38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 21 October 2001
This book suits the general reader with no background knowledge. It also has notes and references to other books to suit the specialist. It tells a good story of the arrival of Christianity in China in AD 635, about the same time as Augustine arrived bringing Christianity to England. It gives new translations of the early religious writings (Sutras) of Chinese Christianity, written when in England the venerable Bede was at work. The Sutras have been known since the 1920s but Martin Palmer and his team of translators connect them with recent archaeological discoveries to make for the first time a coherent story.
Why is this book of interest to us at the other end of the world in Britain? The Jesus Sutras shows how the first Christian teachings in China expressed the original ideas in the life of Jesus through the culture of China such as Buddhism and Taoism. Archaeological discoveries show Christian symbols fused with eastern dragons and lotus flowers. The theology presents Jesus as a way to freedom from the inevitable round of reincarnation and suffering which dominated that society. This Christianity is vegetarian, anti-slavery and killing in any way, gives equality to male and female and tells people that they are basically good. And it lives contended alongside other faiths.
Compare this with the Christianity of the same time in England. The original ideas in the life of Jesus are expressed through Greek and Roman culture, Christian symbols fuse with strange beasts and designs of Celtic art as can be seen in the Lindisfarne gospels. This Christianity accepts the warfare, slavery and male dominance of western society. It tells people that they are basically bad because of Adam and Eve and "original sin". And it seeks to be the only religion.
At the time of the Jesus Sutras Christianity was an eastern religion; there were more Christians east of the Holy Land than there were to the west. But there had been a theological argument over the nature of Christ so that the west disconnected itself from the eastern Christians and labelled them Nestorian heretics. There was also the political split between the western idea of Christianity run as the Roman Empire had been and the east where different areas (Indian, Persia, Tibet, China) had always been politically independent.
This book is of interest to us in Britain because it asks whether our Christianity is home grown and best suited to us. Or may it have distortions which are harmful to us of the original ideas in the life of Jesus? If so may early Chinese Christianity correct these distortions? I have been brought up so that the Jesus Sutras at first reading seem distorted. And I lived in China as a child of Christian missionaries.
Read the book and see what you think. And get into the story so that you can follow it as it unfolds in the future, with more archaeological discoveries and possibly more early documents.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 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.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2010
Very interesting and instructive. I learned a lot about Nestorian missionary work in the East, especially in China.