In my reading, and as mentioned in a few of my blog posts here on this site (see ‘Apocryphal and non-canonical stories’ here), I have come across a number of occasions where the Qur’an seems to be interacting with non-canonical Jewish and Christian stories. In my blog posts I have explained why I find this to be problematic; not simply the fact that non-canonical sources are utilised, but that problematic elements within them are retained. I will explain this more below.
Paul Williams, in one his many thought-provoking videos, rightly highlights that Christians need to be consistent when critiquing the Qur’an for using earlier materials, given that the Bible also seems to do so (watch the video here, 5:23 onwards). However, I do still think that this critique which Christians make against the Qur’an is valid, for the following reasons:
- The Qur’an seems to refer to these sources much more frequently.
- The Qur’an seems to affirm more problematic elements in those sources.
- The Qur’an and the Bible have different relationships to their sources
- The Qur’an and the Bible have different mechanisms of revelation.
1. The Qur’an seems to refer to non-canonical sources more frequently
It is true that this also occurs in the Bible, and so let me respond to those texts or issues mentioned in the video:
- The similarities between the Genesis account of the Flood and the Epic of Gilgamesh could perhaps be explained by common remembrances of an actual historical event (a catastrophic flood, whether regional or global, and the human remnant who survived it). Alternatively, the Bible could well be written with the Epic of Gilgamesh in mind, but ‘setting the record straight’. Muslims also need to grapple with the similarities between the Flood account and the Epic of Gilgamesh, given that the Flood also occurs in the Qur’an (e.g. Q 7:59-64; Q 71).
- The laws of Moses can be seen as indeed as reflecting laws found in The Code of Hammurabi. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem; God reveals laws to Moses in accordance with similar laws of its time, such laws as would be applicable and understandable in the Old Testament milieu, while making changes in accord with God’s moral standards. For Christians, Jesus clarifies that the Old Testament law included some degree of accommodation to sinful human realities (Matthew 19:8). Muslims also need to grapple with the similarities between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi, when the Qur’an mentions those laws (Q 5:45)
- Daniel 7 borrowing from the Ugaritic Baal cycle – yes quite possibly. From the little I know of OT studies, the OT does sometimes seem to take Canaanite myths and refashion them in line with its own theology.
Though not mentioned in the video, in my opinion one of the trickiest issues for Christians is the citation of 1 Enoch 1:9 in Jude 14: ‘Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones 15 to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”’ (NIV. All Bible citations will be from the NIV)
- One could believe with Hiebert (1989, 265-266) that even though 1 Enoch is not inspired, it happened to preserve this statement of Enoch accurately. That’s one long time-gap for such a prophecy to survive without being preserved by God in infallible scripture, but I suppose God could have providentially ensured its survival.
- It’s possible that Ellis (1960, 4, cited via ibid, 266) is right that ‘Jude “cites the ‘prophecy’ simply as a well-known judgment which finds appropriate fulfilment in the false teachers.” Vögtle (1994, 84, cited via Carson in Beale & Carson, 2007, 1078) suggests that Jude’s opponents may have rejected other scriptures teaching the doctrine of final judgement, and hence decided to appeal to 1 Enoch which they accepted.
- For Ellis’ suggestion, I find a similarity to Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:7-9, where he applies a condemnation of religious hypocrites to the Pharisees from Isaiah 29:13. Although Jesus says ‘Isaiah…prophesied about you‘, I think it is clear that Isaiah 29:13 was first and foremost about Isaiah’s generation, and that such may have been evident to Jesus. However they were fitting words for the Pharisees. My experience has been that Jewish methods of citation were sometimes more creative, shall we say, than modern conventions (e.g. Matthew 2:15; see discussion below).
- Perhaps similar to point 2, Carson (in Beale & Carson, 2007, 1078) notes: ‘In a private communication David R. Jackson, author of the important book Enochic Judaism, suggests that Jude expects his words to be read in some ironic sense. But I have not seen that view defended anywhere in print, convincingly or otherwise, so at this juncture the claim still strikes me as odd.’ I do not have access to this book, but I’m curious whether Jackson discusses this point there or elsewhere. This is similar to point 2, in that Jude is making use of 1 Enoch without necessarily considering it inspired.
- It is also possible that for Jude, 1 Enoch is ‘inspired prophecy’ (Towner in Harvey & Towner, 2009, 213. Similarly Bauckham, 1998, 96), and that Jude was speaking in a context where these texts were highly valued; Towner clarifies that ‘This is not an appeal to reconsider the canonicity of 1 Enoch‘ today (2009, pp. 162-163). Due to the canonical messiness involved, I do prefer options 1-3, particularly 2.
While this is undoubtedly a tricky passage and I can think of a few other similar such passages, I find far more of these in the Qur’an:
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 being cited as Scripture (‘Thus we ordained’, lit. ‘we wrote’, katabnā) in Q 5:32. See article here.
- II Targum of Esther as the basis of Q 27:29-44.
- Jewish exegesis in Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 12a as the exegetical basis for boiling water at the flood (Q 11:40, 23:37). See article here.
- The story of Abraham being thrown into the fire being exegetically derived in Jewish tradition from Abraham coming out of ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ in Genesis 11:31 (see from 13:20 here). Cf. this story in Genesis Rabbah para. 38 (cited via 1898, Geiger, 96-98).
- A story about Alexander the Great from ‘The Alexander Romance’ in Q 18:60-64, and a story about Alexander the Great from ‘The Alexander Legend’ in Q 18:83-101 (Reynolds, 2018, 463-464, 467-471). For the latter see article here.
- A story applied to Moses (Q 18:65-82) based on the stories ‘found in a manuscript…which includes passages from the Leimon (or Pratum Spirituale) of John Moscus (d. 619) that are not found in the standard edition thereof.’ (Reynolds, 2018, 465). UPDATE 01/02/2021: Some discussion here has made me realise that the evidence for this point is much more debatable. I need to do further research on this point.
- The story of the ‘Companions of the Cave’ (Q 18:9-26), based on pre-existing Christian legends, such as Jacob of Serugh’s Mēmrā on the Sleepers of Ephesus, 23 (11. 53-56) (Reynolds 2018, 450-452. Cf. also Griffith in Reynolds (ed.), 2008, 109-137).
- Satan bowing down to Adam (e.g. Q 2:34), as found particularly in the Syriac Cave of Treasures (Reynolds, 2018, 37).
- God physically raising a mountain over the Israelites (Q 2:63), as found in the Babylonian Talmud b. Shabbat 88a (Reynolds, 2018, 51).
- Joseph’s desire to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, yet prevented by the ‘evidence of his Lord’ (Q 12:24), as in Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b (Geiger, 1898, 111).
- The casting of lots for Mary (Q 3:44), as found in the Protevangelium of James (9:1) (Reynolds, 2018, 119)
- The birth of Jesus (Q 19:22-26) and its similarities with the Protevangelium of James and, especially, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Reynolds, 2018, 476-477)
- Jesus forming birds from clay (Q 3:49), as found in the Childhood of the Savior (Reynolds, 2018, 121)
Please note: I am not saying the Qur’an is reading these texts, but engaging with the ideas found in them. The ideas may also predate these texts, but the problem still remains that for most of these ideas their earliest attestation is centuries after the events described and contain new elements compared to earlier (including canonical) accounts of these events.
Especially given the size of the Qur’an, in my opinion there are more per capita problems with the Qur’an than the Bible when it comes to problematic borrowing of sources.
2. The Qur’an seems to affirm more problematic elements in those sources.
I have mentioned how, in my opinion, the Bible’s using of pre-existing material is mostly unproblematic (e.g. if the laws of Moses are similar to other law codes of its day). The most troubling (Jude and its borrowing from 1 Enoch) raises questions as to whether such historical events can be recorded accurately centuries later in a work such as 1 Enoch (I have attempted to give some answers above), even though (sometimes much) earlier sources do not mention them. This problem also occurs multiple times with the sources that the Qur’an cites (numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13).
But Jude also has another problem, namely the content of the material that is being used:
- Jude 6 speaks of fallen angels who are being ‘kept in darkness’ for the day of judgement (cf. 1 Enoch 6-19. Bauckham, 1983, p. 51), even though this has not yet been explained or necessarily developed in the doctrine of punishment/eschatology of Genesis 6. I suppose Jude could have thought (and been led by inspiration to think) that 1 Enoch gave a plausible reconstruction of what must have happened to those angels given developments in Jewish and Christian angelology (e.g. Matthew 8:29).
- Jude 7 could be scientifically and historically problematic if understood to be reflecting Jewish belief that Sodom and Gomorrah were still burning (Bauckham, 1983, p. 55). Perhaps this simply refers to the ‘hot springs and sulfurous nature of the Dead Sea region’ that Jewish tradition connected to the imprisonment of fallen angels, as Bauckham notes. I wonder whether such geographic features may simply have been linked to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in that region, angels or no angels.
- Jude 9 reflects a knowledge of Michael and the Devil that seems to be quite anachronistic at this stage in Israelite history (the time of Moses). Given that the event occured in private it is possible that it occured but was unknown to the Israelites; but how would a source such as the Assumption of Moses have known this reliably? (for a discussion on the source, cf. Bauckham, 1983, pp. 65ff.). Carson (in Beale & Carson, 2007, 1075) notes that the suggestion has been made that Jude might have cited the story as an example without actually believing it to be true; they state ‘That may or may not be so, but it is wonderfully difficult to demonstrate.’
It should be clear by now that I think Jude has some tricky texts to work through, even if I think many or all of them have reasonable answers. Perhaps I am naive but I see Jude as quite exceptional in the amount of non-canonical citations per capita, and the problems it raises. Perhaps this is due to the nature of those people whom it is talking about, and the texts they valued. Whatever headache this may cause for the interpreter, I see more of such issues in the Qur’an than I find in the Bible. Like Jude, there are problems not only with the time lapse between the events being described and their earliest textual attestation, but there are actual problems with the content involved:
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 being cited as Scripture (‘Thus we ordained’, lit. ‘we wrote’, katabnā) in Q 5:32. As I have discussed here, the information that the Qur’an is citing seems to be exegetically derived, and not based on historical information passed down.
- Jewish exegesis in Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 12a as the exegetical basis for boiling water at the flood (Q 11:40, 23:37). See article here.
- The story of Abraham being thrown into the fire (Q 21:68-69) being exegetically derived in Jewish tradition from Abraham coming out of ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ in Genesis 11:31 (see from 13:20 here). Cf. this story in Genesis Rabbah para. 38 (cited via 1898, Geiger, 96-98).
- A story about Alexander the Great from ‘The Alexander Romance’ in Q 18:60-64, and a story about Alexander the Great from ‘The Alexander Legend’ in Q 18:83-101 (Reynolds, 2018, 463-464, 467-471). For the latter see article here. These stories contain problematic elements, namely Alexander being a pious monotheist (contrary to history), and finding the setting and rising places of the sun.
- A story applied to Moses (Q 18:65-82) based on the stories ‘found in a manuscript…which includes passages from the Leimon (or Pratum Spirituale) of John Moscus (d. 619) that are not found in the standard edition thereof.’ (Reynolds, 2018, 465). Unless I am mistaken (I am dependant on Reynolds’ summary), the original story is not about Moses. It seems therefore that the Qur’an has misunderstood the story. UPDATE 01/02/2021: Some discussion here has made me realise that the evidence for this point is much more debatable. I need to do further research on this point.
- The story of the ‘Companions of the Cave’ (Q 18:9-26), based on pre-existing Christian legends, such as Jacob of Serugh’s Mēmrā on the Sleepers of Ephesus, 23 (11. 53-56) (Reynolds 2018, 450-452. Cf. also Griffith, 2008, 109-137). The Qur’an doesn’t seem to understand that the story was told about faithful followers of Christ, as opposed to unitarian monotheists (Q 18:14-15). A Muslim will reply that true followers of Christ always have been unitarian monotheists, but it is perhaps hard to believe that these youths and the cave would have been honoured by Trinitarian Christians as was the historical reality.
- Satan bowing down to Adam (e.g. Q 2:34), as found particularly in the Syriac Cave of Treasures (Reynolds, 2010, 48). If this is due to the link between Adam and the second-Adam who is worthy of worship (i.e. Christ), as Reynolds (2010, 48-57) might be suggesting, it would be strange for the Qur’an to repeat this story. If instead it is due to mankind being created in the image of God, it will be up to the Muslim to consider what he thinks of such a notion (for a hadith in favour, cf. https://sunnah.com/muslim:2612e)
- The birth of Jesus (Q 19:22-26) and its similarities with the Protevangelium of James and, especially, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Reynolds, 2018, 476-477). The Qur’an contradicts the earlier sources which place the palm tree in Egypt (Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical History 5:21; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 20:1-2. Reynolds, 2018, 477-488). While Muslims might say the Qur’an is simply setting the record straight, Reynolds notes Stephen Shoemaker’s (2003, 11-39, cited via ibid. Shoemaker’s work is not available to me) work which argues that the Qur’an may be influenced by the Kathisma church on the outskirts of Jerusalem where both Jesus’ birth and the flight to Egypt and the palm tree and spring were all commemorated. The Qur’an could easily have placed the latter elements anachronistically back into the time of Jesus’ birth. It is also interesting that the Qur’an includes so much information found in non-canonical Gospels that speak of Jesus’ infancy when the canonical Gospels speak so little about this. The non-canonical Gospels are suspicious as being later products of speculation trying to fill in information about Jesus’ infancy and childhood (about which the Gospels are comparatively reserved), as well as to clarify his miraculous and divine nature at such an early age. Sozomenus’ account (Ecclesiastical history, 5:21) speaks of the tree which ‘inclined to the ground and worshipped Him’, and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew has Jesus speak with great authority: ‘Raise yourself, O palm, and be strong and join my trees which are in the paradise of my Father.’
- Jesus forming birds from clay (Q 3:49), as found in the Childhood of the Savior (Reynolds, 2018, 121). Reynolds suggests that ‘In the Christian context the point is to have Jesus create a living thing in the way that God creates Adam (Gen 2:7)’. This may be true, though Jesus only actually sent the birds flying away, and thus they were clearly alive, when he was accused of violating the Sabbath. But in favour of the interpretation is what he was doing immediately before: ‘he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent’. Jesus’ control over the waters may hearken back to God being in control over the primordial waters of creation and their seperation (Genesis 1:2, 6-10), which takes place shortly before God forms Adam out of ‘the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2:7). Either way, the story highlights Jesus’ power over nature even in his childhood, and explicitly states that he was ‘commanding them [i.e. the waters] by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.’
I have left blank those numbered items where there is a problem primarily of chronology rather than content.
3. The Qur’an and the Bible have different relationships to their sources
The New Testament sometimes does odd things (by modern standards) in relationship to the sources it cites. I have already discussed Jude and the challenges it raises. One of the potential solutions that was raised is that Jude might be utilising sources that it doesn’t necessarily believe in, but might be using for the sake of argument. Or they might be used as literary and theological truths, without the underlying history being affirmed. This might sound odd to modern ears, but it seems to be a reality that 1st century (and following) Jewish exegesis/’midrash’ sometimes had unusual ways of treating their sources (from our perspective). An example I often give is Matthew 2:15:
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15. All Bible citations are from the NIV)
The astute Bible reader will recognise that Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1, where the ‘son’ is clearly Israel, not the Messiah: ‘“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’ (Emphasis added).
Now, it is theologically true that the Messiah is the embodiment of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 49:1-7), and that Matthew therefore can find significance in the fact that as Israel fled to Egypt in a time of difficulty and came back to the Land of Canaan/Israel, so too did the Messiah. But we have no reason to think that Hosea had this intention or understanding in proclaiming Hosea 11:1. Another example would be Matthew 2:23:
and [Joseph, Mary and Jesus] went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This is probably another midrashic passage, potentially playing on the similarity between Messianic passages speaking of the ‘branch’ (Isaiah 11:1, referring to the ‘nezer’; cf. similar language, though not the word ‘nezer’, in Isaiah 53:2. References from Blomberg in Beale & Carson, 2007, 11) and the town of Nazareth.
So while such passages may strike a reader unfamiliar with midrash as odd, they seem to have been in line with Jewish exegesis of the time. For more on Jewish methods of exegesis, cf. the entry ‘Midrash’ in Green et. al, 2013, 2nd ed., pp. 588-594, as well as ‘Rabbinical hermeneutics’ in Strack and Stemberger, 1991, pp. 17-34. An understanding of midrash, in my opinion, can help to explain a number of passages that can be found in the New Testament; their theological truths and literary intricacy can be appreciated, without understanding such passages to necessarily be making a historical claim (e.g. that Hosea thought the Messiah would literally come from Egypt).
By contrast, the Qur’an does not come from a first century Jewish context where midrash is a recognised phenomenon. Nowhere (to my knowledge) does the Qur’an suggest that it is undertaking a midrashic approach, and indeed on a number of occasions the Qur’an seems to stress that the pre-existing stories that it relates should be understood historically:
- 1 Alif Lam Ra These are the verses of the Scripture that makes things clear— 2 We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you [people] may understand. 3 We tell you [Prophet] the best of stories in revealing this Qur’an to you. Before this you were one of those who knew nothing about them. (Q 12:1-13. All Qur’an citations are from the Abdel Haleem translation)
- This account is part of what was beyond your knowledge [Muhammad]. We revealed it to you: you were not present with Joseph’s brothers when they made their treacherous plans. (Q 12:102)
- This verse clarifies that we are talking about real history; the statement ‘you were not present with Joseph’s brothers’ only makes sense on the assumption that hypothetically Muhammad could have been, but wasn’t.
- There is a lesson in the stories of such people for those who understand. This revelation is no fabrication: it is a confirmation of the truth of what was sent before it; an explanation of everything; a a guide and a blessing for those who believe. (Q 12:111)
- These statements above come at the beginning and end of the longest continuous narrative in the Qur’an, that of Joseph.
- [Prophet], do you find the Companions in the Cave and al-Raqim so wondrous, among all Our other signs? (Q 18:9)
- Do the ‘signs’ of Allah not truly occur?
- Note the discussion above on the problematic nature of the Qur’an’s usage of this story.
- [Prophet], We shall tell you their story as it really was. They were young men who believed in their Lord, and We gave them more and more guidance. (Emphasis added)
- Still discussing the ‘Companions in the Cave’. (Q 18:13)
- ‘their story as it reall was’ suggests this is a real event, which a story can factually conform to or deviate from.
- [Some] say, ‘The sleepers were three, and their dog made four,’ others say, ‘They were five, and the dog made six’— guessing in the dark— and some say, ‘They were seven, and their dog made eight.’ Say [Prophet], ‘My Lord knows best how many they were.’ Only a few have real knowledge about them, so do not argue, but stick to what is clear, and do not ask any of these people about them (Q 18:22. Emphasis added)
- If this isn’t a real story but merely a fable, why does it matter that some estimates of their number is merely ‘guessing in the dark’?
- Note the Qur’an does not respond ‘It is only a fable! There were in fact no such sleepers, it’s a story’. Instead the Qur’an suggests there is indeed ‘real knowledge’ to be had about them, and God indeed knows the true number.
- 25 [Some say], ‘The sleepers stayed in their cave for three hundred years,’ some added nine more. 26 Say [Prophet], ‘God knows best how long they stayed.’ His is the knowledge of all that is hidden in the heavens and earth… (Q 18:25-26)
- Again, while the people dispute over numbers, ‘God knows best how long they stayed’. That they did in fact ‘stay’ seems to be assumed. God knows this, as he knows all things.
- 83[ Prophet], they ask you about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn. Say, ‘I will tell you something about him.’ 84 We established his power in the land… (Q 18:83-84)
- Note that the story that the Qur’an tells about Dhu’l-Qarnayn, discussed in some detail on this site, is introduced by ‘I will tell you something about him.’ The Qur’an is laying out information about Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, beginning with the fact that God is the one who made him succeed.
- Mention in the Scripture the story of Mary…. (Q 19:16)
- This is the closest introduction to the stories of Mary giving birth under the palm tree, and of Jesus talking from the womb. There is no hint that this story is anything other than historical.
- 34 Such was Jesus, son of Mary. [This is] a statement of the Truth about which they doubt: 35 it would not befit God to have a child. (Q 19:34-35)
- This comes immediately after the account of Mary giving birth under the palm tree, and of Jesus talking from the womb. There is no hint that this story is anything other than historical. ‘[This is] a statement of the Truth about which they doubt’ seems to be introducing what follows, ‘it would not befit God to have a child.’ However it may act as a bridge between the two, that because truly Jesus was born of Mary, how then could he be a child of God? The theological truth is dependant on the historical truth of the story.
My impression from reading the narratives found in the Qur’an is that the Qur’an repeatedly seems to think they are historical, and I see nothing to the contrary. But do let me know in the comments section if there are some verses you think I’ve missed.
4. The Qur’an and the Bible have different mechanisms of revelation.
Most Christians believe that the Bible is divinely revealed (2 Timothy 3:16), yet also written by humans and expressing human emotions and language (Mark 12:36; Acts 4:25). Anyone who has read the Psalms or the Letters of Paul, for example, will recognise human emotions and concerns pulsating through these texts, even though Jesus can say that David in the Psalms was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36).
If hypothetically there were problems with the Bible using non-canonical and potentially unreliable sources, this isn’t necessarily as much of a problem for the Christian as it is for the Muslim. A Christian might say that certain historical errors in the Scripture are due to the human author, but that God, despite the limitations of the human author, still communicates moral and theological truth. One might call this the inerrancy/infallibility distinction. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Note that the high view of Scripture (‘God-breathed’) isn’t tied to historical matters, but to that which is ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. In other words, Christians must hold to the theological and moral inerrancy of the Bible; historical inerrancy is perhaps not necessarily required. Having said this, I am more comfortable in affirming inerrancy, and prefer to err on the side of caution (excuse the pun!) on this matter.
By contrast, Muslims are quick to tell us, rightly, that the Qur’an repeatedly portrays itself as the direct word of God with no human interference (e.g. Q 18:13). Any historical errors, if they are indeed being affirmed as history (see above), can only be attributed to Allah.
In conclusion, while I respect the calls from Muslims for consistency, I do believe that a consistent approach will reveal a great number and more substantial problems in the Qur’an than the Bible when it comes to their utilisation of non-canonical sources. I have argued this on the basis of the Qur’an’s (a) frequency in using these sources, (b) its affirmation of particularly problematic elements, (c) the different exegetical approaches of the Qur’an and the Bible, and (d) their different mechanisms of revelation.
Do you still think this approach is hypocritical? Do you disagree with any of the points above? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Islam Critiqued, ‘The Oven Boiled: From Eisegesis to History’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C8guidRqko Uploaded 21/11/2020.
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Williams, Paul. ‘The Double Standard’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=323&v=zNroraF8zhk&feature=youtu.be (5:23 onwards) Uploaded 20/01/2021.