Namaste! India in the Bible

A work trip has derailed my summer posting schedule, but I hope to be back on track in two weeks. In the meantime, I am in India, a country with beautiful and varied history. It’s a place like no other in the world and I’m very glad to be here. Despite its great distance, India is not unknown in the bible. In fact, the bible reports that there were ancient Jews in India! Read on for more.

In Hyderabad, India at the Charminar: towers and a mosque built in 1591 as thanks to God for saving the city from a plague.

India was known in Biblical times, but it was incredibly far away. Just doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, it would have taken a traveler three months to get from Jerusalem to the modern border of India over land, and longer still to proceed into the subcontinent. I’m not sure that a traveler could have made the trek, but we do know that Indian goods and the country itself were known in the bible. Solomon’s trading ships almost certainly went to ports where Indian goods were traded, if not Indian ports themselves:

For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish [trading ships] with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.

1 Kings 10:22

The only concrete references to India in the bible come in the book of Esther. A key figure in the Book of Esther is the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. Persian sources do not know a king by that name, so he may be either fictional or an alias for a known king such as Xerces I or Artaxeres II. The Book of Esther underscores the mightiness of the Persian empire and this Persian king:

[…] which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces.

Esther 1:1

More interesting, from a historical perspective is India’s role in the conclusion of this story:

Then the king Ahasuerus said unto Esther the queen and to Mordecai the Jew, Behold, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and him they have hanged upon the gallows, because he laid his hand upon the Jews. [ … ] Then were the king’s scribes called at that time in the third month [ … ] and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded unto the Jews, and to the lieutenants, and the deputies and rulers of the provinces which are from India unto Ethiopia, an hundred twenty and seven provinces, unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their writing, and according to their language. [ … ] And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.

Esther 8:7-17

In short, the message of the victory of the Jews over their genocide was carried off even as far as India. And more, “many of the people of the land became Jews”. I admit that I am far from an expert on this subject, but there are and have been Jews in India for thousands of years. Wikipedia has a great article on the history of Jews in India. Did they come from the time of Esther? Who can be certain?

I am certain that I am in a great country and I’m very glad to be able to visit, even as it is keeping me from other things.

Still to come: Israeli speed dating.

2 thoughts on “Namaste! India in the Bible”

  1. Joe, I found this online about India and Christianity, there is a strong christian/catholic population in India.

    Possible Clues in as To Original Christian Influence
    It is believed that Christianity came to India in the first century.
    Jesus named twelve men to be apostles and commissioned them to take the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19-20). One of those was Bartholomew, and another was Thomas who was called “the twin” (John 20:24).

    In the early third century, Hippolytus wrote about Bartholomew and Thomas:

    Bartholomew, again, preached to the Indians, to whom he also gave the Gospel according to Matthew, and was crucified with his head downward, and was buried in Allanum, a town of the great Armenia…

    And Thomas preached to the Parthians, Medes, Persians, Hyrcanians, Bactrians, and Margians, and was thrust through in the four members of his body with a pine spears at Calamene, the city of India, and was buried there (Hippolytus. On The Twelve Apostles).

    This may be the earliest reference to any form of Christianity coming to India.

    Thus, apparently at least two of the original apostles made it to India.

  2. Rabbi Matsiyahu Glaser quotes Meshullam ben Kalonymus on this (circa 840/900?) son of Moshe who received his knowledge from Abu Aharon, a refugee from Babylonia, and who lived in Tuscany but later moved to Mainz in the Rhineland).

    According to this tradition, the sons of Abraham’s concubines after Sarah’s death were sent to the East with gifts to protect his line and covenant through Isaac. The gifts consisted of the profane esoteric knowledge Abraham had acquired in Ur (later Babylonia), and his sons were known as the BRAHMins (from aBRAHaM), highest caste to this day and the source of Indian esoteric teachings. Brahmins are known to have come to India elsewhere.

    The Zohar (a text of Kabbalah revealed in the 13th century) details it further quoting Rabbi Abba of 2nd century Galilee
    http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380365/jewish/Abrahams-Presents-to-the-East.htm

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