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Did Jesus Go to India?

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

A watercolor rendering of Jesus standing in front of a building.

Did Jesus go to India? Did Jesus learn his wisdom from Indian Gurus? Did he travel to India during the ‘lost years?’ These questions come up all the time.

Let’s cut to the chase. The answer is ‘No.’ Not only is there no convincing evidence, but there is NO evidence. Period!

The idea that Jesus travelled to India in search of wisdom did not originate in ancient times. It’s a modern notion.

Where did the rumor come from? 

In 1894 Nicolas Notovitch, a Russian journalist and adventurer, published La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ (The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ). The book was quickly translated into the major modern European languages and was all the rage.

Notovitch claimed to have heard of an ancient manuscript about Issa while he recouped from a broken leg in a Buddhist monastery in Minis, Tibet. The abbot read the Sanskrit manuscript to him, while his interpreter translated, and he made extensive notes. He published his notes as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ.

In the book’s first part, Notovitch described his travels and discovery of the manuscript which he titled Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men. This Life of Issa contained two hundred and forty-four short paragraphs, arranged in fourteen chapters. It begins with a short summary of the Old Testament and Rome’s conquest of Israel. After the incarnation, the divine youth, at thirteen Jesus leaves home and travels with merchants to India and studies the Vedas with Brahmins. But he rejects the caste system and is forced to flee to the Buddhists, spending six years learning Pali to read their religious texts.

Upon turning twenty-nine, Issa returns to his own country and begins preaching his newfound wisdom. Eventually Pilate has him killed and his followers spread his message over the whole world. Jewish merchants brought Jesus’ story to India, where those who had known Issa realized that he was the same person. They wrote down a full record.

Who challenged the tale?

When originally published the book provoked extensive controversy. The Oxford scholar, Max Müller, a prominent philologist and expert on India, offered an extensive refutation demonstrating the book was a hoax. Things gradually quieted down.

In 1926 when the book was republished in the United States to much acclaim, Edgar Goodspeed, an eminent American New Testament scholar at the University of Chicago, published a refutation in his Strange New Gospels (republished as Modern Apocrypha). Among his arguments, the following is simple and straightforward. Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa cannot not represent an independent witness because it showed clear dependence on the canonical gospels. From John it got the idea of a three-year ministry and the incarnation; from Luke, the notion that Jesus was thirteen when he went on his journey to India and thirty when he started his ministry. These points, central to Notovitch’s book, are unique to these gospels. Therefore, the so-called Life of Saint Issa is dependent on the canonical gospels and is a hoax.

Others followed in Goodspeed’s footsteps.

Per Beskow, Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983) 57-65, clearly demonstrates that the book is a forgery.

Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011) 282–283, has a short discussion of the Notovitch book as an example of a modern forgery.

Louis H. Fader, The Issa Tale That Will Not Die: Nicholas Notovitch and His Fraudulent Gospel (2023) reviews the literature and expands on how it has been used in new age groups.

As the title of Fader’s recent book indicates, the tale will not die. The book is still available on Amazon in a variety of reprints, and online at the Gutenberg Project.

Why this interest in an evident forgery? Since scholars have shown over and over that Notovitch’s book is a hoax, why do questions about what Jesus did during the lost years or whether he went to India keep coming up? Most folks do not know about Notovitch’s book, much less the scholarly refutations proving it to be a hoax. Jesus going to India and studying with their wise men has become part of the zeitgeist. Everyone appears to have heard about it.  

Is there any evidence of Jesus in India?

Jesus going to India keeps coming up because we love a mystery. The Jewish rabbi and scholar Sameul Sandmel once said, “Minimal evidence leads to maximal theories.” And where there is no evidence, you are free to make it up.

Strangely, Jesus’ early followers showed no such interest. Before the gospel attributed to Mark was written sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem, there is no evidence of a story of Jesus’ life. The anonymous author of Mark’s Gospel begins the narrative with Jesus’ ritual cleansing by John. The author is uninterested in what happened before that point and even uninterested in the date on which it starts. It starts in the middle of things (in media res), as many ancient stories do, for example, Homer’s Iliad.

Matthew begins with a birth narrative, then skips to Jesus’ baptism, and follows Mark’s narrative outline. Luke begins with yet another completely different version of Jesus’ birth, adds in a story of Jesus teaching in the temple, then skips to Jesus’s baptism and follows Mark’s narrative outline. John begins with a hymn about a pre-existent Logos, then begins with Jesus’ baptism. The ancient storytellers seem little interested in what happened to Jesus before Mark begins the story with his baptism.

Why does the rumor persist?

In modern times we have access not only to the wisdom of the West (the Greeks and Romans) but also the East. With that knowledge has come an awareness of striking parallels between the wisdom of Jesus and the Buddha. Surely there must be some connection. But a parallel does not a relation make. Samuel Sandmel, that same Jewish rabbi mentioned above, referred to this a parallelomania. Humans in different cultures often figure out the same things because there are only so many ways to solve a problem. We often stumble along the same path.

But I think there is a deeper reason which derives from the arrogance of modernity. How could a Jewish peasant have this learning? We find it hard to accept that a Galilean, Jewish peasant, who was almost certainly illiterate, could have such wisdom. Surely, he had to get it from somewhere. Why not India? We have trouble admitting someone from such an impoverished background could possess such wisdom. Yet according to Mark 6:2, when Jesus taught in his own synagogue, his neighbors asked, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” Apparently, Jesus’s friends and neighbors had the same problem as many moderns.

Wisdom is difficult to explain and wisdom from the unexpected is even more difficult to accept. But Jesus did not go to India.

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