How do Confucius and Jesus Christ Compare Historically?


Who was Confucius?

Confucius, the founder of Confucianism (see Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy), was born into the class of Shi (which lay between the aristocracy and the common people) at some point within the 6th century BC (traditional date of lifespan: 551-479 BC). His mother, Yan, raised him after his father, Kong He, died when he was just three. Confucius married at the age of 19, and is said to have worked as a shepherd, cowherd, clerk, book-keeper, and in government posts. He lived during a tumultuous time within Chinese history (referred to as the Spring and Autumn) when many conflicts were fought between rival states. These tensions motivated Confucius to bring order back to the people through means of getting them to thoughtfully engage with their problems, and with a particular openness to learning from others. Three central themes can be pulled from Confucius’ work: the moral, aesthetic, and social. Together these combine to produce a harmonious order which, if sustained, result in a more balanced, ethical, and functional society. Confucius also held to meritocratic ideals which would play a major role in later Chinese dynasties. He believed that the common people, notably commoners who were skilled, ought to have some influence and power simply because they deserved it. They should not be excluded merely for being commoners, and power and privilege should not be confined to people from nobility and powerful families. Education was to be widely accessible for the people and not an exclusive privilege available for only a few.

Who was Jesus Christ?

Jesus Christ (4 BC – 30 AD) was a Jewish rabbi and religious teacher of the 1st century AD. He was born in Judea (now Palestine), and little is known about his childhood. We do know that he was religiously devout since a young age, and that he occupied himself with manual work of a kind. He was able to read scripture, debate it with others, and at around the age of 30 begun a ministry of teaching and supernatural healing. It is because of the latter that Christ’s ministry was so successful and popular among the people within the region. Christ’s most used self-title was the “Son of Man,” which is directly related to an Old Testament prophecy in the book of Daniel, chapter 7. This figure is given power and authority over all peoples and is said to be worshiped by all peoples. In addition, its dominion or kingdom will be forever. Christ thus taught that God had given him this divinely ordained authority, which also included him coming to save human beings from sin and alienation from God (see the Parable of the Tenants). He was convinced that this reconciliation could only be achieved through his death and resurrection. Such claims, including others, ultimately led to staunch opposition from Jewish religious authorities, and to Christ’s arrest, trial, and eventual crucifixion. Following the crucifixion and burial of Christ, Christ’s earliest followers (including his disciples, groups of believers, and a group of 500), as well as enemies (Paul) and skeptic (James), became convinced that God had raised him from the dead after witnessing what they claimed were resurrection appearances of Christ, thus authenticating his message. From this the church was founded, which spread to many new areas across the Roman Empire in a short time.

With these two simplified summaries of Confucius and Christ, how do they compare side-by-side in terms of historicity in regards to the available evidences?

Some Limits

There is no early archaeological evidence for Confucius or Christ, nor do we have the original writings of these figures. Confidence in the gospel sources for Christ are bolstered by archaeological corroboration between gospel source material and the discovery of ancient artifacts.  Christ did not write anything of his own and we need to rely on sources authored by others which speak of him. Confucius is credited with writing some works, but this is disputed, and thus the same applies to him.

Textual Sources

Confucius: There are three major works providing information on the life of Confucius: the Analects, a text authored by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (4th century BC), and the massive Shiji (or Records of the Grand Historian) of Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-86 BC). If historians wish to reconstruct biographical details of Confucius these are the first ports of call. Although Confucius is thought to have authored texts himself, most of this consists of collections of his teachings penned and preserved by his disciples during the centuries following his death (in the Analects). Mencius, a devout follower of Confucius and important source for Confucianism as a philosophical system, is a century removed but likely close enough to the time of the historical Confucius for Mencius to have had access to reliable information. Sima Qian, writing at least four centuries later, likely had to use unreliable source material for his account. Nonetheless, from the Analects, Mencius, and the Qian, historians have sketched a portrait of the historical Confucius. Each source presents him in a different light by emphasizing certain areas. Analects concerns itself primarily with Confucius’ teachings on morality, and the urge for people to behave morally even in the face of hardship. Mencius weighs far more on the politics of Confucius by presenting him as a politically motivated figure. Qian’s biography mostly relied on stories within these sources as well as legends surrounding Confucius.

Jesus Christ: The textual evidence for Christ is varied, and the most important of them have been collected into the New Testament. This corpus consists of 27 books on a wide range of subjects authored by 10 (or more) writers within the 1st century. The texts are divided into the biographical gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew, John), several Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians), several non-Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians), and two debated books of Pauline origin (2 Thessalonians, Colossians). Other New Testament literature includes Acts, Revelation, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. This a large number of sources, almost all of which refer to Christ, but not all of them are biographically significant. Historians generally invest the four gospels and Paul’s letters with the most value. Paul is quite limited given it was not his intent to regurgitate historical knowledge concerning Christ already known to the Christian communities and the churches to whom he was writing. Despite this, Paul’s letters provide no less than 27 biographical facts on Christ. The synoptic gospels (which collectively denotes the earliest three: Mark, Matthew, Luke, with the exception of John) are the most valued sources, as are the earlier sources/traditions lying behind them (Q used by Matthew and Luke, and L behind Luke, and M behind Matthew). John is certainly not deemed devoid of historical value but given its overtly unique features compared to the synoptics, including the style, sayings of Christ, high Christology, etc., it is generally approached with more suspicion. Historians find value in the gospels, not only because they were all penned within 60 years of Christ’s death (and as early as 40 years in Mark’s case) but also because they all agree on important events and details of Christ’s short ministry and the events of his final week. There are additional extra-biblical sources (accounts of some biographical value not included in the New Testament and authored by non-Christians), two of the most important being from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and Roman historian Tacitus. There are many other sources too, but the aforementioned are the most important.

Comparing the Sources

Although both these figures have had an incalculable religious and social significance for countless people over millennia, many historians will no doubt feel more confident in their reconstructive attempts of the ministry of Christ than on the life and teachings of Confucius. This whittles down to the number of sources and the earliness of these sources. Mark’s gospel, penned roughly 40 years after Christ’s death in 30 AD, is certainly earlier than all three major sources for Confucius which date centuries after the time of his death. Paul’s letter, 1 Thessalonians, dates even earlier than Mark, to roughly the early 50s AD (at least less than 30 years of the crucifixion). The historian Sima Qian, who any reader might go to first in pursuit of a biography of an important Chinese figure during the period, is four centuries removed from Confucius. Mencius is likely the earliest, but lived over a century later. Moreover, historians consider themselves privileged to have more than a single source to learn about these figures (historians aren’t always this lucky!). The general rule of thumb is the more source materials, especially independent sources, in one’s position the better. Although this criterion is not normally so simple (there are always further considerations) it is usually the starting point, and/or the basis upon which historians build their cases. On this level, sources for Christ are more numerous and independent. Although there is a lot of cross reference and borrowing between Mark, Luke, and Matthew (mostly Luke and Matthew using content from the earlier gospel of Mark), they are all independent given the independent traditions lying behind their final forms. John is considered entirely independent, as is Paul. In the case of Confucius, Sima Qian made use of the earlier works of Mencius and the Analects, thus wouldn’t be considered independent.



17 responses to “How do Confucius and Jesus Christ Compare Historically?

  1. Although I believe that Jesus existed I find that it would be a lot easier if he had just written a book. It seems like you are only favoring quantity over quality. I would say the historicity of Confuncius is much more evident than Jesus since people can eye witness everything, from what’s really there to what seems to be there.

    • Quantity is good, in fact excellent if we consider who Jesus was (a backwater preacher in a time and place where less than 3% of people could write anything at all). The quality is also good, having looked at them myself.
      So, the historicity of Confucius is much more evident, you say. Despite the fact our first text comes 108 years later by a non-eyewitness. And despite the fact that everything we have on Jesus was completed no later than 65 years (Revelation), and as early as 20 years afterwards (1 Thessalonians)? What about our creeds (1 Cor. 15:4-9) that get to within 5 years of Jesus’ existence? What about our hypothetical sources that date into the 40’s (Pre-Markan Passion Narrative). What about Q, L, M (50’s & 60’s AD.)? Even our first biography Mark was completed a mere 40 years afterwards? What about the many eyewitness details evident that seem so factual? (see in John the piercing of Jesus on the cross, and his sweating of blood in Gethsemane).

      How are you at all being consistent?

      • You fail to mention that the unknown authors of the presumed life of Jesus copied each other at verbatim and or elaborated on each other as time progressed.

        There is also the small detail, that most of what Jesus taugh was already known, while those from Confucius were fresh ideas.

        Additionally, there is no supernatural baggage in Confucius’s story, were as Jesus depends on supernatural to make it anywhere, since his teachings include horrible teachings as Luke 14:26 and the call for the sword and the enforcement of the old laws including slavery.

        People have cherry picked his legend to do both good and evil.

        Lastly, other mythological characters resemble Jesus in many ways. This alone casts a dark shadow of doubt on any credence to the historicity, specially when his teachings were second hand news, not the good news.

      • James Bishop it is interesting to see how you argue like a modern scholar/Skeptic. You never mentioned the testimony of the early church, the muratorian fragment, and patristic testimony in regards to the Gospels and overall the NT canon. In addition you appear to use skeptical dates for the NT writings. Papias, and Ireanaus both confirm that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John were written by them. There is reason to believe that Papias and Irenaaus knows better. In addition there is the Muratorian fragment. And the testimony of the early church and patristic testimony carries weight. I trust the testimony of the early church and patristic testimony better than modern scholars. They were in a privileged position to ascertain who the authors of the NT books were- Better than modern scholars 2000 years later. Now I do appreciate the information about the late dating and writing of Confucius as well as Buddha. This shows and proves that the sources are unreliable and untrustworthy. What we seek is early sources and eyewitnesses. We have this in the NT.

  2. It became very clear, very early, that you have a very limited grasp of Grammar and spelling. Anyone who is not prepared to check their own writing for error is utterly unable to offer serious comment about historicity. More than this, your biography of “Confucius” is simply a copy-and-paste from Wikipedia. You have nothing to offer the debate about historicity.

    • Hello James. I’m not aware that I made any personal insults. Questioning your arguments, or your attempts to make them is not personal ! Nonetheless, my argument stands. Why would a final testament, inviting all humans who experience it through the text it is presented in, be subject to historical doubt? Surely the historical veracity would be beyond doubt, and the choice given to God’s children ONLY based on the morality/religiosity?

  3. I also have to ask this. Why would God, in placing his final revelation in time and space through the teachings, life and death of “Jesus” in 1st century Roman Judea have left us doubts about his historicity? Why would the destiny of BIllions upon billions of souls be based upon contested authenticity as opposed to undeniable evidence of existence? An eternity of suffering for an Earthworm is too high a price to pay for this vague, confusing, illogical “testament”.

      • That’s your opinion. Where did Jesus go for all his life? Appears as a child, his family disappears, and he esperas to get executed and die like many other man gods?

      • Actually, as I previously stated on a previous comment, the authors did copy each other even verbatim. And if you read all four of them at the same time, you will notice how they embellish each other, gradually.

        It’s the evolution of the Jesus myth.

  4. Quite ridiculous anyway..first of all, dating of gospels and NT is much later, those “scholars” are much contested in the scientific community, especially since there is absolute no direct trace whasoever of those texts before the III century, so the composition in merels “thought” to come earlier, still lots date it not earlier then the II century (and let’s not go in the eyewitnessing, speculative and by reading it, quite contradictive). Second of all, Bible texts were written with a religious purpose (hence, the miracles, the divinity and so on to make it more shocking…), therefore their goal is not to be accurate in any way, but to convert people. So, talking about historicity about Jesus is, honestly, quite risible.

  5. this arguing is a little silly, so everybody… just take a big, deep breath and step back. if you’d like to know about the authenticity of Jesus Christ, yes, fine look to the bible. But that is not the only source proving Jesus’s existence. Several historians who were neither Christians or even Hebrews attested to the validity of Christ.
    this is a very good site, giving several historical examples.

    lastly, please do your research before you comment, and be kind when you do. We all have feelings. 🙂

    • Umm..all educated nonbelievers are familiar with evidence cited on that page. The author is not a serious thinker, at least based on his casual acceptance of the purported evidence.

      Why don’t you take each authority and think about why it is not dispositive of the issue?

      Btw, even if you were to get comfortable enough on the existence of Jesus, you have a long way to go before proving the miracles.

  6. I liked reading The Analects of Confucius and can see why so many people in Asia are being drawn to Jesus. God can use even a pagan Chinese philosopher to state some powerful truths before they even knew who the messiah was. I do not see Confucius as equal to Jesus, of course, he truly was just a philosopher and neither he or his followers like Mencius ever claimed divinity. However, Confucius was right about a lot of things that Jesus taught about, and long before Christianity ever came to that part of Asia. Having something in common does not mean Christians ripped him off, nor does it mean that Jesus was never revealed anything new of importance. It actually shows you how many cultures can acknowledge these things as true in their hearts without even having a full picture of who God is, unlike our confused and totally messed up post-modernist culture that can’t even tell wrong from right, and is asking some totally anti-common sense questions that the ancients, who were in some ways smarter, would have never dreamed of saying. Confucius obviously held to Chinese pagan views of spirituality, but he was right when he said that he had never known anyone who loved virtue so much that he was ALWAYS virtuous. C.S. Lewis mentioned the irony of people knowing guilt and yet violating their conscience willingly. All Confucius could say is that people are better at living up to their beliefs than others, but even he wasn’t entirely meticulous at being as good as he aspired to be, as is found in the Analects.

  7. Pingback: Famous atheist fails history (again) | The Simple Pastor·

  8. Pingback: Jesus vs. Confucius: Historical Evidence Comparison | David Jetre·

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