Nicolas Notovitch

In 1894, the Russian war correspondent Nicolas Notovitch published a book entitled "La vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ", later translated and published as "The Life of the Holy Issa". He claimed to have made a sensational manuscript find in a Lamaist monastery in Tibet. The monastery of Himis still exists, near Leh, the capital of Ladakh at the border between Tibet and India. Notovitch claimed to have been taken there after breaking his leg in an accident, and during his recovery to have discovered that the monks worshipped a prophet named Issa. When they read their scrolls about this person to him, he realized that Issa was none other than Jesus.

The scrolls told that in his youth, Jesus had travelled to India and Tibet, years before he began his work in Palestine. He there met with Jainists, Brahmins and Buddhists, learned Pali and studied the holy scriptures of Buddhism. Notovitch wrote down the text as it was read by the abbot and translated for him by an interpreter. According to Notovitch, the Tibetan scrolls were translations of Pali documents which the abbot claiimed were still kept at Lhasa. (In fact, Pali is the language of southern Buddhism and has never been used in Tibet. Most Tibetan translations are from Sanskrit.)

Notovitch's book "The Life of the Holy Issa" was published in France, Britain and America. But criticism hit hard. None less than Max Müller, the foremost expert on Indian literature in the Western world, pulverized the hoax in a magazine article, pointing to numerous errors and inconsistencies. Further, an English lady travelling in those parts of the world went to the Himis monastery and asked around. She was told that no Russian had visited the monastery for many years and nobody had been treated for any leg injury there, and that they never heard of an "Issa".

The final judgement on Notovitch's hoax came two years later from professor Archibald Douglas in Agra. He also went to the monastery and read aloud from Notovitch's book to the abbot, who was very surprised at the account of what he himself was supposed to have said to Notovitch a few years earlier. Douglas published his interview with the abbot, who claimed to have been abbot there for 15 years and denied every syllable of Notovitch's story. He also remarked that he could not think of a punishment suitable for scum who invented such lies as Notovitch. The interview was witnessed and signed by Douglas, the abbot and the interpreter, and officially sealed by the abbot.

Notovitch tried for some time to defend his story with various dodges, but finally gave up and returned to being a war correspondent. Unlike most hoaxers, he had no ideological motives for the hoax, just a desire to create a sensation. His thin story would probably not have received much attention at all if it had not been published at the peak of the 19th century Indian romanticism, just after Queen Victoria had been crowned Empress of India.

It's still going on...

With this, the case should have been closed. But successful lies have a tendency to return. Notovitch's book was printed again in 1926 by an American publisher who hoped (not without justification) that the debunking of the hoax had been forgotten. Even more, the story has inspired other hoaxers to fantazise about Jesus travelling to the mysterious East. Probably neither "The Gospel of the Holy Twelve" or "The Aquarian Gospel" would have existed without Notovitch's ideas. Others with similar fantasies are the half-islamic Ahmadiyya sect who believe that Jesus survived the crucifixion and died of old age at Srinagar where he is also said to have been buried. To support this, their founder Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad quoted another hoax, the "Barnabas gospel". Modern Ahmadiyya books quote both the "Essene epistle" and the "Life of the Holy Issa" as if they were authentic documents about Jesus.

The story of Notovitch demonstrates the incredible survival power of lies that capture the popular imagination, and the powerlesness of science to eradicate belief in even the most absurd hoaxes. Conclusive proof is apparently not enough. "The world wants to be deceived."