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?
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.
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.