Supplement for the Second Edition of
Who Was Jesus?
How Much Can Be Known about the Koranic Jesus?
The Israelite priesthood was apparently regarded from an early time as the preserve of the tribe of Levi, with members of this tribe offering priestly services wherever they were needed (see Judges 17:6b-13). At some point, however, as the Israelite Yahweh cult became more organized, the priesthood came to be restricted exclusively to one particular Levitical lineage: the house of Aaron who was allegedly the brother of Moses, the first priest of Israel and the man originally given charge of the Ark of the Covenant (the sacred wooden chest in which the spirit of the invisible Yahweh was supposed to reside). The last officially recognized Aaronic chief priest, whose name was Abiathar, served under King David (c. 1005-964 BC), but was made to share his office with a man called Zadok who was apparently neither of Aaronic nor even of Levitical descent. Later, when Solomon succeeded his father David as king, Abiathar was sacked from the chief priesthood and banished to an agricultural estate that his family owned in Anathoth (1 Kings 2:26; Joshua 21:18) − today, almost certainly the village called Antutah (Arabicized form of the Biblical Hebrew Anatot, name changed today to al-Mubarakah), in the fertile hinterland of the Saudi Arabian coastal town of Jizan, close by the border with Yemen.
From that time on, the chief priesthood of the Davidic kingdom – under Solomon, then under the kings of Judah who were his successors – became the exclusive preserve of the house of Zadok. This same Zadokite priestly establishment continued to dominate Israelite religious affairs following the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BC and the deportation of its leading citizens to Iraq. In the meanwhile, the Aaronic priesthood had somehow managed to survive in Anathoth, probably supported by a body of die-hard Israelites who refused to accept the sacerdotal authority of the Zadokites. Among the Aaronic priests of Anathoth was the Prophet Jeremiah, who predicted – and lived to witness – the downfall of Judah, and who vanished from history in obscure circumstances shortly thereafter.
Apart from identifying “Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah” as being one “of the priests who were in Anathoth” (Jeremiah 1:1), the Received Text of the Hebrew Bible, which was compiled and redacted by the Zadokites and their associates in post-exilic times, has nothing to say about the house of Aaron following the dismissal of Abiathar from the chief priesthood. And nothing would have been known about the fate of the Aaronic priestly line after the mysterious disappearance of Jeremiah, had it not been for the Koran, where it identifies Maryam – the Koranic Mary – as an Israelite temple figure of unequivocally Aaronic lineage (see chapter four). As the son of Maryam, Issa − the Koranic Jesus who was believed to be virgin-born − would have naturally inherited his mother’s Aaronic lineage, apparently to become the head of the house of Aaron in due course. The fact that the Koran recognizes him as al-Masih, or “the Christ,” indicates that he was recognized by his followers, in his time, as the long-awaited priestly messiah whose mission was to end the prolonged Zadokite usurpation of the Israelite priesthood, and to restore it to the house of Aaron to which it legitimately belonged.
The Koranic juxtaposition between the Aaronic Issa and the Zadokite Ezra (see chapter four) seems to indicate a historical connection between the careers of the two men. Ezra, who was active in the middle decades of the fifth century BC, was the person chiefly responsible for the post-exilic revival of the law of Moses, on the basis of which the scattered remnants of the Israelite people were reorganized under Zadokite leadership as the religious community of the “Jews” (yehuwdim, from yehuwdah, the Hebrew for Judah). Disregarding the fact that an Aaronic priesthood still existed in Arabia in his time, and that this priesthood probably commanded an Israelite following of some size, Ezra claimed for himself an Aaronic lineage to which he was not entitled (Ezra 7:1-5). Alternatively, it was his Jewish followers who fabricated this lineage for him during his lifetime, or following his death. This daring action, whether on his part or that of his partisans, would alone have sufficed to elicit an open confrontation on the issue between the houses of Zadok and Aaron. And there is good indication that a contest over the possession of the Ark of Covenant – to the Israelites, the ultimate touchstone of genuine priestly standing – may have been at the heart of the matter.
Of the fate of the Ark of the Covenant after it came to be installed in the temple of Solomon (see 1 Kings 8:1-11), the Received Text of the Hebrew Bible, curiously, has nothing to say, leaving the ultimate fate of the Ark unknown. However, in a book on the antiquities of Arabia written in the early decades of the eighth century AD, an early Muslim historian and epigraphist, Wahb ibn Munabbih (Kitab al-tijan li-muluk Himyar, Hyderabad Deccan, AH 1347, pp.179-180), reports that the Israelites once deposited the Ark in Mecca as they fled through the Hijaz in panic before a powerful coalition of enemies, and that the Ark remained thereafter in Mecca until Issa ibn Maryam arrived in the city to claim it. Wahb, who was the descendant of a prominent Jewish family from the Yemen, was well versed in the Israelite lore of Arabia. What lends special credence to his Ark story is, first, the casual manner in which he relates it, without comment or elaboration, and, second, the fact that he relates it in the context of the history of Mecca, and not that of the Israelites, about which he has much to say elsewhere. Add to this the fact that his story of the Ark makes good historical sense. In a struggle between Issa and the Zadokites over the legitimate right to the Israelite priesthood, what success could have been more dramatic for an Aaronic messiah than suddenly managing to find and take possession of the long lost and virtually forgotten Ark?
The question of the Ark aside, Wahb’s account of its concealment in Mecca and of its subsequent reclamation from there by Issa in that city seems to assume, first, that pre-exilic Israelite history ran its course in Arabia and second, that the geographical setting of Issa’s career was equally Arabian. It was in Arabia, apparently, that he died and was buried. This, at least according to a story originally told by an Arabian notable from Medina, in the Hijaz, and quoted by the great Arab scholar al-Tabari (d. AD 923) in his major historical work Tarikh al-rusul wal-muluk (Cairo edition, 1967, vol.1, pp.603-4):
One of our womenfolk had made a vow to climb to the peak of al-Jamma', a mountain in al-Aqiq, [south of] Medina. So I climbed with her until we reached the mountain top. There stood an enormous sarcophagus with two huge tombstones, one [at each end], which bore inscriptions in a writing unknown to me. I carried the two stones back with me. But as I was crossing a passage down the mountainside, the two of them became too difficult for me to carry; so I dropped one and descended with the other. I asked people who knew Syriac if they could read [the inscription on that stone], but they could not. Then I showed it to people from the Yemen who could write [Hebrew], or who wrote the South Arabian script, and they could not read it. So, when I found no one who could make sense of [the inscription], I put it away at home under a chest, where it remained for years. Then some Persians arrived [in Medina] from [the town of] Maha to buy beads. I asked them: “Do you have a written language?” They answered: “We do.” So I brought out the [inscription] for them [to see] and, behold, they were reading it, as it was in their script: “This is the grave of Issa ibn Maryam, the messenger of God to the people of this land.” It turned out that [Persians] had inhabited the area at that time, and [Issa] died in their midst, so they buried him on top of the mountain.
This story not only confirms the location of the career of Issa ibn Maryam in the Arabian province of the Hijaz, but also relates it to the period of Persian rule in the lands of the Near East (535-330 BC). More interesting, however, is the fact that ¤abar• was aware that the Issa who was buried on top of Mount Jamma', south of Medina, was a person entirely different from the Jesus who was crucified by the Jews in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. “I have been told,” he says, “that the man taken to be Issa and crucified in his place was an Israelite called Ishu bin Fandara” (Tabari, vol.1, p.605). This name is none other than the pejorative name Yeshu' ben Panthera, or ben Pandera (see chapter three), by which the Jewish Talmud refers to the Davidic Jesus who was crucified in the Palestinian Jerusalem, and whom we have agreed to call Jeshu bar Nagara (see chapter seven).
With respect to the dating of the career of the Koranic Jesus who was Issa ibn Maryam, the Damascene Muslim historian, Abul-Qasim Ibn Asakir, writing in the twelfth century AD (Sirat al-Sayyid al-Masih, Suleiman Murad, ed., Amman, 1996, par.10), cites a tradition related by an early Muslim authority who died in AD 721 which asserts that the “ascension” of Issa to God’s presence occurred 933 years before the start of the Muslim era (AD 622). Unless another explanation can be given to this tradition, it means that the “ascension” of Issa (possibly to mean his canonization or apotheosis) occurred is 311 BC, and that his career as a prophet and Aaronic Messiah belonged to the late fourth century BC, and not to the late fifth or early fourth centurs earlier surmised (see chapter four).