Christmas in the Qur’än: the Qur’änic account of Jesus’s nativity and Palestinian local tradition
Stephen J. Shoemaker (University of Oregon)
Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, Jan 1, (2003)
Introduction: In winter of 1997, an archaeological discovery occurred on the outskirts of Jerusalem, holding great significance for our understanding of the earliest development of the Qur ̄anic traditions. Approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just to the east of the main highway, a group of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority engaged in a salvage operation unearthed a large octagonal church, which our late ancient sources identify as the church of the “Kathisma of the Theotokos,” or the “Seat of the God-Bearer.” As the present article will demonstrate, this church was originally associated with the Nativity of Christ, but eventually came to be linked with the commemoration of Mary’s death and, more importantly, with certain events from the Holy Family’s legendary flight into Egypt, as described in several early Christian apocrypha. The new church’s connection with both Christ’s Nativity and the flight into Egypt is particularly important, since it is (to my knowledge) the only place where these two early Christian traditions meet, outside of the Qur ̄anic account of Jesus’ Nativity.
There is a great deal more, however, than just this mere coincidence to suggest that traditions associated with this shrine influenced the development of early Islamic tradition. The church of the Kathisma was converted into a mosque in the early eighth century, and its mosaics indicate that the recycled sacred space probably continued to commemorate the Nativity of Jesus, as the Christian shrine had before the Arab conquests. Moreover, the significance of this shrine in early Islam is underscored by the important architectural and artistic relationships that scholars have identified between the Kathisma church/mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The confluence of this evidence strongly suggests that the traditions associated with Kathisma church gave rise to the rather peculiar account of Christ’sNativity found in the Quran. This shrine’s pre-Islamic traditions oﬀer a con-vincing explanation for the Quran’s puzzling mixture of two Christian apocryphal traditions that, with the exception only of the Kathisma church, were kept quite distinct by ancient Christianity. If we assume that the Christian traditions present in the Quran derive from earlier Christian sources, rather than being revealed or composed ex nihilo, then the Kathisma church and its related traditions present the only known precedent for the Quranic account of Jesus’Nativity. Yet this fact in itself cannot exclude the possibility that somehow and for some reason the early Muslims independently combined the two previously unrelated traditions of Christ’s Nativity and the flight into Egypt. But given the demonstrable importance of the Kathisma church/mosque on the formation of early Islamic culture in other areas (as will be seen), it is considerably more likely that the Quranic tradition of Jesus’ birth came into being only after the Islamic tradition had encountered the Kathisma church and its traditions.