The Quran, King Solomon, and late Jewish mythology

by Luke Wayne

There is a story in the Quran about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba recorded in Surah 27:15-44. It explains that Solomon was taught by God the language of birds. Solomon calls together an army of birds, men, and jinn (demons or spirits). Solomon is angered to find that the Hoopoe bird has not come to the assembly, and threatens to have the bird killed if it does not come with a good reason for his absence. The bird soon arrives and explains that he was surveying the territory that Solomon did not possess and found a woman ruling over Saba (or Sheba) on a magnificent throne. Her people worship the sun instead of God. Solomon sends the message through the Hoopoe bird to the Queen calling her not to be arrogant but to come to him in submission. Her advisors are inclined against Solomon, but she rejects their advice and goes to Solomon in righteous submission. Solomon has a jinn transport her throne to his kingdom as a sign. When she reaches Solomon's palace, there is a floor made of glass which she mistakes for water and lifts her dress to wade through it, for which she must be corrected.

This fascinating story is obviously not found anywhere in the Bible. A remarkably similar story, however, is found in a Jewish document known as "Targum Sheni."1 Targum Sheni was an Aramaic paraphrase of the book of Esther that also included a lot of additional legendary material. Toward the beginning of the book, the author mentions that King Xerxes of Persia had a glorious throne that was not, in fact, his own. It was, so the story goes, a Jewish throne that dated all the way back to Solomon.2 The narrative then gives an elaborate background about the throne and about Solomon and the wisdom he had received. This wisdom included the ability to understand not only human languages, but also the speech of birds, beasts, demons, and spirits.3 It describes various scenes of beasts and birds in service of Solomon's court4 and climaxes in a story remarkably similar to one found in the Quran.5 While the lengthy passages certainly contain some notable differences, anyone who reads both can have no doubt that they are two versions of the same story.

The implications should be clear. If the Quran borrowed this story from a Jewish myth and yet reported the story as true history, then the author of the Quran was mistaken, and the Quran is not the word of God. Since Muslims cannot deny that the parallels exist, the most common Muslim response is to say that Targum Sheni was not written until after the Quran and therefore the Jews borrowed the story from the Quran instead of the other way around.

We cannot simply write this objection off. Our earliest surviving manuscript of Targum Sheni comes from the late 12th century.6 We have diverse manuscripts from shortly after this time and from the next few centuries to follow that represent a variety of scripts and locations.7 This shows us that the document was plainly widespread by then, and thus notably older than this. Exactly how much older is, of course, where the debate lies. One can cite scholars who will date Targum Sheni anywhere from the 4th-century to the 11th century.8 There are several good reasons, however, to think that Targum Sheni represents a Jewish legend that is older than the time of the Quran and that the author of the Quran is the one who borrowed from the Jewish myth rather than the other way around.

  1. The Language - Targum Sheni is written in a Galilean Aramaic with a number of borrowed words from Greek.9 The language does not show any notable Arabic influence and fits best with having been written in Palestine while the region was still under Byzantine (late Roman) rule before the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest.
  2. Cultural Content - Targum Sheni contains themes that seem to reflect Roman persecution of Jews rather than the state of affairs after the Arab conquests.10 Even more striking are the references to specific Jewish cleanliness standards that had changed by the time of the rise of Islam. Targum Sheni mentions the practice, for example, of menstruating women immersing themselves on the seventh day. During the Byzantine era Jewish women immersed on the 7th and the 12th day, but by the time of Islamic rule, they only immersed on the 12th day.11 Such cultural indicators seem to place the text in a period before Islam. One manuscript even directly speaks of "that wicked Rome, whom the God of Israel may speedily eradicate, and may the kingdom be taken away from them and given to the Messiah, son of David."12 While this is in only one manuscript and so may not represent the earliest form of the text, it is hard to imagine someone added that line to the Targum after the Roman Empire had already fallen. So even if this line is something that someone added in, they would have added it in while still suffering under Roman (Byzantine) Rule, which requires pre-Islamic origins.
  3. The Context of the Story - As mentioned above, this episode in Targum Sheni is part of the larger narrative. It fits into and completes the general lore of the story. If you were to remove it, the passage wouldn't make sense. The story was not merely cut and pasted in from another source, but rather flows out from and climaxes the mythology being presented. In the Quranic passage, however, the story is sandwiched between an essentially unrelated story about Moses and the burning bush and a story about a later civilization called Thamud. While it would be an exaggeration to say that there is no point to the story being there at all, it is an isolated episode among a variety of unrelated episodes. The Quranic passage would make the same sense without the story. The Quran draws on the story as an illustration. It makes much more sense to see the Quran repeating this story from the Targum tradition by way of example (or a modified oral version of it) just as the Quran is drawing on the well-known story of Moses from the book of Exodus.
  4. Possible Pre-Islamic Reference - The Jerusalem Talmud mentions a Targum of Esther.13 There are two known Targums of Esther including Sheni. This reference could, of course, be to the other Targum, or even to some other forgotten Targum about which we otherwise know nothing. It is at least worth noting, however, that prominent 11th-century Jewish leaders like Rashi directly refer to Targum Sheni by the title of the "Jerusalem Targum," which gives at least some weight to the idea that it is the Targum of Esther mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud.
  5. Quranic Pattern - The Quran often draws from legendary sources coming out of Jewish and nominally Christian communities (see here, here, and here). Given the rest of the evidence, it seems likely that this is another example of such a pattern.

So while we cannot prove 100% that Targum Sheni is older than the Quran, the evidence all seems to point strongly in that direction. Paired with other examples of contradictions, mistakes, changes, and reliance on mythical sources (see the links above on point five), it becomes quite clear that the Quran is not the unchanging, perfect, eternal word of God as Muslims claim.

  • 1. The word "Targum" means "translation". The Targums were Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures but were often more of loose paraphrases with additional commentary and in many cases also included a variety of mythical stories and legendary Midrashic material mixed in with the biblical stories.
  • 2. Bernard Grossfield, The Aramaic Bible - Volume 18: The Two Targums of Esther (The Liturgical Press, 1991) 103-104
  • 3. ibid, 104-106, the fact is repeated on 114
  • 4. ibid, 107-114
  • 5. ibid, 114-117
  • 6. Bernard Grossfield, The Targum Sheni to the Book of Esther (Sepher Hermon Press, 1994) xiii
  • 7. ibid, xiv-xvii
  • 8. Bernard Grossfield, The Aramaic Bible - Volume 18: The Two Targums of Esther (The Liturgical Press, 1991) 20.
  • 9. ibid, 7
  • 10. ibid, 20
  • 11. ibid, 21
  • 12. Bernard Grossfield, The Targum Sheni to the Book of Esther (Sepher Hermon Press, 1994) xi.
  • 13. Bernard Grossfield, The Aramaic Bible - Volume 18: The Two Targums of Esther (The Liturgical Press, 1991), 2