The Meaning of the Berenike Buddha

Image by statue.

Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The item was excavated last March but has only been receiving wide attention in the last month: the two-foot-tall image of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, carved from Anatolian marble, in the Greco-Indian Gandhara style, with details suggesting production in a workshop in the ancient metropolis of Alexandria, Egypt. It had been placed in the forecourt of the Great Temple at Berenike, on the Red Sea coast of Roman Egypt, around 100 CE. It is reportedly the only statue of the Buddha, made west of Afghanistan in the premodern period, discovered to date.

What does it mean? We had known that Buddhism, the first “world religion” (that is, the first to be spread deliberately, globally, by proselytization) spread out from its inception in northeastern India to the Central Asian kingdoms, China, Korea, and Japan, more or less following the commercial Silk Roads. The missionaries were multinational, multilingual; from the Buddha’s own time Yavanas (Ionians, which is to say, Greco-Indians settled in India from the time of Alexander’s conquests) were included among the order of monks. Dunhuang frescoes from the fourth century CE show some Buddhist monks in Central Asia with blue eyes.

There were once Buddhist temples in central Iran, and along the Persian Gulf coast. Buddhism spread through commercial maritime routes to insular Southeast Asia, to Indian Ocean islands like the Maldives and (at least in the form of Buddhist travelers passing through) the island of Socotra off Yemen. The dedication of the Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan in the mid-eighth century drew Buddhist clerics from as far as Persia, south India, Cambodia and Java. (In this world-religious movement, there travelled what Friedrich Engels called one of the two dialectical philosophical systems in the ancient world, the other being the Greek. Few Marxists reflect on the significance of this.)

The Buddhist world at its height was vast indeed. But for some reason, it didn’t include any part of the Roman Empire. One wonders why, or rather, why not?

We knew that Buddhist missionary monks spread the Dharma (the Teaching, the Doctrine) deliberately, carefully, in coordinated fashion, through propaganda efforts including the mass distribution of texts. They travelled with the caravans from cities like Balkh, in contemporary Afghanistan, once a renowned center of Buddhist learning with over 100,000 inhabitants, to Dunhuang, Loyang, Xian and beyond, establishing temple complexes and recruiting followers. We knew that they also voyaged in the vessels plying the Indian Ocean, from the Maldives to the Sumatran coast. And we’ve known for a few years that Indian vessels brought Indian merchandise to Berenike, including one excavated shipment of 3000 peppercorns.

We knew that the volume of trade between the Indian subcontinent and the Roman Empire was huge. In 52 CE the Roman philosopher and natural scientist Pliny the Elder complained that India “swallows up from our state no less than 55 million sesterces” per annum—a trade deficit caused mainly by Rome’s insatiable appetite for Indian spices. A scholar has recently estimated that the empire imported goods worth over a billion sesterces per year in the first century, affording the state some 270 million sesterces in tax. Given that the pepper originated in states where Buddhism flourished at this time, it is more likely that Buddhist missionaries visited the Roman Empire, particularly Egypt, its wealthiest province.

Why? Because just as the Christian gospel says: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 8:19), so the oldest Buddhist texts exhort the believer to “Go ye now, bhikkus, and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world…” (Vinaya Pitaka). Expansion is integral to the doctrine itself; that is what makes world religions so interesting. That expansion sometimes involves ruling class and state support, but sometimes also brings the religious community into conflict with ruling authority (think 16th century Lutheranism in Germany). World religions evolve in the context of class struggle but have own separate historical dialectics. When as Marx put it, Luther “replaced faith in authority with the authority of faith,” he was working out religious contradictions particular to Christianity. But as an historical movement Lutheranism overlapped and contributed to nascent capitalism, by validating the role of the bourgeoisie, curbing church power, and strengthening early modern absolute monarchies (not least by legitimating their repression of peasant revolts).

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach—who’d announced (1841) that man created God, not God man—proposed late in life the creation of a new religion, since new religions were associated with all major social changes. Engels argued in response that the French revolutionaries’ effort to create a new religion, based on reverence for the Goddess of Liberty, had been doomed to fail; and that anyway major social change is associated only with “the three world religions,” listing, in correct historical order: “Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.” He properly noted that these were proselytizing religions. (Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886.) The achievement of Christianity, in Engels’ view, was to serve as the ideology embraced by much of the slave class, responsible for the empire’s gradual rejection of slavery. (One finds in the history of Buddhism and Islam similarly striking instances of the religion producing, or greatly abetting, the emergence of a new social order.)

Proselytizing World Religions

But it all begins with the proselytizing mission. It seems likely that in centers of Buddhist missionary activity, Like Balkh, or like Takshashila in what is now Pakistan, plans would have been discussed for missions to Roman Egypt. The only direct route was by sea, to the Red Sea ports. In these towns were Greek-style agoras, or public markets and gathering places. In such marketplaces, both goods and ideas were exchanged. This is where, by custom, random sophists and rabble-rousers might attract audiences, so this is where advocates for a new faith would likely preach, as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17: 16-34). In the agora setting, Buddhist priests might exhort men and women to forsake the world for lives of meditation and meritorious works. Missionaries would be urged by their supporters to do what their training told them: to retreat with their new disciples to the forest and spend months of meditation and training during the rainy season, then preach and solicit alms the rest of the year. But Egypt had no forests or rainy season; the monastics would have repaired instead to the desert—which is where, as it happens, we do find them.

We knew that Indians visited the Roman Empire, as traders or diplomatic envoys, or arrived as slaves. They could arrive by the land route, ending in Antioch (third city of the empire, on the Mediterranean), or by the Red Sea ports, linked by road and the Nile to the metropolis of Alexandria. But the bulk of the trade was seaborne, and the largest concentrations of transient or settled Indians would most likely be found in the Egyptian Red Sea ports (including also Arsinoe and Myos Hormos). (Some have made extravagant—or at least premature—claims about a Buddhist presence in Adulis, in the kingdom of Axum, as of the second century. This too was a port visited by Indian traders.)

We knew that some people in the Roman Empire at its height, particularly some Christian scholars in Alexandria, were aware of the Buddhist missionary movement. Basilides (fl. 117-138) preached a form of Christianity (soon deemed heretical by some) that obviously incorporated Buddhist elements. (These included the idea of a self composed of five parts—the five skandhas—and karmically determined reincarnation.) Around 200 Clement of Alexandria (ca. 185-253), head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria, mentions Sarmanae (from Sanskrit sramana) in India who do not marry, likening them to the adherents of the contemporary, heretical Encratite sect in Syria, all of whose members practiced celibacy. (I’d argue, the Encratites and their leader Tatian, who banned both marriage and meat-eating among his followers, were Buddhist-influenced themselves). Clement was himself a disciple of Saint Pantaenus the Philosopher (d. ca. 200), a Sicilian Stoic who had converted to Christianity, founded the catechetical school, and visited India for a year—perhaps sailing from Berenike—“to preach Christ to the Brahmins there.” Origen, Clement’s successor, was aware of Buddhist monasticism (at a time when there was no Christian monasticism) and the Buddhist practice of burying the bones of special people under “pyramids” by which he means stupas (at a time when there was no cult of relics in Christianity). He was also aware of the concept of transmigration of some sort of soul, adhered to by the Indians (and Pythagoreans, influenced by Indians) but alien to Christianity.

Clement, in his Stromatae, explains to his (Christian) audience the God has given “philosophy” to many peoples, by way of the Greek sophists, “the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Samanaeans among the Bactrians; and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians… He adds to their number the “Indian gymnosophists,” who include Sarmanae, (non-urban celibate ascetics, some of whom obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.”) Sarmanae here is doubtless a rendering of the Sanskrit śramaṇa, a general term for ascetic. (The mysterious Indian envoy from Barygaza, Zarmanochegas, who met Caesar Augustus, and publicly self-immolated in Athens in 19 BCE, may have been one of these śramaṇa,) Yes, there was some knowledge of what we now call “Buddhism,” garbled through it was, in Roman Egypt.

So there was extensive trade with India; many Indians of the time were Buddhist; Buddhist missionary monks followed the routes of commerce; and human interactions had brought some awareness of the expanding world religion to the educated Roman elite. These things were known, allowing us to posit the presence of Buddhist adherents in the Empire. A report from an excavation at Berenike in 2010 stated that “evidence that the Tamil population implied the probable presence of Buddhist worshippers.” But there was no proof. The Polish and U.S. scholars involved in the Berenike project say this proof has been found.

A Buddhist Community in Roman Egypt?

Some, like Philip Almond. are suggesting the find shows the existence of a Buddhist community in what the Romans called Berenike Troglodytica, comprised of resident Indian traders. But in Asia such communities, as Jason Neelis attests, were always linked to Buddhist clerics, who would establish temples and monastic dwellings, supported by aid from lay donors (danapatis). Ingo Strauch, who has established the presence of Buddhist travelers on the Yemeni island of Socotra in the Roman period, declared several years ago that there is no evidence for Buddhist monasticism either on Socotra or in Roman Egypt. “Although there are indications that Indian communities settled permanently or at least for a longer time in harbour sites like Myos Hormos and Berenike and along the South-Arabian coast, there are no archaeological traces of any Buddhist institutions, be it a stūpa, a monastery or another cultic edifice or even object.” (See “Buddhism in the West? Buddhist Indian Sailors on Socotra (Yemen) and the Role of Trade Contacts in the Spread of Buddhism,” in Brigit Kellner, ed., Buddhism and the Dynamics of Transculturality, 2019.)

With the discovery of the Berenike Buddha, we found the “object” whose absence Strauch noted. But does it indicate the presence of a settled “Indian community” of Buddhists? Or—given Buddhism’s inherent missionary zeal, and the presence in the town of Greco-Roman Egyptians, Blemmyes (originally, nomadic herders from Sudan), Palmyrene soldiers, and merchants from Rome and Axum—a multiethnic community of Buddhists? A study of first century Berenike inscriptions by Rodney Ast finds Greek, Roman, Palmyrene, Nabataean, Thracian, even Celtic and Germanic names! As one would expect at an international trading port where silk from China, cinnamon from Vietnam and ivory from Aksum were unloaded at the docks.

The nature of the Berenike temple has not yet been determined; it had been deemed a Serapeum, but researchers now refer to it as the “so-called” Serapis Temple, and I have also seen it alluded to as an “Isis temple” and even “temple of foreign gods.” (The god Serapis was a creation of Ptolemy I, the general of Alexander the Great appointed to govern Egypt. His cult was designed to unite Greeks and Egyptians in common worship; it is opportunistically encompassing. Perhaps a Buddhist statue would be welcome in a Serapis Temple forecourt.) Whatever the nature of the temple, since it bears an inscription with the names of the head magistrate of the Jews of the port town, it must have been ecumenical enough to accommodate the Buddha figure—if that was in fact the image’s original location.

The suggestion of longtime project director Steven Sidebotham and others that this was a donation made by an Indian Buddhist merchant in gratitude for a safe voyage—necessarily commissioned in Egypt and produced within the empire’s vast, unified marketplace—makes sense. It also makes sense that it might be placed within the temple, if such were allowed, by an adherent hoping it would generate interest in Buddhist doctrine. That adherent could even have been a monk with funds at his disposal and a mission to accomplish.

In combination with other finds, the Berenike Buddha does argue for the presence of a Buddhist community in Berenike, in the broadest sense. But we know nothing about how the community was organized, or if there were regular rituals observed within it. We have, as Strauch notes, no archeological traces of Buddhist monasteries. But we know that there was a religious group in the desert by Lake Mareotis, at the time of the Jewish Roman philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE-50 CE), whom he called the Therapeutae, who lived “lives of perfect goodness” in a fashion that “exists in many places in the inhabited world.” They lived in utter simplicity and chastity, abandoning their property, leading a “contemplative life” of solidary meditation in cells but conducting a “general assembly” every week in which male and female adherents seated separately would hear “discourses.”

Philo likens them to the Essenes of the Judean desert, but says they are more philosophical, and that they include women. Although Philo thinks the Therapeutae were a Jewish sect, noting that they read the “holy scriptures,” he says they interpret them allegorically, and also have their own texts. Mainstream scholarship depicts the Therapeutae as “a radical offshoot of pre-Christian Judaism, probably Essenism” (Menahem Mansoor, 1994). But several scholars (Ulrich R. Kleinhemple, Zacharius P. Thundy) have argued that this was likely a Buddhist monastic community. Perhaps archeology will clarify. Whatever the specific character of the community, it shows Buddhist influence. It shows transmission of the meme of monasticism, emanating from across the waters, by the sanghas of the then-Buddhist world.

Monasticism in Ancient Egypt: Manichaean, Christian, Buddhist?

It’s also been suggested that a Manichaean monastery existed in Faiyum, in the Egyptian desert, by 290 (such monasteries existed in the city of Rome at the time). The belief system formulated by the Persian “prophet” Mani (216-274) consciously incorporated the Buddhist concept of monasticism, just as it posited “Buddha” among Mani’s saintly predecessors. Manichaeanism reached the Roman world during the lifetime of its founder. (Manichaeanism was the world religion that failed, after several centuries of impressive success; St. Augustine spent a decade as a Manichaean.) We know that third century Christians associated Mani with some “Buddha” or “Buddas,” and that as late as the early sixth century, Zacharias, bishop of Mitylene on Lesbos, had his flock pronounce “anathemas” against not only Mani but “Scythianus and Bouddas, his teacher… Terebinthus and Boudas, teachers of Mani.” One reason for this identification of Buddha and Mani is that both Buddhism and Manichaeanism entered the Roman world from India, or from “Scythia” (northern India), via the Red Sea; another is that Manichaeans in fact revered the Buddha (along with Moses, Zoroaster, and Jesus) and in their organizational structure emulated the Buddhist sangha.

As of 200 CE, Christians in Alexandria viewed monasticism as something curious and alien; but in 320, according to Roman Catholic tradition, Pachomius founded the first Christian cenobitic monastery—anywhere in the world—in Egypt. By 400 there were monasteries dotting Christendom, functioning almost exactly like their counterparts in the Buddhist world, serving as repositories of knowledge, centers of scholarship and debate, hubs of scripture replication, places of prayer and meditation supported by donations from the propertied classes and coerced labor on their landholdings. How to explain this?

The Roman Catholic Church traces the origins of its own monastic tradition to the Egyptian desert, and indeed Church Father Eusebius in his Church History (ca. 313) erroneously declares Philo’s Therapeutae to be first Christian monks. The bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius (ca. 315-403) also described the Therapeutae as Christians. Given Philo’s dates, this is impossible, but the association between Christian monasticism and some prior, comparable institution in the Egyptian desert is clear from Eusebius’ account.

Since there is zero biblical support for the very concept of monasticism (it was one of the first Roman Catholic institutions tossed out by the Reformation), one can safely assume it is imported from without, from the fourth century, drawing upon an already successful model. This would be the Buddhist model. As Romila Thapar, the greatest living Indian historian, speaking of medieval Roman Catholicism, puts it: “the innumerable orders of monks and nuns, with their distinctive garbs, their prayer-beads, cassocks, knitted cords, vows, breviaries, rosaries, etc. [were] modeled after the Buddhist monastic orders with such fidelity that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the one from the other.”

Monasticism is a meme, a cluster of ideas arising in a particular place and time and then somehow replicating and expanding. It is not a universal phenomenon in religions, but historically rooted in India’s ancient Jain and Buddhist traditions, one of which branched out to become a world religion. (Jains as a rule did not proselytize outside of India.) The idea of some people taking a vow of lifelong celibacy, in the company of other celibates, in a carefully controlled routine of study and prayer, dining simply and collectively, etc. is quite unique. The likelihood of Roman Catholic monasticism emerging without impact from the Buddhist tradition seems less plausible than memetic transmission.

The same goes for the concept of priestly celibacy itself (which we don’t find in the Christian movement before the fourth century), the cult of relics, and the veneration of saints. The Buddhist practice of interring saints’ bones under church altars mirrors the Buddhist practice of building stupas over the bones of holy persons. What Peter Brown calls the religion of “Late Antiquity” was a Christianity preoccupied with the veneration of bones, and the pilgrimages to see and touch them to attain spiritual merit. So many elements of Christianity, from the use of bells to regulate monastic schedules and civic time, to the use of holy water and purifying incense, to clerical habits and tonsures, prayer-beads and scripture chanting, to this business of relics veneration may well be derived from existing Buddhist practices known, at least vaguely, to some early Christians.

World Religions Are Connected

The Bernike Buddha reminds us that everything is connected, and that multiple connections on this earthly plane shape religions. Key to the religious delusion is that truth descends from above, from the divine, through “inspired” humans who serve as mediums (scribes) for heavenly messages and instructions. (Think of St. Luke the gospel writer sitting there, pen in hand, filled with the Holy Spirit that writes down the words “through” him.) In the real world “truth” is established through innumerable social interactions, including those established along the overland and maritime silk roads, and through countless unconscious borrowings from the other. When we excavate the history of religions, we find all sorts of unexpected associations reflecting such borrowing: we find Judaism as well as Mahayana Buddhism impacted by Persian Zoroastrianism, Buddhism impacted by Daoism, Christianity impacted by Buddhism, etc. Just as Feuerbach observed that men make God, not vice versa, so people, not gods, create religions. Once established as material forces on earth, religions in their wanderings encounter one another and, if they quarrel, they also influence one another.

Thus the figure of Buddha is absorbed into Manichaeanism from its inception as one of the pre-Mani “prophets.” Islam produces figures whose biographies seem modelled after the Buddha’s (Ibrahim ibn Adham). The Buddha with his four sights, renunciation, and enlightenment is the basis of the character of Budasaf (a corruption of the Sanskrit bodhisattva) in the eighth-century Manichaean text, composed in the Uighur language, Kitab Bilawar wa Budasaf, This text, recounting something like the Buddha’s life within a monotheistic framework, makes it along the Silk Road to Georgia, where it is Christianized: Budasaf (as St. Josaphat) becomes a Christian monk. The Tale of Barlaam and Josaphat—which, again, is a thinly veiled recounting of the early life of the Buddha, drawing upon the Buddhist biographies like Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita  —is soon translated from Uigur, Arabic or Pahlevi into Georgian, Greek, Latin, Armenian, Ethiopic, Old French, Provencal, medieval German, Old Norse. (Imagine a work of ultimate Buddhist inspiration studied in monasteries on Iceland in 1300.)

The tale of a prince, acutely sensitive to the problem of human suffering, moved by his encounters with a sick man, old man, dead man and ascetic, abandoning everything to seek enlightenment (in the Christian treatment, relief from worldly suffering), spread rapidly through the Christian world after it was translated into Latin in the thirteenth century by a Dominican monk. William Shakespeare knew the text, and borrowed from it in his Merchant of Venice. This now-forgotten text—which again, is a veiled account of the Buddha’s four sights, renunciation, and enlightenment, adapted to a monotheist worldview—was one of the most popular Christian tales of the Middle Ages. (Confession: I collect Barlaam and Josaphat versions, and currently have almost thirty of them, including the Barlaams ok Josaphats saga in Old Norse.) The character of Josaphat was canonized in the Roman Catholic Church in 1583 (saint’s day Nov. 27); the Roman Catholic Church did not acknowledge its Buddhist provenance until the 1860s after scholars’ accumulating research made it impossible to deny. (Embarrassing.)

Religions tend to be permeable. Thus the Zoroastrian idea of Paradise becomes absorbed into Pure Land Buddhism, and into some schools of post-Exilic Judaism. The Zoroastrian “sky burial” becomes the Tibetan Lamaist practice. The Church Father Tertullian accused the followers of the cult of Mithras of copying the Christian rite of baptism, but the Christian ceremony comes later than the Mithraic one. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr declared that “evil demons in mimicry” of the Eucharist (the ritualistic imbibing of Christ’s blood) have “handed down…the same thing” (or at least a similar rite) to the Mithras believers. There was definitely a relationship; the fathers just had it chronologically backwards.

This mundane horizontal debt of religion to religion is rarely acknowledged, lest its recognition weaken the authority of the idea or institution. (It would be awkward for the Pope to acknowledge that the veneration of bones had no place in Christianity until St. Ambrose enshrined the bones to two saints in the new Milan basilica in 385. Or to note that it was controversial at the time, violating a law of the Christian emperor Theodosius banning the transfer of martyrs’ remains from their places of burial. It only gradually caught on in the next century, in doing so mirroring the Buddhist custom, as Clement had described it, “to honor a type of pyramid under which they believe the bones of some god are resting.” In the Christian case, the object of honor was the high altar in the basilica, under which not gods’ bones but saints’ bones were interred. But there was no tradition in Judaism or Roman religion encouraging the veneration of bones; quite the contrary. It appears to be a Buddhist borrowing. But no, a Pope is not going to acknowledge the possibility.)

The Buddhist Order as Organizational Model

It may be that the globally expanding Sangha ultimately reached Europe, and the rest of the Roman Empire, not in the form of a successful Buddhist mission effort leaving clear traces, but in the form of an operational model. This model, based on the exertion of “spiritual” power through the establishment of webs of temporal authority based in monasteries, in possession of vast estates, administered by worldly monks for the glory of the cause, was gradually embraced by Christians after the legalization of their underground movement in 312. (Or at least by the dominant faction of Christians that emerges triumphant by the late fourth century and proceeds to suppress the Marcionites, Valentinians, Sabellians, Basilideans, to say nothing of the Manichaeans etc., for the greater glory of God.)

Thereafter the Rules of St. Benedict (530) and similar monastic regulations seem to mirror the Buddhist monastic regulations (Vinaya); the meritorious copying of books integral to Buddhist monasticism appears in Christianity (as advocated, for example, by Roman senator Cassiodorus in the 550s); the regulation of monastic life by bells arrives in Christendom (by 604 in Italy); the monk’s cell, tonsure, habit, and daily routine; the hierarchy of clerics, the holy water, incense, chanting—all memes received from without, yet shaping medieval Christianity.

The Buddhist presence in Berenike, in the heyday of Roman power, as the still-underground Christian movement took shape, and splintered into a myriad of sects, must have had more than purely local impact. The marble for the excavated buddha was reportedly cut near Lake Van, in what is now Turkey, and sculpted in Alexandria. If so, it indicates that the empire-wide marketplace was itself adjusting to a Buddhist presence.

By coincidence, the marble reportedly comes from the same region of Anatolia, once part of Syria, where Gregory the Illuminator (240-332), the “national saint of Armenia,” oversaw the destruction of large “pagan” temples in 304. See Zenob’s inspiring account in his History of Taron, composed in the fifth century. Only these were temples to Vishnu, the Hindu deity, built by a community of Indian exiles several centuries earlier, in what is now Taron, Turkish Kurdistan).

The Christian Destruction of Temples and Books

The community had been there from the second century BCE, with the support of the Armenian kingdom, and, according to Zenob (Zenobius) Glak, disciple and hagiographer of Gregory, its people were “black, long haired Hindus by race.” Its city of Veshap and twenty surrounding villages comprised some 10,000. Their temples contained bronze images of 18 and 22 feet. But with the conversion of the Armenian kingdom to Christianity (301), the heroic Gregory was dispatched to arrange their destruction. The long-haired priests were shaved and obliged to accept Christianity or death. 1038 were slain, including the priest “Arzna” (surely, Arjuna). A church was then built on the site, which remains today.

This replacement of a destroyed “pagan” temple with its Christian equivalent was standard practice. The same thing happened in Sweden in 1087 when the splendid temple to the Odin, Thor and Freyr at Uppsala was demolished, paving the way for today’s Uppsala Cathedral, (although the latter’s location was moved in the thirteenth century). It similarly became standard Christian practice—following first the legalization of Christianity (312), and then its virtual imposition on the masses, by Roman law (ca. 380)—to destroy the opponent’s images, temples, texts and other weapons in the name of Christ and the immanent Second Coming. (Gore Vidal’s 1964 novel Julian is a brilliant depiction of the Roman Empire gripped by Christian religious intolerance in the late fourth century.)

Among these weapons were books. Buddhism spread through books, through scriptures and commentaries. The Jews too had their books, which had become the sacred texts of Christianity also (at least the Psalms). But the Jews weren’t especially interested in sharing these texts, or recruiting Gentiles into their midst; and some Christians (the Marcionites) rejected the Hebrew bible (available in Greek) altogether. (They claimed its judgmental, angry, vindictive god couldn’t possibly be the loving Father of Jesus!) Christianity itself had no canon of scripture before the Black Sea shipowner Marcion combined the Book of Luke with the letters of Paul (around 120 CE) and used this “first Bible” as a mission tool. The New Testament as we know it came later, and was still being edited in the fifth century.

(Marcion was declared a heretic, and the New Testament was expanded to include the three other gospels, more epistles, and the bizarre Book of Revelation; but the very concept of a body of texts—as opposed to oral teaching—to maintain the movement was Marcion’s. Born in Sinope, a busy Black Sea port, birthplace of Diogenes the Cosmopolitan, Marcion founded a Christian sect that once, according to Tertullian, “filled the world.” Its most interesting feature was its composition as an entirely celibate community, admitting monks and nuns arranged into a hierarchy. But Marcion’s version of Christianity was of course suppressed, even as its unattributed contributions proved useful. Meanwhile in the 170s the large faction of “Valentinians”—followers of the Alexandrian “heretic” Valentinus, who flourished from the 130s to his death ca. 150—split when Heracleon established an all-celibate church. These closed celibate orders among self-identifying Christians look at lot like the Buddhist Sangha, or Order of monks and nuns. The monastic meme, if not the Buddhist content, spread westward.

A key priority of Buddhist missionary movements throughout their history has been the translation of texts, and their dissemination in all languages. Works were translated methodically, from Indian languages like Pali and Sanskrit, into Turkish and Persian languages, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan. Fragments of Buddhist texts in Greek have been found in what was once Bactria, naming Sakyamuni σαοκομανο and Lokesvara λωγοασφαροραζο among other buddhas (see Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, vol. I, Oslo, 2000, pp. 275-7).

Surely a Buddhist text as popular as the Lotus Sutra must have been rendered into Greek, Syriac, Coptic, or Latin? Why would we not have some evidence?

Back to Alexandria. The Serapeum, “daughter library” of the Great Library, was attacked by a Christian mob and demolished in 391. This in response to a pagan response to another Christian provocation—the destruction of a temple to Mithras (the Persian deity whose cult had entered ever-tolerant Rome, via legionnaires returning from the Parthian Wars) in the city. One doesn’t know how many books were burned in these attacks. Still, the efficacy of Christian intolerance lingers in the fact that we retain, for example, only seven out of Aeschylus’ over 70 tragedies, and seven of Sophocles’ corpus of some 120 works. (Imagine the endorphin rush felt by the righteous arsonists torching mounds of scrolls in a dozen languages, cheered on by the crozier wielding clerics!)

The Church Triumphant from the late fourth century pursued an active policy of suppressing “pagan,” heretical, or demonic thought, through the burning of books, among other devices. It seems to me quite likely that the Great Library in Alexandria (and others attacked by religious zealots) contained books from India; the Ptolemy policy was to require all arriving ships to turn over any new books for copying. The copy would be given the ship’s captain, the original becoming a new Library acquisition. (A brilliant policy! The temporary loss of the books was an inconvenience, but the greater cause of disseminating knowledge in the Roman world was fulfilled.) The Library held the Hebrew and Zoroastrian scriptures, some translated into Greek; why would it not have had Buddhist texts?

Book-burning was part of the effort to erase “pagan” traces from Roman life; another was the systematic destruction of images (think of Gregory the Illuminator heroically destroying those 18 and 22-foot Vishnu images!), another the smashing of institutions (Christian emperor Theodosius declared the death penalty for Manichean monastics in 382). The archeologist digs heroically to recover a past suppressed as much by human design as natural decay.

Seeing Things As They Really Were

The Zen priest says: “See things as they really are. Without projection, delusion, or anxiety.” This is how we should see history, too, trying at least to perceive things as they really were. In the real world, religious assumptions—based on random interactions between cultures over time, but imaged by the deluded to be God’s truth—produce needless anxiety. In this country, biblical literalism as one might have found in Salem, 1692, now coexists uneasily with a vast “liberal,” generally agnostic intelligentsia, and institutions committed to policies plainly at odds with the Holy Scriptures. The most ignorant see, in laws protecting LGBTQ+ people alone, a disastrous rejection of God by the “liberal elites.” Their projection of illusions about fire and brimstone, God’s judgment on “the permissive society” steeped in sin, has practical, sometimes murderous ramifications.

The lack of awareness of history in this country—produced in part by the resistance of those who actively strive to inculcate ignorance in our children—contributes not only to a mass inability to contextualize inherited religious assumptions but to assess the magnitude of U.S. war crimes, or grasp global events in general in context. Mass delusions—that this is the greatest country on earth; that the U.S. president is “leader of the free world”; that there indeed is a “Free World;” that military personnel “serve their country” and “defend our freedoms;” that “we have a two-party system,” and that’s just how it is; that to effect change all you can do is vote—these delusions remain pervasive, along with the underlying God-thesis.

That being the case, I don’t expect the Berenike discovery to shatter many assumptions or produce too many healthy doubts about religious history. But dwell for a moment in the knowledge that somebody in a busy port town on the Red Sea coast of Roman Egypt, within decades after the appearance of the Christian movement in the eastern Mediterranean, ordered the local carving of an image of the historical Buddha and presented it publicly. Hegel says: “The truth is the whole.” Does this not subtly change your perception of the whole picture?

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: