Lost Jesus Sutras Reveal Ancient Chinese Christianity
It’s an amazing story, one only now being told. More than 1,300 years ago, a Persian Christian monk named Aleben traveled 3,000 miles along the ancient caravan route known as the Silk Road all the way to China, carrying precious copies of the New Testament writings (probably in Syriac). Aleben and his fellow Christian monks stopped in the Chinese city of Chang-au (Xian), where, under the protection of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, he founded a CHristian monastery and began the arduous task of translating the Christian texts into Chinese. It was the year A.D. 635. When the Italian explorer Marco Polo arrived in China nearly 600 years later, he was astonished to discover that a tiny Christian community had existed there for centuries.
We know about this amazing Christian evangelist and his genial Chinese hosts because in 1623 graver diggers working outside of Xian dug up a stele weighing two tons and carved with 2,000 Chinese characters. Now known as the Monument Stele and residing in a museum in Xian, It was created in A.D. 781 and tells the tale Aleben and what the Chinese writers called “the Luminous Religion” because it taught of light. Here is what the Stele proclaimed:
The Emperor Taizong was a champion of culture. He created prosperity and encouraged illustrious sages to bestow their wisdom on the people. There was a saint of great virtue named Aleben, who came from the Qin Empire carrying the true scriptures. He had read the azure clouds and divined that he should journey to the East. Along the way, Aleben avoided danger and calamity by observing the rhythm of the wind.
In the ninth year of the Zhenguan reign [A.D. 635], Aleben reaching Chang-an [Zian]. The Emperor sent his minister, Duke Xuanling, together with a contingent of the palace guard, to the western outskirts to accompany Aleben to the palace.
The translation work on his scriptures took place in the Imperial Library and the Emperor studied them in his Private Chambers. After the Emperor became familiar with the True Teachings, he issued a decree and ordered that it be propagated…
… the Emperor issued a proclamation, saying:
“We have studied these scriptures and found them otherworldly, profound and full of mystery.
We found their words lucid and direct.
We have contemplated the birth and growth of the tradition from which these teachings sprang.
These teachings will save all creatures and benefit mankind, and it is on ly proper that they be practiced throughout the world.”
Following the Emperor’s orders, the Greater Qin Monastery was built in the I-ning section of the Capital. Twenty-one ordained monks of the Luminous Religion were allowed to live there…
The Emperor Gaozong [A.D. 650-683] reverently continued the tradition of his ancestor and enhanced the Luminous Religion by building temples in every province. He bestowed honors upon Aleben, declarin ghim the Great Dharma Lord of the Empire. The Luminous Religion spread throughout all ten provinces, the Empire prospered and peace prevailed. Temples were built in 100 cities and countless families received the blessings of the Luminous Religion.
Christianity flourished in China for at least two hundred years. But then, around A.D. 850, Chinese leaders began a purge of foreign religions, including Buddhism. Buddhist temples were destroyed and, according to one source, more than 3,000 monks of the “Luminious Religion” were ordered to return to lay life.
For more than 1,300 years, scholars and missionaries have searched for the lost scriptures that Aleben translated into Chinese — and for his monastery. A breakthrough finally occurred in the late 1880s when a lonely Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered 50,000 lost Chinese manuscripts hidden away in more than 500 caves in Dunhuang. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until about a decade ago, in 1998, that the full story was told. The Dunhuang manuscripts are sort of the Dead Sea Scrolls of ancient China, a cache of long-buried treasures that reveal a tremendous amount about life in ancient China — including the strange story of how the “Luminous Religion” took root there and blended with Taoist and Confucian elements to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity. The discovery of these ancient Chinese texts by western scholars — and their dissemination to museums in France and Britain — along with the many decades it took to get them translated and published — very much resembles the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Of the 50,000 manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, only eight comprise what are now known as the Jesus Sutras. Nevertheless, they clearly show Christian influence. They paraphrase passages from the New Testament and thus provide direct evidence that the ancient Chinese writers of these texts clearly knew the Gospel accounts:
“Do not pile up treasures on the ground where they will rot or be stolen. Treasures must be stored in Heaven where they will not decay or rot.”
“Always tell the truth. Do not give pearls to swine; they will trample and destroy them. You will only be blamed by them for your actions and incur their anger. Why don’t you realize this yourself.”
“Knock on the door and it will be opened for you. Whatever you seek, you will obtain from the One Spirit. Know on the door and it will be opened for you.”
“Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you. You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”
The Jesus Sutra texts clearly are attempting to translate Christian ideas and ideals into an idiom that the Chinese people — steeped in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts — can understand. Thus, the Jesus Sutras speak of the “Higher Dharma” that leads to Peace and Joy. “It is the Sutras of the Luminous Religion that enable us to cross the sea of birth and death to the other shore, a land fragrant with the treasured aroma of Peace and Joy,” the Sutras proclaim. “The Sutras are like a great fire burning upon a high mountain. The light from that fire shines upon all.”
Here is how the Jesus Sutras relate the story of Jesus:
The Lord of Heaven sent the Cool Wind to a girl named Mo Yen. It entered her womb and at the moment she conceived. The Lord of Heaven did this to show that conception could take place without a husband. He knew there was no man near her and that people who saw it would say, “How great is the power of the Lord of Heaven.”…
… Mo Yen became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Jesus, whose father is the Cool Wind.
… When Jesus Messiah was born, the world saw clear signs in heaven and earth. A new star that could be seen everywhere appeared in heaven above. The star was as big as a cart wheel and shown brightly. At about that time, the One was born in the country of Ephrath in the city of Jerusalem. He was born the Messiah and after five years he began to preach the dharma.
… From the time the Messiah was 12 until he was 32 years old, he sought out people with bad karma and directed them to turn around and create good karma by following a wholesome path. After the Messiah had gathered 12 disciples, he concerned himself with the suffering of others. Those who had died were made to live. The blind were made to see. The deformed were healed and the sick were cured.
… For the sake of all living beings and to show us that a human life is as frail as a candle flame, the Messiah gave his body to these people of unwholesome karma. For the sake of the living in this world, he gave up his life.
… After the Messiah had accepted death, his enemies seized the Messiah and took him to a secluded spot, washed his hair and climbed to “the place of skulls,” which was called golgotha. They bound him to a pole and placed two highway robbers to the right and left of him. They bound the Messiah to the pole at the time of the fifth watch of the sixth day of fasting. They bound him at dawn and when the sun set in the west the sky became black in all four directions, the earth quaked and the hills trembled. tombs all over the world opened and the dead came to life. What person can see such a thing and not have faith in the teaching of the scriptures? To give one’s life like the Messiah is a mark of great faith.
Fascinating stuff, no? To see this early form of Christianity — delivered by means of a Nestorian monk in the 6th century — through the eyes of the poetic, Taoist-influenced Chinese translators and scribes is to go back in time. It is yet another reminder of the universality of the Gospel message, how it transcends all culture and language and philosophical concepts. Christian yogis, above all, who seek wisdom from the East as well as from our own traditions, should appreciate this.
As the Apostle Peter tells the righteous Roman centurian Cornelius, following his vision: “I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10: 34-5).” We Christians who seek wisdom from the East.
If you’re interested in this topic, you can discover more in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore (Berkeley: Seastone, 2003). A much more scholarly work, and without the frequently anti-Christian tone of Riegert and Moore, is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001).