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on August 16, 2001
As a historian of the "Nestorian" Assyrian Church of the East I am troubled by Mr. Palmer's description of this Church as Taoist Christian. The Church of the East was widespread in China, India and Mongolia during the Middle Ages. This Aramaic-speaking Church still exists in Iran and Iraq and there is a large immigrant community of these Eastern Christians in Chicago.(Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus Christ.) The beliefs of the Church of the East are not as radically different from other churches as Mr. Palmer implies.The Church of the East is theologically orthodox and claims St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus as its founders. It has always been based in the region of Persia and sent out missionaries from there to China and India during the sixth and seventh centuries. Three books give a more balanced treatment of the history and teachings of the Assyrian Church of the East and they also deal accurately with the so-called "Jesus Sutras"-the writings of the Nestorian church written in Chinese and found in Turfan and Tunhuang in western China. These include "A History of Christianity in China" by Samuel Hugh Moffett, "Christianity in Asia before 1500" by Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkiet and ""By Foot To China" by John M.L. Young
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on May 19, 2002
It's not easy to assign a star rating to "The Jesus Sutras." The book takes a meaty subject--China's ancient Religion of Light as described in the words of its adherents--but puts a lot of bread with that beef when a simple plate would have sufficed. As a result, the nutritional value and taste experience of the whole is not what might have been.

The sutra texts, authored by contemplatives of the Da Qin monastery, are the real story here. They offer an intriguing picture of Christianity as it took form in ancient Asia. The author brings qualified collaborators and personal professional skill to the task of rendering these documents in English. The effort allows readers today to experience the remarkable synthesis of ideas presented in the scrolls.

Alas, these come served on a double bun. One mound of bread is "Sutras--The Adventure Story." The hero of the matinee is the author, clearly thrilled to be calling the Da Qin monastery to the attention of Western scholars. But the publisher's hype of this segment as an "Indiana Jones" tale does justice neither to Chinese history nor to Doctor Jones. It oversells the goods to speak of the "discovery" of a Christian monastery when the narrative itself informs us that the residents of the area knew all along what the structure was. And the hype is unnecessary. The intrinsic merit of the research justifies itself.

The other mound of bread is "Sutras--The Golden Age." This segment offers a survey of history intended to put Da Qin society in context for the non-specialist. The result is a suspiciously filtered and romantic view of the Da Qin world.

Illustrations abound. The reader gets photos, maps, samples of ancient calligraphy and inscriptions. Some items jiggle the needle on the Padding Meter (a clouded photo of a Guan Yin figure, redundant views of the pagoda) but most are helpful.

More worrisome is the way the bun portions of the book undermine the confidence earned by the scholarly translations. The ancient Chinese Christian monastic society is bathed in a golden romantic light rather like the one used to portray America's indigenous peoples in the film "Dances with Wolves." A portrayal of real people in history takes a back seat to presenting Da Qin society as The Solution To All Our Modern Problems.

Da Qin society is portrayed as a kind of Taoist-Christian Camelot. The author tells us he weeps when he visits its ruins. But inquisitive readers will notice that many questions, even rather obvious ones, go unasked. As the book describes it, little interest in the Da Qin Christianity seems to have existed among the region's population. The monastery's existence seems to have depended much more on well-placed patronage. Why isn't this explored? Would doing so dim the intended Utopian glow? In a concluding apotheosis (p.254), the author suggests that "voices from the Church's first millennium, unheard in the second millennium, could be a turning point for Church or Churches in the third millennium." It's a grandiose vision--one that just happens to give the author's book a little millennial importance of its own.

Moments like this make it hard to feel we are in the best of hands. The subject is a worthy one: the texts deserve to be better known. But the author's vision of unveiling mysteries for the betterment of humanity in the third millennium raises the question: how many of the book's conclusions arise from scholarship and how much from personal mythos? We are told by the author, for example, that the Da Qin monks treated women in a more enlightened manner than their counterparts in Confucian and Buddhist monasteries. Can we trust this? The statement is vague and no sources are cited to support it. Are there historical records to support this statement or is the idea read back into history because it happens to be on someone's wish list for the third millennium? With only this book in hand to serve as a check on itself, we can't be sure.

Score: 4.5 stars for Beef, 1 star for Bun

Readers would be well served with a scholarly new translation of the Da Qin sutras--maybe these, or another new translation--presented in a volume that eschews mythmaking to elucidate the texts themselves. It would be all to the good if commentary and notes balanced popular and scholarly interests in a rigorous, credible and well-informed way. We may soon have such a book. It may already exist. But "The Jesus Sutras" is not it.
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VINE VOICEon May 11, 2002
This volume provides a much needed service - source material on early Chinese Christianity. The translations are supported by history of the discovery of the texts, the identification of a site of an early Christian community ... This material has previously been available only in obscure academic sources or more popular literature's hints that such material exist.
This volume is written to appeal to the more general reader and, unfortunately, to readers with a "new age" bent. Palmer attempts to build parallels between "Celtic Christianity" and the "Church of the East". His "Church of the East" is an amalgam of the Nestorians, the Syriac rite Churches (Orthodox, Catholic or Independent), and the Copts (Orthodox, Catholic, or Independent). In short, his Church history is so simplified as to be false - appealing to an inaccurate (but popular) understanding of the relationship of the Celt's Christianity to that of the broader world.
Similarly, he quickly establishes a Tibetian Christian influence on the doctrine of Boddhisattva's without recognition of a competing theory that attributed the changes to Islamic influence. He also strongly stresses the Taoist adaptations of the Christian texts while minimizing the better documented interchange between Buddhism and Christianity within the Chinese silk route context.
I am delighted to finally have the texts available, to see pictures of the artifacts, to have more historical names and dates. For that I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, I can not say the same for his interpretation. Two times, his support for his view had me laughing. The number of pages devoted to the Eastern Church in the Penguin History of the Church tells me only the level of interest by Penguin editors not the knowledge of the West of the Eastern Church. Or, after using the Orthodox iconographic tradition to establish that the finger position of a painting was a mudra of teaching, he jumps to the conclusion that worship in the Chinese Church included mudras. Does that mean that the Orthodox must also use mudras in worship?
Yes, I am being harsh but reading this book uncritically could seriously mislead one. I have no interest in seeing a "Chinese Nestorian Christian" new-age movement to parallel the Celtic movement.
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on January 18, 2004
Martin Palmer has packed three or four interesting books into one moderately-sized volume. First, there is the Indiana Jones-like story of how he discovered the oldest church in China, a Nestorian site that dates to the 7th Century and was apparently a center of the earliest Chinese Christianity. (X marks the spot.) Second, he and his colleagues give translations of a series of early Chinese Nestorian writings, from the famous Nestorian stele (8th Century) to later, more syncretistic works. Third, there is Palmer's reconstruction of the history of what he calls "Taoist Christianity." And finally, there are his own, always enthusiastic and interesting, but sometimes debatable, views on East, West, and how the twain might meet.
I found the combination a great deal of fun. Palmer's good cheer is infectious and understandable: he has done a clever and romantic piece of detective work. The translated Scriptures contain many striking images, and I am thrilled, as a student of the interaction between the West and China, to have these resources together, and translated into pithy English. (Though I wish he'd included the Chinese as well.) The book is, furthermore, physically lovely.
Palmer's analysis of the Nestorian church and its relation to Western Christianity is probably the weakest link in the book. He has a bit of a grudge against Western Christianity. He improbably ascribes much of what he finds attractive among Chinese Nestorianism to influence from Jainism, of all things, though the same qualities can be found in early Western Christianity. He seems to imagine the Nestorians as ecologists based on a shaky interpretation of a single Chinese character (zhen), and supposes them free of the original sin of believing in original sin, based on equally scanty evidence. (Even while one modern Chinese philosopher writes enviously of how that concept helped create Western freedom.) Nor does he notice that in one respect, the Nestorians fell far short of Western Christian tradition: they seem to have preferred buttering up emperors to rebuking them -- no Ambrose, Solzhenitsyn, or Wang Mingdao here. (The doctrine of karma didn't seem to help, as these texts show: the poor are poor because of past crimes, the emperor is powerful because of past virtue.)
Two other points may be worth mentioning. First, there is an important difference between the approach Jing Jing, the author of the Nestorian stele, took in the 8th Century, and the later "Jesus Sutras" translated in earlier chapters. The first is in my opinion an orthodox attempt to contextualize Christian thought in Asian terms, like what Matteo Ricci would do later, except that while Ricci identified with Confucianists, Jing Jing related Christianity to Buddhist and Taoist thought, or at least images. Some later sutras, by contrast, are a mish-mash of images and beliefs from the various traditions. Palmer seems to prefer the latter; I prefer the former.
Second, the word "Tao" needs some explanation. Palmer is right to call the Chinese Nestorians "Taoist Christians." But really, all Chinese Christians are "Taoist." This for the simple reason that "Tao" means "the Way," and philosophically, something pretty close to "Logos." The term does not belong to Taoists -- every school of Chinese thinkers use it, beginning with Confucius. And so the Bible reads in Chinese, "In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God" -- referring to Jesus. Furthermore, many Chinese Christian thinkers -- Lin Yutang, John Wu, Yuan Zhimin -- have felt the teachings of Lao Zi were in fact a pretty good introduction to Jesus. I think so, too.
author, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture
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VINE VOICEon January 30, 2002
The Jesus Sutras are the writings of Chinese Christians from about 635 to the 1300s. Palmer's translation of them is good (he was helped by respected translators Li Rong Rong and Eva Wong) and they are wonderful to read. For this reason, I recommend the book. I've studied Middle Eastern and Central Asian religions for years, and I've become more interested in Chinese religion lately. With this background, the Sutras were completely fascinating. I think the Sutras will inspire edifying, worthwhile reflections in many people.
However, Palmer's history is pretty poor. He knows the liberal-ecumenist spin of Christian history, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in order to present the spin simply he makes some significant factual errors. An earlier reviewer pointed out that the Chinese Christians were a part of the larger Nestorian Church, a fact seriously neglected by Palmer. He makes odd, superficial comparisons between ancient Celtic Christianity and the Chinese Christians. Perhaps worst of all, he repeatedly characterizes the Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Syrian etc.) as Augustinian, which is simply not true--and he does it in order to denigrate them. If he knew what he was talking about, you'd have to say he was malicious. But more likely, he doesn't know what he's talking about, and he's simply made a mistake. In contrast, his interpretation of the Chinese Christians was as flattering as possible. (Again this could be fine, but he should be consistent.) His history of Buddhism is just as contorted; I do not know much about Taoism or Confucianism but I have to suspect he's pretty off there too (even though he's written a couple other books about China). In fairness, he makes all his mistakes with good ecumenical intentions.
In short, the Sutras are so good that even the author of the book appreciated them! You will too, although you have to take his commentary and historical accounts lightly. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.
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on October 8, 2003
The Jesus Sutras is very well researched, poorly footnoted, and the author drew some faulty conclusions. Palmer assumes that the Church of the East was a confederation of churches without any central control. This is wrong. The Church of the East was highly centralized with canon law which required that all Bishops come to Bagdad every four years. Its liturgy was the same throughout the world. The texts mention of prayer seven times a day supports this. The chapter on liturgy is simply incorrect. While there may have been new theological poetry written, it would not have been used in the liturgy. Finally, the Chinese Diocese of the Church of the East adopted other traditions in the later Tang period due to its isolation and the need to address foreign doctrines. Some of these doctrines eventually were unfortunately adopted.
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on February 2, 2012
The Christian texts reproduced in this book are well worth reading, and Palmer should be commended for making them readily available; but I do hope that nobody will take the book's central thesis seriously. Its author claims that the Nestorian missionaries in China artfully crafted a message that blended Eastern and Western spiritualism and merged Christ into Buddha. In fact, they did nothing of the sort. Rather, they were orthodox Christians who pointedly distinguished themselves from both the Taoists and the Buddhists.

We only need to glance at the evidence provided by the Nestorian Stele, the famous stone tablet erected by China's Christians in the Chinese capital Xian in 781, to realise that Palmer's reconstruction is fanciful. The image carved on the stele's headpiece shows the Christian cross raised in triumph above the symbols of Taoism and Buddhism. The stele's inscription also claims that the Christian priest Yazdbuzid outdid Xian's Buddhists in acts of charity: 'The Buddhists pride themselves on their purity, but their finest deeds cannot rival the merit of this white-robed priest of the brilliant teaching.' Other, equally telling, examples of Christian competitiveness could readily be cited.

I am pleased that Palmer's book has helped to popularise the Nestorian texts from China, but his syncretist interpretation of their significance is a New Age fantasy. Indeed, I have said as much in my recently-published history of the Church of the East, The Martyred Church. We need a scholarly translation and commentary on the surviving Christian texts from Tang China which recognises them for what they are: Christian devotional works, not Buddhist sutras (Palmer's thoroughly misleading translation of the Chinese word 'ching'). Only then will we be able to view the Nestorians in China as they really were: orthodox Christians preaching orthodox Christianity.
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on February 25, 2002
These sutras provide a fascinating picture of an early Christian community which developed completely apart from the patriarchal structure of the church in the West. This ancient church, called by the Chinese "The Da Qin [Western] Religion of Light," communicated the teaching of Jesus in terms that were relevant to the culture in China at that time -- a culture influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Shamanism. So instead of a human sacrifice sent to pay ransom as atonement for our sins, Jesus is presented as a beloved Bodhisattva or "Dharma King" who has come to free us from the cycle of karma. Instead of "original sin," these sutras talk about our "original nature" -- a state of goodness and grace to which we can be restored.
This book tells the story of this ancient church and provides new translations of the sutras. The familiar stories of Jesus' birth, teachings, healing ministry, death and resurrection can be found here, along with a few surprises which remind us of the power of sacred words. For example: In their story of Creation, humans are given "guardianship" of the earth -- not "dominion" over it, as in our Western translations. And because their translation of the Ten Commandments (called Ten Covenants by them) emphasized kindness to all living beings, these early Christians were vegetarians who believed in the equality of the sexes and (unlike the Buddhist monastics of the same era) did not own slaves.
"The Jesus Sutras" serves as an example and an encouragement for those of us who believe in the Unity of Religious Ideals. The ancient church in China maintained their Christian beliefs while respecting and interacting with the other religions of their day. This spirit of dialogue (rather than competition) between religious traditions is still needed in today's world.
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on February 7, 2002
This is a surprisingly good work of history, but its title and marketing are a bit misleading. It appears aimed at the New Age/Christian market, with its promise of a "taoist christianity." Instead the book works best as history (of the early Chinese Church) and adventure (the author's, in uncovering the history of the church & discovering long-neglected Chinese Christian sites). The author shows how Christianity in China encountered and eventually drew on taoist and buddhist thought, but that did not really make the church "taoist" or its teachings some synthesis of Christianity and eastern religions. Most of the book tells the story of how Christianity first reached China, as missionaries crossed the Silk Road in the 600s, how it flourished for a few centuries, and how it was eventually suppressed. Other reviewers seem upset that the author may have misunderstood details of the Church's teachings (such as, was it really Nestorian?) but these not central to the story and should not distract you from enjoying the book.
Particularly interesting are the "Jesus Sutras" themselves, which are Christian texts rewritten by the Chinese church, incorporating taoist and buddhist themes. Both the sutras and the history told here are fascinating. This book will interest many readers, not only those who want to learn more about the meeting of Christianity and eastern religions, but also readers who enjoyed such works of Central Asian adventure as Peter Hopkirk's _The Great Game_.
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on August 16, 2001
As a historian of the "Nestorian" Assyrian Church of the East I am troubled by Mr. Palmer's description of this Church as Taoist Christian. The Church of the East was widespread in China, India and Mongolia during the Middle Ages. This Aramaic-speaking Church still exists in Iran and Iraq and there is a large immigrant community of these Eastern Christians in Chicago.(Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus Christ.) The beliefs of the Church of the East are not as radically different from other churches as Mr. Palmer implies.The Church of the East is theologically orthodox and claims St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus as its founders. It has always been based in the region of Persia and sent out missionaries from there to China and India during the sixth and seventh centuries. Three books give a more balanced treatment of the history and teachings of the Assyrian Church of the East and they also deal accurately with the so-called "Jesus Sutras"-the writings of the Nestorian church written in Chinese and found in Turfan and Tunhuang in western China. These include "A History of Christianity in China" by Samuel Hugh Moffett, "Christianity in Asia before 1500" by Ian Gillman and Hans-Joachim Klimkiet and ""By Foot To China" by John M.L. Young
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