Friday, August 17, 2012

Did the Gospels borrow the Buddha story?

Buddha preaching peace between warring factions in the
middle of a river. 
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a young Christian scholar named Derek, asking for my take on the claim that the Gospels are recycled Buddhist material.  This may seem theoretically possible, because Buddha lived about 500 years before Jesus, his followers did conduct missions, Alexander the Great brought some basic knowledge of India back to the Mediterranean: the Romans had heard of the man.  (I believe Clement of Alexandria mentions him.)  It is also theoretically possible that the story of Mohandas Gandhi is a myth, patched together from recycled legends of the Cathars in Middle Ages, or from stories about Francis of Assissi.  Ideas flowed back and forth between Europe to India as well as the other way, there are some points of simliarity.

But both scenarios seem about equally incredible, to me, and for the same reason: the Gospels are as obviously historical as are the best accounts of Gandhi's life.  I make the case for that in detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, and in abbreviated form, in our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, and won't repeat all that again here.  But the question introduces some important historical principles, that I think are worth touching on. 

With Derek's permission, I'll post our conversation, including my latest response to his most recent message.   I'll color-code the conversation a little differently from the norm, this time.


Greetings in Jesus' name. I have just graduated from Colorado Christian University with a degree in Theology. I am presently working on my Koine Greek and Latin in an effort to get into the CU Boulder Classics program. As you can imagine, my passion is ancient history. I prefer ANE and Greco-Roman history, but I can get into any ancient literature with enough exposure. I have dropped by Christ the Tao for about a year now and I understand you have quite a background in Chinese history. That being the case, I assume you must have some knowledge of Indian history and literature as well. If this is so, I was wondering if I might ask you a few questions?

In Christ, Derek Neiman
Well that's easy. They didn't.

A hundred years ago, the claims went the other direction -- that Mahayana Buddhism, especially the Lotus Sutra, had been influenced by Christianity. That probably didn't happen, either.


I'm just trying to figure out the best way to frame the questions. They are on radical Internet atheist assertions that pre-Christian, Buddhist legends influenced the Gospel portrait of Jesus.
Sorry again for the late reply. I'm sure I can get some sympathy from someone who's already been through the Masters degree process. :)

In any event, indeed, I have been investigating this Jesus/Buddha accusation for about a year now and I have seen people try to compare the fourth chapter of the lotus sutra with Jesus' parable of the Prodigal. But given the vast difference in size and the vagueness of the parallels (man leaves fathers home and comes back) that one's never struck me as plausible.

On its face the whole thing seems improbable, but my understanding is the silk-road made connections between pre-Christian Greece/Israel and China/India more pervasive than was once thought, so I don't know.

My two questions have more to do with the crucifixion itself and Peter walking on water in Matthew. I have to find the alleged crucifixion parallel reference, I recall DM Murdock (I know she's nuts) said that Godfrey Higgins cited a story about the Buddha being impaled/crucified after picking a flower or something, but the one I found is about one of Gautama Buddha's ancestors who is impaled. I have it one my computer somewhere, I'll find it today.

But the other one compares Peter to one of Buddha's disciples (Sari Putra) in Jataka 190 (Silanisamsajataka). Apparently he runs on a river to see the Buddha and starts to sink, he then, through discipline, is able to run the rest of the way. There are definitely differences, but the similarities are stronger than 99% of what skeptics typically bring forth (Dionysus, Mithra, Osiris). I know the Jatakas are a headache for Buddhist scholars because some are very late (9th-11th century) while some are thought to have influenced some of Aesop's fables and be from the 2nd century BC.

Apparantly thera's a pretty strong strand of water walking powers in ancient Indian literature (the Buddha flies over water, or creates an apparition that walks on water). So it's kind of hard to untangle. I'm much more at home in Akkad, Achaea and Rome than southeast Asia.

What do you think about this one? I'll get the info about the other one today.

Sorry for the slow response. Things have been crazy busy this summer.

You're obviously skeptical enough to figure out the tricks these sorts of arguments play by yourself. One secret, as you have ascertained, is to always go back to the original texts, and read them in context. Most of these arguments depend on pure laziness on the part of the Christ-myther's audience. When read in the original, the parallels are seldom as clear as on the Christ-myther's website.

Another secret is to recognize that it is human nature to find patterns. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from the wacky old novel Tristam Shandy:

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand . . . (Sterne I. 44)’

Of course, that's a double-edged sword, since we Christians need to critique our own theories with this in mind, as well.

Third, the Buddhist corpus is so large, that it makes it inevitable that you'll find many parallels somewhere.

Fourth, even in true historical works, there are ALWAYS parallels. I once wrote up a fairy long list of parallels between Gandhi and Mao Zedong.

Fifth, one generally therefore needs real historical evidence for influence, unless the coincidences are at a very great level of detail and specificity.

Sixth, some events occur in both myth and real life. For example, the theme of being buried in the ground and coming out to new life, and the theme of stealing fruit, occur surprisingly often in the lives of famous men as well as in mythology. This means that if something happens in mythology, that is no argument at all in and of itself that it didn't happen in history, too.

Seventh, there is the principle of fulfillment, that I write a lot about. No time to this morning! But Jesus and the Religions of Man, or True Son of Heaven: How Jesus fulfills the Chinese Culture, are good books for that, among others.

I'd also recommend Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus. One of the chapters in the end compares ancient myths and the gospels, across 50 characteristics that the gospels share in common (that I have defined and described earlier in the book), and shows what they also share with myth, and what they emphatically do not share.

It comes to mind to write a blog answering your question in more detail. I probably won't have time to do so for a while, though -- projects to attend to are stacking up right now like airplanes at O'Hare airport on a foggy day, might take a while. 

Thanks for the info! As you can tell from my late responce, I know what being busy is about! :)

Generally, I am not impressed by 'parallels' for the reasons you noted, but this water walking one caught my eye because in both stories a man walks (in the Buddhist story the man actually seems to be running) on water (Peter on a lake, Sariputra on a river), start to sink and are saved. Of course there are differences, in the Buddhist story, Buddha does not save the man, he saves himself with his discipline, but it was still intriguing.
The second parallel I found is between the of crucifixion of Jesus and a story about a man impaled in Buddhist stories. There's a Danih scholar named Christian Lindtner (who actually has advanced degrees in Buddhist scholarship) who runs a website called It seems he's a bit of a nutter, maybe even a holocaust hoaxer, but he has degrees in the Classical languages as well as Sanskrit.

On it he compares the Buddhist account of an ancestor of the Buddha's called Gautama who is impaled with the Gospels. There are also a number of other allegations on various web pages (Dorothy Murdock [I know she's a kook] says Godfrey Higgins in the 19th century read of a story in which the Buddha is "crucified" after picking a flower in a garden).

The one mentioned by Lindtner is real, it is contained in a volume called The Gilgit Manuscript of the Sanghabhedavastu, but as I the others, I don't know. As you noted, Buddhist literature is quite voluminous. Hard to pin down. So I wondered, as I know impalement was practiced in ancient India and China but I have never heard of these specific stories before, if you had ever heard of any of these, or if you knew any scholars who specialize in Buddhist lit who might know.

I look forward to the possible blog post and I'll check amazon for the books.
Thanks for getting back to me.  It may be that you were looking for a more historical response -- "This can't have happened because the Buddhist sources really say X, Y, and Z, the Indians never really thought A or B, and there is no trace of those particular Buddhist texts showing up that early, or in that part of the world." 

Walking on water is a fairly obvious thing to do, if you have "superpowers." Another parallel is Dash in The Incredibles, who also undergoes a trial while walking on water (getting shot at by the villains), and like the Buddhist disciple, needs to save himself. Two thirds of the planet is covered by water, after all, and India grew up around rivers often in flood stage on a peninsula, so whether one really has supernatural powers, or only wishes to, walking on water seems like a useful capability. 

But where exactly is Sariputra depicted as walking on water? Can you point me to the text? It's always more interesting to look at the originals, when possible, and to draw no conclusions at all, even tentative ones, until one has done so. 

I am not a scholar of Indian Buddhism, though -- like Lin Yutang, "My bias is for the Chinese sources." It seems very dubious to me, and what I've read of the Lotus Sutra did not sound at all like a Gospel -- though chapter twenty-five shows the bodhisattva Avalokitsvara answering human needs in miraculous ways that I have argued can be seen as a kind of prophetic type of Jesus.

But until we are shown actual texts, there's really nothing that needs to be done. It is a mistake, I think, to let sloppy third-hand references to texts that have yet to be produced, cause us to react too much.
Dorothy Murdock is not just a kook, she's a shameless liar, and not to be trusted with any empirical claim about anything. One MUST look at the original, especially if the claim comes from her.
I checked Lindtner's site, and found a lot about numerology (not very convincing, at first glance), but nothing about a crucifixion. Can you point to the passage? He does seem susceptible to the Tristam Shandy disease.
An Indian Christian once wrote a tract claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of sacrifice in the Rig Veda, pointing to numerous amazingly specific parallels between sacrifice in the Vedas, and the death of Jesus on the cross.  I once quoted that tract in a book, but now I wouldn't, because I haven't found thes citations for myself, yet.  (Though it's easy to find a lot about sacrifice in the Rig Veda, including the primordial sacrifice of God for the world, which has legitimately been seen as being fulfilled by Jesus by Indian scholars like Banarjea since the 19th Century.)  It's important not to cite anything about ancient texts authoritatively, until we read it with our own two eyes.  It's amazing how often people try to get away with fake quotes, and how often they even "go viral" in an Internet environment eager to buy doctrines that tickle one's ears. 
The Vedas don't pretend to be offering historical information about something that happened in the real world. Nor do they appear to be doing that.

The Chinese philosopher Yuan Zhiming points to parallels between the death of the Sage in Lao Zi, and the death of Jesus.  These I have checked carefully, and verified. 18th Century French Jesuits found many more such parallels, which I would not vouch for. Jaroslav Pelikan is struck by parallels between the righteous man in Plato's dialogue with Glaucon, who dies a violent death for his righteousness, and Jesus on the cross, and this parallel, again, can be  easily verified. 
So what is my point? 
(a) Begin with the actual documents, not with anyone's claims about them, or summary of them.  I'd love to see the quotes, in context, and with source clearly referenced.
(b) You will find parallels.  It is impossible not to find parallels, even if all cultures were hermetically sealed and historically distinct as planets in different solar systems.  The human mind will find parallels, and the mass of data will produce them. 

(c) Some of the parallels between Jesus and vague, misty savior figures in other cultures seem to be far closer and more significant than one would expect by pure chance.

(d) But few of them is as obviously historical as is the life of Jesus in the Gospels.  They have the look of myth being instantiated, become real, made flesh and dwelt among us, in the life of Jesus.

(e) It is impossible that all of these (and other) parallels influenced the Gospels directly.  Not just improbable, but impossible.  Some other explanation must be found for at least some of the parallels.  And since there are strong parallels that cannot be explained historically, Occam's Razor suggests that one requires historical evidence to be sure that even strong correlations really mean historical causation.  One can less easily dismiss the Suffering Servant in Isaiah on the grounds that the Gospel writers might have invented Jesus after reading about him -- because there are other parallels that they could not possibly have read, first.   
(f) Similiar events often happen in myth and in history both.  So the fact that a claimed historical event in some ways resembles a mythological event, does not mean it cannot be historical in fact.  Sometimes it clearly is historical. 
(g) One Christian explanation for similarities that goes back to the Gospels themselves, is that God has prepared the world for the Gospel in prophetic words, images, and actions that are fulfilled by Jesus.  Thus Jesus is the "lamb of God" or Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the "serpent in the wilderness" to whom people look and are saved.  He is the Second Adam, Abraham's Seed who will bless all peoples, Son of David, the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, and so on. 
Early Christians applied this principle to Greco-Roman tradition as well, as have thoughtful Christians in Asian traditions, and thinkers like C. S. Lewis. 

This, too, is an issue that I've written a lot about elsewhere, and won't foist on you, here. 

But the next step is to find the original passages being referred to, so we can compare them concretely.  Such comparisons almost always prove interesting. 


Crude said...

But both scenarios seem about equally incredible, to me, and for the same reason: the Gospels are as obviously historical as are the best accounts of Gandhi's life.

Doesn't this comparison sell the gospels short a bit? My understanding is that the gospels are in vastly better shape in just about every way on the historical documentation and attestation front, compared to Buddha.

David B Marshall said...


Crude said...

Sorry, that probably came off as too nitpicky and totally off-subject. It's just something I've noticed before in my faint overview of documents about Buddha.

Interesting question and response though. The focus on the original documents, rather than a claim, is great. That alone would nip a lot of internet 'arguments' in the bud.

Crude said...

You get into this a little with your post, but I'd ask it more boldly: I also wonder if there's a particular danger with Buddhism. My understanding is that the writings about Buddha's life typically come far, far after his life. On the order of centuries rather than decades, at least in terms of what we have access to.

Mostly, I wonder if it's possible for some of what's written about Buddha's life to originate in the centuries AD. Rather like the gnostic gospels in a way.

Rudy said...

It's not suprising that it's harder to pin down Buddha's historicity than Jesus', given several extra centuries of oral tradition before his story gets written down. And I've no real problem with accepting Jesus' historicity; Bart Ehrman has written a convincing book on this.

But it's hyperbole, surely, to say that the Gospels establish his historicity as much as stories of Gandhi? I mean, in Gandhi's case there are photographs, there are probably people still alive who met the man, there are numerous documents even from his enemies. In Jesus' case, we've NT sources... and what? Not much else; Josephus barely counts (is it even the same Jesus? Who knows?)

Rudy said...

@Crude, yes, like the infancy Gospels, I guess. The Jataka tales must be like that (unless they came first? Does David mention that? I thought I saw somthing in there but I can't find it.)

Surely the Zen transmission story (Buddha handing his disciple a flower on his deathbed) is a late, late addition.

Philosophical texts like the Theravada scriptures seem more likely than biography to have been passed on relatively intact. Though I'm sure there are any number of texts claiming to have been written by Plato; how do we know which ones are authentic at this date? Excerpts from more contemporaneous authors?

We don't have that for the NT; does Paul ever quote a Gospel directly? (Not a rhetorical question, I'd like to know.)

Brian Barrington said...

I don’t see much evidence that the Gospels were influenced by Buddhism.

On the other issue, Buddhism is not really a creedal religion – there is no one statement of beliefs in relation to it. Orthodox Christianity depends decisively on the historical accuracy of the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels – that’s not the case so much with Buddhism. So the historical accuracy of stories related to Buddha are not as important to Buddhism as is the case in Christianity. The most important thing about the Buddha stories is their philosophical or ethical meaning. For example, the beautiful and wonderful story mentioned here about Buddha and the flower is important and meaningful to many Buddhists (and to many non-Buddhists) regardless of whether it actually happened or not. Here is the story:

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.

Buddha reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.

The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower and what it symbolised.

When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple said nothing, but smiled and laughed quietly.

Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa . “What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Buddha picked that disciple as one who truly understood him and who was worthy to be his successor.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Nice story. What you say is true of one kind of Buddhism -- the kind Westerners usually study, but not what we see most of in Asia.

Crude, Rudy: I differ from some evangelical convention, in that I don't think the strongest evidence for the Gospels is the kind of purely historical evidence that gets so much press, valuable as it is. By analogy, I accept the historicity of Joseph Smith, and the basic outline of his life, but have never felt the slightest inclination to believe his story about golden tablets in "Reformed Egyptian." This is for other than purely historical reasons, though those, too: it involves my judgement of his character as a human being, and of his writings.

The strongest evidence for Jesus is the Gospels themselves. I argue that they present us with the "fingerprints" or "DNA" of Jesus. Our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, is coming out in a few weeks -- maybe you can pick up a copy, and read my essay on this subject. I give more detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.

Given that evidence, yes, I do think the Gospels establish the historicity of Jesus every bit as strongly as the historicity of Gandhi is established. Or if there's a difference, it's on the order of, say, a 1 in 10^15 chance that one is ahistorical, compared to a 1 in 10^16 chance of the other, or something like that. (Though in both cases I am making some assumptions about the reality of the universe and validity of our sense experiences -- without those assumptions, any difference would be lost in the background noise of general skepticism.)

Derek said...

Thanks for the info David! I didn't expect you to be able to go into much depth, but I figured your background, as a scholar of both Christian and Chinese history, would yield a more nuanced response. And it looks like I was right!

As I mentioned I have been, in my free time, looking into this issue for fun for a little over a year now. In that time I have realized two things: 1) Indian literature can give you a royal headache and 2) there is so much ancient literature I have not yet had the chance to read!

I have found that many of the comments already made on this post are on target. Crude rightly points out that the NT is far superior to any Buddhist scripture in terms of early and plentiful textual evidence (though it is worth noting that scholars like Richard Saloman are presently working on a huge manuscript collection from ancient Gandhara found in the early 90’s that Buddhist scholarship has compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls, some fragments are apparently as early as the 1st century BCE).

You are also right about going to the original text. The water-walking one can be found here (in a badly dated translation):

As I noted in my email, I have looked into allegations of ‘parallels’ for about five years now. In all that time I can honestly say that this one is the only one that has ever struck me as anything close to an honest ‘parallel’. But, even assuming the chronological primacy of the Buddhist story over the Gospel one (which as I noted in my email is not at all clear because the Jatakas are notoriously difficult, sometimes impossible, to date) there is a lot of work to be done before any one story can be called “borrowed.”

Derek said...

As Glenn Miller notes in his large series here:

and even more relevantly when looking at Genesis and ANE creation myths:

parallels must be “numerous, complex, and unexpected,” and there must be no other way to account for them. Even in cases where almost all of these criteria are met, scholars are still hesitant to posit actual borrowing (from Miller quoting Morford and Lenardon).

“For example, there are obvious parallels between the Greek creation and succession myths and myths of Near Eastern cultures. The myth of the castration of Uranus by Cronus is better understood if we compare it with the Hittite myth of Kumarbi, in which Anu, the sky-god, is castrated by Kumarbi, who rises against him. Kumarbi swallows Anu's genitals, spits them out when he cannot contain them, and is finally replaced by the storm-god. The structure of this tale is paralleled by the myth of Uranus, castrated by Cronus, who, in his turn, cannot hold what he as swallowed (in this case, his children) and is eventually replaced by the sky-god Zeus. Some details in the two tales, of course, are different, but the basic functions (kingship, revolt, castration, swallowing, regurgitation, replacement by a new king) are the same and occur in the same sequence. Thus the basic structure is the same and a better understanding of the origin and purpose of the Greek myth, as narrated by Hesiod, is achieved by comparison with the older myth from Near Eastern culture. Whether direct influence can be proved (and scholars do not agree on this point), the structural similarities do at least show how Greek myths are to be studied in conjunction with those of other cultures."

Lindtner’s comparison with Jesus and the crucifixion comes from a text called the Sanghabhedavastu that has not been translated into English. I found a translation of the relevant section into English, but it doesn’t sound like the Gospels portrait at all. It just tells the story of one of Buddha’s ancestors (also called Gautama) who is impaled after he is mistaken for a murderer. While he is on the stake, dying, his teacher is afraid he’ll die without having kids so he uses his powers to cause it to rain, which alleviates Gautama’s pain. Gautama ejaculates while impaled and his sperm drops turn into eggs, which hatch and become the first two kings of something called the Ishvaku dynasty. But all of this is weak.

More than anything I wanted your opinion as a Christian academic. It is always useful to cast one’s net as wide as possible.

David B Marshall said...

Derek: In that case, let me invite you to spell out some of your findings here, if you like. Maybe you have some other forum in mind for a more formal discussion, but if you feel like posting an informal outline of what you've found here, or somewhere else and giving us the link, I for one would certainly be interested.

As far as "historical Buddha" studies go, I dabbled in grad school for the briefest time, but only long enough to settle impressions, rather than prove convictions. I am uncertain what sort of person the historical Buddha really was, though I am pretty sure of his historicity. I share with Brian an outsider's appreciation of the style of Buddhist preaching. From an ascetic POV, Buddhism is probably my favorite non-Christian faith; morally, I would put Taoism or Confucianism first.

rockingwithhawking said...

Thanks for a very interesting post, David!

I'm sorry to post an off-topic comment. But I wonder if it'd be alright to ask you a question please: I don't suppose you're familiar with a book titled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why? If so, I wonder if you have any thoughts on it? I'd definitely be interested in your thoughts on it if you do!

Speaking for myself, I haven't read the book. But I think some of the reviewers on Amazon land some solid blows against it. It seems like an oversimplified idea to me.

But again I'd be very interested in your thoughts if you're familiar with the book, and of course would defer to you as someone who is surely more expert on this topic than I am!

Thanks in advance!

David B Marshall said...

Rocking: I haven't read the book, but have noticed it in passing. My inclination is to be skeptical. Having lived in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan, I often think the Japanese are at least as unlike Chinese as they are unlike Americans. Confucius was very unlike Confucianism, including in his attitude towards knowledge. There ARE differences between these cultures and "the West," and maybe they do have to do with "authoritarianism" and "group think," but whenever anyone puts Japan and China into a single box, my eyebrows go up. But of course I'd have to read the book.