Some people say that the birth of Jesus was the result of rape by a Roman soldier. And this causes resentment and controversy, because the belief in the Immaculate Conception1 has played a great role in some parts of the Human Culture. Respect for Mary is not limited to the Christian World, but stretches to the World of Islam, where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is held in great respect.
So what is the truth about the birth of Jesus - do we know it? ... and does it matter?
Whatever we know about Mary and Jesus comes either from the New Testament or from the Qur'an. The rest is based on attempts to interpret or expand this knowledge by speculations.
The New Testament2 consists of accounts of the life of Jesus by early Christians, none of whom has witnessed the birth of Jesus, but who believed that Jesus was a son of God in the sense of a family relationship3.
There are also substantial passages dealing with the birth of Jesus in the Qur'an. The Qur'an says clearly that Muhammad had not been present at the birth of Jesus and had no direct knowledge of what happened to Mary, but it does give a vivid description of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, which helps us to understand the important issues raised by that birth.
According to the Qur'an4,
Mary (Mariam) was a young girl from a good respectable family. She was a virgin and had not been touched by a man.
One day Mary saw a vision of a well-built man. The man told her that he was sent by God to give her a boy who will be an example and a mercy for Mankind.
Shortly after that Mary discovers that she is pregnant5. So, she leaves her home to hide from the people in the wilderness.
As the birth pains begin, she leans onto a palm tree, saying, "I wish I were dead and forgotten". But at that moment she hears in her mind her child saying to her, "Do not despair. There is a stream of running water beneath your feet, and shake the palm tree and fresh dates will fall down".Having given birth to her child, and having mothered him to a state when he is strong enough, Mary comes back to the people.
Seeing her with the child people say, "Come on, Mary, what is that great thing that you've got there? Your father was a decent man, and your mother was not a whore!".
Mary does not answer, but the child speaks out, "I am a servant of God, who has given me the gift of prophesy".
The Prophet Muhammad did not witness the birth of Jesus. The Qur'an was revealed some 600 years after that event. But the controversy about the birth of Jesus and his personality was just as hot at that time as it is today and as it was at the time of the birth of Jesus.
At the time of the birth of Jesus the point at issue was: "Did Mary, an unmarried young woman, commit a great sin?".
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad the point at issue was: "Was Jesus a son of God, in the sense of a family relationship?".
Today some people raise the issue: "Was the birth of Jesus due to a rape?".
Prophets have the ability to see events6 from the point of view of their significance to Mankind, non-prophet's view of events is often distorted by their selfishness, partisanship, prejudices, vanity and arrogance.
The Qur'an acknowledges that the exact circumstances of the birth of Jesus are unknown. It does not supplement ignorance with imagination, by attributing the paternity of Jesus to God itself7, nor does it speculate on whether Mary was raped or not. But it does answer all the issues raised by the controversies over the birth of Jesus:
But people who think that way have not travelled enough around the world and seen paintings of Jesus in Africa and Asia.
Had they looked around, they would have seen paintings of Jesus as a black man with African features, or with dark hair and Arab features, or with brown skin and Indian features.
The reason that Jesus is seen as blond in Europe and with black crisp curly hair in Africa is not because this is how he looked, but because this is how the painters of his images imagined him to be. The truth is that we do not know how Jesus looked, nor do we know the exact mechanics of Mary's pregnancy. All we know is that Jesus was born without a father, was brought up by his mother Mary, and has taken the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets and made them available to the rest of the world.
But instead of benefitting from the teachings of the prophets, people are still arguing about the circumstances of their life. But speculations about the exact details of Mary's pregnancy, which happened some 2000 years ago, can be nothing but speculations. And these speculations are just as useless and harmful to Mankind as worship of the paintings of Jesus, which are nothing but products of a painter's imagination.
The prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad saw their mission as telling the people the truth and leading them towards free, honest, healthy and productive life. They did not claim to be gods, gods' relatives, or superhuman supernatural beings. Nor did they seek cheap popularity by exploiting the weaknesses of the human nature like modern politicians and idolized "celebrities".
As we see today, following political demagogues and worshiping "celebrities" leads to nothing but violence, moral degeneration and corruption of the Human Society, but following the teachings of the Prophets is the way to peaceful, secure and prosperous future.
1) Cities have been named "Concepcion" and many women in South America are called "Concha" or "Conchita", which is a shortening of "Concepcion Imaculata" - the Immaculate Conception.
2) Being hearsay evidence, rather than direct prophetic speech, the New Testament is like the Islamic Hadith, which is a collection of sayings by non-prophets about life and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries transmitted by word of mouth through a few generations and later recorded as collections. Such indirect reports have limited authority among Islamic scholars. They are used to clarify and supplement the Qur'an, but only if they do not contradict the Qur'an itself. There is no book which contains the sayings of Jesus written down directly from his speech and verified by him. By contrast the Qur'an is such direct record of prophetic speech verified by the Prophet himself.
3) Jesus was an ethnic Jew. He spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. But most of the early Christians were ethnic Greeks and wrote their books in Greek, which were later translated to Latin and other languages.
The idea of God having created Man in his own (God's) image could be due to the Greek way of thinking, for whom human gods were part of the Greek culture. The idea of a human shaped God is against the thinking of the Hebrew culture of Jesus himself. The idea of Jesus being the Son of God in the sense of a family relationship would also have been foreign to the Hebrew culture of Jesus.
Also in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic words used for family relationships are frequently used where in European languages one would use adjectives or prepositions: e.g. tramps could be described as "sons of the road", or a great war as "mother of wars". Also a fork is a sister of a spoon, but it does not mean they have the same father and mother or were "born" at all. All it means is that they are similar objects - cutlery.
So the words of Jesus (who had a mother, but no father) "I am son of God" would mean to a native speaker of Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic as "I have no human father, but I am a creation of God like the rest of the universe", while to an ethnic European it would mean a family relationship, which, given that human-shaped gods were part of the Greek culture, sounded quite natural and logical.
4) The following passage is based on Suratu-Mariam (19:16-36), but is not a word for word translation. We just give a short summary of the events described by the Qur'an.
5) Such discovery by an unmarried girl from a respectable Jewish family in Palestine of the year 1 B.C. had far greater significance than it has today in the "modern permissive society".
6) The ability to see, or visualize, events at which one was not present is not limited to prophets, but is common among people who make a concentrated effort to understand some event or solve some problem, or are faced with great danger.
Thus, a police detective working on a crime for a number of months keeps collecting evidence and thinking about the crime. Then suddenly he experiences a vivid picture in his mind of what happened at the crime scene.
While the police detective's ability to visualize events at which he was not present is limited to his work, prophets experience such visualization throughout their life. They see the events of distant past and of distant future and the see them not from their own personal view-point but from the point of view of Mankind as a whole. Such prophetic ability is rare but is not "unnatural", it is a natural gift of God. The vivid description of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus in the Qur'an is an example of such glimpse of events of the distant past revealed to a prophet.
7) There is no pronoun "it" either in Arabic or in Hebrew. There is only "huwa", translated as "he", and "hiya", translated as "she". Allah is refereed to as "huwa". But while in English "he" implies a masculine human being, the Arabic "huwa" is not restricted to such usage and is used to refer to inanimate objects, natural phenomena and abstract concepts, which in English would be referred to as "it". Had the Qur'an been revealed in English, rather than Arabic, God would have probably been referred to as "it", because it is neither man, nor woman, nor any human-shaped being and has no shape or image at all.