Monday, December 3, 2007

Retelling the Story of Jesus' Nativity

Retelling the Story of Jesus’ Nativity in the Indonesian Islamic Context

by Ioanes Rakhmat

On 7 March 1981 the Council of Indonesian Muslim Scholars and Leaders or Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI)/1/ issued a “fatwa
”/2/ pertaining to the Christmas celebration in which Indonesian Muslims used to take part. The strong need of bringing the fatwa into effect came to the fore as the Council observed that many Indonesian Muslims had been involved in social practices with religious coloring in relation to the Christmas festivities conducted by Indonesian Christian communities. Even though the participation of many Indonesian Muslims in Christmas celebration prior to the promulgation of the fatwa was possibly motivated more by the will to maintaining social bonds and hospitality as fellow citizens rather than by religious doctrinal concerns, the Council considered this Muslim participation as “haram” or strictly proscribed religious practice.

 Indonesian Madonna and her Son, Jesus of Nazareth. . .

Following the meeting between the MUI and the then Minister of Religious Affairs of the Indonesian Republic (held on April 23), the fatwa was withdrawn on April 30, 1981. This withdrawal, however, could not extinguish its permanent Islamic values and principles. Rejecting the power pressure from the Indonesian government/3/ which, in this case, had come to its fruition in the withdrawal of the fatwa, twelve years later, on December 21, 1993, some prominent Indonesian Muslim scholars and leaders hand in hand issued a letter to Muslims urging them to observe the fatwa again for the sake of Islamic doctrine and worship./4/ The act of issuing the letter also testified the perseverance and religious zeal of Muslim scholars and leaders. It is thus clear that after the fatwa was issued, the doctrinal stance of the Council concerning the Christmas is still adhered by, and religiously binding for, Indonesian Muslims in general.

From the various Qur’anic verses and the Hadith of the Prophet quoted for the bases of the fatwa, it is clear that the Christian doctrines of the divinity or the divine Sonship of Jesus and of the Trinity were the doctrines that the Council wanted to reject uncompromisingly./5/ Thus it is clear as well, that in the sight of Indonesian Muslims in general and of Indonesian Muslim scholars and leaders in particular, Christmas is the celebration and worship of Jesus as the Son of God, not the celebration of the nativity of the human ’Isa al-Masih, one of the prophets and apostles commissioned by God as testified by the Qur’an.

No doubt Indonesian Muslims well know that the Qur’an has more than one version of the story of the nativity of Isa. The concluding comments of the longest Qur’anic story of Isa’ s birth (Sûra 19:34-35), possibly “revealed” and interpolated later into the “original” or earlier accounts,/6/ however, have indeed the Qur’anic story of Isa’s birth as a whole function to refuse the equation Christians make of Jesus to God. This explains why the biblical Christmas stories as traditionally interpreted and enacted idyllically by Christian communities in every Christmas celebration are understood by Muslims as giving witness to the deity or divine Sonship of Jesus, even to the Trinity./7/

In such a context, I opine, it is an urgent task for Indonesian theologians, on the one hand, to rethink about the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth, and reclaim their original meaning in their narrative and socio-historical context. Are the stories telling about the divinity of Jesus Christ, even about the Trinity, as is assumed strongly by both Muslims and Christian communities all through the ages? Or else, what are they telling about in their narrative and sociohistorical context? And, on the other hand, Indonesian theologians may humbly invite Muslims to see some other aspects of the richness of the longest Qur’anic story of the nativity of Isa, instead of letting them fixed solely on its concluding comments.

Consequently, my twofold endeavor is first to understand the Qur’anic story of the nativity of Isa as a sacred narrative without paying attention to its concluding comments which simply aim at refusing “syirk” or polytheism (which no Christians support as well) and then to understand the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth in their narrative and sociohistorical context apart from Christian dogmatic presuppositions which long since have been attached to them by Christian communities. It is my sincere hope that this twofold endeavor will bear the fruit of Christological thinking in an Indonesian Islamic context, especially in connection with the retelling of the biblical story of Jesus’ nativity which is able to be enacted in every contemporary Christmas celebration.

The Story of Isa’s Nativity in the Qur’an

Before moving on to the Qur’anic story of the birth of Isa, some verses of the Qur’anic Annunciation should first draw our attention. A heavenly messenger comes to Mary (in the Qur’an: Marjam), announcing that she is going to conceive and give birth to the babe Isa. He said: “I am only a messenger from thy Lord, to announce to thee the gift of a holy son.” She said: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and am I not unchaste?" He said: “So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, ‘That is easy for me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us’: It is a matter (so) decreed.” (Sûra 19:19-23)./8/

Marjam’s spontaneous reaction to the angelic announcement indicates that she was still virgin when the divine decree (that she would have a holy son) was imposed on her. Having previously no sexual intercourse with any man, the virgin Marjam was destined to conceive and bear the babe Isa./9/ Had this to occur, it was only due to the work of “the plain and all-powerful word of God.”/10/ “ ‘Be’ and it is!” (see also Sûra 3:47). God breathed into her body His Spirit (Sûra 21:91; 66:12)./11/ God had chosen Marjam above the women of all nations (Sûra 3:42) to become the mother of Isa. In response to this divine decree, Marjam prostrated and bowed down (Sûra 3:43). She is a model, a representation, of how human beings are to live devoutly before God/12/ (Sûra 66:12). She is unique, in the sense that she bore a son by special miracle, without the intervention of customary physical means. Because of this exceptional occurrence, she becomes “a sign for all peoples” (Sûra 21:91). This does not mean that she was more than human./13/ When the human Marjam conceived Isa, she retired with him to a place far away. These are the opening words of the longest Qur’anic version of the nativity of Isa: Sûra 19:22-35. I quote the passage in full here.

(19:22) So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. (v. 23) And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree: She cried (in her anguish): “Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!”(24) But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): “Grieve not! For thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; (25) And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. (26) So eat and drink and cool (thine eye). And if thou dost see any man, say I have vowed a fast to (God) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being.’” (27) At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: “O Marjam! Truly an amazing thing hast thou brought! (28) O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!” (29) But she pointed to the babe. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” (30) He said: “I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; (31) and He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live; (32) (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; (33) So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)!” (34) Such (was) Isa the son of Marjam: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute. (35) It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is.
The narrative is heart-moving indeed. After suffering a very great deal from birth pangs, Marjam, the model of devout humanity, still had to face another worse situation. The narrative strongly portrays Marjam as involved in such a difficult and powerless situation of bearing a babe miraculously without a human father and subsequently of being accused of unchastity by her people,/14/ the blind and unbelieving Jews who saw her carrying the neonate Isa. Being powerless and yet pious, Marjam took refuge to God. It came to pass, that in defense of his mother in vow of silence, the child Isa miraculously uttered great words, firmly establishing his divinely appointed mission and victoriously justifying and vindicating Marjam by his own miracles/15/ ―thus liberating her from the bondage and accusation unjustly imposed. This very act of the babe Isa demonstrated how God had given him divine and miraculous power./16/ The servanthood of Isa, his function both as a divinely appointed bearer of revelation and as a prophet, his position as the divinely blessed one, were first manifested and proclaimed as early as he was born, and he defended and liberated the unjustly treated devout humanity as is first exemplified in the person of Marjam; thus, she everlastingly becomes “a sign unto men and a mercy from God” (Sûra 19:21). In short, the Qur’anic narrative of the birth of Isa bears witness to him as a holy person with great divine power in defense of godly humanity unjustly treated.

That is one interpretive understanding of the Qur’anic story of the nativity of Isa. It is significant to note that this interpretation is supported by two outstanding contemporary Indonesian Muslim scholars. Being tied to his understanding of Jesus’ birth as an event “representing a proof and a sign of the omnipotence of God,” Dr. Nurcholis Madjid endorses a Christmas message of Hashemi Rafsanjani, President of the Islamic Iranian Republic, about promoting and establishing justice and seeking vitality and strength in religious doctrines of salvation in order to make the way to eternal happiness for humanity open forever./17/ Here, Madjid’s Islamic interpretation of Christmas is oriented to the issue of social justice and human life in its fullness; hence clearly corroborating, and in line with, one that has been suggested. Dr. Quraish Shihab, dealing with the Indonesian current issues of Christmas celebration over the Islamic doctrines and religious practices, emphasizes that both Isa and the Prophet Mohammed came to set free the powerless humanity from the bondage of spiritual poverty, ignorance, and oppression./18/

Do this liberative understanding of the Qur’anic narrative of the nativity of Isa and the biblical message about the birth of Jesus converge?

The Story of Jesus’ Nativity in the Bible

The Lukan and Matthean stories of Jesus’ birth do not contain any theological claims that can be used as a basis for constructing the traditional idyllic Christmas presentations which proclaim that the man Jesus of Nazareth is God or the preexistent and eternal Son of God incarnate, the divine Savior of the world and the giver of eternal life, as symbolized by Christmas evergreen tree./19/ It is the Christian church, from its inception to the present, which assumes the responsibility of having amalgamated the witness of the Prologue of the Gospel of John to the preexistent Son of God incarnate with the Lukan and Matthean stories of Jesus’ birth which have no even a bit of any references to John’s “high Christology.” Indeed, apart from the witness to John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiah (John 1: 19-23) with which Christmas presentation is usually embellished, we have no direct Johannine textual or narrative basis altogether to reconstruct the traditional, ecclesial and idyllic Christmas scenes. In relation to pursuing the message of biblical nativity stories free of its Christian dogmatic presuppositions, it will certainly be illuminating if the Lukan and Matthean narratives of the birth of Jesus are located in their sociohistorical contexts. Here I cannot carry it out in pinpoint detail. I shall simply highlight the most important aspects of the narratives./20/

The theological stories of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament have to be placed within the general tension between Roman imperial rule and the subject Palestinian Jewish people in which the tribute that Rome demanded was the very crucial and critical issue./21/ Tribute and taxation were intended as the means of belittling the subject people as well as the sources of maintaining peace in the “oikoumene” under the Roman Imperium and the support for the imperial apparatus. A Roman general, after suppressing the Jewish Revolt I (66-70 CE), was quoted as saying to the Jewish people, “We, though so often provoked, have used the right of conquest to burden you only with the cost of maintaining peace. For the tranquility of peoples cannot be had without armies, nor armies without pay, nor pay without tribute.”/22/ Here, exacting tribute is related to bringing about and maintaining peace and prosperity.

In the sight of the Romans and all other peoples of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, the Roman peace was brought into actuality for the first time after Emperor Augustus had won the battle of Actium. With this victory at Actium, Caesar Augustus was able to bring peace and order into the world. The empire he established was salvation, and he himself was the savior. As the imperial savior, he (or his successors) was honored highly and indeed worshiped as divine. The most comprehensive illustration of the worship of the emperor as the savior and bearer of peace and wholeness is the inscription of the decree of the Provincial Assembly of Asia, dated 9 BCE:/23/

“The most divine Caesar ... we should consider equal to the Beginning (archē) of all things.... Caesar ... the common good Fortune of all .... The Beginning of life and vitality .... all the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year .... Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence... has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us [the emperor] Augustus, whom it [Providence] filled with virtue for the welfare of men, and who, being sent to us and our descendants as a Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; ... and ... finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news [euaggelion] concerning him [therefore let a new era begin from his birth].”
Besides being obliged to pay tribute as the Roman means of demeaning and subjecting them, the subject Palestinian Jewish people also had to pay homage to the emperor as divine savior. In this connection, the opening five verses of the Lukan birth narrative (Luke 2:1-5)/24/ disclose the powerlessness of the Jewish people of the first century CE. The hyperbolic Caesar’s decree of the census (that all must have gone to their ancestral house or town of origins) reveals in the theological narrative the whole system of domination and exploitation. The census was carried out for taxation./25/.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”
In this situation of socio-economic and political domination and subjection, a child was being expected. Who was the child? A great message proclaimed by an angel of the Lord to the terrified poor shepherds living in the fields (Luke 2:10-14) as representatives of the whole subjugated Jewish people, will tell us.
“Do not be afraid; for see―I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among people!”
Over against the commemoration of the birthday of the god and savior Augustus as “good news for the whole world” in emperor cult, Luke presents the birthday of the child Jesus as “good news of great joy for all people.” Not Caesar Augustus, but the child Jesus was the savior. Not the “Pax Romana”, but peace from God through the birth of the child Jesus would prevail among the poor and dominated people. Even the might of heavenly army would take the place of the power of Roman military forces. The god Caesar Augustus would be dethroned by the babe Jesus, the Lord. Thus, Luke evidently understands Jesus to be in opposition to and direct confrontation with the emperor. His story of the birth of Jesus is the story of liberation for the subject Palestinian Jewish people from the “superpower” and rich Roman imperium. And the virgin Mary/26/ is portrayed as a brave and devout woman who beforehand had eagerly anticipated already the birth of the liberator for her people in her song of praise, actually a song of political liberation (Luke 1:46-55).
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his Mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Jewish people, nonetheless, were in need to be liberated also from Roman client-kings, be they Jewish or half-Jewish, and their henchmen. The Matthean birth story, in this regard, divulges the harshness and cruelty of a threatened Roman client-king and his henchmen vis-à-vis the child Jesus, a new “King of the Jews” heavenly appointed (Mathew 2:1-16).
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.... When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men....
The fact that Herod had to inquire of the chief priests and scribes (all of them were his henchmen in charge of illegitimately ministering the Herodian Temple) about where “the anointed one” was to be born indicates that he himself was absolutely not the divinely anointed king of the Jews. Being assured that there soon would be another new king of the Jews in place of him, this illegitimate king Herod was terrified, together with him “all Jerusalem” which were “the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people by means of the institutions of the Temple and high priesthood.”/27/ They all felt very threatened by the legitimate king, the babe Jesus, whose coming had already been foretold by the prophet. The massacre of infants that followed, definitely affirms the violent and tyrannical kingship of Herod as opposed to the redemptive kingship of the new king of the Jews divinely anointed.

To sum up, for the Jewish people whose allegiance was directed only to God, to surrender to the socioeconomic and political domination and subjection of the Roman Imperium means to betray this God. And, the other way round, to surrender to God’s sovereignty is to oppose continuously and diametrically the alien conqueror and his henchmen and collaborators. The biblical birth narratives are the expression of this Jewish allegiance to the one and only God and of the continuous struggle on the part of the socioeconomically and politically dominated Jews for gaining full liberation from all bondage. Accordingly, the Matthean child Jesus, after being born, is portrayed as recapitulating the Jewish people’s formative sojourn in and calling out of Egypt (2:13-15, 19-23), land of domination and subjugation.



To refer back to the question I posed earlier about the possibility of converging the Qur’anic and biblical messages of the birth of the Messiah, I wish to emphasize that both narratives, despite all the conspicuous differences between them, in the final analysis may point to the same human concern for social justice and life in its fullness which was the focus of the man Jesus and his mother; in short, concern for human full liberation.

If this understanding of the message of the Qur’anic and biblical narratives of the birth of Jesus is held without doubt by Indonesian Muslims and Christians, I am surely of the opinion that the Indonesian Muslim-Christian relation can be promoted and developed to a highly greater degree for the benefit of both sides as devout and godly Indonesian humanity. In many places and for many times this Indonesian godly humanity is forced to suffer from many cruel and unjust social, economic, political and environmental conditions and prejudices. Hopefully speaking, Indonesian Muslims and Christians are required hand in hand to engage in their common calling to substantiate the message of the coming of Jesus the Messiah, ’Isa al-Masih, in the struggle for full liberation. But, to that end, it is necessary for Indonesian Christians first to be introduced to another version of the narrative of Jesus’ birth. So, in what follows is only a theological art created imaginatively by the restless and homeless mind of an Indonesian theologian. I do hope that this theological art will significantly contribute to doing narrative theology in a creative way by the Indonesian churches in response to their contemporary context by means of their Christmas presentation. As of the present, Jesus’ birth narrative in outline may be told as follows.

A Creative Biblical-Qur’anic Narrative of Jesus’ Birth

Now a new Roman Caesar Augustus arose over the Jewish Palestinian people who did not know the God of Israel, but did see himself as divine and as the savior of humankind. But he and his collaborators became ruthless in imposing heavy tribute and taxation on the people. They said, tribute was needed to maintain peace, stability and salvation, and must have been gained at all cost. A Caesar’s client-king, Herod, fiercely exacted tribute from the dominated people due to his gigantic building programs and the bribery he had to pay to the Roman high officials. The subjects had no power to refuse. The people groaned under their socio-economic and political domination, and cried out. Out of their powerlessness their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob. God looked upon the Palestinian Jewish people, and God took notice of them. God said, “I have observed the misery of all the people who are in Palestine; I have heard their cry on account of their Roman imperial rulers. Indeed, I know their pains and sufferings.”

It came to pass that God decided to come down in Spirit to deliver them from the hands of the Romans. His messenger, Gabriel, was sent, and he came to the virgin Mary, and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greetings 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 give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, ’Isa al-Masih. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.” But 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. 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.

When Caesar Augustus decreed that all the world should be registered for the sake of exacting tribute and taxation, all Jewish people powerlessly obeyed this nightmarish imperial instruction. All went to their own towns of origins to be registered. Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to the child Jesus and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. In the region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see: I am bringing you the good news of great joy for all the poor and powerless people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all official Jerusalemites with him, because a new King was born to dethrone him. Calling together all his henchmen in the Temple, the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea.” Then Herod secretly called for the Magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the babe; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frank-incense, and myrrh. And, in response, the babe Jesus miraculously opened its mouth, saying: “Hi, Magi, go first to King Herod, and then to Caesar Augustus! Do not be afraid! Tell that I command them from now on not to exact tribute and taxation from my people, not to torture and murder my powerless people any longer! They are God’s, not theirs! Caesar must return the God’s land he occupies to the legitimate heir, my people!”
I am sure that we hear these great, liberating words of the babe Jesus. If we don’t, at least the Christmas tree which usually stands firm on the church stage while his birth is being celebrated does. From now on, this tree will be a faithful sign of and a peaceful witness to the eternity of global human struggle for full liberation.


/1/ The Council was founded on July 26, 1975, aiming at promoting unity and solidarity among the Muslim communities and representing Islam toward the government. 

/2/ Fatwa means an authoritatively binding instruction or ruling on Islamic religious matters.

/3/ In the words of Karel Steenbrink, the situation is described as follows: “In the whole affair it was not only the issue of Christmas and the relation between Muslims and Christians that was involved. Minister of Religious Affairs Alamsyah accused Hamka [the then general chairman of the MUI who resigned by his letter dated May 19, 1981 —I.R.] of acting against the state ideology, the Pancasila, while Hamka accused the government of interfering with religion and of attempts to introduce the Pancasila as a new religion of the state.” See his article, “Indonesian Politics and Muslim Theology of Religion: 1965-1990,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations Vol. 4, No. 2, December 1993 (Birmingham, 1993) 237.

/4/ See “Surat Natal dari Istiqlal”, Tempo No. 44, Th XXIII, January 1, 1994, p. 35.

/5/ For the complete dealing with this doctrinal issues from the Council’s viewpoint, see Kumpulan Fatwa Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Jakarta: Pustaka Panji Mas, 1984) 81-89.

/6/ See Olaf Schumann, Pemikiran Kegamaan dalam Tantangan. Introduction by Djohan Effendi and Th. Sumartana (Jakarta: Gramedia, 1993) 120.

/7/ It is widely known that the Islamic understanding of the divine Sonship of Jesus and of the Trinity differs a great deal from that of Christians. Muslims down to the present understand the divine Sonship of Jesus in terms of a biological or physical conception by God, and see the Trinity as Tritheism. For fuller discussions about these issues which involve many complicated historical factors and dogmatic point of views, including polemics between the newly-born Islam and heterodox Christianity, see Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an (London: Sheldon Press, 1965; reprinted 1976) 126-141; Olaf Schumann, Pemikiran Keagamaan, ch. 3, pp. 106-148. Cf. A Yusuf Ali’s brief comment on Mary’s giving birth to Jesus when she was still virgin, in relation to the two nature of Jesus, in The Holy Qur’an. Translated and commented by A. Yusuf Ali (henceforth Translation and Commentary) (Islamic Propagation Center International, 1993) 134n.382; 1574n.5552.

 /8/ Sûra 19 contains the longest version of the Annunciation and the story of the birth of Jesus. Another one is Sûra 3:41-46. A partly parallel account is Sûra 3:59-62. All quotes of the Qur’anic verses throughout this writing are taken from A. Yusuf Ali, Translation and Commentary.

/9/ For the discussion on whether the whole Qur’an teaches the virgin birth of Jesus, see Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, 69-74. But Maulana Muhammad Ali thoroughly rejects the idea of virgin birth; see his commentary on Sûra 3:43 and 19:21 in The Holy Qur’an. Arabic text, English Translation and Commentary. I use the Indonesian translation made by H.M. Bachrun, Qur’an Suci. Teks Arab, Terjemah dan Tafsir Bahasa Indonesia (Jakarta: Darul Kutubul Islamiyah, 7th ed., 1995) 179n.422; 781 n.1537b.

/10/ Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, 69.

/11/ The breathing of God’s spirit into the body of the virgin Mary which made her pregnant does not necessarily imply that God was the physical father of Jesus. Cf. Sûra 32:9 in which it is said about Adam’s progeny, man, that God “fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His Spirit”; see also Sûra 15:29. See Yusuf Ali, Translation and Commentary, 1574n.5552.

/12/ Maulana Muhammad Ali’s comment, Qur’an Suci, 1443n.2525.

/13/ Yusuf Ali, Translation and Commentary, 134n.382.

/14/ Another more pointed rendering of Sûra 19:27b runs as follows: “O Mary, thou hast committed a thing improper.” See Richard Bell’s two volume work, The Qur’an Translated (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark) which is used by Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, 75.

/15/ Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, 79; A. Yusuf Ali, Translation and Commentary, 773n.2482; 843n.2748; 883n.2906. But, commenting on Sûra 19:27-33, Maulana Muhammad Ali rejects the interpretation that views the child Jesus as miraculously speaking in defense of his mother. He is of the opinion that the sayings of Jesus in the passage were uttered when Jesus had been an adult at the time he was commissioned as a prophet (see Qur’an Suci, 782n.1540, 1543-45). His rationalistic interpretation, however, does not do justice to the narrative in which Mary is strongly portrayed as being involved in a difficult situation and being in need of help from God.

/16/ See Muhammad Al-Mutawalli Asy-Sya’rowi, Mukjizat Al-Quran (Surabaya: Bungkul Indah, 1st edition, 1995) 512-13; the original work is written in Arabic, entitled Mu’jizatul Qur-aan.

/17/ Nurcholis Madjid, Pintu-pintu Menuju Tuhan (Jakarta: Paramadina, 1995) 220-223. Rafsanjani’s Christmas message was released in the Iranian newspaper Kayhan al-‘Arabi, January 6, 1990, and is quoted in part in Madjid’s book.

/18/ Quraish Shihab, Membumikan Al-Quran dan Peran Wahyu dalam Kehidupan Masyarakat (Bandung: Mizan, 11th edition, 1995) 370-73.

/19/ Prior to its entrance into the Christmas feast as a symbol of the eternal Savior, ‘the light of the world’, who came to bring eternal life, evergreen tree was worshipped by Celtic and Teutonic tribes in the pre-Christian Northern European beliefs as a promise of the sun’s return following the winter solstice and as a symbol of eternal life. In 274, the date of December 25 was inaugurated as the birthday of the unconquered sun (Sol Invictus) in a Roman pagan festival. The earliest mention of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus is found in the Philocalian Calendar, compiled in 354, which cites its observance in Rome in 336. Sometime before 336 the church in Rome, unable to stamp out this pagan festival, thus christianized it as the feast of the Nativity of the Son of Righteousness. In the Reformation era, it was Martin Luther who began to celebrate Christmas Day in Germany. The evergreen tree, as a symbol of eternal life to the pagans, became a symbol of the Savior and thus as an integral part of the celebration of his birth. See Mircea Eliade (editor in chief), The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York/London: Macmillan Company/Collier Macmillan, 1987), vol. 3, pp. 460-61 (“Christmas”); The Encyclopedia Americana. International edition, first published in 1829 (New York: Americana Corporation, 1972) 666-67; J.D. Douglas (general editor), Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, Regency Reference Library, 1974, 1978) 223.

/20/ My focus is primarily on the narrative itself. Other issues such as historical accuracy of the report of the date of the birth of Jesus which comes to the fore as we compare the Lukan narrative to the Matthean, of the other events surrounding the birth as told by both evangelists, etc., are beyond the scope of this article. As for these historical issues, see Raymond E. Brown’s scholarly detailed study, The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1979).

/21/ Richard A. Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas. The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (New York: Crossroad, 1989) 33. This book of Horsley is very illuminating in locating the birth narratives in their social context. In the case of giving a brief and compact description concerning some aspects of the socio-historical context of Lukan and Matthean infancy narrative, I am indebted to Horsley.

/22/ Tacitus, Histories 4.74. Cornelius Tacitus was one of the major Roman historians. His two principal historical works are the Histories and the Annals. The Histories covered the period 69 CE to the reign of Domitian; but only books 1 to 4 and part of book 5 which record events for the year 69/70 only that are preserved. The Annals originally covered the reigns of Tiberius to Nero, but the record of the reign of Caligula and parts of the record of the reign of Claudius and Nero have now been lost (we have only books 1 to 6 and 11 to 16).

/23/ Quoted by Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, 27.

/24/ All biblical citations are taken from the NRSV.

/25/ Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, 36.

/26/ As to the idea of virginal conception which is related to Mary and his giving birth to Jesus, see Raymond E. Brown’s lengthy discussion in his book entitled The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973) 21-68.

/27/ Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, 50.