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The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls to Taoist Christianity
By Martin Palmer
270 pp.; $24.95
Arriving out of the Western desert in A.D. 635, a group of Nestorian Christians, led by the monk Aluoben, entered the Chinese capital of Chang An (modern Xian) and were welcomed by the Tai Zong emperor, founder of the great Tang dynasty. Over the following centuries, their faith spread to cities around China. The earliest Chinese Christians took the first steps in meeting the epic challenge of translating a universal message from a distant Semitic sect into words that could be understood in Europe's cultural antipodes, the "utter east," the glory and wonder that was Cathay.
In The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, researcher Martin Palmer introduces us to the Nestorian Christians, as well as the improbable story of how the ancient Chinese church was rediscovered in modern times. Palmer himself played a key role in that rediscovery, which also involved Jesuits, a Taoist priest exploring a cave, a 115-year-old gatekeeping Buddhist nun, and possible Axis spies. (It is hard to read the first part of this hook without thinking of Indiana Jones.) In the rest of The Jesus Sutras, Palmer brings the extant texts of the Chinese Nestorians--the famous Nestorian stele uncovered in the early 17th century near Xian, and texts from Dunhuang in Northwest China--together in a poetic English translation. The fascinating blend of theistic and karmic thought that appears in some of these texts, Palmer argues, points toward a synthesis between West and East that can bring needed renewal to the Christian faith.
In 1998, Palmer discovered a pagoda outside of Xian that turned out to be what was left of an ancient church. (The temple where legend says Lao Zi wrote the Tao Te Ching, the hymn to the paradoxical power of gentleness that crowns the Taoist canon, stands just a mile away.) When Palmer and his fellow researchers arrived, the pagoda was being used as a Buddhist temple, and an elderly nun greeted Palmer at the door:
I stood where fourteen hundred …