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SOME SANSKRITISMS IN
THE NEW TESTAMENT GOSPELS

By Dr. Christian Lindtner

When Dr. Kunjunni visited me here in Denmark in May 1999, we not only had the occasion to read and discuss the Sanskrit text of Bhavya´s Madhyamakahrdayam, but I also availed myself of the opportunity to share with my old friend some of the discoveries I had make in regard to the New Testament Gospels and their Sanskrit sources.

Dr. Raja immediately recognized that if merely one convincing example of the Greek text being based on the Sanskrit could be pointed out and convincingly accounted for in this light, then this would be sufficient to establish a historical relationship.

If more cases could be pointed out, where the Greek could be explained in the light of the Sanskrit, so much the better, of course.

Here I would like to draw the reader´s attention to some cases of “Sanskritisms”, where old and still unsolved difficulties in the Greek of the Gospels are convincingly solved once it is recognized that they are translated from the Sanskrit.

The main Buddhist source of the NT Gospels is the Műlasarvâstvâda-vinaya (MSV), a huge collection of texts which also include the celebrated Catusparisatsutra (CPS) and the Mahâparinirvânasűtra (MPS). CPS and MPS were edited in Sanskrit and Tibetan by the German scholar Ernst Waldschmidt, Berlin 1952-1962 & 1950-1951, respectively. The CPS also forms a part of the Samghabhedavastu (SBV), the Sanskrit text of which (from Gilgit) was edited by Raniero Gnoli, Rome 1977-1978. Full references to these and other relevant sources may be found in the indispensable Sanskrit-Wörterbuch der buddhistischen Texte aus den Turfan-Funden, Göttingen 1973

-, and in my monograph Comparative Gospel Studies (forthcoming). My thesis is simply that there is not much in the NT Gospels that cannot be traced back to the MSV. The NT Gospels are translated - in a prima facie very strange fashion, to be sure - directly from the Sanskrit of the MSV. This novel thesis of mine was first presented to an international public in Sarnath, November 1998. My paper was subsequently expanded and published as a pamphlet by the Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust under the title Buddhism in Relation to Science and World Religions, Secunderabad 1999.

Currently I am preparing, inter alia, a running commentary on Matthew, pointing out, chapter by chapter, the Buddhist sources of the first of the four Gospels. For references to the Greek sources and modern commentaries on the Gospels etc., I shall have to refer the interested readers to that book. Here, I shall have to assume my reader to be familiar with the Greek and Sanskrit texts, and their philological problems.

1. Matthew 17: 5. Jesus takes Peter et al. up on a high mountain, where a transfiguration takes place. Peter offers to set up three shelters (Gr. skęnę). From the context one does not understand why Peter would want to set up such shelters. Candidly, Luke 9:33 admits that Peter did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a bright (Gr. nephelę phôteinę) cloud envelops them. The Buddhist source solving the problems is CPS 6. Bhagavat is staying with Mucilindas, the nâgarâja. Then a saptâhiko ´kâlameghah samupâgatah, CPS 6:2. To protect Bhagavat from the rain of the a-kâla-megha, lasting seven days, Mucilindas offers his hood (phana) as a shelter. Matthew, clearly, has inverted the order of events. Also, he has “mistranslated” a-kâla, which either means “out of season”, or “bright”. To make sense he should, as the CPS, first have mentioned the dark rain cloud, and then Peter´s offer to put up shelters (San. phana becoming Gr. skęnę). He confuses his reader by translating a-kâla as “bright”, though the sense required here is “out of season”. All the other details are also in the Buddhist source: The seven days become six days in Matthew and Mark, about eight days in Luke. Muci-lindas inspires to Moses and Elias; the description of Jesus is based on that of the Buddha in CPS 10; Peter (Gr. Petros) etc. were originally Tripusa etc., CPS 2. (p-t-r-s/t-r-p-s, same numerical value and consonants).

2. Mark 6:39-40. No satisfactory explanation for the two Greek expressions symposia symposia, “companies companies”, and prasiai prasiai, “groups groups”, has ever been offered. Both are translations of the frequent samghât samgham pűgât pűgam, “from group to group, from multitude to multitude”, which occurs in the same sense e.g. MPS 26:5. The Greek gives the original sense, and at the same time it attempts to reproduce the sounds and the order of the original Sanskrit. Since this is the only place where the four words occur as such in the Gospels, this also proves that “Mark” had direct and independent access to the Sanskrit original.

3. Matthew 16:17. Again, no satisfactory explanation has been given why Simon Peter is called Bar-Iôna. Now, Simon Petros is, as a rule, no other than Sâri-Putras. Sâri-Putras is often addressed in Buddhist sources (Mahâyâna only?) as a jina-putras, “son of Jina”. Bar-Iôna means son (bar) of Iôna, and so it is easy to see that bar translates putras whereas Iôna imitates the sound of Jina(s). So Bar-Iôna was simply Sâri-Putras. Puns on the name of this important disciple - in both sources - are quite frequent. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says: sy ei Petros, “You are Peter”. The Gr. sy ei contains a pun on Sâri. The “missing r” can, according to a general rule, be taken from putras. In John 1:47 the noun Israelite, Gr. Israęlitęs - the disciple in whom there is no guile - contains another pun on Sâri-putras. The word means “son of Israel”, which means that first the s-r represent the original two consonants of Sâri, whereas putras is represented by its original meaning in Israelite as a whole. By means of a simple pun, Sâri-Putras has become a son of Israel In the Gospels “Israelite” only occurs here. To be sure, the other disciples mentioned by John 1 can all be traced back to the Buddhist sources. As I point out in my forthcoming book, Aniruddhas thus becomes Andreas, Pippalas becomes Philippos, and Nâlandâ becomes Nathanael. The Gospels always try to retain the number and nature of the consonants (guttural, palatal, lingual, dental, labial, semivowel, sibilant) of the names of persons and places in the Sanskrit original.

4. Matthew 14:34 & 15:39. Jesus, who has just been addressed as “son of God”, Gr. theou huios - which of course is a direct translation of San. deva-putras, as is the hybrid “son of David (Gr. huios Daueid)”- now “ and crossing over came to land Gennesaret”.

Here the Greek kai diaperasantes ęlthon epi tęn gęn (eis) Gennęsaret is a direct rendering of San. (mâgadhakâ manusyâ) nadîm Gangâm uttaranty api pratyuttaranti, MPS 7.

5. Some editors of the NT add an eis, “to”, to avoid the difficult reading gęn Gennęsaret, “to land G.”. But wrongly so, for Gr. gęn Gen- is an attempt to render the Gangâm of the original, retaining all the original consonants (viz. g-n-g-m=n). The San. uttaranty api has been inverted so as to become Gr. kai (=api) diaperasantes (= uttaranti), the sense being thus preserved. The second San. verb, pratyuttaranti, is represented by the five syllables, and consonants, of ęlthon epi tęn (NB:l counts as r, as often).

For San. mâgadhakâ, meaning “(men) form the land of Magadha” (cf. Tib.: yul ma ga dha´i mi rnams, “men of Magadha land”), we have to consult Matthew 15:39, which says that Jesus went into the boat and came “into the borders of Magadha”, Gr. eis to oria Magadan.

All modern commentators agree that this strange location “Magadan” is quite unknown from other sources. Equally puzzling is the variant given in Mark 8:10: “to the parts Dalmanutha”, Gr. eis ta merę Dalmanoutha. Neither “Magadan” nor “Dalmanu(o)tha” are to be found on the map.

In the light of the original source, MPS 7:5, all the old problems are now finally solved. One only has to look at a map of Buddhist India!

It was originally the Buddha who crossed the Ganges in the land of Magadha. This famous episode is not only known from MPS, but even from Buddhist art. The earliest artistic representation of this episode is already to be found in Sanchi, see Dieter Schlingloff, “Die wunderbare Überquerung der Gangâ”, in N. Balbir & J.K.Bautze (eds.), Festschrift Klaus Bruhn zur Vollendung des 65. Lebensjahres, Reinbek 1994, pp.571-584. To be sure, this proves the chronological priority of the Buddhist source.

MPS 7:5 also provides us with the clue to the mysterious location “Dalmanoutha”. Immediately after the words uttaranty api, the San. says that some of the Magadha people crossed the river (nadî) Gangâ in salmani-phalesu (Tib. sin sal ma la´i span leb, “boards of the salmani tree”), i.e. on rafts. Here there can hardly be any doubt that dalman imitates salman. In all likelihood, the Gr. outha is intended to imitate San. atha, the first word in the following sentence, MPS 7:6. Speaking of atha, this common word is usually translated by Gr. eutheôs or euthus, in all the four Gospels. This literal translation creates confusion, because the Gr. words means “at once”, “immediately”, whereas San. atha simply means, “(and) then”. By translating Gr. eutheôs or euthus in the sense of San. atha the reader can suddenly make natural sense of virtually all the passages in the Gospels where atha occurs in Greek disguise.

A similar observation applies to Gr. apo tote in Matthew 4:17 and 16:21. Some scholars have suggested that this strange expression “from then on” may mark a turning point in the life of Jesus. The reader familiar with the style of SBV, however, will have no problems in recognizing the Gr. apo tote as an inverted translation of San. tato ´pi, “and then”. As a rule, Gr. tote likewise translates San. tato/tatah/tatas, a synonym of atha.

In other words: To understand the Greek one must know the Sanskrit behind it. This is a general rule that - so I maintain - applies to all the “Sanskritisms” of the four Gospels as a whole.

These are just a few typical examples of how the unknown authors of the Gospels “translated” the Sanskrit into Greek. The puns on the sounds of the original Sanskrit are sufficient to show that there was no “Aramaic” (or any other) intermediate.

The strange way of “translating” may come as a surprise to modern readers. But if things are seen in their proper historical context there is but little cause for surprise. Indian readers familiar with the norms of alamkârasâstra - the sabda- and the arthâlamkâras - will easily recognize the various kinds of puns on the sound and meaning of the original.

Jewish readers familiar with the rules (middoth) that are employed in the exegesis of their sacred scriptures, will have even less cause for surprise. A convenient survey of rabbinic hermenetics is provided by Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, New York 1959.

The Gospels, with odd results, have been translated “according to the book”. The main rules (Hebrew middoth) at work when the Sanskrit was translated into Greek, were:

1. Neged, corresponding significant number, as when the seven days of the original become six, six, and about eight.

2. Ma´al, paronomasia, a playing on words which sound alike, San. anuprâsa, alliteration, or yamaka, as in the case of Nâlandâ and Gangâm becoming Nathanael and gęn Gęn-.

3. Gematria, from Gr. grammateia, computation of the numeric value of letters, and metathesis of the letters, e.g. when putras and Tripusa(s) both become Petros.

4. Notarikon, when a word is broken into two or more, as when ganikâ becomes gynę ekh- or gynę ętis. Gematria is often seen as a subdivision of Notarikon.

5. Mukdam shehu´meúhar ba-´inyan, when something that precedes is palaced second, hysteron proteron, as when the shelters are mentioned before the a-kâla-megha, though they should have been mentioned after the rainy cloud. These and many other middoth are extremely common in Haggadah litterature, i.e. in Hebrew stories of the Passover.

The common technical term for translation or interpretation is Targum. It may either be Peshat (literal), or a free haggadic translation with midrashic passages, or commentaries. The Gospels should thus be seen as a targum belonging to Haggadah, done according to the middoth current among learned Jews about two thousand years ago. Often, one cannot fail to suspect that ancient Hebrew hermeneutics were somehow indebted to Indian sources to a much higher extent than generally assumed. Not just in Greek but also in Hebrew there are many “Sanskritisms”. This interesting issue I hope to take up on another occasion.

Dr. Christian Lindtner