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Was Saint Peter a Buddhist monk?

Dunhuang Caves

Dunhuang Caves

I apologize for the click bait headline: no, he was not! I was, however, revisiting some fascinating work done by the syriacist Hidemi Takahashi on proper names in the Christian documents and inscriptions of Tang dynasty China (here, here and here). Three Chinese characters in one document seem to refer to Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter as ‘Solid-Peak Monk’.

Christianity first came to China during or just before the Tang era. The first Christians in China were most likely traders who came overland along the famous Silk Road to the Tang capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). They were adherents of the Church of the East, who prayed in Syriac but mostly spoke Iranian and Turkic languages.

In the great hoard of manuscripts discovered at the Dunhuang caves complex are those belonging to this first Chinese church. One of these is the eighth-century Zūnjīng (尊經 ‘The Book of Honour’), which is a rather grand name for what is essentially two lists of names. The first list in Zūnjīng is of biblical characters and saints, while the second is list of Christian books, including some other documents found at Dunhuang. It seems that the purpose of Zūnjīng was to provide a crib sheet for those translating Christian texts into Chinese to show which characters should be used for certain names.

The entry for ‘Solid-Peak Monk’ appears in Zūnjīng‘s list of names. The entry simply reads Cénwěn Sēng (岑穩僧 literally ‘solid peak monk’). From other uses, it is clear that the name Cénwěn should be understood as ‘Simon’. In the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Tang era, it would likely have been pronounced /d͡ʒiɪm ʔuənX/ or /tʂɦəm ʔun’/ (different sources reconstruct it differently). The Japanese reading of the characters as shimu’on (しむおん) upholds this kind of pronunciation, and Japanese readings often give a good insight into the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Seeing as the liturgical language of the first Chinese Christians was Syriac, this fits with the Syriac for ‘Simon’, which is Shem‘ōn (ܫܡܥܘܢ, exactly following the Hebrew Shim‘ôn שמעון, ‘he has heard’). If the Simon in question is the Simon Peter whose nickname means ‘rock’ (from the Greek Petros Πέτρος, given by Jesus in the punning dialogue of Matthew 16.13–20), then the literal meaning of the characters 岑穩 as ‘solid peak’ also makes sense. All of this is rather linguistically satisfying.

The name ‘Peter’ sounds like just that, a name, to most us, and we forget that it is a rocky nickname. The New Testament gives us an alternative version of the name, often written Cephas in English Bibles. This represents Kēphas (Κηφᾶς) in the Greek text. This is the Aramaic word for ‘rock’: Kêfâ (כיפא ܟܐܦܐ). He gets a final sigma in Greek to make it sound more manly, as an alpha ending is womanly (Jesus’ name got its final ‘s’ for the same gendered reason). As Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, Simon Peter is more usually called Shem‘ōn Kēfā (ܫܡܥܘܢ ܟܐܦܐ). It would be natural for Christians who prayed in Syriac to have carried Peter’s name to China not as the Greek Petros, but the Syriac Kēfā, but that is not what the scribe of Zūnjīng gave us.

The Chinese sēng () is used for Buddhist monks. Thus we literally have ‘Simon the Buddhist monk’. The Chinese word comes from the Buddhist Pali term saṅgha (सङ्घ), referring to a Buddhist monastery, which is sēngjiā (僧伽) in Chinese. For want of a better term in Chinese, Christian monks are regularly given the title sēng in Tang era texts too, so our Simon does not have to be a Buddhist monk.

The key to the puzzle rests in learning the extinct Sogdian language, which was well represented among traders from the West in Chang’an. Sogdian was an Iranian language spoken in Samarkand and throughout a region covering today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It became a Silk Road lingua franca. In Sogdian, the word for ‘rock’ is sang, and this seems to be the origin of the Chinese sēng being used to translate the Petros/Kēfā part of Simon Peter’s name. Thus, Sogdian-speaking merchants and their clergy brought Christianity to China, naming Jesus’ disciple Shem‘ōn Sang, with that literal rocky translation of Kēfā. The scribe of Zūnjīng decided to choose Chinese characters that represented this Sogdian name phonetically. Yet the phonetic transcription is only half the story. The good scribe chose characters that had a meaning that was in harmony with who Simon Peter was.  Oddly, the rockiness of ‘Peter’ was transferred to the characters that phonetically represent ‘Simon’, as ‘solid peak’. Twice oddly, a Chinese character for a Buddhist monk that is phonetically derived from the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit was used to represent the Sogdian word for ‘rock’. I imagine our good scribe thought the character suitable for a holy man, a saint.

P.S. In modern Mandarin Chinese, Simon Peter is Xīmén Bǐde (西门·彼得). The Catholic Church in China uses either Bǎiduōlù (伯多禄) or Bǎiduó (伯铎) for ‘Peter’, and the Orthodox Church uses Péitèrè (裴特若). ‘Simon’ is also often written as Xīméng (西蒙) All are rather phonetic and based on European languages. It is a pity the link with the Syriac/Sogdian of the first to bring Christianity to China has been lost.

P.P.S. Simon Peter was obviously not a monk. Christian monasticism did not really get going until St Anthony in the third century. The fact that Peter was married can be ascertained by the reference to his sick mother-in-law in the gospels (Matthew 8.14, Mark 1.30, Luke 4.38).

P.P.P.S. Speaking of the Sogdian word for ‘rock’, the Sogdian Rock was a fortress in Sogdiana that was besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Arrian’s Anabasis tells us that the defenders thought the Rock to be impregnable but Alexander employed rock climbers to scale it with flax ropes and tent pegs. Alexander’s prize was to marry the princess Roxana. The Greeks thought her to be the second most lovely woman in all of Asia, which must have given her the hump. She was a Bactrian princess.

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Bartholomew

Bartholomew is named as one of the Twelve Disciples in all three synoptic gospels, and always is paired with Philip (Mark 3·18, Matthew 10·3 and Luke 6·14; though he is paired with Matthew in Acts 1·13). Bartholomew does not appear in the Gospel of John, and his place with Philip is instead taken by Nathanael, who is brought to Jesus by Nathanael (John 1·45). Seeing as Nathanael does not occur in the synoptics, there is an ancient tradition of considering Bartholomew and Nathanael to be one and the same person.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Eusebius of Caesarea (EH V.x) tells us that, in the late second century, Pantaenus of Alexandria was a Stoic philosopher and a missionary to India and found that he had been preceded by Bartholomew as missionary in that place, and Bartholomew had brought there Matthew’s writings in Hebrew script (which could mean Aramaic). The term ‘India’ was rather imprecise, and other legends place Bartholomew in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia or Anatolia. Armenian Christians believe that Bartholomew along with Thaddaeus brought Christianity to Armenia, where Bartholomew converted the king, which led to the king’s brother ordering his execution. In tradition, Bartholomew was flayed and then either crucified upside down or beheaded. In line with popular ‘martyrological torture porn’, Michelangelo depicted Bartholomew as a loose bag of flayed skin in the Last Judgement scene of the Sistine Chapel. The thirteenth-century Armenian monastery of St Bartholomew (Սուրբ Բարթողոմէօս Վանք Surb Bartʿoɬomēos Vankʿ) in Başkale, Turkey’s Van Province, is said to be built at the place of his martyrdom. However, the ancient city of Derbent on the Caspian Sea (Dagestan, Russian Federation) is also a candidate. Various places claim relics of Bartholomew, including Canterbury Cathedral, which claims an arm given it by Queen Emma, consort of King Cnut. This and his appearance in Felix’s Life of Guthlac may explain Bartholomew’s popularity in England: there are 165 ancient churches dedicated to him.

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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani

Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani? by Ann Kim. Oil Stick on canvas, 1998, 50″ x 70″.

Yesterday, being Palm Sunday, we read the Passion Gospel. Even though we should have been reading Luke’s Passion because we are in Year C of lectionary, we ended up with the shorter version of Matthew‘s Passion for some reason. Afterwards there were a few questions about the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’. So, I thought I should write some words about this phrase, which appears in both Matthew and Mark:

Mark 15.34:

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

καὶ τῇ ἐνάτη ὥρᾳ ἐβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ· ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι; ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνεθόμενον· ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με;

Matthew 27.46:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων· ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν· θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες;

The main difference between the two versions, apart from Greek grammatical differences are the spellings of the call on God: Mark’s ελωι and Matthew’s ηλι.

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The name, fame and shame of Bartimaeus

Yesterday’s Gospel was Mark’s pericope of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho (Mk 10.46–52; synoptic parallels Mt 9.27–31, 20.29–34, Lk 18.35–43). It struck me that passing characters in the gospels, especially recipients of healing, are anonymous (Luke’s version does not name the blind man, and Matthew makes him two anonymous men). Most of us treat ‘Bartimaeus’ as a straightforward name, but I think it’s unusual for a couple of reasons.

He is introduced as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus” (ὁ υἱὸς Τιμαίου Βαρτιμαῖος, ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos). This is often read as if Bartimaeus is his name, and his father is Timaeus. However, the simple fact that ‘bar’ is the Aramaic for ‘son of’ suggests that ‘son of Timaeus’ is the partial translation of ‘Bartimaeus’. It’s always interesting to see what the Syriac Peshitta does with such translations of Aramaic, seeing as there is usually no need for a gloss on Aramaic (Syriac being a variety of Aramaic). The Peshitta translates the name as ܛܝܡܝ ܒܪ ܛܝܡܝ (Ṭimai bar Ṭimai). Although this suggests once again a proper name ‘Timai bar Timai’, this still does not make a great deal of sense.

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Thoughts on Saint Luke

Tomorrow is Saint Luke’s Day. I’m preaching, so here’s a little bit of my thoughts in preparation for this day.

Like so much of early-church history, we do not have clear evidence about Luke until the fourth century, and then have little with which to evaluate the tradition. Continue reading


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Serving Mammon

Today, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, stood up at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and had a go at the bankers and their bonuses. So far, so populist. Pointing at naughty bankers, who do deserve to be brought down a peg or two, is simple legerdemain, making sure we don’t see that it is the neoliberalism incarnate in Thatcherism and Blairism that has been the driving force behind this chaos in the UK. We got our MPs expenses scandal (no progress is being made by the flimsy legislation that has come in to deal with the issue), but we haven’t been allowed to analyse the Government economic mismanagement scandal.

A long time ago, I read that money is the second most talked about issue in the gospels (after the kingdom of heaven). Christian moralising is so often hung up on sex, it has no energy left to deal with what seems to me to be Jesus’ bigger issue, Mammon. He is the personification of pelf and lucre. Stock markets have become his temples, bankers his priests, economists are his theologians. Their doctrines are ineffable and inscrutable, keeping us in the pews unaware of what they were up to. The more we ask the question ‘what is money?’, the more we realise that it is an abstract social agreement we no longer comprehend. Money actually isn’t any one thing, but a whole set of related ideas; it doesn’t exist in a coin or banknote, but they are just symbols of money. Doesn’t the whole thing sound not a little theological? Continue reading