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The Bible canon does not contain the episode of Mary, Jesus and the palm tree, which first appears in the apocrypha and later in the Qur'an.
Then she conceived him; and withdrew with him to a remote place. And the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died before this, and had been a thing quite forgotten!
So a voice came to her from beneath her: Grieve not, surely thy Lord has provided a stream beneath thee. And shake towards thee the trunk of the palm-tree, it will drop on thee fresh ripe dates. So eat and drink and cool the eye. Then if thou seest any mortal, say: Surely I have vowed a fast to the Beneficent, so I will not speak to any man to-day.
Gospel of Pseudo-Mathew
Quranic verse 19:22-26 is a clear parallel of the account found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In this account Jesus has already been born, but he is still a baby during the flight to Egypt. The family are hungry and thirsty, resting under a palm tree. As in the Quran, Jesus performs the miracles of making the palm tree drop fruit and a stream appear beneath it.
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.”
Dating issues and an earlier Syriac source
The dating of this Latin apocrypha is of uncertain date, with the oldest surving manuscript dating to around 820 CE. In 2011, Michael Berthold identified that one of its sources is the Pseudo-Ambrosian Life of Saint Agnes, which is used by another work around 690 CE so this source is earlier than that. St. Agnes is thought to have lived some time from the 5th to 7th century. Other more speculative arguments suggest an earliest date of the mid sixth century for Pseudo Matthew. Considering all these insights from other scholars, Brandon Hawk gives it a date range of 550 - 800 CE.
Fortunately, Stephen Shoemaker has identified a precursor of the Mary palm tree story in a set of early 5th century CE texts (at the latest) known as the Dormition of the Virgin, for which we have later fifth century CE Syriac manuscript fragments as the earliest textual witnesses. This version was widespread throughout the Byzantine Near East by the end of the sixth century CE. In this version, the infant Jesus commands the palm tree to bow down and provide fruit, as in Pseudo-Matthew, but it is already located by a stream rather than the stream being a second miracle as in Pseudo-Matthew and the Quran. Nevertheless, this is proof enough that the story was developing in the region well before the 7th century CE.
Leto in Greek mythology
Suleiman Mourad has traced the development of this story in the Qur'an and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew through Greek and Latin literature. He writes:
All the various Hellenistic and Latin variants of the original myth of Leto giving birth to Apollo by a palm tree reflect the borrowing and adaptation by groups who reshaped it for their own objectives and needs. Appropriations of ancient myths were common in the ancient world, and the early Christians were no exception. The palm-tree story that found its way to sura Maryam is a reworking of Leto's labor. It is about a distressed pregnant woman (Leto/Mary) who seeks an isolated place (Delos/a remote spot), sits by the trunk of a palm tree next to a stream (Inopos/a brook), and delivers a holy child (Apollo/Jesus).
It is nevertheless unlikely that the myth of Leto was the direct source for sura Maryam. As was aforementioned, the concise version found in the latter has two parts: Mary's labor and delivery, and the miracle. We might therefore suspect that there was a stage when Leto's myth was borrowed and applied to Mary.
- ↑ Brandon Hawk, 2020 The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary Cambridge, UK: James Clark & Co, pp.25-26
- ↑ Stephen Shoemaker, Christmas in the Qur’an: the Qur’anic Account of Jesus’ Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28, 11-39 (2003) pp. 19-21
- ↑ Suleiman Mourad, “Mary in the Qur'an″, in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, p.169, New York: Routledge, 2007