1. The Meaningfulness of Their Existence.
In 1960 a theologian by the name of Paul Tillich visited Japan, and in conversation with some Buddhist scholars, he asked that: “If some historian should make it probable that a man of the name Gautama never lived, what would be the consequence for Buddhism?
These Buddhist scholars responded by saying that the question of the historicity of Gautama Buddha has never been an issue for Buddhism: “According to the doctrine of Buddhism, the dharma kaya [the body of truth] is eternal, and so it does not depend upon the historicity of Gautama” (1).
So, whether Gautama actually lived as a historical person, or if he never said and did what is recorded of him saying and doing, it does little to discredit Buddhism.
However, such is antithetical to the Christian religion. The historicity of Jesus is intrinsic to the Christian faith; without Jesus there is no Christianity. The apostle Paul in one of his epistles emphasized this. In his letter to the Corinthians he states that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then the Christian faith is futile and useless, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:14–19). The very pinnacle, the very center point, of Christianity is Jesus’ atoning death on the cross for the salvation of mankind, and this of course means that Jesus had to be a historical figure that actually died on a cross, and was resurrected. Take Jesus out of the equation then the Christian faith goes with it.
2. Their Historicity.
The sources we have for the historical Jesus far surpasses that of what we have for Buddha in its earliness and abundance. To that end we can sketch a more reliable portrait of the Jesus of history. For Jesus we have numerous sources to go on, namely the biographical Gospels, the Pauline epistles, non-Pauline epistles, and the general epistles. That amounts to +- 12 authors who had authored some 27 books within 60 years of Jesus’ life. Our early apostolic church fathers as well as others further corroborate Jesus’ historicity and the events in his life independently, such being the likes of the historians Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Furthermore, the earliest New Testament writings were written about 50 or 51 AD (Pauline pestle’s) that only leaves a gap of 17 to 21 years from the time of Jesus’ death to the first writings. The latest book, Revelation, comes in at no later than 60 – 65 years of Jesus’ death. But what do we have for the Buddha?
For him we rely on information from sources far removed from his existence, and this is a reason why there is much uncertainty surrounding his life. The earliest Buddhist scriptures come to us around the end of the 1st century BC (Buddha lived either from 566–486 BC or 448–368 BC), and the Buddhacarita (The Acts of the Buddha which is an epic poem written by Aśvaghoṣa) was written around the 2nd century AD. Either way the earliest source comes 300 to 400 years after his life. Following the Buddhacarita we have the Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā all of which come in 100 year increments. Other sources would include the Jātakas, the Mahapadana Sutta, and the Achariyabhuta Sutta, and they house accounts that may be earlier than the biographies, but which are still late and not exhaustive on giving us historical information on the Buddha.
From this we can be historically sure of what the earliest followers of Jesus thought of him as such a short time span between the real life events of Jesus’ ministry and the time at which the Pauline epistles and Gospel accounts were penned is just too short for unhistorical elements to embellish the historical core. On that note such cannot be said for the Buddha since centuries elapsed before our first written texts appear. Whereas miracles are heavily associated with Jesus in all levels of New Testament tradition and strata at the earliest times, such cannot be claimed for the Buddha.
3. Their Self-Concept.
Buddha insisted that he was not divine, and that his problem with life was suffering of people and even animals. He taught that in order to eliminate suffering from one’s life, one had to let go of desire, and in turn live a life of moderation and self control. Some time after one would reach a state of happiness and bliss (known as Nirvana) where you will no longer be reborn into a life of suffering.
Jesus, on the other hand, claimed to be equal with God (seen in his favourite self-designation of the “Son of Man” which was prophesied in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament, read my article for a slightly more detailed analysis of this title), and his mission was to come and save his people by getting them to repent of their sins, and to turn to God. A major aspect of his ministry was on the emphasis of evil. Jesus’ solution is to repent, love God and other humans, as well as to keep the Ten Commandments.
4. Their Concept God.
The Buddha rejected the existence of God, and said that that was irrelevant to the notion of suffering (2). According to one scholar of Buddhism if by “God” we mean a Creator God then:
“…the Buddha is an atheist and Buddhism in both its Theravada and Mahayana forms is atheistic. . . . In denying that the universe is a product of a Personal God, who creates it in time and plans a consummation at the end of time, Buddhism is a form of atheism” (3).
The Buddha made no claim to special inspiration or revelation from any divine source. On the other hand Jesus was a monotheist (he believed in one God), and accepted the Old Testament understanding as authoritative. He also claimed equal status with the one true God, and convinced many via his miracle working, his authority via his teachings, and most noticeably in his resurrection from the dead. To this end the Buddha and Jesus are quite different.
5. Their Miracles.
Jesus’ miracles are multiply and independently attested. They are also very early, and we find them in Q, L (special material for Luke), M (special material for Matthew), Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul. The “Signs Gospel” preceding John also contains several miracle narratives, and the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius affirmed that Jesus was known for his wonders. Jesus was known to be a miracle worker by followers, foes and the surrounding people in villages. As one prominent New Testament historian comments: “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them” (4).
This leads me to suggest that on historical grounds (particularly due to their extreme earliness of reporting, and multiple attestation) that Jesus really was a miracle worker. The only possible negation is that Jesus was some fraud of immense genius to fool thousands of people, his critics, and his followers whom suffered and died for him. However, such a possibility of Jesus being a fraud can be dismissed, for the reasons above, and because he went to his gory, bloody, and excruciating painful death by crucifixion as a result of his self-proclamation and ministry. Jesus, with great historical certainty, really did perform wonders of healing and exorcisms. That is indisputable on historical grounds and is widely supported by modern scholarship. As Borg explains:
“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist” (5).
How does the Buddha fare with regards to miracles? The Buddha once responded to a request for miracles by saying, “I dislike, reject and despise them,” and then refused to comply with the request (6). When he was a baby anywhere he placed his feet a lotus flower blossomed (7). At another time he allegedly performed the twin miracle whereby he produced flames from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the lower part of his body. After this he took three giant steps and arrived in Tavatimsa. When he was there the Buddha preached the Abhidharma to his mother who had been reborn there as a Deva named Santussita. There are also other miracle accounts that are alleged to have happened such as his ability to multiply into a million and then return to normal, he could travel through space, he could make himself as big as a giant and then as small as an ant.
However, the miracle accounts surrounding the Buddha are late developments, hence probably unhistorical since our earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon, comes 450 years after his life, and this time gap allows ample time for non-historical embellishments to mar the historical core. Some of the miracles ascribed to him seem obviously mythological such as his ability to shape shift to different sizes, walk through mountains, and use telepathy and divine seeing. These don’t seem historical, or on par as a meaningful act of God. They seem akin to the mythological embellishments found in the late Gnostic texts of Jesus making birds out of clay, cursing his playmates of whom subsequently die, and some parents he curses of whom then become blind.
Due to their earliness, abundance and multiple attestation the miracles of Jesus in the Gospel accounts surpass those ascribed to the Buddha.
6. Their Answer to the Human Predicament.
The Buddha taught one to eliminate suffering by getting rid of their desire, in other words one needed to suppress their desires. However, Jesus came into the world to allegedly bridge the chasm that sin caused between God and man. So, the Buddha taught a philosophy and the other came as our saviour (and brought a philosophy along). Ravi Zacharias, an Indian man who converted to Christianity when he was still young, compares the God of the Bible to the Buddha:
“It does not seem accidental that the night Gautama Buddha left his palace to pursue an answer to pain and suffering was the very night his wife was giving birth to their son. In his quest to eliminate suffering, he actually walked out and left his wife alone in the throes of her pain. Contrast this with the God of the Bible, who came into this world Himself in the person of His Son to suffer on the cross, to embrace pain and suffering for the sake of humanity. Buddha walked away from his son and from pain. In Christianity, God is part and parcel of the solution” (8).
According to Jesus the problem intrinsic to mankind is more significant than just the suppression of desires, as the Buddha taught. For Jesus it is sin that is at the center of the human predicament particularly because sin is the deliberate rejection of God’s righteous ways.
7. Salvation vs. Liberation.
According to the pedagogics of early Buddhism we are each responsible for attaining our own liberation, such is antithetical to the view of Jesus. According to Jesus we cannot save ourselves because of the divide that separates man from God. The Buddha pronounced the dharma, the true teaching, which results in liberation, but it is still up to the individual to grasp the truth to attain nirvana. As one scholar of Buddhism comments:
“If the Buddha is to be called a ‘saviour’ at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves” (9).
According to Jesus we are helpless and hopeless without his atoning death on the cross by the grace of God. Jesus was an exclusivist throughout our gospel sources, and especially in his claim, as alleged in John’s gospel, to be the only way to God (14:6), and equal with God (10:30). According to the Bible only in Jesus can we find salvation.
8. A Matter of an Empty Tomb:
Both the Buddha and Jesus died, Buddha was cremated and Jesus was crucified. However, Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty, and this is affirmed by the majority of scholars: “In fact in a bibliographical survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French and German since 1975, the researcher Gary Habermas found that 75 percent of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb” (10).
For the Buddha there is no reliable, or early, historical record of him or any others apart from Jesus, being resurrected, or appearing, after their deaths. In Jesus’ case this is evidently well established within early Christianity, and was a historical fact to Jesus’ closest disciples. Even one atheist historian admits that: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (11).
To this end the alleged resurrection of Jesus sets him apart from the Buddha, and puts the Christian faith in a different category from Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
1. Robert, W. 1961. “Tillich Encounters Japan” in Japanese Religions 2. p. 48–71.
2. Nyanaponika, T. 1996. Buddhism and the God-idea. Available.
3. Jayatilleke, K. 1974. The Message of the Buddha. p. 105.
4. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 199.
5. Borg, M. 1987. Jesus, A New Vision. p. 61.
6. Walshe, M. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha.
7. Buddhist Studies. 2008. The Life of the Buddha: The Birth of the Prince. Available.
8. Zacharias, R. 2014. Why Suffering? p. 131.
9. Walpola, R. 1959. What the Buddha Taught.
10. Craig, W. 2013. Accounting for the Empty Tomb. Available.
11. Ludemann, G. 1995. What Really Happened? p. 80.