virgin birth

Both the Qur’an and Bible tell the story of the virgin birth of Jesus, a pivotal event in the life of Mary. The reason for its importance is very different when we compare Islamic and Christian theology. For Muslims, it serves as evidence of Jesus’s prophethood in the cradle, whereas for Christians it is believed to show that Jesus is literally the divine Son of God. This article is going to compare details of both accounts. We will see why the Biblical narrative is plagued by theological, textual and historical issues, and how the Qur’an resolves all these problems.

ANALYSIS OF THE BIBLE

The virgin birth narrative is present in only two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Here is what Matthew has to say about the birth of Jesus (all translations taken from the New International Version of the Bible):

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]

We can see that the Gospel of Matthew claims that Mary was betrothed to Joseph for marriage. At some point after this, Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus, a miraculous situation given that she was still a virgin. Joseph was initially considering divorcing his wife quietly as he did not want to expose her to the public disgrace. Joseph goes on to have a dream in which he is told to keep Mary as his wife, which he does.

This account poses some serious theological issues from the point of view of Jesus being the literal divine Son of God, as Christians believe. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, or after Jesus was born, one of two things must have happened:

1) The virgin birth was kept secret from the people

2) The virgin birth was made public to the people

Both of these scenarios are highly problematic with the Christian doctrine of Jesus’s divine sonship.

In the case of number 1, there is a problem. If the virgin birth was kept quiet, then the people at that time would have assumed that Jesus had an earthly father, Joseph who was Mary’s husband. We can assume that people did not suspect Mary of having committed illegal sexual intercourse, as the penalty for this would have been death according to Old Testament Law. If Jesus was conceived by Joseph and Mary, then that would mean that Jesus is 100% purely human. In that case, the people would have always believed that Jesus was nothing more than a human, and any attempt by him to publicly claim that he is the literal divine Son of God, as Christians claim, would have (quite reasonably) been rejected by the masses on the grounds that his father is Joseph. This a huge problem for Christians, for they have the problem of why God wouldn’t have made his virgin birth known and misled people into believing he’s 100% human only.

In the case of number 2, there is also a problem. The virgin birth miracle could also easily be dismissed by the people by arguing that since Mary and Joseph were legally married, then it was possible for Joseph to have been the father. The fact that Mary was Joseph’s wife is precisely what would have protected Mary from getting stoned to death for illegal sexual intercourse, according to Jewish Law.

In both these scenarios, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had reasonable doubt and could not be blamed for rejecting the claims of Christianity that Jesus was the literal divine Son of God. The irony is that the very event many Christians cite in order to lend support for the divinity of Jesus actually, upon proper analysis, is an argument against it.

It seems that some early Christian groups were aware of these issues with the New Testament accounts, and other Gospels even try to reconcile the problems. The Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James, dated to around 150 – 200 CE, is perhaps the earliest of the apocryphal infancy gospels. In the Proto-Gospel of James, Joseph calls for a midwife to assist in Jesus’s delivery, telling her: “Mary is betroth to me; but she conceived of the Holy Spirit”. As the midwife approaches Mary, she exclaims: “My soul is magnified today, for my eyes have seen wonderful things; for salvation is born to Israel”. But when the first midwife informs a second midwife, Salome that “a virgin has brought forth,” Salome is not convinced: “As the Lord my God lives unless I put (forward) my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth”. Salome refuses to believe that a virgin has given birth unless she can test Mary’s condition with her finger and find her still a virgin. It is only after performing the gynaecological examination of Mary that Salome believes. Salome’s role is that of a witness of the virgin birth [1].

The Gospel of Matthew goes on to provide further details about Mary, Joseph and Jesus:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. [Matthew 2:13-16]

There are some big claims made here by Matthew, and they are all problematic. Firstly, it is claimed that Joseph, Mary and Jesus’s flight to Egypt was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy:

And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

So according to Matthew, there’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that was fulfilled by Jesus when he was taken to Egypt. The problem is that when one goes back to the book of Hosea in the Old Testament, which is where the statement is referenced from, you will find that Matthew misquoted the passage:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. [Hosea 11:1]

As you can see, when read in full, rather than being a prophecy about Jesus, this verse was in fact speaking of a past event, the exodus at the time of Moses.

Another problem with Matthew’s account are the historical inaccuracies it contains. Matthew makes the claim that there was a mass slaughter of male babies:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under

The leading New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders, who is a major scholar in contemporary scholarship on the historical Jesus, says this about the historicity of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents:

Herod was ruthless, and he did kill people who seemed to pose a threat to his reign, including (as we saw above) his favourite wife and their two sons, plus one of his sons by another wife. Did he slaughter ‘all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under’ (Matt. 2. 1 6)? It is not likely. Josephus narrated a lot of stories about Herod, dwelling on his brutality, but not this one. [2]

When it comes to the virgin birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke, some unique information is provided about the birth of Jesus:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. [Luke 2:1-5]

Here Luke claims that a worldwide census was conducted by the Romans, which required Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem in order to register themselves. One point to note is that Matthew mentions no such census, this claim is unique to Luke. Imagine a system of taxation based on people returning to their ancestral homes, going back a thousand years in the case of Joseph. By this time the Jews were spread out all over the known world. Can we seriously believe that the Romans would have required them to come back to Palestine, carrying everything they owned? How would the tax officials have assessed their land? Many historians have noted the sheer impracticability of such a worldwide consensus, which is one reason why it is rejected by many historians as having never taken place. For example, E. P. Sanders says this about the alleged worldwide Roman census:

Why should Joseph have had to register in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? What was Augustus – the most rational of Caesars – thinking of? The entirety of the Roman empire would have been uprooted by such a decree. Besides, how would any given man know where to go… There are a lot of difficulties with Luke’s census. One is that he dates it near Herod’s death (4 BCE) and also ten years later, when Quirinius was legate of Syria (6 CE). We know from Josephus, supported by an ancient inscription, that in the year 6 CE, when Quirinius was legate, Rome did take a census of people who lived in Judea, Samaria, and Idumaea – not Galilee, and not by asking them all to travel. [3]

In summary, the virgin birth narratives present in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain numerous problems, including theological, textual and historical issues.

HOW THE QUR’ANIC ACCOUNT SOLVES THESE PROBLEMS

God informs us in the Qur’an that one day Mary was given glad tidings by an angel of a special son she would give birth to:

The angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God. [3:45]

Mary reacts with surprise, for she had led a chaste life. This was to be a miraculous virgin birth:

She said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a son when no man has touched me?’ [The angel] said, ‘This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, “Be”, and it is.’ [3:47]

This child would perform miracles from the cradle, be full of wisdom and righteous in the eyes of God:

He will speak to people in his infancy and in his adulthood. He will be one of the righteous… He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel [3:46-48]

When Mary became pregnant with Jesus, she withdrew herself from her people. She knew they would not believe her miraculous story and would slander her and accuse her of having committed fornication: “And so it was ordained: she conceived him. She withdrew to a distant place.” [19:22]

When she went into labour, she was in great pain and utter despair. Then God, out of His mercy, provided her with sustenance:

And, when the pains of childbirth drove her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, ‘I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!’ but a voice cried to her from below, ‘Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you.’ [19:23-25]

God informed her that, when she returns to her people, she should not speak a word to them:

So eat, drink, be glad, and say to anyone you may see: ‘I have vowed to the Lord of Mercy to abstain from conversation, and I will not talk to anyone today’ [19:26]

After giving birth to Jesus, Mary returned to her people. They confirmed her fears by implying she had committed fornication. This was a serious accusation, as under Jewish Law the punishment would be stoning to death:

She went back to her people carrying the child, and they said, ‘Mary! You have done something terrible! Sister of Aaron! Your father was not an evil man; your mother was not unchaste!’ [19:27-28]

In this tense situation, Mary remained true to God’s command. Honouring God’s instructions to remain silent, Mary pointed to baby Jesus who proceeded to defend his mother’s honour and proclaim his Prophethood:

She pointed at him. They said, ‘How can we converse with an infant?’ [But] he said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ [19:29-33]

We can see that the Qur’an has no mention of Joseph, instead it puts emphasis on the virgin birth miracle and how it was a sign to the people. This solves multiple problems in the Biblical narrative, as it not only explains why Mary was not stoned to death, for Jesus speaking in the cradle proves God’s intervention all along, but it also gave Jesus’s people, the Israelites, no excuse but to believe in and follow him as a prophet. It’s important to point out that although Joseph is not mentioned in the Qur’anic account, this does not necessarily mean that he is an invented figure. It’s possible that Mary married him after Jesus was born, which would not contradict the Qur’anic narrative or Islamic principles.

THE CLAIM THAT THE QUR’AN COPIED FROM THE APOCRYPHA

Some critics claim that the Qur’an copied forged stories about Jesus from the apocrypha, which are early Christian and Jewish writings which are generally not considered to be authentic and were therefore excluded from the canon of the Bible. It is true that we find mention of a similar cradle narrative writings such as the Syriac Infancy Gospel which may have been contemporaneous to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Scholars differ as to its dating, but for the sake of argument, if we assume that it was accessible to him, could it have been used as a source? The Syriac Infancy Gospel does in fact contain a cradle narrative about Jesus:

He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Word, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.”

It is highly unlikely that the Qur’an copied from the Syriac Infancy Gospel. There are many differences between the Qur’anic cradle account. There is no mention of accusations against Mary, and even the speech of Jesus is different:

I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Word

Christians may say that Muhammad changed the words because he disagreed with labels such as “Son of God”. However, notice that Jesus also tells his mother that he is the word. The Qur’an also refers to Jesus as a word from Allah. So there’s no reason why Muhammad wouldn’t have had Jesus saying to his mother that he is a word from Allah if he was indeed plagiarising, since that does not contravene Islamic theology. Another point is that the Syriac Infancy Gospel also mentions some amazing claims about Jesus such as his diaper having a healing ability and his sweat turned into balm. The Qur’an does not make any mention of these, so if Muhammad was copying then why is it that the Qur’an contains none of these exciting details? Moreover, there were many stories in circulation about Jesus in the centuries following him. If we assume that Muhammad had access to them, what are the chances that he would ignore most of them and take a general cradle narrative, give it a new context in the Qur’an and in the process resolve many of the inconsistencies in the New Testament narratives? One typically copies blindly, one does not copy and then improve/fix issues.

When Christian polemicists use the argument that apocryphal stories are fabricated, the underlying assumption appears to be that because the claims do not appear in the New Testament, therefore they cannot possibly be true. But why can’t apocryphal writings contain material that was handed down from some earlier genuinely prophetic document? Just because texts such as the Syriac Infancy Gospel are classified as apocryphal, it doesn’t mean they cannot contain truth. The Gospel of John states that Jesus performed many miracles that weren’t recorded:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book [John 20:30]

Just because the cradle miracle is absent from the New Testament, does not mean it’s a forgery. The Gospel of John states that Jesus did many miracles that were not not recorded by it, so it’s entirely possible that the miracle of Jesus speaking in the cradle was one such story.

In fact this argument that is often used by Christian polemicists, that the author of the Qur’an borrowed stories from early Christian apocryphal works and therefore they are unreliable, backfires against the New Testament itself. For example, the Espistle of Jude contains the following story:

Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ [Jude 1:9]

This story about the archangel Michael and the devil is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, it can only be found in a Jewish apocryphal work, The Assumption of Moses, which is usually dated to the 1st century BCE. Origen, an early Christian scholar and theologian, mentions that the book The Assumption of Moses was extant in his time, containing this very account of the contest between Michael and the devil. That book, now lost, was supposed by Origen to be the source of the account in the Epistle of Jude [4]. Conservative Christians do not hesitate to accept this story as historical simply because it is in the Bible, yet historians will tell you it is apocryphal. Here is another example from the Espistle of Jude:

It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘See, the Lord is coming with tens of thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgement on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’ [Jude 1:14-15]

The quote about “tens of thousands of his holy ones” originates in The Book of Enoch, another ancient Jewish apocryphal work. Modern scholars date it to around 300 BCE. Many early church writers viewed the Book of Enoch as being virtually inspired, in as much as they assumed that the document was quoted by Jude, and that such would suggest its divine character. We find, for example, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria citing the Book of Enoch without questioning its sacred character. Irenaeus, assigning to the Book of Enoch an authenticity analogous to that of Mosaic literature, affirms that Enoch, although a man, filled the office of God’s messenger to the angels [5]. Tertullian, an early church father and founder of Latin Christianity, wrote a few positive things concerning the Book of Enoch. Whilst admitting that the “Scripture of Enoch” is not received by some because it is not included in the Hebrew Canon, speaks of the author as “the most ancient prophet, Enoch”. Tertullian adds, “But as Enoch has spoken in the same scripture of the Lord, and ‘every scripture suitable for edification is divinely inspired,’ let us reject nothing which belongs to us. It may now seem to have been disavowed by the Jews like all other scripture which speaks of Christ—a fact which should cause us no surprise, as they were not to receive him, even when personally addressed by himself”. These views Tertullian confirms by appealing to the testimony of the Apostle Jude [6]. The Book of Enoch was therefore as sacred as the Psalms or Isaiah in the eyes of the famous theologian, on whom modern orthodoxy relies as the chief canonist of New Testament scripture.

In summary, we can see that the New Testament contains stories from the same kind of apocryphal literature as the Syriac Infancy Gospel, which is attributed by Christian polemicists as being the source of the Qur’anic account of Jesus speaking in the cradle. The New Testament authors made use of apocryphal texts which are accepted as historical without any hesitation by these same Christian polemicists, so we have to be consistent when it comes to the Qur’an and the Bible.

CONCLUSION

We’ve seen that the Qur’anic narrative about the virgin birth is coherent. The Qur’an corrects the Biblical accounts, it does not contain the theological, textual or historical issues that plague the New Testament. In the process, the Qur’an removes a major stumbling block which prevents Jewish people from accepting Jesus as the Messiah. For millennia, Jews have rejected Jesus, in part due to the Christian claim that Jesus is the literal Son of God, which goes against the pure monotheism of the Old Testament. The Qur’an shows us that Jesus was not the Son of God but rather a prophet, as demonstrated by his majestic proclamation of prophethood in the cradle. The virgin birth is not the only point that the Qur’an corrects the Bible on, it does so consistently on numerous occasions (see this article here). One of the names of the Qur’an is Al Furqan, meaning “the Criterion between truth and falsehood”. So the Qur’an not only confirms the Scriptures that came before it, but also corrects the misunderstandings about them:

And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it… [Chapter 5, verse 48]

Learn more

To learn more about Jesus from both the Islamic and Christian perspective, please download your free copy of the book “Jesus: Man, Messenger, Messiah” from the Iera website:

Jesus: Man, Messenger, Messiah

References

1 – Gerald Sigal, The Virgin Birth Myth the Misconcpetions of Jesus, p. 49.

2 – E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 87.

3 – E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 86-87.

4 – Origen, De principiis, III, 2, 1.

5 – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, iv. 16.

6 – Tertullian, The Apparel Of Women, Book One, 3:1-3.

Written by Many Prophets One Message
A CALL TO THE TRUTH

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