“ON THE SEVENTH DAY DEUSU BLEW BREATH INTO THIS BEING AND NAMED HIM DOMEIGOSU-NO-ADAN, WHO POSSESSED THIRTY-THREE FORMS. SO THIS IS THE USUAL NUMBER OF FORMS FOR A HUMAN BEING.”

Imagine if somebody told you that all the Bibles in the world had disappeared and it was your responsibility to recreate it from memory. Even those who grew-up going to catechism every Sunday would find it nearly impossible to create a reliable copy. Now imagine how much more daunting the challenge would be if we didn’t live in a society permeated with the legacy of Christianity, where cultural references to Adam and Eve would sound foreign and unfamiliar. That is exactly what happened in Japan about 400 years ago.

In 1543 the first European ships arrived in Japan from Portugal, carrying both merchants and missionaries. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier led an ambitious campaign and by 1579 there were already an estimated 100,000 Christian converts in Japan. This rapid growth roused the suspicions of the Tokugawa shogunate, who considered the European influence to be a threat to their power. In 1614 Christianity was outlawed in Japan under penalty of death, and by 1629 all the European missionaries were expelled and the country was sealed-off in nearly total isolation for 230 years. With no priests left to tell the stories, and no Japanese translation of the Bible, the remaining Christians in Japan attempted to piece the stories back together from memory, and spread them from generation to generation for hundreds of years. If you have ever played the game “telephone” in school, you can imagine how quickly things started to stray from the original.

Nobody really knew how much the stories had mutated until 1853, when the country was reopened to the West and French missionaries resumed where the Portuguese had left off centuries earlier. One such missionary named Bernard Petitjean was approached by a group of clandestine Christians who presented him with a copy of their version of the Bible, which they called “Tenchi no Hajimari no Koto” (天地の始まりの事) or The Beginnings of Heaven and Earth. Petitjean was shocked to see how much the text had evolved over the centuries, as anyone might.

For instance, what do you recall about Noah? You probably at least call him Noah, and not “Pappa Maruji,” right? Most people also remember him building a giant ark, not floating away on a tiny canoe. According to “Tenchi no Hajimari,” Pappa Maruji (Noah) was instructed to check the komainu statues at a nearby temple, and if the eyes changed to red it meant God would flood the Earth. Some neighborhood boys decided to play a trick on Pappa Maruji by painting the eyes red themselves. The next day God flooded the Earth.

There are some even more dubious passages, for example Eve’s exhausting trip from the Philippines to Bethlehem. Another passage describes how God punished the angels (called “anjo”) who decided to follow Lucifer (called “Jusuheru”) by changing them all into Tengu.

DEUSU THOUGHT THAT THE FRUIT OF THE MASAN WAS AN EVIL THING FOR BOTH HEAVEN AND EARTH, SO HE SENT IT TO THE TENGU RESIDING IN MIDDLE HEAVEN.

While some names remained fairly close to their Latin pronunciation such as Ewa and Adan, others morphed significantly. For example Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Able became “Chikoro” and “Tanho,” and King Herod became “Yorotetsu” while Pontius Pilate became two characters named “Ponsha” and “Piroto.”

Perhaps most interesting however is the incredible amount of syncretism that occurred as the hidden Christians incorporated elements of Shintoism, Buddhism and even Confucianism into the text. In fact Buddha is mentioned by name, as one avatar of God. “As for the one you worship as Buddha, he is called Deusu, Lord of Heaven” the text begins, “He is the Buddha who introduced the salvation to help humankind in the world yet to come.”

Whether or not the creators of this book properly can be called Christians is a matter for theologians to decide, but regardless the text is a fascinating glimpse at how much stories can change over time, especially filtered through a different culture. As the translator and author Christal Whelan explains, “The Tenchi tries to Christianize the native Japanese elements and succeeds in Japanizing Christianity.”

To read the annotated translation by Christal Whelan, check out:
The Beginning of Heaven and Earth: The Sacred Book of Japan’s Hidden Christians
Christal Whelan (translator)
University of Hawaii Press