AFB B-Sides: Jesus-Messiah Sutra

Apocrypha for Beginners is meant to cover many representative works, but I was only able to include so many. There are, of course, myriad more. This is part of a series of “B-sides”: posts about apocrypha that weren’t included in the book.

This particular “b-sides” post is about an apocryphon that I learned about a few years ago that still fascinates me. In large part, I’m intrigued because it is, in many ways, very different from other apocrypha–especially those concerning Jesus. This apocryphon also demonstrates the early, wide spread of Christianity out of the Near East (in this case, to China). In that way, it points us toward one of the key characteristics of apocrypha: their far-flung lives in the premodern period.

Jesus-Messiah Sutra

Facts

Also known as: Hsu-T’ing Mi-Shi-So Sutra, Sutra of Hearing the Messiah

Author: Unknown, a Christian living in China; possibly the Syriac-speaking, Persian, Christian missionary Bishop Alopen, or one of his students

Date written: Between about 635 and 638 CE

Language: Chinese

Canons: None

Discovery

On June 25, 1900, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu came across a walled-up cave (one of many similar caves in the same area) behind a Buddhist temple in Dunhuang, China. Later deemed the “Library Cave,” this secret space held thousands of scrolls from between the seventh century and when it had been sealed up in 1000 CE. Among those scrolls were the so-called Jingjiao Documents, with evidence of early Syriac Christians in China, including the Jesus-Messiah Sutra. This manuscript is now held in the Tonkō-Hikyū Collection of the Kyōu Shooku library in Osaka, Japan.

Summary

The Jesus-Messiah Sutra is framed as a revelation of Jesus’s teachings (like a gospel) about the basic doctrines of Christianity. It begins, “At that time, preaching the laws of Hsii-po (i. e., Jehovah) who is the Lord of Heaven, the Messiah spoke thus…” (1). The Sutra as it survives contains 206 verses, but the ending is incomplete, so there must have been more. Because there are so many, it is not possible to summarize them all, but there are some notable examples.

Many of the verses are concerned with the proper beliefs and actions of those who “received the precepts” in them. Some of these verses demonstrate anxiety about those who teach or explain correct doctrine. For example, verse 71 says, “Only those who serve the Lord of Heaven can discourse on the doctrines and can compose the Sutras.” Similarly, verse 95 states, “Those who have received the Law and Teaching of the Lord of Heaven should not act contrary to the precepts.” Some of the precepts express rather simple ideas about right living, such as “These short views, however, may well teach all people what is good and what is evil” (69).

Some sayings are parallel to passages from the Bible, especially the canonical Gospels. For example, verses 14-16 are thematically similar to John 3:8, including the statements that “People in this world can know the movements of the wind. They only hear the sound thereof, but they cannot see the form thereof” (15). Some of the teachings are also similar to Jesus’s teachings in parables, such as verse 70: “By drinking and eating plentifully we may taste the essence. But by taking even a little, we can perceive whether it is tasteful or not.”

Still other sayings portray some amount of syncretism between Buddhism and Christianity. For example, verse 4 relates, “All the Buddhas as well as Kinnaras and the Superintending-devas and Arhans can see the Lord of Heaven.” Verse 13 says, “All the Buddhas flow and flux (i.e., wander here and there) by virtue of this very wind, while in this world, there is no place where the wind does not reach.”

Analysis

This Sutra (meaning “scripture” in Chinese) is a major piece of evidence for the spread of the Church of the East (sometimes known as the Nestorian Church) from Syria to China. The main purpose of the document is as a set of precepts for right belief and practice. There is, therefore, a certain amount of anxiety about the correct reception and understanding of doctrine and actions based on them.

Many of the verses translate biblical ideas as basic doctrine. This is the case with the many verses that are parallel to the Gospels and other passages from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The Sutra is also influenced by other early Christian works, as it shows parallels with the Didache (verses 69, 103-11, 120-21, and 126-28). In verse 69, the teaching corresponds to the “Two Ways” (here “good” and “bad”) found in the Didache as well as the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Letter of Barnabas.

As already mentioned, the author(s) of the document, or perhaps a Chinese scribe helping to translate, must have been influenced by Buddhism, at least in terminology. The Sutra includes mentions of Buddhas, other figures from Buddhism, and attention to Buddhist-Christian cosmology. These precepts show how Christianity often took on and adapted elements of pre-existing religions as it spread across the globe.


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