Jesus in Tibet
A Modern Myth
From The Fourth R
Have you ever wondered how Jesus might have been occupying himself before his public appearance to be baptized by John? One of the most popular guesses today is that Jesus was traveling to the Far East, specifically to Tibet in the exotic Himalayas. Is there any evidence for this astonishing claim?
Anyone who has read the various infancy gospels knows how early Christian imagination felt impelled to fill the space between Jesus’ nativity and his maturity by creating a raft of divine child stories. These second- and third-century documents include infancy gospels attributed to James, to Thomas the Israelite, and to Matthew.
James covers pretty much the same territory as the infancy narratives of the canonical gospels (Matthew chapters 1 and 2; Luke chapters 1 and 2), namely the angelic annunciations of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth, visits of shepherds and wise men, and some other interesting details. For instance, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior tells us the Magi knew to come see the newborn king because Zoroastrian scripture had foretold his birth!
Thomas and Matthew major in the events of Jesus’ childhood, what he might have been doing with his divine knowledge and powers before he embarked on his public ministry. In one particularly famous episode, the boy messiah makes a set of model sparrows from the clay of the brook. A member of the junior Pharisee association charges him with breaking the Sabbath commandment, so he claps his hands and brings the birds to life, whereupon they fly away chirping. Another time, some brat collides with young Jesus on the playground. Jesus gives him a dirty look and declares, “You will go no further on your way!” And the kid keels over dead. Hoping to curb this delinquent behavior, Joseph sends Jesus to a local schoolmaster. Jesus already possesses the very knowledge of God himself and thus is naturally impatient with the plodding pedantry of his teacher, who regards Jesus’ own precocity as mere impudence. Hence the old man smacks Jesus with a ruler — and keels over dead. You get the picture.
The infancy gospels are all pious in a naive and superstitious way, and most of them are also pretty hilarious, reminding us how hard it is to tell when ancient writers meant to be taken literally, or even seriously. In any case, these old stories are all set before Jesus has reached age twelve, his age in Luke’s story of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41–52). But that left the gap between age twelve and Jesus’ first public appearance at around the age of thirty.
The Missing Years
Over the centuries there have been various fanciful attempts to fill in that blank as well. Legend-mongers have sent the young man Jesus to Egypt, to be initiated into ancient mysteries and magic; to Britain, with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea (who, according to the same legends, would return there with the Holy Grail, the chalice used at the Last Supper, some years afterward); and to India, Persia and Tibet, to learn the ways of various yogis and mahatmas. In the wake of today’s New Age movements, these modern Jesus legends have gained a whole new readership, one that takes the stories very seriously indeed. Those of us committed to promoting a better grasp of the historical Jesus question today usually find ourselves busy with the misconceptions of traditionally religious people, but we must not avoid the very different, and equally dubious, accounts of Jesus popular in less traditional quarters.
The infancy gospels are all pious in a naive and superstitious way, and most of them are also pretty hilarious, reminding us how hard it is to tell when ancient writers meant to be taken literally, or even seriously.
The Life of St. Issa
Of these “missing years” stories, the only one worth dealing with here is that underlying Nicholas Notovitch’s Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, since this one claims an ancient documentary basis, and has its partisans even today.
In 1887, Notovitch, a Russian Jew converted to Greek Orthodoxy and a war correspondent (possibly a spy), visited the city of Leh, capital of the district of Ladakh on the border of India and Tibet. He had a toothache and sought treatment at a Moravian mission station there. But his imagination got the better of him, and in 1894, he wrote a book which told a new and much improved version of the story. Now it seemed he had visited the Tibetan lamasery (monastery) of Hemis (also spelled Himis). Here he mentioned folk legends he had picked up about a prophet named Issa, who sounded strikingly like Jesus (in fact, it’s the Arabic for Jesus). He was informed, he said, that the Hemis monastery itself housed a two-volume manuscript called The Life of Saint Issa ! He hesitated to ask for access to the sacred book, but announced he would return. This happened sooner than expected, however, when he fell from his horse and broke his leg. Carried back to the monastery, he arranged to have Saint Issa read aloud and translated for him as he recuperated. As the story unfolded, his initial suspicions were confirmed: this could be nothing less than a hitherto-unknown chapter in the career of Jesus. He listened carefully and made copious notes. He reorganized much of the material to make it suitable for Western readers and he finally produced The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ (1894). The book created an international furor.
Müller Refutes Notovitch’s Story
The book did not escape the scrutiny of scholars. For one thing, Notovitch could offer no manuscript for examination, only an excuse for lacking one (he could not take it from the monastery). The great Orientalist Max Müller, editor of the epoch-making Sacred Books of the East series of translated Eastern scriptures, took an interest in Notovitch’s claims. He pointed out that such an honored work as Notovitch described would inevitably have been included in the great canon lists of Tibetan books, the Kanjur and the Tanjur — but it wasn’t.
Plus, Notovitch’s frame story itself smacked too much of the legendary, the fictive. For the Russian maintained that the Life of Saint Issa was first compiled when Jewish merchants, having journeyed to India, told the recent news of Jesus’ fiery preaching and crucifixion in Judea. By a Dickensian stroke of luck, among the crowd of those who heard this tale just happened to be the very Asians who had themselves met Issa in India a few years before! And these people were somehow certain that this Jesus was the same as the Issa whom they had known.
Worse yet, Müller shared a letter (June 29, 1894) from an English woman who had visited Leh in Ladakh, including the Hemis lamasery, where she checked out Notovitch’s story. She reported that, according to the abbot, “There is not a single word of truth in the whole story! There has been no Russian here. No one has been taken into the Seminary for the past fifty years with a broken leg! There is no life of Christ there at all!” [Goodspeed, p. 11].
After Müller’s attack, Notovitch began to back-pedal, changing his story in the preface of the 1895 edition. This time it seemed that there had been no single two-volume work as he had first claimed, but that he had assembled his Unknown Life from fragmentary notices scattered among many Tibetan scrolls.
The same year, Professor J. Archibald Douglas of Agra visited the Hemis monastery and interviewed the abbot, reading him Notovitch’s Unknown Life. The abbot was outraged at the hoax and asked why crimes like Notovitch’s fraud could not be punished! As abbot for the past fifteen years, he knew no one had been given shelter with a broken leg, and as a lama for forty-two years he could attest there was no such document as Notovitch claimed to have used [Goodspeed, p. 13]. Notovitch was exposed as a fraud and that was the end of it for a while.
Swami Abhedananda (a disciple of the great Vedanta sage and mystic Ramakrishna) had read Notovitch’s book and determined to find the truth of the matter. He was an admirer of Jesus but skeptical of Notovitch’s account. So in 1922 he, too, traveled to Hemis. In the late 1970s in an interview with Dick and Janet Bock, his disciple Swami Prajnananda declared that his master “found the scrolls and he translated all the writings, all the life incidents of the Christ. He narrated those incidents in his book ‘Kashmiri O Tibetti.'” [Bock, p. 21]. “Years afterwards he inquired but they said the scrolls were no longer there. I also requested to see the scrolls, but there is nothing. There are no scrolls. They have been removed, by whom we do not know.” [Bock, p. 22].
But this is not exactly what Swami Abhedananda said in his book (Journey into Kashmir and Tibet). There we read that “he requested to be allowed to see the book. . . . The lama who was acting as our guide took a manuscript from the shelf and showed it to the Swami. He said that it was an exact translation of the original manuscript which was lying in the monastery of Marbour near Lhasa. The original manuscript [as per Notovitch] is in Pali, while the manuscript preserved in Himis is in Tibetan. It consists of fourteen chapters and two hundred twenty-four couplets (slokas). The Swami got some portion of the manuscript translated with the help of the lama attending on him.” [p. 119—why is the narrative third person in a supposed autobiography?].
The excerpt that follows closely parallels, though not exactly, the corresponding section of Notovitch’s book, also included in full as an appendix. It reads as if it might be a summary or abridgment of Notovitch. Note that in Journey into Kashmir and Tibet , we read not that Swami Abhedananda himself translated the text but that he managed to get someone to translate for him from a Tibetan text he could not read. And note that the Saint Issa gospel is once again a scroll, a single document, a version of the story which Notovitch himself had since abandoned! Also, note the curious fact that the material occurs in the same order as in Notovitch’s version, though Notovitch says he had to rearrange it _extensively!
Nicholas Roerich, a theosophist mystic and painter whose evocative work has its own Museum today in New York City, visited Central Asia in search of the lost city of Shamballah and other mysteries. In the 1920s he, too, visited Ladakh and later (1925) recorded what he claimed were gleanings from popular tales about Saint Issa as well as related material from a 1500-year-old Tibetan manuscript (too young by some 400 years to be Notovitch’s manuscript!). But the texts Roerich quotes are simply one abbreviated set of verses from Notovitch and another from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ , a 1908 “channeled” life of Jesus, inspired by Notovitch, written by Levi Dowling (i.e., Leo W. Dowling).
Notovitch’s Story Resurfaces
In 1926 a reprint edition of Notovitch’s Unknown Life stirred up the same old furor among a credulous public who did not know Müller and Douglas. Five years later, Edgar J. Goodspeed wrote an invaluable book called Strange New Gospels (later expanded as Modern Apocrypha and Famous “Biblical” Hoaxes) and explained how the hoax had first been put to rest. Goodspeed’s book clamped the lid on the matter a second time.
In 1939 Dr. Elisabeth Caspari, a member of the Mazdaznan sect, journeyed into Tibet with some friends and attended a festival at the Hemis lamasery. One day during their stay, “the librarian and two other monks approached the ladies carrying three objects. Madame Caspari recognized them as Buddhist books made of sheets of parchment sandwiched between two pieces of wood and wrapped in brocades — green and red and blue seeded with gold. With great reverence, the librarian unwrapped one of the books and presented the parchments to Mrs. Gasque: ‘These books say your Jesus was here!’. . . Mrs. Caspari tucked away this precious treasure in her memory, only volunteering it many years later at a Summit University Forum interview after having heard [apparently for the first time] of the beautiful verses about Jesus copied by Nicholas Notovitch from ancient Tibetan manuscripts at the monastery of Himis.” [Prophet, pp. 348, 353] Note again the New Age, sectarian context of these claims. Madame Caspari first belonged to the Mazdaznan sect, founded in 1900 by a German immigrant to America named Otto Hanisch (1854–1936). Hanisch claimed his sect was a living form of ancient Zoroastrianism specializing in vegetarianism and sun-mysticism. Of course, Zoroastrianism is still alive and well, but Mazdaznan seems to have been Hanisch’s own invention. Summit University, on the other hand, is part of the Summit Lighthouse (AKA The Church Universal and Triumphant) led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. It is an offshoot of both the Theosophical Society and the Mighty I Am Movement. It is perhaps the best example of a New Age sect.
It remains quite clear that Notovitch’s Unknown Life of Jesus was a hoax. It is proof enough of this that Notovitch, intimidated by Max Müller’s attack, backed down and changed his story, pulling the rug out from under his subsequent defenders, who were apparently ignorant of his revisionism. And the vehement denials of the original Hemis abbot echo loud and clear. So what are we to make of the testimonies and assertions of Swami Abhedananda, Nicholas Roerich, and Mrs. Caspari? First, we must conclude Roerich’s literary imagination ran away with him, especially since we can actually identify his unacknowledged sources. He provides no independent corroboration. And in the cases of Swami Abhedananda and Mrs. Caspari we are not even dealing with people who claim to have read the manuscript! Both were shown impressive volumes that they could not read, and someone else assured them that it was the Notovitch manuscript (or something corresponding to it).
The solution is simple: the monks of Hemis had come to be familiar with Notovitch’s book through Douglas’s efforts to debunk it, and in later years some of them told visitors what they wanted to hear, actually reading or paraphrasing from Notovitch’s hoax-text itself. Even though Swami Abhedananda initially feared Notovitch’s story was too good to be true, it is obvious that, if true, it would have delighted him, because the Vedanta Society highly esteems Jesus as an incarnation of Vishnu. A Jesus trained in Asia would be ideal for the Swami’s beliefs. This would be no less true for Mrs. Caspari, a member of a pseudo-Zoroastrian syncretic religion. A handful of Tibetan monks, welcoming a theological agenda that made Christianity a derivative sub-set of Buddhism (Jesus having been trained in Tibet, after all), were happy to take up Notovitch’s ball and run with it. Though not for long, since, as we have seen, some years later, Abhedananda’s disciple was told there were no such books to be found.
So, did Jesus visit Tibet? It is possible. Such travel even in ancient times was not out of the question. But there is no real evidence that he did. The historian must always address the question of the great New Testament scholar F.C. Baur: “Anything is possible, but what is probable?” It is probable that Jesus did not visit Tibet.
Robert M. Price is Director of the Center for Inquiry and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center of Inquiry Institute. The founding editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism, he is the author of The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts (1997) and Deconstructing Jesus (1999).
Something about the Easter season brings Jesus out of the vaults and projects him onto television screens. To what extent is a film about Jesus not only cinematically interesting, but literarily sensitive to the gospel sources, historically probable, and theologically satisfying? … Continue reading
Swami Abhedananda, Swami Abhedananda’s Journey into Kashmir and Tibet. Trans. Ansupati Dasgupta and Kunja Bihari Kundu. Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1987.
Per Beskow, Strange Tales About Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Janet Bock, The Jesus Mystery: Of Lost Years and Unknown Travels. Los Angeles: Aura Books, 1980.
Edgar J. Goodspeed, Famous “Biblical” Hoaxes. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956.
Fida Hassnain, A Search for the Historical Jesus from Apocryphal, Buddhist, Islamic, & Sanskrit Sources. Bath: Gateway Books, 1994.
Holger Kersten, Jesus Lived in India. Trans. Teresa Woods-Czisch. Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books Ltd., second edition, 1991.
Nicholas Notovitch’s Unknown Life of Jesus Christ
Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East. Livingston, MT: Summit University Press, 1987.
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