Dec 142014

One observation that is often made by critics of the Qur’an is that at times its historical account of a story, such as the story of Prophet Moses or Jesus, has similarities with Jewish and Christian scriptures and other writings. This observation is then used to claim that Prophet Muhammad must have copied at least parts of the Qur’an from those sources, so he could not have received it from God.

When the Qur’anic historical account has similarities with details that are not in the accepted scriptures but in apocryphal sources, i.e. writings that did not become part of the canonical books that the Jewish and Christian authorities adopted, a second claim is made. In this case, it is claimed that the copied information in the Qur’an is incorrect or inaccurate because it was taken from inauthentic or at least questionable sources.

Let’s analyse the logic behind these two claims closely.

Similarity Between the Qur’an and Supposed Authentic Scriptures

If Muhammad’s claim that he received the Qur’an from God is true, and if some of the historical accounts in other scriptures or books had truly come from God, then any similarity should only be expected. For instance, the Jewish scripture — the Old Testament — says that Moses split the sea with his staff when he and the Israelites escaped form Pharaoh and his troops. Now, if this Old Testament claim was indeed revealed by God, meaning it is historical, and if the Qur’an was also revealed by God, then mentioning this miracle in the Qur’anic story of Moses would be exactly what one should expect. The mere existence of similarities between the Qur’an and the Old Testament does not prove that the Qur’an was copied from the Old Testament, because if both books were revealed by God, then this similarity “must” be there.

Claiming that the Qur’an was copied from the Old Testament in such a case, therefore, can only be based on the “prior assumption” that it was not revealed by God. In other words, this claim is “not a conclusion” based on observing the similarity. It is simply an assumption about the Qur’an, so it was “not derived” from this similarity. Using the similarity between the two scriptures to present that critical claim about the Qur’an as a conclusion is either due to misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation.

There are other very critical facts here that are always ignored in such a discussion about similarities between the Qur’anic stories and their counterparts in scriptures that are supposed to be genuine:

1) The Qur’anic account has also differences with the other scriptural version.
2) The differences are always more than the similarities.
3) The differences are profoundly significant.

The first two points are obvious, but let me say a little more about the third. Often the Qur’anic historical account would differ with details in the Jewish or Christian scriptures that have been proved to be wrong. For instance, the Old Testament claims that the Israelites were more than 2-3 millions when they escaped ancient Egypt. This claim has been known to be unhistorical for a few centuries now. The Qur’an, on the other hand, while confirming the escape of the Israelites, it does not repeat the unhistorical claim about the huge number of the Israelites. In fact, it states that they were small in number. Now, if Muhammad or someone helping him copied the story of Exodus from the Old Testament 14 centuries ago, how come that the copyist managed to leave that unhistorical piece of information out? Let’s take another example. Why would Muhammad make the claim that the body of the Pharaoh who chased Moses and the Israelites would be saved and would remain available for people to view, which is what happened to the mummy of Ramesses II, when the Old Testament makes it clear that the body was swallowed by the sea? I cover in detail many examples such as these in my books on the stories of Prophets Jesus, Moses, and Joseph.

There is another type of difference between the Qur’an and the Jewish and Christian scriptures where a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different, wrong context in the other scriptures. For instance, there is a character called Haman in the Book of Esther of the Old Testament who was supposed to be a prime minster in Persia centuries after the exodus. Scholars have shown that this story is unhistorical. On the other hand, the Qur’an also has a character called Haman but he is a high ranking figure in the Egyptian court in the story of Moses. Haman is clearly an Egyptian name. What seems to have happened here is that changes by the editors of the Old Testament have resulted in moving the historical Egyptian Haman from the story of the Exodus to the completely different and unhistorical story of the Book of Esther. This is a completely different interpretation of this phenomenon from the tired and flawed explanation that the Qur’an copied information from the other scriptures. There is more on the concept of Contextual Displacement here.

Similarity Between the Qur’an and Supposed Inauthentic Scriptures

As I mentioned earlier, when a Qur’anic account has similarity with a story in an uncanonical books, the Qur’an is accused not only of copying its information from those sources, but also of copying the wrong information. For instance, the Qur’an says that one of Jesus’ miracles is that he spoke in the cradle. This miracle is not mentioned in any of the four Gospels in the New Testament, which Christians consider to be the authoritative sources on the life of Jesus. But this miracle is mentioned in apocryphal sources, such as The Arabic Gospel of Infancy. The above accusation against the Qur’an is based on the assumption that this miracle cannot be historical because it is not mentioned in the four Gospels in the New Testament but appears only in apocryphal gospels. But this argument rests completely on the assumption that the four Gospels are more historical than the apocryphal sources. The reality is that the four Gospels have numerous historical mistakes so they cannot be considered reliable anyway. For example, as I have explained in my book on The Mystery of the Crucifixion, the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion has many historically incorrect claims. Furthermore, these four books became the adopted Gospels of the Church after centuries of battles between conflicting opinions and dogmas, not because they are truly historical or the information they contain is always more reliable than information found in alternative sources.


The similarities and differences between the Qur’an and other scriptural and non-scriptural Jewish and Christian writings cannot be used to draw any conclusion about the originality, reliability, and credibility of the Qur’an or the other sources. When the issues in question can be examined in the light of historical knowledge, then history has to be the judge. Such issues can be found in the story of the Exodus, for example. When the information is impossible to ascertain historically, such as accounts of miracles, then faith in any version has to be supported by the general credibility and reliability of the source making the claim. In other words, when the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian scriptures disagree on claims that are not possible to verify independently, one has to take into consideration which of sources is more reliable.

It has been known for a long time now that while the Old and New Testaments contain correct historical information, they also have numerous inaccurate and wrong claims. Whenever a reliability comparison is possible between a historical account in the Qur’an and its counterpart in the Jewish or Christian sources, the Qur’an’s version of events always turns out to be superior.

Copyright © 2014 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Nov 282011

This article is adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

The four Gospels differ on a number of details in their accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. I have dealt in previous articles with two disagreements, namely whether Jesus was arrested on or before the Passover and what charges were brought against him before Pilate. In this article, I discuss another conflict between the Gospel reports, which concerns the time of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.

The day of the ancient Jewish lunar calendar was reckoned from sunset to sunset. The night and the daytime consisted of 12 hours each, with the first hour of the night starting around 6 pm and the first hour of the daytime around 6 am. John (11:9) says that in one of his dialogs with his disciples Jesus said: “Are there not twelve hours in the day?

According to Mark (15:25), Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour in daytime: “And it was the third hour when they crucified him.” At the 6th hour the land was covered with darkness which lasted until the 9th hour, at which point Jesus died:

33And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.

The 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours correspond to 9 am, 12 am, and 3 pm, respectively.

Both Matthew (27:45-50) and Luke (23:44-46) reiterate Mark’s statement that the darkness lasted from the 6th to the 9th hour and that Jesus died at the 9th hour:

45Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

44It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

John (19:14-16) disagrees with Mark, Matthew, and Mark, claiming that it was the 6th hour in daytime, that is midday, when Pilate handed over Jesus to be crucified:

14Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

John does not say when Jesus died or specify how long his ordeal lasted so the time of death remains unknown.

To resolve the conflict between John and the Synoptists (i.e. Mark, Matthew, and Mark) about when Jesus’ crucifixion started, it has been suggested that John followed the Romans in reckoning time from midnight, so his sixth hour corresponds to 6 am. In addition to the fact that there is no evidence to support this assumption, this attempt would still require presuming that three more hours passed before the crucifixion started to reconcile John’s account with the Synoptists. Furthermore, it is far more likely that John reckoned the time the Jewish way because that would make the crucifixion coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs — something that reflects his description of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 1:36) and works well for his theology.

The time of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion is one of the unresolved contradictions in the Gospels.


Bible translations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible.


 Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jan 092011

This article is adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

All four Gospels agree that after his trial or interrogation by the Sanhedrin and high priest, Jesus was brought before Pilate to be punished. According to Mark and Matthew, Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of Jews, to which Jesus answered vaguely “you say so” (Mark 15:2; Matt. 27:11). Pilate’s question implies that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews, which is how they perceived their awaited Messiah. This highly charged political accusation was bound to raise the interest of the Roman governor. The chief priests and the elders then brought many unspecified charges against Jesus, but he did not respond to any of them.

Luke elaborates more on the accusation:

“We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).

He then reports the same question and answer between Pilate and Jesus about the kingship of the Jews that Mark and Matthew have. Later passages assert that Jesus was accused of “inciting” and “misleading” people:

They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:5)

[Pilate said to them:] “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. When I examined him before you, I did not find this man guilty of anything you accused him of doing.” (Luke 23:14)

John’s account differs yet further. When Pilate asks the people about Jesus’ charge, their reply was simply to stress his guilt:

If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you. (John 18:30)

Upon the Jews’ insistence that Jesus must be killed, Pilate asked him whether he was the king of the Jews. Unlike in the Synoptics, Jesus replies by explaining that his kingdom is heavenly and not from this world:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (John 18:36)

This should have allied Pilate’s concerns. John also states that the Jews told Pilate that Jesus had to die because of his claim to the sonship of God:

The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!” (John 19:7)

However, I have explained in my article The Unhistorical Meaning of “Son of God” in the Gospels, claiming to be a the son of God was not a religious crime in Judaism.

Despite their differences about what charges were brought against Jesus before Pilate, all four Gospels agree that at the crucified Jesus was mocked by having a titulus with the inscription “the king of the Jews” put on his cross. This agreement highlights the charge that was of significance for the Roman governor, which is the claim to kingship. Since the Jews believed that the Christ would become their king, this mocking of Jesus ridiculed his claim to messiahship.

The titulus is one example that shows that even when the Gospels are consistent, they do not completely agree with each other. This is the inscription according to the four Evangelists:

  • Mark (15:26): “The king of the Jews.”
  • Matthew (27:37): “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”
  • Luke (23:38): “This is the king of the Jews.”
  • John (19:19): “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”

Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

May 032010

Adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

Comparing what the Gospels say about any episode of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus reveals many differences and contradictions. The significance of these differences is that they undermine the historical reliability of the main sources on the alleged crucifixion. This article deals with one of these contradictions.

The contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion start as early as their specification of the date on which Jesus was arrested. All four Gospels state that Jesus was arrested and later crucified on the day of preparation: 

Now when evening had already come, since it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath). (Mark 15:42)

The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate. (Matt. 27:62)

It was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. (Luke 23:54)

 Then, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the victims’ legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19:31)

This designates Friday, on which all preparations for the Sabbath had to be done as no work could be done on the holy day. But John disagrees with the Synoptic assertion that this Friday was the first day of the Jewish festival of the Passover, suggesting that it was the day of rest of the Passover, i.e. one day earlier.

According to Jewish law, the lamb of the Passover is slaughtered in the evening of the 14th of Nisan, which is the first month in the Jewish calendar, and it is then eaten in that night (Exo. 12:1-8). As the Jewish day is reckoned from sunset to sunset, this night represents the start of the 15th of Nisan. The Synoptics claim that after having the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested later in that night, i.e. the night of the first day of the Passover (Mark 14:12-46; Matt. 26:19-50; Luke 22:7-54), and was crucified in the morning, that is on the morning of 15th Nisan.

John states that after being arrested and questioned by the high priest, Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate very early in the morning on the day of rest of the Passover, clearly implying that he was arrested on the previous night: “Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (John 18:28). The crucifixion happened hours later, so it must have taken place on the 14th of Nisan. So John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels, placing the arrest and crucifixion one day earlier. According to John, the Friday of the crucifixion was the day of rest of the Passover, whereas the other three Evangelists make it the first day of the feast. So the agreement of the four that it was on a Friday hides a disagreement on when that Friday fell with respect to the Passover.

John’s timeline of the crucifixion makes Jesus die at the same time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs. This works very well for his description of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” in the opening chapter of his Gospel, which he attributes to John the Baptist: 

On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)

John also applies to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the form of a prophecy, a description that the Old Testament applies to the Passover lamb: “For these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of his will be broken’” (John 19:36). John, thus, suggests that in his crucifixion Jesus played the role of the true Passover lamb. The fact that John’s dating of the crucifixion is in such agreement with his theology has made some scholars reject the historicity of his dating as deliberately manipulated and favor the Synoptic date: 

In John 1.36 Jesus is called the “the lamb of God,” and the equation Jesus = lamb has determined John’s dating of the crucifixion. At the very time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, the true lamb of God was dying outside the walls of the city. Once we see that the date in John agrees so strongly with its theology, we are inclined to prefer the Synoptics and conclude that Jesus was executed on Friday, 15 Nissan. (Sanders, 1995: 72)

Interestingly, while Mark makes it clear that Jesus was crucified on the first day of the Passover, it also states earlier that when, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and the experts in the law were conspiring to kill Jesus they did not want to kill him “during the feast, so there won’t be a riot among the people” (Mark 14:2). This passage may belong to a different tradition which is in line with the Johannine chronology of the crucifixion.

Not surprising, there have been attempts to harmonize the contradictory Gospel accounts. One popular attempt suggests that John used a different calendar from that used by the other three Evangelists. There is no evidence to support this suggestion, and there are strong arguments against it (Theissen & Merz, 1999: 159; also Vermes, 2005: 97-98).

This article has discussed only one of the contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, but there are many more. Furthermore, the Gospel stories contradict established historical facts also, including Jewish trial law. The Gospels are the main sources on the supposed crucifixion of Jesus. In fact, they are the only sources that discuss this alleged incident in detail. Therefore, their numerous internal contradictions and disagreements with history, both of which undermine the Gospels’ value as historical sources, must also equally undermine their claim that Jesus was crucified.

Sanders, E. P. (1995). The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Books: England.

Theissen, G. & Merz, A. (1999). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, SCM Press: London.

Vermes, G. (2005). The Passion, Penguin Books: London.

Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Oct 182009

On the 13th/October/2009, I gave a presentation to a group of postgraduate students and members of staff at the School of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion of Birmingham University, UK. The talk, which was part of their postgraduate seminars in Islamic Studies, was titled The Crucifixion of Jesus: History or Fiction? It was based on my book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources.

In my presentation, I reviewed problems in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, the few references to this event in historical sources, and the Qur’an’s rejection of the crucifixion. Among the topics that I covered was the claim of the Gospels that one of the charges that the Jewish authorities laid against Jesus was blasphemy for claiming to be the son of God. Let me quote here what the four Gospels say about this:

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64; ESV)

But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (Matthew 26:63-65; ESV)

So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” (Luke 22:70-71; ESV)

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7; ESV)

The problem with all of these quotes is that the claim to messiahship and/or sonship of God was not an act of blasphemy or a religious crime in Judaism. Many Christians do not know that the term “son of God” is used in the Old Testament but never to mean any form of divinity. On the other hand, claiming divine dignity was blasphemous. In other words, the Gospels’ unanimous claim is unhistorical.

What we have here is a case of anachronism, as the concept “son of God” is given a meaning that it had not acquired yet at the time of the reported event. By the time the Gospels’ were written, the divinity of Jesus had become an established belief, even though not for all who believed in Jesus. So, the Gospels present Jesus’ claim to the sonship of God as how he announced his divinity to people. They then go on to use this claim as the reason for the Jewish high priest and Sanhedrin’s charging of Jesus of claiming to be divine and, accordingly, blasphemy. In other words, the Christian authors of the Gospels attributed their later understanding of the meaning of the son of God to the Jewish authorities at the time of Jesus. The Gospels’ account is unhistorical.

During the Q&A session that followed my presentation, one member of staff argued that the Jewish authorities did not accuse Jesus of claiming to be divine only because he said he was the son of God — a term that I had already shown did not mean any form of divinity. He suggested that the Jewish leaders quoted to Pilate other sayings of Jesus that clearly confirmed that he claimed to be divine, but he could not provide a reference.

Actually, the Jewish authorities are not reported to have provided any evidence to support their accusation of Jesus that he claimed divinity other that their suggestion that he called himself the son of God. This fact represents another argument against the suggestion that Jesus claimed divinity. Let me explain. There are certain sayings that the Gospel of John attributes to Jesus that can be seen as suggesting that he claimed divine attributes. The problem, however, is that none of these sayings is quoted by the Jewish authorities when accusing Jesus of claiming to be divine! Instead, the religious authorities are said to have accused him of blasphemy only on the basis of his claim to the sonship of God. Had Jesus uttered any of those reported sayings in John, or indeed any other sayings that could be understood as meaning that he was divine, the Jewish authorities would have quoted them and used them in their attempt to seek his crucifixion. In their attempt to show that the Jewish authorities were aware of Jesus’ claim to divinity, which they thought would serve as proof that he did indeed make that claim, the Gospel authors ended up making up a scenario that can only be unhistorical.

But this is only one of many historical and consistency problems that permeate the Gospels. For many, including those liberals who do not believe that every word in the Gospels is inspired, these books recount the history of Jesus more or less as it happened. Yet as soon as one starts examining the accounts closely, that sense of history evaporates, leaving one with the inevitable conclusion that these sources are no different from numerous ancient documents that confused history and myths and propagated a version of history that never managed to happen. They became the canonical Gospels and other books were ignored, forgotten, burned, or banned by the Church because certain early fathers of the Church managed to make their views win the influence and popularity battle with their rivals’.

But is it possible that only four writers — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — could have dictated what billions of people over many centuries should believe Jesus said and did and what happened to him? To answer this question we only need to remember that it was only one individual, Paul, who did not meet Jesus or witness any of his sayings and doings who developed much of Christian theology! 

Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 282009

This article is extracted from chapter “Inconsistencies in the Gospel Accounts of the Crucifixion” in the book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

Comparing what the Gospels say about any episode of the story of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus reveals clear differences and contradictions. In this article, I examine the Gospels’ claim that Jesus drew similarity between his crucifixion and the miracle of prophet Jonah.

The Old Testament contains a story of a Jonah who was commissioned by God to go to preach in Nineveh. Jonah disobeyed the divine order and, traveling by sea, tried to escape from God and the mission. While in the sea, a powerful wind started to shake the boat dangerously. Jonah confessed to the sailors that this was the result of God’s wrath at him, and suggested a solution: “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you” (Jonah 1:12). After he was thrown in the sea, “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Having repented and prayed to God from inside the whale, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).

Matthew records a prediction in which Jesus likens his burial and resurrection to what happened to Jonah:

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, “Master, we would see a sign from thee.” But he answered and said unto them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:38-40)

There is hardly any similarity between the two events, yet there are clear and fundamental differences. Indeed, drawing similarity between the two disappearances is rather meaningless:

i) Jesus is not simply likening his burial to the disappearance of Jonah in the belly of the whale, but he is also emphasizing the duration of his death, making it clear that it is three days and three nights, like Jonah’s. The problem is that Jesus did not actually stay that long in the tomb. The Synoptists agree that he died just after 3 pm (Mark 15:33-37; Matt. 27:45-50; Luke 23:44-46). John does not tell us the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, but it must have happened after midday when he was handed over to be executed. All four Gospels also agree that Jesus had already risen from the dead by the early morning of the Sunday that followed the Friday of the crucifixion (Mark 16:1; Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). This means that Jesus remained buried for only one day and two nights, which contradicts the prediction in Matthew. The apologetic argument that Jesus’ mention of the three days and nights was not intended to refer to an exact period of time is inadmissible, as it makes the reference to that specific, or indeed any, timeframe meaningless.

Luke has his own version of Jesus’ prophecy which, unlike Matthew, he places after the Transfiguration, when Jesus appeared radiant and spoke with Moses and Elijah. This Evangelist perhaps realized the contradiction in Matthew’s account so he makes no mention of the time:

And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, “This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” (Luke 11:29-30)

But a different problem with this briefer account is that it also omits the resemblance that Jesus clearly establishes in Matthew’s version between the two temporary disappearances of Jonah and himself, thus leaving the comparison meaningless to his audience.

ii) Jesus’ alleged miracle was his resurrection from death. This miracle would not become more impressive if Jesus had stayed, say, 10 days in the tomb or less impressive if he had spent only one night. The reported miracle is simply one of resurrection from death. Conversely, the miraculous aspect of Jonah’s experience is his survival inside the whale for three days and nights. Inside the tomb Jesus did not experience any miracle; he was dead like all the dead.

iii) Jonah’s ordeal was a punishment for his failure to obey God. Jesus’ miracle is supposed to have happened to fulfill a divine plan that reflected his unique, high status in God’s eye.

iv) Matthew reports a second incident in which Jesus was asked to show a “sign from heaven,” which he refused to do, and pointed to Jonah’s miracle:

The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” And he left them, and departed. (Matt. 16:1-4)

The reply that Matthew attributes to Jesus is completely irrelevant to the challenge, and that is because the Evangelist failed to understand what the Pharisees and Sadducees meant by a “sign from heaven,” which had nothing to do with a miracle like Jonah’s. A demand for such a miracle by the Pharisees is mentioned by Mark and another by unidentified people is reported by Luke (11:16):

And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, “Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)

As I explained in my book The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources, this request was intended to test whether Jesus can bring food from heaven in the same way that God sent down manna and quails from heaven to the Israelites in the desert of Sinai after fleeing Egypt with Moses (Exo. 16:11-15). The miracle of bringing down food from heaven is described in the Qur’an:

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: “Be pious to Allah, if you are true believers.” (5.112) They said: “We wish to eat of it, have our hearts be at ease, know that you have spoken the truth to us, and be witnesses to it (the table)”. (5.113) Jesus son of Mary said: “O Allah our Lord! Send down for us from heaven a table of food, that it may be a feast for the first and the last of us, and a sign from You. Give us sustenance; You are the best of Sustainers.” (5.114) Allah said: “I shall send it down for you, so whoever of you disbelieves afterward I will punish him with a torment that I do not inflict on anyone among all the nations.” (5.115)

John has an account that clearly refers to this incident, with the most noticeable difference being the fact that the Jesus of John declines to perform the required miracle, whereas the Jesus of the Qur’an does it:

Then said they unto him, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” They said therefore unto him, “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” (John 6:28-33)

This account confirms my interpretation of what sign from heaven people asked Jesus to show and the fact that it had nothing to do with Jonah’s miracle in the sea.

v) Jesus’ alleged likening of his death and resurrection to what happened to Jonah is also contradicted by the Gospel reports of how his disciples and followers behaved after his crucifixion. Their behaviors suggest that they were not aware that he was going to rise from the dead. For instance, his followers who visited his tomb were not expecting an empty tomb. Also, when Jesus appeared to his disciples after rising from the dead, they first did not believe that it was him (also Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:25-29):

And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not. After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them. Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.(Mark 16:11-14)

So, the similary that the Gospels claim Jesus made between his resurrection and the miracle of Jonah is contradictory and cannot be historical.


Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

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
All Rights Reserved

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. 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. 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. 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

Nov 172007

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

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
All Rights Reserved