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The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity Hardcover – August 14, 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Wellspring/Ballantine; 1 edition (August 14, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345434242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345434241
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #194,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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