionysos was thus half human and half divine, born of a woman and also of a god. (Rhys, 1922: 118)

A Sicilian tale, probably very old, tells of a king’s daughter who was shut up in a tower which had no aperture through which the sun could shine, as it had been foretold that she would conceive a child by the sun, and her father was anxious to prevent this occurrence. The girl, however, made with a piece of bone a small hole in the wall, and a sunbeam, entering through this hole, impregnated her. (Rhys, 1922: 143)

The attempt to discredit the virginal conception of Jesus because similar stories existed before Jesus is a good example of one of the flaws of the secular approach (§1.1.2). One astonishing aspect of this flaw is that the claimant is not required to prove that the latter story was copied from the earlier one(s), or that all these stories are instances of a literary motif and thus the work of the imagination of man. The mere existence of the two is taken to mean that story copying or creation did take place! The ridiculousness of this conclusion is clear from the fact that it can be applied almost at will, as no evidence is required. For instance, it could be claimed that no story of extraordinary or inexplicable healing, including the miraculous healings performed by Jesus, can be factual, because almost all nations and cultures from ancient times have had such stories in their traditions.

Jesus’ virginal conception should be treated as a myth, it is often claimed, because other religious leaders have also been claimed to have been born to virgins. This is how the New Testament story is seen by those critics. This criticism cannot be made of the Old Testament where a number of miraculous conceptions are reported but none is claimed to have been virginal. More significant, the Qur’an also contains a number of stories of miraculous conceptions, but only Jesus is said to have been born of a virgin. Not even Muhammad is described as having been born of a virgin. In fact, the tone of exaggeration that religious books are often accused of engulfing the lives of their leaders with is remarkably missing from the Qur’an’s account of Muhammad’s life. With respect to the Prophet’s birth, we know that he was an orphan (93.6), and there is no claim about him being born by a virginal conception, or that any miracle was involved in his birth. It is interesting to contrast the Qur’an’s account with other Islamic literature where the writers associate many miracles with Muhammad from his conception to his birth. This is another example on the fundamental differences between the Qur’an and other writings. Had Muhammad written the Qur’an, you would expect him to have attributed all kinds of miracles and marvels to himself to impress an Arab society that was submerged in myths and legends. It is remarkable and significant that none of this exists in the Qur’an. This adds credibility to the only account of virginal conception in the Qur’an, which is that of Jesus.

By its very nature, a conception can be known to be virginal only by the woman who experiences it. She is the only person who can know whether her pregnancy was indeed miraculous and did not involve a man. Even the presence of the hymen cannot provide conclusive independent evidence that the pregnancy of a woman was not caused by human sperms. This is why we cannot expect of find independent, historical evidence to support the virginal conception of Jesus. This does not mean that history refutes this claim; it simply means that it cannot provide evidence for it.

Aware of the fact that the virginal conception cannot be known or verified by independent evidence, Matthew, the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of James have Joseph informed paranormally in a dream that Mary’s conception of Jesus was virginal, facilitated by the Holy Spirit. The Infancy Gospel of James (14:18-19) and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (13) address this differently. They have two midwives examine Mary after the birth and find her still a virgin. What they found is actually evidence on a virgin birth not only virginal conception.

In the Qur’an, the supportive evidence from God to Mary’s claim to chastity came from her infant son Jesus — the very subject of the accusation — who spoke in the cradle in defense of his mother, as we shall see later in this chapter (also p. 178).

          

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Nov 202007
 

Source: The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

Rejectionists usually ignore the Qur’anic story of Jesus’ birth because they do not consider it independent, presuming that it is based on Christian sources. Additionally, the Qur’anic story does not contain any contradictions that can be used to discredit it. Apocryphal writings are also usually given very little attention by critics because what established the belief in the virginal conception is the account in the canonical Gospels, and because of the wider belief that apocryphal books are less original than the canonical ones and have little inherent value. Discrediting the New Testament story of the virginal conception, therefore, is seen as undermining the story in the apocryphal sources also. Thus, it is the New Testament that has been the target of the critics of the virginal conception; and this criticism is not unjustified.

There are three main criticisms of the story of the virginal conception in the New Testament. First, it is mentioned in only two of the twenty seven books of the New Testament. Of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one Epistles, and the book of Revelation, only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about the virginal conception. This is taken to mean that there was no knowledge or wide acceptance of the story. Second, the books of the New Testament, including Matthew and Luke, contain details that contradict the virginal conception of Jesus. Third, the two Gospels that mention Jesus’ virginal conception give very different accounts of the events leading to and following his birth. As the birth story is closely tied to that of the conception, serious doubts are raised about the historicity and authenticity of the whole nativity account in the two books. Let’s discuss these arguments in more detail.

6.2.1.1. Unknown Story

The Gospels of Mark and John do not contain any information about the birth of Jesus or his childhood. Both start their accounts around the time when Jesus met John the Baptist, which is believed to have happened when Jesus was around 30 years old. It is still very surprising that these two Gospels do not mention even in passing the virginal conception although it is one of the greatest miracles associated with Jesus. It is extremely difficult to accept that Mark and John could not have known of Mary’s miraculous conception yet they had good knowledge of Jesus’ life. Either they did not know much about Jesus’ life, or that they knew about the story of the virginal conception but deliberately ignored it because they did not believe it. They wrote what they knew and believed, so they either did not know the story or did not believe it. Even when John reports how a group of Jews objected to Jesus’ claim that he had come down from heaven on the grounds that they knew his mother and father, Jesus does not bother to correct and remind them that Joseph was not his father: 

Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)

It is unlikely that the Evangelists did not believe the story of the virginal conception. After all, they reported many of Jesus’ miracles. Also, there is nothing in their theologies that stands against the concept of Jesus’ virginal conception.

The fact that the earliest and latest Gospels contain nothing at all about Jesus’ early life probably means that the authors had no knowledge of that history. Even if they believed that the most important phase of Jesus’ life started at his baptism, his earlier years would surely have merited at least brief coverage and would have been of so much interest to people. Additionally, ancient people had great interest in the birth stories of their heroes. Mark and John did not know anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood. If these two Evangelists knew about the virginal conception story but did not believe it, they would have probably written what they knew of Jesus’ birth and overlooked or explicitly rejected that story. I am excluding the possibility that the current versions of the Gospels of Mark and John are missing parts as there is no evidence to this effect.

The ignorance of the two Evangelists of that history should not be surprising, as these books were written several decades after the events they describe and in a time where unrecorded history can be as easily lost and forgotten as changed and manipulated. It is still surprising, nevertheless, that the New Testament, which is supposed to be the most authoritative record of Jesus’ life and religion, mentions his miraculous birth and his childhood only in 2 of its 27 books.

No matter how this absence of the virginal conception from Mark and John is explained, it represents a major and significant difference between them and Matthew and Luke. Mark’s and John’s complete silence about Jesus’ early history also raises serious questions about the credibility of these two books, but it does not say anything about the credibility of the story of the virginal conception. To say that Jesus’ childhood was religiously insignificant undermines the credibility of Matthew and Luke whose accounts are laden with miracles. Suggesting that Jesus’ childhood was religiously significant reflects equally as bad on Mark and John.

It may be argued that the infancy story did not need to be reported in all Gospels, and that the four books complement each other. This argument is driven by faith, and it is false. The authors of these books did not sit together and agree who was going to report what, in which case it would have been understandable why the virginal conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus are not reported in all Gospels. Also, there are many events from Jesus’ life that are reported in more than one Gospel, and some of them are found in all four Gospels. These books became parts of one scriptural unit centuries after they were written and after the events they describe. There is clear evidence that the Gospels are not completely independent of each other and that they have used earlier sources. There is no evidence that the four Gospels were intended to or do complement each other, and the many contradictions between these books prove the opposite.

The claim that the four Gospels shed light on the same history from different angles is a more general argument whose use is not restricted to explain the absence of Jesus’ infancy from two Gospels. This argument is often used to explain why there are four Gospels rather than one and different accounts of the same events. It ignores the fact that there have been many more than four Gospels, and that the canon’s embracement of only four of these Gospels and the other New Testament books was the result of a long process that involved many people and much politics.

The Acts of the Apostles, the twenty one Epistles, and Revelation also make no mention of the miracle of Jesus’ conception. Even when a reference is made to Jesus’ birth, the authors of these books do not make any reference to the virginal conception. For instance, when Paul says “but when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4, he seems to either deliberately avoid to mention the virginal conception, or is simply unaware of it. It is not possible that Paul knew and believed in the virginal conception yet did not mention it even when talking specifically about Jesus’ birth. As already noted by others, a reference to the miraculous conception would have been as simple as replacing the word “woman” with “virgin” in Paul’s words above. After all, from the virginal conception point of view, Jesus’ conception was different not because it involved a “woman,” but because that woman was a “virgin.” It is true that Paul does not mention any of Jesus’ miracles, but he clearly believed Jesus did perform and can perform miracles. He prayed to him to heal him (2 Cor. 12:7-9) and claimed to have been converted to Christianity by a major miracle (Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-10, 26:13-18). Paul must have believed that Jesus was conceived naturally. This is confirmed by his tracing of Jesus’ genealogy to David, who is Joseph’s ancestor, and stressing that Jesus was related though the “flesh” to David: “concerning his Son who was a descendant of David with reference to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). The Second Epistle to Timothy, whose attribution to Paul is doubtful, also stresses that Jesus descended from David (2 Tim. 2:8). In his letter to the Romans, Paul also emphasizes that Jesus came “by human descent” from the Patriarchs (Rom. 9:5).

This is how the author of Shaken Creeds: The Virgin Birth Doctrine summarizes these serious differences and the significance of the chronology of these books: 

Thus neither the authors of the Epistles which are the earliest of our New Testament books, nor the authors of the earliest and the latest of our four Canonical Gospels, make any mention of a Virgin Birth. The Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke are our only authorities for the story, and they, as we have already seen, were not written until about the middle of the first half of the second century. Then for the first time, more than a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus, and nearly a century after the date assigned to his death, appears the first mention of the Virgin Birth….
Even if a much earlier date be assigned to the publication of these two Gospels, the argument against the doctrine [of the Virgin Birth] on the score of lateness is not impaired. No scholar, however orthodox, denies that the Epistles are the earliest Christian documents in our Canon, or that the Epistles contain no reference to the Virgin Birth story, or that the Gospels were not written until at least three-quarters of a century after the date assigned to the birth of Jesus. So even the most conservative confess that the story first appears in two comparatively late documents, and that it is peculiar to these two out of all the other New Testament scriptures. Our “witnesses” are two. As we have already seen, neither of them is a first-hand witness. (Rhys 1922: 82-84)

Rhys concludes that the apostles had either never heard of or did not believe in the virginal conception of Jesus. This is the same conclusion that has to be reached about Mark’s and John’s failure to mention the virginal conception, although because these two, like Matthew and Luke, were particularly interested in Jesus’ history, it is far more likely that they simply did not know about the virginal conception, as they did not report anything about Jesus’ early history, as I explained above.

Even the Qur’an, which does not share the Bible’s great interest in historical details and covers Jesus’ story only briefly, mentions the virginal conception four times in three different chapters — twice in passing (3.59, 4.171) and twice in more detail (3.45-47, 19.17-22). This further highlights the oddity of the complete silence of all but two of the New Testament books on this unique miracle.

Another group of Qur’anic verses (19.27-33) show Mary’s people, expectedly, question Jesus’ legitimacy and tell us how the infant Jesus responded on behalf of his mother. In the New Testament, there is no mention that people were aware of Jesus’ miraculous virginal conception. This applies even to Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s shepherds who visited the newborn Jesus. They saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, and in the absence of any mention of their knowledge of the miracle, the implication is that they thought that Joseph was the baby’s father. The presence of Joseph in Mary’s life must have had at least some people think that her conception was the result of her relationship with Joseph. This natural conclusion did not escape the author of the Infancy Gospel of James. In one episode of this nativity story, news that Mary was pregnant came to the knowledge of the high priest who accused the couple of getting married secretly. The author solves the problem by having Mary and Joseph pass the test of the “water of the Lord” and thus prove their innocence (InJam. 11). Yet apart from a passing reference in John (8:37-41), we do not read in the New Testament about people suggesting that Jesus was the son of a normal relationship nor any rebuttals for such claims. If this means that people were not aware of the virginal conception then they must have believed that Joseph was Mary’s husband, otherwise she would have been accused of adultery and, according to the Jewish law (Lev. 20:10), stoned to death.

Rhys also sets out to prove that the first two chapters in Matthew and Luke, in which the virginal conception is mentioned, were added to their respective books later. He thinks, as many scholars do, that the story of the virginal conception was a relatively late invention that was forced into Matthew and Luke, as well as written in some apocryphal books. One interesting observation is that while Acts and the Gospel of Luke were both written by the same person, the earlier of the two does not mention the virginal conception. It is indeed difficult to understand why the author who was so impressed and fascinated by the virginal conception in his later book did not mention it at all in the first! Is it possible that he learned about it later? Additionally, Acts indicates that Jesus’ apostles knew him only from the time of his baptism by John (Acts 1:22).

Scholars have noted that if the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are ignored, these two Gospels would share with Mark and John the same starting point: Jesus’ baptism. The gospel of the Jewish Christian group of the Ebionites (Aramaic: “poor men”), which seems to be a revision of Matthew, also omits the nativity story and starts with the story of John in the wilderness. Irenaeus, the 2nd century bishop of Lyon, pointed out that the Ebionites believed that Jesus was the product of a normal relationship between Mary and Joseph: 

Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassable, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being. Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.26.1-2)

Rhys (1922: 79) also argues that had the virginal conception been true, the baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit would have be unnecessary, as Jesus is supposed to have received the Holy Spirit in his miraculous birth.

There is another criticism that has been directed at Matthew’s use of an Old Testament prophecy to suggest that the virginal conception had been predicted. The Evangelist states that Mary became “pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18), and that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). He then has the following quotation from “the prophet”: “‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). This prophet is Isaiah, and the prophecy Matthew quotes is this: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). As is clear from the New English Translation of the Bible, which is used in this book, the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about a virgin! It uses the word ‘almah, which means “young woman,” who may and may not be virgin. The word ‘almah does not mean virgin inherently. It is the feminine form of the masculine noun ‘elem which is used in 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, ‘almah is translated into parthenos. The latter means “virgin,” but it also used in the Septuagint for another two Hebrew words for “girl” and “young woman.” Matthew does not quote the original Hebrew Bible which talks about a young woman, but he uses the Greek translation which employs a word that is more suggestive of a virgin.

Bible scholar Robert Miller (2003: 201-206) argues that even if Matthew meant to use “parthenos” to mean “virgin,” he would still not necessarily have meant a virginal conception. He might have meant to talk about a lady who was then a virgin and was going to become naturally pregnant later. Miller’s argument is derived from his uncommon view that Matthew did not have a virginal conception on his mind when he wrote his Gospel.

That said, since the Hebrew term may still mean “a virgin,” a conclusive argument cannot be made for either position.

The real problem in Matthew’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy is that he takes it completely out of context in order to apply it to Jesus’ conception. Around 735 BCE, Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, King of the northern kingdom of Israel, formed an alliance against the threat of invasion by the neighboring superpower of Assyria. They wanted Ahaz, King of the southern kingdom of Judea, to join their coalition, but Ahaz was fearful of becoming Assyria’s enemy. Rezin and Pekah then sent their armies to depose Ahaz and install a new king who would join their alliance. Ahaz thought of allying himself with Assyria to seek its powerful protection against Rezin and Pekah’s advancing armies toward Jerusalem. God sent Prophet Isaiah to ally Ahaz’s fears and give him a sign: a young woman will give birth to a boy called Immanuel, and before this boy is old enough to differentiate between right and wrong, the lands of Rezin and Pekah would be destroyed: 

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel. He will eat sour milk and honey, which will help him know how to reject evil and choose what is right. Here is why this will be so: Before the child knows how to reject evil and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you fear, will be desolate. (Isa. 7:14-16)

The text goes on to talk about events that would follow.

Matthew has completely misused Isaiah’s prophecy in applying it to Jesus’ birth. First, there was nothing special or miraculous about the conception or birth that Isaiah described. Second, the birth was not itself significant, as it was only a sign to Ahaz about future events. Third, that birth would be a sign only if it happened during Ahaz’s life. Fourth, while Isaiah talked about a child called Immanuel (Isa. 7:14, 8:8), Jesus is never actually called “Immanuel” anywhere in the New Testament. The context of Isaiah’s prophecy could not be clearer, so Matthew must have consciously decided to take the prophecy out of its context and apply it to Jesus.

This is not the only Old Testament prophecy that Matthew misuses to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies that he links to the coming of the Messiah, to show that Jesus is the awaited Messiah. The fact that the cited prophecies are forced to seem applicable to their respective parts of the Jesus story makes it highly unlikely that Matthew used those prophecies as a source of inspiration to fabricate the relevant episodes. If Matthew was using his imagination to create history, his keen interest on linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies would have made him come up with events that are much easier to match to those prophecies. Yet almost every time he linked an episode in Jesus’ life to a Biblical passage the latter had to be taken out of context, changed, and/or clumsily applied, which means that it is far more likely that the Evangelist was reporting what he believed to be history. He simply used the Old Testament to provide support for the history he had learned about, believed in, and accordingly reported. In the case of the virginal birth, Isaiah 7:14 does not talk about the conception of a virgin but a “young woman” and is not applicable to Jesus’ story anyway, so this Biblical passage could not have inspired Matthew with the story. He simply wanted an Old Testament text that he thought he could apply to the story which he already knew to give it Christological dimensions. He reported a story that was already in circulation as part of the tradition of Jesus’ birth which he believed. Whether that tradition is historical or not is, of course, a different matter.

Additionally, the suggestion that Matthew made up the events he reported makes the fulfillment argument which he persistently pursued completely meaningless. Matthew must have genuinely believed in the events he reported to diligently seek reference to these events in the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the Christ (France, 1979: 120).

The fact that other apocryphal gospels misuse prophecies more or less in the same way Matthew does does not necessarily mean that they copied Matthew. It is more likely that these writings, including Matthew, were based on earlier oral or written sources.

6.2.1.2. Contradictory Accounts
The second attack against the authenticity of the Gospel accounts of the virginal conception is that the books of the New Testament, including Matthew and Luke, contain passages that contradict the virginal conception. One contradiction is the repeated reference to Jesus’ descent from David, which implies that Joseph was his father, as Mary was probably not Davidic. Rhys links this contradiction to the assumption of the late inclusion of the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke:
 

The contradictions involved in a story which frequently refers to Joseph as the father of Jesus, and yet begins by the Virgin Birth episode, can be accounted for only by assuming that the original Gospels did not contain the earlier chapters of our present Gospels, and that when these chapters were added the editors omitted to make all the alterations in the text of the original chapters which would be necessary to bring these into accordance with the new commencement. Some small modifications seem indeed to have been made, but much remains which is absolutely inconsistent with the Virgin Birth story. (Rhys 1922: 105)

Miller (2003:65) has interestingly pointed out that a number of ancient manuscripts changed the child’s “father and mother” in Luke 2:33 to “Joseph and his mother,” and Mary’s words “your father and I” in Luke 2:48 to “we.” Clearly, those ancient copyists recognized that calling Joseph Jesus’ fathers challenged the story of the virginal conception, so they changed this description. The contradictions and textual variations regarding whether Jesus was the son of David or not, and what this link meant, can be seen also outside the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. They reflect awareness of the conflict between making Jesus of Davidic descent and his virginal conception. For instance, the clause “the carpenter, the son of Mary” in Mark 6:3 appears in different versions in some copies. In several old manuscripts, including the oldest available manuscript, it reads “the son of the carpenter and Mary,” and a few others have it as “son of Mary and Joseph” Miller (2003:213). Matthew also has a different version: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary?” (Matt. 13:55). Jesus was repeatedly linked to David not because Joseph was known to be his father, but because the awaited Messiah was believed to be Davidic (p. 234).

Other contradictions that have been identified is that Joseph and Mary “were amazed” at the praise of the child Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:33), and that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5). Mark even suggests that Jesus’ brother and mother thought that he was mad (Mark 3:21, 31)! Rhys argues that had Jesus been born of a virginal conception, Mary would not have been “amazed” at the good words that were being said of him. He also contends that Mary would have certainly told Jesus’ brother of his miraculous birth, so they would have believed in him. Rhys concludes that these texts show that the Gospels did not contain originally anything about a virginal conception, and that this story was introduced later on.

It is perhaps another sign of the confusing state of the accounts in Matthew and Luke that the basic argument of these texts can be read completely differently by different experts. For example, Miller (2003: 198-206) accepts that Luke’s account is clearly suggestive of a virginal conception but raises serious doubts about whether Matthew had a miraculous conception in mind, yet Parrinder (1995: 71-72) concludes almost the opposite, suggesting that it is Matthew’s account that is more plainly talking about a virginal conception! Nevertheless, the majority of scholars agree that both Matthew and Luke talk about a virginal conception.

6.2.1.3. Different Infancy Narratives
The third flaw in the New Testament’s story of the virginal conception is that the two books that mention the story differ fundamentally in their accounts of Jesus’ birth, which is closely tied to the story of his conception, thus raising serious questions about the credibility of the two nativity accounts. There is no disagreement that Mary had a virginal conception. While Luke talks in detail about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Matthew only makes a passing reference to the fact that Mary “was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18) and that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). But the two Gospels give very different accounts of Jesus’ birth. I will discuss these differences in more detail when I study Jesus’ birth (pp. 168-169), but here I would like to focus on two major differences.

Matthew talks about Herod’s massacre of young infants that targeted Jesus’ life and forced Joseph to take Mary and little Jesus and escape to Egypt. This major event in the Matthean account is completely missing from Luke. The latter, on the other hand, talks about Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary traveling from Galilee to Judea to register in a census that was ordered by the Roman empire, yet Matthew makes no mention of this journey. Both Gospels talk about a journey, but each ties its journey to his own version of events. Significantly, both stories of Herod’s massacre (§11.3.2) and Roman census (§10.6) have also serious historical problems.

The three arguments above highlight major contradictions and inconsistencies in the New Testament and raise serious questions about the account of the virginal conception. These arguments often lead critics to reject the story of the virginal conception. They conclude that these problems are indicative of the inauthenticity and non-historicity of the story of the virginal conception. It is undeniable that the story of the virginal conception in the New Testament has real problems. The many contradictions raise serious questions about the credibility of the New Testament authors, not the least the authors of the four Gospels. This does not necessarily mean that the story of the virginal conception, or to that matter other events in Jesus’ life that the Gospels mention, did not take place. These flaws and inaccuracies can have an alternative explanation, and the Qur’an offers one.

From the Qur’anic perspective, Biblical textual problems are no surprises. The Qur’an has made it clear that the religious books that the Jews and Christians possess were written and changed by people. Even the Torah and the Injil were tampered with. There is no reason to believe that the Gospels or other books in the New Testament are more factual or accurate about Jesus’ life than other books that were not chosen for canonization. The fact that Luke’s and Matthew’s infancy narratives look isolated and probably unauthentic undermines the credibility and authenticity of the Gospels not the narratives. Focusing on problems in the two nativity narratives is a red herring, as these problems are not confined to these parts of the New Testament. They are rather a small sample of similar problems permeating many parts and books of the New Testament, and indeed the Old Testament also. They are symptomatic of more fundamental problems with the Bible.

Many scholars believe that the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke — specifically the accounts of the virginal conception — are inauthentic, as they are inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament. The likelihood, however, is that Matthew, Luke, and the other two Evangelists were not as informed and knowledgeable as tradition would have us believe. The contradictory picture of the virginal conception in the New Testament is the result of the confused state of its books not the story’s incredibility. This is the Qur’anic perspective.

 

          

 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Oct 172007
 

 

Christians believe that the New Testament authors wrote their books under the guidance of God. They consider the Qur’an to be the handwork of Muhammad, probably written with the help of others who had knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures and apocryphal writings. Because some statements in the Qur’an resemble passages in non-canonical writings, it is claimed that the latter are among the sources used by the Qur’an’s author. Because these apocryphal writings, by definition, are considered inauthentic and inferior to the New Testament, the Qur’an stands accused not only of copying texts, but also using the wrong ones.

The Qur’an, on the other hand, claims that the Torah, which God revealed to Moses, and the Injil, which is Jesus’ divine book, were changed by the Jews and Christians. The Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament and the Gospels in the New Testament are very different books that have almost nothing of the original revelation. Additionally, the Biblical books are not necessarily more accurate or factual than apocryphal sources, and a non-canonical book may have a seed of truth that is missing from the canonical writings. The view that the canonical Gospels are superior to the apocryphal ones is not a statement of fact but an expression of faith.
 
Similarly, the centuries-old popular perception in Western culture that the Gospel accounts of Jesus are confirmed by history — and thus all different accounts, such as the Qur’an’s and apocryphal sources’ are unhistorical — is nothing more than an urban myth. It would come as a big surprise to many to know that there are only a few mentions of Jesus in historical sources from the first century CE, and that this information cannot be shown conclusively to be independent of Christian influence. Not even the most famous incident of the crucifixion has testimony in history that can be confidently described as independent. What most people believe about Jesus is derived from the Gospels, which ultimately won the battle against the many other alternative gospels that were available in the first few centuries after Jesus as they became “canonized.” The reliability of this belief depends very much on the credibility of the Gospels, and these are anything but credible sources. The perception that history supports the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is an instance of confusing assumptions with facts and mistaking tradition for history.
 
This book presents an alternative history of Jesus based on the Qur’an. It also reads the New Testament, relevant apocryphal writings, and history in the light of the Qur’anic account. But does not this assume that the Qur’an is a reliable book? It does, but then Jesus’ history cannot be studied without starting from a major assumption. What is the difference, then, between an image of the historical Jesus that presumes the reliability of the Qur’an and one that assumes the reliability of the New Testament? The Qur’an provides a coherent and consistent image of Jesus, whereas the Gospels draw conflicting images. In fact, the image of Jesus even within any one Gospel is inconsistent. Furthermore, the Qur’anic image makes much more sense of the limited historical information on Jesus than his images in the Gospels do. This approach, which I call the “Qur’anic approach,” is discussed in detail — along with alternative approaches to studying the historical Jesus, including the “Biblical approach” — in Chapter 1.
 
The book makes every effort to clearly state its assumptions and to distinguish between the scriptural passages and independent facts it cites and their interpretations. It discusses in detail not only its arguments, but also counterarguments. This should make it easier for the reader to assess the strength of the arguments of the book and to pursue different lines of interpretation of those passages and facts if she so wishes.
 
The book should be suitable for both the general reader and the specialist. It is intended to appeal to Christians, Muslims, people of other faiths, and the non-religious. It is for anyone who is interested in the historical Jesus. It does not require prior familiarity with the Qur’an or the Bible.
 
This book is a complete study of the Qur’anic Jesus in the sense that every verse that talks about him directly or indirectly is analyzed. The same applies to the verses that talk about his mother and two other relevant figures, Zechariah and his son John (the Baptist).
 
I have chosen to avoid studying other Islamic literature, including the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. As I explain in the first chapter, this literature is extremely unreliable. I cite a few alleged Prophetic sayings in Chapter 20, but mainly to show problems they have.
 
I need to explain some of the stylistic choices in the book. Each Qur’anic verse has been followed by a combination of two numbers identifying its sura (chapter) and its position in that chapter. For instance, the combination 5.110 refers to the 110th verse of the 5th chapter.
 
I have consulted some of the available English translations of the Qur’an, but the translations I used are mine. I had to use my own translations of the Qur’an because translation is an act of interpretation, reflecting the translator’s understanding of the text. Translations of all other cited Arabic texts are also mine.
 
I have also added in square brackets any explanatory text needed to clarify the translation. Round brackets have been used to add alternative texts, such as the English meaning of a term that is cited in its Arabic origin.
 
A number of different printing styles are used in the book. A special font has been used for the Qur’anic text and another for the canonical and apocryphal Jewish and Christian scriptures. Roman transliterations of Arabic terms are in italics.
 
When I needed to cite a passage that exists in Mark and any or all of the other three Gospels, I chose Mark’s version. Also, when quoting from more than one Gospel I cited Mark first, followed by Matthew and Luke, and finally John. This reflects the consensus that Mark is the earliest Gospel, which Matthew and Luke are partly based on, whereas John is the latest.
 
Finally, I would like to give a quick overview of the chapters of the book. A brief, but still more detailed, summary of the content of each chapter has been added to the beginning of each one.
 
Chapter 1 identifies and discusses the main approaches in studying history in the Bible and the Qur’an. This introductory chapter is necessary to clarify what assumptions are employed by each approach. It also shows the main problems with what I term as the secular, Biblical, and secular-Biblical approaches before introducing the Qur’anic approach, which is followed in this book.
 
Chapter 2 focuses on Mary’s childhood — that is, before she received the news about her conception of Jesus. As this period of Mary’s life is not covered in the Gospels, the chapter focuses only on apocryphal writings, along with the Qur’an’s account.
 
Zechariah is the subject of Chapter 3. He is portrayed as a priest in both the Gospel of Luke and apocryphal gospels. The Qur’an states that Zechariah became Mary’s guardian.
 
Zechariah is also the father of John the Baptist, who has a distinct presence in the story of Jesus in Christian sources. John is the subject of Chapter 4. Like his father, John is also a prophet in the Qur’an.
 
In Chapter 5 we study the delivery of the news to Mary about her miraculous conception or the “annunciation,” which is confirmed in Christian sources and the Qur’an. This is one of the events that the Qur’an recounts in more detail.
 
The virginal conception is then looked in Chapter 6. This particular miracle has become one of the most disputed aspects of Jesus’ story, with those who deny that it happened or could have happened seeking supportive arguments from the Gospels themselves, history, and science. The Qur’an unequivocally confirms that Mary’s conception of Jesus was virginal.
 
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that the Holy Spirit was involved in Mary’s virginal conception. The Qur’an gives a different role to Gabriel, who is described a “Spirit,” in this miracle. Chapter 7 examines the concept of “spirit” in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures.
 
The exact relationship between Joseph and Mary has been the subject of so much debate. Joseph is the subject of Chapter 8. There is no such figure in the Qur’anic story of Mary and Jesus. The Qur’an also strongly implies that Mary never got engaged or married.
 
Another controversial topic that is related to that of Joseph is Jesus’ brothers and sisters. These are references to them in the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Whether they are meant to be Jesus’ siblings or not, Chapter 9 shows, has had scholars argue for centuries. There is no mention of any sibling of Jesus in the Qur’an, and its implication that Mary never got married means that Jesus had none.
 
Jesus’ birth is recounted only in two of the four canonical Gospels. These accounts and the significantly different one of the Qur’an are discussed in Chapter 10. The possibility of dating of Jesus’ birth is also discussed.
 
Matthew and apocryphal gospels claim that King Herod the Great committed a massacre of small boys to ensure the death of baby Jesus whom he saw as a threat to his reign. Chapter 11 looks critically at these accounts. No such massacre is recorded in the Qur’an.
 
The New Testament calls Jesus a “Nazarene.” This term appears in the plural only in the Qur’an. Chapter 12 examines the differences between the meanings of this term in both sources.
 
While Judaism does not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, both Christianity and Islam do. The different images of the Messiah in the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Qur’an are discussed in Chapter 13.
 
The form of Christianity that prevailed is the one that declared Jesus to be divine. Chapter 14 studies the divine qualities that the New Testament confers on Jesus and discussed how this man was turned into a god.
 
Chapter 15 focuses the light on the human image of Jesus in the Qur’an. His deification is completely rejected by the Qur’an. Judaism also does not believe in the divinity of other than God.
 
The Gospels, apocryphal gospels, and the Qur’an all attribute many, albeit different, miracles to Jesus. These wonders are discussed in detail in Chapter 16.
 
Contrary to what Christian sources say, the Qur’an says that God revealed to Jesus a book called the “Injil.” It also suggests that this is the real meaning of the term “gospel.” These and other aspects of Jesus’ book are discussed in Chapter 17.
 
Chapter 18 studies the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testaments. It also examines the reliability of the records of this alleged event in early non-Christian sources.
 
Jesus’ death on the crucifixion is denied in the Qur’an whose alternative account of what happened to Jesus is discussed in Chapter 19.
 
Christian and Islamic sources, but not the Qur’an, expect Jesus to return before the end times. The second coming is the subject of Chapter 20.
 
Having studied what the Qur’an says about Jesus in the previous chapter, Chapter 21 focuses on what the Qur’an says about Christians.
 
Chapter 22 is a recap of the story of Jesus as this book has presented it.
 
The book has three appendices. Appendix A is an introduction to the Qur’an’s characteristic style in recounting history. Appendix B introduces the five apocryphal gospels that were often used in the book. The last appendix is a table of the abbreviations used.
 
The modern, classic, and apocryphal sources that the book cited are all included in the references.
 
Finally, for the reader’s convenience, the book has five separate indexes for Qur’anic verses, Biblical passages, other religious texts, ancient texts, and names and subjects.
 

          

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Sep 122007
 

This is the “Preface” to the book The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources

My interest in Jesus is not new. It started as far back as I can remember. I was born to an Iraqi Christian family — a Catholic father and Orthodox mother. My parents were not particularly religious and by no means regular Churchgoers, but they had a strong awareness of their Christian identity, as did their three children.

With religion rarely a topic of discussion at home, my Catholic primary school ensured that I was influenced by Christian teachings and the stories of Jesus. I was around 8 years old or so when my fascination with Jesus led to an encounter with him in a dream which I still remember vividly. I saw myself walking with him hand in hand on an endless beautiful green plain. He looked like his images. He did not speak to me, nor I to him. That dream left me with a special feeling of satisfaction.

In my last year in the Catholic school, I received the Sacrament of the First Eucharist. I considered that day to be the best and happiest of my life. Someone — possibly one of my parents — then told me that this is how Napoleon Bonaparte also felt about his first Eucharist. This reassured me that although I was only 12 years old, this feeling was unlikely to change. I continued to attend church and take the Holy Communion regularly for a couple of months before my interest started to wane.
 
Leaving the Catholic school and joining a state run intermediary school marked a significant change in my contact with Christian practices and teachings. There was not much of a Christian atmosphere at home — apart from the icons on the walls, attending the church for social functions each now and then, and, of course, celebrating Christmas and Easter — and now there was no Christian teaching at school either. Those three years were marked by more of a loss of interest in religion than any change in my religious views. I still considered myself a Christian, but did not really care much as to what that meant.
 
But things were to change at high school, where I became friends with someone who held Marxist views and, expectedly, did not believe in the existence of God. The fact this friend came from a Christian family must have made it easier for me to examine my Christian faith. We used to spend many hours discussing various topics of interest. I did not find myself particularly interested in this friend’s political views, although socialism appealed to me, but I found myself gradually getting closer to his dismissive views of religion. By the time I joined university, I had labeled myself an “atheist.”
 
In my second year at university I befriended a very different person. He was a very liberal Muslim with a strange mix of intelligent insights and outlandish views supported by an unenviable amount of self-righteousness. This friendship gave me another opportunity to reexamine my beliefs. I had never considered Islam seriously. What I knew about Islam was largely the myths that I was taught at home, which were popular among other Christians. One of these claimed that Muhammad was taught the Qur’an by a renegade Christian priest called Bahira. Later I discovered that the oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad presents this priest as a solitary monk whom the young boy Muhammad met when he was in the company of his uncle on a commercial journey to Syria. Bahira identified Muhammad as the awaited future Prophet.
 
My close friendship with this person, which replaced my friendship with the Marxist, made me take Islam, and more specifically the Qur’an, seriously and study it, although not in a systematic way. In the first year of this friendship I read the four Gospels critically and wrote a critique of them. This short revisit of Christianity confirmed to me the unreliability of the Gospels and my earlier decision to reject it. But this time I was not to go back to atheism but to enter reassuringly the new world of the Qur’an.
 
This is how my gradual conversion to Islam started. By the time I was 23 years old or so, I could describe myself as a Muslim, although more so intellectually than in practice. The Qur’an took center stage in my life and, among other things, renewed my interest in Jesus. While it speaks highly of all prophets, it paints a particularly venerable picture of Jesus and presents him as a unique prophet, but this image is very different from the divine Jesus of the New Testament. This book is an expression of my lifelong fascination with Jesus.
 
But I did not write this book only because of my personal interest. True, I enjoy writing books, but I can motivate myself to write a book only if I believe it can be a genuinely new contribution to the available literature. And this book is no exception. Let me explain why I believe that this book is a new addition to the literature on the historical Jesus and not a rewrite of something already available.
 
Numerous books and articles have examined the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels. Some endorse his image in the New Testament, others accept parts of it and reject others, and yet others draw completely different pictures of this intriguing man. There is even a small minority of writers who have gone as far as suggesting that there was never a Jesus in history! Depending on the backgrounds, goals, and trainings of their respective authors, these works relied on the New Testament, Christian sources, Jewish writings, or other historical sources, or on combinations of these writings. The Qur’an is rarely mentioned, let alone seriously considered, by the mainly Western authors of these writings. The explicit or implicit reasoning for this neglect is the perceived historical worthlessness of the Qur’an.
 
There have also been a few studies that considered the Qur’anic Jesus from a Christian point of view. One such study is Jesus in the Qur’an, which was first published in 1965, by Professor Geoffrey Parrinder. This Methodist minister had the commendable goal of bridging the gap between the Qur’an and the Gospels and wrote a very sensitive and sympathetic book. But his method was to show that the differences of the Qur’an with the Gospels are either due to misunderstanding Qur’anic verses or such passages targeting non-canonical or “apocryphal” Christian concepts not what the New Testament says.
 
Another study that may be worth citing is Kenneth Cragg’s Jesus and the Muslim: An Exploration, first published in 1985. Bishop Cragg focused on clarifying for Muslims the misunderstanding of their scripture of Christian theology.
 
In addition to the fact that both of these studies are written from a Christian perspective, both of them are religious studies that do not consider independent sources. Reading the Qur’an from the New Testament’s point of view is interesting, but what history says about the New Testament is at least not less so.
 
Muslim scholars have also written quite a lot about Jesus. But, contrary to their Western counterparts, they focused mainly on the Qur’an and other Islamic sources. The Christian image of Jesus is often cited to be dismissed, usually on the basis of what Islamic sources say, but at times because of its incoherence and internal discrepancies. Like Western scholars who have ignored the Qur’an, Muslim writers have ignored independent historical sources.
 
This book fills a gap in the literature on the historical Jesus by considering simultaneously the Qur’anic account of Jesus’ life, its counterparts in the Gospels, and historical sources. As I explain in more detail in Chapter 1, the book sets out to show that, unlike the New Testament stories, the Qur’anic statements about Jesus are consistent and can be reconciled with what we know from history. Put differently, this book is an attempt to know the historical Jesus by studying both the Qur’an and history.
 
My original plan for the book was to focus on studying the Qur’anic account in the light of history and to cite the New Testament as little as possible. I thought there were already numerous studies that examine the Gospel accounts in their own right and in the light of history. But as I started writing the book I found it difficult to adhere to the original plan. One reason is that presenting the accounts of the Gospels alongside that of the Qur’an is itself useful in showing significant differences between the two. It would make the message of the book clearer to the Christian, Muslim, and other readers.
 
Of course, it is the reader who will ultimately judge how much this book has succeeded in what it set out to do. But I sincerely believe that the attempt was more than worth doing. I also hope that others will follow suit and study the historical Jesus from the Qur’anic perspective.
 
I mentioned earlier the critique of the Gospels that I wrote about 26 years ago. It was useful to me then, but I did not do much with it until 6 years later when I used it to impress my future wife, Shetha. Neither she nor I had any idea at the time that 20 years later I would be presenting her with a much more substantial study to read and critique. This book has benefited immensely from Shetha’s extensive comments on two earlier drafts. She has also given me a lot of editorial help with the book. As ever, she has given me all the help I asked for. Her contribution to this book, as it is to my other works, is invaluable. I cannot thank her enough.
 
My close friend Howard Hall has also kindly acted as a reviewer on the book. His thoughtful comments and suggestions helped me spot and remedy gaps in the book. He also highlighted weaknesses that I needed to address. I am indebted to Howard.
 
I have also got used to the help of my close friend Tariq Chaudhry with reviewing my writings. Tariq read thoroughly an earlier draft of the book and added many comments. These comments allowed me to make the text read better and clearer. I would like to thank Tariq for his help.
 
These three generous reviewers have helped me to greatly improve the book. Any oversights and mistakes that are in the book are mine, and mine alone.


          

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jun 292004
 
This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

For some twelve years after the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an, Muslims had to endure the harshest persecution in Mecca. They were killed, subjected to torture, and had their properties confiscated. Their only weapon was either keeping their embracement of Islam secret or, if that had already become public, enduring everything with patience. Emigrating from Mecca was another option that Muslims resorted to at times, and which the Prophet himself had to choose twelve years after the revelation of the Qur’an. This is how Allah refers to the emigration of the Prophet, who was accompanied by a Muslim man called Abu Bakr, from Mecca to al-Madina: 

If you [O people!] will not aid him [Muhammad], Allah certainly aided him when the disbelievers expelled him, he being the second of two [persons], when they were [hiding] in the cave, when he [Muhammad] said to his companion: “Do not grieve; surely Allah is with us.” So Allah sent down His tranquility upon him, supported him with hosts which you did not see, and made lowest the word of those who disbelieved and highest the word of Allah; and Allah is Invincible, Wise (9.40).1

In order to be able to appreciate what this peaceful struggle of Muslims really meant, it is essential to know the circumstances in which it took place.

The population of the Arabian Peninsula were very violent. Raids amongst tribes were a common way of increasing both wealth and social standing. In that bloody environment, vengeance and retaliation were prime drives in people’s lives. Embracing Islam, however, meant turning one’s back on such practices. For the first fourteen years after the revelation of the Qur’an, Muslims as a group did not take part in any war. Prophet Muhammad and his followers could only use peaceful means even in response to the harshest persecutions. It is reported that Muslims who were beaten or tortured for embracing Islam would ask the Prophet for permission to defend themselves. He would reply that Allah had not given him permission for Muslims to take arms. He would console them, remind them of the virtues of patience, and offer them advice on how to avoid and/or mitigate the persecution they were subjected to.

This was a great test that Allah put early Muslims through. Passing that test required challenging so many customs and beliefs of the society in which Muslims were born and raised. They set a noble example that the Arabs, and indeed peoples of the time in general, had never seen or heard of before. In order to be able to follow the new religion, the individual would have to be prepared for a rebirth and total renewal of himself. Those who were not genuinely willing to change could not become Muslims. This self-control is peaceful jihad. Thus, peaceful jihad started long before armed jihad.

The Qur’an gives us a fascinating insight into the extent of the peaceful jihad that the early Muslims had to practice to meet the requirements of Islam. Those Arabs, who had come from different tribes with long history of enmity between them, had to erase all of their attachment to that pre-Islamic past and its values, embrace the present and its new values, and relate to each other in a completely different way. They are no more sworn enemies, but close brothers who were willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. In fact, the Qur’an describes this transformation as a miracle:

And hold fast [O you who believe!], all of you together, to the rope of Allah [that He stretches out for you], and be not divided among yourselves. And remember Allah’s favor to you; how you were enemies but He established affection between your hearts, so that by His favor you became brethren. And you were on the brink of the pit of Fire, but He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His signs clear to you, that you may be guided (3.103).

And if they [the disbelievers] intend to deceive you [O Muhammad!], then surely Allah is sufficient for you. It is He who supported you with His help and with the believers (8.62). And established affection between their hearts. Had you spent all that is on earth, you would not have established affection between their hearts, but Allah established affection between them. Surely, He is Mighty, Wise (8.63).

Footnote

1 After leaving Mecca in the night, the Prophet and Abu Bakr hid for three days in a cave called “Thawr” in a mountain outside the city. When the disbelievers realized that the Prophet had fled, they went after him. They came very close to searching the cave, which is probably why Abu Bakr became so scared as shown in the verse. Tradition tells us that the chasers did not enter the cave because of the occurrence of three miracles: a spider weaved its web at the entrance of the cave; two wild pigeons lied eggs there; and a tree grew up. The cave appeared to the Qurayshites not to have been used for a long time.

          

Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jan 292004
 

This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE (Common Era) in the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, part of modern day Saudi Arabia. As his father had died shortly after marriage, his grandfather ‘Abd al-Muttalib became his guardian. ‘Abd al-Muttalib was the respected head of the clan of Hashim and the tribe of Quraysh, to which his clan belonged. With the Quraysh being the biggest and most influential tribe in Mecca, ‘Abd al-Muttalib was seen as the master of all of Mecca. The Quraysh had a special status in Mecca because they used to be in charge of the sacred Ka’ba. The Qur’an tells us that this holy edifice was built by Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael:

And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House [Abraham prayed]: “Our Lord! Accept from us; surely You are the Hearing, the Knowing (2.127). Our Lord! Make us Muslims and raise from our offspring a nation of Muslims. Show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Surely, Your are the Relenting, the Merciful” (2.128).

This means that the Ka’ba was built around 1900 BCE, which is when Abraham is thought to have lived. The Ka’ba maintained its venerable status as the destination of pilgrimage in the eyes of the pilgrims and the Arab population of the Arabian Peninsula down the centuries. ‘Abd al-Muttalib was personally in charge of the Ka’ba.

The Prophet was only about five to six years old when he lost his mother. Orphan Muhammad then lost his grandfather and custodian ‘Abd al-Muttalib at the age of eight. Now one of ‘Abd al-Muttalib’s sons, Abu Talib, became the guardian of his orphan nephew. Though respected by the clan of Hashim and the people of Mecca in general, Abu Talib did not possess the high status and influence of his father. Had he been more fortunate financially, he might have aspired to acquire that special leadership status.

When Muhammad was twenty five years old, he was hired by a woman called Khadija to take her merchandize to Syria. Khadija, a widow fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, later proposed marriage to him, which he agreed to. They lived together for almost a quarter of a century, until the death of Khadija about 8-9 years after the revelation of the Qur’an.

It is interesting to note that Muhammad did not get married to any other woman during Khadija’s life, despite the fact that polygamy was common practice in that society. Living out his youth with only one woman in that highly polygamous environment contradicts Muhammad’s lecherous image in the Western mind.

Muhammad was deeply interested in matters beyond this mundane life. He used to frequent a cave that became known as “Hira‘” on the Mountain of “Nur” (light) for contemplation. The cave itself, which survived the times, gives a very vivid image of Muhammad’s spiritual inclinations. Resting on the top of one of the mountains north of Mecca, the cave is completely isolated from the rest of the world. In fact, it is not easy to find at all even if one knew it existed. After visiting the cave, I found myself concluding that Muhammad must have been divinely guided to that hideaway, even if he had chosen it consciously. Once inside the cave, it is a total isolation. Nothing can be seen other than the clear, beautiful sky above and the many surrounding mountains. Very little of this world can be seen or heard from inside the cave. The inhabitant of that cave was obviously interested in things beyond this world and its material riches.

It was in that cave in 610 CE, i.e. at the age of forty, that Prophet Muhammad received from Allah the first verses of the Qur’an. Then and there, history changed.

The Qur’an continued to be revealed in fragments to Prophet Muhammad over the following twenty two years. The last words of the Book were revealed to the Prophet shortly before his death in 632 CE. We will read more about the Qur’an in section 2.2.

In the first two to three years after the revelation, the Prophet preached Islam secretly to individuals whom he trusted. When he started calling people to Islam publicly, the new religion gradually attracted more people but, not surprisingly, also increasing hostility from the idol worshipping population of Mecca. The Prophet was subjected to harassment and abuse. However, armed with patience, resilience, and determination, and protected by his uncle Abu Talib and the clan of Hashim, the Prophet was able to carry on preaching the new faith to people.

Converts to Islam, some of whom were slaves, had to suffer all kinds of persecution, including brutal torture and murder, at the hands of the enemies of the new religion in Mecca. In 614 CE, the Prophet had to instruct a group of Muslims to escape the persecution to Abyssinia and seek the protection of its just Christian king. The Quraysh then sent a delegation to the king, carrying precious gifts, to secure the extradition of the Muslim refugees. The king, however, rejected the bribe and let the Muslims stay in Abyssinia.

One year later, the Quraysh imposed economic and social sanctions on the Prophet, his followers, and his clan. As a result, the Muslims withdrew to a mountain in Mecca. The sanctions lasted about three years before collapsing in 618/619 CE without achieving their goals.

Soon afterward, the Prophet lost his wife Khadija. Matters got worse quickly with the death of his uncle and protector. Prophet Muhammad started to suffer more from the disbelievers’ relentless attempts to uproot Islam and destroy its followers. During the pilgrimage season in 622 CE, Muhammad met in Mecca with a number of chiefs from the city of Yathrib, where he had previously sent some Muslims to settle in. Having converted to Islam, the chiefs made a secret pledge to protect the Prophet should the Quraysh try to kill him.

However, the Quraysh learned about the agreement, so the people from Yathrib had to return quickly to their city. Sensing that the danger to Muslims has increased, Muhammad instructed them to immigrate individually or in small groups to Yathrib. The Qurayshites tried to prevent Muslims from fleeing Mecca to Yathrib, but the converts continued to sneak out gradually.

The continuing immigration of Muslims to Yathrib where they had allies was already very bad news for the Qurayshites. This could yet get much worse if Muhammad also would move to that city. They decided that they had no other option but to kill him.

The various clans of the tribe of Quraysh agreed to act as one and assassinate the Prophet while asleep. The idea behind acting collectively was that no one party could be blamed for the killing and become embroiled in a war of vengeance with the clan of Hashim.

The assassination plan, however, was sabotaged by divine intervention. The night the murder was planned to take place, Allah informed His Prophet of the danger and ordered him to secretly leave Mecca and head to the city of Yathrib. The latter became known as “al-Madina al-Munawwara” (the illuminated city), or “al-Madina” for brief, after the arrival of the Prophet.

This famous event, known as the “Hijra ” (immigration), occurred in 622 CE, about twelve years after the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an. This flight was destined to have far-reaching consequences in establishing the Islamic community, strengthening the position of Islam, and spreading its message.

The Prophet lived in al-Madina for about ten years. By the time of his departure from this world in 632 CE, Islam had become well established as the religion of the Arabian Peninsula and had made inroads in neighboring regions; Muslims had become a major force to be reckoned with in the area.

There are a number of good, detailed English biographies of Prophet Muhammad. One biography written by a non-Muslim is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (London: Phoenix Press, 2001). Another one written by a Muslim is Martin Lings’ Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Inner Traditions Intl Ltd, 1987).

For easy reference, this is a short chronology of major events in the life of Prophet Muhammad:

Date (CE)

Event

570

Birth of the Prophet in Mecca. His father was already dead when he was born.

575-576

The death of the Prophet’s mother.

578

The death of the Prophet’s grandfather and custodian ‘Abd al-Muttalib. The Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib became his guardian.

610

The first revelation of the Qur’an.

612-613

The Prophet started calling people to Islam publicly.

614

The first immigration of Muslims to Abyssinia escaping the persecution of the idol-worshipping Meccans. They stayed there for three months. A second immigration to Abyssinia, involving more Muslims, took place later on. This time, the immigrants stayed in Abyssinia until 628 CE when they rejoined the Prophet in al-Madina.

615

The tribe of Quraysh imposed economic and social sanctions on Muslims and the clan of Prophet Muhammad, Hashim.

618-619

The collapse of the sanctions.

618-619

The death of Abu Talib, the Prophet’s uncle, triggering increased hostility from the Meccans toward the Prophet.

622

The emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to al-Madina.

624

The first major battle of the Muslims against the disbelievers, known as the battle of Badr.

630

The Muslims conquered Mecca without fighting.

632

The last revelation of the Qur’an.

632

The departure of the Prophet from this world in al-Madina.


Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
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