It's no secret that there were Christians in China as far back as the seventh century. But exactly what they believed has been difficult to discern. In his book The Jesus Sutras
, translator and interfaith pioneer Martin Palmer begins to shed light on what he has come to call Taoist Christianity, referring to ancient texts found only a century ago and drawing on his own sleuthing in China. In a book of ambitious scope, Palmer recounts Christianity's spread eastward from Jerusalem, where it encountered and adapted to local cultures. One of those cultures was the most powerful and advanced civilization in the world--Tang China--but which was also steeped in a retro-shamanic faith known as Taoism. Just as the Chinese assimilated Buddhism by interpreting it in Taoist terms, a similarly fascinating fusion of beliefs appears to have taken place in China's Christian monasteries. Palmer takes us to the site of one of these sanctuaries, which was once the Taoist equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral and which the Chinese government is now excavating and restoring in earnest. He also offers full English translations of what he calls the Jesus Sutras, Christian tracts translated into Chinese from an unknown Eastern language. While bearing clear resemblance to traditional Christianity, differences, and what one may call advances, are also apparent--for instance, original sin becomes the goodness of original nature. The Jesus Sutras
is a powerful combination of research, translation, and interpretation that not only brings the past to light but lights the way for future interfaith dialogue. --Brian Bruya
From Publishers Weekly
almer (Kuan Yin; Travels Through Sacred China) has the ability to make readers feel as if they have joined him in an exuberant and breathless Indiana Jones-style adventure, as he weaves his clues and discoveries of the early Christian Church in China. Here he examines the "Jesus Sutras," discovered by a Taoist priest in a cave in northwestern China near the end of the 19th century. Among hundreds of scrolls, books, artwork and artifacts were Christian documents dating from the early seventh to the early 11th century C.E.; the earliest texts seem to have been recorded by Persian missionaries, while those that followed seem more indigenous to Chinese culture. There are sutras of liturgy, as well as odd reinterpretations of the Bible and a form of catechism. These Christian sacred books have been translated into English only twice, both times in the 1930s by translators who knew the language but were unfamiliar with Chinese sacred works such as the Tao Te Ching and the Lotus Sutra. Palmer, with his firm grasp of early Christian history, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, Confucianism and Chinese history and languages, makes a fascinating case for the scrolls' syncretism of classical Western Christian orthodoxy and Taoist beliefs. For example, the texts place a strong emphasis on Jesus' ability to save believers from the wheel of karma. Palmer has written an important and wonderful book that is accessible for a general audience. (Aug.)Forecast: What's next after the phase-out of the Celtic Christianity craze? Given the tremendous interest in Eastern spirituality in America, perhaps the market is ripe for intelligent books like this that marry historic Christianity with the wisdom traditions of the East. Many Judeo-Christian Americans who practice Buddhist or Taoist meditation techniques will be fascinated to know, as Palmer puts it, that "fourteen hundred years ago, the Jesus Sutras had already created a synthesis of Tao, Christ, and Buddha." Promotions in Tricycle and other publications should help move the title, which has a modest initial print run of 15,000.
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