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Other Early Tales of Jesus & Mary (Bonus Section)


SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.



MARY & CHILD: BONUS FOOTAGE!


I always love it when a favorite movie of mine is re-released as a special edition with additional footage that didn’t appear in the original. So, imagine my delight when I learned there existed bonus footage of Jesus and Mary outside of the New Testament. Well, sort of. To be clear, no historians use this “bonus footage” as trustworthy sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but they’re fun and interesting to read nonetheless.


THE QUR’AN


Christians unfamiliar with Islam are often surprised to learn that Jesus holds a place of reverence among Muslims. The Qur’an mentions Jesus (called Isa) in 93 verses. What’s more surprising is how much space the Qur’an gives to Jesus’ mother. In fact, Mary (called Maryam) is the only woman named in the entire Qur’an.


The Qur’an is a collection of the teachings of Muhammad in no particular order with sparse—if any—context. Because of this, Muslims also have writings called hadith to explain the Qur’an. Many people from the Bible are mentioned throughout the Qur’an without any elaboration, as if assuming the reader knows the Bible. In other words, if the Bible ceased to exist before the Qur’an was written, we would be able to learn little—if anything—about these people based on the Qur’an. Interestingly, one of the closest things to a narrative in the Qur’an concerns Mary and the birth of Jesus, but it’s more like a movie trailer made of various scenes than a complete story.


According to the Qur’an (3:35–42), when Mary’s mother was pregnant with her, she dedicated the child in her womb to the service of Allah. Sometime after birth, Mary was put into the care of Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist in the New Testament) in a “place of prayer,” which is understood to be a mosque or, more likely, the Jerusalem temple [1]. Later, Zechariah is amazed to find Allah miraculously providing Mary with food.


Throughout the Qur’an, Jesus is referred to as Isa ibn Maryam (“Jesus, Son of Mary”). No mention of Jesus having an earthly, adoptive father is to be found, nor any mention of Mary ever being married. Similar to Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:34), after hearing of her coming pregnancy from an angelic messenger, Mary asks how can she have a child when she has never been touched by a man. Unlike Luke’s gospel, Mary also points out that she’s not a prostitute—something always good to be clear about. The answer: Allah creates whatever he pleases.


Mary’s child will be “the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, eminent in this world and the Hereafter” and he will be held in honor with those closest to Allah (Qur’an 3:45–47).

Once Jesus enters the scene, things get very interesting very quickly. While experiencing birth pains, Mary is comforted by Jesus. Yes, Jesus, who is in her womb. He tells her that all she needs to do for something to eat is shake the trunk of a nearby palm tree and dates will fall to her (Qur’an 19:23–26). (This is where the idea for the well-known Muslim restaurant franchise Shake-A-Date originated [2].)


After Jesus’ birth, people are appalled that this unmarried woman has a newborn child. Her response certainly earns her a prize for the most original response to any accusation of harlotry: she tells her accusers to speak to the baby. At this, the newborn Jesus pipes up, informing the accusers that they should respect his mother. Where newborns aren’t very threatening, I’m pretty sure I would listen to a talking one, as I assume these people did.



THE PROTEVANGELIUM OF JAMES



Some of the details found in the Qur’an that don’t appear in the New Testament do appear in two earlier writings about Jesus, The Protevangelium of James and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both written after the New Testament but centuries before the Qur’an.


The writing called the Protevangelium of James gives us even more of a backstory for Mary than the Qur’an. Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna and couldn’t conceive, but an angel told them that God had heard their prayers and Anna would become pregnant. In details that are different yet similar to the Qur’an, Mary’s parents dedicate her to a life of service in the Jerusalem temple where angels provide her with food.


Also, similar to the Qur’an, Zechariah plays a part in the story, but here God tells him to go find the twelve-year-old Mary a husband. Zechariah knows Joseph is the man when a dove comes out of Joseph’s rod and lands on Joseph’s head. Whether this was a vision, the Holy Spirit, or a literal dove popping out of a walking stick, it doesn’t say. Joseph protests, grumbling just like an old man because that’s exactly what he is: an old widower with children of his own.


It’s not until Mary is sixteen that she becomes a pregnant virgin through a miracle of the Holy Spirit. The text is a bit confusing here; Joseph is her (much older) husband but appears to be more of a fatherly protector of Mary’s purity, because he’s accosted for a “grievous crime” when she’s found to be pregnant [3]. Jesus is born in a cave, similar to early church traditions, but, well, he’s not actually born: the cave fills with a cloud; then, when it leaves, a bright light temporarily blinds everyone. Once it fades, the newborn Jesus is found with Mary. (I’m sure all women would prefer giving birth this way. In fact, I’m sure their husbands would prefer it too.)


THE INFANCY GOSPEL OF THOMAS


Unlike the New Testament gospels, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is only about Jesus’ youth. We find a young Jesus (under six-years-old) bringing to life sparrows he shapes out of clay. Interestingly, this is referred to in the Qur’an but not found anywhere in the New Testament (Qur’an 3:49, 5:110).


On the groundbreaking TV show The Twilight Zone, there’s a classic black-and-white episode titled “It’s a Good Life” about a six-year-old boy named Anthony with god-like powers [4]. Think of the impulsiveness of children. Now imagine a child with the power to do whatever he wants with a thought. It’s not hard to imagine what life around that child would be like. Who in their right mind would tell the child “no”? Who would discipline such a child? Anthony’s poor dad ended up with his head bouncing on the top of a spring in a jack-in-the-box.


The episode is actually based on a short story by Jerome Bixby from 1953. Then, the original 1961 Twilight Zone episode was remade in Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, then spoofed on The Simpsons Halloween episode in 1991, and a sequel was made on the 2003 Twilight Zone reboot called “It’s Still a Good Life.” The concept was popular because it made for truly can’t-look-away TV. Yet, this idea was around long before 1953, because we find this exact horrifying (but—let’s be honest—highly amusing) concept in a second century piece of writing about Jesus called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is the supposed author, though it couldn’t possibly be Jesus’ disciple since he would’ve been long dead by the time of its writing. The work tells of Jesus’ childhood up to age twelve, supposedly filling in what the gospels in the New Testament leave out. And what we get is… Well, a Twilight Zone episode.


In The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the child Jesus shapes a bunch of birds from clay on the sabbath. After he’s accosted for doing work on the day of rest, Jesus claps his hands and the clay birds come to life and fly away. (This story was alluded to in the Qur’an, as I mentioned earlier.) This is the first supernatural act in the story—the innocent antics of a child. But the cuteness doesn’t last! Soon, Jesus is making kids who anger him shrivel up like raisins and striking blind parents who complain about it. In response, Joseph gives his son’s ear a hard pull, and this also angers Jesus, but if there’s anything redeemable about this “Twilight Zone Jesus,” it’s that he doesn’t turn his dad into a jack-in-the-box. Young Jesus also shows a string of tutors just how stupid they are, causing one to lament, “There is nothing for me but despondency and death on account of this boy.” A bit melodramatic but then again Jesus wasn’t yet six-years-old.


Still, the kid Jesus wasn’t all bad. He healed his brother James from a deadly snake bite—and exploded the snake into oblivion. He brought a dead boy back to life. (Well, he only did this to prove it wasn’t him who killed him.) He also lengthened a piece of wood Joseph accidently cut too short. Maybe Joseph was starting to think that having a supernatural child wasn’t so bad, but shortly after, Joseph has reason to plead with Mary, “Do not let him go outside of the door, because those that make him angry die”! [5]


No one takes The Infancy Gospel of Thomas seriously for historical information about Jesus. It was written in the mid or late second century, too long after the life of Jesus to be the work of any eyewitness. It’s pretty clear that the authors of these sorts of writings were familiar with the Gospels and decided to fill in some “holes.” When you get down to it, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is just bad fan-fiction.


INTERESTING, ENTERTAINING, NOT HISTORICAL


The four Gospels we find in the New Testament were written in the first century. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James were written in the second century, too late to be written by any of Jesus’ disciples. The Qur’an was composed in the seventh century. Which is closest to the actual events?


There’s a reason no one (other than Muslims) considers the Qur’an a serious source for information about Jesus. Likewise, no historian takes these two second-century narratives about Jesus seriously either. Regardless, they give us intriguing insight into other early perceptions of Jesus of Nazareth.


When it comes to supernatural claims, the New Testament Gospels are pretty tame compared to the Qur’an, The Protevangelium of James and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In fact, compared to these other works, the Gospels seem almost unextraordinary!



[1] A. J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation, (Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2015), 34.

[2] This is totally not true… Sorry, I couldn’t resist a dad joke.

[3] James Orr, The Protevangelium of James, (CrossReach, 2016), Kindle, Loc 344.

[4] Season 3, 1961–1962.

[5] James Orr, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, (CrossReach, 2016), Kindle, Loc 288.






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