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Christian wisdom is Asian wisdom

 Asians represent one-seventh of all Christian believers and that number is growing quickly. Naturally, those people want to understand the Asian contexts and origins of their faith, so scholars are seeking to accommodate them.

Among the theologians of Christianity in Asia, we find such great Catholic figures as Jesuits, Father Aloysius Pieris and Father Peter Phan, as well as Protestants like the Japanese Kosuke Koyama.

Asian and Asian-American scholars have been at the forefront of postcolonial research on the bible—focussing on how differently non-western readers approach the scriptural text from Euro-Americans—and the quite distinct cultural baggage the latter bring with them. The results can be startling.

One prolific author is R.S. Sugirtharajah, of Sri Lankan origin, who teaches at Birmingham University in England.

Although he ranges widely in his interests, he is particularly interested in the possibility of South Asian linkages to the New Testament itself and to early Christianity more broadly.

Any attempt to draw such connections has to be made cautiously, given the dismal track record of past efforts, but Sugirtharajah makes a strong case.

He shows how the campaigns of Alexander the Great brought the Hellenistic world into contact with Asian societies.

Indian emissaries reached the west, while Central Asian Greeks encountered Buddhism.

An early Christian interest in Indian affairs surfaces in apocryphal texts, like the Acts of Thomas, and of course India’s truly ancient Christian communities proclaim Thomas as their founding evangelist.

For this reason, Sugirtharajah claims the sizable body of Thomas literature as a critical tool for approaching Asian Christianity, even citing the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as “an interesting starting point for Asian hermeneutics.”

I am usually skeptical about claims for direct Asian influences on the Mediterranean world, but one of Sugirtharajah’s examples intrigues me. In the Epistle of James, the King James translation of verse 3.6 declares, “The tongue… defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature.”

Different translations offer widely varying versions of the words here translated as the “course of nature,” but the Greek phrase is trochos tes geneseos, which can be rendered as “wheel of birth.”

That sounds distinctly Buddhist or Hindu, especially in the context of describing the evil effects of improper speech. As Sugirtharajah says, “If there is any influence of eastern ideas, it is here that it is visibly prominent.”

The whole Epistle of James has attracted Asian thinkers. In his classic, Water Buffalo Theology, Kosuke Koyama cites James as the most promising means of introducing Christianity to southeast Asians, especially to Buddhists, who would feel immediately at home with its style of writing as much as its teachings.

He notes that this is just what popular Buddhist scriptures look and sound like.

Asian wisdom literature sounds a lot like Judeo-Christian wisdom literature, including James, but also Thomas.

The Dalai Lama himself is no less enthusiastic about James, praising James’ declaration that human beings are a mist, a vapour that rises and vanishes. “What a wonderful image,” he says, “for the transience of human life!”

Of course, none of these scholars is arguing for the existence of secret Buddhist cells in the early Jesus movement. Rather, they are pointing to the universal character of the scriptures, which were written in what was already a highly globalised world.

And they are also saying that Asians, no less than Euro-Americans, have the right to read the texts in light of their own traditions (UCAN).


Philip Jenkins