The differences between this and the account of Christ's birth as related in the passage in the Qur'an which we have quoted above are but slight. Muhammad mentions a palm-tree, the best-known of all trees to an Arab, in place of the species of flowering tree mentioned in the Buddhist book, since the Sal-tree of India does not grow in Arabia. Doubtless the legend had changed in this way in its transmission, as is generally the case in similar tales. The Indian legend intimates that the exertion made by Buddha's mother in reaching after the flowers growing on the branch above her head brought on the child's birth unexpectedly. The Qur'an seems to give no such good reason at all for the birth occurring below the palm-tree. But the stories are evidently one and the same. We notice here, as in the Qur'an, that the tree bent down its branches to let Maya pluck the flowers — or, as the Qur'an has it, let its ripe dates fall upon Mary.
The other account of this latter incident, — that given in the apocryphal Gospel, — is connected with the Flight into Egypt, when our Lord was an infant. This is parallel with what we read in the Cariya-Pitakam, (cap. i., poem ix.). There we are informed that in a former birth Buddha was a prince called Vessantaro. Having offended his people, he was banished from his kingdom, along with his wife and two little children. As they wandered towards the distant mountains, where they wished to find an asylum, the children became hungry. Then, the Buddhist narrative tells us:—
"If the children see fruit-bearing trees on the mountain-side, the children weep for their fruit. Having seen the children weeping, the great lofty trees, having even of themselves bowed down, approach the children."
It is clear that both the Qur'an and the author of the apocryphal "History of the Nativity of Mary" have unconsciously borrowed from Buddhist sources these particular incidents. This fact of course disproves the truth of the narrative.
Were proof required to show that, even as late as Muhammad's time, Buddhist legends were prevalent in Western Asia and were accepted as Christian history, it would be afforded by the existence of the tale of "Barlaam and Josaphat." This legend was written in Greek in the sixth century of the Christian era, as some hold, though it is more generally attributed to Johannes Damascenus, who flourished at the court of the Khalifah Al Mansur (A.D. 753-74). Josaphat, the Christian prince of the book, is undoubtedly Buddha himself, and his name is a corruption of Bodhisattva, one of Buddha's many titles. The main source of the tale is the Sanskrit legendary story of Buddha known as the Lalita Vistara. Yet Josaphat is a saint in both the Greek and the Roman Churches, in the former of which August 26 is sacred to him, in the latter November 27.
Another apocryphal gospel is of special interest, the Arabic Infancy Gospel. The textual history of this gospel is complex. It was very probably a translation from the Syriac, which was compiled sometime between the Fifth and the Sixth Century, and which in turn depended very much on the Protoevangelium of James, already mentioned, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas [not to be confused with the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi]. As J.K. Elliott, professor of New Testament Textual Criticism, University of Leeds, says, “Much of the material is embodied in the Syriac History of the Virgin”, a copy of which was discovered and translated by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge as The History of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the History of the Likeness of Christ [London, 1899]. Elliott continues, “Although there may be no direct link between the two, such comparisons reinforce the argument of the Syriac influence on the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Other links may be seen in the writings of the ninth-century Syriac father, Isho’dad of Merv, who seems to be aware of this Arabic Gospel in his commentary on Matthew”.
The first edition of the Arabic Infancy Gospel [AIG] was made in the Seventeenth Century by H. Sike, with the title Evangelium infantae vel liber apocryphus de Infantia Salvatoris, but the original Arabic text that he used has been lost. However, Arabic manuscripts have been discovered subsequently in Rome and Florence.
There are significant similarities between the Arabic Infancy Gospel and the Koran. Both talk of Jesus’ ability to bring clay models of birds to life, and to cure lepers. [AIG, 18,36; Koran III.48, V.110] Both accounts present Jesus as a baby in the cradle giving an account of his respective mission in each religion in front of Mary:
Arabic Infancy Gospel, 1: “We find what follows in the book of Joseph the high priest, who lived in the time of Christ. Some say that he is Caiaphas. He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom you have brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to you; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.”
Koran, Surah XIX, 29-34: “But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?" He [Jesus] said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; 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)"! Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.”