Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jesus Sutras

From the Jesus Sutras:
Many people came to this place to honor John and learn from him. When Jesus arrived, John led the Messiah to the Jordan to be baptized. After the Messiah had bathed and come out of the water, the Cool Wind came from heaven in the form of a dove and landed near the Messiah. A voice from the void spoke: "The Messiah is my son. All the living creatures in the world must obey him. His purpose is to do only good." The Messiah then showed everyone that the way of Heaven was to follow the Lord of Heaven. This meant that all living creatures in the world below must stop serving other gods. As soon as anyone heard these words, they must stop serving other gods, renounce evil and do good.

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 the 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.

The Jesus Sutras are a body of work that was discovered in the Mogao cave near a remote Chinese monastery in Dunhuang. This was a place that was near the Northern Silk Road in China -- a very ancient trade route. The earliest dates to 635 CE. They were discovered more than 100 years ago and were recently translated into English (1998). They consist of two different types of literature; doctrinal and liturgical. The doctrinal scrolls reflect Nestorian Christology; a splitting of the person of Christ and is not today considered Orthodox theology. The scrolls contain an early "Harmony of the Gospels" based on Tatican's opus of work.

I find them fascinating. I read them and find them oddly familiar and then strikingly different. I wonder if they just got some of the stories scrambled or if there are idioms that I am missing -- for instance, the details denoting time in the crucifixion account -- and the odd washing of Jesus hair. Is this a scrambling of two different stories?

I find the use of the word "karma" fascinating, as well. From Wikipedia:
It [karma] is usually understood as a sum of all that an individual has done, is currently doing and will do. The results or 'fruits' of actions are called karma-phala. Karma is not about retribution, vengeance, punishment or reward; karma simply deals with what is.
Karma is not a word I would use when discussing Christianity. It is not in my lexicon of orthodox doctrine; yet what other word would do in Chinese? I don't know enough about the language to venture a guess -- maybe there is not a word to describe the word "sinful." Yet its use here makes me think and ponder. The image of a the fragility of a candle flame is beautiful -- so easily is human life blow out. The candle flame gives light, but a small flickering light and this small light cannot hope to illumine the world. Yet all of our candles shining together -- that would be a beautiful sight.

The stories of Jesus presented here are not of a deeply developed theology; they have a beautiful "folk-tale" quality. Were these stories, as garbled as they are, sufficient? Do they contain the "Gospel in a nutshell?" Perhaps -- they knew enough to call this new religion "The Religion of Light." It is an awesome and powerful thing to think of these Taoist Christian fourteen hundred years ago struggling to find the words to express the Gospel in a way their culture would understand. I respect that struggle.

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