Did Jesus Visit Tibet? Sorry, Not Very Likely…

It appears that every few years someone or another discovers Jesus spent some time in India and or Tibet before beginning his teachings which we find recounted in various Gospel versions. The primary document addressing those “missing years” before that public ministry is a text originally titled Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men. The editor/translator was a Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch.

In fact this book was exposed as a fraud almost immediately by the renowned F. Max Muller. Later, the biblical scholar Edgar Goodspeed wrote up a complete account of the events surrounding the publication of Mr Notovitch’s little book.

While it would be an absolute delight for me to learn that that Jesus studied Buddhism, the fact remains there was nothing in his teachings, as best a cool read of the normative texts give us, that wasn’t already contained within the Judaism of his day. Well, okay, that very late text John does offer a non-traditionally Jewish Jesus, but even that Jesus is easily contained with a rather more boring and obviously already there gnostic influence or reaction…

But we tend to want something more exotic. And who doesn’t love Tibet? And so, as appears to be the case with such things, the expose is quickly forgotten, but the lie lingers…

I reprint Goodspeed’s study below. If you want it with the footnotes and, at no extra charge, reflections on additional examples of what Professor Goodspeed called “modern Apocrypha,” go here.


Edgar Goodspeed

IN THE summer of 1926 the newspapers in this country and abroad announced the discovery in a monastery in Tibet of a lost Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men. The supposed discovery had, however, taken place nearly forty years before, and been published all over the world in 1894. The romantic story of its finding ran as follows:

In 1887 a Russian war-correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India, and proceeding into Tibet, at the Lamassary or Convent of Himis, learned of the Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men. His story, with the text of the Life, was published in French in 1894 and passed through several editions that year. It enjoyed the widest publicity. It was translated into German, Spanish, and Italian. Three independent American translations were immediately published, two in New York and one in Chicago. The first (of The Life only) was by F. Marion Crawford, who was something of a Sanskrit scholar and had lived in India in his youth. It was published by Macmillan. Another English translation appeared in London in 1895. The book called forth a vigorous controversy, attracting the attention of no less an authority than Professor F. Max Müller of Oxford. It was discussed at length in the pages of The Nineteenth Century, and then forgotten, until a New York publisher revived it in 1926, with the result described above.

Notovitch’s account of his discovery of the work is that having been laid up by accident with a broken leg at the Convent of Himis, he prevailed upon the Chief Lama, who had told him of the existence of the work, to read to him, through an interpreter, the somewhat detached verses of the Tibetan version of the Life of Issa, which was said to have been translated from the Pali. Notovitch says that he himself afterward grouped the verses “in accordance with the requirements of the narrative.” As published by Notovitch, the work consists of two hundred and forty-four short paragraphs, arranged in fourteen chapters. It begins with an account of Israel in Egypt, and its deliverance by Moses; its neglect of religion, and its conquest by the Romans. Then follows an account of the Incarnation. The divine youth, at thirteen, rather than take a wife, leaves his home to wander with a caravan of merchants to India (Sindh), to study the laws of the great Buddhas.

He is welcomed by the Jains, but leaves them to spend six years among the Brahmins, at Juggernaut, Benares, and other places, studying the Vedas, and teaching all castes alike. The Brahmins oppose him in this, and he denounces them and their sacred books, especially condemning caste and idolatry. When they plan to put him to death, he flees to the Buddhists, and spends six years among them, learning Pali and mastering their religious texts. He goes among the pagans, warning them against idolatry, and teaching a high morality, and then visits Persia and preaches to the Zoroastrians.

At twenty-nine Issa returns to his own country, and begins to preach. He visits Jerusalem, where Pilate is apprehensive about him. The Jewish leaders however find no fault in him, and he continues his work for three years, closely watched by Pilate’s spies. He is finally arrested and put to death, not by Jewish influence, but through the hostility of Pilate. His followers were persecuted, but his disciples carried his message out over the world.

The interest of this little book is evidently to fill in the silent years of Jesus’ youth, from the visit to Jerusalem at twelve to the beginning of his ministry at about thirty. It is interesting at the outset to observe that these two ages are taken for granted by the author of this work, who unconsciously bases his scheme upon them. We know them from the Gospel of Luke alone, and the question arises, Has the author of Issa obtained them from the same source?

It is also noteworthy that the work describes Jesus’ ministry as three years in length, an idea derived from the Gospel of John, and from no other book of the New Testament. Had our author the Gospel of John as well as that of Luke? His emphasis upon the Incarnation shows that he had. Notovitch says that the Life of Issa was written within three or four years after the death of Christ, from the testimonies of eyewitnesses, and is hence more likely to bear the stamp of truth than the canonical gospels, which were written many years later. But the departure of the disciples to evangelize the pagan world, which is described in the last verse of the Life, did not take place within three or four years of Jesus’ death. The idea that it did has probably been gained from the Gospel of Matthew, which, taken without the Acts of the Apostles, might suggest that impression. It looks as though the writer of the Life were acquainted with the Gospel of Matthew. Other touches point to his acquaintance with Acts and Romans, and it. becomes clear that the range of Christian literature reflected in the book makes a date earlier than the second century impossible.

But this is only the beginning. The whole cast of the book is vague and elusive. It presents no difficulties, no problems, whereas any really ancient work newly discovered bristles with novelties and obscurities. The message of Jesus is a pallid and colorless morality, amiable and unobjectionable enough, but devoid of the flashes of insight and touches of genius that mark the early gospels. Historically and morally the book is commonplace. It identifies itself with no recognized type of primitive thought, and it does not strike out one of its own, but shows a superficial acquaintance with the leading New Testament ones, somewhat blurred together. This inaccurate acquaintance with the New Testament also characterizes Notovitch himself, who describes Luke as saying that Jesus “was in the deserts until the day of his showing unto Israel.” This, he says, “conclusively proves that no one knew where the young man had gone, to so suddenly reappear sixteen years later” (p. 162). But it is not of Jesus but of John that Luke says this (1 :80), so that it will hardly yield the conclusive proof Notovitch seeks. At this point in Luke’s narrative, in fact, Jesus has not yet appeared.

On the whole, as an ancient document the Life of Issa is altogether unconvincing. It reads more like a journalistic effort to describe what might have happened if Jesus had visited India and Persia in his youth and what a modern cosmopolite thinks he did and taught in his ministry in Palestine.

The external evidence for the Life is no more impressive. The two large manuscript volumes read to Notovitch by the lama at the Himis Convent were, says Notovitch, “compiled from divers copies written in the Tibetan tongue, translated from rolls belonging to the Lassa library, and brought from India, Nepal, and Maghada two hundred years after Christ. These rolls were placed in a convent standing on Mount Marbour, near Lassa. . . . .” The rolls were written in the Pali tongue. It is evident that the scholar’s desire to see the manuscript of the work, or failing that to see a photograph of it, or a part of it, or at least to have precise directions as to how and where to find it–its place and number in the Himis library–is not in this case to be satisfied. More than this, the Life of Issa does not purport to have been deciphered and translated by a competent scholar. The lama read, the interpreter translated, Notovitch took notes. He could evidently not control either the lama |17 or the interpreter, to make sure of what the Tibetan manuscripts read. And his own notes, taken under these obvious disadvantages, he afterward spent many sleepless nights in classifying, “grouping the verses in conformity with the course of the narrative, and imprinting a character of unity to the entire work.” Of course this is just what a scholar would not have done. He would wish to give the fragments just as the manuscripts had them, unaffected by his own views and tastes.

The Unknown Life attracted the attention of the great Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller, who in The Nineteenth Century pointed out that the Life of Issa did not appear in the catalogue of the Tandjur and the Kandjur, the great collections of Tibetan literature. “If we understand M. Notovitch rightly,” says Professor Max Miiller, “this life of Christ was taken down from the mouths of some Jewish merchants who came to India immediately after the Crucifixion.” He goes on to ask how these Jewish merchants happened, among the uncounted millions of India, to meet “the very people who had known Issa as a casual student of Sanskrit and Pali in India, …. and still more how those who had known Issa as a simple student in India, saw at once that he was the same person who had been put to death under Pontius Pilate.” He goes on to suggest that the Buddhist monks may have deceived Notovitch. “Two things in their account are impossible, or next to impossible. The first, that the Jews from Palestine who came to India in about 35 A.D. should have met the very people who had known Issa when he was a student at Benares; the second, that this Sutra of Issa, composed in the first century of our era, should not have found a place either in the Kandjur or in the Tandjur.”

If the monks did not indulge in duping Notovitch, nothing remained, Max Miiller said, but to accuse M. Notovitch of a disgraceful fraud. And as he was writing his article, there came to him from an Englishwoman visiting Tibet a letter that pointed strongly in the latter direction. It was dated Leh, Ladakh, June 29,1894, and read in part:

Yesterday we were at the great Himis monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery up here,–800 lamas. Did you hear of a Russian who could not gain admittance to the monastery in any way, but at last broke his leg outside and was taken in? His object was to copy a Buddhist life of Christ which is there. He says he got it and has published it since in French. 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!

These and other criticisms Notovitch sought to answer in his preface to the London edition. “The truth indeed is,” he remarks, “that the verses of which I give a translation in my book are probably not to be found in any kind of catalogue, either of the Tandjur or of the Kandjur. “They are to be found scattered through more than one book without any title; consequently they could not be found in catalogues of Chinese or Tibetan works.”

With these extraordinary observations the Life of Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, seems to evaporate and vanish away. For if its parts exist only thus scattered, the order and structure of the work are evidently the contribution of Notovitch himself, and the Life as a whole is his creation. This much he has admitted. Even now, a scholar would of course interest himself actively to secure copies and even

photographs of the scattered portions which Notovitch says he has assembled. A work which makes such high claims would be well worth an expedition to Tibet, to search out the scattered verses, copy and translate them, and to provide an account of the documents in which they are imbedded. As it is, Notovitch seems to have taken refuge from his critics in a fog of indefiniteness. In his first preface he speaks of the monastic libraries as “containing a few copies of the manuscript in question,” but now it is of no use to look for the manuscript, he intimates, for there is no manuscript, and he lightly refers serious students of his supposed discovery to “verses scattered through more than one book, without any title.” This is not the method of sober scholarship. And we may observe that Notovitch himself in the thirty-five years that have elapsed since he published the Unknown Life has not taken the obvious and most of us would think the unavoidable steps to substantiate his supposed discovery. As a possible gesture in that direction we may quote his report in his London preface of a conversation with a Roman Catholic Cardinal, to whom he had mentioned the matter. “I may however add to what I have already said in my introduction as to having learnt from him that the Unknown Life of Jesus Christ is no novelty to the Roman Church, this: that the Vatican Library possesses sixty-three complete or incomplete manuscripts in various Oriental languages referring to this matter, which have been brought to Rome by missionaries from India, China, Egypt and Arabia.” It is a thousand pities that the Cardinal, who had evidently counted the manuscripts, was not more explicit as to their titles, so that someone who could read them might have looked them up in that library. Even if Notovitch could not go back to Tibet to confirm his discovery, as he once boldly proposed to do, he might have reached Rome and found ample confirmation there. But in thirty-five years neither he nor his eight translators nor his nine publishers have been sufficiently interested to apply this very simple test. Nor has any independent student of the Vatican manuscripts reported one of the sixty-three manuscripts.

Some people have been harsh enough to say that Notovitch never visited Tibet at all. I am not in a position to say this. It is true that the pictures of Tibetan scenes and costumes that appear in some editions of his work he says are from photographs taken by his friend D’Auvergne, who visited Tibet on another occasion. And I have observed that his accounts of Tibetan buildings and practices bear a striking resemblance to some previously published by English travelers. His account of his journey is not without improbability, and I cannot learn that he is recognized among the serious explorers who have visited Tibet. Yet he may have gone there; it would obviously be difficult to control his statement that he did.

Some light is thrown upon the matter by a communication sent to The Nineteenth Century in June, 1895, by Professor J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who was at that time a guest in the Himis monastery, enjoying the hospitality of that very chief lama who was supposed to have imparted the Unknown Life to Notovitch. Professor Douglas found the animal life in the Sind Valley much less picturesque than Notovitch had described, and no memory of any foreigner with a broken leg lingered at Leh or Himis. But Professor Douglas’ inquiries did at length elicit the fact that a Russian gentleman named Notovitch had recently been treated for the toothache by the medical officer of Leh Hospital. To that extent Notovitch’s narrative seems to have been on firm ground.

But no further. The chief lama indignantly repudiated the statements ascribed to him by Notovitch, and declared that no traveler with a broken leg had ever been nursed at the monastery. He stated with emphasis that no such work as the Life of Issa was known in Tibet, and that the statement that he had imparted such a record to a traveler was a pure invention. When Notovitch’s book was read to him he exclaimed with indignation, “Lies, lies, lies, nothing but lies!” The chief lama did not receive from Notovitch the presents Notovitch reports having given him–the watch, the alarm clock, and the thermometer. He did not even know what a thermometer was. In short the chief lama made a clean sweep of the representations of Notovitch, and with the aid of Professor Douglas effected what Max Müller described as his annihilation.

In conclusion Max Müller expressly disclaimed any merit for having shown the Unknown Life to be a mere fiction, as no serious Sanskrit or Pali scholar, and no serious student of Buddhism, was taken in by it.

We may add that students of early Christian literature of course passed it by as of no significance whatever. It made no stir among them. This is not because they are averse to new discoveries. These are of frequent occurrence. But every one of them that is reported must stand the test of literary and textual criticism. To these tests the Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men, fails to respond.

But it remains an interesting example of a whole series of modern attempts to impose upon the general public crude fictions under the guise of ancient documents lately discovered, and it is worth while to call attention to it because its recent republication in New York was hailed by the press as a new and important discovery.



"thanks so much for this exposition"

Dogen’s Fukanzazengi & the Koan of ..."
"Really, you think atheists and Buddhist would appreciate that? Makes sense if you view God ..."

St Francis and a Blessing for ..."
"This is so excellent... especially in how it culminates with the inevitability of "everydayness" which ..."

Dogen’s Fukanzazengi & the Koan of ..."
"Is it just a coincidence or is it karma, that October 5th is also considered ..."

Stepping off the Hundred Foot Pole: ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment