A Search for the Historical Jesus
by Professor Fida Hassnain
~ from Apocryphal, Buddhist, Islamic & Sanskrit Sources
Buddhism and Christianity
During his first journey to India, Jesus had lived with Buddhists for six years. According to the Buddhist scrolls at Hemis, “The Buddha had elected him to spread his holy word. ” As such, he had become a perfect expositor of the sacred scriptures. The following information recorded by Meer Izzut-Oolah, the early nineteenth century Islamic traveller, is full of interest:
Every Tibetan makes one of his sons a Lama – the one who has forsaken the world. Both male and female Lamas remain unmarried like priests and nuns, and are the spiritual guides to the people. They do not worship the idols kept in their monasteries, which they declare are merely representations of departed saints. Some of these figures are said to represent a certain prophet, who is living alive in the heavens, which would appear to point to Jesus Christ.
The Tibetans consider their scriptures to be inspired, and contain many moral precepts and exhortations to worship God, to fulfil promises, speak the truth and abandon what is evil. It is commanded that if any man takes away your sheet, you give him your cloak also. Again, if anyone strikes you on one cheek, you tell him to strike the other cheek also. Many of their observations are similar to those of Christians.
Their great feast is held at the time when the sun enters Capricorn, corresponding with Christmas. Another similar custom is to swear in the name of Trinity, which they term as ‘Wunchok Sum’ or ‘Gods Three’. In the infiiction on themselves of heavy penances also, the Buddhist monks resemble the Christian priests. The Tibetans assert that their original scripture was in a language now become unintelligible to them and has been translated to them. I was informed that some portions of the Bible had been revealed to the Tibetans.
I do not know who borrowed from whom. But I am struck by the extraordinary similarity between doctrine, traditions and rituals of Buddhism and the Catholic Church. Even their ranks in monastic orders resemble each other. Both Buddhists and Roman Catholic monks take vows of celibacy, poverty, chastity and obedience. It is amazing that both Buddhists and Catholics make suffrage (intercessory prayers), alms, prayers and offerings on a similar model. This similarity is so striking that one scholar made the observation that “Buddhism is the Christianity of the East and as such is in better conservation than is Christianity, the Buddhism of the West”.
It would be ungrateful on my part if I did not mention that it was the research treatise written by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad which impelled me to take up researches pertaining to Buddhist sources on the life and works of Jesus Christ. In his treatise, the learned scholar has given thought-provoking ideas about similarity between Christianity and Buddhism. He has pointed out that both Jesus and the Buddha were tempted by the Devil. The mode of teaching in parables is the same with both of them. Their titles are similar, their teachings are similar and even some of their parables are the same. Both make the same claim: “I am the Light and the Way”.
In search of Buddhist scrolls
Hippolytus, who was the Bishop of Rome in about 220 AD, mentions a Judaeo-Christian scripture in the land of the Seres in Parthia. During this period, the name Seres denoted a region which produced silk and existed in the north of India. According to their tradition the holy book of Revelation had fallen from the heavens for Elxai, who was the incarnation of God on this earth. His sect believed in successive incarnations of heavenly power. I would guess that somewhere there is a connection between Elxai and his scripture, and the Buddhist lamas, and their information on Jesus.
It is interesting to note that early Christians in the West knew of the Eastern books on Christianity in the beginning of the third century AD.
The Ebionites cherished similar beliefs to those upheld by Buddhists. The Ebionites are the early Judaeo-Christians, who believed in the celestial mission of Jesus, but regarded him as an ordinary man born ofJoseph and Mary. They followed James the just, who was the head of the church at Jerusalem. As such, they denounced Paul and his teachings. They observed the Law of Moses, for which they were declared heretics. Their Gospel, which was earlier known as the Gospel according to the Hebrews, was modified, altered and revised in the form of the Gospel according to Matthew.
They believe in the reincarnation of the coming Christ, like the Buddhist belief in the coming Buddha, which makes clear that we have traces of parallelism in the doctrines of both the communities. For this reason many scholars feel there is an urgent need to make a search of documents and scrolls about Jesus Christ in north India, Tibet and Central Asia. Unfortunately, most of these relics have been stolen by the Western scholars, archaeologists and orientalists. But there may be still some scrolls lying buried underground or in huge collections of works in the Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh, Tibet and Central Asia.
I went to Ladakh a number of times to make a search. It was Nicolas Notovitch who had found the Buddhist scrolls in Ladakh. These scrolls can be divided into three sections; the first dealing with the reincarnation of Jesus, the second with his travels to India and the third deals with his ministry in Palestine. Publication of these scrolls by Notovitch, first in French and then in English, created a row among Christians of his time. Some denied the existence of such scrolls, stating that these were fictitious. But some believed that the scrolls were real and there was a need to find documents about the missing years in the life of Jesus. As the issue touched the very foundations of Christian dogma, the Church accelerated its efforts to dispatch agents into India, Tibet and other countries “to trace, buy, confiscate and steal ancient documents referring inter alia to Jesus’ life in India and death in Kashmir.”
Notovitch had found these Scrolls in 1887 in Hemis gompa in Ladakh. In 1922, Swami Abhedananda succeeded in finding another version, slightly different from that found by Notovitch. He published an account of his journey, along with a portion of the text of the scroll he found at Hemis in his Bengali book Kashmir-o-Tibbate.
The Chief Lama had made a serious allegation to Nicholas Notovitch around 1810 that many Muslims would like to possess these scrolls – which is very significant. But why Muslims should try to get them is not clear. Maybe the Church employed these Muslims agents. I have read about one such attempt made by the Church to depute a neo-Christian Ahmad Shah to Ladakh in 1894, for this very sinister purpose. He wrote a book, Four Years in Tibet, in which he tried “to refute the finding of Nicolas Notovitch.”
Despite my efforts, I could not find these Scrolls. I think that due to their fear of the British, the masters of India up to 1947, the Lamas may have concealed these Scrolls in the underground cells, which they call the “Black Treasure.”
In 1939, Elizabeth Caspari visited Hemis monastery. To her surprise, the Lama showed her some scrolls saying: “These books say your Jesus was here”. She and her companions looked at these parchments in awe.
My search persuaded me that almost all documents about Jesus have found their way into the hands of neo-Christians in Ladakh, or the Church authorities. With much effort and persuasion, I located a Tibetan translation made in 1802 from an ancient Chinese manuscript, The History of Religion and Doctrines – the Glass Mirror. This was an ancient Chinese manuscript translated into Tibetan by Le-zan Chhes-kyi Nima in 1802, called Grugtha Thamschand kyi Khuna dan Dod – Thsul Ston-pe Legs Shad Shel-gyi Melong.
Yesu, the teacher and founder of the religion, who was born miraculously, proclaimed himself the Saviour of the World. He commanded his disciples to observe the ten vows, among which includes prohibition of manslaughter and attainment of eternal joy through good deeds. He preached that evil actions plunge one into hell, where there is eternal torment and misery. A sin committed in a state of consciousness cannot be condoned or pardoned. This is one of the virtuous results emerging out of the teachings of the Buddha. His doctrines did not spread extensively, but survived only in Asia, for a long period. The above information is derived from the Chinese treatises on religions and doctrines.
I found this manuscript in the care of S. S. Gergan, who has a rich collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Ladakhi documents, scrolls and manuscripts. His father, Rev. Gergan, was the first Ladakhi Christian priest, who translated the New Testament into Ladakhi. It is natural that being a Christian, he worked with zeal in his missionary work, and may have obtained many documents relating to the traces of Christianity in Ladakh and Tibet.
We are told by the same author that it was a certain Babaad who performed the burial rites of Yuzu Asaph in the Jewish tradition. Who was this Babaad? It is interesting to find that Babaad, in Arabic, means ‘twins who suck milk from the same mother’. According to Jewish tradition, a corpse had to remain on a shelf until its decomposition, so that the bones could be stored in a wooden or stone chest. I was not able to find any details about this. The only information available was that the dead body of Yuzu Asaph was laid in sepulchre according to the Jewish tradition. A cave-type sepulchre was made by cutting through a huge mound of earth.,
Early Christian relics
It is interesting to note that early Christian relics and tombs have been located in the north-western regions of India. Relics and tombs have also been found in Ladakh, Gilgit, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Tibet and Central Asia.
In Ladakh, at Tangste, there are big stone boulders on which are carved crosses. An inscription in Aramaic says that Churn, a native of Samarkand, traversed a few hundred marches to reach this site. Further, the name Yusu is also engraved near the crosses found in northern India in archaeological excavations”. These relics demonstrate the existence of Judaeo-Christian settlements in the region in ancient times. But the Church has refuted this claim by saying that the relics pertain to Nestorian Christians of the early fifth century.
However, it is significant that the Aramaic language was not flourishing in the fifth century. These relics and tombs pertain to a very early period of Christianity. When the Archaeological Survey of India located these Judaeo-Christian relics, its Director, a Christian, gave the following explanation:
At Hindan, on the right bank of the river Hab, near Las Bela in Sind, is an extensive cemetery, containing nearly one hundred sepulchres, ornamented with sandstone slabs. Constructed with layers of carved slabs, these sepulchres give the general appearance ofslender pyramids.
A peculiar feature of the ornamented slabs is that some slabs carry crude representations of the Cross. In some slabs, the design shows a human figure with outstretched arms, mounted on an ass with a representation of a crucifix. Some slabs show a knight-in-arms, riding on a horse. Another slab shows a small cross on the face of the horseman. Another un-Islamic feature of these sepulchres is the peculiar form of their burial, which is Syrian as well as Roman.
It is significant that these tombs with crosses and a crucified human being date back to the first century. All the signs carved on them demonstrate that these graves belong to early Christians who may have migrated to or settled in Hindan, Sindh. The report of the Archaeological Survey of India has made an important observation regarding the two kinds of burials, without any explanation. It is mentioned only that the peculiar form of their burial is Syrian as well as Roman, and it is un-Islamic.
It is also significant that many slabs exhibit lotus flowers and inscriptions in Arabic also. This suggests that in later periods these Christians had to change their religion. They may have become Buddhists, as indicated by the lotus flowers. The Arabic inscriptions prove that ultimately, they embraced Islam. It is also significant that these early Christians came from Rome and Syria.
In the valley of Kashmir, I found graves oriented in the eastwest direction, contrary to the Islamic tradition. Also in Kashmir, beside the usual form of graves we do have another form known as Mosai, or ‘to the style of Moses’. In the early days of Islam, the Muslims used to pray facing the Temple of Jerusalem. Later the Prophet ordered that the Muslims were to face the Holy House of God in Mecca in Arabia. The followers of Judaism built their graves in the east-west direction, but later when they became Muslims they changed to the north-south direction.
Among the Christian relics, I was fascinated by a Kushana seal of the first century, preserved in the British Museum, London. It shows a Scythian dignitary on the horse, holding a cross in his hand. It is interesting to note that the designatory is ‘RA’ on the seal, and RA means Raja, the title adopted by the Indo-Scythians. Holding of the cross in the hand implies that the figure is Christian of the first century. His cap and bridle is Central Asian. This demonstrates that during the first century Christianity did exist in Central Asia.
A review of Christian sources
Among early Christian writings, the New Testament Gospels are the primary source of information about Jesus. We are told about his genealogy, birth and migration to Egypt. These events cover four years of his life. There is then a gap of eight years, when, at the age of twelve, Jesus visits the Temple in Jerusalem. After this, his fife becomes an empty mystery for about seventeen years. We are informed that he began a mission at the age of thirty and gathered many followers. At the insistence of Jewish priests, the Roman governor ordered Jesus to be crucified. He was put on the cross by four Roman soldiers but was taken down at the behest of Joseph of Arimathaea. He rose from the dead and lived with his followers for forty days.
The New Testament is not our only source of information about the life of Jesus; however, filling in the story from a number of texts is not easy. For example, the Gnostics’ version of the crucifixion differs in important ways from that in the New Testament Gospels. In the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, we are informed that:
I did not succumb to them as they had planned. I did not die in reality but in appearance, and it was another who drank the gall and the vinegar. It was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. I was laughing at their ignorance.
It is evident that there are many contradictory reports about the life of Jesus, and we would be foolish to consider only a small range of the available sources. We would be unwise, too, to rely heavily on the discrimination of the Church, which clearly has theological and perhaps other rather more dubious interests which may be quite at odds with open-minded historical investigation.
Within 20-25 years after the departure of Jesus Christ, devotees began to collect fragmentary records of his words and deeds. Paul’s epistle falls within this period. Peter’s version of the events in the life of Jesus was probably written slightly later. Matthew recorded the life and teachings ofJesus Christ, originally in the Hebrew dialect, but this original version is no longer available to us, and we have only a slightly later, Greek version of this first Gospel. We can safely presume that the original Gospel according to Matthew was written earlier then 85 AD and maybe even before 70 AD. The Gospel of Mark is commonly dated before 70 AD. Probable dates for compilation of the authorised Gospels have been given as: Mark, 60-70 AD; Matthew, 85 AD (or earlier); Luke, 90-95 AD; and John, 110 AD.
Luke clearly states that his compilation is based on earlier writings. He states:
For as much as many have taken in hand, to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning, were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word, it seems good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.
From the above, two things are clear: that many authors had undertaken to construct the life of Jesus, and that many of them derived information from the narratives of previous authors. Unfortunately, the writings of most of these earlier authors have been destroyed by the Church. Luke may have consulted the Gospel of Mark as well as the Gospels of other Apostles which are not available to us now.
The authorship of the Gospel according to John is under dispute. This Gospel has similar style and teachings to some of the Essene writings from the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the Essenes, John the Baptist belonged to their Order, and many who were to become disciples ofJesus were first disciples ofJohn. The Gospel of John provides interesting information about the first disciples, the women of Samaria, the healing of Paul, details of the crucifixion, the second coming ofJesus and meeting his disciples, and the final sermon he gave before parting from them. It tells of Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus and others (whom we know from the Essenes to have been members of the Order) being involved in trying to save Jesus from crucifixion.
Even if one takes only the New Testament as a source for the historical Jesus, the task is far from easy.
Texts rejected by the Church
The search for the historical Jesus has resulted in the discovery of many early Christian writings, despite the attempts of the Church to destroy evidence which contradicts its teachings. There are many other Gospels which have been either repudiated by the Church as ‘unauthentic’ (though it is doubtful that any of these decisions were based on historical criteria of authenticity), or they have been rejected outright as ‘heretical’ – such as the Apocryphal Gospels, which contain a great deal of information about Jesus’ life and teachings.
About fifty Apocryphal Gospels have been discovered so far. Most of these works were destroyed under various decrees of the Church, but some copies have survived and seen the fight of day. Tradition has handed down a list of twenty-six Apocryphal Gospels, seven Acts and ten Epistles, all used during the early days of Christianity. Some of these original writings now exist in name only, and of some we have only a few fragments.
Tation, the famous Syriac scholar of Edessa, compiled a volume containing five Gospels in the second century AD, which became known as The Five Gospels of Tation. After thorough research into Greek and Hebrew sources, he compiled his Bible, which remained in vogue for hundreds of years among followers of the Syrian Church. With the coming to power of the Roman Church, the Bible compiled by Tation was ordered to be destroyed. It seems that all copies were collected and burned.
According to Tation, Mary and Jesus did not belong to the line of David. It also appears that Tation had mentioned that after resurrection, Jesus did meet his disciples, and especially his mother Mary, several times, and that he was a living being.
Fifty Apocryphal works discovered so far have been denied official patronage because they do not conform to the revised doctrines formulated by the Church. The most important Apocryphal Gospels of which we have copies still are the following: the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Ebionites and the Gospel of Philip.
The Gospel of the Hebrews was originally written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek and Latin. It gives prominence to James, the brother of Jesus. The Gospel of James provides information about the childhood of Jesus. The Gospel of Barnabas was compiled by Joses, a Levite surnamed Barnabas, meaning the son of consolation. Barnabas describes himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ and says that he was directed by the Lord to record the life and works of Jesus. Barnabas worked together with Paul in preaching about the message of Jesus. He was an uncle to Mark and a companion to Paul, who travelled throughout Palestine preaching from his Gospel. As a missionary to Antioch, he accompanied Paul several times but parted from him due to differences. Barnabas was stoned to death by theJews at Slamis in Cyprus.
The Gospel of Barnabas was accepted as a canonical gospel in the churches of Alexandria until 325 AD, when the Nicene Council ordered that all copies of this Gospel be destroyed and anyone in possession of a copy be put to death. The result was that this Gospel was almost lost to posterity. The Gospel of Barnabas was banned in 382 AD by decree of the western churches. However, a manuscript seems to have existed in the private library of Pope Damascus. In the fifth century, a copy, apparently written in Barnabas’ own hand, was found lying on his breast in a tomb in Cyprus. This manuscript found its way into the Library of Pope Sixtus V (1500-1590). It is believed that the manuscript was obtained from the private library of the Pope by an Italian priest, Fra Marino, and made accessible to the public by him.
The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip are known as the Coptic Gospels because they are in Coptic and were discovered at Al-Hammadi in Egypt. They throw a great deal of light on the hidden life ofJesus. It is evident from these Gospels that the early Christians did not believe that Jesus died on the cross. They believed that he arose and remained in hiding with his disciples, eventually dying in a natural way.
The Acts of Thomas, or Acta Thomae, written by Leucius in the beginning of the second century AD, is based on letters written by Thomas from India, and was translated into German by Max Donet and published in Leipzig in 1883. The Gospel according to Thomas, dated about the third century, was discovered in 1947 from Luxor in Egypt. It was translated from Greek into Russian in the 13th century.
It was Thomas who introduced Christianity to the south of India around 52 AD. He built many churches but suffered martyrdom in 72 AD and was buried at Mylapore, where the San Thorne Cathedral Basilica stands at present. The Syrian Christians of Malabar, India, claim that Thomas was their founder. There is some evidence that Thomas may too have been an Essene.
This Gospel was proscribed by the Roman Catholic Church, probably because it denies the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. It was denounced as heretical by a Decree of Gelasius in 495 AD. The Gospel, among other things, provides information about a meeting between Jesus and Thomas at Taxila, long after the crucifixion.
It seems that most of these ‘heretical’ gospels were unacceptable to the church because in one way or another they portrayed Jesus as a human being. For instance, the Gospel ofJames informs us about the marriage of Mary with Joseph. In the Gospel of the Ebionites, Jesus is believed to have been born in a normal way, as a son ofJoseph and Mary. Similarly, another Gospel says:
My brother, I wish to tell you about a most wonderful thing; sometimes when I wanted to touch him, I could feel a solid material body, but at other occasions, his being was immaterial as if it had not existed at all.
The reasons for the banning of the Gospel of Philip are obvious, for it informs us that Jesus migrated towards the East with his mother and with Mary Magdalene, who appears in this Gospel as Jesus’ consort.
The Church, in various councils and decrees, accepted and rejected the different Gospels, the net result of such suppression being that we are now deprived of much useful and authentic source material on the earthly life ofJesus. What is needed is that the New Testament be rearranged, with all available Gospels, Acts and Epistles included in it. Otherwise, this censorship will lead to disillusion amongst followers of the Church..
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947, a number of manuscripts were discovered in a cave at Wadi Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1949, fragments of the Old Testament were recovered from the same cave. In 1952, a considerable number of fragments and coins were discovered in the caves of Wadi Murabbaat. These manuscripts, popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, are the compilations of Essenes, whose community, Khirbet Qumran, was destroyed by the Romans in around 70 AD.
The Scrolls were written before the birth of Jesus. The First Enoch was written around 170-164 BC, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs was compiled around 109-107 BC. During Jesus’ lifetime all these scrolls, including the Psalms of Solomon, the Testament of God and the Book of Jubilees were available for study. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount, now included in the New Testament, was known to Jesus, for he had already read it!
SOURCE: A Search for the Historical Jesus by Professor Fida Hassnain