• Elliott Holley

Could the Chinese "Jesus Sutras" link Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity?

In a cave in northwestern China, a cache of ancient spiritual texts lay undisturbed for over a thousand years. Their discovery has raised important questions about the teachings of Jesus, as well as the links between Christianity and other religions.


The Jesus Sutras, also known as the Jingjiao Documents, are a collection of ancient Nestorian texts dating to between 635 and 1000. Written in Chinese script, the texts were found in an area of northwestern China known as the Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, due to the 500 Buddhist temples found there.


The word "Sutra" is an Indian term to describe texts that collect aphorisms and other teachings, particularly in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions. The texts were part of a larger discovery in the Caves, which also included ancient Buddhist and Manichean texts found nearby. Some of these other texts were written in the Tibetan language, others in Sanskrit, Turkic, and several other languages.


The Jesus Sutras themselves have been linked to Alopen, the earliest recorded Christian missionary to reach China, in the 7th century AD. Alopen and other early Christian missionaries came from Persia and Mesopotamia, to the west, via the Silk Road trade route which runs through the nearby oasis.


The significance of these 'Eastern Christian' texts, apart from their age and relative novelty, is that they may (depending on your viewpoint), cast doubt on traditional 'Western' interpretations of Jesus' teachings, in particular on women, original sin, and asceticism.


A Chinese 9th century Tang dynasty era depiction of Jesus, from the Library Cave, at the Magao Caves, Gansu province, northwestern China.


Elements of Buddhism and Taoism in the Jingjiao Documents


In the Jesus Sutras, God created the forces of yin and yang, which then gave birth to chi, which is the life force of every living thing. This concept comes from the Tao Te Ching, the foundational sacred text of Taoism.


The concepts of Karma and reincarnation are common in Eastern religions. The Jesus Sutras appear to modify the concept of original sin, instead positioning Jesus as the solution to Samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death and suffering.


In Buddhism, we are bound by our physical existence - the five 'Skandhas' or five aggregates, are what create a sense of self:


Form (matter)

Sensation (physical and emotional)

Perception

Mental formations (acts of will)

Consciousness


The Jesus Sutras say that Jesus 'put on' the five Skandhas, to save all living beings from Samsara, the endless repetition of birth, life and death.


On the face of it, the Christian doctrine of resurrection of the dead doesn't fit well with the idea of release from the cycle of rebirth. However, the Sutras suggest resurrection abolishes the physical constraints of the five Skandhas which Buddhists believe cause suffering.


“The souls of the dead will once again be clothed by the Five Skandas. But this time the Five Skandas will be perfected, needing no food to sustain them nor clothing to cover them. The souls will exist in complete happiness, untouched by physical needs” (3:30-32).


The ideas in the Jesus Sutras were also expressed through carvings in stone found nearby. A stone column known as the Xian Stele or Stele of Sianfu, built in 781, contains the following objectives for the "Church of Light":


To penetrate the mysteries

To bless with a good conscience

To be great and yet empty

To return to stillness

To be forgiving

To be compassionate

To deliver all people

To do good deeds

To help people reach the other shore

To calm people in stormy times

To help people understand the nature of things

To maintain purity

To nourish all things

To respect all life

To answer the needs of those whose beliefs come from the heart


Significance and debate


The true meaning and significance of the Jesus Sutras is debated. The most accessible source on the Jesus Sutras and their meaning appears to be the book The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity by Martin Palmer, director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture. Palmer is a translator and author of various works on religion.


Palmer believes the Jesus Sutras represent a synthesis of Eastern religious ideas with Christianity. He also believes this Eastern, Nestorian version of Christianity was more progressive than the form of the faith that emerged in the West.


Here is an extract from Palmer's own article about the Jesus Sutras, written on the Seven Pillars website in 2005:


In the Sutras, Jesus is called “the Jade-Faced One,” because, for the Daoists, jade is the stone of immortality. In the Sutras, the doctrine of original sin has no place. Creation is innately good. Concepts of dharma and reincarnation are explored. There is even feminism. The Sutra of the Teachings of the World-Honored One explains that Eve’s sin in Eden is fully expiated by the women who are the first to see the evidence of the risen Christ, saying:


As the first woman caused the lies of humanity, so it was women who first told the truth about what had happened, to show all that the Messiah forgave women and wished them to be treated properly in the future. (Ch 5:32)


The early Chinese Church taught that not only feminine nature, but all human nature is in harmony with Nature itself. The Stone Sutra explains that, as in Daoist philosophy, the whole of creation is intrinsically good. Only when humans allow the goodness that is their birthright to be invaded by foolishness, greed, envy and pride do they become inharmonious with the rest of creation. “Original sin”—the doctrine that “in Adam’s fall/ we sinned all”—is not mentioned.


Supporting evidence?


The idea that ancient Nestorian Christianity in China might have had a more favourable attitude towards women appears to be supported by another discovery, although it is of less certain provenance.


A separate but similar text was reported by author Jay Williams in The Secret Sayings of Ye Su. Williams claims to have seen and translated an obscure Greek text in China in 1994, which he has quoted in his book, although he is unable to produce the original documents. Whether the text is genuine is uncertain, but it certainly contains some interesting verses. The full text can be seen here.


Peter said, “Why do you allow women to follow you? Should not

only men be disciples?” Ye Su said, “Peter, Peter, are you so blind?

Do you not see that the seeds of the kingdom are planted in both

women and men and that in the kingdom there is no difference

between them? We are all the union of male and female and therefore are in ourselves both male and female. Until you realize that, the

kingdom will be far away. To remind you of your blindness, when I

appear in glory, Mary shall see me first. She is my beloved disciple.”


I am personally uncertain what to make of the verses reported by Williams. My scepticism is sparked by the apparently pro-feminist message, which seems to fit a little too conveniently with western liberal ideas in the early 21st century.


I'm also familiar with the controversy over the Gnostic Gospels, and in particular some of the more sensational claims about Mary Magdalene. This makes me a bit suspicious that modern authors may either be reading in modern sensibilities into ancient texts, or possibly fabricating the texts to appeal to modern sensibilities (it wouldn't be the first time - a similar forgery called the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was discovered a few years ago).


On the other hand, I can't definitively disprove the text, either, and it does bear some similarities to one of the stories reported in the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene. Specifically, there is a story where Paul argues with Mary, causing her to cry, and causing one of the others to reproach him for his unnecessary harshness, and to point out that she might actually be right. This story either suggests that Williams' text may be genuine - or it may suggest whoever forged the text was familiar with the Gnostic Gospels. At present, I am undecided either way, though I may revise my opinion with time.


A question of interpretation?


Regardless of whether or not the text reported (separately) by Williams was genuine, the authenticity of the Jesus Sutras themselves is not in doubt.


However, Palmer's book on the Jesus Sutras is not without its controversies. In particular, author David Wilmshurst has disputed Palmer's claim that the Jingjiao Documents represent a synthesis of Eastern thought with Christian ideas.


I plan to investigate the issue further in a future update; however, for now I will leave it there. However, I do recommend interested readers do their own research on the topic.


Sources for further reading


Aside from buying Palmer's book, sources on the Jingjiao Documents online appear to be limited. However, blogger Victoria Emily Jones wrote about the Jesus Sutras on a now-discontinued blog nine years ago. I recommend readers to visit the original, which goes into more detail on the exact teachings found within.