Old tes­ta­ments and new rev­e­la­tions

Texts from China to India and else­where por­tray Christ in a dif­fer­ent light, says Robert A. Se­gal

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Robert A. Se­gal is sixth cen­tury pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies, Univer­sity of Aberdeen, and the au­thor of Myth: A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion (re­vised, 2015).

Je­sus in Asia

By R. S. Su­girthara­jah Har­vard Univer­sity Press 320pp, £21.95

ISBN 9780674051133 Pub­lished 23 Fe­bru­ary 2018

When one thinks of bi­ogra­phies of Je­sus, one thinks of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In them­selves they are ex­ceed­ingly dif­fer­ent. Matthew was com­posed by the ear­li­est group of Chris­tians, called Jewish Chris­tians. They came to Chris­tian­ity from Ju­daism and deemed Je­sus the long-awaited Jewish Mes­siah. Luke came to Chris­tian­ity from Graeco-Ro­man pa­gan­ism. His view­point is like that of Paul and even­tu­ally pre­vailed in the course of Chris­tian­ity. Both Matthew and Luke de­pend on Mark but sup­ple­ment him.

The Fourth Gospel, John, is very dif­fer­ent from the first three. John’s Je­sus is pre-ex­is­tent and as­sumes a body only when he is borne by Mary. John’s far more spir­i­tu­alised ap­proach is like that of an­cient Gnos­ti­cism.

But these four Gospels are only the ones that wound up mak­ing it into the Bi­ble. Hence the term “canon­i­cal Gospels”. There are scores of gospels that ex­isted at the time but were not in­cluded. The best known are the In­fancy Gospel of Je­sus and the Gospel of Thomas, which con­sists only of Gnos­tic say­ings.

There have long been at­tempts to rec­on­cile, or har­monise, the four bib­li­cal Gospels. But the at­tempts are fu­tile. What the at­tempts share is the as­sump­tion that Je­sus was a Mid­dle East­ern fig­ure.

In Je­sus in Asia, R.S. Su­girthara­jah – emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of bib­li­cal the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham – opens up Je­sus to an Asian out­look. He is not the first to do so, but his book will con­sti­tute a rev­e­la­tion for most Chris­tian read­ers.

Su­girthara­jah takes the story all the way back to 7th-cen­tury China and 17th-cen­tury India. The Chi­nese texts, called the Je­sus Su­tras, were writ­ten by mis­sion­ar­ies to China from the West known as Nesto­ri­ans. The key In­dian bi­og­ra­phy is by a Mus­lim, Jerome Xavier, and is called Mir­ror of Ho­li­ness (1602).

These works dif­fer acutely from each other but also from the West­ern Gospels. For ex­am­ple, “Those raised on the no­tion of Je­sus as the es­cha­to­log­i­cal prophet who an­nounced the im­mi­nent end of the world, to be re­placed with the King­dom of God, will be deeply dis­ap­pointed. The Je­sus of the Su­tras does not of­fer any es­cha­to­log­i­cal mes­sage. The King­dom he en­vis­ages is…one that has to be found within one­self.”

Through­out his book Su­girthara­jah presents the non-Chris­tian sources of the Asian Je­sus – above all, in the Ko­ran, Bud­dhism, Hin­duism, Tao­ism and Con­fu­cian­ism. Je­sus is less a divine fig­ure than a model hu­man be­ing. He is com­pared with Bud­dha and other Asian “he­roes”. And he is of­ten scorned as in­fe­rior to them. He fre­quently har­bours a parochial rather than uni­ver­sal out­look.

One chap­ter con­sid­ers Asian re­jec­tions of Je­sus as his­tor­i­cal. Su­girthara­jah com­pares two Hindu writ­ers, Chan­dra Varma and Dhiren­dranath Chowd­hurt, with the Bri­tish the­o­rists of myth E. B. Ty­lor and J. G. Frazer. But Ty­lor and Frazer are not pit­ting myth against his­tory. They are pit­ting myth against sci­ence. And their ap­proach is com­par­a­tive: Je­sus, on whom Frazer writes far more, is just one more dy­ing and ris­ing king and god of veg­e­ta­tion – or sub­sti­tute for one.

Su­girthara­jah’s writ­ing is won­der­fully log­i­cal. He an­tic­i­pates ex­actly the ques­tions that I asked my­self, para­graph upon para­graph. His book is a plea­sure to read.

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