The childhood of Jesus are where we begin to see some big differences between the New Testament and the Koran. For example, the New Testament, primarily the Gospel of Matthew, teaches that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of Caesar Augustus and the reign of King Herod over Bethlehem (Luke 1:5; Matt. 2:1). Jesus was also allegedly born in a stable and, upon being born, was visited by some shepherds who were apparently told of his birth by angels (Matt. 2:1-12). According to the story Herod, threatened by Jesus being a newborn king, set out to kill him (Matt. 2:16-18). Fearing for their lives Joseph fled with Jesus to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23) and only after Herod’s death returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up (Matt. 2:19). In Luke’s gospel we also find a story in which Jesus, at the age of 12, is learning in the temple (Luke 2:41-52).
On the other hand, however, the Koran also touches on the birth and childhood of Jesus although it relies on questionable sources that are much later than the New Testament itself. The Koran says that Jesus was born in the desert under a palm tree. According to Sura 19:24-25 when the pains of childbirth came upon Mary she held onto a nearby palm tree. This is accompanied by a voice that came from “beneath the (palm-tree)” saying “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.” Later when Mary was questioned as to how she had baby Jesus the Koran says that Jesus then began to speak in the cradle and spoke of his prophecy for the first time (Sura 19:27-33).
However, we find that there are clear parallels with this specific story from the Koran and the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo Matthew. Pseudo Matthew is a very late text and is dated somewhere between 600 and 625 AD: nearly 600 full years after Jesus’ life (1). Like with the other apocryphal texts we find fanciful reconstructions of times within Jesus’ life of which we have no, or very little, data on. According to this work we find Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt. They then find a palm tree under which they decide to rest and recuperate. Jesus subsequently talks to the tree to command it to replenish his parents. Mary desires fruit from the tree and Joseph wants water, and the tree obeys and satisfies both Jesus’ parents. These parallels between Pseudo Matthew and the Koran are quite clear (2). However, to the detriment of the Koran, there is just no way that any historian can, nor ever will, consider Pseudo Matthew as a reliable historical text on Jesus. One of the key components of establishing the reliability of a historical text is its earliness (3) of which Pseudo Matthew fails to satisfy. It is far too late and is based on two known works of fiction (the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
The Koran tries to fill in more information in several other places too. For example, it says that soon after Jesus’ birth Mary presents him to her people. However, some of these people question her regarding infant Jesus. This is when Jesus begins to speak, “I am indeed a servant of Allah, He has given me revelation and made me a Prophet; And He has made me blessed wheresoever I be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. [He] has 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 (Prophet) Jesus, the son of Mary. A saying of truth, concerning what they doubt” (Sura 19:30-33).
In other words, Jesus affirmed that he is a prophet and servant of Allah, and thus defends his mother. The source behind this narrative is another pseudo-gospel called the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior (4) which is dated to between 400 and 500 AD (5). Again, we are dealing with a late text well over 400 years of Jesus’ life. In the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior we find Jesus also speaking as an infant from within his cradle as well as affirming himself as sent by God (this time Jesus claims he is “the Son of God” as opposed to the “servant of Allah” found in the Koran which would seem to suggest that the Koran is putting words in Jesus’ mouth).
Finally, we have a miracle in which Jesus makes birds out of clay. Jesus then brings the birds to life. According to Sura 3:49 Jesus allegedly says, “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead by Allah’s leave; and I declare to you what you eat and what you store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you, if you did believe.”
This closely parallels a well-known episode in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which means the Koran is again copying a questionable and imaginatively fanciful source. This work was certainly not penned by the disciple Thomas and probably dates to the mid-to-late 2nd century AD (6). Such dating puts it earlier than the other two considered apocryphal texts though it remains quite out of range of the New Testament. This simply means that we are dealing with another late text that fails to satisfy early attestation.
Thus, in ending, the problems for the Koran are quite big. Firstly, no-one should trust the Koran to give a reliable portrait of the historical Jesus by any means. It is far too late to be considered authoritative and is even much later than some of the already questionable apocryphal texts from which it copies. The fact that it copies from texts that historians do not consider to give much, if any, reliable historical information on Jesus is another big problem. The Islamic apologist will probably say that the information from the Koran on Jesus is perfect because the angel Gabriel revealed the information to Muhammad. However, as we’ve just seen, the parallels to apocryphal works show nothing less than that Muhammad’s sources came from a mixture of later Christian myths and Gnostic works that were prevalent in Arabia at that time. It would thus follow that the Koran itself cannot be trusted.
1. Klauck, H. 2003. Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction. p. 78.
2. Bruce, F. 1974. Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament. p. 172-73.
3. Kloppenborg, J. Criteria of Authenticity. Available.
4. Tisdall, C. 1905. The Original Sources of the Qur’an. ch. 4, section 3.
5. Komoszewski, J. Sawyer, J. & Wallace, D. 2006. Reinventing Jesus. p. 156.
6. Hock, R. 1995. The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas. p. 91-92.