Comparing stories of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day

December 26, 2017


During the Advent season, as Christmas Day approached, and while Gwenyth and I listened to Bach's Weihnachts Oratorium over and over again, I decided to try to finish my comments on the Quran's two versions of the birth of 'Isa, the Quranic Jesus. The two stories appear in the third Sura, verses 42-47, and in the 19th Sura, verses 16-33.


In both stories God sends messengers to speak with Mary. In Sura 19 it is "our spirit" who arrives in the form of a human being. In Sura 3 it is "the angels" who speak with Mary.


Much could be profitably discussed concerning these passages, but for this post I will only focus one element of the narratives that raises questions for me. The Sura 3 story offers more substance to the speech of the heavenly messengers, including a description of the identity of 'Isa. "his name is the Messiah, 'Isa, son of Mary, eminent in this world and the hereafter, and one of those brought near. He will speak to the people in the cradle and in adulthood, and [will be] one of the righteous" (Q 3.45, 46, A.J. Droge).


I want to strike the right tone in the commentary. So how should I describe the angels' speech in these verses? On the one hand it can be considered a good thing that the Quran even mentions the birth of 'Isa. And the words of the angels certainly certainly appear affirmative. The angels give 'Isa the name "Messiah," which seems to be a high title.


On the other hand, "Messiah" is never defined in the Quran in terms of the Hebrew and Greek meanings of "the anointed one." The Quran seems to understand it merely as another name of 'Isa. And when the reader compares the angelic speeches in Suras 3 and 19 with the speech of Gabriel in the Gospel according to Luke chapter 1, we find significant differences.


"You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:31-33, NIV).


Glass half full or half empty? The absence of "Son of the Most High" in the Quranic message of the angels is not incidental. In Sura 3 the angel is careful to say 'Isa will simply be created by divine fiat (Q 3.47; cf. 3.59). And following the Sura 19 story, the Quran links this with a denial of Jesus' divine Sonship: 


"It is not for Allah to take any son. Glory to him! When he decrees something, he simply says to it, 'Be!' and it is" (Q 19.35).


Complicated. At the very point where the Quranic stories appear to be similar to the Gospel account, a seemingly deliberate denial of divine glory. How to call it?


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