Tisdall takes up the story, “In the book to which we have just referred, the event is connected with the Flight into Egypt. The tale records how the Holy Family started on the journey and for two days travelled on quietly. [The Pseudo-Matthew] then continues:””
“But on the third day after he had set out, it came to pass that Mary became exhausted in the desert through the excessive heat of the sun. When therefore she saw a tree, she said unto Joseph, “˜Let us rest a little while under the shadow of this tree.” And Joseph hasted and brought her to that palm-tree, and took her down off her beast. When Mary sat down, she looked up to the top of the palm-tree, and seeing it full of fruit said to Joseph, “˜’I desire, if it be possible, to take of the fruit of this palm-tree.” And Joseph said unto her, “˜I marvel that thou speakest thus, since thou seest how high the branches of this palm-tree are. But I am extremely anxious about water, for it has now been exhausted in our skin-bottles, and we have nowhere whence we can fill them and quench our thirst.” Then the Child Jesus, who with joyful countenance lay in His mother the Virgin Mary’s bosom, said to the palm-tree, “˜O tree, lower thy branches and refresh My mother with thy fruit.” Instantly the palm-tree at this word bowed its head to the sole of Mary’s feet: and they plucked the fruit which it bore, and were refreshed. And afterwards, when all its fruit had be plucked, the tree still remained bent, since it was waiting to rise up at the command of Him, whose command it had bowed down. Then Jesus said unto it, “˜O palm-tree, arise and be of good cheer, and be thou a companion of My trees that are in My Father’s Paradise. But with thy roots open the spring that is hidden in the ground, and let water flow forth from that spring to quench our thirst.” And the palm-tree instantly stood erect, and streams of very clear, cool, and very sweet water began to come forth from amid its roots. And when they beheld those streams of water, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy; and they with all their quadrupeds and attendants were satisfied and thanked God.”
Tisdall continues, “Instead of connecting the palm-tree and the stream that flowed from beneath it with the account of the Flight into Egypt, the Qur’an, we have seen, connects them very closely with birth of Christ, representing Him as having been born at the foot of the tree, and at that moment (according to one explanation) directing the tree to let its fruit fall for Mary to eat, and telling her of the flowing streamlet. From its accordance with this apocryphal Gospel in this respect, it is evident that this explanation of the words of the Qur’an is more likely to be correct than the gloss which attributes the speech to Gabriel.
“But we have now to inquire from what source the Qur’an borrowed the idea that Christ was born at the foot of a tree: and also what is the origin of the legend that the tree bowed down to let the mother and Child eat of its fruit. It is hardly necessary to say that for neither the one statement nor the other is there the very slightest foundation in the Canonical Gospels.
The source of both incidents is found in the books of the Buddhist Pali Canon, which, as we are informed in the Maha-Vamso, was reduced to writing in the reign of King Vattagamani of Ceylon, probably about 80 B.C. at latest. But it is very possible that very considerable parts of these Pali books were composed several hundred years earlier. The legends contained in them were, in later but still very early times, widely spread, not only in India and Ceylon but also in Central Asia, China, Tibet, and other lands. Buddhist missionaries are mentioned in Yesht XIII., 16, as having appeared in Persia as early as the second century before Christ. The influence which Buddhism exercised on thought throughout Western, as well as Central, Eastern and Southern, Asia was immense. Manichaism, Gnosticism and other heresies were largely due to this, as was the rise of Monasticism. Several passages in the apocryphal Gospels show that ideas of Buddhist origin had gained access to the minds of the writers of these spurious works, though doubtless these men were quite unaware of the real source of their inspiration. It was easy for Muhammad therefore to be misled in the same way; and we can point to the very passages in the Pali books which represent the earliest known form of the legends about the tree.
One of these occurs in the Nidanakatha Jatakam (cap. i., pp. 50-3). There we are told that when Maya, who was to be the mother of Gotamo Buddha, was with child and knew that her time was at hand, she obtained her husband Suddhodano’s permission to return to her father’s house to be delivered, according to the custom of that country. On the journey she and her handmaidens entered a beautiful forest, and Princess Maya greatly admired the abundant flowers which she saw on some of the trees. In the words of the passage to which we refer, the account of what then took place runs thus:
“She, having gone to the foot of a well-omened Sal-tree, became desirous of grasping a branch of the Sal-tree. The Sal-tree branch, having bent down like the end of a stick well softened with steam, came within the reach of the princess’s hand. She, having stretched out her hand, seized the branch. … Childbirth came upon her just as she stood, grasping the branch of the Sal-tree.”