The Jesus Sutras

Book Review
The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer

First off, I’d like to say that the subject here is fascinating: in the last hundred years, it’s come to light that there was a thriving Christian community in China as early as the sixth century, nearly a thousand years before the next major missionary movement (i.e. the Jesuits). Palmer writes ably about the discovery of this community’s artifacts and about the growth of the early Syrian church, which spread from present-day Afghanistan across the silk road to Tibet and even China. His style is toward a popular audience: summation and application reign over investigating thorny scholarly issues. This is no flaw, as I believe it was his intention to get the word out about a unique form of non-Western Christianity. And indeed, such beautiful artwork as lotus flowers and dragons cradling crosses deserve to be brought out into the daylight.

However, Palmer has an ax to grind: he sees Western Christianity as too dogmatically narrow-minded and hopes to offer “Taoist Christianity” (as he calls it) as a remedy, an example of how to adapt to the larger world. In pursuing this hypothetical golden age, he sacrifices rigor and consistency. For example, his translations bounce between Eastern and Western religious terms, placing them as he finds convenient for his situation. The name Jesus is translated as “Jesus” when he wants to make a heterodox text sound more western and as “Ye Su” (Chinese for Jesus) when he wants to make an orthodox text sound more eastern.

He also blames much of Western Christianity’s faults upon original sin, which he contrasts with the Taoist/”Taoist Christian” concept of original nature. According to Palmer, the concept of original sin is invented by Augustine and caused the Church to emphasize guilt and penance, which then led to bitterness and hatred and the crusades and Puritanism and everything else wrong. The Jesus Sutras, instead, borrow a term from Taoism called original nature, which asserts that humanity is primally good and has only been corrupted by evil societies.

This original sin vs. original nature dichotomy is erroneous on several levels. One is that he either willfully misinterprets the doctrine of original sin or just doesn’t really understand it. First of all, original sin (or ancestral sin) is upheld by both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, though emphasized in different ways, and has clear biblical grounding in the letters of Paul. Secondly, to ascribe all the errors of the Church to one small doctrine is ludicrous. Third, original sin does not deny the imago dei, or the image of God.

This, I think, would be a better comparison: Taoist “original nature” and the imago dei. Although they are surely different, they overlap in several ways, such as in the affirmation of humanity’s innate goodness that has become corrupted over time. They offer different solutions (Taoist: acting without acting, returning to the state of an “uncarved block” or pu; Christian: renewal through eternal, “resurrection” life found in Jesus) but ultimately look at humanity in the same way.

I see Palmer as falling victim to the popular error that wants to assert a kind of conspiracy to the Church, that Jesus in fact propagated a kind of gnostic spirituality that was hushed over by the Council of Nicea in 325. He wants to identify with a “tolerant” church that escaped politicization, one about so little is known that he can project his own beliefs upon it. Surely, the East has succeeded where the West has failed.

In fact, in reading his translations of the source texts (and trying to ignore his commentary), I find a range of beliefs held by the early Chinese church – everything from staunch orthodoxy to syncretic heresy. There are beautiful expressions of the Trinity side by side with a downplaying of the Resurrection, soteriology next to reincarnation. By donning gnostic-goggles, Palmer ignores the real diversity of what happens to Christianity when it engages a new culture.

My final complaint (and perhaps an unfair one for a book aimed at a popular audience) is a lack of the texts in the original language. As a Sinologist, I would like to be able to examine Palmer’s translations, some of which come from very rare resources. Some of his translations from the Tao Te Ching are far from the scholarly norm, and I wonder if these errors crept into his Jesus Sutra translations.

“Sutra,” by the way, is his translation of the Chinese character 經, i.e. jing or ching, depending on your romanization system. While it was used to translate the Sanskrit word “sutra,” it’s generally rendered “classic [text]” or “scripture” in English. It’s the same character in the Tao Te Ching or the I Ching. It’s even used in the translation of the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, the sheng jing or 聖經, which, in accordance with Palmer’s technique, should be called The Sage’s Sutras.

[Written October 2009.]

One thought on “The Jesus Sutras

  1. Tom, thanks for the insight. I believe there are a lot of sites with the chinesse characters of the so called sutras. It would be great if you as sinnologist expand on this. Thanks.

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