In 1894, the Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch published La vie inconnue de Jésus Christ which purported to reveal that Jesus has spent many years as both teacher and scholar at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
Notovitch had been travelling in India as the correspondent for the Russian journal, Novaya Vremiya (New Times) in the winter of 1887. While in the Kashmir region he fell from his horse and broke his leg and was taken to the Hemis Gompa monastery for treatment.
He was given excellent care and was told that this was because the lamas believed he shared the same faith. When he protested that he was a Christian, they explained that Issa, the greatest of the Buddhist prophets, had also founded the Christian religion.
The lamas produced two bound volumes, part of a collection of ancient Tibetan records written in Pali, an old Indian language, in the first two centuries AD.
They told how Issa had been born in Israel and that he had arrived in India when he was fourteen years old with a group of merchants. He travelled the sub-continent for the next fifteen years learning the tenets of Buddhism and gaining a reputation as a preacher and prophet.
It was an intriguing tale and Notovitch made the obvious connection between Issa and Jesus. Both shared a pacifist philosophy, but more importantly, it explained the gap in Biblical records which shows Jesus in the Temple at the age of thirteen, then nothing until he was thirty.
Notovitch made notes as best he could and took his discovery to the church when he returned to Europe, but rather than being treated as a bearer of glad tidings, he was warned that he should not attempt to publish his findings.
As mentioned above, Notovitch chose to ignore these warnings and published them as The Secret Life of Jesus Christ and this led to his arrest in St Petersburg on charges of ‘literary activity dangerous to the state and to society’. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress and then exiled to Siberia, although he was allowed to return in 1897.
So does Notovitch’s story hold up? Scholars at the time thought it did not after seeking confirmation from the monastery. The head lama said there had been no western visitors in the previous fifteen years, nor was there any documents like the one described. Notovitch defended his claims but was eventually forced to admit that he had fabricated the tale.
But had he? There are certainly those who believe that Notovitch really had visited the monastery and that later visitors have been told similar accounts of the life of Jesus in India and that the church is suppressing the truth.