For some reason, Bismikaallahuma seems to be obsessed with attacking every detail the Bible reports of the birth of Jesus (see our other rebuttals to their various charges: Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to Egypt or to Nazareth?, A Fancy for Fiction and Fables, Problems In Birth Narratives, Jesus' Association with Nazareth, A Worldwide Census under Quirinius?). This paper is yet another installment in this series.
Their recent article titled John 8 and the Birth of Jesus, written by Asif Iqbal and published by Bismikaallahuma on 21 February 2004, is one of the strangest Muslim polemics I have ever seen. Although the Qur'an clearly speaks of the miraculous birth of Jesus by a virgin mother, Asif Iqbal tries to attack exactly this aspect of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. He concludes his pamphlet with these words:
Furthermore, a whole bunch of scholars, the most notable of them perhaps being Adolf von Harnack, have argued that the textual analysis reveals verse 34-35 of the Gospel of Luke to be post-Lucan, being an interpolation by a later scribe or redactor. Verse 35 has a different Christology ("Son of God") from those of verses 32-33 ("Son of the Most High"), thereby suggesting a later Hellenistic addition to a Jewish narrative. Without this interpolation the sequence of the annunciation narrative betrays a natural conception.
Since the term "the Most High" is a descriptive title of God, it is not very convincing to claim that the titles "Son of God" and "Son of the Most High" have such a different meaning that they are incompatible and cannot come from the same author, Luke. Iqbal appeals to a "bunch of scholars" that engaged in such speculations. He specifically refers to an article by Harnack published in 1901, but he conveniently ignores that the claims of these scholars have not remained undisputed. One could cite many other scholars who do not agree with the above conclusion for various reasons. Like his collegue "Johnny Bravo" Iqbal is merely "stacking the deck" instead of making a genuine argument. This kind of speculation was fashionable roughly a century ago. Iqbal would have great problems finding any respected scholar who still holds to this argument today. In fact, the Jewish manuscript 4Q246 of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran contains the statement, "He will be called son of God, and they will call him son of the Most High." This text uses identical language to what is found in Luke, demonstrating the thorough Jewishness of the expressions, "Son of God" and "Son of the Most High", and how they are used in parallelism (cf. the article The 'Son of God'). His "whole bunch of scholars" was simply wrong, and Iqbal's ‘research’ seems to have gotten stuck in theories that were discussed more than a hundred years ago.
For this article, however, I am mainly interested in Iqbal's conclusion found in the last sentence of the above quotation. Apparently, the author wants to make his readers believe that Jesus was born naturally, i.e. somebody had a sexual relationship with Mary, and Jesus' conception and birth was the natural result of this union.
The attempted insults against Jesus and his mother by the Muslim author are even stronger when he writes:
Now the point, which requires attention, is that in the very next response by the Jews, they doubt the legitimacy of Jesus' birth: "Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" (verse 48). This is another way of saying: "Look, our birth is not illegitimate; Your's is. We were saying all along that your mother had relations with a Samaritan before your birth." ... This clearly indicates that John acknowledged that the Jews had serious doubts from the beginning about the birth of Jesus and his unwillingness to quote any response by Jesus, to deny this charge, proves that John acknowledged that Jesus' legitimacy of birth was disputed.
In this paragraph, the author seeks to ‘inform’ us that Jesus was not only born naturally but he was perhaps even an illegitimate child, i.e. born out of wedlock. To put it even more crudely, he seemingly wants the readers to think that Mary, the mother of Jesus, committed fornication. [If this was not his intention, why does he only report the accusation but nowhere declares these accusations to be wrong?]
What really is the message of Iqbal's article? What does he want the reader to believe about Jesus?
Which of these two alternatives does the author actually argue?
The Qur'an speaks of the birth of Jesus in Surah 19 and emphatically rejects accusations similar to those raised by Iqbal in his article:
Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East. She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God." He said: "Nay, I am only an apostle from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son." She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?" He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed."
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!" But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. "So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to (God) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being'"
At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought! O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!" But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?" He said: "I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"! Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute. It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is. (Surah 19:16-35, Yusuf Ali)
There are many reasons why the quranic version of the annunciation, conception and birth of Jesus is not credible. These issues are carefully explained elsewhere (cf. Sources of the Qur'an, The Quranic Birth Accounts, etc.). For this discussion it is only important that the charges presented by the author plainly contradict the Qur'an.
We ask: What was Iqbal's purpose with his allegations? And he is not the only one who needs to be asked this question. Why exactly did Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi (MENJ) publish this article on his website Bismikaallahuma?
If these Muslim polemicists want to claim that Jesus was indeed born illegitimately, then they contradict not only the Bible, but also the Qur'an.
If they merely claim that this particular accusation was at some time made against Jesus and his mother, then this is explicitly found in the Qur'an. Whether or not the Jews really leveled this charge against Jesus in John 8 will be discussed below. However, even if they did, neither Jesus, nor anyone else for that matter, is guilty simply because his enemies made some accusations against him.
If, on the other hand, they do not believe that Jesus was born naturally, let alone illegitimately, but was conceived without a human father through a miraculous act of God, then this question remains: What is their point?
It seems that some Muslim polemicists seek to attack Christianity and smear the image of Jesus even if those charges contradict their own scripture. One thing is clear: If Iqbal's charges are true that Jesus was born naturally, and Mary perhaps even guilty of adultery, then the Qur'an is wrong. If his article is correct, then Islam is false. In fact, if Asif Iqbal and MENJ believe this, then they are no longer Muslims since they deny the message of the Qur'an. They should publish their polemic on an atheist website, but not pretend to defend Islam.
Could it be that it was simply an intense hatred of Christians, Christianity, and even Jesus himself, that blinded them for the fact that with this publication they strongly contradicted their own scripture? Iqbal, MENJ and everyone associated with Bismikaallahuma should be ashamed that they aligned themselves with the enemies of Jesus and have spread false accusations against him.
In Surah 4:156, the Qur'an clearly declares:
And because of their (Jews) disbelief and uttering against Maryam (Mary) a grave false charge (that she has committed illegal sexual intercourse)
And there is yet another passage of the Qur'an that Muslims may find relevant to this discussion:
Verily, those who accuse chaste women, who never even think of anything touching their chastity and are good believers, are cursed in this life and in the Hereafter, and for them will be a great torment, on the Day when their tongues, their hands, and their legs or feet will bear witness against them as to what they used to do. On that Day Allah will pay them the recompense of their deeds in full, ... (Surah 24:23-25, Hilali & Khan)
If we were talking only to Muslims, our rebuttal could have ended here. For a Muslim website this article is utterly pointless and counterproductive. However, we also want to give an answer for the occasional atheist or agnostic visitor that may read this discussion, and for whom a reference to the Qur'an would be insubstantial. Therefore, let us discuss the arguments raised by Iqbal in some more detail. His article begins with these introductory statements:
Following are some observations on the curious account of the birth of Jesus which a careful study of the Gospels reveal:
In John 8:31 ff., there is a debate between Jesus and the Jews about their descent from Abraham, who is characterized as their father. In verse 39, Jesus calls into question the legitimacy of their birth from Abraham and in verses 41-44 he begins to point sarcastically to the devil as their real father. To this the Jews respond: "We were not born illegitimate. We have but one father, God himself." The latter clause ("We have but one father, God himself") is their response to the latter charge of Jesus that they were the devil's progeny.
Already in his introduction it becomes obvious that Iqbal has not understood the text he is writing about. John 8 reports the following:
... 30Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him. 31To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" 34Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do what you have heard from your father." 39"Abraham is our father," they answered. "If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would 40do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41You are doing the things your own father does." "We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself." 42Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. 43Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? 47He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."
Many of the Jews that listened to Jesus' teaching apparently developed a superficial faith in him. Jesus was never interested in people who merely agreed with him in theory and may have been willing to utter a confession of faith. He desired to make disciples who put his teaching into practice, who would live out his message. He recognized their first step of faith, but saw that they had not yet understood how radical his message was. He told them that much more is needed, a transformation that would set them free. Jesus talks about a spiritual reality.
Jesus nowhere "calls into question the legitimacy of their birth from Abraham". It was the Jews who introduced this issue and pointed to their biological descent from Abraham as if this were all that is needed to be in right standing with God. [Ironically, those Jews who pointed to their biological descent as an argument for their being free and never having been slaves are wrong on that issue: Abraham's descendants were slaves in Egypt for a long time before God led them out by the hand of Moses.] Jesus never raised the issue of descendancy. In fact, to get this red herring out of the way, he even acknowledges explicitly that they are biological descendants of Abraham (v. 37), but then goes back to his original topic and emphasizes that their deeds and intentions give evidence that their spiritual relationship is neither with Abraham nor with God. However, this spiritual "kinship" is what counts, not the biological one.
Jesus charged them with not living according to the example set by Abraham (vv. 39-40) and being disobedient to God, because of their rejection of Jesus' message (v. 42), ending in the strong judgment that they "do not belong to God" (v. 47). Understandably, his listeners become angry.
48The Jews answered him, "Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" 49"I am not possessed by a demon," said Jesus, "but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." 52At this the Jews exclaimed, "Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. 53Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?" 54Jesus replied, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." 57"You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" 58"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" 59At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
When their theological arguments had failed, Jesus' opponents turned to personal abuse and hurled insults at him (v. 48). The fact that Jesus explicitly responds only to the weightier of the two parts of the insult hardly means that he accepts the other as true. He had already made clear that his topic is not biological descent but spiritual realities. Therefore, he does not allow them to side-track the discussion, sticks to the topic, and only answers to the charge of demon-possession. Jesus further develops the claims about himself, i.e. that to reject him is to oppose God (they dishonor him (v. 49) but the Father glorifies him (v. 54)), and going so far as to claim pre-existence and applying the very name of God to himself (v. 58). The Jews understood this well, and considered it blasphemy. Therefore they tried to stone him (v. 59). [Regarding his claim to deity, please consult the articles available in the section Who is Jesus?] What does our Muslim author make of this passage? He argues:
Now the point, which requires attention, is that in the very next response by the Jews, they doubt the legitimacy of Jesus' birth: "Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?" (verse 48). This is another way of saying: "Look, our birth is not illegitimate; Your's is. We were saying all along that your mother had relations with a Samaritan before your birth." Curiously enough, "John" does not make Jesus deny this particular portion of their charge. (i.e., in verses 49 f., Jesus denies being demon-possessed, but does not say anything about the first portion of their charge about his illegitimacy of birth). This clearly indicates that John acknowledged that the Jews had serious doubts from the beginning about the birth of Jesus and his unwillingness to quote any response by Jesus, to deny this charge, proves that John acknowledged that Jesus' legitimacy of birth was disputed.
Interestingly, Asif Iqbal and MENJ, his publisher, entirely ignored the teaching of Jesus in this passage. They did not care about the words of Jesus. They were only interested in the insults that were hurled against Jesus by some Jews, and in giving those insults and accusations a new audience and credibility. In this article I can only make a few comments on the meaning of Jesus' words. For those who want to develop a deeper understanding of chapter 8 or the whole of the Gospel, I recommend D. A. Carson's commentary, The Gospel According To John, Eerdmans 1991. Here is another question to the Muslim polemicists: If they accept the testimony of the Jews in this case, should they then not also accept their testimony when they recognized that Jesus was claiming to be God (cf. John 5:18; 8:56-59; 10:33-39)?
To understand verse 48 and particularly the use of the term "Samaritan", several preliminary comments are in order. First, if the authors of Answering Islam were to respond to every personal insult that is hurled at us, our work would come to a complete stop. Jesus had more sense than to chase every red herring or dignify every insult with a response. That not every insult or accusation is explicitly denied hardly implies that they are therefore accepted as true.
Second, Iqbal's whole interpretation is highly speculative. It is rather unlikely that the legitimacy of Jesus' birth is in question here. I will shortly give my understanding of the use of "Samaritan" in verse 48. Nevertheless, let's examine whether the Jews may have meant "Samaritan" literally, i.e. in the sense of biological descent. There is a serious problem with this reasoning. In Jewish law, the children of a Jewish mother are Jews whether or not the father was a Jew (cf. Who is a Jew, according to the Torah?). There is no question that his mother Mary was a Jew. That makes Jesus a Jew. End of discussion. Not one of the statements in Iqbal's paragraph of speculations is found in the text. The Jews did NOT say that Mary "had relations with a Samaritan before Jesus' birth". They did NOT call Jesus "the son of a Samaritan", but they called Jesus himself a Samaritan. Whether or not "the Jews had serious doubts from the beginning about the birth of Jesus", as asserted by the Muslim author, cannot be derived from this text. All of Iqbal's speculations are without foundation.
Third, Iqbal's reasoning is illogical. Even in the case that the insult in verse 48 was supposed to express doubts about Jesus' paternity, the acknowledgement that such a dispute existed would be found in verse 48, and not in the lack of disputing it in verse 49. The proof that such a charge existed would be in the charge itself, not in the denial of the charge or the lack of such a denial.
How then should we understand the use of the epithet "Samaritan" in verse 48? The charge of being demon-possessed is common enough (cf. John 7:20, 8:52, 10:20, also Matthew 11:18, 12:24 etc.). Jesus is called a "Samaritan" only in this text, so that there is no other passage that could help to determine its meaning. Some general background may help: Jews and Samaritans both lived in the land of Israel, but they hated and despised each other, and would usually avoid contact as much as possible. Jews considered the Samaritans ritually unclean, so that contact with Samaritans would defile a Jew and make it necessary to cleanse himself again before he could pray or enter the temple. Most importantly, Jews and Samaritans both believed to be the true "People of God" and denied this to the other group.
The Jews were convinced that somebody who would question their divine election as God' people could only be inspired by demons. Moreover, making this charge, he was siding with the despised Samaritans, was a traitor to his own people, and thus became "one of them". Additionally, Jesus had already "fraternized" with the Samaritans (John 4), and even made a Samaritan the good guy while at the same time portraying a Jewish priest and Levite in less than a favorable light in one of his parables (Luke 10:25-37).
In English, some people use the word "bastard" as an insult for somebody who has treated them unfairly. Even though in its legal sense the term "bastard" means a child born out of wedlock, it is commonly used as an insult without any intention of implying that this person is an illegitimate child in the legal sense. Similarly, at least once a week we get emails from Muslims calling us "fucking Jews" although it is pretty obvious that Answering Islam is not a Jewish site but is run by Christians. However, for many Muslims the Jews are their proverbial enemies, the people they hate and despise most, and by calling somebody a Jew they are simply using their strongest available insult to express their anger about our website. In the same sense, the term "Samaritan" may have been used as an insult without the implication that the person actually was a Samaritan.
Whether the word "Samaritan" was merely used as an insult in this case, or had been chosen for the reason that Jesus questioned their status as "the people of God" just like the Samaritans did, the term was most likely used not literally but in a metaphorical sense.
Finally, I am not aware that the legitimacy of the birth of Jesus was ever a matter of public dispute before the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus never made his birth by a virgin mother a topic of his public teaching. The only people who really would have known were his mother Mary and Joseph who became her husband long before Jesus was born:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and 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." ... When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-21, 24-25)
The angels who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1) and Joseph (Matthew 1) never told them to broadcast this news to the public, and they had enough common sense not to do so. Jesus was not born "out of wedlock", he was a legitimate child, i.e. born to married parents. The fact that Joseph named the child, as was the duty of the father, was at the same time the public testimony that he accepted him as his child. There was no reason for anyone to suspect anything else. He was known as "Jesus son of Joseph" among his relatives and neighbors.
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, ... (Luke 3:23-24)
At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?" (John 6:41-42)
The last quotation, from the Gospel according to John, shows how the Jews take their knowledge that "Jesus is the son of Joseph and Mary" as a reason to protest against Jesus' claim "to be from heaven". This is yet another reason why it is highly improbable that in chapter eight of the same Gospel, the Jews question the legitimacy of his birth by calling him a "Samaritan". The immediate context in chapter eight suggests a metaphorical use of the term, and the wider context of the same gospel and the other gospels shows no indication that Jesus' birth was a matter of dispute during the time of his life on earth. The Gospels report many strong accusations against Jesus (blasphemy, demon-possession, etc.), but not even his enemies ever accused him to have been born illegitimately.
AFTER the momentous event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, his mother Mary would certainly have told the disciples also about the miraculous birth of Jesus. This way it became part of the message of the apostles. It is natural to find that people later counter this element of the gospel message by speculations that the conception of Jesus may rather have been the result of a premarital relationship of Mary. But in the gospels themselves there is no dispute about this matter.
Conclusion: Asif Iqbal's arguments in his polemic against John 8 were nothing but empty speculations; if not utterly wrong, then inconsequential, and even contradicting the book he himself considers to be the word of God. If he does not thoroughly repent, he may be in serious trouble in the last judgment, no matter whether he has to give account of his life before the God of the Bible or before the God of the Qur'an.
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