Did Jesus Visit Other Parts of the World?
According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, engaged in itinerant ministry throughout Galilee, Judea, and places between them, and was executed in Judea just outside Jerusalem. Except for a brief stay in Egypt with his parents as a baby (Matt. 2:12-15, 19-23), all of Jesus’ mortal life appears to have taken place within a radius of roughly a hundred miles of the place of his birth. The Holy Land where Jesus lived from the mountains north of the Sea of Galilee to the desert south of Jerusalem is such a tiny region that it could fit within the bounds of Lake Michigan with room to spare.
Throughout most of church history, this understanding that Jesus remained within the Holy Land throughout his youth and adult years went virtually unchallenged. However, in the past two centuries, following the expansion of Europeans throughout Asia and the Western Hemisphere, numerous stories have been told about Jesus visiting other parts of the world. Might there be any truth to these stories, and why does it matter?
These stories typically claim that Jesus traveled to other parts of the world during periods of his life not covered by the Gospels. Such stories may seem plausible because they appear to fill in “gaps” in what we know about Jesus. We can classify or categorize these various stories according to the period of time in or around Jesus’s life in which they are set: (1) between the ages of 12 and about 30; (2) after supposedly escaping Jerusalem (instead of dying on the cross there) and dying years later in another country; and (3) shortly after his resurrection from the dead.
The Missing Years
According to Luke, Jesus was raised in Nazareth by his parents, who made annual journeys to Jerusalem for Passover including when he was twelve (Luke 2:39-42). At that Passover, Jesus stayed behind for a few days talking with the teachers in the temple, after which his parents found him and he returned home to Nazareth (2:43-52). Luke then tells us that Jesus was baptized by John and began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old (3:21-23). Since neither Luke nor any of the other Gospel writers tell us anything else about Jesus’ youth or young adult years, the period from age twelve to age thirty is often called the “missing years” of Jesus’ life. Not surprisingly, many stories about Jesus traveling are set in this very period. The two best known of these stories suggest that during those years Jesus traveled either to Britain or to India (or some region near India). In some stories Jesus traveled to several or many different countries, either to glean the wisdom and knowledge of multiple societies or to teach his message to them.
Jesus in Britain. According to a popular legend, Joseph of Arimathea—the member of the Sanhedrin who buried Jesus in his tomb—had gone on to found the Christian church in Britain. Specifically, Joseph is claimed as the founder of the church in Glastonbury, a town in southwest England not far from Bristol. One of the many popular books that advances this claim was written by Lionel Smithell Lewis, vicar of Glastonbury, who claimed that Joseph was followed to England by Simon the Zealot, Aristobulus (mentioned in Rom. 16:10), Paul, and possibly Peter! Lewis also thought there might be “some truth in the strange tradition” that Joseph took Jesus as a youth to England with him during one of his business trips there as a tin merchant.1 Quite a few other books have been written defending the claim.2
It is rather difficult to take the legend of Jesus accompanying Joseph of Arimathea to England seriously when “the earliest mention of Joseph at Glastonbury dates to around 1247.”3 The tradition of Joseph traveling anywhere to Britain cannot be traced back before about 1200. The earliest versions had Joseph going to England years after Jesus’ death and resurrection in a story that was entwined with lore about the Holy Grail, King Arthur, and other elements of medieval English legend.4 Not even John of Glastonbury’s account of the church’s history written a century later (ca. 1342) mentioned the story of the boy Jesus accompanying Joseph to England. William Blake’s famous poem “Jerusalem” in 1811 asked:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountain green:
And was the Holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
Given that there is no evidence for a belief in Jesus literally walking in England prior to Blake, his poem may actually have contributed (inadvertently) to that belief, which first emerges as an historical claim later in the nineteenth century.5 The notion has usually functioned more or less innocuously as the basis for some “bragging rights” about England’s Christian heritage.
Jesus in India. A far more influential and significant myth is the claim that Jesus spent years in India prior to his public ministry in Galilee and Judea. The point of this story is to suggest that what Jesus taught was closer to Buddhism than to traditional Christianity.
The book responsible for the popularity of this claim was The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicholas Notovitch, first published in Paris in 1894 and quickly translated into several other languages including English.6 The book is Notovitch’s account of visiting a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Hemis in the Himalayans in the northernmost part of India, where he says a monk read to him from ancient manuscripts an account about “Issa” (Jesus). An interpreter translated the oral reading and Notovitch took notes from what he heard, on the basis of which he wrote The Life of Saint Issa. After scholars strongly challenged the authenticity of Notovitch’s story, three individuals claimed to have made the journey to the Hemis monastery in the 1920s and 1930s and to have confirmed the existence of the Issa manuscripts. Yet neither Notovitch nor any of his three defenders managed to come back with photographs of the manuscripts, handwritten copies of them, or any other hard documentary evidence.7 Nor has anyone else produced such evidence in more than a century since Notovitch’s book was first published, despite the appearance of numerous books defending his claims.8
Evidence from the Gospels. The stories about Jesus visiting faraway countries such as Britain and India exploit the fact that the Gospels do not contain accounts specifically detailing Jesus’ activities between the ages of twelve and (about) thirty. However, the Gospels do tell us enough to discount the claim that Jesus was away from Galilee for most of those eighteen or so years. And we can absolutely rule out the notion that he spent those years studying Hinduism or Buddhism in the East.
According to Luke, after the incident when Jesus was twelve and Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem to find him, he “returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them…. Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people” (Luke 2:51, 52 NLT). This passage assumes (as one would expect) that Jesus continued to live in Nazareth for years after he had turned twelve. Luke says explicitly that Jesus “had been brought up” in Nazareth (Luke 4:16). The Gospels also report that people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth knew him as the carpenter (Mark 6:3), a trade he learned from Joseph (Matt. 13:55), which shows that Jesus also spent his young adult years there.
After his baptism and time in the desert, “Jesus returned to Galilee,” went to Nazareth, “and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom” (Luke 4:14-16). If it was his “custom” to attend the synagogue, this indicates he lived in the area and regularly participated in Jewish religious life. This piece of information is important here in two ways. First, it shows that Jesus had been living in Galilee for at least most of his life. The idea of Jesus traveling to a distant country and spending many years studying abroad does not fit with what Luke says. Second, it shows that Jesus remained thoroughly part of the Jewish religious and cultural community. He did not come into Galilee from India or some other Eastern country as a guru or teacher of an exotic religion or spirituality alien to Judaism. He was Jewish and his religious context was that of Judaism.
The Jewishness of Jesus’ own teaching as attested in all four Gospels (and in the teachings of his immediate followers as attested in the rest of the New Testament) is itself sufficient proof against the claim that he learned Hindu or Buddhist spirituality from the East and then returned to teach it to the Jews. Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar, accurately summarizes the thoroughly Jewish character and context of Jesus’ life and teachings:
Most scholars today acknowledge not only that Jesus was a Jew but that he was raised in a Jewish household in the Jewish hamlet of Nazareth in Jewish Palestine. He was brought up in a Jewish culture, accepted Jewish ways, learned the Jewish tradition, and kept the Jewish Law. He was circumcised, he kept Sabbath and the periodic feasts, and he probably ate kosher. As an adult he began an itinerant preaching ministry in rural Galilee, gathering around himself a number of disciples, all of whom were Jewish. He taught them his understanding of the Jewish Law and of the God who called the Jews to be his people…. And so Jesus was Jewish from start to last.9
As Catholic thinkers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli put it, “To classify Jesus as a guru is as accurate as classifying Marx as a capitalist.”10
Dying in Another Country
Another popular view is that Jesus did not actually die on the cross as the Gospels all report, but instead escaped execution and traveled to another land. The most popular of these theories claims that Jesus died in Kashmir, the northernmost part of India, some 2,500 miles east of Jerusalem. This theory agrees with Notovitch that Jesus went to that part of India but claims that he went there after his public teaching ministry in Galilee and Judea, not before it. The claim was advanced originally in a 1908 book by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, an Islamic sect that regards Ghulam Ahmad as the Messiah and Mahdi, a kind of latter-day Jesus for this Islamic tradition.11 German author Holger Kersten argued in his book that both Notovitch and Ghulam Ahmad were correct and that Jesus had lived in Kashmir both before and after his public years in Israel.12 Obviously, denying that Jesus died on the cross and then rose from the dead is a rejection of the core facts of the Christian gospel.
In assessing these stories about Jesus going to India, we should not make the mistake of thinking that such a journey would have been impossible. Sean McDowell, an evangelical Christian scholar, has pointed out that there is significant evidence for contact between India and the people of the Roman Empire in the first century:
India may have been more open to direct communication with the West during the first two hundred years of the Common Era than during any other period before the coming of the Portuguese in the seventeenth century…. Many Roman coins dating from the time of Tiberius (AD 14–37) to Nero (AD 54–68) have been found in southern India.13
However, the historical evidence shows that India’s first contact with Christianity most likely came through Thomas, one of Jesus’ original twelve apostles. Various lines of evidence support the tradition that Thomas evangelized India in the first century and was killed (with a spear) and buried there. This evidence includes the Acts of Thomas, written in the early third century and containing a mix of legendary and likely historical elements. It also includes references to Thomas in the writings of the early church fathers and the traditions of Christians in India.14 Such ancient evidence is not absolute proof, but it is orders of magnitude better than any supposed evidence for Jesus living in India provided by writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
There are still other legends about Jesus visiting other countries late in his life. One such theory is that Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene traveled to France, a journey of roughly 3,000 miles to the west.15 There is even a story of Jesus traveling all the way to Japan to live out his days some 6,000 miles to the east.16 The very multiplicity and diversity of such stories ought to give sober-minded persons pause. Some authors, however, have enthusiastically sought to combine elements of these stories to weave a grand narrative of Jesus as a world traveler. According to Tricia McCannon, Jesus spent substantial numbers of years in Egypt, in England, and in India and Tibet before returning to Galilee to teach his own people.17
Appearances after His Resurrection
The third category of travels is of a different sort since it does not involve Jesus “traveling” in any conventional sense such as walking, riding an animal, or sailing in a ship. In these stories, Jesus appeared in one or more distant lands after his resurrection in order to reveal himself. By far the most well-known story of this type is in the Book of Mormon, according to which Jesus appeared somewhere in the Americas about AD 34 to a society of people called Nephites, descended from Israelites who had been living there for a millennium.
The Book of Mormon’s significance goes far beyond the seemingly intriguing idea that Jesus might have appeared in the Americas. The main point of the book in the context of the Mormon religion is that the Bible is an insufficient guide to the Christian faith, which can be properly understood only with the Book of Mormon and other scriptures revealed through its author Joseph Smith and by becoming part of the church he founded.
As is the case with the stories of Jesus traveling to India, the earliest known source claiming that Jesus visited the Nephites in the Americas dates from the nineteenth century, namely, the Book of Mormon. To make matters worse, the Book of Mormon is also the only source referring to the existence of the Nephites. Despite this obvious difficulty, Mormons have a large number of scholars and other intellectuals who passionately argue in defense of the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.18 Their arguments, though often sophisticated, cannot overcome the basic problems: There is no ancient text or even a copy of it; Jesus is said to have visited a great civilization that lasted nearly a millennium that does not seem to have existed; and the Book of Mormon clearly originated in the nineteenth century as can be seen by the issues it addresses (paid clergy, infant baptism, whether miracles still happen, etc.) and by its heavy dependence on the King James Version of the New Testament (even though none of the Nephites would ever have seen any of the New Testament).19
In an age of automobiles and airplanes, it may seem surprising to us that Jesus never left the land of Israel after settling with his family in Nazareth as a young child. However, life in such a geographically limited area was the norm for the vast majority of people in his culture. The historical evidence supports the conclusion that in fact Jesus never did visit other parts of the world.
1. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain, 6th ed. (Wells, Somerset, UK: Clare, 1937), 18, 31-32.
2. E.g., Paul Ashdown, The Lord Was at Glastonbury (Butleigh: Squeeze, 2010); Gordon Strachan, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and the Dawn of Christianity (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2014).
3. William John Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea: A Study in Reception History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 73.
4. It comes up repeatedly in these connections in The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend, edited by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), especially in the essay “The Thirteenth-century Arthur” by Jane H. M. Taylor (53–68).
5. See further Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea, 72–111.
6. Nicholas Notovich, La vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ (Paris: Paul Ollendorff, 1894); The unknown life of Jesus Christ, trans. Alexina Loranger (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1894).
8. The most sophisticated defense of Notovitch’s story is James W. Deardorff, Jesus in India: A Reexamination of Jesus’ Asian Traditions in the Light of Evidence Supporting Reincarnation (San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1994). By far the most influential defense is Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-year journey to the East (Gardiner, MT: Summit University Press, 1984). On Prophet’s book, see Wilson’s article cited above.
9. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford and New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003), 96.
10. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 169.
11. See especially Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Jesus in India: Jesus’ Deliverance from the Cross and Journey to India, rev. ed. (Gurdaspur, India: Islam International Publications, 2003).
12. Holger Kersten, Jesus Lived in India: His Unknown Life before and after the Crucifixion (Longmead, England: Element Book, 1986).
13. Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015; London: Routledge, 2016), 160, 161.
14. McDowell, Fate of the Apostles, 162-73. See also Leonard Fernando and G. Gispert-Sauch, Christianity in India: Two Thousand Years of Faith (New Delhi: Penguin—Viking, 2004), 59-62.
15. E.g., Graham Simmans, Jesus after the Crucifixion: From Jerusalem to Rennes-le-Château (Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 2007).
17. Tricia McCannon, Jesus: The Explosive Story of the 30 Lost Years and the Ancient Mystery Religions (Newburyport: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2009).
18. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Book of Mormon Apologetics: How Mormons Defend the Book of Mormon,” An Introduction to the Book of Mormon, Part 6 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).
19. See especially Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Sermon at the Temple in the Book of Mormon: A Critical Examination of Its Authenticity through a Comparison with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew,” Ph.D. diss. (South Africa Theological Seminary, 2014). IRR has a wealth of resources on this subject at http://mit.irr.org/category/book-of-mormon.