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.”

5 thoughts on “Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras

  1. I would really like to locate a copy of ‘The Jesus Sutras’. Is it generally available? Anyway, I’ll check Amazon UK and see.

    On a less mundane level, I say thanks for posting about them. I’d not been aware that a Christian tradition ever took root in China. I, too, am drawn to both Christianity and Taoism and would be intrigued to see what comes of a marriage of the two. I would call myself a Christian but many Christians wouldn’t, I’m sure. When people around you say that The Bible is the only revealed truth given to us by God and that all else is pure paganism or heresy, what do you do when you can hear truth in other places? I’m studying the Christian Mystics at the moment (being in need of much inspiration as I have been unwell for some time) and have been struck by the similarities between what they have to say about ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ and ‘God’ and what mystics from other traditions have found. What does this mean? Are they ALL on to something? It’s a thing I’m struggling with. How can this be if Jesus says ‘I am The Way’? I’m feeling that getting tied up in too much literalism may not be helpful! It’s not easy when you’ve been brought up to in a Christian tradition, which I forever hold dear, to open up to broader concepts. I tried Buddhism for a few years but was ultimately uncomfortable with its denial of a creator God. Still, I continue to find many of its ideas helpful.

    Sorry to ramble on. I love your blog and will keep an eye on it for further inspiration.


  2. Sorry to hear you’re not well, Singing Bear. I’ll remember you in my prayers.
    As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the face of an otherwise invisible God. A God who is all good. St. John of the Cross said that “in the eternal silences of the trinity, God the father has said only one word. The eternal word: Jesus. He has no more to say.” You find some similarities among faiths because the Holy Spirit of the Trinity is present and active everywhere, and is at work in the hearts of all people. Because of the spirit, people have always wanted to know, and will always want to know, what meaning to give their life, their activity and their death. It’s the source of humanity’s existential questioning. John Paul II said every authentic prayer is prompted by the holy spirit. His work in the hearts of all people is preparation for the gospel.

  3. Thank you, Tom, for these words and your kindness. I found The Jesus Sutras at the marketplace on Amazon and have ordered it. I’m really looking forward to reading it.


  4. Palmer’s book sounds interesting, I’d like to find a copy.

    Have you ever come across this one?

    Hieromonk Damaskene. 1999. Christ the eternal Tao. Platina, CA: Valaam.

  5. I bought this book through Amazon so I assume it’s widely available.

    I haven’t read the book you mentioned, so I put it on my wish list. At the moment, though, I’m suddenly feeling the need to get back to reading poetry for awhile. So, it will certainly be awhile before I get back to it.

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