Ever hear the story of Jesus and the skull?
I’d be willing to bet you haven’t. It’s found nowhere in the New Testament. Unless maybe it’s there, in disguise–but we’ll get to that.
I came across the story years ago in the 1930 volume of the journal Muslim World (which I think back then used to be called Moslem World). The story’s translator, one C.E. Padwick, describes how he discovered it:
“Turning over the stock of the Moslem bookshops clustered round the door of the Great Mosque at Damascus, I found, among the heavier works and the little books of devotion, the usual tattered pile of romances sold for the smallest copper coins. I knew its like in Cairo, in Aleppo, in Transjordania, and I knew that stories bought for love of a story often have more influence than text books, so I turned it over, and among the pile of tales of love and crime … I came on one that bore the name of the Nebi ‘Isa.”
Nebi ‘Isa. The prophet Jesus. The most distinguished of Muhammad’s forerunners, in Muslim belief.
Padwick bought the little book, crudely printed in Arabic, and showed it to a friend “who was born in Tunis. He recognized not only the story but the very phrases that had caught the attention of a child, and said ‘It’s the story my grandmother used to tell me in Tunis.'”
Damascus … Tunis … and if Padwick had visited what are now Malaysia and Indonesia, he’d have found the story there too, in multiple versions and languages. It seems to have spread all over the Islamic world.
Here’s the story:
“It is recorded (but God alone is most wise and the Knower of the unseen world) that ‘Isa, upon whom be peace, passed one day on his wanderings through a Syrian valley full of trees and streams and birds who praise the All-Conquering One. And ‘Isa (upon him be peace) came to a running stream and purified himself (with the ritual purification) and prayed two raka’s (of the Moslem prayer) to God Most High, and when he prostrated himself he saw on his left a skull of shining whiteness.”
Jesus prays that the skull may be allowed to speak to him. And it does.
“‘Peace be upon thee, oh Prophet of God. I was male not female, free not slave, rich not poor, served not a servant, generous not stingy, a ruler not a subject, and I was one of the kings of Syria. … And I lived a thousand years, and married a thousand virgins, and God gave me a thousand sons, and I possessed a thousand stallions, and every day I spent a thousand dinars. And I was beloved of the people and judged my subjects with rectitude.'”
He was, however, an idol-worshiper, and upon dying went to hell … and the skull proceeds to describe to Jesus the torments inflicted there.
“‘And I remained, oh Spirit of God [a standard Muslim epithet for Jesus], in torture four and seventy years. Then after that they brought me to a valley called the Wadi of Woe, and lo! a calling from God, the One, the Conqueror, the Majestic. “Oh angel of death, throw this skull into such and such a road, for he was generous among his people, and gave many alms, and fed many, and loved the poor and needy, and honored his guests.” Then they brought me out to this place as thou seest me, oh Spirit of God.'”
The skull begs Jesus to pray that he be restored to life, so that this time around he can be a Muslim. Which Jesus does–“And he had not finished his petition before the skull trembled and became one of the most beautiful of youths.”
The newly resurrected man confesses that there is no God but Allah and Jesus is His prophet. He lives 80 more years, in ascetic piety and perpetual worship. Then he dies, presumably having found salvation.
That’s the story–popular and widespread in the Muslim world, handed down from generation to generation (it would seem) beneath the radar of highbrow Islamic theology and tradition. It’s not in the Qur’an, nor have I come across it in any of the standard Muslim collections of “Lives of the Prophets” (Kisa’i, Tha’labi).
So where does it come from? How old is it?
There aren’t any surviving Christian versions–at least, none with Jesus as the hero. But I learn from a 2002 article, by a scholar named Clara Brakel-Papenhuyzen, that the story is generally believed to have “developed from an earlier Greek-Egyptian legend, with the famous Egyptian ascetic St. Macarius as protagonist, instead of the prophet Jesus.”
The Macarius story is online; you can read it and draw your own conclusions. You’ll see that it has a lot in common with the Islamic story, but also some major differences. It ends, not with the resurrection of the skull, but with its burial by Macarius. The skull’s possessor presumably remains trapped in hellfire.
It makes really good sense that, in the story’s evolution, the renowned “prophet Jesus” should take the place of the relatively obscure Macarius, with a happy ending substituted for the original grim conclusion. So I wouldn’t reject the conventional explanation out of hand. But I do wonder.
I wonder if the story isn’t hinted at after all in the Gospels–when read in the light of ancient skull-magic rituals.
And, if so, what this says about the almost unbelievable tenacity of popular legend.
by David Halperin
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