Monday, March 31, 2008

Muhammad and clay birds

There is an ancient Greek text called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). The Infancy Gospel of Thomas says that Jesus:

“…made soft clay and fashioned from it twelve sparrows. And it was on the Sabbath when he did this. And there were also many other children playing with him. Now a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing in his play on the Sabbath, he at once went and told his father Joseph: ‘See, your child is at the brook, and he has taken clay and fashioned twelve birds and has profaned the Sabbath.’ And when Joseph came to the place and saw it, he cried out to him, saying: ‘Why do you do on the Sabbath what ought not to be done?’ But Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows: ‘Off with you!’ And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping (Infancy Gospel of Thomas. 2.2-4. New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, 1991).
With one exception, virtually no one believes this story is true. First, the story wasn’t written until about 100 to 150 years after Jesus’ death, which is much later than our earliest sources about Jesus.

Second, our earliest sources about Jesus are all Jewish and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas shows no knowledge of first century Judaism.

Third, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ did his very first miracle, not when he was a child, but as an adult when he turned water into wine.

Fourth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas betrays elements of Gnostic thought which is characteristic of the second century AD but not the first century AD.

Finally, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells a series of bazaar stories about Jesus that portray him as a vindictive little brat, which doesn’t fit anything else we know about Jesus from much earlier sources.

For example, according to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, when a little boy “took a branch of a willow and…dispersed the water which Jesus had gathered together,” little Jesus called him a “godless dunderhead” and placed a curse on him causing the boy to wither up.

On another occasion, a boy was running and bumped into Jesus.’ Jesus cursed that child too and the boy fell down dead! Parents in the village understandably began to complain to Jesus’ father, Joseph, so according to the story, Jesus punished the complainers with blindness!

For these reasons, virtually no scholars (or anyone else) believes that the stories about Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are true—the only exception is Muslims. Muslims believe the story is true because Muhammad—who lived more than 300 years after the story was written—seems to have believed it! At least twice in the Qur’an Muhammad talks about how Jesus took a clay bird and made it come alive (Sura 3.49 and 5.10).

This creates a dilemma for Muslims. Since they believe that the teachings in the Qur’an were given to Muhammad from God word-for-word, they are forced to believe a story which no one but Muslims believe, written 100 to 150 years after Jesus lived. If the clay bird story isn’t true, it would mean that Muhammad did not get it word-for-word from God, and that would place the Qur’an, the prophethood of Muhammad and all of Islam in question.

Although Muhammad had great respect for Jesus, Muhammad adamantly denied that Jesus was the Son of God. That’s interesting because the same Infancy Gospel of Thomas that tells the story of the clay birds, also tells a story about Jesus standing in the Temple of God and calling it “My Father’s house.” In other words, according to the writer of the clay bird story which Muhammad believes, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.

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