It's that magical time of the year again. The nativity scene is an ever present iconic display in shopping centres all over the world during the festive December season. It is a scene that has been painted by many famous artists through the ages since the Italian Renaissance. Mother Mary and new born Jesus are portrayed in the manger surrounded by angels, saints, cherubins, kings, etc in all sorts of themes. The reality is, nobody else, except Joseph, was there. Most definitely, the three wise men from the East were not there. They arrived two years too late.
The most famous painting was Caravaggio's 360-year-old masterpiece, "The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence". This $100m painting was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo, Palermo, Italy one rainy night in 1969 and has never been seen ever since.
True to the minimalist view, Luke 2.7 (KJV) :
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."Sans other details, it is assumed Jesus was born IN the manger. Mary and Joseph had travelled from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register to pay a new tax decreed by Caesar. All the inns were full and the couple had to shelter in the manger. But to be spot on, some shepherds came probably a few days later. These shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks by night. An angel appeared and told them of the birth of The Saviour that they can find in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. They decided to go Bethlehem to visit.
Quran, surah 19:16-27
So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a remote place.
Then the pains of labour drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She cried, “Alas! I wish I had died before this, and was a thing long forgotten!”
So a voice reassured her from below her, “Do not grieve! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet.
And shake the trunk of this palm tree towards you, it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon you.
So eat and drink, and put your heart at ease. But if you see any of the people, say, ‘I have vowed silence to the Most Compassionate, so I am not talking to anyone today.’”
Then she returned to her people, carrying him. They said ˹in shock˺, “O Mary! You have certainly done a horrible thing!
The Quran adds two miracles to sustain Mary - a palm tree and a stream. Could the idea of giving birth under a palm tree and refreshing water have come from Gospel of Pseudo-Matthews?
Pseudo-Matthews chap 21:
"And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that you say this, when you see how high the palm tree is; and that you think of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise yourself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from your roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from you. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God."
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew was written sometime in mid-6th century, thus preceding the Quran. However, Pseudo-Matthew was itself copied from a 2nd century product Protoevangelium of James. Considered a heretical writing, the James protogospel was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 AD and rejected by the Gelasian Decree around 500 AD. It is believed Pseudo-Matthew was Protoevangelium of James recycled with offending parts edited out. Chap 21 of the palm trees and water is an addition found only in Pseudo-Matthew.
Where could the inspiration for palm tree and water come from? Professor Suleiman Ali Mourad* suggested a good candidate is the mythology of the birth of the Greek and Roman God, Apollo. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the earlier group of gods that were defeated by the Olympians. The king of Olympian pantheon, Zeus, had eyes on Leto, a Titan goddess. When Leto became pregnant, Hera, the wife of Zeus, was infuriated. She cast a spell on Leto that no land will let her set foot on to deliver her child. Leto finally was able to land on the floating island of Delos. Leto had twins. The first born was daughter Artemis who was delivered without difficulty. Hera then caused Leto a painful 9 days to deliver Apollo. Leto sat down under a palm tree where the River Inopus flows seasonally with the flooding of the Nile. The delivery was so painful Leto had her arms wrapped around the palm tree.
The Greek mythology could itself be transferred from an earlier Egyptian story. The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) is known as the 'father of history', being the first man to have written a historical book called 'The Histories' which narrated an account of the Greco-Persian wars. The word 'history' was coined by him.
Herodotus' account of contemporary pilgrimage by Egyptians to temples in the Egyptian Delta:
"This is the story of Psammetichus' conquest of Egypt. I have often made mention of the Egyptian oracle, and I will now treat fully of it, for this it deserves. This Egyptian oracle is in a temple sacred to Leto, and is situated in a great city by the Sebennytic arm of the Nile, on the way upon from the sea. The name of the city where is this oracle is Buto; I have already named it. In Buto there is a temple of Apollo and Artemis. The shrine of Leto in which is the oracle is itself very great, and its outer court is ten fathoms high. But I will now tell of what was the most marvellous among things visible there: in this precinct is the shrine of Leto, whereof the height and length of the walls is all made of a single stone slab; each wall has an equal length and height, namely, forty cubits. Another slab makes the surface of the roof, the cornice of which is four cubits broad.
Thus then the shrine is the most marvellous of all things that I saw in this temple; but of things of lesser note, the most wondrous is the island called Chemmis. This lies in a deep and wide lake near to the temple at Buto, and the Egyptians say that it floats. For myself I never saw it float, nor move at all, and I thought it a marvellous tale, that an island should truly float. However that be, there is a great shrine of Apollo thereon, and three altars stand there; many palm trees grow in the island, and other trees too, some yielding fruit and some not. The story told by the Egyptians to show why the island moves is this: when Typhon came seeking through the world for the son of Osiris, Leto, being one of the eight earliest gods, and dwelling in Buto where this oracle of hers is, received Apollo in charge from Isis and hid him for safety in this island which was before immovable but is now said to float. Apollo and Artemis were (they say) children of Dionysus and Isis, and Leto was made their nurse and preserver; in Egyptian, Apollo is Horus, Demeter Isis, Artemis Bubastis. It was from this and no other legend that Aeschylus son of Euphorion stole an imagination, which is in no other poet, that Artemis was the daughter of Demeter. For the aforesaid reason (say the Egyptians) the island was made to float. Such is the tale."
It would seem the Greek-Roman mythology appropriated the Egyptian story. In Pseudo-Matthew, Jesus had already been born. The inclusion of palm tree in Pseudo-Matthew suggests a Greek-Roman and not Egyptian origin. And typical of gospel narratives, Pseudo-Matthew created the miracles of palm tree bending and water flowing. It would seem the Quran appropriated from Pseudo-Matthew and changed the miracle of water flowing and birth under the palm tree.
Ancient stories of important persons born under sacred trees come with miracles or something unusual were common. Palm trees, while not exactly sacred, are held with great respect in Middle East. Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Gautama Buddha under a sal tree in the Garden of Lumbini, Nepal, in 621 BC. The sal tree is a Hindu sacred tree. She delivered the baby standing up and holding on to the tree.
It is not uncommon in history for one culture to appropriate a story from another culture and rebrand it to suit their purpose, or for the stories to diverge differently through passage of time. For example, when Constantine Christianised the Roman Empire, the birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25th to coincide with the celebration of the rebirth of Sol Invictus, the Roman Pagan Sun God. Both Protoevangelium of James and Pseudo-Matthew were written when Roman culture had dominance and influence, narratives had to be tempered for wider mass consumption.
However, it is one thing to appropriate myths, legends and stories and bastardise them in non-scriptural works, it is an entirely different matter to canonise them as did the Quran.
* Some part of this blog is distilled from research paper by Prof Suleiman Ali Mourad titled 'From Hellenism to Christianity and Islam: The Origin of the Palm tree Story concerning Mary and Jesus in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Qur'an'. Prof Mourad's research and publications focus on medieval Islamic history and religious thought, including jihad ideology, sacredness of Jerusalem, Qur'anic studies, and the presentation of Jesus and Mary in the Qur'an and Islamic tradition.
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