Last week I mentioned in passing the little-known fact that the apocryphal idea that Jesus travelled to India as a child to learn from the Brahmins, comes to us not from ancient forgeries but relatively modern ones. That raised some interest among readers, and I realized that I haven’t actually dealt with this intriguing issue on the blog before. But I did deal with it in one of my books on forgery, the one written for a general audience, Forged: Writing in the Name of God.
In that book I devote a final chapter to modern examples of the ancient phenomenon, forgeries of Gospels. I will spread this discussion out over several blog posts, for your reading pleasure.
Here is how I begin the chapter and then discuss the first example, a particularly influential forgery (even though most people who have been influenced by its views have never actually heard of the book!).
When I give public talks about the books that did not make it into the New Testament, I am often asked about apocryphal tales that people have heard. What do we know about the “lost years” of Jesus, that gap of time between when he was twelve and thirty? Is it true that he went to India to study with the Brahmins? Was Jesus an Essene? Don’t we have a death warrant from Pontius Pilate ordering Jesus’ execution? And so on.
Very few of the apocryphal stories that people hear today come from the ancient forgeries I have been examining in this book. Instead they come from modern forgeries that claim to represent historical facts that scholars or “the Vatican” have allegedly tried to keep from the public. The real facts, however, are that these mysterious accounts have uniformly been exposed as fabrications perpetrated by well-meaning or mischievous writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their exposure has done little to stop laypeople from believing them.
Modern Forgeries, Lies, and Deceptions
I will discuss four of these writings here, just to give you a taste of the kinds of modern forgeries that have been widely read. All four, and many others, are discussed and demolished in two interesting books by bona fide scholars of Christian antiquity, Edgar Goodspeed, a prominent American New Testament scholar of the mid twentieth century, and Per Beskow, a Swedish scholar of early Christianity in the 1970s.
The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ
One of the most widely disseminated modern forgeries is called The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. From this account we learn that Jesus went to India during his formative teen years, the “lost years” before his public ministry, and there learned the secrets of the East. The book made a big splash when it appeared in English in 1926; but as it turns out, it had already been exposed as a fraud more than thirty years earlier. The reading public, it is safe to say, has a short attention span.
The book was first published in France in 1894 as …
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The book was first published in France in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jésus Christ, by a Russian war correspondent named Nicolas Notovitch. Almost immediately it was widely disseminated and translated. In one year it appeared in eight editions in French, with translations into German, Spanish, and Italian. There was one edition published in the U.K. and three separate editions in America.
The book consisted of 244 paragraphs arranged in fourteen chapters. Notovitch starts the book by explaining how he “discovered” it. In 1887, he was allegedly traveling in India and Kashmir, where he heard from lamas of Tibet stories about a prophet named Issa, the Arabic form (roughly) of the name Jesus. His further travels took him to the district of Ladak, on the border of India and Tibet, to the famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Hemis. While there he heard further stories, and was told that written records of the life of Issa still survived.
Notovitch left the monastery without learning anything further. But after a couple of days he had a bad accident, falling off his horse and breaking his leg. He was carried back to the monastery to recuperate, and while there came to be on friendly terms with the Abbot. When Notovitch inquired further about the stories of Issa, the Abbot agreed to give him the full account. He produced two thick volumes, written in Tibetan, and began to read them out to Notovitch, in the presence of a translator who explained what the texts said, while Notovitch took notes.
The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ is the published edition of the careful notes that Notovitch allegedly took. When Jesus was thirteen, according to the account, he joined a caravan of merchants to go to India to study their sacred laws. He spent six years with the Brahmins, learning their holy books, the Vedas. But Jesus was completely disenchanted with the Indian caste system and openly began to condemn it. This raised the ire of the Brahmins who decided to put him to death.
Jesus fled to join a community of Buddhists, from whom he learned Pali, the language of Theraveda Buddhism, and mastered the Buddhist texts. He next visited Persia and preached to the Zoroastrians. Finally, as a twenty-nine year old, armed with all the sacred knowledge of the East, he returned to Palestine and began his public ministry. The narrative concludes by summarizing his words and deeds, and giving a brief account of his death. The story of his life was then allegedly taken by Jewish merchants back to India, where those who had known Issa as a young man realized that it was the same person. They then wrote down the full account.
Although the narrative of The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ may sound like a rather second-rate novel, it was published as a historically factual account and was widely believed as providing the key to the questions that Christians had long asked about the lost years of Jesus. What was he doing then? And how had he acquired such extensive and compelling religious knowledge before beginning his public ministry?
It was not long, however, before scholars interested in historical fact began to question the account and to expose it as a complex hoax. The tale was taken on by no less eminent an authority than Max Müller, the greatest European scholar of Indian culture of the late nineteenth century, who showed that the tale of the “discovery” of the book and the stories it told were filled with insurmountable implausibilities. If this great book was a favorite at the monastery of Hemis, why is it not found in either of the comprehensive catalogues of Tibetan literature? How is it that the Jewish merchants who went to India with tales of Jesus happened to meet up with precisely the Brahmins who knew Issa as a young man – out of the millions of people in India? And how did Issa’s former associates in India realize, exactly, that the crucified man was their former student?
In 1894 an English woman who had read the Unknown Life visited Hemis monastery. She made inquiries and learned that no Russian had ever been there, no one had been nursed back to health after breaking his leg, and they had no books describing the life of Issa. The next year a scholar, J. Archibald Douglas, went and interviewed the Abbot himself, who informed him that there had been no European with a broken leg in the monastery during his fifteen years in charge of the community. Moreover, he had been a lama for forty-two years and was well acquainted with Buddhist literature. Not only did he never read aloud a book about Issa, to a European or to anyone else, he was certain that no such book as The Unknown Life existed in Tibet.
Further internal implausibilities and inaccuracies of the story are exposed by both Goodspeed, and Beskow. Today there is not a recognized scholar on the planet who has any doubts about the matter. The entire story was invented by Notovitch, who earned a good deal of money and a substantial amount of notoriety for his hoax.
 Edgar J. Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956); Per Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).
 Discussed in Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha, pp. 3-14; and Beskow, Strange Tales, pp. 57-65.