Many a Sunday School class is currently discussing Mary being told by an angel that she would conceive a son and become the mother of Jesus. This event is sometimes referred to as The Annunciation. The Feast Day in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is March 25, exactly nine months before December 25! It is interesting to note that the feast day often falls on or near Holy Week when Christians remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some scholars have even suggested that the date for the Feast of the Annunciation was established first and intentionally chosen to fall near passion week. Once that was determined, the Dec. 25 date for Christmas was chosen because it fell nine months after the Annunciation. Dates aside, the account of the virgin birth and an angelic messenger can be found in both traditional Christianity and Islam. And both ancient texts, the Bible and the Qur’an, contain versions of the tale that are more similar than you might suppose.
The Bible actually contains two rather different versions of the story. They are found in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew (1:18-25), an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream. The angel tells Joseph to proceed with his marriage to Mary because the child in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. This section in Matthew is subtitled The Birth of Jesus the Messiah. It ends with the line, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” And that’s that. The next section is about the visit of the wise men from the East.
In Luke, the angel appears directly to Mary, and this is the story most often read to kids during Sunday School. The subtitle is The Birth of Jesus Foretold, and as most people know, several sections come after it – Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s prophecy, the actual birth of Jesus when “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus,” and the passage about the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night.” Here’s Luke’s version of the annunciation.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
The angel Gabriel, Jesus, and his mother, Mary, are all important figures in Islam. The Islamic faith contends that the Qur’an, itself, was revealed from God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, and Gabriel is mentioned numerous times throughout the Qur’an. Islam also holds high regard for Jesus. Traditional belief is that Jesus was a divinely-chosen prophet who performed miracles and served as a moral guide to the people of Israel. He is also mentioned numerous times throughout the Qur’an; however, as many people know, Islam does not support the Christian doctrines of the crucifixion, the resurrection, or the Trinity (which states, among other things, that Jesus was God incarnate). These widely differing views of Jesus can be major sticking points in interfaith discussions, but the perspective on Mary is much more similar. In the Qur’an, Mary is portrayed as the mother of Jesus and a virgin who was visited by the angel Gabriel.
The annunciation account is described in surahs (chapters) 3 and 19. Here is the version from Surah 19, called Maryam (Mary). Even a quick read will reveal similarities to the account in Luke.
Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.
She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them. Then We sent her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.
She said, “I seek refuge from you to (Allah) Most Gracious. (Come not near) if you fear Allah.
He said, “Nay, I am only a messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a holy son.
She said, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”
He said, “So (it will be). Your Lord says, ‘That is easy for Me. And (We wish ) to appoint him as a Sign to men and a Mercy from Us.’ It is a matter (so) decreed.”
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. (Surah 19, verses 16-22)
A brief addendum can be found in a couple of verses of the Qur’an and in the Tales of the Prophets. It suggests that Mary became pregnant with the breath of the spirit. Here are a couple of versions of that:
And (remember) her who guarded her chastity. We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all people’s. (Surah 21 Al-Anbiyya/The Prophets, verse 91)
Gabriel stretched out his hand toward her and breathed into her: the breath reached her womb, and she conceived Jesus. (Tales of the Prophets, chapter 86 Jesus son of Mary, section 3)
I have no idea what “the truth” about the annunciation is, and I have no idea if Mary was a virgin, although I suspect she wasn’t. But I am fascinated by the story, handed down for hundreds of years, via two major world religions. What did this story demonstrate to the people of the day? Is there anything it can still teach us? Are the differences between the versions meaningful, or do they simply indicate that “something was lost in translation?” As always, you get to decide.
[If you have a Qur’an and wish to read further, there is another account of the annunciation, much less similar to Luke in Surah 3:42-47. If you continue reading verses 48-60 of that chapter, you’ll find a thought-provoking description of Jesus’ life from the Qur’anic point of view.]
The Bible Unbound is a weekly column connecting Biblical themes, passages, and stories with ancient texts from other religions. It is representative of our middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, our upper elementary Sunday School curriculum.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2007. Print.
al-Kisai, Muhammad ibn Abd Allah. Tales of the Prophets (Qisas al-anbiya). Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr. Chicago, IL: Great Books of the Islamic World, 1997. Print.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]