Famous Biblical Hoaxes

One may find many books in New Age and used book stores about the missing years of Jesus' life from the ages of twelve to thirty. Supposedly this information is clearly documented. The stories began in the late eighteen hundreds with a book published by Nicolas Notovitch in 1894 in French. Since then many copies have appeared in other languages including English. One such edition in English is entitled: The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. Many other New Age or Spiritualist authors have taken this information and have incorporated it into their own works and systems. New Age writers such as Elizabeth Clare Prophet have made many thousands of dollars from the first book by Notovitch.

Is his information true? Does it stand up to historicity? Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed spells it out clear enough for anyone who is interested in truth rather than fiction. His book deals with many other Modern Apocryphal writings.

Below is the first chapter of his book in which he exposes Nicolas Notovitch for what he is--a fraud.

Famous Biblical Hoaxes or, Modern Apocrypha

By Edgar J. Goodspeed
Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956

Chapter One


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 Tibet. At the lamasery or monastery of Himis, he 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 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ. 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") 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.

Footnote: (La vie inconnue de Jisus Christ was published by Ollendorf in Paris in 1894. Henri Omont, of the Bibliotheque Nationale, informed me that at least eight editions of it were printed that year. Three separate translations of it, Frederick W. Ashley informed me, were entered for copyright at Washington in May of that year: on May 4, that of F. Marion Crawford, published by Macmillan; on May 18, that of J. H. Connelly and L. Landsberg, published by G. W. Dillingham, in New York; and on May 28, that of Alexina Loranger, published by Rand, McNally & Co., of Chicago. An Italian translation by R. Giovannini appeared the same year, and a German version, Die Luecke im Leben Jesu, was printed in Stuttgart that year. A London translation, by Violet Crispe, published by Hutchinson, appeared in 1895. The Dillingham book in 1926 was republished in New York by R. F. Fenno, but with copyright dated 1890! A Spanish version by A. G. de Araujo Jorge appeared in Rio de Janeiro in 1909.)

The book called forth a vigorous controversy, attracting the attention of no less an authority than Professor Friedrich Max Muller 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 he had been laid up with a broken leg at the monastery of Himis. There 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 244 short paragraphs, arranged in fourteen chapters.

It begins with an account of Israel in Egypt, its deliverance by Moses, its neglect of religion, and its conquest by the Romans. Then follows an account of the Incarnation. At the age of thirteen the divine youth, 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.

Issa 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. Then he 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 are persecuted, but his disciples carry his message out over the world.

The purpose of this little book is evidently to fill in the silent years of Jesus' youth, from the visit to Jerusalem at the age of 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?

The so-called problem of the Silent Years of Jesus was in 1953 surveyed by no less a writer than Manuel Komroff, for the American Weekly (August 2, 1953). He offered a faithful summary of the medieval British legends of a visit of Jesus to Britain, in his twenties. Of course the Abbey of Glastonbury was the shrine of such legends, with the reputed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea as its center. I am reminded that in my student days I paid my respects to no less than three ancient and venerable tombs of the patriarch Noah! The Middle Ages, east and west, had an incurable fondness for identifying--or creating--tombs of ancient worthies who appealed to their religious emotions or struck their fancy. But they do somewhat offset the equally weird efforts to transport Jesus to the Orient--India, or Tibet.

The historical truth is of course that ten years might well have been spent reading the Hebrew prophets and reflecting to no little purpose on the revelation they contained. No wonder Jesus could use them with such power in his brief ministry; he had studied and pondered them for many years, as no one has ever done, before or since. It is customary to dismiss his mastery of what was basic in them as simply effortless revelation, as though he just knew all about their meaning all the time, because he was himself; but that is not the picture of the gospels. He had to grow, as Luke is careful to say, in wisdom as well as stature. His favorite name for himself was the Son of Man. It is worth noting that those who cannot imagine Jesus absorbed in Nazareth in spiritual meditation and the society of the Hebrew prophets have, in imagination, carried him to the very ends of the earth to find sources for his message. They take flight not only to Egypt, India, Persia and Greece to explain him, but even to far-off Britain to inquire of the Druids there. The Unknown Life belongs to the Oriental school.

It is noteworthy that the Unknown Life describes Jesus' ministry as lasting three years-- an idea derived from the Gospel of John and from no other book of the New Testament. Did the author have the Gospel of John as well as that of Luke? His emphasis upon the Incarnation shows that he did. 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 was probably gained from the Gospel of Matthew, which, taken without the Acts of the Apostles, might give that impression. It looks as if 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 rules out a date earlier than the second century.

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. Here the message of Issa 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; 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, 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. "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 Jesus 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 monastery 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 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 or the interpreter, to make sure of what the Tibetan manuscripts contained. 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." This is just what a scholar would not have done; he would wish to present the f ragments just as the manuscripts had them, unaffected by his own views and tastes.

The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ attracted the attention of the great Orientalist Friedrich Max Muller, and he pointed out in The Nineteenth Century that the "Life of Issa" did not appear in the catalogue of the Tandjur and the Kandjur the great collections of Tibetan literature.

Footnote: ("The Alleged Sojourn of Christ in India," The Nineteenth Century, XXXVI (1894), 515 f.)

"If we understand M.. Notovitch rightly," said Muller, "this life of Christ was taken down from the mouths of some Jewish merchants who came to India immediately after the Crucifixion. "Muller asked 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." Muller went on to suggest that the Buddhist monks might have deceived Notovitch ." Two things in their account are impossible, or next to impossible. The first, that t he 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 dupe Notovitch, nothing remained Muller said, but to accuse 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 (1895):

"The truth indeed is 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 admitted. Even so, a scholar would of course have interested himself actively to secure copies and even photographs of the scattered portions which Notovitch said he had assembled. A work which made such high claims would be well worth an expedition to Tibet, to search out the scattered verses, to copy and translate them, and to provide an account of the documents in which they were imbedded. As it was, Notovitch seemed to have taken refuge from his critics in a fog of indefiniteness. In his first preface he spoke of the monastic libraries as " containing a few copies of the manuscript in question." But later it was of no use to look for the manuscript, he intimated, for there was no manuscript; and he lightly referred 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 decades following his publication of The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, did not take the obvious and, most of us would think, the unavoid able steps to substantiate his supposed discovery. As a possible gesture in that direction we may quote the report, in his London preface, of a conversation with a Roman Catholic cardinal to whom Notovitch 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 look 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 he never applied 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 suggest 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 said were 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 was 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. 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 Douglas' inquiries did at length elicit the report 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 had not received from Notovitch the presents Notovitch reported 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 Douglas effected what Muller described as his "annihilation."

Footnote: (3 The Chief Lama of Himis on the alleged "Unknown Life of Christ," The Nineteenth Century, XXXIX (1896), 667--78.

In conclusion Muller 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, had been taken in by it.

We may add that students of early Christian literature also passed it by as of no significance whatever. It made no stir among them. This is not because they are averse to new discoveries, which are of frequent occurrence. But every discovery 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 republication in New York in 1926 was hailed by the press as a new and important discovery.

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