Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Using Christian and Islamic Sources to Compare and Contrast the Story of Mary

By Amir Webb
March 28, 2016
The Christian and Muslim faiths lay claim to Jesus and a certain historical and theological narratives. Christianity and Islam lay claim to a historical and theological narrative on Mary and/or Maryam (Mary will be used). There are many overlapping facts in both the Christian and Islamic traditions regarding Mary. There are also many discrepancies that should be outlined and described in a respectful narrative for a better grasp at theological differences. The main sources that will be used are: The Qur’an, The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor, Lost Books of the Bible by William Hone, and The Bible.
In the Christian tradition Mary has a controversial yet central role. Starting with Mary’s life as a child; she is said to have been born in 18 B.C. in the Palestinian village of Sepphoris, to Anna and Joachim.[1] In the year 4 B.C. when Mary was 14, the small village of Sepphoris was the centre of a large scale revolt against the Roman occupation by, “a certain Judas son of Ezekias.”[2] To crush the rebellion, Roman governor of Syria, Publis Quintilius Varus led three legions into Sepphoris and burned the village, enslaving inhabitants, while up to two thousand people were crucified as well.[3]
The apocryphal gospel, The Gospel of the Birth of Mary may not be theologically accepted universally but, it does give insight on stories that were circulating. The Gospel of Mary agrees with the fact that Joachim and Anna are her parents, to a degree. The Gospel of Mary gives the narrative that Anna conceived Mary via virgin birth.[4] An angel comes to both Anna and Joachim to tell them of a daughter who will be named Mary. They are also told that Mary will bring the forth the “Son of God.”[5]
Within the Islamic tradition exploring Surah Imran to unearth information on the birth of Mary and family history is key. The wife of Imran pledged the child she conceived to the service of God before the child (Mary), was born.[6] Both the Christian and Islamic tradition state that Mary was devoted to a life of religiousness. When Imran’s wife delivered a girl she was confused as she was sure she would have a son as Imran’s wife says, “and the male is not like the female.”[7] In Surah Imran, Mary is sent to live under the care of Zechariah where, “(she) can grow in good manner” and where she would learn certain religious duties. Within the Islamic tradition his wife is named Hanna, but there is much debate around who Hanna was.
The Gospels of Mary puts Mary in the temple and beginning her education at the age of three and proclaims she worked the miracle of walking up a staircase by herself.[8] Another connection between the Islamic and Christian tradition is that they both state that Mary was visited by angels. In the Qur’an the angels came to Mary and said, “O Mary indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds.”[9] The Gospel of Mary puts her in direct conversation with angels as they also ministered to her.[10]
Focusing now on the Mary around the birth of Jesus and looking at the differences in the Christian and Islamic traditions. There is a key difference in the story of Mary between the two traditions; after the birth of Jesus in The Bible, Mary and Joseph do not return home to Galilei. In fact, Mark and John begin their accounts of Jesus’ life in his adulthood and say nothing about his birth.
The Gospel of Matthew says that when Joseph discovered the pregnancy he wanted to end the engagement but, did not want to shame her and wanted to keep the matter quite.[11] Tradition has it that Mary, with or without Joseph, left Nazareth, and went to the village of Ein Kerem.[12] It was here where she stayed with close relatives Zachariah and Elizabeth.[13] Whether this is the same Zachariah that Mary was sent to as a child in the Qur’an is unknown, but logical conclusions can be made that it is. It is also important to note that Elizabeth was pregnant with a son who would be known as John the Baptist or Yahyah to Muslims.[14]  Both the Qur’an and The Bible place emphasis on Zachariah and his wife being old when having John, Luke 1:39 and Surah Maryam verse 5 place emphasis on their old age.
The authors of the various Gospels are torn between when Jesus returned to his home village but the Qur’an is very clear in saying it was in infancy. The Qur’an is in agreement with the Gospels of Mary in the fact that Mary left Nazareth to give birth, as she “conceived him and she withdrew with him to a remote place” and this place very well could be Ein Kerem.[15] In the Quran she returns home and faces the very thing Joseph was worried about in the Gospel of Luke, criticism and shame. “O Mary you have certainly done a thing unprecedented” the townspeople said upon her return with a child and no husband. [16] And this is where Jesus, as a child still in a cradle spoke, saying “Indeed I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a Prophet.”[17]
To push interfaith dialogue forward there must be a certain level of commitment to education and understanding. The Bible and The Qur’an share many of the same stories and names while giving these people different duties and roles. Understanding these differences while staying committed to ones religion is key. Mary/Maryam as Jesus/Isa does not have one narrative but many narratives that hold special places in people’s lives. There are scholars who even ask, was Mary a Prophet? Kecia Ali, in her essay Gender and Destabilization makes the claim with compelling theological evidence. Ali reminds the reader that Mary is a key figure of Islam and Christianity and her life is essential to moving the story of both religions forward. As one reads the story of Mary, especially across religious texts, gender-roles become blurry and Mary mirrors many traits of her male prophet counterparts.
[1] James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2006), 37.
[2] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 40.
[3] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 40.
[4] William Hone, The Lost Books of the Bible, (Old Saybrook, Konecky and Konecky, 1926). 17.
[5] Hone, The Lost Books of the Bible, 18-19
[6] The Quran, Surah Imran, 35.
[7] The Quran, Surah Imran, 36.
[8] Hone, Lost Books of the Bible, 20.
[9] The Quran, Surah Imran, 42.
[10] Hone, Lost Books of the Bible, 20.
[11] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 44.
[12] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 44.
[13] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 44.
[14] Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 44.
[15] Quran, Surah Maryam, 22.
[16] Quran, Surah Maryam, 27.
[17] Quran, Surah Maryam. 30.
Amir Webb is a Former Human Service Professional in the Washington D.C. Area. Contributor to various organizations such as MuslimArc and Muslim Writers Guild. Currently studying Historical Studies with a focus on African American Islamic History.

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