In search of the gospel truth

THE ORIGINAL JESUS by Elmar Gruber & Holger Kersten, Element pounds 16.99

TWO trends are de rigueur in 20th-century Christian theology. One is to make Jesus more accessible by humanising him. This has produced a plethora of books about Jesus the man of existential doubt, Jesus the lover, Jesus the gay leader and so on. The other trend has been to back the importance of inter-faith dialogue. What Christians can learn from Jews, Jews from Moslems and what we can all learn from the Dalai Lama. The authors of The Original Jesus set out to capitalise on both trends by claiming that not only was Jesus just an ordinary bloke trying to get by but also that he was really a Jewish Buddhist.

Elmar Gruber and Holger Kersten, two German writers, last left their mark on Christian learning with their best selling The Jesus Conspiracy. The claim of that book was that the exposure of the Turin Shroud as a fraud was itself a fraud, perpetrated by Rome, in an attempt to disguise the fact that Jesus didn't really die on the cross. In this latest expose they reveal that the living Jesus was for years a dedicated student in a Theravada monastery and that he saw himself as an emissary of the Buddha's teaching.

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the great Gnostic treasures found in buried clay pots at Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in the 1940s, several Christian scholars have noted the likelihood of some dialogue between Buddhists and the early, Gnostic Christians. There were many trade routes at the time between the East and the Greco-Roman world. In South India, Thomas Christians associated with the teachings of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas were in direct contact with local Buddhists. And for several generations at the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhist missionaries from the East were active in Alexandria, and perhaps Palestine itself.

Gnostic identification of the divine and the human, their concern with ridding themselves of illusion to reach enlightenment and their interpretation of Jesus as a spiritual guide whom we might emulate rather than a god, may all show some Buddhist influence. To consider such cross-fertilisation at the origins of Christianity can only enrich our appreciation of its history and tradition. But the authors of this book wish to take things much further.

After making the shock suggestion that there is such scant evidence of Jesus ever having existed at all that the whole Christian tradition may rest on the chicanery of early church figures, Gruber and Kersten contradict their own thesis by claiming to know more about Jesus than anyone else. Referring to the teachings of Q, that body of Christian doctrine thought to represent the original sayings of Jesus, Gruber and Kersten argue that Q is a Buddhist text: "Q is so uniformly Buddhistic that one cannot say Jesus picked up ideas for moral instruction here and there. He took them all from the treasure house of Buddhist wisdom ... Everything that Jesus said about the moral renewal of life is to be found in the Buddha's teaching and everything he did was foreshadowed in Mahayana."

After this bold assertion, Gruber and Kerstern resort to their well-tried formula - a good conspiracy theory. Since Jesus's immersion in Buddhism was so deep and all his teaching so obviously Buddhist, the Church fathers were well aware of this and saw their own position threatened. How could they sustain the church's claim that Jesus was unique, the one and only son of God and messenger of the true Word? Obvious. They would and did destroy all evidence of Buddhist influence.

The Original Jesus comes across as a religious thriller meant to shock and sensationalise. It does little credit to the cause of open theological scholarship and it is not even very true to the spirit of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that there is just one, universal religious law, the Dharma, from which all the world's great religions are derived. Each culture, he thought, would have its prophet who would interpret that universal law in the language and imagery of his own place and time. Buddhists are usually the first to recognise Jesus as such a prophet and therefore an independent, gifted and enlightened man in his own right.

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