China’s Dead Sea Scrolls: An Ancient Case of Contextual Christianity

Paul Pelliott, French sinologist, spent weeks reading through ancient manuscripts in the Library Cave in Dunhuang.
Paul Pelliott, French sinologist, spent weeks reading through ancient manuscripts in the Library Cave in Dunhuang.

Contextualization is the buzzword in missional thinking today, but it’s not a new concept.  In 635 AD, Christianity followed the Silk Road and entered China’s capital city of Chang’an, now known as Xian.  Aleben, a bishop from Persia, led a contingent of two dozen monks on a 3,000 mile journey into the heart of China. The emperor of China, Taizong, welcomed Aleben and his monks, and the sacred scriptures Aleben carried.

The texts the emperor had translated into Chinese spoke of a “Luminous Religion” and of a savior who would free mankind.  The emperor embraced this new religion, commanded that monasteries and churches be built, and encouraged all under his reign to adopt this new faith.  A 12-foot-high stele — an engraved stone tablet — was erected to commemorate the coming of the “Teaching of Light” to the Middle Kingdom.

Unfortunately, subsequent emperors would purge China of all outside influence, including religion, in about 200 years, so the new beginning of Christianity in China was snuffed out.  Or so it seemed at the time.

In the late 1890s, another monk, a Taoist named Wang Yuanlu, found the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Dunhuang, about 1,000-miles west of Xian.  Among the carved out caves where monks had lived, Wang discovered a Library Cave with thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments.  Eventually, Wang sold manuscripts to European explorers, who discovered writings that came to be called The Jesus Sutras.

Sutra is a Buddhist term for a teaching or saying, and some of these were undoubtedly sayings preserved from the work of Aleben and his band of Christian monks in the 7th century AD.  Selected sutras are contained in The Lost Sutras of Jesus, and have fascinating parallels to the New Testament.

Some passages read almost word-for-word like the Sermon on the Mount:

“Look at the birds in the air.  They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you.  You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

In other passages, entirely new thoughts have a distinctive Buddhist flavor while communicating Christian ideas:

“All creatures seek the Higher Dharma (teaching). They long for the Way of Peace and Joy, which lies buried and cannot be seen.”

Still other sutras seem to reflect Biblical passages with a new twist:

“If you listen to these sutras and take pleasure in them, if you read them aloud and carry them in your mind, you will plant strong roots for many generations to come.  Your father and grandfathers, your mother and grandmothers, who cherished these teachings and found joy in them before you, have created a tradition you are continuing.”  (Compare to Deuteronomy 6)

These sayings, and others like them, may be the most original example of contextualization of the Gospel in the ancient church.  If not the oldest example, it is among the more fascinating.  Not all the Christian sutras reflect 21st century orthodoxy, but they at least provide an enlightening window into a world that was pre-scientific, but intellectually active.  Taizong’s library was reported to contain 200,000 volumes, and this before the invention of the printing press, at least in Europe.

For more information on China’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, google Dunhuang, Nestorian scrolls, Nestorian Christianity, or Nestorian stele. I discovered this amazing bit of history reading The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins.  I would highly recommend both books if you’re interested in Christian history.  I’ll review Jenkins’ book later, but both of these books will give you a new appreciation for the multiple forms the Christian message and Christian churches have taken in the past two millenia.

3 thoughts on “China’s Dead Sea Scrolls: An Ancient Case of Contextual Christianity”

  1. Great article. For the past 5 years my daughter has been living, teaching and doing missionary work in China. She has spent some time in Xian so she will be interested in this.

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