Jesus the Buddhist?

This idea is not new.  Certain Buddhists and Christians have held to conclusions that the two are interrelated in many ways, so much so there is an academic journal dedicated to Buddhist-Christian Studies.  There is even a wiki page, where it offers some early Christian evidence of an awareness of Buddhism.   And the BBC had a program about Jesus being a Buddhist monk:

So this subject is really quite popular, even among some scholars.  Dwight Goddard, for example, published a comparative analysis on the similarities between Jesus and Buddha in 1927.  A recent article on the Huffington Post has brought attention to this concept and its recent genre move from fringe scholarship to fiction and, along with it, a lot of problems for historians.  First among them is the parallelism that one finds in ‘movies’ like Zeitgeist and pseudo-scholarship which readers of my blog have long since known I cannot stand (and dedicate a whole page to this nonsense).

Jeffrey Small (who should know better with that MA in the Study of Religions he has) has written a novel integrating the parallels between Jesus and Buddha and claims, “Although the book is fiction, the research behind it is historical…”.  I’m sorry to say it isn’t. Even in the first paragraph where the author is giving a quiz about Buddha he gets things wrong.  Of Buddha (in his attempt to stretch the narrative of Buddha’s life over to Jesus) he writes:

A shimmering spirit appears to a young wife in a dream, tells her that she will give birth to a son who will change the world and then enters her womb.

But this isn’t correct.  There are different traditions about the narrative and that ‘shimmering spirit’ in a dream is a the Bodhisattva who, on an elephant, enters the side of Buddha’s mother.  There is no discussion of foreknowledge of the greatness of her child, like in the Gospel accounts.   The elephant is symbolic and was probably interpreted as a holy message, but Small is quite wrong to give the false impression that something ‘appeared’ and ‘told’ Maya anything of the sort.

His next failed attempt at creating a faux-link between Jesus and Buddha is also based on a loose parallel between one of Buddha’s teachings and one of Jesus’ teachings, of which, in dilettante fashion, he completely misses the point:

Digging deeper into ancient India, we can also uncover Hindu scripture (a group of writings known as the Vedas), which contain parables that sound eerily like those told by Jesus centuries later. For example, in one oft-recited parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Similarly, in the Chandogya Upanishad, this ancient Sanskrit text tells of the master who asks his student to open the Banyan tree fruit, extract the tiny seed and then break it in half, revealing a hollow center. When the student notices that the seed is empty, his teacher replies that from that emptiness comes the great Banyan tree, and, he continues, that same creative essence is in the student, too.

This seems to have been a superficial match based only on the word ‘seed’. If this is the link that Small is trying to make, he might be surprised to find that seeds and crops are useful metaphoric language throughout the ancient Near East, dating back to the Sumerians.  So this language is not useful in establishing a dependent tradition.  And Jesus’ mustard seed parable has a completely different meaning than that of the Sanskrit text.  Jesus is speaking of signs of the coming Kingdom; he uses the mustard seed as an expression of faith–that is to say, he is not using it as an expression of self-worth, which the hallowed fruit seems to represent in the narrative in the Chandogya Upanishad.

But there are more reasons not to trust these forced parallels.  The mustard seed parable is part of a triadic pattern of parable giving in Mark (spec. Mk 4:31-32 for the mustard seed), which means that it is formulated off an understanding of the other parables in the set which also involve the Kingdom and crops/seeds metaphoric language, but also the two other parable sets before and after the parables of the Kingdom (all of which deal specifically with faith; the calming of the sea, the feeding of the multitudes, etc…).  And there is no need to look outside the Jewish scriptures for intertextual relevance.  The underlying metaphor of Jesus’ generation or, rather, the generation of Isaiah and their ignorance towards the enlightenment that is right in front of them, as well as Jesus’ reluctance to explain things to them, has strong ties to the same tropes found in the Hebrew Bible, in the prophets (Is. 6:9-10; cf. T.L. Thompson, Messiah Myth [New York: Basic Books, 2005] 67-71).

Finally, there is no need to fabricate nonexistent links between two different world philosophies which both happened to preach wisdom and enlightenment and goodwill towards man; there were plenty of those already extant at the time of the first century CE.  Aside from all of the Greek and Roman mystery schools we know about (and perhaps the dozens–if not more–of other schools of which we know nothing), there were also Jewish mystics and mystery schools we have evidence of, who taught similar virtues and of the wisdom of enlightenment.  In fact that is a whole text about the esoteric nature of the world, the way to enlightenment, and how the cosmic world aligns with it all (Eugostos the Blessed, which predates Christianity); it had such a similar message to that of some early Christians that a clever educated Christian wrote a new version (the Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophia of Jesus Christ) to assimilate those meanings with those of his sect.   So there is simply no reason to assume that these similarities stem from a Buddhist philosophy at all and any case that might be made for a dependency must also exclude these other, more probably intertextual links.

Then Small asks a question which assumes the absurd:

Why do we see these parallels between the religions of the East and the teachings of Jesus, who was considered a subversive in his Roman and Jewish community? Why do the contemplative practices of Jesus, which seem to confuse his disciples, seem so similar to Eastern meditative techniques?

The answer isn’t, as Small would like you to believe, because “Jesus studied at a Buddhist monastery” and it isn’t because “Buddhism influenced Christianity”.  And creating fictional links between the two will not make the case.  In fact, to prove such links requires a more strict methodology than ‘A(a) is similar to A(b), ergo A(a) = A(b)’ or ‘ergo A(a) influenced A(b)’.  For example, just because early church fathers in the second and third centuries  (around the time the biographies of Buddha were written and distributed, I might add) knew of some basic principles of Buddha’s life does not mean they (or especially the Gospel authors) could read Sanskrit, which would be required if they were to base the narratives they wrote of Jesus on the stories of Buddha.  This would have to be proven, or at least argued convincingly enough to suggest the possibility/probability of this.  Since there is absolutely no evidence they had the ability to read Sanskrit, it would be quite an undertaking to make the case and I doubt a suspense novel could accomplish this task.  Not to mention the availability of these narratives.  How common were Sanskrit texts found in the Near East in antiquity?  Who would have owned them? Would they be accessible to anyone? These questions would have to be addressed.  Would the Gospel authors have had access?  Paul?  The early church fathers?

Jesus as Orpheus (Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, 4th Century CE)

It is easy to make all sorts of claims about the past, especially when you aren’t challenged to present an actual argument for them.  Small does a great job in his article throwing together all sorts of seemingly possible connections between Buddhism and Christianity; maybe there are some connections but is it possible that one influenced the other?  I doubt it.  The developmental influence in the creation of the Gospel narratives stems most probably from what the authors had and the tradition in which they were educated (Classical/Roman education with some Torah training).  Meaning that the probability that they had any access to Buddhism is nearly nonexistent.  These sorts of claims resemble those found in the pseudo-scholarship of Zeitgeist Mythicists and Dorothy Murdock.  She has already made similar claims, and they fail just as easily as Small’s claims here.

So let this be a warning; be on the lookout for these sorts of stories.

19 Responses

  1. “Although the book is fiction, the research behind it is historical…”.

    I’m having a DaVinci Code flashback. Sad to say, this alone would make me hesistate to buy the book.

  2. Oh, and another thing:

    Just because Paul and a famous Buddhist monk said “No work, no food”, doesn’t mean Paul was a Buddhist or the monk was Christian. Some things really do cross cultural and historical boundaries, just because we’re all human beings.

  3. I read somewhere that the Indian emperor Ashoka was the Buddhist equivalent of Constantine and sent Buddhist missionaries throughout Alexander the Great’s territories (Judea included). Even more, that some missionaries might have even made it all the way to Athens. It seems like a far fetched idea, and I’m not aware of any sort of evidence for that from the Greek side of things. As in, if they did make it that far, the Greeks didn’t seem to notice them.

    But that apocryphal story seems to take place around the same time that the Hebrew Torah was being translated into Greek. It would be interesting if it were true, and that Buddhist influence made its way into Hellenistic Judaism.

  4. It’s just more of the same, Quinton. Where is the evidence? Can it be shown that they had communities of missionaries anywhere, archaeologically, or textually? I can accept that it might be possible missionaries traveled through the Near East, but what does that prove? Does that automatically mean the Gospel authors could read Sanskrit, that they had access to the texts and narratives, that Jesus was a Buddhist monk? Or that he traveled farther East? It certainly doesn’t. It would be interesting to read scholarship on the issue, but I know of none (that doesn’t mean none exists, just that I know of none).

  5. Chuck, I think there were cultural ties throughout the known world, which included the silk road (which had been nurtured by the Greeks). But I don’t think you can say that, beyond a general understanding, one had an influence on the other based on longstanding trade routes having existed. And I think that is where the logic falls apart. It is okay to say that the cultures had contact; its a completely different thing all together to say that one influenced the other. It might be true on a limited scale, but there exists no evidence for the formation of an entirely new religion based upon its influence.

  6. “No work, no food” strikes me as one of those universal things based simply on the human condition, not any philosophy or religion. Just like the various versions and variants of the Golden/Silver Rule floating through history and cultures..

  7. And another one thing more: Occam’s Razor here applies, as usual.Which principle Wiki (for what it’s worth) also credits to Aristotle and Mamonides.

  8. You are probably correct, Chuck.

  9. The character of Jesus, especially that in G John . . . . would make a terrible Buddhist. Talk about an egomaniacal trip. The comparison is ludicrous from the git go.

  10. Bart Ehrman’s interpretation of the Markan Jesus seems far from Buddhahood as well, for the same reason.

  11. […] Jesus the Buddhist? My political perspectives: Vote, because it is your right to do so, but most likely you’re electing in the same type of person, that is to say, a politician.  But for additional details about my stance on certain political perspectives, see these blog posts: […]

  12. I agdree that the “Mythicist” argument for cross-cultural parallels between Christianity and Buddhism, as it is presented here, is totally unconvincing. However? Suppose we look at the deeper, felt parallels between this movement – from 500 BC – and specifically spiritual, priestly Christianity.

    As I noted in passing on Hoffman’s blog “The New Oxonian,” there are deep kinships between especially and specifically, the ascetic, priestly sentiment of Buddhism, and Christian priestly asceticism. As seen especially in the writings of Paul:

    “I can agree that Paul needs a physical victim, in one sense: in the writings of Paul, the central character known as Jesus must die for various reasons intrinsic to the ascetic lesson Paul wants to teach. Among others, Jesus must die to illustrate Paul’s priestly, spiritual point: to become “mature” adults, we must learn some self-control; we must “die to” our excessive fleshly “lusts” and “passions,” to our greed and anger and fears. We must crucify the demanding, impatient child in ourselves, that wants too much food, too much attention, too much sugar. Or in the older child: a bigger RV, a bigger house with a swimming pool, fifty pairs of shoes, and a hundred lovers.

    In this sense, Paul (cf. James, priests, and the Jesus of Q) is quite Buddhistic and eastern sage-like: to be enlightened, to be good, we simply need to learn to suppress our excessive material lusts or “desires” for more and more material “possessions” (as James would add). And learn to value more, thoughts and spiritual things.

    In this sense, Paul needs a physical victim; as a model of the suppression, crucifixion, of our excessive physical desires.”

    This priestly, ascetic side of Christianity would match much of Buddhism; especially the starving Buddha. And the lives of monks. (While other aspects of Christianity – which allow some importance to physical food and so forth – would match the more materialistic Buddha, with the “no work, no food” rule.)

    Cross-cultural comparisons are very difficult and complicated; we need to be experts in at least two major fields,and look at a great deal of data, before the interlinkages become apparent. Those who are first looking at such things, often lack the fuller background knowledge to make these linkages clearly and convincingly. Though countless such linkages do exist. For those with expertise in cross-cultural, muticultural investigation.

  13. Hi Bretton, thanks for responding.

    I agdree that the “Mythicist” argument for cross-cultural parallels between Christianity and Buddhism, as it is presented here, is totally unconvincing. However? Suppose we look at the deeper, felt parallels between this movement – from 500 BC – and specifically spiritual, priestly Christianity.

    I don’t think you or anyone can make a case for this. I don’t think you have here and I’ll explain below.

    As I noted in passing on Hoffman’s blog “The New Oxonian,” there are deep kinships between especially and specifically, the ascetic, priestly sentiment of Buddhism, and Christian priestly asceticism. As seen especially in the writings of Paul:

    You forget that Christianity sprang out of a richly assimilated and diversified Judaism, which is itself a priestly-religion. As were most religions in the ANE. There is no need to create a correlation, let alone a causation, between Buddhism and Christianity when Judaism is all you need. It was there, Christians were immersed in it (and came from it). Any attempt ti link Buddhism and Christianity on this front fail at the most basic logical level: Occam’s razor.

    “I can agree that Paul needs a physical victim, in one sense: in the writings of Paul, the central character known as Jesus must die for various reasons intrinsic to the ascetic lesson Paul wants to teach. Among others, Jesus must die to illustrate Paul’s priestly, spiritual point: to become “mature” adults, we must learn some self-control; we must “die to” our excessive fleshly “lusts” and “passions,” to our greed and anger and fears. We must crucify the demanding, impatient child in ourselves, that wants too much food, too much attention, too much sugar. Or in the older child: a bigger RV, a bigger house with a swimming pool, fifty pairs of shoes, and a hundred lovers.

    You’ll want to read my chapter in the forthcoming collection of essays Is This Not the Carpenter. Your reading of Paul is actually a misreading. You’ll see why when you read the chapter. You’re not taking into account Jewish mysticism, mystery cults of the period, other Jewish sects like the Essenes or the Therapeutae; again, all you need is Jewish roots. No need for Buddhism.

    In this sense, Paul (cf. James, priests, and the Jesus of Q) is quite Buddhistic and eastern sage-like: to be enlightened, to be good, we simply need to learn to suppress our excessive material lusts or “desires” for more and more material “possessions” (as James would add). And learn to value more, thoughts and spiritual things.

    You’re overlaying Buddhism onto a Jewish tradition. Stop that. It is foolish. You can’t jump to ‘Paul’s theology is Buddhist’ without first showing that Buddhism was a thing in the place and time where Paul was developing his theology. You are presuming that similarities equate to causation. They don’t. You haven’t established that Paul even knew of Buddhism, that he could read sanskrit, that he could engage with monks on the subject. You are fabricating an entire social context that never existed. This is the problem with this sort of thinking. Have they EVER found a Buddhist text from this period and in these locations in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin? If not, you have no case. Such beliefs were common in the ANE long before Buddhism and much closer to Christianity than Buddhism.

    In this sense, Paul needs a physical victim; as a model of the suppression, crucifixion, of our excessive physical desires.”

    You’re again showing your ignorance towards the region of Palestine and the Diaspora in the first century CE.

    Cross-cultural comparisons are very difficult and complicated;

    They are even more difficult when they aren’t supported by any evidence and only lazily-built speculative constructs with no foundation in the real world of the period. That is what you’re dealing with.

    we need to be experts in at least two major fields,and look at a great deal of data, before the interlinkages become apparent.

    No sane expert would agree with your connections here. They are fantasy.

    Those who are first looking at such things, often lack the fuller background knowledge to make these linkages clearly and convincingly. Though countless such linkages do exist. For those with expertise in cross-cultural, muticultural investigation.

    None of this makes any sense.

    Thanks for responding, but really you don’t have a case here.

  14. Of course I have not proven my point, in a hundred words on a blog; it has taken the whole corpus of Anthropology and Mythography, to establish such things.

    Like many Biblical historicists, you simply don’t understand the method of Mythgraphy. Especially the method of Structuralism.

    It is 1) not necessary to prove an historical relation, to establsh a relationship. The structuralist method of Mythography, after Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi Strass, simply acknowledges that often, when we are dealing with very ancient times, often there is a lack of firm, documentary evidence. And 2) therefore, Mythography found an analytic method, a way of proceeding with a minumum of material evidence. (Rather like, but better than, the analytic methods of Religious Study: the “Criterion of Embarrassment,” and so forth).

    The method in Structuralist Mythography, is, in the ansense of historical data, to look for whatever provable historical data there is. But when is lacking generally in ancient history? Then 2) the Mythographer goes looking at what few texts we have, for analytic points of similarity; particularly as they fit together, to outlining at least roughtly equivalent “structures” or narratives. And then the Mythographer begins building on dosens, hundreds, thousands of examples, to suggest that structrual similarities suggest historical relationships.

    3) The constituent myths in this case clearly do NOT have to be just from Jewish culture “itself” (even assuming such a thing exists); given countless influences evident in the Bible itself, and even in the languages of Judiasm, of other cultures. Including Sancritic roots. While in addition, w e know that over and over, Jewish culture was inlfuenced, in the Babylonian exile for example, by othre cultures like the Babylonian culture. “Daniel” tales and “Great Flood” tales are found in many ANE cultures, for example.

    So that much of traditional Religious Study already acknowledges many cultural influences on Judaism, and so forth. To the point that many suggest it is difficult to isolate a “purely” “Jewish’ culture at all.

    4) While in Roman-occupied Jerusalem especially? In spite of the resistence of jewish and Christian conservatives to foreign influences, Classicists can clearly see the firm influence of Plato’s Theory of Forms for example, in Paul. And we can see countless other examples of Hellenistic, Greco-Roman influence in the New Testament too.

    While the next wave of cultural study, is increasingly looking at “ANE” or “ANCIENt Near East” influence; and then beyond; at Persian and finally even Sancritic roots, even deep in ANE languages.

    5) Does this new multi-culturalism make life a bit more complicated? Indeed it does. Does this violate Occam’s Razor? Note that Occam’s Razor is an informal principle, at best; the simplist answer is not always the best. For example? When examining all the complexity of Nature, and asking how it works, one could rely on the simplist answer – “we don’t know.” Or say, “ask God.” And thus dispense with the whole of Biology and so forth?

    Careful: Occam’s Razor can be used as a tool for simple anti-intellectualilty; rejecting complex answers. Even when they are far more useful.

  15. Of course I have not proven my point, in a hundred words on a blog; it has taken the whole corpus of Anthropology and Mythography, to establish such things.

    How absurd; you speak as if such a thing has already been done. It hasn’t. No one has yet made a sufficient case—because no one has a case. You’re blowing smoke and I’m not gullible enough to accept your baseless assertion.

    Like many Biblical historicists, you simply don’t understand the method of Mythgraphy. Especially the method of Structuralism.

    You presume much but prove nothing. I’m not a ‘Biblical historicist’ and by your use of the phrase you’ve already shown your hand. If anything, I’m a minimalist—a far cry from a ‘Biblical historicist’. And I’m also a firm believer in the power of reception, so I am quite familiar with Ferdinand de Saussure. But I’m not sure what you mean when you say ‘method of structuralism’ since structuralism is as much a phenomena under study more than a production from study. So I’m not all that convinced YOU are familiar with structuralism.

    It is 1) not necessary to prove an historical relation, to establsh a relationship. The structuralist method of Mythography, after Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi Strass, simply acknowledges that often, when we are dealing with very ancient times, often there is a lack of firm, documentary evidence.

    Have you read those who you are citing? Structuralism is about understanding the function of language, not of establishing the validity of a historical position. You are completely misinformed if you think this is somehow a strength for your position on Buddha and Jesus. You need to address all supporting factors for a conclusion, something you haven’t done or are too lazy to address from my last post. So your contention that is ‘isn’t necessary to prove an(sic!) historical relationship” is a fiction you’ve created to ignore your responsibility to prove a position. One only works to establish a connection after there is sufficient reason to do so. You don’t start from a position of connectivity and then refuse to produce evidence that one had influence on another. That is irresponsible and illogical; otherwise anyone can make any an argument about any two similar things and claim correlation.

    And 2) therefore, Mythography found an analytic method, a way of proceeding with a minumum of material evidence. (Rather like, but better than, the analytic methods of Religious Study: the “Criterion of Embarrassment,” and so forth).

    There you go again fabricating words. The criterion of embarrassment did not arise out of ‘Religious study’ but from a process of critical history. You are incredibly misinformed.

    The method in Structuralist Mythography,

    You don’t understand your own creation here. Roland Barthes would be disappointed.

    is, in the ansense of historical data, to look for whatever provable historical data there is. But when is lacking generally in ancient history? Then 2) the Mythographer goes looking at what few texts we have, for analytic points of similarity; particularly as they fit together, to outlining at least roughtly equivalent “structures” or narratives. And then the Mythographer begins building on dosens, hundreds, thousands of examples, to suggest that structrual similarities suggest historical relationships.

    What you are proposing is to start from a conclusion and make the evidence fit; at least that is what you have done with your position of Buddha and Jesus. So clearly you don’t care about establishing a case or using your own methods, but would rather skip all of the critical analysis and produce a conclusion full of holes and present it as fact.

    I support structuralism and I enjoy Levi-Strauss, but he nor the other structuralists were not trying to do away with historical methodology. I’ve published using structuralism, so I’m quite well versed in it. Proper use of structuralist mythography would be the comparisons of the myths in the hill country of Palestine, for example–or the influence of Hellenistic culture on first century Judaism. This only works because there is a direct cultural link that can be made within the region.

    You want to completely ignore this function of structuralism by using it to subvert actual historical methodology so you can pretend as though Paul was a Buddhist. Crazy and irresponsible. First you need to establish a link; if you can’t establish a link within the historical record which proves knowledge between Buddhism and Judaism, you cannot make a case using structuralism.

    Until you address my points in our last message, you’ll have to spread your nonsense elsewhere.

  16. What are your acadermic, professional credentials in this area?

    Last I knew, you were an undergraduate at Rutgers, and a self-confessed “amateur” historian.

    Are you self-published; or have you published in peer-reviewed professional journals?

    You seem pretty dogmatic and self-important. And not at all well informed on Mythography, especially, and its practical links to Structuralism.

  17. First, yes, an undergrad who is also academically published in a relevant field to our conversation (my CV is available online). What have you published on this issue? And who are you exactly? Is Bretton Garcia even your real name? Either way, your futile attempts to somehow diminish my credibility because you can’t defend your position adequately is not lost on anyone reading our exchange.

    Your claim that I’m ‘dogmatic and self-important’ seems like a projection, since you can’t be bothered with answering the simplest questions about your baseless position. So, until you start actually engaging the issue here instead of dodging it, I don’t think I’m interested in your ignorant position. Come back when you can propose a position with soundness and reason and at that time, when you can figure out what that means, I’d love to continue this conversation.

  18. […] said this over and over again; around this time of year, some internet meme will develop about Jesus or Easter or […]

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