Jesus vs. Buddha: Historical evidence comparison.

JEEBSU

1. The view of contemporary scholarship.

All historians hold to the position that Jesus lived and taught in 1st century Palestine, likewise most scholars agree that Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, lived, taught and founded a monastic order during the Mahajanapada era in India, and that he died during the early years of the reign of Ajatshatru. Similarly to the current trend of historical Jesus studies some of the details recorded in the biographies on Buddha are debated. On other details most scholars do not accept their historicity even though the biographies still provide us with some valuable historical information (1).

Some uncertain facets of Gautama’s life would include his birth and death, and of recently his death has been dated to between 411 and 400 BC, although some scholars in the past have dated it to 20 years either side of that date. Either way his time of death, and birth, is somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless, our textual evidence suggests that he was born into the Shakya clan. This was a community that was on the sideline, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BC (2).

2. Personal Writings.

We are quite certain that Jesus did not write anything, and as far as we know neither did the Buddha. Our evidence for both these historical figures stem from the writings of others as well as oral traditions. Both the followers of the pair put special emphasis on recording and preserving their teachings.

3. Time Gap Between Their Life and Earliest Manuscripts.

On the other hand, for Buddha we have no written records on him from his lifetime, nor in the centuries following his death. The oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts are the Gandhāran Buddhist texts reported to have been found in eastern Afghanistan. They are in the form of 27 scrolls dating from 100 BC to 200 AD, and that would put them at over 400 years after the life of Buddha (3).

On the other hand, for the historical Jesus, our earliest extant manuscript is a small section of the Gospel of John (P52). P52 is dated to the first half of the 2nd century. The first complete copies of single New Testament books comes in at around 200 AD, and the earliest complete copy of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus dates to the 4th century. Many fragments (P1, P19, P21, P25, P37, P45, P53, P64, P67, P70, P77, P101, P103, P104) of Matthew’s Gospel come in around 150–250 AD. The earliest for Mark’s Gospel is dated to 250 AD (P45). Fragments from John’s Gospel also date from 125-250 AD (P5, P6, P22, P28, P39, P45, P52, P66, P75, P80, P90, P95, P106).

The time gap for our earliest extant manuscripts favours the historical Jesus over that of the historical Buddha. Our first entire copy of a New Testament book comes in at 200 AD (+-170 years after Jesus’ life), and our first copied book for Buddha comes in at between 100 BC – 200 AD (300 – 600 years after Buddha’s life).

4. Biographies and Textual Evidence.

Our textual sources for Buddha are various and originate from a variety of written sources that include biographies; this is similar to the gospel accounts written on Jesus. Other than the gospel biographies there is also other New Testament literature that is taken into account, the same applies to textual evidence on Buddha. Whereas Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John provide information on Jesus, the Buddhacharita, Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā tell us about the historical Buddha (4). The earliest of these biographies is that of the Buddhacarita (5) which is an epic poem written by Aśvaghoṣa. The dating of this text is placed around +100 AD, and that would amount to a time-gap of a substantial 500 years after Buddha’s death. Following that the Mahāyāna/Sarvāstivāda comes in around +200 AD, the Mahāvastu at +300 AD, and the Nidānakathā around 400 AD. Other sources would include the Jātakas, the Mahapadana Sutta, and the Achariyabhuta Sutta; these house accounts that may be older than the biographies yet are not exhaustive.

With the above noted the smaller time gap is certainly in favour of the historical Jesus. Our entire New Testament, which constitutes our primary sources for the life of Jesus, was completed by 60-65 years after his existence. Our earliest gospel was penned 40 years after his life, and the Pauline epistles ranging from 20 years upwards. Some New Testament literature holds very early creeds that get us even closer to the life of the historical Jesus, this most notably being the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 that is dated within five years of his life. Other hypothetical sources in the form Q, L, M, pre-Marcan source, pre-Johannine source likewise get us close to Jesus’ life.

Taking that into account the biographical gospel accounts on Jesus are more credible, historically, due to their much earlier dates in comparison to the various biographies and texts on Buddha. The larger the time gap between the life of a specific person and the time that events of that person were penned the much higher the chance that myth and intentional/unintentional embellishments could impugn the historical core.

5. In conclusion:

In this short treatment I think it is safe to conclude that, historically, the life of Jesus is far better attested to in much earlier sources than that of Buddha, hence is more reliable by negating against myth and embellishments that could possibly impugn the texts. Our earliest extant manuscripts for the pair again favours that of Jesus due to their earliness by quite some margin. All considered, the life of Jesus is seemingly far better documented and convincing than that of Buddha.

References.

1. Buswell, R. 2003. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. p. 16

2. Gombrich, R. 1988. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. p. 49.

3. Salomon, R. Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara. Available.

4. Fowler, M. 2005. Zen Buddhism: beliefs and practices. p. 32.

5. Willemen, C. 2009. Buddhacarita: In Praise of Buddha’s Acts. Available.

 

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11 responses to “Jesus vs. Buddha: Historical evidence comparison.

  1. Pingback: 8 quick differences between the Buddha and Jesus. | Historical Jesus studies.·

  2. All historians do not agree that Jesus lived and taught in the 1st century. Even so, the earliest evidence that supports Jesus as a historical figure is from Tacitus, which you don’t even mention.

    Crap article.

      • No, they don’t, and I think the word “all” is a little misleading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory

        Paul, the guy who never met Jesus? That didn’t have dates in his writings? Whose epistle came from the book making the claim that Jesus existed? Please don’t use the Bible to prove the Bible. We don’t use Action Comics to prove Superman. The most honest answer anyone can give is that there’s not enough proof either way to make a definitive claim about the historicity of Jesus.

        But you mention “Pauline epistles ranging from 15 – 30 years afterwards. Some New Testament literature holds very early creeds that get us even closer to the life of the historical Jesus, this most notably being the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 that is dated within five years of his life.” and then “creed found in one of Paul’s epistles dated to two years after his life”.

        Again- none of them were dated. They’re estimated to have been written within certain ranges based upon events mentioned in the writings (which also could have been written much later as well, and referenced via historical works. It’s pretty obvious that the author of Luke borrowed HEAVILY from Josephus), but to claim that they’re dated to a specific year is disingenuous- probably why you give 3 different times for the Epistles.

  3. Pingback: Meme Grinder #15 – ‘More Atheist Nonsense – David Cross.’ | Historical Jesus studies.·

  4. > The time gap for our earliest extant manuscripts favours the historical Jesus over that of the historical Buddha. […] With the above noted the smaller time gap is certainly in favour of the historical Jesus.

    It’s a weird thing to favor one against the other — it’s not a mutually exclusive situation.

    Putting that aside, the only criteria you are analyzing here is the time after death of someone and the time it took for someone to have written in some material something about him — and have that material surviving to this day. And all this fragility did not refrain you from drawing the conclusion “the life of Jesus is far better attested […] than that of Buddha”. Hold on, friend!

    First, it’s clear that the main purpose of the buddhist texts is not biographical, contrary to the gospels — so analyzing time gap between death and written biographical accounts of the dead is meaningless — furthermore, many important figures from history have no biographical accounts of their life — are they in a much worse place when considering if they actually lived?

    Second, time gap between any kind of written text (biographical account or not) cannot reasonably yield any “far better attested conclusion”. Specially when one of the cultures being analyzed is not only an oral culture, but a professional one in that regard. In that case, it’s quite possible that the oral group could have maintained a large body of information from an early period without resorting to written form.

    For example, the buddhist body of written texts span a huge amount of pages containing geography, politics and cultural elements. Archeological findings of the period of his life are all in concord with the texts that claim to describe events from that period — despite them being committed in written/material form much later. It’s even more significant than that, as such archeological findings only make sense when these buddhist texts are used to explain them.

    These are important evidence for the authenticity of these texts, even if they were maintained orally for a few centuries.

    But how precise orality can be across centuries? It depends: how valuable are the texts to the group and how much are they intended on preserving the texts verbatim?

    Consider these texts show that they were supposed to be perfectly memorized starting from the very occurrence of the episodes they describe (i.e. the texts show the Buddha telling his disciples to memorize what was discussed and the tradition is that they are recited in group frequently). That’s their commitment, but how precise they could be?

    The accuracy of these accounts is suggested in comparative studies that show the same text committed to writing in distant regions in different languages being surprisingly coherent. It has also been shown how the buddhist sects were highly committed to authenticity when they avoided corrupting the texts with elements that would support their own interpretation — even when the texts they were preserving contradicted their personal interpretation.

  5. > The time gap for our earliest extant manuscripts favours the historical Jesus over that of the historical Buddha. […] With the above noted the smaller time gap is certainly in favour of the historical Jesus.

    It’s a weird thing to favor one against the other — it’s not a mutually exclusive situation.

    Putting that aside, the only criteria you are analyzing here is the time after death of someone and the time it took for someone to have written in some material something about him — and have that material surviving to this day. And all this fragility did not refrain you from drawing the conclusion “the life of Jesus is far better attested […] than that of Buddha”. Hold on, friend!

    First, it’s clear that the main purpose of the buddhist texts is not biographical, contrary to the gospels — biographical descriptions of his life are scarse. So analyzing time gap between death and written biographical accounts of the dead is meaningless. Consider that many important figures from history have no biographical accounts of their life — are they in a much worse place when considering if they actually lived?

    Second, time gap between any kind of written text (biographical account or not) cannot reasonably yield any “far better attested conclusion”. Specially when one of the cultures involved in the analysis is not only an oral culture, but a professional one in that regard. In that case, it’s quite possible that the oral group could have maintained a large body of information from an early period without resorting to written form.

    For example, the buddhist body of written texts span a huge amount of pages containing geography, politics and cultural elements. Archeological findings of the period of his life are all in concord with the so called “early buddhist texts” which describe events from that period — despite them being committed in written/material form much later. It’s even more significant than that, as such archeological findings only make sense when these buddhist texts are used to explain them.

    These are important evidence for the authenticity of these texts, even if they were maintained orally for a few centuries.

    But how precise orality can be across centuries? It depends: how valuable are the texts to the group maintaining them and how much are they intended on preserving the texts verbatim?

    Consider these texts show that they were supposed to be perfectly memorized starting from the very occurrence of the episodes they describe (i.e. the texts show the Buddha telling his disciples to memorize what was discussed and the tradition is that they are recited in group frequently). That’s their commitment, but how precise they could be?

    The accuracy of these accounts is suggested in comparative studies that show the same text committed to writing in distant regions in different languages being surprisingly coherent. It has also been shown how the buddhist sects were highly committed to authenticity when they avoided corrupting the texts with elements that would support their own interpretation — even when the texts they were preserving contradicted their personal interpretation.

    I just wanted to point out how such a simple approach is not enough to be a reasonable, let alone, convincing argument.

    Also, since indology currently is not a vast terrain of information compared to christian history (and this is a blog post and not a paper I’m peer-reviewing), forgive me for not going to the pains of referencing what I wrote above — but I’m sure you can easily find studies elaborating on these matters and come up with a better analysis.

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