The Jesus Petroglyph

The Jesus Petroglyph

Kong Wang Shan

In February of 2011 I traveled alongside the Yellow River from Xian to Louyang and Kaifeng and further east. I had heard from staff at the Beilin Museum there were stone records of Christianity earlier than the Tang Dynasty. I found evidence of a Jewish colony in two important records. I knew if this was true then there many have been Semitic Christians who were part of this community. Christianity during the first century was Jewish and struggling to find their identity within the traditions and customs of Judaism.

Rubbings of steles made in 1489 and 1510. History of Chinese Jews.


Museum officals told me of cliff cavings that had crosses that may date to the first century identified in the early 1980s. I hope to return to this area and investigate further.

The first problem I noticed with this petroglyph is the presence of the “CHI RHO” sign. This meant that the image was created after the 4th century and the time of Constantine who adopted it as a symbol of his Empire. He “CHI RHO” was a Greek sign that came to represent Christ and the Cross. It was adapted from a pagan symbol used by scribes in margins of manuscripts to represent “Good.”

On closer inspection of the petroglyph I could see that this sign was not part of the earlier icons of the two men. The stone was broken away at a later period to reveal a new surface behind it obviously at a later time.

CHI RHO sign at Kong Wang (highlight mine)

Pierre Perrrier in his book on Thomas Fonde l’Eglise En Chine suggests that the symbol is not a CHI RHO but an Aramaic letter Qoph. Frankly this is pious imagination. Study of the petroglyph offers a different answer.

The Luminous Dream

Christianity came to China in the first century of the Christian era.           It was anticipated in a dream by the Han Emperor Mingdi (58-75 C.E.) sometime before 65 C.E. He asked one of the court dream interpreters what the dream meant:

« One of them told him that in the West there existed a god called luminous” [or “the Man-Light”]. The Emperor, desirous of enquiring about the true doctrine, dispatched an envoy to the land of Tianzhu so that he might inquire about the precepts of the visionary. It is beginning from that time that paintings and statues reached the Middle Kingdom and Ying, prince of Zhu, began to have faith in this Way [or in the person who preached it] and thanks to that, the Middle Kingdom received it with esteem. »

This was the beginning of the Luminous Religion in China : the Jing Jiao.

Thomas, an Apostle of Christ arrived in Lianyungang at the mouth of the Yellow River in China during the years 65-68 C.E. The brother of the Emperor, Prince Ying, was converted to the true Way (Tao) and a small monastery was established where the White Horse Temple stands today. Stone petroglyphs commemorate the arrival of Thomas and his companion Shofarlan.. A frieze 80 feet long with about 50 images has embedded in it an image of Mary with the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and a figure with the sign of the Cross on his forehead.

There was trade at the time of Christ between China and Antioch. It’s furthest outpost was Kaifeng on the Yellow River in Eastern China. It took less than 18 months for goods to travel between Antioch and China. In the thirty years after the crucifixion of  Christ, surely his disciples could have traveled to China. The non-canonical book, the Acts of Thomas reports that this disciple traveled to China. The Chinese Empire itself stretched all the way to the Caspian Sea and the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire. General Pan Chao had a military colony near Batu in 75 C.E.

In the Chinese Chronicles of the Later Hans it tells of the arrival of a blond man and his companion from the West. Was this Apostle Thomas and Shofarlan ? Until recently Chinese historians have interpreted this story as evidence of Buddhism entering China. Pierre Perrrier has recently offered new evidence to suggest that this story may have been misinterpreted. He suggests in his book  Saint Thomas and the First Church of China that there are lists three pieces of evidence :

  1. Kong Wang Shan petroglyph with the figures of Mary Jesus and Saint Thomas
  2. Archeological evidence at the White Horse Monastery
  3. Linguistic evidence of Aramaic influence on Chinese names

The Jesus Petroglyph

On the rock face of Kong Wang. The upper arm of the cross has been defaced, as has the Infant Jesus on the lap of His Mother (see above picture to the right). This is one of the earliest figures on the Kong Wang cliff. The Parthian details help to date this image as early as 65 C.E. Also it is the highest petroglyph. Other petroglyphs are later and generally lower on the cliffside. These other images  date from the beginning of the fourth century, when the Northern Wei dynasty, the successors of the Han emperors, adopted Buddhism as the official religion. Two figures of the same age as the Madonna has been identified as St. Thomas and his Shofarlan (see above picture to left.). The image of Jesus is perhaps the earliest depiction of Christ in the world. I have outlined the infant in swaddling clothes below.

Infant Jesus? (highlight mine)

Archaeological Evidence

White Horse Monastery is identified in all modern guidebooks as the oldest Buddhist monastery in China but this may be a product of historical revisionism. The foundations of a pagoda at this site lies in an east-west alignment typical of a church. Buddhist pagoda lie in a north-south alignment. The church or monastery may have been co-opted by the Buddhists in the 4th century. An inscription of 311 C.E. seems to suggest that the story of the white horse bringing Buddhist scriptures and relics may have been redacted from an earlier Christian story as found in the Aramaic texts of the Acts of Thomas.

Also in this province are other pieces of evidence of a very ancient Christian presence. A retired professor of Nanqing  in particular has identified a tomb dating from 86 C.E.., decorated with bas-reliefs ofcrosses, biblical scenes and even another representation of the Virgin with the Child. Of particular interest is a cup on which are engraved two fish and five round loafs of bread, and the character Yi, which means “to share” in Chinese. It is an obvious allusion to the multiplication of the five barley loaves and the two fishes, related in the Gospel.

Aramaic (Syriac) Origins of Religious Words in China

Now, Perrier found in the name of Guanyin itself its Aramaic origin:

« The “Holy of Holies” is called gawaia dal gou in Aramaic. Combined with the word for mercy, ‘hnan, for the world here below, it becomes gaouaia ‘hnan that the Chinese hear as guan: “to perceive from afar”. To perceive what? Shiyin, news from here below. Here is Guanshiyin, commonly pronounced Guanyin, so often represented as a Virgin with the Child. »

Guanyin became associated with the Virgin Mary for Christians after the Tang Dynasty. Perhpaps they knew of the Aramaic origins of this word. Although Guanyin was a minor male Hindu diety he enters China as an androgenous figure and later become fully female and the symbol of Divine Mercy. This transformation was done by Christians in China. Perrier suggests that the Buddhists highjacked Mary the Mother of Mercy and turned her into Guanyin. My research has suggested otherwise.

Also, Perrier suggests that “sûtra” is said to come from the Aramaic souartha(o), which means “good news” made up of the words and deeds of a given person. Forty two scrolls were brought to China. What did they include ? The Gospels were not yet written except for perhaps the Gospel of Mark. There is a tradition that each of the twelve disciples wrote a Gospel. If you add the 30 books of the Old Testament and the Twelve books of the disciples this makes 42. Perhaps further work at Dunhuang where the Pslams have been found will yield more light as to what books (scrolls) were present in that collection.


Thomas first visited Louyang, the capital of China. Apparently he gained permission from the Emperor to visit the region and share his message. Thomas then traveld eastward along the Yellow River to Xuzhou, near the site to the Kong Wang Petroglyph. It was here where he stayed three years, converted the Emperor’s brother, Prince Liu Yin and helped to establish a small community of Jiang Jiao. When Thomas left the community went underground due to the persecution of the Confucian scholars at court.

Confucian Court scholars begged to the emperor to suppress this new “way”, because they understood that it supplanted their “wisdom.” Mingdi yielded to their entreaties, and Prince Ying, according to the chronicle of Han, had to resign his office, was exiled and condemned to commit suicide in 71 a.d., as was the custom in China when one had ceased to please the emperor.

His death was the beginning of the first period of persecutions, which, Perrier writes, was the beginning of a more discreet if not secretive familial transmission of Christianity through secret societies.

About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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