The Historical Reliability of Buddha and Jesus

by Luke Wayne
4/18/2016

It is not uncommon to see Buddhists in the west raise all sorts of skepticism about the historicity of the life and teachings of Jesus while taking as a given the basic traditional narrative of the life and teachings of Buddha. Philosophy professor and Buddhist practitioner Stephen Asma, for example, writes that there was "supposedly" one Jesus who lived and taught in Galilee, while there was a "historically real man" who walked the northern Indian landscape and became the Buddha.1 The reality is, however, that the life and teachings of Jesus have an incredible wealth of early and diverse testimony; while the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the man known as "Buddha") come down to us only in late copies of sources that were not written until centuries after Buddha's death. While both men certainly lived and taught, we can know the details of the life and teachings of Jesus with far more certainty than those of Buddha. Indeed, there is truly no comparison.

The Primary Sources: Jesus

The narrative of the life of Jesus, including a large collection of His public teachings and private discourses, comes to us in greatest detail in the four biographies known today as the canonical gospels. No serious scholar would disagree that they were written in the first century AD, and therefore within decades of Jesus' death and within the lifetime of those who were alive during Jesus' ministry.2 Even scholars very skeptical of (and often hostile toward) the Christian faith would date the Gospel of Mark no later than around 70 AD, the Gospel of John no later than around 90-95 AD, and Matthew and Luke somewhere in between, with many conservative scholars contending for dates earlier than these.3 What's more, the gospel writers themselves had available to them not only their own memories and the oral testimony of other eyewitnesses, but they also had written accounts from even earlier than their own. Luke opens his gospel explaining:

"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught," (Luke 1:1-4)

It was clearly the pattern of Christian believers from early on, probably from the very beginning, to seek to preserve in writing what Jesus had said and done. The Gospel of Luke (itself a very early source) openly professes to be a compilation of these very early and carefully preserved testimonies. The four canonical Gospels are distinct witnesses that together represent the culmination of this effort to preserve Jesus' life and teachings carefully and accurately in writing from the very beginning.4 They are a very early and very full set of testimonies to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The rest of the New Testament was also written down during this eyewitness generation and further testifies to many of the things Jesus said and did. Even liberal scholars would date Paul's earliest letters as being written within 20 years of Jesus' death.5 In Paul's writings we see Jesus' glorious, heavenly origin and humble human birth (Philippians 2:5-7); His birth as a Jew under the law (Galatians 4:4); that He was of the line of David (Romans 1:3-4); and that His ministry was among the Jewish people (Romans 15:8). We see references to His specific teachings, for example, those on marriage and divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). We find an account of the night before Jesus was betrayed when He instituted communion (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We are told of the involvement of the Jews in Jesus' wrongful death (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); that His death was by crucifixion (Philippians 2:8); and we are told of His burial, His bodily resurrection three days later, and of several of His post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Paul sometimes even quoted Jesus' very words verbatim, such as "the worker is worthy of his wages," (1 Timothy 5:18). This is only a sampling but shows us that we find in Paul's letters alone a basic outline of Jesus' life, the content of His teachings, and even direct quotations of His words.

The other books of the New Testament affirm many of these details and add many more. 2 Peter 1:16-18, for example, recounts the grand experience of Jesus' transfiguration on the mount. Hebrews 2:3-4 speaks of His preaching and miracles. Anyone who reads the gospels and then reads the book of James can see that it contains plain references to Jesus' teachings throughout. The New Testament, which is actually 27 separate historical documents only later collected into one volume, is a profound, detailed, and very early testimony of Jesus' life and His precise teachings. The wealth of information is truly remarkable, and it was all written within mere decades of Jesus' death.

As if this were not enough, the life and death of Jesus are also reported by several early non-biblical writers as well. The pagan historian, Tacitus, and the Jewish historian, Josephus, give brief accounts of Jesus, particularly referencing His death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate and His founding of the Christian movement. Both were written less than a century after Jesus lived. Quotes from Jesus' exact words and details from His life and death are also referenced in the Epistle of 1 Clement, an early Christian document written around 90 AD. Even if one does not personally trust all of the sources listed here, it is simply absurd to claim that Jesus did not exist or that there is not a great deal we can know about His life and teachings. The sources are too numerous and diverse and yet agree on too much for such a claim to hold any water.

The Primary Sources: Buddha

The content of Buddha's teaching was transmitted only orally for several centuries after his death.6 By the time that Buddha's words were finally written down, there were a large number of rival Buddhist schools and each had their own differing collection of Buddha's teachings.7 While most of these have been wholly lost to history,8 scholars have been able to partially reconstruct many of them through the discovery of translations of some of their documents into Chinese, Korean, and Tibetan.9 In fact, the complete canon of the ancient Sarvastivada school has been recovered in this manner.10 The most familiar ancient collection of Buddhist teachings, the "Pali Canon," was probably written down about 100 B.C.11 and has been preserved by Theravada Buddhism which still studies and reveres it down to today.

These collections differ from one another enough that scholars are unable to derive from them with any degree of certainty a definitive "original" or "authentic" Buddhism. There are, however, significant instances of striking agreement between the different collections regarding central Buddhist texts like the famous "Dhammapada."12 It is certainly reasonable to conclude from such notable areas of agreement that we do have preserved within these texts a collection of teachings that go back to the earliest days of Buddhism before the divisions occurred. The fact that they were written down centuries after the life of Buddha and in the context of such sectarian division is very important to note, but we should not conclude from these facts that the sources are completely untrustworthy. Still, the difference between the degree of confidence we can have in these documents as compared to the early and diverse testimony to Jesus' words that we have in the sources listed above is striking.

The story of Buddha's life is another matter. The collections just described give us only a few scant and scattered facts about the man himself. They contain a few brief references to things like his caste and social status, place of birth, and other such biographical details; but those texts simply were not meant to convey that kind of information. They are collections of Buddha's teachings, and as such, only mention personal information on Buddha in cases where he is said to have mentioned such data to make some point in his teaching. In fact, in early Buddhism what seems to have garnered far more attention are the accounts of Buddha's supposed previous lives. Many of these stories, attributed to Buddha himself, appear to go back to the earliest days of Buddhism.13 By the second century B.C. we see monuments constructed in Buddhist lands that bear inscriptions and pictorial depictions pointing to these already widespread and revered stories. At least by the beginning of the first century AD, these stories had been written down into organized collections.14 These stories, however, contain little information about the life of the historical Buddha with whom we are here concerned. They focus on tales of how he is said to have acquired the various Buddhist virtues in previous lives which he then possessed together in full in his final life as the Buddha, a life about which we are told very little.

It was not until the early second century AD, or roughly half a millennia after Buddha's life that the first biography of Buddha was written in the form of an epic poem called the Buddhacarita.15 Several biographies came in the centuries that followed. Buddhism does not claim or allow for any divine or supernatural aid to the accuracy of these late stories of Buddha's life; and from a purely natural and human perspective, there is not a lot of reason to presume that these biographies are especially accurate accounts of the events of a life from which they are so far removed. For this reason, scholars are tentative at best in saying just about anything with certainty about the specific details of the life of Buddha beyond the most basic biographical data preserved in the earliest sources.

Jesus: The Manuscripts

The New Testament manuscript tradition is extremely vast, and covering it in detail is beyond the scope of this article. Here we will cover only a few relevant points. The earliest fragment we have from the Gospels is a small piece of the Gospel of John from around 130 AD.16 If the most popular, more liberal dating of John's gospel to around 95 AD is correct, this fragment is from a mere thirty-five years after the penning of the original. The first roughly complete surviving copy of all four gospels is from around 220 AD,17 or about 150 years after the originals. There are many large fragments of each of the four gospels dating variously in between. The earliest copies we possess of the entire New Testament together as one volume are from the 4th century AD, or around 300 years after the originals, and we have more than one copy that old.18 We have still more copies of the entire New Testament from less than a century later.19

These dates are highly significant. A variety of studies demonstrate that it was not uncommon for manuscripts in the Roman world to remain in use for around 150-500 years.20 The ancient New Testament copy known as Codex Vaticanus remained in use for over 600 years.21 It is, therefore, entirely possible that the originals were still in use when our earliest full copies were produced, and it's almost certain that these copies were made in a time frame where the earliest copies of the originals were still around. Despite the large volume of criticism against the New Testament literature, the early testimony we possess of these texts is simply beyond comparison.

Buddha: The Manuscripts

The earliest fragments we have of collections of Buddha's teachings are pieces of manuscripts that come from around the late first or second century AD.22 This means that even though Buddha lived 500 years or so earlier than Jesus, our first surviving copies of his words are actually from around the same time as our earliest surviving copies of the words of Jesus. Our earliest manuscript of a roughly complete collection of Buddha's canonical sayings does not appear until the middle ages,23 some 1,500 years after they were first written down.

The oldest copy we have of Buddha's earliest biography is an incomplete manuscript from about the turn of the 14th Century AD, at least in the original language.24 We also have a complete Tibetan translation from the late 13th century,25 and most notably a Chinese translation which is said to go back to the 5th century.26 While by far the most ancient, the Chinese translation is clearly modified for a Chinese audience. It not only removes or simplifies the elements of Hindu mythology preserved in the other versions27 but also adds elements of Chinese mythology, history, and even Chinese place names obviously alien to the original.28 Ironically, then, the oldest testimony we have is likely also the least faithful to the original. The far later Sanskrit and Tibetan versions are generally considered more reliable.29

The large gap between the original writings and the copies we possess is made more significant by the fact that manuscripts did not typically last very long in India where Buddhism was born.30 Therefore, unlike the New Testament, the original sources would have likely been in circulation a relatively short period of time. This means they had to be copied more often through the years down to the manuscripts we have today, increasing the odds of errors.

Conclusion

The evidence for the details of Jesus' life and teachings comes from diverse sources that relied on eyewitness testimony and who wrote while those eyewitnesses were still living. This evidence is preserved for us in numerous and very early manuscripts written conceivably while at least some of the originals were still in use, and certainly while the earliest copies of the originals persisted. The sources for Buddha's life and teachings, however, were written down centuries afterward. Our earliest copies of those sources come from centuries after that, in some cases even over a millennium. If someone is willing to accept that we have an accurate picture of the life and teachings of Buddha, they certainly have no grounds to question the authenticity of our knowledge of the life and teachings of Jesus. Our confidence in the historicity of the gospel rests on a foundation that is simply without comparison.

  • 1. Stephen T. Asma, "Buddha for Beginners" (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 3
  • 2. Richard Bauckham, "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" (Eerdmans Publishing, 2006) 7.
  • 3. Bart Ehrman, "Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" (HarperCollins, 2012) 92-94.
  • 4. While many scholars will contend that Matthew, Mark, and Luke in some manner relied on one another (most often that both Matthew and Luke used Mark's Gospel as a source) this does not undermine the reality that they are three distinct sources. Matthew, Mark, and Luke still each contain significant content not found in one another's accounts. Even if they are directly related to one another in many areas, they also contain independent testimony of Jesus' life and teaching from a very early date that cannot be written off or ignored
  • 5. Bart Ehrman, "Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth" (HarperCollins, 2012) 140.
  • 6. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 13
  • 7. ibid, 15
  • 8. ibid, 15-16
  • 9. Richard Salomon, "Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara" (University of Washington Press, 1999) 7-8
  • 10. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 16
  • 11. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 75
  • 12. Richard Salomon, "Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara" (University of Washington Press, 1999) 161
  • 13. Schober, Julianne "Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia" (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1997) 20
  • 14. ibid, 21
  • 15. Charles Willemen, "Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha's Acts" (Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2009) xiii
  • 16. Josh McDowell, "The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict" (Thomas Nelson, 1999) 38
  • 17. Craig Evans, "Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence" (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) 76
  • 18. Josh McDowell, "The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict" (Thomas Nelson, 1999) 39
  • 19. ibid, 40-41
  • 20. Craig Evans, "Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence" (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) 75
  • 21. ibid, 75
  • 22. Richard Salomon, "Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara" (University of Washington Press, 1999) 152-154.
  • 23. Oskar Von Hinuber, "A Handbook on Pali Literature" (Walter de Gruyter, 2000) 4
  • 24. Alf Hiltebeitel, "Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative" (Oxford University Press, 2011) 627.
  • 25. Charles Willemen, "The Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha's works" (Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2009) xiii.
  • 26. Alf Hiltebeitel, "Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative" (Oxford University Press, 2011) 627
  • 27. Charles Willemen, "The Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha's works" (Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2009) xvi
  • 28. ibid, xvii
  • 29. E.B. Cowell, "The Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosha" (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1894) vi
  • 30. Oskar Von Hinuber, "A Handbook on Pali Literature" (Walter de Gruyter, 2000) 4