Sunday, 12 April 2015

Islam and Source Criticism: Part 1

There is an interesting story in Qur’an about the pregnant Virgin Mary, in which she gets ripe dates to eat from a tree.

“She said, "How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?" He said, "Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, 'It is easy for me, and we will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.' “So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, "Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten." But he called her from below her, "Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say, 'Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful abstention, so I will not speak of today to [any] man.'

There is an interesting parallel to the “Messianic Secret” in Mark, in that Mary says she will not speak of that day to any man. It is almost as if the writer is aware that the tradition is poorly attested.

Now this tale does not appear in any of the four canonical gospels, or indeed in any of the earlier apocryphal narratives about Jesus, but it does appear in a document which has been termed “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew”.

“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 thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest 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 thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy 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 bad commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. 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 story is by no means identical, but it has enough in agreement to suggest a common source. The question then becomes one of dating. Did the gospel precede the Qur’an or vice versa? Or did they share a common source in tales extant at that time.

The introduction to the gospel provides one terminus:

"Here beginneth the book of the Birth of the Blessed Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour. Written in Hebrew by the Blessed Evangelist Matthew, and translated into Latin by the Blessed Presbyter Jerome. To their well-beloved brother Jerome the Presbyter, Bishops Cromatius and Heliodorus in the Lord, greeting."

There is no sign of an extant Hebrew copy, the only manuscripts are in Latin. Current dating suggests around the 7th century, or perhaps a little earlier. The text apparently reflects monasticism according to the Rule of St Benedict, which is where the best idea of its dating comes from. It is certainly not earlier than the 5th century. According to the research of J. Gijsel / R. Beyers (1997) it was probably written between 600 and 625 AD.

It is certainly not written by Jerome, (c.  347 – 30 September 420) who was responsible for the translation of most of the Bible into Latin – the translation commissioned by the Pope and known as the “Vulgate” (meaning “"version commonly-used"). But knowledge of Jerome would have become widespread as the translation was widely used, so that doesn’t supply much clues as to its origin.

Perhaps more can be seen from the fact that it purports to be a translation from the Latin by Jerome at the request of Bishops Cromatius and Heliodorus. When Jerome translated the books of the Bible now commonly termed “the apocrypha”, he prefixed the translations with a prologue. In the case of the Book of Tobit, this is a letter in which he writes “to the Bishops in the Lord Cromatius and Heliodorus”. Chromatius was a bishop of Aquileia in northern Italy and Heliodorus was a Bishop of Altinum in northern Italy. The prologue to Tobit tells us that the translation was at their request. Clearly, the author of pseudo-Matthew has borrowed this to give verisimilitude to his narrative.

According to the traditional Islamic view, the Qur’an began with revelations to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in 610. The history of the Qur’an began when its verses were revealed to the Muhammad. This would suggest it was nearly contemporaneous with the text of Pseudo-Matthew.

The narrative also introduces the popular Christmas images of the ox and ass into the stable, the first known text to do so, which looks as if it is prophecy historicised from the saying in Isaiah:

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib”

So there are differences here – Pseudo-Matthew puts the context of the birth in the stable, but also knows a birth tradition about a cave, and tries to have it both ways by having a birth in the cave, then transfer to a stable. Now the traditions about a cave are sound: caves were used for stables, and a very early church tradition says the site of the nativity was a cave near Bethlehem. Our own farming traditions, like that of pseudo-Matthew, think of stables as barn like structures.

Where are the origins of the story of the date palms? In a story which abounds in references to past prophecy being fulfilled, and even dragons appearing, there is no prophetic context in which this occurs, no allusion to the Old Testament – and this is a story in which most narratives have such allusions very clearly marked. That makes it very strange. But if we look after the end of the narrative in which the young child Jesus causes the palm tree to bend, there is a very interesting paragraph:

“And on the day after, when they were setting out thence, and in the hour in which they began their journey, Jesus turned to the palm, and said: This privilege I give thee, O palm tree, that one of thy branches be carried away by my angels, and planted in the paradise of my Father. And this blessing I will confer upon thee, that it shall be said of all who conquer in any contest, you have attained the palm of victory. And while He was thus speaking, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and stood upon the palm tree; and taking off one of its branches, flew to heaven with the branch in his hand. And when they saw this, they fell on their faces, and became as it were dead. And Jesus said to them: Why are your hearts possessed with fear? Do you not know that this palm, which I have caused to be transferred to paradise, shall be prepared for all the saints in the place of delights, as it has been prepared for us in this place of the wilderness? And they were filled with joy; and being strengthened, they all rose up”

That suggests a Roman or Greek origin, for the “palm of victory” was one for athletic contests. As Eurydice Kefalifou notes:

“Plutarch connects the branch with Apollo and his holy island of Delos and says that the hero Theseus was the first to receive a palm of victory in an athletic contest on Delos”

And when we look at the cult of Apollo and Delos, we find the following narrative:

“Leto found a safe refugee to give birth on Delos... The delivery of Artemis was painless but the birth of Apollo lasted for nine whole days and nights because Hera had kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, preventing Leto from having an easy and painless labour. It is said that, with the absence of Eileithyia, Artemis was the one to help her mother deliver her twin brother, Apollo. The delivery took place under a palm tree. Indeed, there is a palm tree today on Delos the ancient Greeks planted to commemorate the birth of the god.”

The absence of any prophetic rendering, and the presence of the term “palm of victory” suggest the story may be a Christianised version of the Apollo birth myths, especially as this is pretty well the only story about births of virgins under palm trees.

Interestingly, the same story is transmuted into a carol about cherry trees, which was popular in England in the Middle Ages. As Wiki notes:

“The ballad relates an apocryphal story of the Virgin Mary, presumably while travelling to Bethlehem with Joseph for the census. In the most popular version, the two stop in a cherry orchard, and Mary asks her husband to pick cherries for her, citing her child. Joseph spitefully tells Mary to let the child's father pick her cherries.”

Clearly, date palm trees meant very little to the people of England, but cherry trees did. It is an interesting example of how stories change to accommodate local cultures.

“At this point in most versions, the infant Jesus, from the womb, speaks to the tree and commands it to lower a branch down to Mary, which it does. Joseph, witnessing this miracle, immediately repents his harsh words.”

No comments: