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.
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.