Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras

I’ve actually been reading Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras for quite awhile now, though not properly. I’ve been reading sections of the book rather randomly as it struck my fancy. Partly that’s because I wanted to finish my current look book back at Taoism before I really looked seriously at this book. As noted before, I am no expert in Taoism though I find myself even more sympathetic to its viewpoint than to I do to Buddhism. I wanted a better understanding of Taoism before I looked at what happened many years ago when Christianity was introduced in China.

Palmer must also feel the need to put the Jesus Sutras in the proper perspective, because he devotes the first seventy-five pages of a two-hundred-and-fifty page book to introducing the Sutras. He begins by explaining his long search to rediscover these long lost works. When he finally arrives at the Da Qin Christian monastery, he is greeted by Buddhist nun who tells him that this is, indeed, the monastery he’s been searching for:

As night drew in and the features of the Christian pagoda of the long-lost Da Qin Christian monastery slid into the darkness, I stood where I guessed the church had been. I stood where four-ten hundred years ago Christians had faced east and prayed, and I too prayed. I felt I had finally come home after twenty-five years of searching for that home, of never really knowing if it did, in fact exist. Yet here was evidence of a living Tao of Jesus, a once-vital practice of Jesus’ teachings in a Taoist context. I wept for joy, for love of my faith, for the gentleness of the Buddhist nun, and because my heart was full to bursting.

Palmer also explains the problems with translating the Sutras, as well as the problems the Christian missionaries had with translating their religion to a different culture:

With the arrival and establishment of Christianity in the seventh century, the Chinese gave this new faith a new name. All the documents referring to the faith in Chinese use one basic title and one extended title. The basic title is “The Religion of Light” or “The Religion of Illumination,” indicated by two Chinese characters usually translated as “Luminous” and “Religion.”

The character for religion is the same as the one used to describe Taoism and Buddhism. To translate the character for Luminous I have opted for the phrase Religion of Light, which seen to represent the original intention of the title and something of the Church’s own self-understanding.

The longer title, “Da Qin Luminous Religion,” I have translated as “The Religion of Light from the West.” As the old woman who pointed out the Da Qin monastery from Lao Zi’s temple said. the monastery was built “by monks who came from the West and believed in one God.”

I did appreciate the need to put the Sutras in a proper perspective, but that is not to say that I was not impatient to actually read them myself (which is, of course, precisely what I did before sitting down to read the book properly).

Of course, having read the New Testament several times already, what I was most interested in is what new ideas, new revelations, reading this Jesus Sutras might bring because I suspected that seeing Christianity from a Taoist perspective would cause me to look at Christianity from a new, fresh viewpoint:

This first Sutra is the most clear and conventional Christian account of the Gospel and of Jesus’ life in the Jesus Sutras. In trying to tell the story straight, basing it on Western concepts and understandings of the world, however, the early Christians in China ran into a major problem: What was the existential issue or quest that Christ had come to solve? The Chinese world believed in karma rather than sin, in repeated rebirth rather than the nothingness of Hell or Hades of the classical Western views of what came after death. To reconcile the two outlooks, the Taoist Christians would eventually make profound theological adaptations.

I’m looking forward to reading about these “theological adaptations.”