In three previous posts I have introduced the myth of Jesus in India and examined its manifestations in its early Western authors and in Ahmadi Islam. Now the big question: so what? Why should these stories matter to scholars of antiquity or the Bible?
Of course, the myth of Jesus in India is useful to learn about for a biblical scholar because it is something that needs refuting. What if you are riding the train and someone asks you if Jesus went to India? While we can never finish correcting all the misconceptions of the Bible in popular culture, this is a fairly popular one. Biblical scholars don’t even examine it because it is so far-fetched. For a biblical conspiracy theorist (think of the Da Vinci Code believers!) this is just further evidence that the conspiracy theorist is real: the Church is scared to look at the evidence!
Throughout the history of Christianity, Jesus is often used as a heuristic device, a cipher to express whatever theological point or social-political program an authors wants to convey. The point of these myths about Jesus is not historical accuracy, but polemic usefulness. Many of these myths remain on the edges of a tradition. Same with the tales of Jesus going to India and Tibet. They employ Jesus for a broader point that really isn’t much about Jesus. Once we understand this concept of a heuristic device we can see it at work in many religious contexts. We may also see it at work in the Bible itself.
We often think of stories of Jesus in India as religiously pluralistic, the kind of syncretism that affirms the truth of all religions. After all, Jesus is learning from the Hindus and Buddhists, right? Not quite. It’s more complicated. There are other motives at work, some still firmly unconvinced of the value of all or some non-Christian religions. I mentioned how Dowling and Notovitch’s version of the story still portrays Jesus as the embodiment of all the wisdom of the world – very theologically triumphalist rhetoric. Yet my hunch is that the New Age versions of the myth are more entranced by the idea of Jesus learning from other religions. And that is my next big question in this vein. How does Holger Kersten read the story of Jesus in India? A blog series for another day.