The name "Jesus Sutras" is frequently applied to a
number of ancient
Chinese Christian texts, most if not all
unfortunately of Nestorian
origin but not always reflecting this
Surprisingly (even astonishingly, in light of their
content and the appeal one would have expected them
to have for Western converts to Eastern religions), they have attracted
very little attention. Their authenticity does
not seem to be in question, although
I worry a bit about the involvement of
various shady antique dealers. Certainly
this would be a profitable field of study for the historian
Norman Hugh Redington
Under construction --- far from complete! Read with caution.
Sutras attributed to
There seems no reason to doubt that Jingjing wrote
the Xian Inscription, as the text itself asserts.
The other documents, all anonymous,
were discovered at
Dunhuang in 1908 or
1909 and are either in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris)
or in a private Japanese collection established by Yashushi
Kojima, who purchased several of them from the collector Li
Shengduo soon after their discovery. They are attributed
to Jingjing on the basis of date and style.
"Mêngdo" in Praise of the Holy Trinity:
Saeki 266; Palmer 202. Discovered at Dunhuang ca.
1908 and sold to Yashushi Kojima by the collector Li
Shengduo. Saeki interprets mêngdo as a transliteration
of Syriac motwa or kathisma. Does not seem to be
particularly "Nestorian" in content.
Honour Sutra in Praise of the Dharma Kings:
Saeki 273; Palmer 183.
Discovered at Dunhuang by Paul Pelliot in
1908; now in the Bibliothèque Nationale.
As the title suggest, Christian terms have been rendered with
Buddhist equivalents, but the text is quite conventional. It
begins with a seemingly Orthodox invocation of the Trinity
(although both of the translations are also amenable
to heretical readings, they differ so much that no conclusion
can be drawn about the original.) This is followed by a longish
list of saints ("Dharma-King Matthew, Dharma-King Mark,
Dharma-King Luke..."), none uniquely Nestorian, although the scribe's
closing note shows this was definitely a Church of the East
liturgical document. Finally, there is a rather jumbled list of
"Christian" books, including, with no obvious internal distinctions,
books of the Bible, some seemingly patristic or hagiographic works,
liturgical texts, various "sutras" including at least two of those
now classed among the Jesus Sutras, and (to the alarm of Saeki)
some Manichee writings.
Sutra of Mysterious Rest and Joy:
Saeki 281; Palmer 189. Called "Sutra of Returning to Your
Original Nature" by Palmer. Discovered at Dunhuang ca.
1908 and sold to Yashushi Kojima by the collector Li
Shengduo. A discourse addressed by Jesus to Simon Peter;
it seems to me reminiscent of both the Apocryphal Gospels
and the Tao Te Ching. I do not trust the translations
enough to make any theological comments; there do seem to be some
fine poetic images and parables.
Da Qin Sutra on the Origin of Origins:
The irritatingly inadequate textual apparatus of
both Saeki and Palmer make it difficult to discuss this
sutra; there are perhaps three with the same title.
One (Saeki 310) is an introductory fragment, seemingly
modeled on the genre of Buddhist texts in which Shakyamuni
or a bodhisattva gives a discourse surrounded by
a multitude of beings; in this case, the setting is
"Nazareth in the country of Da Qin" and the speaker is
identified as "Dharma-King Qingtung". The language is
Buddhistic; the text breaks off before much has been said.
A second text with the same title (Saeki 313) is dated
717 October 2 and signed by a scribe named Zhang Gu; it is the
end of a sutra, apparently an ascetical or moral work of
some kind. The original is in Kojima's collection. A third
(Palmer 137) is described as being in a "private collection
in Japan", having been found in an antique shop in China in
the 1920s. Although the language sounds Taoist in Palmer,
the use of "Bethlehem" and "Persia" as
routine geographical references
in a philosophical passage (the Holy Spirit is everywhere, here,
in Persia, in Bethlehem, and everywhere in between) suggests
to me a translation from Syriac or Greek rather than an original
Other Jesus Sutras:
- P. Yoshiro Saeki:
The Nestorian Relics and Documents in China, (1937).
Tokyo: Maruzen, 1951. Includes full Chinese texts
of all the "Jesus Sutras" and related documents, as
well as a translation into (unfortunately rather poor)
English and an extensive scholarly commentary. Out of
print and hard to find even in libraries -- especially
the second (1951) edition, which includes additional material
discovered during the Japanese occupation
of China in World War II.
- Martin Palmer:
The Jesus Sutras --
Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist
New York: Ballantine, 2001.
Aimed at a popular mass
audience, and in particular at the "New Age"
market, this book did not strike me (NHR)
altogether positively. It does, however, include
new and much more readable (if perhaps at times
theologically slanted) English translations
by Eva Wong, Zhao Xiao Min,
and Palmer himself.
- Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit:
The Chinese Nestorian Texts of the
T'ang Period, (1999).
Christians in Asia before 1500
(University of Michigan, 1999): 275.
Short summary and discussion of the major Jesus
Sutras; almost entirely dependent on Saeki.
- SPECIFIC TEXTS: References are to the English
translations; Chinese in Saeki only.
The attribution is very
Saeki 125; Palmer 159.
Purchased from a Chinese merchant
in 1922 by Dr. J. Takakusu.
Uses the word "Buddha" for God, but
also the word "Yahweh".
An opening section seemingly
aimed at Buddhist readers
includes a rather extreme
defence of the divine right of
emperors, and seems to imply
that emperors are "incarnate gods"
whose "opulence and happiness all
have been assigned by the Lord of
Heaven" [because of their] "previous
state of existence"! This apparently
syncretistic beginning is followed
by more conventional Christian material:
the Ten Commandments
(as the "Ten Vows") and a synopsis of
the Gospels. Saeki points out that
portions of the text closely parallel
Eva Wong sees Tibetan influences.
- Sutras attributed by Saeki
- The Treatises on Monotheism.
documents obtained in
1916 by a Mr. Tameoka, presumably from Beijing
antique dealers after the flurry of illegal
excavations in Central Asia early in the XX Century.
Prof. Haneda of the Kyoto Institute of Oriental
Culture published a collotype edition
Saeki 161; Palmer 147.
Straightforward apologetic tract, using some
Taoist terminology in places. Saeki translates
the opening sentences pantheistically, but
I suspect this is an error, as Palmer's
translation (which might be expected to
favour such a reading) does not, and the
rest of the text seems orthodox enough.
- All Things Manifest the One God:
- Shastras on the One Deva:
Saeki 174; Palmer 139.
Philosophical tract on the nature of
the soul, the problem of faith and works,
and the origin of evil. It takes many ideas
from both Buddhist and Taoist
philosophy and attempts
to reinterpret them in a Christian way; unfortunately,
not reading Chinese, I cannot tell
from the English version with
how much success. Saeki notes
a Platonising emphasis on the separateness
of soul and matter, and suggests that this
is perhaps among the more theologically Nestorian
of the "Nestorian" documents in China.
- The Discourse of the Lord of the Universe
Saeki 206; Palmer 60.
Dated "641 years after the manifestation of the Messiah".
Begins with the Sermon on the Mount and continues
with a retelling of the Gospel emphasising the
Passion and Resurrection. Unfortunately,
the theology (which is not at all syncretistic)
seems to be essentially Arian. Certainly the following is
a true Nestorian passage: "The Messiah therefore is
not the Lord of the Universe Himself, but he made
the Lord of the Universe known to all mankind ...
What he did shows that he is not the seed of man.
On the contrary, what he did shows that he is the
seed of the Lord of the Universe." But how, then,
to reconcile this with the discourse's title
(which is found in the original manuscript)?
Saeki 313; Palmer 180. A liturgical fragment; Saeki
connects it with the feast of the Transfiguration.
Dated 720 May 2 and signed
by a "monk of the
Da Qin monastery at Shachou". From Dunhuang.
- Da Qin Sutra of Taking Refuge in the Holy Trinity:
Return to St Pachomius Library.