Why you should care
Because the debate over fake news is nothing new.
It was a publishing sensation. Even better, the book’s backstory was an exciting adventure. A Russian aristocrat named Nicolas Notovitch had been covering the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1877–78 as a war correspondent when he decided to set off for northern India via the Balkans, Persia and Afghanistan. Nearly a decade later, when he had finally reached the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh, his horse threw him, fracturing his right leg.
Buddhist monks at Hemis Monastery took him in, and while the Russian adventurer recovered, the head lama revealed the religious community’s strange secret: Its library contained a text titledThe Life of Saint Issa, which chronicled the years Jesus of Nazareth spent traveling and teaching in India and Tibet.
The reading public didn’t care about Notovitch’s scholarship, but experts in the field were quick to pounce.
Notovitch transcribed, with the help of a local interpreting the Tibetan, as the lama read the ancient manuscript aloud to his distinguished convalescing guest. Once back in Europe, the enterprising Russian wrote an account in French of his sojourn in Ladakh and rearranged the events in The Life of Saint Issa in chronological order. A French house published the book in 1894 with a title that translates into English as The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ in India and Tibet. It quickly became a best-seller, earning Notovitch a good deal of money and plenty of notoriety. The reading public didn’t care much about Notovitch’s scholarship, but experts in the field were quick to pounce.
One bemused skeptic was Friedrich Max Müller, a German-born Oxford Orientalist. Soon after Notovitch’s book was published, Müller wrote an article titled “The Alleged Sojourn of Christ in India,” which expressed in a gently ribbing manner his reservations about Notovitch’s discovery, stating that it was “unfortunate” the Russian had “lost the photographs” of his expedition. Müller also suggested Notovitch “may have traveled in disguise” as no one seemed to remember him visiting the monastery. He also found it odd that the Sutra of Issa “should not have found a place either in the Kandjur or in the Tandjur [the Tibetan Buddhist canon].”
James Douglas, a history professor at Government College in Agra, India, at the time, read Müller’s article and, intrigued, headed up to Ladakh the following summer to investigate. Doubt crept in early as he trekked up the Sind Valley, which Notovitch had described as teeming with “panthers, tigers, leopards, black bears, wolves and jackals.” The best Douglas could summon on this ancient leg of the Silk Road was a timid bear.
After reaching Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Douglas soon discovered that Notovitch had been treated in the Leh hospital for a toothache, not a broken leg. Nevertheless, he continued on to the monastery, where he interviewed the head lama, who insisted that Notovitch never gained entrance to Hemis, the Issa text didn’t exist and Notovitch’s work contained “nothing but lies!”
Scholars of Buddhism generally agree that Notovitch was a fraud — he went on to publish other sketchy historical tomes and once claimed that a cardinal in Rome told him of hidden Vatican documents backing up his discovery of Jesus in India. (He may or may not have recanted his Issa story; it depends on the source.)
And he goofed on some basics. Donald Lopez, professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Michigan, describes dozens of factual errors in Notovitch’s book. At one point the author refers to The Life of Saint Issa as scrolls and at another as two bound volumes. “Tibetan Buddhists use neither scrolls or bound volumes,” says Lopez, “but xylographs [wood engravings].”
Notovitch’s wild tale didn’t arise simply out of a craving for fame and fortune. Tony Burke, an associate professor of early Christianity at York University in Toronto, points out that “only two noncanonical gospels mention Jesus’ adolescence and early adulthood,” with neither text diving into the “lost years” (ages 12 to 29). That ambiguity gives imaginative types like Notovitch plenty of murky historical leeway when reconfiguring religious traditions, or, as Burke notes, license to “reimagine” Jesus to fit the trends of the epoch they’re living in.
Plus, the Russian may have intended to align the Jesus narrative more closely with his own religious philosophy, Theosophy. This esoteric religion espoused by another Russian aristocrat, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, places the world’s wisest “masters,” or mahatmas, in Tibet. Blavatsky wanted to “identify a mystical core at the foundation of all religions” via “her mystical communication with the mahatmas,” including the Buddha and Jesus, says Lopez.
The late 19th century was a time of religious appropriation, notes Lopez. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the charismatic founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, “had Jesus [Isa in the Islamic tradition] come to India to die,” says Lopez. In the city of Srinagar, local legend holds that the carpenter’s son is entombed in the Roza Bal shrine.
And there may be a darker undercurrent to Notovitch’s tale. Many Christians of the era disliked the “idea that their religion originated with the Jews,” says Gary Lachman, author of Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. Lopez believes the development of now-discredited race theories forced bigoted Christians to confront the fact that Jesus was a Semite. Placing Christ in Asia was a nifty anti-Semitic loophole, in which Jesus, as a young man, wasn’t “in a synagogue,” says Lopez, “but in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas.”