Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Joseph the Carpenter in Islam [Part 3 A]

Joseph’s Exclusion from Surah 3 and Relation to a Legend

Masud Masihiyyen

After analyzing Surah 19 in the second part of this project and seeing how Joseph the Carpenter was excluded from Jesus’ first birth and infancy narrative in that Meccan chapter of the Islamic scripture, in this part I shall examine Surah 3, where a second narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy is given, and see if Joseph was similarly excluded from this alternate narrative of the post-migration period. This current analysis will also seek answers to the questions concerning the cause and results of Joseph’s omission from the third chapter of the Qur’an (section A) and will be followed by the detailed study of the confusions centered on Joseph’s identity and a related legend (section B).

The Source of the Birth Narratives in Surah 3

As I discussed at length and demonstrated in my comprehensive article named “Surah Mariam: The Curse of the Apocrypha”, Muhammad essentially made use of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a major apocryphal Gospel of Nativity and Infancy, while devising John’s and Jesus’ birth narratives in Surah 19. The fact that Pseudo-Matthew contained not a single reference to Zechariah and his miraculously born son John – a significant figure and prophet in the New Testament and Christian tradition – caused a lot of trouble for Muhammad, but he overcame this problem by textually distorting the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew for the sake of adapting it to the story relating John’s birth to Zechariah. He did this by simply replacing the account about Mary in the original text with that about John (Yahya in the Qur’an) in his peculiar version in Surah 19. 

This drastic modification, of course, resulted in Mary’s father Joachim’s replacement with John’s father Zechariah. Another related significant consequence of this distortion was the thematic dissociation of Mary’s story from Zechariah’s as well as Mary’s physical separation from her family (Surah 19:16). These consequences had the domino effect on the new and Islamic version of the story, which came into existence through plagiarism and the edition of the original material in Pseudo-Matthew, and most likely motivated Joseph’s exclusion from Jesus’ birth and infancy narrative in Surah 19. 

After his migration to Medina, Muhammad gave the second account of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth when he devised Surah 3. This time, however, he made use of another major non-canonical Gospel of Nativity: the Gospel of James. The reason underlying Muhammad’s plagiarism from this different Gospel was not only his awareness of the fame and significance of this particular text, but also his eagerness to make up for the earlier omission of the story of Mary’s parents from Surah 19 due to their replacement with John’s parents. The Gospel of James thus gave Muhammad the chance to narrate Mary’s nativity and infancy and integrate Zechariah into Mary’s particular story. This also explains why Surah 3, unlike Surah 19, focuses on Mary’s birth and infancy and recounts also the events happening prior to the angelic visit and annunciation to Mary. In short, what was left out in Surah 19 was restored in Surah 3 with the help of the Gospel of James. 

The process of Muhammad’s adoption and adaptation of the Gospel of James was not as painful as that of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew since the writer of the former had made explicit references to Zechariah, his wife Elizabeth, and their son John and smoothly incorporated them into both Mary’s and Jesus’ story. Accordingly, in Surah 3 Mary is claimed to have been entrusted to Zechariah after her dedication to the Temple (Surah 3:37). Still, Muhammad’s peculiar version of Mary’s birth and infancy narrative in the third chapter was not free of textual perversion as it contained a major replacement. Although the writer of the Gospel of James agreed with Pseudo-Matthew that Mary’s father’s name was Joachim (compare Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew chapter 1 with the Gospel of James chapter 1), Muhammad stunningly altered this name to Imran when he contended that the woman that gave birth to Jesus’ mother Mary was Imran’s wife (Surah 3:34).1 

The reason for the modification of the name Joachim to Imran in the Islamic scripture is obviously dependent on Mary’s earlier identification in Surah 19:28 as Aaron’s sister. The author of Surah 3 naturally decided to be consistent with the information previously given about Jesus’ mother Mary and felt obliged to name Mary’s father Imran rather than Joachim in this later chapter since Mary had already been identified in the pre-migration period as the sister of Aaron, whose father had the name Imran (Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew name Amram in the Bible).2

This awkward and erroneous modification applied to Mary’s father’s name in Surah 3 is strikingly bound to the earlier distortion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew through Joachim’s replacement with Zechariah in Surah 19. In the original text Joachim was said to be from the tribe of Judah, thus from one of the tribes descending from Jacob. More, a few elements in this story had thematic parallelisms with the Biblical story of Jacob and his son Joseph. When the author of Surah 19 had to replace Joachim with Zechariah, he tied Zechariah to Jacob and his family3 although Zechariah was a priest (a Levite) and therefore specifically descended from Aaron. Consequently, in Surah 19 Mary, rather than Zechariah, was mistakenly tied to Aaron even though she was from the tribe of Judah according to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Finally, she was designated as Aaron’s sister rather than daughter because of a Biblical reference to the Mary of the Old Testament, who was Aaron’s sister indeed (Exodus 15:20). 

The claim in Surah 3:34 that Mary’s father’s name was Imran instead of Joachim and the reason giving birth to this faulty assertion seem to be a natural result of the textual coherence between Surah 19 and Surah 3. Despite his use of a different non-canonical Gospel, the writer of Surah 3 generally kept faithful to some basic teachings previously given in Surah 19. This point enables us to guess that a direct and explicit reference to Joseph the Carpenter would be avoided in this new chapter of the post-migration period too. 

An Explicit Reference to Joseph the Carpenter missing from Surah 3

The Gospel of James, a non-canonical Gospel of Nativity and Infancy dating back to the second century A.D., became the main Christian text Muhammad plagiarized from and abused for the creation of the birth and infancy stories in Surah 3. This Gospel, very much like the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, first gives an account of Mary’s father Joachim and his wife Anna, emphasizing the fact that Anna miraculously conceived Mary despite her sterility and Joachim’s old age. In thanksgiving for her miraculous pregnancy, Anna takes a vow to dedicate her child to the service of the Temple. Consequently, Mary is brought to the Temple in the third year of her birth and stays there until her puberty. Since no female is allowed to stay in the Temple after puberty, the priests convene and ask Zechariah, the high priest,4 to pray and find out what should be done concerning Mary. An angel of the Lord responds to Zechariah’s prayer and instructs him to gather together all the widowers from the region of Judea. As in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Joseph the Carpenter first appears in this text as one of the widowers descending from the tribe of Judah and coming to the Temple upon Zechariah’s call:

And Joseph, throwing away his axe,5 went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph's head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received you from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave you in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to you. The Lord will protect you. (Gospel of James, chapter 9) 

The author of Surah 3 formed the stories of Mary and Jesus’ birth in this chapter by following the outline in the Gospel of James up to the account of Mary’s delivery.6 For example, the story in Surah 3 begins with a reference to Imran and his family in the same way as the Gospel of James first introduces Mary’s father Joachim. In the original narrative Joachim’s racial affiliation with Israel and the parallelism he had with Abraham in terms of fatherhood forced the writer of the Qur’an to put the name Imran into Surah 3:33 and designate him as the father of a significant family.7

Unlike in Surah 19, in Surah 3:37 Mary was overtly associated with the Jewish Temple and Zechariah was incorporated into her story because of the writer’s dependence on and faithfulness to the Gospel of James. To remember, one of the reasons that had excluded Joseph the Carpenter from the Islamic version of Mary and Jesus’ story in Surah 19 was the omission of the parts recounting Mary’s parents and her dedication by them to the Temple in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Since the author of Surah 19 could not talk of the Temple, he subsequently could not link either Zechariah or Joseph to the narrative about Mary. The writer of Surah 3, however, could and did talk of Mary’s days in the Temple and brought Mary and Zechariah together when he designated Zechariah as the person taking care of Mary in the Temple (verse 37). This is why we would expect to see in this chapter a similar reference to Joseph the Carpenter. 

Our expectation partly finds fulfillment since the following verse looks like the equivalent of the events narrated in the 9th chapter of the Gospel of James:

This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Apostle!) by inspiration: Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). (Surah 3:44 Yusuf Ali)

It is rather reasonable to suggest that the casting of lots for the selection of a caretaker for Mary in this verse corresponds to Joseph’s selection by lots as Mary’s guardian in the Gospel of James. Further, the dispute in question reasonably pertains to Joseph’s objection to this decision and his conversation with the high priest in the same non-canonical text. Despite this astonishing connection between the non-canonical Gospel and the Islamic scripture, we are surprised to see that the writer of Surah 3 avoided making an explicit reference to Joseph the Carpenter in verse 44, the equivalent of the narrative in the 9th chapter in the Gospel of James. This leads us to our next discovery that in the process of plagiarism, the Quranic editor did not only exclude the overt reference to Joseph, but also formulated Surah 3:44 in the obscurest way possible in order to conceal Joseph’s presence and role from the reader.

A quick thematic analysis of Surah 3:44 proves this point. The verse is introduced as a part of some divine secrets supposedly revealed to Muhammad, yet it is still impossible to know by reading this verse the identity of the people that cast lots with arrows in the selection of a guardian for Mary. Likewise, it is impossible to know why such a selection was deemed necessary. Again, it is impossible to know why a dispute arose among those indefinite people and if the problem was ever settled. Finally, it is impossible to know the identity of the person that was appointed Mary’s caretaker. 

The fact that we can find in the 9th chapter of the Gospel of James answers to all the questions arising from the obscure Qur’an verse (Surah 3:44) demonstrates how the author of Surah 3 struggled to leave Joseph out of the original narrative he adopted. The fruit of his efforts was the formation of an obscure and awkward verse in the supposedly clear book of Allah. Thus, a clear narrative in a non-canonical Gospel of Infancy was turned by the writer of Surah 3 into a part of the “hidden things” because of Joseph’s omission. In short, what was defined as “hidden” in the Qur’an was actually the information related to Joseph the Carpenter and his presence in Mary’s life. 

Surah 3:44 and the Problem of Interpolation

In addition to being internally problematic due to its weird and obscure structure, Surah 3:44 also causes an external problem of interpolation due to its strange place in this chapter. The writer of this Surah located this verse right in between the two angelic messages8 to Mary : 

And when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation. O Mary! Be obedient to thy Lord, prostrate thyself and bow with those who bow (in worship). (Surah 3:42-43 Pickthall)

This is of the tidings of things hidden. We reveal it unto thee (Muhammad). Thou wast not present with them when they threw their pens (to know) which of them should be the guardian of Mary, nor wast thou present with them when they quarrelled (thereupon). (Surah 3:44)

(And remember) when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (unto Allah). (Surah 3:45 Pickthall) 

Evidently, Surah 3:44 disrupts the flow of the narrative as the addressee in verses 42-43 and 45 is explicitly Jesus’ mother Mary whilst the addressee in verse 44 is implied to be Muhammad although what is stated in that verse is still about Mary and refers to a past incident in her life. No one would deny that the Islamic scripture is replete with examples of interpolation and similar textual problems, but abrupt transitions in a story from one addressee of the past to Muhammad are rather rare. For instance, Surah 28:44 is similar to Surah 3:44 in terms of its structure:

And thou (Muhammad) wast not on the western side (of the Mount) when We expounded unto Moses the commandment, and thou wast not among those present (Surah 28:44 Pickthall) 

However, this verse does not disrupt the flow of the long narrative about Moses in Surah 28, but functions to conclude it by making a comparison between Moses and Muhammad (verses 45-46). A similar formulation occurs in the 11th chapter:

This is of the tidings of the Unseen which We inspire in thee (Muhammad). Thou thyself knewest it not, nor did thy folk (know it) before this. Then have patience. Lo! the sequel is for those who ward off (evil). (Surah 11:49 Pickthall)

Again, this verse, which is more similar to Surah 3:44, comes after the narrative about Noah and the deluge. Unlike in the third Surah, the speaker here does not address Muhammad right in the middle of the story. Finally, a verse found in Surah 12 is surprisingly closest to Surah 3:44 in both structure and theme:

This is of the tidings of the Unseen which We inspire in thee (Muhammad). Thou wast not present with them when they fixed their plan and they were scheming. (Surah 12:102 Pickthall)

It may be a pure coincidence that this verse, which is closest in formulation to Surah 3:44, is found attached to the story of another Joseph. More, the idea that a group of people came together to devise a plan with regard to Joseph sounds thematically similar to some people’s casting lots to determine Mary’s caretaker in Surah 3:44. Despite these uncanny similarities, the speaker in Surah 12 does not abruptly drop the narration to address Muhammad as in Surah 3:44. Thus, the structure of and interpolation posed by Surah 3:44 seem unique and give birth to the question why specifically this verse in the narrative about Mary and Jesus was designed this way. The reason for this particular choice most likely stemmed from the Quranic writer’s efforts to omit Joseph the Carpenter from Mary’s story. Joseph’s removal was achieved through interpolation and the narrator’s abrupt appeal to Muhammad. If such an interpolation had not been performed, Joseph’s deliberate exclusion from the original narrative would be obvious and cause more inconvenience. 

It is also noteworthy that Muhammad did not choose to support his prophetic claims and the allegedly divine source of his revelation through verses like Surah 3:44 and Surah 12:102 in any other verse regarding Mary and Jesus. After all, the incident of the selection of a guardian for Mary was by no means more significant than Mary’s miraculous pregnancy or Jesus’ birth. The author of Surah 3 could have easily written: 

“This is of the tidings of the Unseen which We inspire in thee (Muhammad). Thou wast not present with Mary when the angels visited her and when she conceived Jesus.” 

“This is of the tidings of the Unseen which We inspire in thee (Muhammad). Thou wast not present with them when they saw Mary with a baby in her arms and when they accused her of fornication.”

In short, it is not possible to accept that the sudden appeal to Muhammad and his abrupt incorporation into Mary’s story in Surah 3:44, thus, right at the point of Joseph’s appearance in the original story, is a pure coincidence. 

The Place of the Angelic Annunciation in Surah 3

A more meticulous analysis of the birth narrative in Surah 3 and its comparison with the things stated in the Gospel of James reveal that the Quranic author applied a drastic modification to the original story by changing the place of the angelic annunciation. According to the Gospel of James, Mary heard the news of Jesus’ birth and conceived Him when she was in Joseph’s house since the two related yet independent incidents of angelic call to Mary9 happened after Mary had left the Temple and settled in Joseph’s house (chapter 11). 

According to the narrative in Surah 3, however, Mary was not in Joseph’s house or in a place other than the Temple when she was visited by angels and informed of Jesus’ birth and prophetic ministry. The Quranic author and editor taught that Mary was first addressed by a group of angels while she was still in the Temple (verses 42-43). Then he formulated verse 44 and vaguely referred to the process of a caretaker’s selection for Mary. Since he did not present any information about the aftermath of this selection and did not even imply that this selection resulted in Mary’s departure from the Temple and settlement in another place, the location of the second angelic address to Mary in verse 45 was naturally understood to be the Temple. 

Interestingly, the first angelic address to Mary in the Gospel of James also differs from the first angelic call to Mary in Surah 3 in terms of quantity. To compare and contrast:

And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, you who hast received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! (Gospel of James, chapter 11)

And when the angels said: O Mary! Lo! Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation. O Mary! Be obedient to thy Lord, prostrate thyself and bow with those who bow (in worship). (Surah 3:42-43 Pickthall) 

Although it is possible to say that Surah 3:42 is the equivalent of the angel’s words to Mary in the Gospel of James, Surah 3:43 seems to have no counterpart in the original version of the story, being extra material peculiar to the Qur’an. It is also worthy of note that the first angelic call to Mary in verses 42-43 looks like two different messages brought together. The first call (O Mary!) is followed by the declaration of Mary’s reception of God’s grace whereas the second call (O Mary!) is followed by an instruction/commandment of obedience and its expression through worship. This call to obedience at this point of the story seems awkward. Why would the angels ask Mary, a pious person staying in the Temple since her infancy and receiving food from heaven (Surah 3:37), to be obedient and express her submission through worship? Besides, the angels appearing to Zechariah and announcing John’s birth did not likewise ask him to “bow down and prostrate himself” in obedience. Why was specifically Mary given this particular instruction?10

The source of this particular instruction may be Joseph’s exclusion from the original story and his subsequent replacement with Mary by the writer of Surah 3. In the Gospel of James, Zechariah, as the high priest, received an angelic message with regard to the selection of a guardian for Mary while he was praying in the holy of holies. He was instructed to gather all the widowers from Judea and appoint one of them as Mary’s caretaker through the casting of lots (chapter 8). At the end of this process and through a divine sign Joseph the Carpenter was chosen to take Mary out of the Temple and keep her in his house. However, Joseph at first objected to this decision, but changed his mind when Zechariah reminded him of some arrogant and rebellious people’s tragic end in the Bible. Joseph “feared the Lord” and “obeyed” the divine instruction. 

The writer of Surah 3 distorted the account in the Gospel of James by altering the content of the angelic message to Zechariah. He claimed that the angels appearing to Zechariah while he was “praying in the sanctuary” (verse 39) announced John’s birth rather than telling Zechariah what he should do concerning Mary’s stay in the Temple after her puberty. This perversion sufficed to annul Zechariah’s association with Joseph the Carpenter. More, the Temple was implied to be the place of the first angelic address to Mary (verses 42-43). Consequently, the first angelic message to Mary in the Gospel of James was mistakenly conflated in Surah 3 with the narrative of the angelic message to Zechariah as well as with Zechariah’s words to Joseph the Carpenter. Zechariah had asked Joseph to fear the Lord and obey Him. Since the author of Surah 3 removed Joseph from his peculiar version of the story, Zechariah’s instructions to Joseph were ascribed to the angels talking to Mary. Finally, the concepts of “humility” and “obedience” were quite naturally expressed through “prostration” and “bowing down” as the Temple was a place of “worship”. As Zechariah warned Joseph not to be like Dathan, Abiram, and Korah (contrast in the Gospel of James), the angels asked Mary “to bow down with those who bow” (analogy in Surah 3).

Joseph missing from the account of Jesus’ nativity

The writer of Surah 3 referred neither to Joseph the Carpenter nor to the person that had been chosen as Mary’s caretaker (verse 44) in the rest of his peculiar birth and infancy narrative. Actually, he did not even present the account of Jesus’ birth and infancy in this chapter, but made an abrupt leap to Jesus’ prophetic ministry right from the angelic annunciation delivered to Mary (read verses 45 through 52). As Surah 3 does not contain the story of Jesus’ birth and says nothing about the events happening right after Mary’s pregnancy, we do not have a chance to compare it to Surah 19 with regard to Joseph’s deliberate exclusion from the original story. The only thing we can know for sure is that the author of Surah 3 avoided making an explicit reference to Joseph in verse 44 and created a few anomalies due to his aversion. This aversion may be affiliated with the reasons already listed in the second part of this series (*). It is also likely that the Quranic writer was aware of Joseph’s exclusion from the narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy in Surah 19 and simply wanted to create a text that would not be difficult to reconcile with what was previously taught about Mary and Jesus. An explicit reference to Joseph the Carpenter would make that reconciliation rather difficult and pose a risk to the integrity of the Islamic scripture. 

Surah 3:44 in the Islamic Tafsir and Joseph’s replacement with Zechariah

In most of the traditional Islamic commentaries on Surah 3:44 we can find no mention of Joseph the Carpenter even though it is difficult to deny that this particular verse was derived from the account of Joseph’s appointment as Mary’s guardian in the Gospel of James. It is baffling indeed that the majority of Muslim scholars interpreting Surah 3:44 did their best to depict Zechariah as the only male caretaker in Mary’s life and replaced Joseph with him. The most comprehensive commentary on Surah 3:44 was probably reported by Ibn Kathir:

Ibn Jarir recorded that `Ikrimah said, "Maryam's mother left with Maryam, carrying her in her infant cloth, and took her to the rabbis from the offspring of Aaron, the brother of Musa. They were responsible for taking care of Bayt Al-Maqdis (the Masjid) at that time, just as there were those who took care of the Ka`bah. Maryam's mother said to them, `Take this child whom I vowed ﴿to serve the Masjid, I have set her free, since she is my daughter, for no menstruating woman should enter the Masjid, and I shall not take her back home.' They said, `She is the daughter of our Imam,' as `Imran used to lead them in prayer, `who took care of our sacrificial rituals.' Zakariyya said, `Give her to me, for her maternal aunt is my wife.' They said, `Our hearts cannot bear that you take her, for she is the daughter of our Imam.' So they conducted a lottery with the pens with which they wrote the Tawrah, and Zakariyya won the lottery and took Maryam into his care.'''. (Source

This commentary perfectly illustrates how Muslim scholars distorted the detailed information they got from the non-canonical Gospels of Infancy and how they adapted it to Muhammad’s innovated assertions concerning Mary’s father. In fact, the Qur’an contains zero information about Imran’s occupation or his affiliation with the Jewish Temple. The root of the claim in this commentary that Mary’s father Imran was an Imam that took care of sacrificial rituals in the Temple is nothing but the perversion of the things stated about Mary’s father Joachim in the Gospel of James. Actually, Joachim was not a priest,11 but a rich man having many flocks. He left his wife Anna and started to live in the desert because he was grieved after a priest had rebuked him while he was getting ready to offer a sacrifice in the Temple. The cause of the rebuke was Joachim’s being a man with no seed in Israel. Joachim later reminded himself of Abraham and his miraculous fatherhood (Isaac was born to Abraham while he was very old and his wife was barren), praying and hoping that God would similarly give him a child through a miracle (chapter 1).12 As we saw before, this parallelism was adopted by the writer of Surah 3, who inserted the name Imran (supposedly Mary’s father) next to Abraham in the order of the major patriarchs in Surah 3:33. Probably, Muslim scholars tried to further the parallelisms between Abraham and Imran by claiming that Imran was an Imam that was in charge of sacrificial rituals since Abraham was also designated in the Qur’an as an Imam (Surah 2:124). 

The discrepancies between the Islamic commentary and the Gospel of James are not confined to the identity of Mary’s father, for the Islamic report quoted above contradicts the Gospel of James by postulating that Imran was dead when Mary was taken by her mother to the Temple of the Lord. According to the Gospel of James, however, both Joachim and Anna took Mary to the Temple for the ritual of dedication (chapter 7).

The traditional commentary on Surah 3:44 is thus associated particularly with the chapters relating Joachim’s desperation and Mary’s miraculous birth in the Gospel of James rather than with the ninth chapter, where Joseph’s entrance into the scene and Mary’s departure from the Temple are narrated. Strikingly, none of the non-canonical Gospels of Infancy contains anything close to the account present in the Islamic Tafsir. Although Mary’s dedication to the Temple is recounted in these Gospels, nothing is stated about the selection of a caretaker for her by the casting of lots at that time. For instance, we read the following in the Gospel of James:

And the child was three years old, and Joachim said: Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they went up into the temple of the LordAnd the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her. (Chapter 7)

Even the name of the priest who received Mary into the Temple is not given in this section, but the high priest is explicitly identified as Zechariah in the narrative of Mary’s entrustment to Joseph:

And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: ZachariasZacharias … (Gospel of James, chapter 8)

Accordingly, it will not be wrong to conclude that Zechariah was a priest serving in the Temple when little Mary was dedicated to the Temple by her parents. Still, in contrast to the assertion in the Islamic commentary on Surah 3:44, there was no need for the selection of a particular caretaker for Infant Mary since the priests followed a usual and regular procedure. Mary was definitely not the first or only person that stayed in the Temple.13  Further, Mary’s dedication to the Temple was not a ceremony or official act of adoption, for both her parents were alive at the time of the incident. This is why the idea in the Islamic Tafsir that the priests in the Temple fell into variance out of jealousy and had to cast lots to decide who would be Mary’s guardian sounds baseless and ridiculous. 

Joseph’s selection by lots as Mary’s caretaker in the Gospel of James, on the other hand, is not implausible since Mary reached her puberty while staying in the Temple and the priests did not really know who would take Mary out of the Temple into his house as his wife. Naturally, they needed divine guidance and therefore asked Zechariah the high priest to pray about this matter. The angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah explained what should be done to choose a spouse and male caretaker for Mary. Muslim scholars commenting on Surah 3:44 obviously distorted this original narrative to fabricate their baseless story. They readily replaced Joseph the Carpenter with Zechariah14 when they changed the occasion and time of a male caretaker’s appointment for Mary. The result was the innovated presumption that a male guardian was chosen by lots for Mary at the time of her entrance to the Temple in her infancy rather than at the time of her departure from the Temple after her puberty. 

Apart from this fundamental modification, the Muslim scholars commenting on Surah 3:44 also changed the means by which Mary’s guardian was chosen even though they maintained the idea of a lottery. In order to make a comparison and see the contrasts, it is necessary to quote from the Gospel of James first: 

And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph's head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. (Gospel of James, chapter 9)

 Here is the traditional commentary reported by Ibn Kathir:

`Ikrimah, As-Suddi, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, and several others said that the rabbis went into the Jordan river and conducted a lottery there, deciding to throw their pens into the river. The pen that remained afloat and idle would indicate that its owner would take care of Maryam. When they threw their pens into the river, the water took all the pens under, except Zakariyya's pen, which remained afloat in its place. Zakariyya was also their master, chief, scholar, Imam and Prophet, may Allah's peace and blessings be on him and the rest of the Prophets. (Source)

Some Islamic scholars circulating the legend above marked the Jordan River as the setting of the lottery although in the Gospel of James the process of selection took place in the Temple. This discrepancy might have arisen from the fact that a few elements occurring in the account of Joseph’s selection have similarities with the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. In both incidents a dove appeared and flew upon a person to distinguish him from others. These thematic connections may have instigated Muslim scholars to teach that the casting of lots occurred in the Jordan River. However, it is also not far from probability that the Islamic commentary above was produced through the combination of the narrative in the Gospel of James with the following biblical account:

Some of the prophets said to Elisha, “Look, the place where we meet with you is too cramped for us. Let’s go to the Jordan. Each of us will get a log from there and we will build a meeting place for ourselves there.” He said, “Go.” One of them said, “Please come along with your servants.” He replied, “All right, I’ll come.” So he went with them. When they arrived at the Jordan, they started cutting down trees. As one of them was felling a log, the ax head dropped into the water. He shouted, “Oh no, my master! It was borrowed!” The prophet asked, “Where did it drop in?” When he showed him the spot, Elisha cut off a branch, threw it in at that spot, and made the ax head float. He said, “Lift it out.” So he reached out his hand and grabbed it. (2 Kings 6:1-7 NET Bible

The Islamic commentary on Surah 3:44 has amazing similarities with the biblical account of a miracle performed by Elisha the Prophet. In both stories the setting is the Jordan River, something is cast into the river, and the floating helps people “find” something. For the sake of humor, the only element that seems to be missing from the Islamic legend is an axe, but we surprisingly find it in the Gospel of James: Joseph casts away his axe in order to go to the Temple and join the other widowers! 

Two major problems posed by the Islamic commentary on Surah 3:44

The Islamic commentary on Surah 3:44 and the legend drawn from it are incompatible not only with the Gospel of James, but also with the Qur’an due to two reasons. First, the traditional tendency to associate the incident of casting lots with the time of Mary’s dedication does not find support in Surah 3 when the chronological flow of the whole narrative is taken into account. It is not difficult to guess that the fabricated claim concerning Zechariah’s appointment as Mary’s guardian in the period of her infancy was based on the following verse:

And her Lord accepted her with full acceptance and vouchsafed to her a goodly growth; and made Zachariah her guardian. Whenever Zachariah went into the sanctuary where she was, he found that she had food. He said: O Mary! Whence cometh unto thee this (food)? She answered: It is from Allah. Allah giveth without stint to whom He will. (Surah 3:37 Pickthall)

Muslim scholars stunningly interpreted Surah 3:44 in the light of the verse above since both verses were related to Mary and employed the idea of her entrustment to a male guardian. However, they had to disregard the fact that Zechariah could not have been meant in verse 44 because the writer of the chapter placed verse 44 after the verse of John’s annunciation to Zechariah and right before the verse of Jesus’ annunciation to Mary, implying that the incident of choosing a guardian for Mary happened long after Mary’s dedication. Otherwise, he would have attached verse 44 to verse 37 or done something to highlight the alleged connection between them. 

The supposition that the author used the technique of flashback in verse 44 and thus abruptly went back in time to Mary’s infancy in the course of his narrative also fails to answer the question why verse 37 contains no information about the “selection of a guardian by lots” or a “dispute” even though it describes Zechariah as Mary’s guardian. It is true that the occurrence of the word “guardian” in verse 37 is rather misleading, but it is also true that Muslim scholars did not have hard evidence to substantiate their theory regarding the connection between verse 37 and verse 44. They could not explain why there was no mention of Zechariah in verse 44, nor could they present a valid reason for the occurrence of a flashback in Mary’s story right in verse 44. They simply replaced Joseph the Carpenter in the original narrative with Zechariah in their traditional story and severed the hidden ties between Mary’s story in Surah 3 and that in the Gospel of James because they were bothered even by an implicit and obscure reference to Joseph in the Qur’an.

Second, the order of the events given the traditional Islamic commentary reported by Ibn Kathir does not match the order of the events given in Surah 3:44. According to the Islamic legend, a disagreement/dispute arose among the priests of the Temple when Zechariah wanted to be Mary’s guardian and the others objected. In order to end the dispute and make a fair decision they decided to choose the person through the casting of their pens in the river. Zechariah, whose pen floated, became Mary’s caretaker. Let’s compare this to the Qur’an verse:

This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Apostle!) by inspiration: Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). (Surah 3:44 Yusuf Ali) 

Obviously, this verse refers to two separate incidents that are demonstrated by two when clauses: there was a time “when some indefinite people cast arrows to decide who would be in charge of Mary” and “there was a time when dispute arose among them”. More, the dispute may not have arisen before the casting of lots as the current order of the clauses shows. Ibn Kathir’s report, however, turns the order of these two incidents in Surah 3:44 upside down by asserting that a dispute occurred among the priests and a lottery was conducted to end that disagreement. Accordingly, no dissent followed Zechariah’s selection in sharp contrast to the Quranic implication that the dispute followed someone’s selection as Mary’s guardian.  

Some other traditional commentaries repeat the same inaccurate information. For example, in Ibn Abbas’ commentary we read:

(This) which I mentioned of the story of Mary and Zachariah (is of the tidings of things hidden) of the things that were unknown to you, O Muhammad. (We reveal it unto thee (Muhammad)) He says: We send Gabriel with it to you. (Thou wast not present with them) with the Rabbis (when they threw their pens) in the flow of water ((to know) which of them should be the guardian of Mary) to train her, (nor wast thou present with them when they quarrelled (thereupon)) each giving argument for his better claim to be Mary's guardian. (Source

This interpretation disregards the existence and order of the two incidents in Surah 3:44 too. If the dispute in this verse had pertained to each priest’s “argument for his better claim to be Mary's guardian”, it would have preceded the casting of lots. In short, the traditional Islamic commentaries on Surah 3:44 are problematic and misleading since they were born as a result of the scholars’ efforts to dissociate the verse from its original source, the Gospel of James, where Joseph was first selected by lots as Mary’s caretaker and then had a dispute with the priest after his objection to the decision. 

Joseph the Carpenter’s appearance in Ibn Ishaq’s commentary

In spite of the Muslim scholars’ general tendency to interpret Surah 3:44 in the light of Surah 3:37 and thus identify the person who was made Mary’s guardian by the casting of lots as Zechariah, in a particular commentary attributed to Ibn Ishaq we read that a new caretaker was chosen for Mary by lottery when Zechariah got too old:

Joseph is said to have been Mary’s cousin, a carpenter who was also in service at the Temple. ... Then there is a solitary account found in Ibn Hisham’s Sira (biography of the Prophet), and attributed to Ibn Ishaq. This account implies a second15 casting of lots. (Source)

In Ibn Hısham's Sira we find the following section:

Later her guardian was Jurayj, the ascetic, a carpenter of B. Isra’il.16 The arrow came out for him so he took her, Zachariah having been her guardian heretofore. A grievous famine befell B. Isra’il and Zachariah was unable to support her so they cast lots to see who should be her guardian and the lot fell on Jurayj the ascetic and he became her guardian. (The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah by Alfred Guillaume, p. 275)17 

This single account baffles us all the more and arouses curiosity when it introduces a mysterious figure named Jurayj rather than Joseph. Actually, this report seems in agreement with the narrative in the 9th chapter of the Gospel of James except for the name it ascribes to the person who was chosen by lots to be Mary’s guardian. That male figure is even designated as a carpenter, which enables us to suggest that Joseph was mistakenly called Jurayj or replaced, for some unknown reasons, with another person bearing that name.

This theory based on misnaming or the confusion of identities is strengthened when we discover that the same story is repeated in another Islamic text attributed to Ibn Ishaq again, and this time Mary’s caretaker is rightly named Joseph:

The same account is found in Tha‘labi’s collection of prophetic biographers (Qisas), still uniquely attributed to Ibn Ishaq, except this time it is Joseph the Carpenter who cast lots and gains responsibility for the guardianship of Mary. Due to the solitary attestation of this anecdote, the lack of reference to it in the Qur’an and hadith, and the confusion of identities in the two versions, it must be discarded as unreliable. (Source)

It is not astonishing to see an overt reference to Joseph the Carpenter in the commentary quoted above, for some Muslim scholars knew that Joseph’s selection as Mary’s guardian was meant in Surah 3:44. The connection between this verse and the 9th chapter in the Gospel of James surfaced in a traditional story attributed to Ibn Ishaq no matter how many Muslim scholars did their best to deny and repress it. However, one of the reasons why this report was not considered reliable was the occurrence of another person named Jurayj in Joseph’s stead in an alternate version of the story. Where did this weird difference in identification stem from? We have seen that in the majority of the commentaries on Surah 3:44 Joseph the Carpenter was strangely replaced with Zechariah. Now we shall look for an answer to the question why Joseph was replaced with Jurayj in a traditional narrative related to the interpretation of Surah 3:44.

Continue with Section B.



1 This alteration is confined to the name of Mary’s father in both the Qur’an and Islamic tradition: the accounts in the Qur’an do not give the name of Mary’s mother, but the Islamic tradition identifies her as Anna, the name given to her in all non-canonical Gospels of Nativity and Infancy as well in the Christian tradition. 

2 For further information see my second article on the theme of Imran’s fatherhood in the Qur’an. 

3 The sentence structures in Surah 19:6 and Surah 12:6 are amazingly similar by no coincidence!

4 The assertion that Zechariah was the high priest at any time in his life is alien to the canonical Gospel of Luke.

5 This interesting detail most likely functions to signal Joseph’s occupation. He had an axe because he was a carpenter.

6 Needless to say, he obviously condensed the original narratives and made them obscure.

7 For further information on the connection between Surah 3:33-34 and the first chapter of the Gospel of James, see my article named “Imran’s Fatherhood: Part II”.

8 We cannot know for sure if the writer of this chapter had originally one single angelic message in mind and accidentally split that into two because of his insertion of verse 44.

9 The first of these occurred when Mary went to a fountain to get some water whilst the second when she entered the house and started to spin the linen for the veil of the Temple.

10 In the traditional Islamic commentary reported by Ibn Kathir Surah 3:43 is interpreted as follows: “Allah states that the angels commanded Maryam to increase acts of worship, humbleness, submission, prostration, bowing, and so forth, so that she would acquire what Allah had decreed for her, as a test for her”. (Source) Of course, the word “increase” cannot be found in the verse and exists only in Muslims scholars’ fantasies as a key word giving meaning to a problematic statement of the Qur’an.

11 It was impossible for Joachim to be a priest because he did not descend from Aaron. Muslim scholars identifying Mary’s father (Imran in the Qur’an) as a priest thus overlooked this fact, and the new name given to Mary’s father by Muhammad may have prevented them from foreseeing the problem since Imran was the father of Aaron, from whom descended the Levites!

12 Note that Joachim received the good news of Mary’s birth while staying in a tent in the desert in the same way as Abraham had been informed of Isaac’s miraculous birth while sitting at the entrance to his tent (Genesis 18:1).

13 “According to the testimony of Holy Scripture (Exodus 38; 1 Kings 1: 28; Luke 2: 37), and also the historian Josephus Flavius, there were many living quarters around the Temple, in which those who were dedicated to the service of God dwelt”. (Source)

14 Is it only by coincidence that Zechariah was said to be a carpenter in Islamic tradition? (*)

15 The idea of a second casting of lots in the selection of a caretaker for Mary is alien to the non-canonical Gospels of Pseudo-Matthew and James. According to these two texts, Zechariah was not made Mary’s guardian by lottery. This was why Joseph the Carpenter was put in charge of Mary by the first casting of lots. Ironically, these two Gospels talk of a different lottery that was conducted to select the person who would sew the veil of the Temple.

16 Bani Isra’il, that is, the Children of Israel in Arabic.

17 Oxford University Press, 1967.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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