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?
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.