A Note on Christian Sources for the Muslim Christmas Story


Earlier this week, I shared a post on the Muslim Christmas story, as found in the Qur’an. During this past week, I had the privilege of having an insightful exchange with a few people via a New Testament studies Facebook group. One comment that came up was a challenge to my claim that:

There are strong parallels to apocryphal gospels, such as the Proto-Gospel of James (likely second century CE) and (with the mention of turning clay birds into real birds) the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an is a strong witness to the importance of these Christian legends/texts within the Near Eastern world of the 7th century.

My observation follows a very standard reading of the Qur’an by those who study Christian apocrypha and, therefore, should not have been shocking for anyone in the field (though perhaps for non-specialists first encountering the Muslim Christmas story). The online exchange, however, offered a valuable challenge to this common reading of the Qur’an. The point raised was that the passages in the Qur’an may not relate to (or relate directly to) the noncanonical gospels usually identified with these Qur’anic passages due to their concise form, different narrative contexts, etc. This observation is really important, as it raises questions about the relationship of our sources in late antiquity and how literary motifs or ideas are shared, embedded, and received by ancient readers.

Although I shared my response online, I thought it might be helpful to raise some of those points—in appropriately edited format—for a broader audience.

To begin, let me clearly state that I am not a Qur’anic scholar, though I do work closely with Christian apocryphal material and, in the past, have taught an introductory undergraduate course on the Qur’an. I also believe that formative Islam is an important part of the broader “story” or history of late antiquity, that those of us working on early to medieval Christianity must be in dialogue with those studying early Islam/Islamic origins. Consequently, let me offer my thoughts on this question of source of dependency (mainly as someone who works on NT and apocryphal materials) and hopefully those thoughts will make a small contribution to an ongoing conversation.

When I look at the parallels in both Q. 3 and 19, the elements are very briefly presented, often undeveloped, and reframed. They may even be challenging the very ideas found within the Christian sources. Do such differences indicate a literary relationship or independent works? Let’s look at this aspect a bit closer.

(1) The treatment of the Christmas story in the Qur’an is not atypical of text’s style of presentation. Often the Qur’an condenses and reframes its source material. For example, the Noahic Flood tradition in the Qur’an redacts the Genesis story in order to transform Noah into more of a prophetic figure (and thus the destruction of the people is due to their rejecting the message from the prophet). The redactional activity, as is typical for editorial handling of material, modifies the source material to articulate or advance the position of the author/redactor. Furthermore, the Qur’an often works with “nuggets” rather than fully developed narratives, even when paralleling earlier biblical texts. In reading the Qur’an, therefore, it is best to compare sections of different surahs that are thematically linked rather than, as with the Hebrew Bible, reading them as self-contained narratives. From a teaching position, the Droge translation is ideally designed for such an approach. Consequently, we should not be surprised if the Qur’an offers simplified versions of what we find in the New Testament or apocryphal gospels or if those motifs are located in diverse parts of the Qur’an.

(2) A parallel does not necessarily indicate textual dependency. For example, in my recently published translation of a tenth-century Coptic Encomium on John the Baptist, Jesus is referred to as “the compassionate and merciful” (Encom. Bapt. 6:1) (see my intro and transl. in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, vol. 1, ed. by Tony Burke and Brent Landau; Eerdmans, 2016, pp. 217-46). I had thought of playing with the idea that this was a Coptic Christian appropriation and inversion of the basmala (“In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”; that opens every sura except for Q. 9, which, given the hortatory theme of that surah, likely was a rhetorical decision), but to make such an interpretative move would require far more than a simple parallel. In this case, the reference to “our good god and philanthropic Christ” (Encom. Bapt. 10:1; cf. 19:1) may be a title for Christ rather than two separate beings (God and Christ). If titular, and taken with 6:1 as a Christian appropriation of the basmala, then we could be seeing a Coptic Christian rejection of Muslim Christology, specifically by assigning divinity to Christ. If so, then we could be witnessing a religious debate over Christ/Jesus between Muslims and Christians in late antiquity in both this encomium and the Qur’an. But such a conclusion remains speculative if it just relies on a loose parallel. So also with the apocryphal Christmas material. Just because we see similar motifs does not mean that we have source dependency.

But there are at least two relevant points that reinforce some sort of connection between the Qur’an and the Christian apocryphal gospels.

(3) First, the Qur’an seems to challenge/correct/respond to Christian traditions on the birth of Jesus. The most prominent challenge, of course, is the question as to whether or not Jesus is God’s son. This is a very general counter, which on its own carries less weight, but there are also counters to smaller motifs. For example, the turning of clay birds into living birds is compressed in the Qur’an, with the Sabbath debate omitted, any magical qualities of Jesus suppressed (he only does what God permits), and the context changing the broader Christological aspects of, for example, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and/or the Arabic Infancy Gospel (which used both Inf. Gos. Thom. and the Proto-Gospel of James). Such a challenge to or countering of the sources, however, strikes me as even stronger evidence of the Qur’an’s use of apocryphal gospel material. It is responding to and correcting that gospel material, which suggests that the compilers/authors/readers, etc. of the Qur’an were aware of these traditions and were directly engaging them.

(4) Second, we need to ask how unique is the material. The reference to Jesus speaking in Q. 19 has been linked back to the Arabic Infancy Gospel, where Jesus speaks in the cradle. The motif is not wide-spread, but it’s not really all that unique of a motif  so as to screams “source dependency”. In this case, the motif is far more central to the Qur’an than the Arabic Infancy Gospel (and broader cultural trends in glorifying a special infant—a direction in reading Inf. Gos. Thom. advanced by Tony Burke, who is arguably the leading scholar on this text—could be sought to explain this motif without a direct source relationship). However, Jesus turning clay birds into living birds is such a unique miracle that it stands out. In the Christian tradition, this miracle is limited to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (in its various versions, including the recently published translation of the Syriac version in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures by Burke, a version that opens with this very miracle) and those texts drawing upon that earlier gospel (e.g., the Arabic Infancy Gospel).

Furthermore, when we look at Q. 3.35-41, we find a developed narrative where Mary’s birth is miraculous, where she is dedicated to the Temple, where she is fed at “the place of prayer”. It is almost impossible to not see the Protevangelium Jacobi ( = Proto-Gospel of James) underlying this passage. And the reference to “lots” to care for Mary, evokes, again from the Proto-Gospel of James, the selection of Joseph to care for Mary when she had to leave the Temple at puberty. In both the apocryphal gospel and the Qur’an, we find developed narratives of such unique narrative motifs. These motifs are not in the New Testament gospels and therefore the Qur’an must have had access to Christian traditions beyond the NT gospels. Yes, the Qur’an is not as developed as a narrative, but, as mentioned, that is not atypical of its treatment of sources. These unique elements do suggest some level of dependency.

When a parallel is more unique than commonplace, less disseminated through various sources, and seems less likely to have arisen simply through general motifs in the general cultural (e.g., philosophical or mythological tropes), then there is a higher likelihood of some sort of literary influence at play.

(5) But we need to ask, what kind of dependency or influence? The simplest answer is to claim that the Qur’an simply borrows from those apocryphal texts, as if the compiler/author had Inf. Gos. Thom., Prot. James, or Arabic Inf. Gos. in front of him or her and selectively used the material—as if the author or editor of the Qur’an also had a copy of Schneemelcher and Wilson’s New Testament Apocrypha beside them as they wrote out their own account of the Christmas story. This direct dependency is what is usually assumed or implied in scholarship. But that may not be the only or even the best way to appreciate source influence. We could have direct literary influences between our extant sources; we could have influence from other sources that were influenced by our sources (thus an indirect literary influence); we may also be witnessing an oral dependency on those sources (either through formal liturgical use, material culture, or popular folktales). And, of course, it is possible that the Qur’an had access to earlier or more “primitive” versions of these narrative elements, versions that may be independently shared sources by both the Qur’an and the apocryphal gospels. These apocryphal gospels were themselves very fluid in their formation and transmission, so we should recognize that a fixed source may not have been the key to the underlying Christian traditions influencing the Qur’an.

Of course, I am working with the historical perspective that there is a literary relationship (of some sort, even if through oral transmission) going on, a perspective or assumption that would fly in the face of the traditional origin of the Qur’an as divinely given Scripture recited from the angel to the prophet. With all due respect for those Muslims holding to the tradition account of the origin of the Qur’an, as an historian I can’t ignore the indications of literary relationships (however we may wish to explain such relationships) due to an insider claim to revelation (any more than I would with the NT gospels). But revelation aside, it does seem to me that, even with the reworking, condensing, and challenging of Christian motifs, there is some sort of relationship at play—be that direct, indirect, oral, visual, formal, informal. At the very least, we could say that a potential or ideal reader/hearer of the Qur’an in this general cultural context could have picked-up on those very motifs, reading the (counter-)narrative of the Qur’an’s Christmas story through an intertextual lens with these popular tales.

A further comment on source analysis and redaction criticism is needed to round off my discussion. As is common in the study of the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, Luke), along with the Gospel of Thomas, redaction criticism usually has followed the general trend of tracing editorial changes along the line of movement from the simple to the more complex. Thus, the identification of the more “primitive” or earlier version of a pericope, motif, saying, etc. is the one that is less developed, rather than the one with more detail. The assumption is that it is easier to embellish than to simplify. Although there has been some criticism of such an assumption in biblical scholarship, historically the majority of scholars have followed the simple to complex model, especially scholarship throughout the 20th century. In some cases, this assumption is likely very correct (e.g., Protevangelium Jacobi builds on Mt. and Lk. in an attempt to harmonize these otherwise independent and differing gospels on the Christmas story).

But we could also argue for a movement of complex to simple, where a more developed narrative is compressed or condensed, for example, to a “nugget”. in my own work on that Encomium on John the Baptist, for example, the opening homily seems to do just this kind of redaction with the NT gospel accounts of John the Baptist (while also engaging traditions from or related to Serapion’s Life of John the Baptist). The death of John the Baptist is illustrative:

When the birthday of the accursed Herod arrived, the daughter of Herodias came forth and she danced, pleasing Herod and those dining with him. Then he promised to give her anything she asked for. She went to her mother to report this to her. (Herodias) said to her, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist, and have them present it upon a platter.”

She returned to the king and said to him, “Give me at this very moment the head of John the Baptist upon a platter.” The King ordered that it be given to her. He sent a guard to the prison with orders to fetch John’s head. (The guard) brought it back on a platter. He gave it to her and she brought it to her mother. Then his disciples came and took his body and they buried it. And they conveyed the news to Jesus. (Encom. Bapt. 4; my translation in New Testament Apocrypha)

This account is a very condensed version of what we find in the New Testament. There is no remorse on the part of Herod, no interest in dialoguing with John, no royal scandal being declared by John, the daughter is not named, etc. And the actual execution is very direct and linear. The Coptic (not in the translation) has a chain of “then” linking Herod to John and then (the head of) John to Herodias. But it would be unlikely for this account to be a witness of an earlier version of this New Testament tale. Not only does the Encomium on John the Baptist exist in two Coptic manuscripts that date to the tenth century, with the actual text not dated before the fifth century at the earliest, though more likely dated between the eighth and tenth centuries, but it demonstrates a knowledge of a wide range of canonical and non-canonical sources. Consequently, it is best read as a compression of narrative motifs that the audience/readers would likely have already been familiar with (e.g., in a liturgical context).

So also with the Qur’an, the abbreviated, re-framed, and undeveloped presentation of certain motifs seems to suggest either:

(1) earlier or more primitive versions of what are more developed in the chronologically much earlier Christian apocryphal gospels (i.e., the Qur’an may be a witness, e.g., to an earlier tradition of Mary raised in the Temple than found in Protevangelium Jacobi) (this assumes the simple to complex direction), or

(2) a selective use and compression of those apocryphal tales—either directly or indirectly from the texts we have—, embedding those motifs within new literary contexts (i.e., the Qur’an’s “Christmas story”) (assuming the complex to simple direction).

Given the date of the Qur’an (at the earliest the seventh century CE, compiled under Uthman, or, to evoke John Wansbrough’s hypothesis, perhaps over a century later under the Umayyad empire), the literary tendency of the Qur’an to compress and collect material in “nugget” form (even beyond the Christmas story), and the likely literary relationship traced out above, it is more likely that a complex-to-simple redactional model fits best for the Qur’an. Of course, both models are possible as would be some mixture of the two (compression and expansion of material). We also need to consider that the Qur’an’s source material may not have been literary, but rather oral in transmission.

Further work along these lines, however, would also necessitate research into allusions and intertextuality—and there are some excellent theoretical models available for such work; e.g., in the forthcoming book on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literary production, edited by Ziony Zevit, Subtle Citations (Equinox Publishing, forthcoming in 2017). The study of allusions, citations, and intertextuality will move us in the direction of not just source criticism, but also reception theory. This is a great research topic to pursue, though obviously way beyond the scope of a blog post.

Regardless of the details, I do think that there is some form of connection between the Qur’an and these apocryphal gospel traditions, though perhaps not in a simple or direct sense. The key now is to figure out what that connection (most likely) is! That’s the fun part.


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