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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.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber


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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This tale of a Christian missionary in space tells us more about life, love and faith than most down-to-earth fiction.

Michel Faber once said that he was an atheist. If that is still true, his latest novel — The Book of Strange New Things — suggests that he takes religion so seriously, considers it so valuable, that he cannot bring himself to sully it by believing. Within the novel, the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ is the Bible, and so Faber has written his own bible, what he wants to say to our common humanity about life and death, faith and doubt. He has produced something far more lucid and alive to human joys and sorrows than any bowdlerised attempt by AC Grayling.

The book is full of humour, that warm kind of wit that dimples the cheeks when we catch a glimpse of the fact that everyday human existence was ever part comedy. Yet Faber had me weeping in despair for humanity too, and he gently led me back and forth between the two until I understood the need for both.

Peter Leigh is an English Christian pastor who has been called to be a missionary. To say that Peter’s marriage to Beatrice is a happy one is an understatement: they are a perfect partnership and their love-life is good. But that mission means that they will be apart for the first time since they married. The novel opens with the couple driving to Heathrow Airport, finding a lay-by for last-minute lovemaking, and the nervous separation.

The Book of Strange New Things is sci-fi, but it would be wrong to pigeon-hole it as genre fiction. It depicts a near future: near enough for everything to be totally recognisable as if it were today. The only difference is that a faceless corporation — USIC — has started a colony on the planet Oasis (so named in competition by a schoolgirl in Nebraska). So much, so sci-fi, except that Peter has been called to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of Oasis, the Oasans — when a colleague refers to them as ‘aliens’, Peter reminds her that the humans are the aliens on Oasis. We are saved from too much sci-fi by the fact that we are limited to Peter’s experience and limited understanding of what is going on. As is common practice in sci-fi, Peter is put into a drug-induced suspended animation for the month-long ‘Jump’ to Oasis, resulting in some crazy, mind-bending jet lag. On arrival, his liaison, Grainger, apparently gives him a full briefing, but, as he cannot remember, we too are left in the dark about the practicalities of living in an extraterrestrial colony until Peter find out the hard way. And there is that nagging question: why would USIC want to spend millions to send a missionary into space?

The USIC base on Oasis is described as the most ugly airport terminal imaginable. Its concrete edifice is populated by a skeleton workforce that is still setting things up. Peter’s colleagues are characters, but not that characterful — somewhat self-repressed workaholics. The functional mess hall where the members of the community meet serves some expensive imported earth food alongside simulated earth favourites made from the various flora and fauna of Oasis, all to the background drone of Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Like the food, all is recognisable and yet somehow alien.

While Peter is bringing the Good News to the Oasans, there is Bad News from Bea about far-away Earth. The ‘Shoot’ — a text-only interstellar messaging relay — enables Bea and Peter to write to each other, but their text-only relationship is awkward, unnatural. Both now inhabit worlds that the other cannot but fail to understand. First of all the news is full of terrible natural disasters, then Tesco stops stocking any decent chocolate desert, and finally Tesco goes bust. Culverting the sewer of Hollywood disaster movies, one wonders whether this is a more real description of how we might experience the beginning of the end of the world from suburbia. Michel Faber is on record for turning down British citizenship because of the Iraq war, and one can see that for him just nudging Cameron’s crumbling Britain up a gear makes for an apocalypse that is both frightening and believable.

At first the Oasans look like mediaeval monks. They are short and thin, wearing pastel-coloured hooded robes, and live a communal life of simple agriculture, without machines or electricity. When Peter first takes a look inside one of their cowls what he sees is described

“Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses — maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognisable to him — a mouth, nose, eyes.”

For Peter’s first, official visit to the Oasans, they have scrawled ‘WELCOME’ above the door to one of their houses. As his new flock gather, rather surprisingly they break into a few verses of ‘Amazing grace’, lisped and warbled by alien throats. They are desperate for him to read to them from the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ about the ‘technique of Jesus’.

The book design in itself is a delight: the white-and-gold dust jacket represents the spiral dance of the rain of Oasis. As a lover of fine typesetting, the publishers Canongate made the commendable decision to set the text in Eric Gill’s Perpetua, the ‘Shoot’ messages between Peter and Bea are in the clean, typewriterly Officina Sans, but best of all is the book’s use of Blambot’s We Come in Peace, a comic-book font for representing alien languages. Some of the Oasans have learnt English, but their inability to pronounce ‘s’, ‘t’ and ‘ch’ means that these are replaced by Blambot’s symbols. Later, as Peter learns their language, we see whole words, even speeches, in this script, and the reader is left to imagine how these alien sounds are made.

The Book of Strange New Things deserves rereading. Michel Faber has packed it with little observations and cryptic references. Faber litters the narrative with hanging questions and mysteries, letting a few go unanswered, and surprising the reader with some rather mundane answers to others, bringing sci-fi bang down to earth — and rather wonderfully.