Apocryphal gospels in the Quran

Fictional revelations must yield to the truth

James M. Arlandson

Muhammad lived six hundred or so years after Mary and Jesus. What were his sources for their life?

Devout Muslims say that over time Allah sent Gabriel down to reveal the entire Quran to his favorite prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad even asserts in the Quran that he was not there during the events in the life of Mary, but he still has revelations from Allah, so who needs facts?

3:44 This is an account of things [about Mary’s childhood] beyond your knowledge that We [Allah] revealed to you [Muhammad]: you were not present . . . (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004; first two additions in brackets are ours)

This verse spells out the epistemological challenge to devout Muslims and to everyone else. (Epistemology studies how we acquire our knowledge.) In effect, Muhammad says, "I wasn’t there, so believe that I got these events in Mary’s life from Allah!" Thus, belief has been exalted to high heaven. Revelation seems to trump all other kinds of knowledge, such as careful research. But what if the revelations are built on fictions? Should we then believe in them?

This is far different from Luke’s narrative about the birth of Jesus. He said he conducted careful research into events while they were still fresh in people’s minds (Luke 1:1-4). Neither he nor other Biblical authors set up the following unrealistically high standard: "I was not there 600 years ago, so if I assert by a revelational trance that any event of long ago is historical (but it really is not), then still believe me against all odds. I get the knowledge of these events from a Gabriel-induced spell, no matter what the facts say. I did not get these verifiable facts from human sources, so don’t come along after me and research my claims!"

Biblical inspiration allows for an "organic" and human-cooperative connection to the Holy Spirit. Does Muhammad use the same care as Luke does? No, so that means his unrealistically inspired Quran is set up for a fall, once some facts contradict it.

See this article for the troubling physical symptoms of Muhammad’s "revelations." The Islamic doctrine of inspiration leaves no room for human research. Though this may make the Quran appear strong, in reality that is its weakness—its fatal flaw.

Thus, what would happen to this against-all-odds Muslim belief in super-high revelations if Muhammad got his opinion about young Mary (and by analogy or extension about young Jesus) from sources other than Allah?

Most importantly, if these non-Allah sources about Jesus could be exposed, should we listen to the self-described human messenger (Sura 3:144) when he denies the Sonship of Jesus Christ?

1. Young Mary receives provision and care in Sura 3:37 and 3:44.

Muhammad loved to tell the stories of the Bible, but in his own special way. He adds and deletes details, compared to the original versions. He editorializes the Bible on Noah, Abraham, Lot, and Moses, for example, but most significantly he borrows and editorializes the birth and childhood of Mary. The canonical Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are completely silent about this legend.

However, an apocryphal gospel invents fictions about Mary, from which Muhammad borrowed.

The Quran says:

3:37 Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness, and entrusted her to the charge of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah went to see her in her sanctuary, he found her supplied with provisions. He said, "Mary how is it you have found these provisions?" and she said, "They are from God: God provides limitlessly for whoever He wills." (Haleem)

This passage says that young Mary was put under the charge of Zechariah, an old man. Mary is found in a sanctuary. She receives provisions miraculously. Where does Muhammad receive this fiction?

The main ideas in this passage are clearly taken from the Protevangelium of James, also titled Birth of Mary. Revelation of James or Book of James, among other titles (in The New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, rev. ed. by W. Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson, Westminster / John Knox, 1991). It is not part of the New Testament canon, coming late in history and conflicting so egregiously with the unadorned Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of which have apostolic attestation. The Book of James, in contrast, is a work of fiction and imagination.

The apocryphal gospel says:

5.1 And she [Anna, Mary’s mother] made a sanctuary in her [Mary’s] bedchamber . . . 8.1 And Mary was in the Temple nurtured like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel . . . (New Testament Apocrypha, p. 429)

In these two accounts, some of the details have been changed in the Quran, or Muhammad received a variation of the legend, but the general agreement of the two accounts is remarkable. First, the settings in a holy place match up. In the Quran, Mary lives in a sanctuary; in the pseudo-gospel, she lives first in a sanctuary at home, and then she is moved to a large sanctuary, the Temple. Second, the miracle provisions match up. The Quran says that Mary received miraculous provisions from Allah; the pseudo-gospel says an angel gave them to her. Third, as we shall see in the next comparison, the old age and calling of the two men match up. The Quran says that Zechariah, an old man, was given charge over her, while the pseudo-gospel says that Zechariah, at least for a short moment, was give charge over her (8.3). But Joseph, an old man (and future husband), will be given permanent guardianship over her, leading to marriage.

Muhammad was not a scholar, so we must not see him as having dry parchments or dusty papyri manuscripts in front of him, so that he can borrow from them phrase for phrase. Rather, these stories circulated around the trade routes, being told and retold by poets and storytellers and regular folk. So some of the details change over the centuries, or Muhammad changes them (or both), but the essence or overall picture remains.

The Quran in Sura 3:44 elaborates on how custody of young Mary was decided—casting lots, in the setting of some tumult among the candidates who are summoned possibly to care for her.

The Quran says:

3:44 This is an account of things beyond your knowledge that We reveal to you [Muhammad]: you were not present among them when they cast lots to see which of them should take charge of Mary, you were not present when they argued [about her] . . . (Haleem)

The same apocryphal gospel says that divining rods were used to decide on the custody of young Mary. This passage describes some tumult among the candidates as well.

The apocryphal gospel says:

8.3 And the heralds went forth and spread out through all the surrounding country of Judaea; the trumpet of the Lord sounded and all [the widowers] ran to it. [The widowers give their rods to the high priest] 9.1 When he took the rods, and went out (again) [from the Temple] and gave them to them: but there was no sign on them . . . [Joseph got a divine sign of a dove]. And the priest said to Joseph: "Joseph, to you has fallen the good fortune to receive the virgin of the Lord; take her under your care. (New Testament Apocrypha, pp. 429-430)

In both accounts, divination or divine signs (rods or lots) are used to determine who should take care of young Mary. Also, it is not difficult to imagine in both the Quran and the pseudo-gospel that a small crowd of men gathered, wondering who would win guardianship and then marry her. Both versions say or imply that they "argued" over her. Muhammad simply changed some elements or received an altered version, as the story grew and evolved in the telling, from one century to the next. But the borrowing is unmistakable, at least for those of us who do not leave our reason behind and cling to against-all-odds and shaky revelations.

Muhammad lays down an epistemological challenge in Sura 3:44. Our choice is clear. Either he got the story about Mary’s birth and childhood from a revelation, or he got it from a down-to-earth source (nowhere found in the Four Gospels). If some elements of the story can be found in an apocryphal gospel, then the ultimate source is down here on earth. This is clear to those of us who do not philosophically exclude revelations, but who also do not believe that "revelations" derived in part from human fictions come down directly from God through Gabriel.

Ockham’s razor cuts out convoluted explanations, and the clearest explanation says that Muhammad got this legend from a human apocryphal gospel, not from divine revelations.

But there is more evidence of Quranic borrowing from the apocryphal gospels.

2. Mary receives two pseudo-miracles in Sura 19:23-26.

Sura 19 is named after Mary. According to Sura 19:16-26, Mary traveled to the east and secluded herself. An angel came and promised her a son. She conceived miraculously, and during the pains of childbirth she cries out.

The Quran says:

19:23 . . . [A]nd, when the pain of childbirth drove her to cling to the trunk of the palm tree, she exclaimed, "I wish I had been long dead and forgotten before all this!" 24 but a voice cried to her from below, "Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet 25 and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, 26 so eat, drink, be glad . . . (Haleem)

This story of miraculous deliverance through a palm tree and a stream of water comes from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or more accurately, The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.

Muhammad alters a passage in this pseudo-gospel, or he heard an altered version of it (or both). He connects the miracle of the palm and the stream to Mary giving birth to Jesus, but the non-canonical gospel says that the baby Jesus worked the miracle. Joseph and Mary are concerned about food and water as they travel to Egypt. The infant Jesus overhears their conversation and solves their problem.

The apocryphal gospel says:

Then the child Jesus, who was sitting with a happy countenance in his mother’s lap, said to the palm: "Bend down your branches, O tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit." And immediately at this command [voice] the palm bent down to the feet of the blessed Mary, and they gathered from its fruit and they all refreshed themselves . . . [Addressing the palm, Jesus says:] "And open beneath your roots a vein of water . . . and let the waters flow" . . . And when they saw the fountain of water, they greatly rejoiced and quenched their thirst . . . (The New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, p. 463)

Though the details differ, the broad outline of the pseudo-gospel and the Quran match up well. First, both the Quran and the pseudo-gospel share the same context: a nativity and infancy narrative—the beginning of the Messiah’s life. Second, the Quran has Mary traveling; in the pseudo-gospel Mary (and Joseph and Jesus) also travel. This travel for a teenage girl, all alone, is highly unlikely in this culture, so the Quran is creating a fiction not found in the fictional gospel. Third, the Quran says that Mary heard a voice or command; the pseudo-gospel adds that the voice or command belonged to baby Jesus. Fourth, the apocryphal gospel says that a palm tree provided food from above, and a stream of water provided refreshment from below; the Quran says the same. Finally, both books recount this fiction as a miracle, when Mary (and Joseph) needed it most. Clearly, Muhammad did not learn this fiction from a manuscript in front of him. He was not a scholar, after all. But some borrowing is undeniable—for objective readers and seekers.

Muhammad is losing his epistemological challenge that we should believe his revelations no matter what, and whether he was there on the scene or not. The evidence suggests that he did not get his information from Allah, but from human sources.

If Muhammad is so far off about the infancy of Jesus, should we, as reasonable persons whose minds have not been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam, listen to Muhammad’s denial of the Sonship of Jesus?

For more information on this fictional source in the Quran, go to this chapter written by highly qualified Islamologist William St. Clair-Tisdall of an earlier generation, who knew Islam and Arabic thoroughly. He provides details that demonstrate that the ultimate source of this Quranic fiction is Buddhist (scroll down to "Story of the Virgin Mary"). By the seventh century, Buddhism had impacted Persia and other points farther west.

Finally, according to the Quran, Mary returned to her people, who saw that she was carrying a child in her arms. They were shocked and asked what she had done, calling her the sister of Aaron, another Quranic confusion, since Aaron lived about 1,400 years before Mary. But why does this matter?

Revelation trumps clear and simple facts in the mind of traditional, Quran-believing Muslims.

3. Jesus speaks as an infant in Suras 19:29-31 and 3:46.

The fictions about Mary and Jesus in Sura 19 continue. She did not reply to her people’s queries about her pregnancy and new child, but instead pointed at her infant son. Yet the people ask a reasonable question. How can they talk with an infant who is still in his cradle?

The Quran says:

19:29-31 The people said, "How shall we talk with him, who is but an infant in the cradle?" Whereupon the child spoke out, "I am a servant of Allah: He has given me the Book and He has appointed me a Prophet, and He has made me blessed wherever I may be. He has enjoined upon me to offer Salat and give Zakat so long as I shall live. (Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 3, p. 67)

Maududi, a highly respected traditional commentator, does not doubt that this is a miracle. Jesus himself, not Gabriel or Jewish elders, is speaking as an infant (ibid. vol. 3, p. 72, notes 20, 20a, and 21). He is right. The context indicates an Islamic "miracle."

In these verses, Muhammad turns Jesus into a Muslim, piling anachronism on top of anachronism. The baby Muslim Jesus uses the word salat or obligatory prayers, the second of Five Pillars in Islam. Jesus the infant uses the word zakat or the charity tax that all Muslims must pay, the third pillar. Muhammad has lost sight of objectivity and facts, and bends reality to his purposes. Allah and Muhammad—both of them—are wrong.

Placing "revelations" over clear and simple facts is problematic, but this becomes doubly problematic when the "revelations" are built on fictions.

The source of Sura 19:29-31 is another pseudo-gospel: the Arabic Infancy Gospel. This passage mentions a cradle.

The apocryphal gospel says:

We have found it recorded in the book of Josephus the Chief Priest, who was in the time of Christ (and men say that he was Caiaphas), that this man said that Jesus spake when He was in the cradle, and said to Mary His Mother, "Verily I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Word which thou hast borne, according as the angel Gabriel gave thee the good news; and My Father hath sent Me for the salvation of the world." (Source; scroll down to "Story of the Childhood of Jesus").

In Sura 19:30, Jesus says, "I am the servant of Allah," but in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, he says, "I am Jesus, the Son of God." Muhammad altered the story to fit his denial of the Sonship of Christ.

The belief that Jesus speaks as an infant not only influences the Quranic "revelation" in Sura 19:29-31, but also the one in Sura 3:46, where the word "cradle" is again used.

The Quran says:

3:46 "He [Jesus] will speak to the people alike in the cradle and when grown up" . . . (Maududi ibid. vol. 1, p. 239)

Muhammad’s epistemological challenge in Sura 3:44—"believe me, no matter what!"—is losing ground. He did not get these wild assertions from God about the infant Jesus, but from human apocryphal gospels. We should not take Muhammad at his word about his revelational knowledge.

If Muhammad is so wrong about the infancy of Jesus, why should a reasonable person, whose mind has not been clouded by a lifetime of devotion to Islam, listen to Muhammad about the Sonship of Jesus?

4. Jesus turns a clay bird into a real one in Suras 3:49 and 5:110.

As proof of Jesus’ miraculous start, Muhammad says that Jesus will make a clay bird fly.

The Quran says in Sura 3:49 that Jesus predicts that he will turn a clay bird into a real one:

3:49 [Then Jesus says to the children of Israel:] "I will make a bird for you out of clay, then breathe into it and, with God’s permission, it will become a real bird" . . . (Haleem)

The Quran says in Sura 5:110 that Jesus has done the trick:

. . . [B]y My leave, you [Jesus] fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird . . . (Haleem)

Where does Muhammad get the fiction about Jesus turning a clay bird into a living one? The ultimate source is found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The apocryphal gospel says:

2.1 [Jesus] made soft clay and modeled twelve sparrows from it . . . 4. Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows, "Be gone." And the sparrows flew off chirping. (The New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, p. 444)

Of course, the number of clay birds (sparrows) and the cause of the birds flying off differ in the two accounts, but the core is there in both. Despite the belief of devout Muslims in revelations about a clay bird, for those of us on the outside of Islam who have not abandoned critical thinking entirely, it is unimaginable that Muhammad got these verses out of thin air and not from the pseudo-gospel as the ultimate source.

To repeat, it is not necessary that Muhammad would have any of the apocryphal gospels in front of him, poring over them. Instead, he picks up ideas here and there in a hodge-podge way, along the trade routes, as the stories circulated by poets or simple storytellers or curious seekers over the centuries. This means that the details may differ, but the essential ideas will be kept.

Reasonable people must therefore conclude that all of these passages in the apocryphal gospels are the foundation for the Quranic passages analyzed in the last four sections.

Therefore, Allah through Gabriel did not send any of these legends down to Muhammad. They came from defective human sources. This challenges the veracity of the Quran, especially when it conflicts with the Bible and the doctrine of Christ. Muhammad is losing his own epistemological challenge (Sura 3:44).

5. Should we listen to Muhammad about the true identity of Jesus Christ?

This is the most important question.

In the same Sura 19 where the fiction about the palm and the stream is found, Muhammad no sooner finishes this myth than he tells us who the grownup Jesus is—or is not.

19:34 [This is] a statement of the Truth about which they are in doubt: 35 it would not befit God to have a child. He is far above that: when He decrees something, He says only "Be," and it is. (Haleem)

Muhammad is confused in this passage and others about the miracle birth of Jesus (see also Suras 19:20-22 and 3:47). He agrees that Jesus did not have a human father. He says that Allah spoke the command "be," and Jesus was created in the womb. So this makes God the father of Jesus, of sorts. But he also says that it is not befitting that Allah would have a child. Something is wrong here. Evidently, Muhammad believes that the only way that Allah could be the father of Jesus is when Allah would do more than just speak. Something physical, perhaps?

For more information on the confusion in the birth narratives in the Quran, go to this article.

But this confusion is beside the point. We should take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

What right does Muhammad have to deny the true nature of the Son of God? He is wrong about the infancy of Jesus, incorporating tall tales into his "inerrant" Quran. So why should we believe him about his denial of the Sonship of Jesus? Clearly, Muhammad was getting these fictions from bad human sources, not from Gabriel. The prophet was so undiscerning and gullible that he accepted outlandish fictions.

Is this the prophet for all humankind, the last and final one, the best of the best?

We should take his challenge he threw down in Sura 3:44, because he loses.

But on a down-to-earth level, why would Muhammad demote Jesus to a mere prophet, instead of accepting his Sonship? First, Meccan polytheists told him that the angels and lesser goddesses were the daughters of the higher god. Muhammad had to deny that Allah had any children, and this includes the Son of God. Second, Muhammad was a mere prophet, and he says that he was the best and the last. His religion completes and corrects Christianity (and Judaism), so he claims. So how could he accept Jesus as the Son of God, while he is only a human and mortal messenger (Sura 3:144) who dies of a fever in AD 632? So Muhammad has a polemical motive and a human-centered motive to demote Jesus.

For more information on Muhammad shaping traditions about prophets so he can appear to fit in, see this article.

Therefore, we should not listen to Muhammad about the true identity of Jesus. Muhammad’s errors make him forfeit the right to speak authoritatively. He does not know what he is talking about.

For more inconsistencies in Muhammad’s ideas about Christ, click on the Conclusion of this long article, which has a list of them.

6. Who Jesus really is according to authoritative sources.

The New Testament has been examined rigorously by western scholars, and it has stood their tests. Thousands of manuscripts can be cross-checked to verify each other, so scribal errors, inadvertent or deliberate, can be purged out. The problem comes when a sacred text has only a few manuscripts to support it. Then the cross-checking is limited. This is not the case with the New Testament.

The canonical Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have the weight of church authority behind them, as Christians settled on the canonical New Testament. Church leaders used a main criterion: apostolic connection (they were written by an apostle or under his supervision). The books we have in the New Testament meet this criterion.

This three-part article, written by a former Muslim, outlines the story of how the New Testament has been analyzed, along with the Quran. Muslims believe that the Quran is one hundred percent pure and problem-free. The three-part article, however, concludes that the New Testament stands true, whereas the Quran has problems.

For more information on the reliability of the Bible, visit this page and click on any of the articles. For more information on problems inhering in the Quran, go to this page and click on any of the articles. This article discusses changes in the Arabic Quran, and this one discusses how and why the Quran was standardized. It did not come down directly from Allah.

Jesus deliberately kept his true identity out of public knowledge for the most part, and accepted the popular (but ultimately inadequate) titles of Prophet or Teacher or Rabbi. But he revealed his true identity as the Son of God to his core twelve disciples and sometimes to those outside of his inner circle. He went out of his way not to boast about his true nature.

In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus gathers his disciples together and asks them what the people at large were saying about his identity. They reply: "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (v. 14). Then Jesus asks them what they think. "But what about you? Who do you say that I am?" (v. 15).

Simon Peter answered: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (v. 16)

Jesus then says that Simon Peter is right and blesses him for the answer:

Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in heaven" (v. 17).

It may be wondered why Jesus simply did not announce his true identity to his disciples. That was not always his way. He asked questions, in order to draw out the answer. He tests people, so they can make the right confession, searching their hearts, thinking. Peter rose to the challenge and answered Jesus correctly. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Peter the Apostle lived with Jesus for three years. He saw Jesus up close and personal. The power of God was working genuine miracles through Jesus. Peter witnessed this.

Muhammad the apostle, on the other hand, lived six hundred or so years after Jesus. This means that Muhammad would be prone to errors and pick up false ideas about Jesus. That is exactly what happened. Muhammad incorporated deficient human sources into his "revelations."

Christians are to test doctrines by Christ’s and the Apostles’ standards, because teachers would arise and deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God:

22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father. (1 John 2:22-23)

Based on this New Testament passage, written by the Apostle John, what are Christian supposed to conclude about Muhammad’s denial that Jesus is the Son of God? Muhammad’s denial of Christ’s Sonship makes him look bad, standing in the light of the Biblical verses. He was wrong both about the infant Jesus and about the grown Jesus.

Muhammad threw down the epistemological gauntlet in Sura 3:44, cited in the introduction to this article. He wants us to believe—no matter what—that he got his information about young Mary (and by extension about young Jesus) from revelations, not from down-to-earth sources. Witnesses say that when he was getting his revelations, he fell over and got sweats and heard ringing bells—generally symptoms that look a lot like epilepsy. However, he loses his own challenge. The evidence demonstrates beyond doubt and against excessive belief, irrational belief, that Muhammad got this information from apocryphal gospels, not from revelations.

As for the Christian community, dazed and confused Christians must not trade in the eternal Son of God for an error-prone human messenger—Muhammad. His message was clearly not the "best of the best," so neither was he.

Jesus is the Son of God. Muhammad was a borrower-prophet.

This article has a companion piece that may be read here.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

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