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Jesus as an Example of the Chinese Concept of Junzi (君子)

by Peter Fromm

Joseph Raymond's essay, Schizophrenic Jesus, discusses the puzzle of two conflicting views of Jesus emerging from the New Testament, Jesus the political revolutionary (a worldly messiah) and Jesus the moral sage and spiritual leader (an otherworldly messiah). Starting from his analysis in Herodian Messiah, Raymond questions how these two characterizations of Jesus can be reconciled. In the process of proposing a solution to the paradoxes of Jesus' life, he asks the question, "What kind of messiah does not believe he can beat the Romans with God + 30,000 men?"FN1

In answering that question, Raymond demonstrates Jesus' probable connection to ideas found in ancient Indian scripture, in Buddhism, and in Gnostic thought. Assuming these connections are likely, and assuming the likelihood of Jesus having been from a royal family (as both James Tabor and Raymond contend), I want to propose an alternative answer to his question by bringing in ideas from Chinese cosmology and philosophy that would have accompanied the Buddhist influences in the Levant in the first century AD.

The New Testament portrays Jesus as a moral thinker, but it also strikingly portrays him as potentially violent. He has come to Jerusalem to clean house. I think the pro-Roman data points need to be ignored completely as interpolations in the New Testament narrative constructed by Pauline adherents; on this point, I think Robert Eisenman is exactly right (see James the Brother of Jesus).

However, Raymond's assessment that the Nag Hammadi library suggests that Jesus really made all those moral pronouncements in the narrative also has to be right. Still, the fact that Gnostic texts back up the New Testament in this "spiritual messiah" image is perhaps less a paradox than we think at first glance. Our modern minds have been conditioned by discourses that want to separate the political and moral from the religious and moral.

In addressing this paradox, I suggest that Jesus might best be thought of as modeling the role of a "junzi," the sagacious leader of politics, law, and ethics found in the Analects of Confucius.

The Religious Soup of Antiquity

In Kyoto, Japan, there is a sacred Buddhist temple called the Sanjusangendo. In this temple, one can find among its many treasures a holy statue of the divine Ahura Mazda, a Persian deity, displayed prominently front and center. To the Buddhists who created the Sanjusangendo, Ahura Mazda is a bodhisattva, a moral hero for attainment of enlightenment. Why is this Persian god in an ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto? On the surface of things, clearly, the moral philosophy of the Near East made its way into China, and from there it probably made its way to Japan along with Buddhism. If the ideas flowed east, they must have also gone west. The point is that cosmologies and philosophies from across Eurasia and Africa were influencing each other early in the development of the world's religious and philosophical discourses. Involved in this spread and cross-pollinating of ideas was the concept of the moral hero for enlightenment, as bodhisattva, as sagacious sage, as spiritual teacher, healer, and prophet.

Among the masters of Chinese philosophy-Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and others-ancient, primordial thinking included certain commonalities, one of which was an instrumental understanding of the moral sage. The precursor of Confucian and Taoist thought in China is the famous text called the I Ching. In the I Ching, a character called the Duke of Wen raises a concept called junzi, sometimes called in English the "chun tzu" or the benevolent gentleman.FN2 The Wikipedia essay on the junzi says the term describes "the potential ruler of a nation, a son of the ruler," one who has "a superior ethical and moral position while gaining inner peace through his virtue."FN3 These philosophical ideas about the junzi are similar to the Buddhist thinking about bodhisattva, except that the junzi is political and strictly a worldly concept. The junzi is a virtuous and sagacious man, a man of high birth and high learning, albeit with vast metaphysical implications in relation to the Son of Heaven (the emperor of China) and Tien (the Lord of Heaven, or just Heaven). To Confucius, one should universalize the junzi to society; one need not be a prince to aspire to be a junzi, but if one is a prince, one has a positive ontological obligation to enlighten oneself. Doing so is central to the concept of ritual (li) in Chinese cosmology and politics, similar to the way obeying the Law of Moses was central for expectations of Jewish rulers at the time of Jesus. The junzi is therefore central to Confucius' sayings in the Analects. Key words in English translations of the Analects are benevolence and the gentleman. They are code words, and they have loaded moral, political, and metaphysical meaning. In the Analects, one finds the junzi advocating the Silver Rule: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire."FN4 This and other sayings are similar to those of Jesus and other philosophers, and in itself, the similarity is unsurprising. What is more interesting is the possibility that Jesus could have consciously emulated the concept of junzi.

The Junzi as Prince

Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, was the primary exponent of orthodox Confucianism. In his work (and in that of Taoist philosophers such as Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu) the junzi is not only a moral sage but also a master of political-military strategy:
If, among the present rulers of the kingdom, there were one who loved benevolence, all the other princes would aid him by driving the people to him. Although he wished not to become sovereign, he could not avoid becoming so.FN5
Mencius here expresses the moral and political righteousness expected of the junzi as ruler. Taoist thought about war (Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu) and Mencius' own military ruminations on Confucian traditions agree on the role of the junzi in such warlike responsibilities. Subsequent Eastern military philosophy among the later Japanese, Korean, and Chinese medieval commentators echo both Sun Tzu and Mencius. One example:
Tu Mu [commenting on Sun Tzu]: The Tao is the way of humanity and justice; "laws" are regulations and institutions. Those who excel in war first cultivate their own humanity and justice and maintain their laws and institutions. By these means, they make their governments invincible.FN6
So the junzi, the "benevolent gentleman" as prince, was expected to not only be a moral paragon but also an exceptionally pious and capable strategist, adhering to the laws of his society (li) under Heaven (Tien).

Raymond theorizes that Jesus was a Hasmonean prince, was the anticipated leader of his nation, the political messiah, but one with profound connections and insight to the moral and religious life of the Jewish people. In this sense, Jesus would have fit well into the conceptual outline for the Chinese junzi.

Ideas along the Silk Road

Returning to the Sanjusangendo, Ahura Mazda, and Buddhism, it is worth noting that Buddhist thought flourished in China and Inner Asia, mutually influencing Chinese philosophy and drawing on it. One great evangelist of Buddhist thought was King Kanishka, perhaps the greatest leader of the long-lived Kushan Empire.FN7 This powerful Inner Asian state was centered on Peshawar in modern Pakistan. Kanishka's territory therefore bordered the Parthian Empire at a time when both were virulent.

The Parthians were an Iranian superpower whose 500-year tenure over Persia straddled the life of the person we call Jesus. Though the Parthians are not the subject of this essay, it is worth noting that they are very probably responsible for the transmission of Ahura Mazda into Buddhist thought. What is important here is that, just as Buddhism spread from northern India into the Kushan kingdom, it had also spread west through Parthia into Egypt 400 years before Kanishka and east into China probably even before that.FN8

Ashoka, the most famous king of the Maurya Indian Empire, was a Buddhist evangelist, like Kanishka was centuries later. Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries into neighboring lands, including into Inner Asia and into to Egypt in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka famously converted to Buddhism when he considered the destruction of his great war in India:
What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?FN9
After becoming a Buddhist, Ashoka thought it best to conquer nations through peace:
Now it is conquest by Dhamma [(which conquest means peaceful conversion, not military conquest)] that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas, and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni. Here in the king's domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dhamma. Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods' envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so.FN10
This passage is striking for a number of reasons, but what is salient is that Ashoka knew about the Hellenistic kings of the Near East, and he knew them by name. He planned to transmit Buddhism to them so that they too could strive for enlightenment, so they too could strive to become junzi (my speculation) and then to become a bodhisattva. After his conversion to Buddhism, Ashoka was the embodiment of the concept of the junzi-as-strategist found in Mencius and Sun Tzu.

From China, where the concept of the junzi was fully integrated into Buddhist life probably in the fourth or fifth century BC, trade routes led west through India, the Kushan Empire, and the Parthian Empire into Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. We call this route The Silk Road. Turning now to the subject of the essay, Jesus, his family, whoever they were, lived along this route. Several authors have postulated that Jesus was raised among the Therapeutae in Egypt after his family fled the murderous wrath of Herod the Great.FN11 These ascetic proto-Jewish Christians are thought to have sprung from the Buddhist missionaries sent by Ashoka to Egypt, as Raymond points out in his essay.

Jesus' background suggests he soaked up the ideas inherent in Buddhism in his own time, including the nature of the political role of the Confucian junzi in bringing harmony to the world. He may have been a prince who trained himself to be the equivalent of the Chinese concept. This kind of political moral sage is just the kind of strategist who would have avoided the bloodbath of taking on the Romans. John of Gischala during the Great Revolt was not the moral equivalent of a junzi, but Jesus probably was. Perhaps Jesus had read the Edicts of Ashoka while in Egypt. (We know he could read, unlike most Galilean carpenters and anglers.) Jesus' philosophy certainly suggests that, although he was ready to fight, peace would be the course he would take if it meant avoiding a slaughter of the people. He was dangerous to the Romans and their puppets in the Sanhedrin precisely because he was an equivalent of the philosophically loaded term "benevolent gentleman" who was the prince of his people under heaven, one who, if Raymond and Tabor are correct, although he wished not to become sovereign, he could not avoid becoming so.

Peter Fromm
Supervisory Editor, Military Review
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Fromm was an assistant professor of philosophy and English for six years at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He studied Chinese philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He also studied at the International Christian University in Tokyo and worked in Japan for the U.S. Government for 12 years. He is a retired Army officer.

  1. Joseph Raymond, Ibid (accessed 8 May 2012).
  2. Junzi, wikipedia (accessed 8 May 2012).
  3. Ibid.
  4. I invite the reader to compare such Confucian thought to that of Jesus' philosophy on his or her own. Read more at Brain Quote, if one is disinclined to pick up a copy of the Analects.
  5. Mencius, quoted in "A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire," Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967) at Link (accessed 17 January 2011). Mao refers to Mencius, Book 4, Part 1, Chapter 9: "Accordingly, as the otter aids the deep waters, driving the fish into them, and the hawk aids the thickets, driving the little birds to them, so Chieh and Châu aided T'ang and Wû, driving the people to them. If among the present rulers of the kingdom, there were one who loved benevolence, all the other princes would aid him by driving the people to him. Although he wished not to become sovereign, he could not avoid becoming so." "Benevolence" translates a Chinese expression meaning adherence to societal rituals of propriety and reciprocity, "regulations and institutions" (li).
  6. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press Paperbacks, 1971), 88.
  7. Kanisha, wikipedia (accessed 8 May 2012).
  8. chineseculture.about.com (accessed 8 May 2012).
  9. Ashoka, wikipedia (accessed 8 May 2012).
  10. "The Edicts of King Asoka", an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika. Access to Insight, 5 June 2010, The Fourteen Rock Edicts (accessed 8 May 2012).
  11. Therapeutae, wikipedia (accessed 8 May 2012). Note especially the following citation: "Gruber and Kersten claim that Jesus was brought up by the Therapeutae, teachers of the Buddhist Theravada school then living in the Bible lands. As a result of its role in trade with the East, Egypt was prosperous and enriched with religious diversity. Their work follows in the footsteps of the Oxford New Testament scholar' Barnett Hillman Streeter, who established as early as the 1930s that the moral teaching of the Buddha has four remarkable resemblances to the Sermon on the Mount."

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