The account of how the manuscript emerged and in 1994 and how it came to be translated by Williams is, in itself, a fascinating story. It happened as a result of a meeting of the Buddhist-Christian Studies Conference at DePaul University in 1996. There, Williams was approached by two Chinese men who identified themselves as Mr. Wang and Mr. Chang. They explained that they had come into possession of an ancient scroll written in Greek and showed Williams photographs. They were aware of Williams’ reputation through his book Yeshua Buddha, and asked him to translate the text for them. They emphasized that the venture must be kept a secret and did not tell Williams where the scroll was found and where it had originally come from. He would be permitted to copyright and share his translation informally but should not tell anyone the circumstances by which he received the document. Another stipulation was that if, after five years, Wang and Chang had not produced a published work involving his translation, Williams would be allowed to release his translation more formally to the public.
In The Secret Sayings, Williams describes the nature of the text and why he thinks it should be placed in the Tang dynasty period. He provides an introduction to the history of Buddhism and the indigenous religions of China during this period, and also to the “Religion of the Light,” a form of Christianity that entered China in 638 A.D. The work includes a line-by-line commentary on each of the 72 verses of this gospel.
Although undoubtedly ancient, the work seems amazingly contemporary in its ideas, offering a unique and quite radical vision of Je Su (Jesus) and his teaching. Neither orthodox or gnostic, The Secret Sayings comments about such topics as the place of women and gays within the community, the nature of the kingdom, and the source of Christian hope in the “source.” Although faith is emphasized, doctrines and dogmas are not.