What is the Jesus-Messiah Sutra?

The Jesus-Messiah Sutra is believed to be the earliest Chinese translation of a Christian text. It was one of the documents brought to China by a missionary named Alopen during the Tang Dynasty. Alopen was from Persia, and is the first recorded Christian missionary to have ever reached China. Carrying sacred texts with him along the Silk Road, Alopen reached the city of Chang’an in 635 AD. One of these documents, and the very first to be translated, was called the Jesus-Messiah Sutra. This text makes it clear that Alopen and his missionaries had a sophisticated knowledge of Chinese culture and religion, particularly Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

The first striking example of this is that the Jesus-Messiah Sutra several times refers to God as "Buddha". While this does seem at first glance to equate the one Christian God with the Buddha, the world view being presented is more complex. The beginning of the sutra states that "Buddhas" (in the plural) can see the Lord of Heaven. spiritual psychic advisor Later there is a reference to "all the Buddhas" in a way that very much distinguishes them from the Lord of Heaven Himself. The many Buddhas, as opposed to the one main Buddha, are portrayed more like angels in the Christian sense. Meanwhile "God" seems to be equated to the universal Buddha essence rather than to the multitude of Buddhas that many Buddhist adherents believe to be in existence.

The Jesus-Messiah Sutra is not only familiar with Buddhist language and ideas, but is also well versed in Taoism. While God may be called "Buddha," He is described in ways much more typical of Taoist descriptions of the Tao. For example, the Lord of Heaven is often referred to as being "like the wind." He is also said to be "constantly present everywhere" as well as completely lacking in the qualities of the material world. The Taodejing speaks similarly about the Tao throughout. In its opening lines this ancient text states that the Tao which can be put into words is not really the Tao. The true Tao cannot be seen, heard, or grasped.

Of the three major Chinese religious traditions, Confucian ideas are the most prevalent within the Jesus-Messiah Sutra. Filial piety is one of the central ideas in The Analects of Confucius because the family and the home is where people learn to cultivate their virtue and benevolence. Parents are the ones who provide their children with roots, culture, rituals, and knowledge about their place in the world. The Jesus-Messiah Sutra likewise stresses filial piety. While it is true that honoring your father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments, it is given a particularly weighty treatment in this text, being mentioned and repeated six separate times.

Emperor worship is also emphasized in the Jesus-Messiah Sutra. The reader is admonished to obey the commands of the "Sacred Superior" because he has been appointed by the Lord of Heaven. These passages are likely influenced by the Nestorian Christian teaching on emperor worship. It is reasonable to assume, however, that they also largely derive from Confucianism. Confucius often spoke about the importance of knowing your place in society and acting in accordance with your station. This means that one must pay respect to the highest superior of all, the emperor.

Finally, there are a few interesting passages in the Jesus-Messiah Sutra that deal with government offices. It is made clear that those who work hard and exert themselves will get a government position. Those who do not apply themselves will not receive a position and will even be deported. These ideas are not to be found in the Christian Gospels or in Mahayana Buddhist sutras. The Taodejing has an abhorrence of government and emperors. Confucius, on the other hand, spent many years as a wandering teacher looking for appointment in the courts of various rulers. He believed in putting one’s knowledge to practical use and many of his disciples went on to become important royal advisers.

All of the Chinese acculturation in the Jesus-Messiah Sutra shows that Alopen and his missionaries were sophisticated in their understanding of China. They knew the ins and outs of the attitudes surrounding politics and religion, expertly weaving these ideas into the text. It is also clear that by incorporating passages concerning filial piety, emperor worship, and respect for government positions, these Christians were eager to show that they were not there to challenge existing cultural and power structures.

However, it must be stressed that just because the Jesus-Messiah Sutra contained these references and moments of synchronicity with the religions of China it was never to the detriment of the core Christian message. The text very quickly introduces the belief that Jesus died for our sins. It is included seamlessly amidst Taoist and Buddhist ideas. The Christian message is further preserved in a concise but faithful Gospel story that starts at verse 147 and continues until the end of the sutra. It takes the reader through Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of His ministry, and His hanging on the cross. Unfortunately, the sutra is cut short and we do not know what it may have had to say about Jesus’ resurrection.

It is interesting to read texts such as the Jesus-Messiah Sutra because they offer us a glimpse into how Christianity adapted and interacted in new places. It is no doubt surprising to many people to come across a Christian text that uses the language and ideas of Chinese traditions. Most people perceive a barrier between Eastern and Western religions which keeps them separate, distinct, and unable to talk to each other. The Jesus-Messiah Sutra, however, serves to show that religions have been in dialog with one another for a very long time.

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